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.