Though humility is a noble quality, and one you need if you don’t want the Lord to oppose you (James 4:6), it isn’t meant to crush our convictions or kill our ambitions. The would-be theologian is one who can (and should?) have ambition. He (or she) can seek to maximize their influence for the sake of the gospel, undertake ambitious projects, and work towards accomplishing big goals. However, ambition must not lead to pride. In short, humility, especially for the theologian, is an indispensable gift that must be cultivated.
One of the best ways people can humble themselves is by thinking rightly about who they are as fallen human beings. When we remember we were created in the image of God, but have fallen from that most blessed state, and stand justly condemned and devoid of any ability to think rightly about God apart from divine aid, then we’re better prepared to cultivate the required humility. Calvin was right when he said, “When viewing our miserable condition since Adam’s fall, all confidence and boasting are overthrown, we blush for shame, and feel truly humble” (Calvin, Institutes). Or, to reference the man who taught Calvin, “for I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18). Paul, and Calvin building on Paul, knew that men inherited a depraved nature from their federal head (Adam). In other words, from our first father we have inherited a nature that is corrupt throughout.
This doctrine (known as original sin, or better, inherited sin) has left us with no room to boast. The theologian, of all people, should be keenly aware that the Bible humbles mankind. There is no person—regardless of power, prestige, or position—that can boast in the face of God. Given the reality of our depravity the theologian must acknowledge his dependence upon God for all things … including his intellectual prowess. This point is especially important. Calvin himself takes the theologian to task who would rely on his own intellectual gifts. Rather, we should “consider [our] faculties, or rather want of faculties – a want which, when perceived, will annihilate all [our] confidence, and cover [us] with confusion” (Calvin, Institutes). What Calvin means is that the believer, in particular the theologian, should remember that even our intellectual “faculties” have been ruined (though not destroyed in toto) by the fall of mankind into sin. All our knowledge and insight are gifts from above (James 1:17).
Given the reality that our intellects are affected so deeply, the Christian must be aware that error is never far away. A slip here, a turn there, and we end up heretics. Though that’s not our goal, it is nonetheless a real possibility. And this is true especially for the young-would-be theologian. The man who aspires to the ranks of theologian, who may put his trust in reason instead of trusting in the God who gives wisdom (see Augustine, On the Trinity, Book I. Ch. 1), the person who would teach theology, must be keenly aware of his limitations. He must be aware that his mind is in constant battle with sin, that his experience has yet to teach him of the many perils ahead.
The good theologian knows sin has affected him to the core of his being. Augustine goes to battle with those who have missed this point in his book, On the Trinity (Book 1, Ch. 1). Those that think their reason is sufficient to lead them into all truth are “deceived by a crude and perverse love of reason” (On the Trinity, Book 1, Ch. 1). The theologian that is worth his salt is one who knows his limitations because he is keenly aware of how his mind (i.e. powers of reason) is stained by sin.
Furthermore, the wisest of theological students will do well to remember that there is often a general distrust of theology within the ranks of the laity. Helmut Thielicke wrote years ago, “the ordinary Christian of a live congregation … fears theology for several reasons” (Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, 3). And one of these reasons stems from the lack of humility among the so-called learned men of the church (i.e. the theological student). In short, the aspiring theologian who loses sight of his limitations, and boast of more knowledge than he owns, can paint lady theology in an unbecoming light.
Theological inquiry is inescapable. Regardless of what one says about the discipline of theology, everyone is a theologian. The question is whether they’re a good one or a bad one. The theological student understands the need for theological reflection. But if humility is lacking, the task of theology is undertaken with God as their enemy (James 4:6). In contrast, as C. J. Mahaney has helpfully stated, “Humility draws the gaze of our Sovereign God” (Humility, 19). Further, humility may open the ears of those in the pew that have a general distrust of all things theological.
If the student of theology comes to believe he has ascended to a mountain, and now looks down at the rest of the church, then he may have no time for the questions and concerns of the “un-learned.” In so doing, the theologian will lose any audience with which to share what the Lord has revealed. A lack of humility in the life of a theologian will close his ears and the ears of others. With deaf ears the theologian misses the warnings that come from other thinkers in the halls of church history, in present-day academia, and those standing at the welcome center in the local church.
In short, the prideful theologian finds himself as God’s enemy, alone in his battle, running headlong towards he knows not what, with no one caring for what he has to say along the way.