Thursday, April 25, 2019

A philosophical and theological exploration of humility

By Philip A. Gottschalk, Ph.D. for his oratio upon inauguration of his professorship at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Badhoevedorp, the Netherlands 25 April 2019

This is the full text of the lecture I gave this morning in which I “inaugurated” my professorship at Tyndale Theological Seminary.

I will not be giving an “academic” lecture in the sense of a class lecture or reading a paper prepared for a professional conference. This “exploration” is a form of a reflection that is philosophical, theological and biblical.

People often think of philosophy as difficult material presented in a very abstruse way. in the past, however, people like Plato, for example, presented philosophy as dialogue between characters. He does this in his famous dialogues like the Timaeus and the Theatetus. Timeus was a young man asked to give an account, a “likely story,” of the creation. Throughout his story he engages with Socrates, who questions him. I won’t use a dialogue form today per se, but I will rather consider one concept using several approaches. I will use an approach that is more like viewing a diamond from different angles.

I will discuss three understandings of the word, humble.
The first is the sense of being humble is to be
Of humble birth
The second is the sense of being humble is to be 
The third is the sense of being humble is to be

So let us turn to the first sense of being humble: 

Of humble birth
In English when we say someone is humble, the context must decide what we mean. We might mean this person is of humble origin.
Some people are “to the manor born”, of high class.

Other people, even in democracies, are “of humble birth.” In other words, they are from the lower class(es). It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are stupid. Some people of lowly birth had a great influence on society.

Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius

Epictetus is a well-known Greek Stoic philosopher (55-135 AD). He was also a slave. His name means “acquired”, or bought. He was among, other things, a secretary to Nero.

Epictetus developed a philosophy of coping with a miserable life, a sort of Stoicism. One can be a slave and still be free within, be free in one’s spirit. The idea of submitting to one’s fate is one of his ideas. If we submit to our fate, rather than fight it, we can find peace, he believed.

Epictetus’ teaching influenced the later Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD). Epictetus, the slave, was not free to choose his fate. Neither was Marcus Aurelius free; he was born a patrician. Through his royal relatives he finally became king. He was not free to choose a lesser position. He had to make fateful decisions about the life of his people and make many difficult decisions.

Each of these men understood what it was to be submitted to a greater cause or person. One was of humble birth, the other of noble birth, but both realized that no human is truly free in the sense of being able to choose completely just what one will be. Life and circumstances limit our choices, as do the acts of other free beings.

So, humble origin does not determine a person’s worth or ability, nor does it need to affect their dignity or sense of self-worth, though it often does. At the same time being humbly born does not mean one is humble.

William Carey and C.T. Studd

Christian missions has examples of this same idea that being of humble birth does not mean to be demeaned nor does being of the higher class mean needing to remain wealthy and powerful. 

William Carey, the well-known missionary to India, was a cobbler, a shoe maker. He was called by God from his humble origins and trade to go to India as a missionary. He started the well-known Serampore College. He translated the Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Marathi, Hindi and Sanskrit. Though he was of humble birth and a humble occupation, he was quite brilliant and turned out to be a pioneering missionary, educator and a Bible translator/ linguist.

Charles Thomas or C.T. Studd, on the other hand, was born to wealth. I have often mentioned C.T. Studd in my sermons. Our imagination is fired by Studd’s career and that of the so-called “Cambridge Seven.” The Cambridge Seven were seven Cambridge University students at the end of the 19th century who decided to give up their careers and go to the mission field.

Studd was born to a high-class family and schooled in England’s finest “public” (i.e. private) schools. He was a Cambridge Cricket Team captain, being a great bowler and an excellent batsman. He excelled in all he did and he had a LOT of money. However, he gave up that money £29,000 (by today’s standards £3,351,838.71) to go to a humble place of service on the mission field. First, he served in China, then India and finally in Africa. He spent his whole life as a missionary.

We are amazed by Studd’s willingness to leave riches, comfort and fame, but perhaps less impressed when a man of humble origins, like Carey, makes a decision to leave his home and go to a foreign country. The truth is that both were servants, slaves of Christ. Humble birth doesn’t make one humble and being “to the manor born” doesn’t mean one cannot be humble.

Being humble, however, doesn’t mean being of the lower class or simply being of humble birth. Contrariwise sometimes those of humble birth strive to achieve wealth, fame and status and they do.

