Theology in 3D

theological humility a prayer for all seminarians

Theological Humility (Part 3): A Seminarian’s Prayer

Layton Talbert | September 26, 2019
Old Testament, Theology

The cultivation of theological humility starts with acknowledging, like Job, the limitations of knowledge and the limitations of revelation. It is nurtured and maintained by the kind of dependent, self-aware prayer that David offered in a psalm that I’ll mention in a moment. (These posts are a series of snapshots from a much fuller exploration of theological humility in Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job, Chapter 21, “Learning Theology with Job.”)

One of my longtime favorite spots for family outings is Craggy Gardens in the NC mountains of the Blue Ridge Parkway (Milepost 364). Either side of a rustic visitor’s center offers a brief hike through rhododendron, mountain laurel, and wild blueberry leading to open meadows on top of a spur with a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains (as my picture above feebly illustrates).

Occasional posted signs mark areas that are off-limits due to fragile habitat. Some theological terrain is fragile habitat where a lumbering lummox of a know-it-all can do serious damage to the truth, the cause of Christ, and the consciences of others.

Other signs warn you to stay within the borders of the viewing area not because the habitat is fragile but because you are. The overly curious or cocksure who climb outside the boundaries on top of the cliffs risk a long fall with a nasty landing.

Spurgeon likens the over-confident, high-minded, theological adventure-seeker to a child who climbs a ladder to peer into his father’s upper-story study window in order to find out what he cannot discover in a legitimate and direct way.

Then we go on speculating, climbing the ladders of reasoning, guessing, speculating, to reach the lofty windows of eternal truth. Once up there we do not know where we are, our heads reel, and we are in all kinds of uncertainty and spiritual peril. If we mind things too high for us we run great risks. I do not intend meddling with such lofty matters.

“Salvation by Knowing the Truth,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, #1516

God’s interrogation of Job intentionally emphasized the profound limitations of our knowledge even of the natural world that we live in and can see. That divine interrogation is designed to teach us what it taught him: humility, contentment, and trust in God based on what has been revealed, rather than expressing and acting on assumptions about what has not been revealed.

It didn’t take Job long to learn just how much he didn’t comprehend about the visible world where he lived and moved every day. If that is the case in observable fields of knowledge, how foolish it is for us to suppose that we can fathom the depths of invisible (and therefore unobservable) and revealed (and therefore non-intuitive) truth — let alone unrevealed truth.

I like to think of Psalm 131 as the Seminarian’s Psalm, and I recommend it as a theme prayer for all those engaged in the study of theology.

Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty; neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.

The word “exercise” is the common verb to “go, walk” (halak), but it’s contextually flexible. There are lots of different kinds of “walking.” In the context of a “proud heart” and “haughty eyes” an appropriate communicative translation here would be to “parade” or even “strut” — neither do I strut around in great matters, or in things too high for me.

David refused to pontificate on matters beyond his depth, to play the authority on an issue outside his atmosphere. He would not even tolerate the presence of such people (Ps 101:5).

The phrase “things too high” echoes the words of Job (Job 42:3). Even Job, the godliest man of his generation, had to admit to mouthing off ignorantly about things of which he had little understanding or personal acquaintance, things too high for him.

But isn’t it true that all theology is too high, too wonderful, for us? Isn’t that the essence of what Job confesses? In the sense that we deserve no such privilege and possess no capacity in ourselves to fathom such issues, yes. Nevertheless, God says that what he has revealed belongs to us (Deut. 29:29b). Delitzsch helpfully points out that “the opposite of ‘things too wonderful for me’ is not that which is trivial, but that which is attainable” (5:306). What is “attainable” is what God has revealed in the Word (Deut. 30:11-14).

Surely I have behaved and quieted myself as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.

The image of verse 2 is the intentional opposite of verse 1. A weaned child no longer cries for instant gratification or demands to have his cravings met immediately. He has learned that the world is just a wee bit bigger than he is, that he is not its center, and that there are other important things going on in that world that are beyond him. He has learned to be satisfied with his mother’s presence and to await her provision.

It is the picture of a secure and simple trust, the kind of meekness and contentment that Job displays at the end of his ordeal. It stands in contrast to the spirit that the psalmist renounces in verse 1. It signals a measure of maturity that has grown beyond an infantile stage.

Let Israel hope in the Lord from henceforth and forever.

“Hope in the Lord” is confident trust that waits expectantly for the Lord. That brings us back to the foundation of all authentic theology — not merely knowledge, but relationship.

Theology is not about mastering God. Theology is about being mastered by God.

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