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Concerning Humility

Christian Discipleship

Concerning Humility

In the following interpretive essay, Austin Lapp uses the works of several medieval theologians to explore the tension between humility and the acquisition of knowledge. 


     In his 12th century book, Didascalicon, Hugh of St. Victor proposes to the students at the Abbey of St. Victor that “the beginning of discipline is humility.” While acknowledging that there are many lessons to be learned from humility, Hugh proposes three which hold “especial importance for the student.” The first is that the student “hold no knowledge and no writing in contempt; second, that he blush to learn from no man; and third, that when he has attained learning for himself, he not look down upon everyone else” (p.94). Education and knowledge can be a catalyst for pride; however, education and knowledge can also be a catalyst for greater service opportunities.

       One of the fundamental problems facing all mankind is the tendency to lift oneself higher than he ought. We are especially prone to this pitfall when we have gained knowledge or wealth that others do not appear to have. Hugh identifies different areas where this pride rears its ugly head in the life of a young student. He points out the tendency of young people to idolize the skilled and wise and to purport themselves as such. They are easily impressed by learned individuals and think that they can attain or even exceed the level of skill and knowledge of an older learned individual with much less time and effort. Hugh argues against this mentality by exhorting students to “consider not how much they know, but of how much they are ignorant” reminding them that “the man who proceeds stage by stage moves along best” (p.95). This is a worthy word. Patience and humility, rather than selfish ambition, become the keys to unlocking the door to wisdom.

Hugh further exhorts students to seize every opportunity to learn. Any extra time should be spent reading since all books “set forth something worth looking for.” This is not to say that scholars should read anything and everything nor that they should embrace all that they read. Hugh goes on to say that such reading ought to be done by a “diligent scrutinizer” and that a student ought “to consider a matter thoroughly and at length before judging of it” (p. 97). In addition to these warnings, Hugh says to “shun the authors of perverse doctrine as if they were poison.” In the pursuit of knowledge, young scholars are to be wise and discerning of the material they are ingesting and, I would add, constantly testing it against the truth of God’s word.

Writing in the 15th century, Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ, offers another layer to this when he writes, “All naturally desire knowledge, but what good is knowledge without the fear of God?” (p. 25). Christian scholars, old and young alike, must be faithful to test all knowledge with the aid of the Holy Spirit and through the lens of Scripture. Kempis warns against an “unreasonable desire for knowledge” stating that this is the source of “great distraction and deception.” What is an “unreasonable desire for knowledge”? Is it not desiring knowledge for the sake of knowing and for the sake of being thought of as wise? Is knowledge not meant to inform one’s opinion of himself and shape his actions for the benefit of others? Consider the doctor who knows all about the body, its functions, and its weaknesses. Has he not learned all about the body and its functions in order to aid those whose bodies are not functioning properly? Yet if he is not faithfully applying that knowledge to improve the lives of his fellow man he is falling short of the purpose of the knowledge he has gained. In the same way, the student seeking knowledge must war against pride by faithfully applying that knowledge in humble service toward others.

In conclusion, let us consider the words of the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth: “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). When love and knowledge mix in humble service, pride evaporates and God is glorified. Jesus Himself exhorts us to follow His example when He declares in Matthew 20:27-28: “Whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave, just as the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” As scholars following Jesus, we, in like manner, must strive for humility and seek to apply our knowledge in active, humble service for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

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