Randy Harris on the Importance of Epistemological Humility

Disagreement with me is not necessarily disagreement with God. If we are not humble about what we know, we are unteachable…For example, I’ve changed my mind on Romans 7. Once I was absolutely convinced that Paul was talking about his post Christian experiences….As I kept reading Romans 7, I became absolutely convinced that I had it wrong. Now, I think Paul is talking about his experience of trying to be righteous under the law, experiencing a transformation of the gracious call of Jesus Christ, empowered in a way he never was when living under the law. I had been wrong. There have been other cases like this, with even more critical doctrinal issues at stake. but if we aren’t a little humble about what we currently believe then we are unable to have open conversations and find it extraordinarily difficult to learn anything new. – Randy Harris in God Work – Confessions of a Standup Theologian, 15-16

I would say Randy is wise beyond his years but he is getting older. I saw him at Gulfcoast Getaway in January. He was dressed in black, as always, so I asked him if the event coordinators couldn’t at least replace the red cord on his ID badge with a black one. Harris is an exceptional speaker and is extremely gifted in connecting with college students. I think that is true because he is not afraid to be honest. He is not afraid to be honest because he is not looking to prove himself right. He is looking for truth. Young people today respect that. He personally exhibits this characteristic of epistemological humility that he describes so well in this quote.

I highlight this quote because more and more of our churches need to be in tune with this principle. Let me put it bluntly. Churches that don’t will decline sharply within one generation and will likely not exist in any recognizable form within two. For so many years some within our fellowship have tried to corner the market on truth, proving ourselves right and everyone else wrong. In order to do so some avoided, neglected, proof texted, or shouted away areas of weakness. We believe scripture contains the truth as God has decided to reveal it to us and yet we do have honest differences in interpretation, not just between different Christians but even within our own views as we grow and mature over time.

God never intended the world to put up with or open up to his people when they were proud, disingenuous, and uncaring. He didn’t intend that because when we act that way we cannot accurately reflect the living and loving God we serve to a world that is all too familiar with death and hatred. But if we are willing to recognize our weaknesses the world will see that we are finally ready to have a discussion where we treat them with love, respect, and dignity. When that happens, expect to see the church engaging the world at its very best and expect to see some of those in the world respond in a way they never would when they knew we were not ready to humbly acknowledge our shortcomings.

0 Responses to Randy Harris on the Importance of Epistemological Humility

  1. Well said, Matt! I would add that our lack of humility in our discussions with others doesn’t bode well for the nature of our relationship with God, either! Forget for a moment the possibility of error, or the certainty of our snobbery making the church distasteful to others. The God I read about in the Bible doesn’t seem to be the sort that suffers fools who act like they have it all together! Arrogance provokes God!

    • mattdabbs says:

      I think the apostle John would back you up on that one.

      • I feel certain (but correctable!) that he would, especially after teaching on John 10 last night. Really, the end of John 9: “Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” That’s just blistering.

  2. Tim Archer says:

    I very much agree.

    At the risk of sliding into vanity (now there’s a slippery slope!), I’ll post a link to something I wrote last week:
    “What we think we know that we believe” http://www.timothyarcher.com/kitchen/?p=3001

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

    • mattdabbs says:

      That was a great post. I don’t think bloglines is catching your posts. Somehow I didn’t see that one. I will check into it, maybe my RSS feed is old for your blog.

  3. So true . . .

    Just to add a quick thought. I am becoming much closer to being convinced and convicted that congregations who are growing organically or naturally (i.e not through free agent christianity) are not doing so becaue of a particular style of worship, evangelistic strategy or even doctrinal preference. The congregations that are leading people to Christ are doing so because they simply and only preach Jesus Christ crucified, they realize that they are as sinful as anyone in the world and they don’t presume to have cornered the market on religious enlightenment.

    • Hank says:

      Hi Jeremy,

      I am not sure of what you mean when you say “doctrinal preference”?

      • By doctrinal preference I meant, does the Church teach that baptism comes before or after salvation, is musical instruments ok, day of the week we assemble for communion, things like that.

        My point was that, congregations are not successfully and consistently bringing people to Christ because they have taught one thing or another. My opinion is that unchurched people don’t come searching with a preference or understanding of these issues.

        Hope that makes more sense.

        Jeremy

  4. jamesbrett says:

    i’m not trying to stir things up just for the sake of it, but am genuinely interested…

    i agree that we should practice humility. as individuals and as churches. and i certainly agree that we should remain ever teachable.

    but when do we stand for what we know to be right, and do so firmly? or do we ever? and can we do so humbly? what does that look like?

