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Humility as a Reformed Value

Translated from “Demut in Bibelunterricht”in Bibel-Didaktik-Unterricht:Exegetischeundreligionspädagogische Perspekti-ven, Beiträge zur Kinder- und Jugendtheologie, eds. Petra Freudenberger-Lötz, Axel Wiemer, Eva Jenny Korneck, Annegret Südland, Georg Wagensommer, 12–25. Kassel: Kassel University Press, 2021, this essay is published with permission.

What does humility have to do with teaching the Bible? Much. The Bible, after all, is a highly intertextual work whose literary, historical, and theological breadth, depth, and points of view are unparalleled. Moreover, the Bible’s central focus is the question of God, which runs like a red thread through all biblical scriptures.[i] Yet, the Bible does not say everything about the history and cultures it covers or about God and human existence. Such acknowledgements alone ought to inspire humility and deter one from making claims about the text and God beyond the text’s boundaries and mysteries. Additionally, a prominent characteristic of God and his people in the Bible, especially God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, is humility. Beyond the scriptures, too, humility is central in the church’s theology and vital to the Christian faith. Humility, then, ought to be a concern for anyone who teaches the Bible. Still, what does the Bible have to say about humility, how relevant is it for the life of faithfulness, and how may it impact the teaching of the Bible?

To begin with, humility is a persistent theme in the Bible, and an examination of its meaning in the Old and New Testaments will aid our consideration of humility’s role in the Christian life and for teaching. The great emphasis on humility in the Christian faith is rooted in ancient Israel’s life. Over against the backdrop of ancient Egypt’s hierarchical culture, Israel’s longstanding status as slaves at the bottom of that stratified society guaranteed its everlasting rejection of proud, arrogant, dominating powers (Exod 1:11; Deut 26:6). Even more, Israel’s faith that God delivered them from the afflictions of their oppressive captors speaks of God’s goodness and his own opposition to social systems centered on power, wealth, and social distinctions that alienate and oppress (Isa 2:12; Jer 50:31; Amos 6:8). The God of Israel brings down the proud and delivers the humble (cf. 1 Sam 2:7; 2 Sam 22:28).

In the Old Testament, humility pertains almost entirely to being in a state of lowliness, poverty, or affliction (עני ,ענוה ,צנע). In such a state, the humble recognize their limitations and put their trust in God. It is this reliance upon God which is most determinative of humility. Of course, sometimes God humbles a person (Exod 10:3) or a nation (Deut 8:2, 16) in order that people will know that they do not live by bread alone but by the grace of God. In Deuteronomy, we see also that God’s choice of Israel is cause for humility, for God’s choice to bless all of the families of the earth (Gen 12:3) is not based not on any human abilities or achievements of Israel but solely upon God’s love, covenants, and desire for life to flourish (Deut 7:7–8).

There is no place for pride and arrogance among God’s faithful, as the prophets of Israel make clear. As Jeremiah puts it summarily, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight,’ says the Lord”  (9:23–24; cf. 12:15; Isa 3:14–15; Amos 2:6–7; 5:21–24; etc.). Humility is a hallmark of ancient Israel’s sense of faithfulness, exemplified chiefly by Moses (Num 12:3), is set on par with righteousness (Zeph 2:3; 3:12–13), and is established as one of the three most important requirements of God (Mic 6:8). Israel’s Messianic tradition also celebrates humility as a chief characteristic of God’s Messiah and messianic people (Isa 41:8–9; 42:1–7; 53:10–12). The wisdom tradition sees humility as foundational for all knowing (Prov 1:7), and the Psalms connect humility with a reverent awe of God and a dedication to his ways (Pss 22:26; 25:4–10; 147:6).

In the New Testament, humility may pertain to one’s low status or condition but is now overwhelmingly a way of describing a central Christian virtue, namely the Christlike way of relating to God and neighbor, ways that are akin to gentleness, patience, meekness, and caring for others (ταπεινός, πραΰς, and their related words). As a celebrated virtue, we find it in prominent descriptions of distinctive Christian attributes, often in reference to Jesus. In Paul’s appeal to the Corinthian Christians to be imitators of the ways of Christ, he exhorts them to live “with love in a spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor 4:17–21), which is the way of Christ (2 Cor 10:1). In the famous Christ Hymn of Philippians, Paul stresses that Christ is the model for faithfulness, and this means in part that Christians “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than [them]selves” (2:3, ταπεινοφροσύνη). Further, God’s own radical humility is displayed in Christ’s humbling himself and being obedient to God’s way of loving others, even to the point of death on a cross (Phil 2:8). Jesus did not count equality with God as something to exploit (2:6).

