[Common Places] New Voices for Theology: Stephen T. Pardue’s "The Mind of Christ"
May the mind of Christ my Savior
Live in me from day to day,
By his love and pow’r controlling
All I do and say.
So many of us have sung—but can this be a realistic and appropriate prayer for the Christian “theologian,” broadly defined?
Two potential problems confront us. (1) Is this prayer consistent with the biblical and contemporary emphases upon virtue? Virtues are habitual dispositions expressed in characteristic patterns of godly action: But does the prayer emphasize unilateral divine action so strongly that human virtue is precluded or uninteresting? (2) Does this prayer particularize the Christian intellectual life too exclusively in terms of participation in Jesus Christ? Intellectual virtues treat epistemology in moral terms: But does praying for such virtues—assuming it is appropriate to do so—emphasize spiritual dimensions of Christian intellectual life so strongly that civic and academic discourses are precluded or uninteresting?
These two potential problems indicate larger theological concerns. For one: Does recent emphasis upon the church as a community of virtue-promoting practices—stemming from Stanley Hauerwas and numerous others—clash with proper emphasis on gracious divine action (as the likes of John Webster suggest)? For another: Does recent emphasis upon intellectual virtues—stemming from “virtue epistemology” in general and Stephen Fowl (among others) in the realm of theological hermeneutics—clash with proper emphasis on public truth and cognitive skills?
In response, Stephen T. Pardue’s The Mind of Christ: Humility and the Intellect in Early Christian Theology (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, 2013), addresses an especially important test case for intellectual and spiritual virtue: humility. When endorsing the book, I wrote that Pardue’s account “is scripturally faithful, theologically profound, and spiritually nourishing. He treats this virtue in ways that honor both intellectual and ethical concerns. The book is clearly and beautifully written. Above all, it directs our focus consistently toward God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ—toward that which ultimately defines our human dignity.”
To flesh out these claims a bit: Pardue introduces his study in terms of the turn to virtue in contemporary theology and philosophy. Humility, the “forgotten virtue,” is a particularly interesting case since it has not always been seen as virtuous. Whereas Christians have seen humility as a form of excellence, much pagan thought has rejected it. Yet, if we define humility as Pardue does (following in the footsteps of Robert Roberts and my colleague Jay Wood), then it does not leave us powerless to pursue truth. To the contrary, humility involves low concern for self-importance, focusing instead on intrinsic intellectual and moral concerns. Such humility does not mean unhealthy self-denial or passivity, but actually promotes truth-conducive initiative.
Pardue proceeds from introductory matters of definition to explore how Christian construals of humility emerge from Scripture. A number of biblical texts and portraits—from Moses through the Isaianic Servant to the Pauline Christ-hymn—suggest that humility should be prized for its intellectual benefits. Humility is ennobling rather than disempowering, since it helps us to know the truth by giving us courage and hope in the grace of God.
From Scripture, Pardue next proceeds to explore Gregory of Nyssa as a representative of the Christian tradition regarding humility. The result is an account that fosters stimulating conversation between biblical texts and the dogmatic tradition without hidebound servitude to one or the other. The engagement is mutual, allowing each to be constructively critical regarding apparent constructs from the other. Of course Scripture is the final authority over epistemology along with everything else, but the tradition helps us to discover its counter-cultural insight concerning humility.
Philippians 2:5–11, and Incarnational Christology in general, became especially vital for Christian accounts of humility. Yet appeals to the Incarnation create interesting tensions with feminist and other appraisals of kenōsis. Whereas today kenotic Christologies seem appealing to many because of their accent upon Jesus’ full humanity, they seem disempowering to others: They could readily promote imitation of a gentle Jesus, meek and mild enough to leave female and other marginalized imitators even more powerless. Pardue therefore tries to show that an Augustinian account of divine condescension in the Incarnation can render proper humility empowering rather than debilitating. On the one hand, the Incarnation matters because God himself condescends to become like a slave in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, the Incarnation matters because God’s condescension in Christ is singularly redemptive. Any imitation of that Incarnation on our part is a grateful but strictly unnecessary response to redemption. Any such imitation is only appropriate when offered as a gift from a redeemed state of true freedom.
Finally, though, the Augustinian allergy to the vice of “curiosity” raises another question: Might Christian humility be intellectually disabling by telling Christians to keep hands off of certain topics or ways of pursuing knowledge? Is not the modern academy defined by curious pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake (and technological side benefits that result!)? To the contrary, Pardue argues, Christian humility encourages us not to resign ourselves to post-Kantian apophaticism but to embrace the genuinely Christian kind. The post-Kantian version tries to define the limits of reason on reason’s own terms—and becomes self-defeating as a result. The Christian version discerns the limits of reason in the otherwise blinding but ultimately illuminating light of divine revelation. Proper human limits and dependence upon divine grace can, again, be ennobling: Christian freedom encourages us to explore the reality held together by Christ the Logos and divinely loved in him.
There have surely been pathological critiques of curiosity and accounts of humility in the Christian tradition—but not pervasively so. Instead, the Christian tradition’s reflection upon the Scriptures, and the Christ of whom they bear witness, can empower us to seek knowledge of all the genuine truth that is good for us. That tradition can also empower us to resist some of the dangers and dichotomies that accompany modern assumptions about intellectual life.
Daniel J. Treier (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Blanchard Professor of Theology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is author or editor of several books, including Virtue and the Voice of God and Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture.
Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.
New Voices for Theology seeks to introduce reader-theologians to new publications worthy of their attention. In each post, a senior scholar (often a doctoral supervisor) commends the work of a junior scholar, explaining not only the nature and shape of the work’s argument but also the potential implications for the task of doing theology today.
Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors
Sign up complete.