Edmond La B. Cherbonnier

In Dictionary of the Bible, ed. by James Hastings, rev. ed. by Frederick C. Grant and H. H. Rowley (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963)

    To the modern ear, the term ‘humility’ is apt to suggest self-effacement, the depreciation of oneself. This connotation has more in common with the thought of ancient Greece and Rome than with the Bible. The pagan world, despite its vaunted humanism, regarded the very conditions of finite existence as a stigma. From Homer to Marcus Aurelius, it was haunted by the refrain, ‘Better never to have been born.’ Humility therefore consisted in the acknowledgment of the wretchedness of the human condition. When the Delphic Oracle enjoins, ‘ Know thyself,’ it does not mean, as popular interpretation would have it, ‘Engage in critical introspection’; it means, ‘Understand your insignificance as a human being.’ The person who foolishly imagines himself to be of any ultimate importance becomes, like the hero of tragic drama, the unwitting agent of his own downfall.

    In the Bible, too, ‘the pride of men shall be humbled’ (Is 211), but the sense is quite different. Metaphysically considered, man is, as the pagan confessed, mere dust of the ground (Gn 319, Is 406f). On the Hebraic view, however, the value of a thing did not derive from its constituent elements, but from the will of God. A thing or person had value if it found favour in the eyes of the Lord. Whether or not human existence was a blessing or a curse depended entirely upon God's attitude towards the human race. St. John’s answer to this question speaks for the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life’ (Jn 316).

    Thanks to the unaccountable fact of God's favourable disposition towards mankind, human existence has value without limit. In the classic OT expression, man was made in the image of God (Gn 126 96). This exaltation of the human status reaches its climax in the NT, which declares that the character of God Himself can be fully known only in a particular human life. Small wonder that Jew and Christian appeared to the educated pagan as anything but humble! To him, the prophetic exhortation to ‘walk humbly with your God’ (Mic 68) would be a contradiction in terms. The idea of walking with God at all would seem presumptuous in the extreme.

    Within the Biblical frame of reference, humility is not primarily an attitude towards oneself at all, but towards God and towards other persons. Briefly, it means the willingness to let God be God; that is, to acknowledge one's dependence upon His creative power; to rejoice in gratitude for His blessings; to adopt the ways of the Lord as one's own; to accept in contrition the judgment of God when one falls short; to trust His power and willingness to forgive and to redeem. The ‘broken spirit’ (Ps 5117) commended by the psalmist makes no claim upon God, but acknowledges Him alone as the final arbiter of good and evil. When Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they usurped this prerogative (Gn 217 35). From the Biblical point of view, the pagan devaluation of human life is not humble at all, but arrogant. It presumes to contradict God's declaration that His creation is ‘very good’ (Gn 131).

    In relations between persons, humility is again not primarily an attitude towards oneself, but towards others. By no means is it a synonym for selflessness (a word which does not occur in the Bible) or for a divinely sanctioned inferiority complex. Far in advance of Friedrich Nietzsche, the prophets knew that an attitude of ‘lowlier than thou’ is but a covert form of ‘holier than thou.’ Biblical humility entails the recognition of others as invited guests at the Lords own banquet table. The result is a regard for the will, the purposes, the feelings of others for which the pagan had no rationale. Since, according to him, his fellow men were of so little consequence, he had no compunction about ‘lording it over them’ (Mt 2025) wherever possible. By contrast, when Christ ‘humbled himself’ (Ph 28), He used His power, not to domineer, but to serve. There is no suggestion of an appeasing or grovelling mentality.

    Because Biblical humility is not negative but positive, it can lead a man to do what the pagan could only regard as folly: ‘to lay down his life for his friends’ Jn 1513).

    The early Christian apologist, alert to discover points of contact with his prospective converts, fancied the virtue of humility, celebrated alike in Biblical and pagan thought, ideally suited to his purpose. St Augustine, for example, argues that while all agree on the need for humility, Christianity enables men to achieve what the pagans can only preach. Overlooking, in his missionary zeal, the disparity between Biblical and pagan meanings of the same word, he himself tended to slip into the pagan usage. The best known illustration is his ascribing to citizens of the heavenly city a ‘love of God to the contempt of self. Considering the great weight of St Augustine's authority, it should hardly be surprising if subsequent thought occasionally reflected his position, and forgot, as a modern Biblical scholar has said, that the greatest sin of man is to forget that he is, by the grace of God, a prince.