The humility of God is evident in the Gospels, too. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, opens with a catalogue of distinguishing traits of God’s kingdom people that includes humility (Matt 5:5), and the Messiah is recognizable in his humility (Matt 21:5; cf. Isa 62:11; Zech 9:9). Perhaps most famously, Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:28–29). Jesus’ followers took the example of Jesus’ humility to heart and held that humility should govern all their relations (1 Pet 3:8; 5:5–6; Col 3:12). Moreover, “God opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6; 1 Pet 4:5; Isa 57:15; Prov 3:34).

Humility is central in the teachings of Jesus. For example, the fourth major discourse of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 18:1–35) focuses on humility and begins when the disciples ask Jesus the most startling question: Who will enjoy the highest status in the kingdom of heaven? (18:1).[ii] In light of Jesus’ instructions thus far in Matthew’s Gospel, their question shows their incomprehension of Jesus’ earlier instructions on God’s way of humble self-giving for others (cf. 5:5; 6:43–46; 7:1–5; 9:9–13; 10:17–23; 34–42). It is an entirely understandable question, though. Seeking honor was typical of the first century Greco-Roman social setting in which the question was asked and still is today. But Jesus, the humble teacher of righteousness in Matthew, addresses their misguided self-interest and emphasizes that there is no place for elevations or diminishments of status among his followers. Rather, Jesus teaches the disciples that the members of God’s community will embody the humble servant status of the child (18:2–5). Children may have low social capital, but they are of great value to the “Father in heaven” (v. 10). Humility, not arrogance or domination, will be the community’s standard. This means that its members will relate to one another with other-regarding humility. It also speaks of the kind of rule God exercises and desires. Thus, Jesus continues to teach about humility by telling stories that highlight several of its essential attributes in relations with others and the kinds of leadership related to it, such as caring for everyone (18:10–14), listening to one another (18:15–20), and forgiving each other (18:21–35). The followers of Jesus––the church––will abide together as a grace-filled, other-regarding, just community marked by Jesus’ own presence.[iii]

The Old and New Testaments locate humility in loving (agape) relations with God and neighbor. Absent in the scriptural view of humility is self-importance or self-righteousness. Present is freedom from pretentiousness and freedom for tranquil service of God and neighbor (ἡσύχιος; 1 Pet 3:4 and Rom 12:16). Humility in the Bible is the outcome of encounters with a loving, just, and gracious God. From the earliest declarations of faith in the God who delivered Israel from captivity (Exod 15:11), to prophetic celebrations of God’s counsel and wisdom (Isa 28:29), to God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ (Heb 1:2–3), to the Bible’s final anticipation of Christ’s return (Rev 1:17–18; 22:20–21), the scriptures identify humility as a defining characteristic of God and his people. Moreover, Jesus embodies God’s way of serving humbly, and the Spirit of Christ at work in the faithful empowers them to serve humbly, too (Gal 5:22–23; 1 Cor 13:4–6; Eph 4:2).[iv] In short, the biblical scriptures stress humility as a defining attribute of God and his people. For Christians, the cross of Jesus Christ marks the path of loving humble service for others (cf. Mark 10:45; Matt 23:12; 1 Cor 1:18–2:2; 2 Cor 11:7; 1 Pet 5:5).

Not surprisingly, the biblical association between faith, humility, and serving others resonates throughout the church’s history and theology. Such a survey is beyond the scope of this study, but a few representative theologians––such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth––can help us assess further the centrality of humility to Christian faithfulness and its relevance for teaching.