    Jesus’ correcting others wasn’t always pleasant; it would have often been considered rude — though i can say that he did so humbly. is it fair to say that Christ was “teachable?”

    • mattdabbs says:

      James,

      I am working on a followup post to this to address that very issue. But I will go ahead and lay my cards on the table. Admitting we have weaknesses and shortcomings does not mean we don’t have truth. People get so worried that if one thing is out of place then nothing will hold up. That is too extreme and not true.

      For instance, you and I probably agree on many, many things but not on everything. That means both of us are wrong on something where the other is right on that issue. On some issues we are both wrong and just don’t know it, where the answer to the issue is a third, true, option that neither of us have considered or else we considered it and wrongly rejected it.

      Having a wrong view of this or that does not mean all is lost. It does not disqualify us from having something to say regarding our faith, scripture, etc. In fact, I think it makes what we have to say stronger because it shows we are seeking truth and are willing to come clean on areas that are problematic instead of trying to cover things up that are shaky.

      This whole discussion makes us more credible, not less.

  5. jamesbrett says:

    matt, i’m with you completely on all that. i’m not personally worried at all that it’s all going to fall apart if i’m wrong on a few (or several) things.

    i’m more wanting to look at how, in modern culture (in the u.s., not tanzania), even to suggest there exists a single truth, regardless of whether or not i know it, is seen as arrogance. i suppose my questions have more to do with supposed or perceived arrogance and humility than actual arrogance and humility — if that makes any sense.

    because you and i, and randy harris, etc… we go into this assuming / believing there to be truth. and we practice humility and remain teachable by always pursuing that truth, remaining open to new ideas, and never forcing what we’ve found on others. but our humility in that situation is based on the presupposed existence of truth. what does that look like when any search for objective truth is seen as arrogance?

    i think i’m having trouble putting my thoughts into words. it’s late here. i may try again when i get up in the morning… but by then, you guys will probably have it all figured out for me. and i’ll just drink coffee and read the brilliance.

    • Hank says:

      Hi James,

      I feel ya bro. I was in a Bible class recently wherein the teacher made a quick reference to premillenialism (and said that we would cover it more as the class got going), but did not say whether or not he believed in it. After class, I asked him of his position and he said he would never tell me or the class because the subject is too divisive.

      I told him that I am very interested to see how he will go about teaching the class (and discussing amillenialism, premillenialism, etc), without ever letting the class know whatever it is he believes is true.

      While it may be one thing to not have a conviction one way or another, I just don’t understand the wisdom, neccessity, and/or possibility of refusing to say what one actually believes? Especially, if / when you are the one who is supposed to be teaching the class.

      My concern is that more and more Christians are less and less willing to stand up and say “There is such a thing as truth (on whatever Biblical subject), this is what I believe is the truth, and therefore, I believe (perhaps even KNOW in some cases?) that everything else is false.”

      Of course, I am not suggesting that there are not scores and scores of Biblical questions of which one might not be convinced of the truth. But, I just don’t get why one would ever say that they have a conviction…but that they will not ever say what it is. So as to not “offend” another. That just doesn’t seem right to me…nor a sign of humility.

      I am NOT saying that that is what anyone here is suggesting. But, I do believe that more should be more assertive in terms of standing up for whatever it is they believe to be true.

      I don’t consider such to be arrogance….simply conviction and loyalty.

      • jamesbrett says:

        i, personally, will not remain “humble” to the point that i allow to go unchallenged the idea that truth does not exist. not at all that this is what matt is suggesting. but it is a natural outflow of that discussion. because it is viewed by many that seeking a truth is arrogant. now, i also will challenge that idea in as polite a way as possible.

        but as far as discussions concerning which of these ideas is the one that is true, i’m happy to give my opinion and belief and state why — and then listen. because i want to know what is true and right, and am not so arrogant to think that i already do.

        more often, though, here in tanzania, i’m simply asked what is right. what is the truth about this idea? i don’t give answers. i give bible verses, asking them to get back with me the next day so we can discuss it. and then they tell me what it is they discovered from the text. having the right answers (when we do) often stands in the way of others grabbing hold of something they can believe in. it also often stands in the way of others studying their bibles. so my tanzanian friends would say that either i’m very humble in my knowledge of the bible, or (more likely) that i don’t know any answers about anything — but always can find the right verses. i prefer that. i want to try always to ask two questions: first, what do you think? and more importantly, but always second (in order to make a point), what does the bible say?

      • I agree with Brett on his comments. I live and work in an area where everyone has been told what they should believe without ever being taught why. Or better yet, taught how to find out why. So now we have two generations of people who can quote doctrine but don’t know God or the Bible.

