Why Humility Makes Sense

Last time I wrote about genuine humility in Bible interpretation (click here to go there). We live in a time when there is an increasing pseudo-humility, and a decreasing genuine humility in biblical interpretation. Why does humility make sense?

Increasing Pseudo-Humility – As truth apparently becomes more personalized, people can sound increasingly gracious if that is the tone they choose (there is a militant version of it too, which is also dangerous). The gracious tone and pseudo-humility sound like this: “I can’t tell you what this means to you, but my personal interpretation, for me, is this…” If anyone ponders whether this is a humble approach to the Bible or not, they will end up thinking about the horizontal dimension. That is to say, I don’t insist that my truth must also be your truth. Horizontal.

Decreasing Genuine Humility – But what about the vertical dimension? After all, if the Bible is God’s Word, then humility in interpretation should be evaluated vertically. Beneath the shroud of pseudo-humility lies an incredible arrogance. It says: “I have sufficient knowledge of every relevant subject, and have no worries about being culturally conditioned, so that I can evaluate the content of the Bible and sit in judgment over what it should mean in the realm of ‘my truth.'”

So why does humility make sense? Three quick facts to anchor our hearts as preachers and as readers of the Bible:

1. I am not God. Seems obvious, but in a fallen world, it certainly bears repeating! What I actually know is an infinitesimally small fraction of all there is to know. I am so shaped by my environment and culture, and yet incredibly unaware of how much my values reflect that reality.

2. God is God. He always has been and always will be. He is very good at being God. (Included in this statement of the obvious, but worth stating nonetheless, is that God is a wonderful communicator…why do we think we should sit in judgment on his inspired Scriptures?)

3. God is humble. It is easy to think that God values humility in us because it serves the pride in him. Dictators demand subservience. But the Bible reveals a God to us who is anything but a demanding dictator. His other-centred, self-giving and self-sacrificing nature appreciates humility in the human heart for the right reason. It is not to crush us, it is to lift us up and embrace us. God values humility in us because it resonates with who he is.

Let us be and help others to be humble and gracious. Vertically, we sit under the teaching of God’s Word with humility. Horizontally, we can speak of the meaning of God’s Word with gracious attitudes but also with boldness. This is what our “subjective truth” world desperately needs.

Handling God’s Word With Genuine Humility

Hermeneutics matters massively for us preachers.  It also matters for the people to whom we preach.  How we interpret the Bible makes all the difference in every aspect of faith and life. 

When hermeneutics is taught, you will typically find some standard elements.  There will be a foundation in bibliology – establishing the unique nature of the inspired Word of God.  There will usually be a set of general hermeneutical principles – guidelines that work whatever passage we may be studying.  Then comes the special hermeneutical principles – guidelines for each specific type of literature or genre.

I want to suggest that we need to include humility in our hermeneutics.  I don’t just mean humility that we may be misinterpreting a passage – although that is always helpful.  I mean humility as a foundational attitude. 

Humility or Hubris?

We live in an age when many believe it is not right to claim any definitive interpretation of a text.  Most people in our increasingly subjective age dismiss the idea of authorially intended meaning that retains any authority.

Many will see this subjectivity as a source of genuine humility in biblical interpretation.  Bombastic declarations of a definitive biblical interpretation have always been the antithesis of humility, have they not?

The logic of this position seems to make sense.  After all, people will say, there are many interpretations out there in the wider church world.  Furthermore, nobody has the right to claim to be right in their interpretation and thereby critically evaluate the interpretation of others.  And so, the logic goes, we are free to make of each text what we think best in our context.

Many people will feel this approach is the epitome of humility.  In reality, the tone may feel humble, but the core posture here is hubris, not humility.

Any Fixed Points?

Let’s be simplistic and imagine two marks in a diagram.  One represents the Bible.  The other represents you or me.

The Bible is a fixed point.  I know the Word of God is active, but hear me out.  The biblical text is an objective and fixed point.  God inspired the Scriptures so that every word in the original manuscript of each document is precisely what he wanted it to be.  We may release new translations, but the original text does not move.  And it still has absolute authority. 

We are not fixed points.  When I come to the Bible, I bring all sorts of assumptions.  My culture, my place in time, my worldview, my experiences, etc., will all influence how I understand the biblical text as I read it.   

Human nature, and the tendency of our time, is to subject the Biblical text to my subjective evaluation.  So the Bible becomes “unfixed” while I sit fixed in my position as the evaluator.  Chronological arrogance creeps in.  I start to evaluate what the text should mean in light of my great cultural insights.  Rather than acknowledging my arrogance, I can avoid the problem of sounding proud if I simply declare my interpretation to be personal to me. Then I won’t tread on any toes by declaring it to be the truth for anyone else. 