Humility for Martin Luther cannot be overemphasized. In fact, Luther’s theology might be summarized as a theology of humility, especially in so far as one’s confession of sin and utter reliance on God are the grounds for justification and sanctification. Faith begins and persists with humility, and both grow as trust in ourselves wains. As Luther sees it, Christians “remain servants who know their place” before God and do not exalt themselves.[v]As servants of the Lord, though, humility can never be self-abasement, servitude, or self-abuse of any kind, because the self is also a creation of God and worthy of love (Mark 12:31). Rather, for the Christian, faithful humility is foremost the consequence of being in Christ, is manifested out of Christ’s love, and reflects Christ’s own loving humility. It rests in the believer’s complete trust in God, never in any accomplishment.[vi]Moreover, only in faithful humility through the Holy Spirit may the scriptures be read in a way that becomes life-giving. It is faithfulness, through the working of the Holy Spirit in the believer, that produces good works, but in no way do they make one righteous. Rather, the good works of humbly serving others are the natural outcomes of faithfulness working through love (Gal 5:6).

We find a similar emphasis in the theology of the John Calvin who––with Luther and others before them, like Augustine and Chrysostom––views humility as an essential trait of Christian faithfulness. Humility “gives God alone the honor”[vii] and is the practice of “laying aside the disease of self-love and ambition by which he is blinded and thinks more highly of himself than he ought [cf. Gal 6:3].”[viii] For Calvin, humility is a spiritual gift bound to the gift of love (agape) which enables the faithful to see more truthfully themselves, other people, the world, and God’s self-revelation and will. Calvin also rejoices that a Christian is always a student in the Lord’s school, learning from the Holy Spirit the ways of God, God’s world, and God’s way of humble loving service to all.[ix]

Karl Barth encapsulates the scriptures and prior church history when he describes the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ as “the revelation of the divine humility.”[x]

God’s inconceivable degree of humility revealed in the incarnation calls people to humbly confess sin and embrace God’s grace through faith. Humility is a key means through which God moves for the purposes of faithfulness and blessing.[xi] Indeed, when it comes to knowing anything about God, humility is what drives the believer “into the saving unrest (grounded in a final rest) of a continual inquiry concerning God, namely, God in His revelation.”[xii] Humility, then, is also a constant characteristic of anyone who is on the journey of faith. Furthermore, the faithful see by humility “the fact that we are on the way; that therefore any goal that is attained becomes the point of departure for a new journey on this way on which the revelation of God and its veracity are always future to us.”[xiii] As others have stressed before him and since, Karl Barth is captivated by God’s self-revelation of divine humility in Jesus Christ who gave himself freely and totally for the salvation of the world and is God’s way of being human.

By no means a comprehensive sampling of their works or of the church’s theological heritage, these three theologians illustrate the relevance of humility for faithfulness. They also articulate the dangers of self-interest and the potential for humility’s corruption. As a teaching mentor of mine often said, “Show me a humble person, and I’ll show you a person who is proud of it.” What he meant is that egoism is so insidious that it can deceive, corrupt, and masquerade as humility (Col 2:18–19, 23). Self-centeredness can pretend righteousness or love, too, and distort any other good gift from God. By contrast, the Bible and the Church’s tradition view faithful humility as inherently other-centered––attentive to both God and neighbor––and it is generously self-giving in the manner of Jesus Christ in its dedication to serve the needs of others.

Already, then, before we turn to the relevance of this biblical and theological background for teaching the Bible, a few general observations are in order. First, Jesus is God’s revelation of divine humility. Second, faithful humility stems from awe of God and a trusting reliance upon God who loves us and who has given and continues giving himself for us. Third, humility expresses itself as a disposition of love toward God and neighbor. Fourth, humility is a celebrated virtue and distinctive trait of Jesus’ followers, individually and together as the Church. Fifth, the way of Jesus is “the way of the cross” for others. Finally, humility is liberating for the humble servant and empowering for the recipient of grace, for it is rooted in trust of God who alone is savior. Now in light of all of this, let us turn to humility’s significance for teaching the Bible.

It should come as no surprise that humility plays vital roles for Christians who teach, especially those who teach the Bible. Like a seed planted in a garden and nurtured to produce fruit, tending to the seed of humility can enhance the teaching and learning experience and foster the growth of teacher and student alike.

