Intellectual Humility


Growing up in a strict Fundamentalist world, there were many things I was convinced of in my childhood: That God existed. That I – my church – knew exactly what God was like and what he wanted. That rock music (meaning music with drums of any kind) was evil and from the devil. That it was wrong for women to cut their hair or wear jeans or teach in church. That all Catholics were going to hell. And for that matter, so too probably were Presbyterians, Methodists, those liberal Southern Baptists, and any other group that didn’t look, sound, witness, and smell exactly like us. That it was wrong for guys to wear shorts. That a sure sign of being backslidden was drinking, smoking, going to movies, or having any friends who do. That any reading of the Scriptures that didn’t start from a strict dispensational viewpoint was probably heresy. And the list could go on for pages.

It is sometimes difficult for me to reconcile the surety with which I held those beliefs with the convictions I have today. But I can trace the beginnings of the theological path I’m on now to two events that took place concurrently. The first was hearing a self-proclaimed “prophecy expert” speak during the Sunday evening service at the church I was in at the time. After giving his highly subjective viewpoint of what a passage of scripture meant – a viewpoint that had only been around for a hundred and fifty years, in point of fact – he said, “And if you don’t agree with everything I’ve said, it’s because you haven’t studied your Bible as much as I have.” At around the same time, I was reading a book on Revelation, Unveiled Hope, written by Michael Card and his friend and pastor, Scotty Smith. In the introduction, Scotty started out by explaining the four or five primary interpretations of the book of Revelations. He then said something like, “While I will, in the end, tell you what I think is the best way to interpret this book, the important thing to remember, before you start reading, is that Godly men throughout the ages – men who have followed the Lord with all their hearts, who have believed the Scriptures and sought to understand them – have come down on different sides of this issue.”

Two fundamentally different starting points. One characterized by pride and arrogance, and one by grace and an awareness of one’s own fallibility. The best articulation I’ve heard of the place I find myself now comes from N.T. Wright and a recent discussion he had with Anne Rice, author of Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and Called Out of Darkness (reviewed here in the RR by Pete). It is a fascinating discussion on several levels, one well worth the time it takes to listen to, but what I found most helpful was Wright’s statement about humility.

“The one thing I want to add to that is humility. And humility includes intellectual humility. And it’s difficult, because within our rationalistic western world, people assume that if you say that, you’re a relativist. I’m certainly not a relativist. Jesus is the Lord, and I worship Him, and He is the center of my life. And that’s non-negotiable, actually. I know I could no more step outside that than I could step outside my own skin. But precisely because it is Jesus who is the Lord, it behooves me to say, as I used to say to my students when I was teaching in the university, “Listen, a third of what I’m telling you is badly flawed in some way. But I don’t know which one third it is.” So you need to live with those questions and puzzles.”

I hear in Wright’s words both permission to live with questions, to not think I have to figure out the “correct” answer to every theological question and make sure everyone falls in line behind me, and also a caution to extend grace to those who believe like I used to or who believe differently than I do now. Not an easy mindset to operate out of, to be sure, but one that is absolutely vital for the health of a community that seeks to demonstrate forgiveness and grace, a community that is, as one Teacher said, “known by their fruits.”

Here’s a link to the discussion between Rice and Wright.


  1. Kevin

    Thanks, man! I really enjoyed this post. I had a similar background growing up and that was some helpful insight.

  2. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    I think what I struggle with the most is having grace towards the old way of thinking. I can feel more understanding for people with whom I have little common ground than those that live in the way I used to think. But I’m working on it! 🙂

  3. Travis Prinzi

    Stephen, excellent! I think the great temptation toward fundamentalism is the convenience of knowing you’re right. It’s nice to be right. It’s nice to have all the answers, and to look down on people who don’t. Life seems easier that way, and people are very attracted to the preacher who thunders absolute certainty on the smallest of adiaphora from the pulpit.

    Amy, very, very true! It’s so easy to recognize our need for humility, and then turn around and completely villify the crowd you just left. There were good reasons for leaving the arrogant, but it’s important to also hold on to the humility of remember that I was once one of them (and still, of course, struggle with arrogance).

  4. Curt McLey


    I’d like to agree with you Stephen, but you are just plain wrong. Not really, but playing with that kind of certitude made me feel powerful for a second there.

    I grew up in a Baptist-Presbyterian Church (if you can imagine), a small-town church which understood its theological principles (Baptist vs. Presbyterian) were sometimes incongruent. But somehow, it’s members—my mentors—modeled tolerance, respect, and love. For this former teenager reaching for a good grip, such “tolerance” was sometimes taken as wishy-washy.