        So, I hardly ever answer questions directly – or give my opinion on opinion issues. I just try to teach the Bible and teach people how to study and think for themselves.

        Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

  6. WesWoodell says:

    So I guess he wouldn’t be offended if I said he were wrong?

  7. WesWoodell says:

    Jokes aren’t funny if you have to explain them :p

  8. K. Rex Butts says:

    Matt, I wish there were more people like you who thought like. I think you offer in your blog a fine example of how to be humble and yet stand for what you believe in. You state with passion what you believe in with coherency yet you are also willing to recognize that you don’t know it all…a lesson for all to learn.

    —–

    I find it interesting that in all of the Jew-Gentile issues (circumcision, feast days, Sabbath-keeping, dietary issues, and so on) that the only issue I am aware of that Paul was willing to lay out a specific solution on was that of circumcision. The rest of the issues, to my knowledge (someone correct me if I’m wrong), Paul refused to settle the issue with specific instructions and instead told the strong how to deal with the weak.

    If I am correct, there is a principle here. Why was Paul wiling to settle the circumcision issue in Galatians with specifics but not the other issues? Because circumcision was the one issue (the way it was being enforced on Gentile Christians) that threatened the very core and integrity of the Gospel – faith in Jesus rather than in Torah (read N. T. Wright). The principle is that Paul is willing to stand up passionately and boisterously for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But there are other issues that may be very important at some level but do not affect the integrity of the gospel and for those issues, Paul seemed much more reserved.

    For me, and this has taken some development of wisdom, I have decided that I will stand up for the Gospel when I perceive that an issue is threatening the integrity of the Gospel. I refuse to sacrifice the integrity of the Gospel for the sake of peace and harmoney, getting along, etc… There is not one church I have served with where I shared the same views as some others on a variety of issues ranging from the Christians relationship to government/military power, millenialism (a-, pre, post), Christian worship (IM vs. A Capella), the role of women in the assembly, etc… I have my views and they have theirs and for the most part I think could defend mine better because of my academic training. But that doesn’t matter because at the time, none of the differences we shared on those issues posed any threat to the integrity of the Gospel.

    There is only one issue in a church for which I stood my ground and that was some blatent racism and mistreatment of the homeless in the church’s neighborhood. I stood up against this racism and mistreatment of the homeless because I believed the treatment they were receiving essentially said that poor, non-caucasion people are not loved by God and embraced by the gospel the way middle-class white people are – which is a threat to the integrity of the gospel.

    I hope that helps shed some light on when to stand up for what we believe and when to excercise some humble restraint. I may change my mind on when a Christian should stand up or not but then again, I could be wrong :-).

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

    • Hank says:

      I believe that Paul settleled the issues of feast days, Sabbath-keeping, dietary issues, etc. just as clearly and firmly as he did with circumcision. Rex, you wrote (concerning Sabath keeping, dietary issues, feast days, etc.), “The rest of the issues, to my knowledge (someone correct me if I’m wrong), Paul refused to settle the issue with specific instructions and instead told the strong how to deal with the weak.”

      But, I disagree. Paul did settled the issue and he did so with “specific instructions.”

      As far as with us today, I don’t believe it is up to our discretion to pick and choose to put our feet down, stand up for, and defend, whatever issues we believe to be threatening to the “core of the gospel.”

      Rather, I believe that ANYTHING the Bible teaches as truth…ought to be defended. Be it the teaching of the role of women or whatever.

      Having said that, there are many issue over which we may disagree, but that does not mean that there is no truth on the matter. It only means that (at least) one of us is wrong.

      • K. Rex Butts says:

        Where did Paul tell the Jewish Christians they had to cease observing the Jewish dietary laws and feast days? Where did Paul tell the Gentile Christians they had to observe the Jewish practices?

        The point of Matt’s original post (I believe) and the point I want to make is that not every issue, belief needs to be defended because we may be the one who is wrong. A little humility…everything the Bible teaches is true but neither you nor I nor anyone else understands perfectly everything the Bible teaches. Therefore, wisdom would teach us to recognize the difference between what we are sure of and what we are not, what is essential to the itegrity of the gospel and what we can let slide.

        Remember…one can fight every battle and lose the bigger war or one can wisely decide which battles to fight and fight only the important ones.

        Grace and peace,

        Rex

  9. Hank says:

    Take the issue of instrumental music for example. To worship God with the use of the is one of two things, either it is 1) sinful according to God, or 2) not sinful according to God.

    It is an “either/or” proposition wherein the law of excluded middle certainly applies.

    While one may choose to keep his beliefs on the matter to himself, it does not make the fact that worshiping with IM is still either sinful or not sinful.