To begin with, we should be clear about the term teaching. One way to measure teaching is by the simple rule: teaching occurs when students learn. Teaching does not necessarily occur when we teachers go through the motions of engaging a subject matter by lecturing, questioning, exploring, illuminating, connecting, relating, or applying material on our own. If our students learn through these and similar processes, however, then we are teaching. But how much they may gain and how many of our students we are teaching is difficult to measure. What is clear is that where there is no learning there is no teaching. Teaching cannot be only about the teacher.

We should be clear also about the nature of teaching itself. Teaching and learning are a dynamic reciprocal process. Moreover, as with all communication, what is delivered may not be what is received. In other words, teaching and learning may be incomplete and the lesson learned may not be what was intended––it may be less or more. Something different may emerge in the relationally dynamic reciprocal process of teaching and learning. For teachers and students alike, the acts of learning and teaching are constantly interchanging.[xiv] With these points in mind, let us consider some particular roles of humility in the compassionate work of teaching (Mark 6:34).

Teaching, like humility, is an inherently relational, other-regarding, expression of care for others. While humility and teaching are not necessarily Christian, the humble Christian teacher will naturally express humility in every facet of the teaching enterprise. In the arena of teaching, this means that humility will inform the teacher’s sense of self, both personally and vocationally. Humility will also shape how the teacher views students, the subject matter, pedagogical approaches, and desired student learning outcomes. Humility will affect how teachers conduct themselves, too, both with their students and colleagues. Indeed, regardless of teaching methods, humility will help the teacher engage students as a leader who is expanding his or her own knowledge of the subject matter, increasing the knowledge of the students, improving skills in teaching, fostering growth in Christian experience, and enhancing appreciation and wonder of life.

Humility plays a vital role in the formation of a faithful effective teacher. It is here that the seeds of humility are sown for the fruit that humility bears. Again, humility begins with the question of God, but it also abides there in awe and wonder (1 Cor 13:12; Phil 2:12; Rom 11:33). It grows with the nourishment of grace (Rom 3:24; 5:1–8; Gal 5:23). From faith, then, humility enables the teacher to view life as a journey in the contexts of God, neighbor, and creation. Consequently, teacher and student alike are deemed children of God on journeys of life and relations with God. Both have more to know about the world and nurturing life, relations, and the common good. Both have more to learn about God and his ways. With humble faith comes, also, an assurance of God’s caring presence and hope in his redemptive power, even in teaching’s most trying experiences. So, too, comes the view of teaching as a Christian vocation by which God’s gifts are used with thanksgiving to God for the benefit of others. Furthermore, humility prompts the teacher to acknowledge that age, knowledge, and experience are not pre-requisites for knowing or representing God faithfully (Jer 1:6–7; Matt 18:3). And since humility is related to truthfulness, it provides a steady bearing toward honesty in the teacher’s relations with God, the self, the subject matter, the students, and among colleagues. The humble teacher, for example, recognizes the limitations of his or her understanding––especially views of God, inconvenient facts, and unknowns. So, also, one is free to wonder and question, and one is also free from idolizing the subject matter and knowledge of it. Knowing and teaching cannot be ends in themselves. Moreover, humility helps teachers to not inflate what they know, impose their beliefs, abuse their authority, over- and under-value their students, ignore their students’ challenges, and not care about best practices. Humility may even free teachers from counting the cost of serving. In many ways, humility bears directly upon a teacher’s life and teaching.

Humility plays a vital role, also, in the teacher’s engagement with the subject matter. As the writer of Proverbs knew, humility before God is a prerequisite for knowledge and wisdom (1:7), and there is always more to learn and wonder about in any subject. Humility prompts the teacher to engage the known and the unknown. The Bible, for instance, is a collection of books (biblia) written for different purposes by different authors for different communities of different cultures, languages, places, and times. Its compositional history stretches well over a thousand years. Not surprisingly, the Bible offers different perspectives on many things, even within particular books, and it does not everywhere agree with itself. Its linguistic, literary, historical, and theological dimensions are complex and extensive. And what about the other writings of ancient Israel and the early Church that are not included in the Bible and which may also inform one’s understanding of the Bible? Then there is the ever-challenging question of how any of the biblical scriptures are the Word of God. Even where Christians call the Bible inspired, not all of it is equally inspiring. For many people, the Bible is believed to be only a human word. There is also the problem of ethical discrepancies, such as “Bible believing Christians” who “vote the Bible” to support racism, bigotry, greed, fascism, and many other uncaring and selfish behaviors. Yet, from the same Bible, some Christians show that self-willed ways are not the way of Jesus Christ and of which Jesus speaks in passages like Matthew 25:31–46.