As well, being of “humble birth” doesn’t mean to have been or to be humiliated.

At this point I would like to turn to the second sense of being humble:

Being Humiliated

All of us have likely been humiliated at some time. Children tease mercilessly on the playground. Sometimes even adults, parents or relatives, tease in a way that is too much for children.

Thomas Aquinas

I always recall Thomas Aquinas when I think of teasing. Thomas lived from 1225-1274 AD. He was nobly born. Thomas’ father wanted him to be a lawyer, but Thomas chose a religious vocation as an Augustinian monk in the Roman Catholic church (then the only church, as this was before the Reformation).

Apparently, Thomas was a large fellow. He was beefy and physically thick. He had a big head, which must have looked sillier in a tonsure, a shaven head with a ring of hair. He was also a quiet person and very reserved.

Thomas’ fellow theological classmates often made fun of him. They called him “the dumb ox.” Having overheard this taunt, one of their instructors told his fellows students, “Someday that ox will bellow so loudly the whole world will hear.” He meant that Thomas’ brilliance would one day be recognized.

Thomas is known for his massive Summa Theologiae and his Summa Contra Gentiles among his many other works, which include Bible commentaries. The Summa Theologiae is a massive compendium of theology and the Summa Contra Gentiles is a sort of apologetic work. Thomas has been named the “Angelic Doctor” of the Roman Catholic Church and his theology has been made their official theology.

Thomas’ Summas along with Peter Lombard’s Sentences formed the basis of theological instruction in the Roman Catholic Church until the Reformation and beyond. Luther and many others would have studied his works. 

Though Thomas was of noble birth, he bore with humiliation and achieved a legacy which is still influencing many today. You are not humiliated because you are of humble birth. Nor should one be proud because he or she is of noble birth. Humility is not being born of “humble birth” nor must one necessarily be arrogant or full of oneself if one is wealthy.

My father and his last illness

My father developed prostate cancer in his late sixties. My father had been a very physically strong person. He worked as a manager of the print shop in a large corporation. He was responsible for the forty copy machines in the company. He regularly lifted paper boxes full of paper. They were equal to two of the paper boxes we get or the way they look and the weight they have when they are packaged and wrapped in plastic two together. He would sling two of these larger boxes of paper around like they were nothing. Each box weighed 50 lbs. or 23 kg. Two boxes together weighed about 100 lbs. or 50 kg. He did this day in and day out. 

My father was proud of his strength. I won’t say he was proud of his physique. He was in one sense quite humble. For instance, he would not buy expensive clothes. He had grown up during the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s, a time of great poverty and joblessness, when his family lived on fish from the river, food they grew in the garden and fruit from his grandfather’s property.

As my father’s illness progressed he became weaker. He had to have many rounds of chemotherapy and they weakened him generally. He had trouble walking up the stairs. He couldn’t carry things anymore. He became extremely sensitive to the smallest changes in hot and cold. He had other complications which meant he could not travel in an enclosed vehicle like a car or an airplane with other people. Perfumes and deodorants bothered him. He became allergic to many things.

I dare say in a way that my father was humiliated. He had no control of what was happening to his body. He could not decide what he would like to eat or do things which used to be normal. However, he remained in a true sense humble. Though he was humiliated physically, he became more sensitive and kinder than in the past. The illness meant he had a lot of time to think and pray, and he did. What strength he had left he used to continue to do layout and design of prayer letters and to print them for the missionaries (including us) whom my parents had sent out to the mission field. My parents prayed for these folks until my father finally was in hospice in the hospital.

My father was humiliated by disease. He felt worth less. He was unable to do the things and the work he had previously done. However, being humiliated is not to be humble. My father learned more humility as he suffered, but the suffering was humiliating. No other explanation or sugar-coating of it will suffice. He suffered and was humiliated. However, through his suffering he learned more humility.

Being humiliated, though, is not being humble in any sense. It may mean that one is teased or forced to do “humble” or mean things (e.g. clean bathrooms), but it doesn’t mean being worth less or being truly humble.

So, let us turn to our third sense of being humble:

Being humble

Being humble is a virtue. By virtue, we mean a character trait that is praiseworthy and is also a personal choice.

Thomas chose to be humble. C.T. Studd chose to be humble. William Carey also chose to be humble.

Interestingly humility was not considered a virtue in ancient Greece. Areté ἀρετή (virtue) is more about being proud of oneself and one’s achievements.

