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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Humility

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HUMILITY.—This virtue or grace distinguished the leaders of OT history like Abraham and Moses (Genesis 18:27, Numbers 12:3), and was inculcated by the prophets as a chief duty (Micah 6:8). It belongs even to the earlier revelation of God’s character (‘that humbleth himself,’ Psalms 113:6), and is the key to man’s communion with Him (Isaiah 57:15). In Judaism and the Rabbinical literature we meet with a variety of examples and maxims enforcing the truth that ‘God is the highest type of humility.’ These anticipations prepare us for the new and enlarged conception of humility which rills the NT, and was embodied in the teaching, example, and character of Jesus Christ. The moral quality of our Saviour’s personality lies here (Matthew 11:29), and on this foundation of astonishing humility, exemplified on the cross, St. Paul bases his great ethical appeal (Philippians 2:5 ff.). It may be claimed that the gospel alone has popularized humility, but the temper of Christ’s disciples in every age proves that it is an excellence of rare and difficult attainment.

i. Use and meaning of the word.—The noun (ταπεινοφροσύνη, Heb. עַנִוָה, Vulgate humilitas, Germ. Demut) does not occur till it is employed commonly in the NT (Lightfoot on Philippians 2:3); it is ‘a birth of the Gospel’ (Trench, Syn. of the NT, § 42). In contrast to the low and servile sense attaching to it in classical writings, humility in the LXX Septuagint, Apocr. [Note: Apocrypha, Apocryphal.] , and NT becomes the designation ‘of the noblest and most necessary of all virtues’ (Cremer’s Lex.). It rests on a lowly and unpretending view of one’s self, and is opposed to the workings of the ambitious spirit (μεγαλοφροσύνη, ὑψηλοφροσύνη). The term refers mainly to inward character, and sometimes to outward condition. Of humility as the animating principle of Christian character, Jesus Himself was the great example, being ‘lowly in heart’ (Matthew 11:29), not merely in appearance like the professional religious leaders of the time. Pharisaism is the deadly enemy of humility or the religion of healthy-mindedness. The moral temper that inspired Christ’s life and service is echoed by St. Paul, when he singles out the motive that prompted his labours (‘serving the Lord with all lowliness of mind,’ Acts 20:19). Elsewhere humility is enjoined, along with kindred graces, as the means of averting unholy disputes and of promoting co-operation in the Church and among the members of the Christian society (Matthew 18:4; Matthew 23:12, Ephesians 4:2, Philippians 2:3, Colossians 3:12). An exceptional use of the term occurs in Colossians 2:18; Colossians 2:23, where the Apostle guards his readers against the counterfeit of this virtue (‘a voluntary humility’). In some instances the humble are viewed in the light of their earthly condition, which God may wonderfully raise and alter (Luke 1:52), and which, notwithstanding its indignities and trials, should be borne submissively and cheerfully (James 1:9). This class of sufferers corresponds to the afflicted and meek of the OT (עָנִי, עִנִו), and would he numerous among the peasantry or fellahîn of an oppressed and lawless country (Hatch, Essays in Biblical Greek, s.v.). The ‘poor in spirit’ spoken of in the first of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3, cf. Luke 6:20) are probably best understood as placed in such circumstances. In agreement with this, Ritschl (op. cit. infra) defines ταπεινοφροσύνη as ‘that temper inclining to the service of God which accepts resignedly an oppressed and wretched condition.’ The term, therefore, as one of deep import, is freshly coined in the NT.

ii. Contrast between Greek and Christian Ethics.—The rise of this grace creates an epoch. ‘Humility is a vice with heathen moralists, but a virtue with Christian apostles’ (Lightfoot on Colossians 2:18). In particular, it marks the opposition to the Greek idea of ‘high-mindedness’ (art. ‘Ethics,’ by H. Sidgwick in Ency. Brit.9 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ), and the advance in ethical sentiment and the standard of judgment due to Christianity. A presentiment of the Christian virtue may be met with in Greek writers (see examples in Neander’s Church History, vol. i. p. 26 [English translation], and in Trench, NT Syn.), but their use of ταπεινός in any noble sense is rare. The Greeks undoubtedly had their distinguishing qualities, but this was not one of them.

Cf. interesting note of conversation in Morley’s Life of Gladstone, iii. p. 466. ‘Mr. G.—I admit there is no Greek word of good credit for the virtue of humility. J. M.—τατεινοτης? But that has an association of meanness. Mr. G.—Yes; a shabby sort of humility. Humility as a sovereign grace is the creation of Christianity.’