Humility plays a key role not only in a teacher’s learning but also in matters of biblical interpretation. For example, consider 2 Tim 3:16. What scripture is the author speaking about since there is no New Testament yet? And are the “sacred writings” of v. 15 the same as the “scripture” cited in v. 16? And what is one to make of what any responsible translation of the Greek text of v. 16 should show that “all scripture being inspired by God (literally “God-breathed”) is also” useful? What else is in view here for promoting faithfulness? Similarly, how is one to take account of texts like: two very different creation stories; divine commandments to destroy whole nations; Jesus cursing whole cities; declarations like the psalmist declaring “happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks” (Ps 137:8–9); or discrepancies between one demoniac or two (Matt 8:28 or Luke 8:27); or the Last Supper on a Wednesday night (John 13:1f; 18:28) or Thursday (Mark 14:12f; etc.); and so on? Clearly, there is more to knowing the Bible than knowing its words alone or employing parts of it to support whatever ends one desires. There is also a long history of the interpretation of biblical texts, and there are perspectives from the Church’s doctrinal positions based on biblical texts. Simply put, humility enables the interpreter to deal with the Bible that we have in all of its complexities and problems, to pay attention to all of a text’s related contexts. Humility empowers the teacher to wonder and explore ever further the intricate relations among the Bible’s literature, history, and theology and their effects upon human relations.

Humility plays a key role in learning about one’s students, too. It enables the teacher to view the student as a whole person, a child of God, and it fosters concern for knowing students and the characteristics of their stages of life. What are their ways of being and knowing? What are their fears, hopes, questions, assumptions, prejudices, joys, sorrows, cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and purposes for attending? What will help or hinder their engagement with the subject matter, their participation in class, their relations with others, and their understanding of the subject matter and its relevance for their lives? The more a teacher understands each student as an individual and all the students collectively as a class, the more effective the teacher may become in the art of teaching so that learning occurs.

Humility nourishes relations with students. Humble teaching not only strives to elicit wonder, challenge presuppositions, broaden perspectives, and even move the will toward charitable thoughts and actions, but it also influences the kind of relations students and teachers will have. The other-regarding nature of humility helps teachers be attentive to their students in ways that convey caring, honesty, trustworthiness, and fairness. Of course, teacher-student relations must remain within appropriate bounds, but humility fosters good relations which aids learning. Indeed, educational research shows a strong correlation between positive student-teacher relationships and student learning improvements. A positive teacher-student relationship is also a predictor of both the teacher’s and student’s experiences of joy in teaching and learning.[xv]  Few things help us learn and grow as much as the awareness that we are cared for and understood.

Humility also helps teachers persist in the work of improving their teaching. In humility, teachers see that there is always room to improve their art. This is important, because a student’s learning depends not only on a teacher’s mastery of the subject but also on a teacher’s mastery of teaching skills. There are many methods of teaching to know and utilize, such as the lecture, discussion, question and answer, individual and group project, assignment and paper, research project, presentation, visual and audible experience, artistic, dramatic, poetic, reader’s theater, meditative, craft, and others. It would be unlikely for a teacher to be equally adept in every teaching approach, and a teacher gifted in the use of a single method can employ it to great effect. Yet an ability to employ various teaching approaches will extend the teacher’s reach to more students and situations, because students do not all learn in a single way.

Humility aids pedagogy in other ways, too. For instance, humility can free the teacher from being overly-organized and inflexible with a teaching plan, unable to adjust to the unfolding teaching situation. The ability to adapt wisely, both in preparation and instruction, hinges upon a teacher’s ready skills and good judgment, but it also depends on the teacher’s other-regarding attentive-ness. Furthermore, student needs and abilities vary and change. The subject matter, teaching environment, and desired learning outcomes also impact which teaching skills and approaches will be more effective than others in varying circumstances. The goal, of course, is to help students to become more knowledgeable, critically-minded, morally sensitive, and generous of spirit, even to become more committed to contribute faithfully to the world community.[xvi] In short, the faithful other-regarding teacher who pursues knowledge and cares about students will also be attentive to pedagogy.

