I never had the chance to meet him in person, but I have become an ardent admirer of Carl F. H. Henry. And while I have come to appreciate his brilliance as a Christian thinker, I am always struck by his humility. Don’t get me wrong, Henry was not reluctant to call a spade a spade or to dismantle erroneous arguments, heterodoxy, or injustice. But he did so with a marked humility that is also evident from the countless anecdotes I have heard from his former friends, students, and colleagues.
D. A. Carson tells of a conversation near the end of Henry’s life, when he asked the aging theologian how he had sought to remain humble. Coming from a giant of evangelical theology, Henry’s response is noteworthy. “How can anyone be arrogant when he stands beside the cross?” I want to be more like that. But I find the rip tide of self-promotion to be a powerful one, pulling me out to an eventual and certain ruin.
Christian scholarship must be, by its very essence, characterized by a love for, and earnest desire to seek, the truth. This means it will by necessity involve conviction, critical thought, and the best tools of research and inquiry.
Humility Must Distinguish the Christian Scholar
But I would argue that the mark of Christian scholarship that might be in shortest supply these days is humility. And its deficiency is evident in ways we might not expect. Perhaps it is because we have forgotten, even within contemporary evangelicalism, the nature of these ancient truths, which demand humility in the scholar for three primary reasons:
1. Humility presses against the professionalization of Christian scholarship. I suspect some part of our evangelical confusion regarding the scholarly virtue of humility has to do with our simultaneous theological amnesia. We have largely forgotten a historic and distinctly Christian understanding of vocation, one that Christians have understood more clearly at better times, one that reminds us that our own work as scholars is a gift, a grace, a calling.
Christian scholarship is more than a career. It’s a vocation. Of course, historic Protestantism has trumpeted this point—sometimes better than others—for half a millenium. But far too often, Christian scholarship has succumbed to the zeitgeist of professionalization. In an age that has turned education and learning into another commodity, we understand the call to learn to be grounded in the created order, part of God’s design for his image bearers, and central to the continued call to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).
Those called to teach, research, and write, to create new knowledge and transmit ancient wisdom, are fundamentally a called people. Thus we must carry out that vocation in all its aspects with a humble spirit, mindful that it has been entrusted to us by divine grace, no matter how credentialed or accomplished we may appear to be.
2. Humility presses against the values of the world and of American culture. To say we live in a narcissistic age is hardly news. But while our age may be particularly at ease with some of the most obnoxious and flagrant expressions of this form of arrogance, Christians realize this has been the spirit of the age since Genesis 3.
Christian scholars increasingly find themselves situated within a culture that prioritizes celebrity, that tells us of the necessity of “establishing our platform” and “building our brand.” Humility is essential for civility, and the deficit of both is reaching epidemic levels within American life, including in the academy. If you think the scholarly guild is immune from this toxicity, think again. Sure, we might dress it up in more genteel clothing (read a C.V. sometime to see what I mean), but it is there nonetheless: an aspiration to set ourselves above and apart from those within our own community.
In an age that has commodified all things, including education and the life of the mind, the pressure toward self-promotion, caustic polemicism, and visceral reactionism is everywhere. Christian scholarship framed by humility will be swimming upstream against these tides.
3. Humility increasingly presses against evangelicalism’s pernicious fetish with self-promotion. The expansion of digital technologies, social media, and the democratization of mass communication all hold incredible promise, with potential to serve the common good and deepen human flourishing. This is especially true within evangelicalism, where the rapid exchange of ideas accelerates global evangelization, dialogue, discipleship, and education.
However, this proliferation comes with built-in risks. If you aim to cultivate the virtue of humility as a Christian scholar, you will increasingly find not just the world but also the pressures of evangelical subculture telling you that self-promotion is just part of the game. We might like to think that it’s part of being “strategic” or “expanding our relational network.” But the siren song of narcissism in the digital age carries an especially seductive tune.
Neither the quality nor effectiveness of Christian scholarship is gauged by how many Twitter followers you have. It is not measured by whether or not you are on the bestseller list or by where you get invited to speak. It has little to do with how quickly you can concoct a half-developed or reactionary response to the cable news cycle.
Humble scholarship should make us leery of the siren song of self-promotion and cautious when we feel the tug to recklessly dispense our judgments and opinions in a half-cocked fashion simply to make sure we provoke the most readers, retweets, or media calls.
Nature of Humility as Scholarly Virtue
So how does humility shape the life and work of a Christian scholar?
First, humility means that the Christian scholar remains always a student. We are never finished learning. As Christians, we are being transformed according to the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). And no matter how distinguished we may become as teachers, we never cease to be students and learners. There are always more questions to be asked, more answers to be found, more truths to be learned. A Christian understanding of revelation and truth serves to bolster this vocation with sincere hope—these questions are worth asking, and the answers are out there, available to those who would seek them thanks to a sovereign God who created all things to tell the story of his infinite greatness.
Second, humility means that we submit to authority. For the Christian scholar, that ultimate authority must be the Bible. Whereas our disciplines are marked by competing authorities and multiple theories, we understand the Scriptures to be unique. The Bible is the singular inspired and therefore inerrant authority for the people of God. This is a place of rest for the Christian scholar. We can fully and truly trust what God says to us in his Word. We do not sit in judgment over it; instead it judges us (Heb. 4:12).
Third, humility compels the Christian scholar to recognize and be honest about his or her own limitations. It’s counterintuitive, but one of the most freeing things one can say as a Christian scholar is, “I don’t know.” But it’s not only liberating, it’s also stimulating. Being humble enough to admit our own limitations helps spark inquiry. If we’re honest about what we don’t know, we give an opening for intellectual curiosity to break through.
Richard Mouw describes this posture well in his most recent book, Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Christian Scholars (Eerdmans, 2014). Mouw, a distinguished philosopher and longtime seminary president, points out: “It is precisely because we are finite beings—and if that were not bad enough, fallen ones as well—that we must take a humbly modest approach to human knowing. God alone knows all things.”
A little bit of eschatology might also do us well. We have it on good authority that there will be work in the new heavens and new earth. Of course, this work will be liberated from the toil and burden of the curse. But those of us called to scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge have a mystery awaiting us. While our capacity to know God and delight in him will expand throughout the infinite ages to come (a glorious thought if ever there was one), we will no longer suffer ignorance. Perhaps we can understand a bit of what the apostle Paul meant when he reflected, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Being known fully now, even when we know only in part. Anticipating a coming fullness of knowledge, centered on God himself. What could be more wonderful, and humbling, than that?