    I remember completing a rigid Bible study on Revelation—outside of my home church—headed by a conservative Bible College grad student. I loved this young man’s confident exegesis, and it rubbed off on me. Imagine my disappointment when I later tried to carry that same confidence into another Revelation Bible study at my home church. Through the course of the night, as I persistently tried to pin my home church pastor to the wall of my own dispensational, fundamental understanding of Revelation, I learned an early lesson about humility. He wouldn’t have it. To every certitude I posed, his answer seemed to be, “Maybe so, but maybe not.” I wanted to strangle him.

    My pastor may very well have agreed with everything I said, but he served a church with members who put a higher priority on tolerance, respect, and love, than on a aggressively persistent mandate to pick at the scab of every theological difference. While my pastor might have served his congregation better had he had a stronger backbone, I realized many years later that he sat in a hotseat, one I didn’t fully understand or appreciate at the time.

    While that doesn’t mean believers should quit pursuing a right understanding of the truth (of course), it does mean that in our theological journey, we ought to temper our own certitude with tolerance, understanding, and grace, much like what is modeled routinely in our Rabbit Room hideaway.

    Well written, Stephen. Thanks for taking the time to flesh it out.

  5. Stephen Lamb


    That sounds like a great church, Curt. There’s a line in David Dark’s new book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything – or at least it was an in early draft of the manuscript I heard him read from – that says, “We need community around us that is always destabilizing our sense of copyright on Jesus.”

  6. UaMV

    Curt, i agree … we must hold a healthy tension of certitude and searching.

    Sidenote: i also liked this Wright quotation from the forum …

    “Being at the borders of language is a good place to be. Part of being human is both to be able to name things that need naming and to recognize that our language runs out. That’s why we need poetry. That’s why we need music and art.”

  7. UaMV

    Ah … and i also liked this from the forum (Wright again) …

    “T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. … It begins ‘words slip and slide and decay with imprecision and will not stay in place and the word in the desert is assailed with temptation’ and then you go right through and in the last one there’s this wonderful resolution where every word in the sentence is right and he talks about what it’s like when the words actually do what they’re supposed to and you have this sense that every generation has to learn to say it again. And because the culture has changed, the words won’t convey what they did fifty years ago. This is glorious. This means that we are summoned to be word-speaking humans in every generation and not merely to take on the boring language of yesterday, which would mean that all the questions are settled some way back. i find that as a glorious, wonderful, challenge.”

    There is a call here to carry on the tradition of truth-telling and of the plumbing of the depths. But again, to hold a tension … to fit our feet upon the shoulders of the past and to set ourselves that others might stand.

  8. David

    I will presume to preach to the choir.

    Of course, there ARE fundamentals that are concrete and absolute. Let’s boldly hold on to those and never waver!

    God is holy. He is love. He is just. And all at the same time.

    Christ died for our sins. We are called to be like Him, or else we are not His. No grey area here.

    Thankfully, we can have the confidence in stating them without fear, because HIS word is truth, not ours.

    But when pride comes in as the motivation of why we say something or why we know it is right… therein lies the real danger, doesn’t it? I find myself there far too often.

    There will be times when I SHOULD tell a brother or sister they are wrong. I am supposed to.

    However, I better be aware of not only am I speaking truth, but also — am I enjoying it too much? Watch out! The beam in my eye may knock you down!

    If, on the other hand, the beam has been surgically extracted, and even my eye is plucked out and cast away as in Matthew 6, I hope I can share truth in love and it be of help. We are either fellow travelers, going to or from the same divine hospital, or else you are mortally wounded, possibly without even being aware of it, and not knowing (or caring about) the way to the Emergency Room. It takes sensitivity on the part of an ambulance driver to help someone get there.

    Frankly, I don’t have the time to argue about certain interpretations of prophecy that even John the Beloved did not completely understand even though he saw them!

    There is a prophecy the Lord made clear — He is coming back, I best be on the alert and prepared. I wish it were today, but if not, I am to be faithful in love to Him.

    I struggle enough with being focused on constantly submitting to a loving Father Who is King not trying things my way, not having my own agenda — just knowing Him and letting Him live in and through me. Everything else pales into insignificance.

    Want to argue? Ok, first give me a hug and tell me you love me as a brother. And mean it. We’ll go from there.

    Prof. Lewis wrote about pride and spirituality…

    “Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But Pride always means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God…

    That raises a terrible question. How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshipping an imaginary God…

    I suppose it was of those poeple Christ was thinking when He said that some would preach about Him and cast out devils in His name, only to be told at the end of the world that He had never known them. And many of us may at any moment be in this deathtrap. Luckily, we have a test. Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good — above all, that we are better than someone else — I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogehter or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.”


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