Humility serves teaching the Bible further through its capacity to enhance Christian experience for students and teachers. Teachers play a critical role in shaping the community (koinonia) of students they serve. The question is, “How?” Certainly, if teaching is to be dynamic, the teacher’s relation with the subject (the Bible, God, etc.) cannot be static. When a teacher’s own growth ceases, teaching effectiveness soon follows. Stated positively, teachers who find their subject matter personally relevant and students interesting are more likely to keep learning and help their students grow, not only in relation to the subject matter and ways of learning anything but also in relation to themselves, others, the world, and God. Additionally, students should be able to witness Christian character traits in their teacher. Traits such as love (agape), grace, honesty, fairness, trustworthiness, humility, courteousness, and others should all be evident. The presence or absence of good character will impact not only the student’s understanding of the Christian faith and life but will impact also their own experiences of that faith and life.

In the teaching and learning of the Bible, teacher and student alike are challenged to mature in understanding and faithfulness. Teaching the Bible provides opportunities to reflect critically on what the Bible says about God and human relations as well as on the history, meaning, and experience of the Christian faith and life. Such work is an essential dimension of teaching the Bible. Here, though, teachers must exercise humble care as they consider their approach and manner of addressing such questions (Jas 3:1). Will the teacher impose his or her perspectives of faith and faithfulness upon students? Or will the teacher accept that she or he is also on a journey and does not know everything about God and God’s ways? How will the teacher regard the Church’s interpretive history of biblical scriptures and essential tenets of the faith? How will the teacher address misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and falsifications? Will the study be an inquiry that produces understanding and wonder? Will it be a litmus test for acceptance? The biblical example of the hyper-religious Saul becoming Paul the apostle of grace offers a stark reminder that people who think they are the most right can often do great wrong (cf. Gal 1:12–16; Acts 7:58; Phil 3:4–7; 1 Cor 12:3). This is especially relevant for teaching the Bible if, like Paul, the teacher is claiming to advance God’s ways but is actually misrepresenting and opposing God’s way. Belief effects actions for good or harm. Thus, in teaching the Bible and enhancing Christian experience, exercising humility to encourage loving conduct is at least as important as learning what the biblical scriptures say about God (cf. Matt 22:37–40). 

Finally, humility serves teaching the Bible by prompting a growing sense of sacred wonder in God, God’s Word, and God’s World. In many ways, teaching and learning in a course have finite boundaries, but effective teaching continues to foster learning well beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Humility is important here because at the core of humility, as with effective teaching, is a sense of wonder, and wonder propels learning. A sense of wonder prompts teachers and students to consider other points of view and the unknown. For the community of faith, the primary aim of Christian educa-tion should be to cultivate a sense of wonder about God, ourselves, others, and the world God made.[xvii] Indeed, as William Brown puts it, “if there is one central testimony about God throughout the Bible, it is this: God is encountered in wonder.”[xviii] Everywhere in the scriptures we encounter expressions of faithful wonder and awe in God’s revelations, from the ancient Israelites’ earliest testimonies of his delivering hand (Exod 15:11), characterizations of his wonders by the psalmist (77:14), and declarations of his counsel and wisdom (Isa 28:29) to the crowds wondering about Jesus’ miraculous acts and the absolute wonder of God’s new creation power displayed through the risen crucified Jesus Christ. A teacher’s example and guidance in a humble wondering about God, the world, and what it means to love God and neighbor gets right to the core of the Bible itself. 

In teaching the Bible, humility plays a vital role, and teachers of the Bible would do well to exercise faithful humility in every aspect of their teaching. Whether it be in their own personal development, their ongoing study of the Bible, their relations with students and colleagues, their teaching arts, their engagements with Christian experience, or their ongoing wonder about God, humility nurtures growth and relations. Why? Because humility is other-regarding. It is helpful in critical thinking and the acquisition of knowledge. It empowers honest engagement with the texts and the contexts of the Bible that we have. It helps the interpreter to hear texts rather than impose meaning upon them and ignore any difficulties, challenges, and contradictions that exist. Humility also enables the teacher to be attentive to the Church’s interpretive traditions through the ages and to hold faith and reason together in dialogue with one another so that any interpretation of the Bible will be characterized by a spirit of humility. Perhaps most importantly, humility enables the Bible teacher to engage students as they are, to awaken their curiosity, and to help them develop their own relationship with and understanding of God.[xix]

[i] Peter Müller, Gott und die Bibel (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer GmbH, 2015), 11.