    Furthermore, if/when one is undecided on the matter, it does not change the fact that worshipping with IM is either sinful or not sinful…it only means that that particular individual does not know.

    If one believes it is (or might be) sinful, to go ahead and embrace and/or accept the use of them anyways (for the sake of unity), simply means that he is willing to embrace and/or accept a sinful practice.

    Does that make sense?

    • I’m not sure that I agree. Is everything either/or?

      • mattdabbs says:

        If it comes down to what God thinks about something…which is what is most important…God certainly only believes one thing about any given issue or doctrinal point. I am sure we care about some of them more than he does but I couldn’t say logically that God believes opposing views on the same issue.

        The problem is, God doesn’t always make it clear what he believes on a given issue. Some people claim to know what God thinks on everything. That can be arrogant.

        But I do expect that we should try reading his word in order to understand to our best what God believes about various issues as we seek to please him and keep our views in line with his. So I would say things are an either or when it comes to issues that have two diametrically opposed answers, unless there is a third possibility we just aren’t smart enough to figure out or don’t have enough revealed to us in scripture to have ever even been aware of it (which is a third possibility that we rarely consider). Rambling here…

  10. Hank says:

    Rex, you asked:

    “Where did Paul tell the Jewish Christians they had to cease observing the Jewish dietary laws and feast days? Where did Paul tell the Gentile Christians they had to observe the Jewish practices?”

    He did not write either thing. However, he addressed the issues (special days and diets), specifically by explaining that it would not be sinful to observe them nor would it be it sinful to ignore them.

    I just don’t agree that it is our place to determine that certain truths taught within the Bible are “not as imporatnt” as certain others and that we can therefore not defend them and just “let them slide.”

    Because if we take the position that certain teachings of the Bible are not worthy of defending nor contending for…who gets to decide and where would it end?

    You brought up the subject of the role of women and seem to suggest that it is neither here nor there in relation to the “core of the gospel.” But let’s suppose some brethren want to support a woman for the role of a pastor. Now (and again), it is an either/or proposition — either God considers it to be something sinful, OR God does not consider it to be something sinful.

    But for anyone to simply dismiss the entire issue as merely unessential to the core of the gospel is rather presumptuous.

    If a person (or church) is convined that instrumental music and female pastors are acceptable to God…then they can go ahead and have them.

    But, if another person (or church) is convinced that such are unacceptable and therefore sinful…. they should never support the use of either. Nor should they be encouraged to.

    At the church I work with, there are certain things which make me uncomfortable because I am not quite sure of what the actual truth from God on the matters actually are. But ANTHING which I believe and/or even KNOW to be true, those I will ALWAYS stand up for.

    I mean, I just don’t believe that God wants me to label any of his truths as “unimportant” and that I should let any untruths (or lies, or sin, etc.) slide on in.

    Because God wants us all to diligently avoid every false and/or sinful teaching and practice. Doesn’t he?

    • K. Rex Butts says:

      Hank,

      Then go ahead and speak up, point out, correct, rebuke, etc…everytime you hear or observe someone entertaining a view you disagree with but I think you will lose the bigger battle in the process.

      Grace and peace,

      Rex

  11. mattdabbs says:

    We should always try to stand up for the truth when we know something to be true.

    Problem – There are some issues that we have changed our minds on. In other words, we were absolutely sure of one thing. Then we changed our minds and now think the exact opposite with exactly the same certainty as we had when at first.

    Problem – There are some issues that we currently have wrong but are convinced we are right. We may figure out our error or we may not. No one dies with every single right view on every single issue. Said another way, no one shares God’s view on every single question and issue at any point in their lifetime.

    So every single one of us is wrong, right now, about multiple things. Because that is the case, we do have to be graceful about the conflicts between our understanding of things and those we disagree with on the items that are non-essentials. The question then is, where do you draw the line between essentials and non-essentials. Salvation issues and non-salvation issues? People disagree on that as well. People even disagree on which issues scripture says is a salvation and which it doesn’t seem to hold to that standard.

    Now we have another big can of worms opened up!

  12. Hank says:

    True story…

    My father in law goes to a church for 5 months out of the year down in Mexico. He believes and tells my wife and I about how great and loving it is based upon how the members are representatives from virtually every known denomination from the US and Canada.

    When I asked him about what they actually teach concerning this or that ….he told me, “They don’t teach any doctrines at all.”

    Problem — The word “doctrine” simply means teaching.

    It just seems to me now a days that the less a church insists upon actually teaching things…the more inviting and appealing and comfortable it will be to others.

    But, that can’t be good.

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