The reality is that the Bible is not subject to us; we are subject to it.  We are the moveable ones in the diagram.  Swayed by every wind of fashionable thinking, we don’t know as much as we might think we do.  So wherever we live in the world, or whenever we live in history, we are subject to evaluation by the Bible.  The Word of God comes against our assumptions.  It speaks against the spirit of the age.  It opposes the arrogance of our minuscule knowledge. 

On a horizontal level, our tone toward others may be humble.  But vertically, our subjective approach to God’s Word is the height of arrogance. 

Humble Hermeneutics

So what does it look like to interpret the Bible with humility?

  1. Let us be humbly thankful for God’s Word.  What a privilege we have to read, in our language, an accurate translation of the Bible.  What an honour it is to have this gift from outside of our world.  What a blessing to be able to read God’s self-revelation – we would be grasping in the dark without it.  What an encouragement it is to have God shepherd us through His Word.  He knows what we need and works in our specific circumstances, by His Spirit, and through His Word.
  2. Let us be humbly responsive to God’s Word.  Instead of arrogantly evaluating the Bible against what I think I know to be true, let’s humble ourselves.  Humbly respond to God’s Word as He challenges your thinking, beliefs, attitudes, habits, and every possible aspect of your life. 
  3. Let us be humbly confident interpreting God’s Word.  As we carefully apply a sound hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures, we can confidently assert the meaning of the text.  Always humbly recognizing that we could be wrong, or there could be a better way to state it, we can speak the Word of God as God’s Word.  This does not mean our tone should become bombastic or unloving.  But let’s not settle for the pseudo-humility of subjectivity in our Bible reading.

We need a humble hermeneutical approach to the Bible as we prepare to preach. Our hearers need to learn that same posture and approach. We live in an era of subjective pseudo-humility. Let’s pray that God will raise up generations with a genuine humility in handling God’s Word and a courageous willingness to respond to it and proclaim it!

Limit, No Limit

When it comes to preaching there are fewer rules than people might think.  Some like to impose significant amounts of structure on the preaching event, but in reality there are few limits involved.  There may be some limits imposed by the culture and heritage of a church – congregational traditions – and it is wise to think carefully before smashing through those expectations in an attempt to be creative.  However, these limits vary from place to place and it is possible, once trust is established, to carefully adjust such expectations.

However, putting aside the idiosyncracies of specific congregations (and the key change monitors who might take it on themselves to preserve order!), the whole issue of limits seems to come down to two principles:

1. To have integrity as a biblical preacher, I must be constrained by the true meaning of the passage I am preaching. This is the one limit that must be in place.  We commit to preaching the true meaning of the text.  To the best of our ability we must strive to understand what was intended in the preaching text.  We cannot preach on anything from anywhere in the Bible.  Sometimes the pursuit of being “interesting” and “relevant” undermines the exegetical integrity of our ministry.  We need this limit firmly in place.

2. To be effective as a biblical preacher, I have freedom in the formation of the sermon and its delivery during preaching. What shape should a sermon take?  What style of delivery should be used?  Matters of form are matters of freedom for the preacher.  Different texts, different circumstances, different occasions, even different listeners, can all prompt different sermon shape and delivery style.  At this level our goal is effectiveness in communication.  We do not need unnecessary limits in place to hinder our effectiveness.

Sadly too many preachers settle into a predictable pattern where there is freedom – in form and delivery.  And too many choose freedom where there is a limit – in the meaning of the text.  Let’s be sure to get our limit and our no limits the right way around!

Exegesis Homiletics

I am currently preparing a course that I will be teaching at the end of October – Hermeneutics for Preaching.  I came across this very important reminder in Grant Osborne’s Hermeneutical Spiral (p343):

“The hermeneutical process culminates not in the results of exegesis (centering on the original meaning of the text) but in the homiletical process (centering on the significance of the Word for the life of the Christian today).”

To some of us it is obvious that there must be a direct link between exegesis and homiletics, but we all need the reminder.  C.R.Wells, in Interpreting the New Testament (edited by Black and Dockery, pp506-523), writes the final chapter on interpretation and its connection to preaching.  He warns of some critical approaches that will produce “tempting” content for sermons, but content that should not be included.  However, critical methods that deal with the “text-as-is” have great potential as tools of the preacher.  According to Wells, “Every preacher should and must be a critic, but no preacher should ever forget that critical study serves homiletics.”

Accurate interpretation governs expository preaching.  So two simple implications:

1. Don’t allow interpretation and exegesis to be an end in itself. Study in God’s Word must run its course, not only to personal application, but to communication for corporate application.  If you have opportunity and ability to preach the Word, do it.  If you don’t, then find another way to share the truth and its implications with others.

2. If you ever preach, then be an ever-improving interpreter and exegete of God’s Word. Don’t try to preach without the foundation of biblical interpretation under your efforts.  Preaching is more than sharing the fruit of exegetical work out loud, but it cannot be less.  Skill in communication, relevance in content, personal spirituality and prayerful preparation are all important, but without effective biblical interpretation undergirding your messages, don’t call it preaching.