[ii] In the Gospels, only Matthew 16:18 and 18:17 use the Greek word ekklesia, assembly, which is translated as “church” throughout Acts and the epistles. Here the relation between humility and the church is explicit.

[iii] Peter Müller, Matthäus: Lesen und Deuten (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008), 62; Robert A. Bryant, The Gospel of Matthew: God With Us (Pittsburgh: Kerygma, 2006), 84–86.

[iv] Robert A. Bryant, First Corinthians: One in Christ (Pittsburgh: Kerygma, 2010), 31–44, 109–115; The Risen Crucified Christ in Galatians (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), 143-189.

[v] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 1483–1546, Vol. 23, Eds. Helmut T. Lehmann, Hilton C. Oswald, and Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1955), 295.

[vi] Ibid., 351.

[vii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), II.ii.8, 265–266.

[viii] Ibid., II.ii.11, 268–270.

[ix] Ibid., I.ii.2, 41–42.

[x] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/ 2, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958), 42.

[xi] Ibid., 43.

[xii] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1:214.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Kenneth E. Eble, The Craft of Teaching: A Guide to Mastering the Professor’s Art, 2d. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988), 9.

[xv] Sarah D. Sparks, “Why Teacher-Student Relationships Matter: New Findings Shed Light on Best Approaches,” in Education Week, Vol. 38, Issue 25, March 12, 2019.

[xvi] Richard R. Osmer, Teaching for Faith: A Guide for Teachers of Adult Classes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992). See, also, Peter Müller, Schlüssel zur Bibel: Eine Einführung in die Bibeldidaktik (Stuttgart: Calwer, 2009); Gott und die Bibel (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 2015); “Verstehst Du Auch, Was Du Liest?: Lesen und Verstehen im Neuen Testament (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1994).

[xvii] William P. Brown, Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 2.

[xviii] Ibid. See also Peter Müller, Gott und die Bibel, 11–12; 222–225.

[xix] This essay is offered with thanksgiving and in honor of Professor Doctor Peter Müller and Professor Doctor Anita Müller-Friese, who embody the art of faithful teaching in all humility, for their profound service to both the academy and the church. Their friendship and collegiality over the years have deeply enriched my life and work. I am deeply indebted, as well, to Professor Doctor Connie Colwell, who also embodies the ways of humble teaching, for her collegiality and friendship.

Robert A. Bryant
Robert A. Bryant
Robert A. Bryant, Ph.D., is the Kristen Herrington Professor of Bible at Presbyterian College, Clinton, South Carolina.


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Who Needs Confessions of Faith?

Why do we have confessions of faith? There are many reasons. Some are not so obvious. But for Protestants the first and most important reason is simple: We have confessions not because we want to say more than the Bible says. We have them because we do not want to say less.

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Suffering Redeemed: A Reformed Argument Against Physician Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia

Through the despair and agony of life’s final moments, God’s command, “Thou may live,” resounds in the mind and heart of those flirting with ending their own lives. “The suicidal person hears this command as a light piercing the darkness, not as a command that she must live but as the good news that she is permitted, enabled, to live by God’s grace.”

John Calvin on Death and Grief

It is difficult for many of us to imagine John Calvin doing something so human and vulnerable as grieving. Nor is it any easier...

“That’s The Spirit!” Or, What Exactly Does Spiritual Formation Form?

Introduction: A Working Hypothesis “That’s the spirit!” is a common rather than a Christian idiom, something you might say in order to encourage someone to...

Identifying Boundaries

What are the boundaries to Christian faith which if crossed, place a person outside of Christian faith? What is the content of Christian faith?...

John Calvin on Theatrical Trifles in Worship

Jesus Christ comes to us in a realized eschatology of invisibility. When he comes to us, he lights flames that remain invisible to us, both saints and sinners. What we should also remember is that he has rarely come to us as the Northern Lights.


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