We’re nearing the end of our blog series on the mystery of God. As we move toward our close, I want to offer a recommendation to guide our lifelong journey into the knowledge the mystery of God offers us. It is especially relevant to those of us who are pastors and teachers of theology, but is relevant to all of us.

As I have noted in previous blogs, none of us is immune from the wide variety of vices that grow like weeds in the personalities of the self-deceived. Some seem to find their own grasp of God’s truth to be so firm and complete that it is virtually indistinguishable from the revealed Word of God. Others are tempted to view theology as a competitive sport in which the most important outcome is victory over one’s opponent. Still others so tightly identify their distinctive theological outlook with their sense of self that admitting weaknesses in their position becomes a threat to their personal identity. The doctrine of one’s own personal, deeply deceitful sinfulness is often that part of our understanding of ourselves that is most difficult for the professionals” in theology to bear steadfastly in mind as they do their work. 

This difficulty is concretely expressed in at least two different ways. First, theologians often struggle – perhaps more than most other believers – with the devastating malady of theological pride, that is, with an overblown, exaggerated estimation of their own theological capabilities, insights, and positions. Should we be surprised by this? If pride, to a greater or lesser degree, manifests itself in all human personalities, it will also appear in the self-estimation of theologians and in the theology they produce. 

Pride is deeply opposed to limitations of any kind on the self, and this resistance often shows up as an insatiable thirst for completeness” in our understanding, an unwillingness to admit any significant limitations on our own theological and spiritual insight. 

Gregory of Nazianzus warns against forgetting who we are and who God is. Some of his theological opponents during the Trinitarian controversies in the fourth century thought they had God figured out. They mistakenly believed they had thoroughly plumbed the depths of the divine essence through what they considered fool-proof, fail-safe logical syllogisms. They believed they had God figured out, both his actions and even his very essence. 

Gregory believed these church leaders had irreverently overstepped their bounds. There was a haughtiness and a flippancy in their attitude toward their theological vocation, a tone of mind and heart that was, Gregory argued, more appropriate for a discussion of the chariot races or the most recent play or concert. He describes their attitude and ideas as undisciplined, frivolous, and immodest. There is a wise way and a foolish way to theologize, Gregory exhorts. Wise theologians and disciples exercise their reason reverently, thinking and writing while they are kneeling, so to speak. Reverent humility — the gracious fruit of the Holy Spirit, who is at work within us — is an indispensable disposition if we are to ponder the beauty of God with doxological integrity. Holy things,” Gregory coaches, must be approached in a holy manner.” We do well to whisper God’s mysteries under our breath” rather than trumpet our knowledge from the housetops. 

These are wise words not just for ancient theologians but for any forgiven human being who regularly stands in public in order to proclaim the truth of God. Not many of you should become teachers” the apostle James warns, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Scripture gives us no indication whatsoever that we will always be able to answer with confidence every question we wish to ask, or every question we are asked by others. Proud, unbridled reason, Gregory says, is much like a wild, untrained stallion that refuses to submit to the bridle in its mouth — and that therefore cannot go where it is intended to go. Empty, hollow, and brittle speech about God must be rinsed out of our theological and spiritual vocabulary, Gregory believes, to be replaced by a more quietly humble, more wholesomely discerning theology. 

Next week we’ll explore the second difficulty particular to theologians in understanding themselves and their sin. See you then!

This series has been adapted from Steven D. Boyer and Chris Hall’s The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable. Hungry for more? Please visit Baker Academic for more information.

· Last Featured on Renovare.org July 2021