The Bauer Arndt Gingrich and Danker Lexicon of New Testament Greek says of the ancient Greek understanding of areté ἀρετή (virtue): 

{The} Exhibition of ἀρετή invites recognition, resulting in renown or glory. In Homer [this term is used] primarily of military valor or exploits, but also of distinction for other personal qualities and associated performance that enhance the common interest.

It is interesting that in list of what we would call “virtues” in 2 Peter 1, areté ἀρετή is only second in the list. Faith is first and love or agape is last…

And you, employing all care, minister in your faith, virtue; and in virtue, knowledge; And in knowledge, abstinence; and in abstinence, patience; and in patience, godliness; And in godliness, love of brotherhood; and in love of brotherhood, charity. 2 Peter 1:5-7 Douay Rheims Version

The Bible does not see pride as a “virtue.” Humility or meekness, however, is. Humility, though, is a personal choice. It is also a fruit of the Spirit that we must grow in.

Paul tells us: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness [πραΰτης (prautes)], {and} temperance” Gal. 5:22, 23 KJV

Meekness/ Humility

The Bible tells us that “Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3 KJV) Moses forbore the abuse that some of his followers hurled at him for marrying a non-Hebrew, a Cushite. Perhaps this refers to Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, the Midianite. The NIV uses the term “humble” “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” Though Moses had the power to destroy all his enemies, and God even suggested that God himself might destroy the Israelites and start again with Moses, Moses was humble and a true leader of his people. He asked God to forgive the people’s sin and for God to continue to remain with the Israelites in their pilgrimage through the wilderness until they reached the Promised Land.

The Bauer Arndt Gingrich and Danker Lexicon says of πραΰς (praus) meekness or humility that it is “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance.” This is just the opposite of arete ἀρετή or virtue in classical sources.

Pastor DuWayne Lee, my pastoral mentor

Rev. DuWayne Lee, who was pastor of Northwest Baptist Church in Chicago and was my pastoral mentor, used to say: “Meekness is not weakness. It’s strength under control.” He characterized that behavior. He was quick with a smile and a greeting. He was patient and quiet in adversity.

As an intern and youth minister in the church I went through a cycle of budgeting with the church and its leaders. We had meetings of the various committees: Christian Education, Music, Youth, etc. Then we had a “Daisy” meeting. The “Daisy” meeting was a meeting of only the heads of the various committees. Someone started to misuse Robert’s Rules of Order to take over the meeting. Robert’s Rules of Order are a way of structuring a meeting to allow for discussion of contentious matters without anyone being able to take over the meeting. So, they were being used in just the opposite manner in which they were meant to be used, i.e. to squelch opposition. Pastor Lee got really angry, but he didn’t shout or rave. He got up and said, “I am not going to participate in this. When you decided to listen to the Holy Spirit I will come back.” They got the point!

Nietzsche and Dostoevsky

Sometimes nonbelievers find the Christian emphasis on humility disgusting and ridiculous. Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philologist and philosopher, was one. He saw Christianity as the “old-woman’s religion” because it bound strong men and forced them to behave like sheep.

For Nietzsche strength was the only virtue. The Strongman or Superman, the Übermensch, was the one who could impose his will on other people. He was not oppressed with notions of gentleness and meekness or humility.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist, concluded just opposite of Nietzsche. Dostoevsky in his novel, Crime and Punishment, shows the misery of a man who believes he can be a law to himself. Though Raskolnikov, the antihero, has committed the perfect murder and convinced himself as a nihilist that he had the right to make the law, to commit the crime, his conscience continued to trouble him. Eventually it drove him nearly mad and drove him finally to confess his crime.

In another novel, The Idiot, Dostoevsky sketched two protagonists: Prince Myshkin, a Christ like figure, and Rogozhin (which means the horned one or perhaps the “devil”), who is a selfish, self-willed person. Myshkin was an epileptic. He was also considered to be a “foreigner” because he had lived abroad a long time due to his illness and wore foreign clothes. Myshkin, however, chose to love his enemy, Rogozhin. Rogozhin, on the other hand, had murdered the woman they both loved because he could not possess her. Myshkin, though, chose to love Rogozhin despite the fact that Rogozhin had murdered the girl he loved. It is clear whom Dostoevsky considered the hero.

Belgrade: a discussion of “pride”/ Pride in any other language

One day as we were learning the Serbian language in Belgrade in Yugoslavia I had an argument with Linda’s friend, Emilija, about pride. Emilija and I often argued! We are both rather self-willed people. I was arguing that in biblical terms that pride is a bad thing.

She argued, however, that ponos, or pride was a good thing. One can be rightly proud of one’s accomplishments, say having earned a medal or passing an exam or being skilled at playing a musical instrument.

We started then discussing other words in Serbian for pride that were not positive: e.g. gordost (arrogance) or oholost (again, arrogance). I will let Nenad tell us whether the last two are just synonyms or not.

While it’s true in a way that one has a right to be proud of one’s accomplishments, many who are the most accomplished are also the most humble. If an athlete or a musician is realistic and fair-minded, then he or she must recognize that he or she has achieved their goals through the help of coaches, teachers, trainers, parents, and others. There is no violinist without a violin maker. Similarly there is no rower without a boat. Also inherited talent is not something of which we can boast since we did not choose it.

Deadly pride

There was a type of pride that the Greeks recognized as deadly. It was called hubris (´υβρις). We use the term to mean someone who is “too big for their britches.” Someone who has overweening pride, pride which is beyond reasonable measure.

Hubris ´υβρις was the sort of pride a man showed when he held the gods in contempt or refused to accept their demands. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology says that this term is used of Penelope’s suitors in Homer’s Odyssey, of the men who would force Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, to count him dead and marry them, thus angering the gods.

The same article also says that hubris is “an infringement of the order of justice established by Zeus, which enabled community life in the Greek polis to be maintained.” A man or woman proud in this sense of hubris destroyed their own community. 

Being prideful in the sense of hubris can mean not knowing or keeping within your own limitations. We need to learn to stay within our limitations or we will be guilty of this form of hubris. Knowing one’s limitations is vital to survival and thriving. I often joke with students by asking whether they know the one rule of missionary survival. The rule is: “There is one Savior and you are not a candidate.”

Pride and our limitations

You must protect yourself and others by keeping within your limitations. If you are a linguist, don’t try to be a manager. If you are a manager, don’t try to be a preacher. 

The opposite of hubris in the ancient world was sophrosyne, (σωφροσυνη) modesty. The Bauer Arndt Gingrich and Danker Lexicon says that sophrosyne is “one of the four cardinal virtues; for the Hellenic perspective of general harmony of the κόσμος (kosmos) [the world] and φύσις (fusis) [nature].” Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, as well as other Stoics, considered it a virtue.

The Superman or the Crucified

So, who is correct? Should we shrug off the “old-woman’s religion,” the Christian exaltation of meekness and humility? Or should we embrace the Crucified?

First of all, it depends on whose reality you chose and whose reality is the “real” reality. If there is no almighty, all knowing, transcendent creator God and whatever value there is we make through our own efforts, then if we are strong enough, perhaps we can be the Superman. 

However, no one, no matter how strong, no Superman, no Übermensch, no “Blond Beast” who “rides the wave”, can control history and destiny forever. The “Blond Beast” is the Teutonic Knight, the Aryan warrior who destroys all before himself at will. However, even the strongest of the Supermen is not eternal.

Concluding concept and triad
Get a grip: 
We are all born. 
We are all creatures. 
We are not gods.

We are born. We do not dwell in positively negative time, that is from eternity to eternity. In other words, we came to be. We are not timeless.

We are creatures. We were born somewhere, in humble circumstances or in the manor, but all of us were born. We are not gods. Still we are not animals. 

As my doctoral mentor, William Desmond, likes to say we are in the “Between.” We are self-conscious. We are creative. We are at times amazing, but we are also at times disgusting. We are not animals. We have a conscience. We can behave nearly like gods, but also at times we can behave worse than and more disgustingly than animals. Think of the Holocaust, for instance.

We are also as creatures “given to be with a promise,” again to use a phrase of my doctoral mentor. We have been given the gift of life and our being, as well as a potential which we can pursue and achieve or renege on.

We are born by a mother, nurtured by her for nine months in utero and then cared for by her for many more years. In the beginning we are fed at her breast and don’t even realize that we are separate from her.

Eventually we learn that we are separate from her and perhaps dependent on her. We don’t realize it then, but we are also born into a family and community which nurture and educate us. Our father cares for us as well as our siblings, and grandparents, aunts and uncles. The church and school nurture and educate us.

Being born means that we are dependent not only to God, but on others, many others and we owe them something. No one is born master of his own fate. All that we have is a gift and we have it as a promise to fulfill or to renege on.

We are mortal creatures, though we are eternal.

We have been born, but we will live forever. The scripture tells us clearly that there are two destinies for humans: eternal blessedness and eternal torment.

We must “get a grip!” When someone says something boastful we may say, “Oh get a grip!” What we mean is you have lost your sense of perspective. “Get real!”

When we become proud in the sense of arrogance or hubris we have lost our grip. Our grasp of reality has failed. 

Even if I were a slave like Epictetus, I would be a man, but even if I was a king, Marcus Aurelius, I would never be God.

I might be as poor as Carey or as rich as Studd, but I would never be the Almighty. I might be a great artist, but I will never be the Creator who creates ex nihilo.

The Crucified: of humble birth, humiliated, humble: our example

Jesus was born of humble birth. He was born in a barn. He was laid as a newborn baby in a feed trough. He was visited only by shepherds and foreigners.

Have you ever smelled a shepherd? One day we were traveling by car in Bosnia. We saw a shepherd and asked if we could take a picture with him. It was good that it was not a “smellophone.” He stank!

No one on earth has likely ever been born in more humble circumstances than the Son of God come to earth!

Not only was the place humble, but his parents were humble. The Talmud says that Jesus was the son of Mary and a pantera or pandera, a Roman legionnaire. In other words that Mary was a loose woman and Jesus was a bastard.

These are sharp words, but they were also launched at Jesus during his ministry. “Who is this? Where did he get this teaching? Is this not the carpenter’s son and Mary his mother? Do not his brothers and sisters live among us?” (Mt. 13:55) That’s when they were being mild.

At other times they asked: “Who is your father? At least we know who our father is!” (John 8:19) They were clearly referring to the fact that Mary had become pregnant before she married Joseph.
So, Jesus was “humbly born,” born in a bar to humble parents. He was also humiliated. But he also chose to be humble.

You have perhaps heard the saying, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” There’s a lot of nonsense taught in the nursery, though also some wisdom.

Jesus was not mild. He drove the money changers out of the Temple. (Jn. 2:13-25) At the same time, he bore with many unfair comments, even abuse and slander, because as he said: “my time has not yet come.”

Jesus bore with worse treatment. When his time came, he went to the cross freely. He could have called a legion of angels to escape an unfair death, which was the sentence of a mock trial, a “kangaroo court.” (Mt. 26:53, 57-68).

Before he went to the cross where he was stripped and nailed to the beams, he was mocked and spit upon. They beat a crown of thorns into his head, then clothed him a purple, royal robe and gave him a reed as a scepter. Then they blindfolded him and beat him with fists saying “Prophesy! Who hit you?” (Mt. 27:27-31).

While he hung on the cross his accusers (false accusers) hurled insults at him, “He says he trusts in God, let Him deliver him!” (Mt. 27:43)

Jesus was humiliated, but he was not devalued. He was demeaned, but he was not stripped of his honor or glory. He chose to bear our punishment to buy our redemption.


So, “get a grip!” You are not the Crucified! You are not the Creator! You are not the King! You are a servant, a bond slave of the King!

We need to keep a grip. One way we can keep a grip is to try to remain and nurture humility. A title, Professor, Doctor, Captain, Commodore, doesn’t make you anything. A title should only be a recognition of what you are.

I am glad that my colleagues and the Board of this seminary have seen fit to bestow on me the title of “Professor.” I appreciate their recognition of my accomplishments, mostly that I have survived here for 18 years and to have survived Yugoslavia before that.

No matter whether you are a Professor, a Bishop, a Senior Pastor or a lowly usher, you need to get a grip! God did not send you out, does not send you into his church for you to rule and reign over others. Those who serve the Crucified serve as slaves, bond slaves.

My family name – Gottschalk - means God’s bond-slave or indentured servant in German. It has always seemed significant to me that I was born with this name. It hasn’t determined all of my relatives’ lives, but it has always guided mine.

My existence is a gift. My abilities are a gift. My limitations are also gifts. I was “given to be with a promise.” God knows me and has given me life, things and knowledge so that I can serve him. I hope that I can be truly humble.

Thank you for this honor. I hope that I may show myself truly worthy of it.

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