Greek Ethics, as expressed and systematized by Aristotle, the ancient master of moral analysis and definition, fostered pride, the genius of later Stoicism, and regarded the humble as contemptible, mean-spirited, and without force or aspiration. Aristotle’s picture of the ‘great-souled’ man and his exaggerated sense of self-importance have a certain air of loftiness (μεγαλοψυχία), but fall below the standard which obliges the Christian to recognize his duty to others, and to treat with consideration those who are intellectually and socially inferior. The conception of humility, therefore, as it controls the Christian, lies outside the system of Aristotle (see Nic. Ethiopic bk. iv. ch. 3 [Sir A. Grant’s ed. vol. ii. pp. 72–78]). This difference between Greek and Christian ideas of greatness and humility is fundamental, and the change was brought about by Christ’s revelation of the character of God. Of Aristotle’s great-souled man it is said—‘his movements are slow, his voice is deep, and his diction stately’ (Grant, vol. ii. p. 77, note). This measured efflorescence of pride reappears in Christ’s portraiture of the Pharisee in the temple; but the Publican, the opposite and acceptable type, shows how influential, in Christian experience, is the thought of God, and how closely connected are humility, prayer, and confession of sin. In accordance with Augustine’s well-known saying (quoted by Calvin, Institutio, bk. ii. ch. 2), humility comes first, second, third, and always, among the precepts of the Christian religion, and it marks the cleavage between Greek and Christian ideals. The magnificent figure drawn by the Greek philosopher disappears, and, instead, Christ presents the image of the little child (Matthew 18:2).

iii. Our Lord’s example and teaching

1. The great saying which goes to the root of the matter—‘I am meek and lowly in heart’ (Matthew 11:29), has been variously interpreted (see art. by Herrmann, mentioned below), and even called in question as authentic. Martinean asks—‘What meek and lowly soul was ever known to set itself forth as such and commend its own humility as the model for others?’ and adds, ‘did a Saviour bear such testimony of himself, his testimony would not be true’ (Seat of Authority in Religion2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 583). But the mode of speaking Christ adopted and the claim He put forward would not really seem incongruous in a ‘Teacher of Israel’ (Bruce, Expos. Gr. Test. note ad loc.); and, besides, the objection reads a false tone into the original utterance, and ignores the special nature of Christ’s consciousness. Our Lord was more than a ‘meek and lowly soul,’ and had reason for presenting Himself as a model and a winning type to humanity. His humility clothed and concealed His essential dignity, and in speaking as He did He was conscious at the same time of standing in a unique relation to God (Matthew 11:27, cf. John 13:3). Indeed, the union on Christ’s part of ‘unbounded personal pretensions’ with an unconscious humility that regarded His importance to the world as ‘an objective fact with which his own opinion of himself had nothing to do’ (Ecce Homo, ch. 15) is undeniable, and reminds us that majesty and meekness were the two poles of His mysterious yet harmonious character. Christ’s humility, however, does not rest on a phrase, but was carried out in the lowly setting of His earthly life. His cradle in the manger at Bethlehem and His subjection in the home at Nazareth, His quiet entrance, at the hands of the Baptist, on public life, His restraint in the use of His supernatural powers, and His dislike of consequent honour and fame, His frequent periods of retirement, His choice of followers and friends, His sympathies with little children and humble suppliants (Mark 10:13-16; Mark 7:24-30), His appreciation of the smallest offering and the simplest service (Luke 21:1-4, Matthew 10:42), and, finally, His submission to the experiences concentrated in the week of His Passion and Crucifixion, all attest the consistency of His character as One who was ‘meek and lowly in heart,’ and who, at every step of His career, plainly and profoundly ‘humbled himself’ (Philippians 2:8).

2. Passing from Christ’s example, the main lines of His teaching are two

(1) Humility in relation to God, or the Law of Grace.—We are introduced here to the most powerful among the motives to humility, and to a relation deeper than any that influences us in the society of our fellow-men. In Wendt’s language—‘Humility is the conscious lowliness we feel before God in view of His superabundant love and holy majesty, and in contrast to our own unworthiness, guilt, and entire dependence on His grace’ (The Teaching of Jesus, vol. i. p. 341, note [English translation]). We cannot therefore exaggerate our worth or assert our claims before God: the part we play is that of ‘unprofitable servants’ who, after all their performances, should be filled neither with the sense of merit nor the spirit of boasting (Luke 17:10). In the parable, which is a gem of teaching on this point, Jesus enforces on us the duty of humility towards God, the need of genuine self-abasement and confession of sin, as we see and feel our unworthiness in the Divine presence (Luke 18:9-14). He represents God as turning away from the shallow and sounding words of the Pharisee, but giving His mercy freely to the penitent publican who could not look up. For, as a fine Jewish saying puts it, ‘While God despises what is broken among the animals, He loves in man a broken heart.’ This is a fundamental law of the Kingdom of heaven and the indispensable condition of grace: ‘for every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled, but he that humbleth himself shall be exalted’ (cf. Proverbs 3:34; 1 Peter 5:5).

Prof. Dowden, in writing of Milton’s view of the intercourse between God and the soul, remarks—‘There are two humilities—that which bows and that which soars, the humility of a servant who looks down, the humility of a son who gazes up. Milton’s humility invigorates itself in the effort to ascend. He would not prostrate himself in the presence of material symbols, but would enter as a glad child into the courts of heaven’ (Puritan and Anglican, p. 167). This is the humility that Christ welcomes, and that makes religion not stiff and heavy with ceremonial, but simple, reverent, glad, and pleasing to God. On no other terms is grace given or fellowship with God possible. ‘Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in nowise enter therein’ (Luke 18:17).

(2) Humility in relation to men, or the Law of Service.—While it is true that humility ‘is not primarily concerned with our relation to other men, but with our relation to God, and springs from an intellectually true view of that relation’ (Illingworth, Christian Character, 1905, p. 27), yet its importance in regulating men’s ordinary conduct and intercourse did not escape Christ’s notice. His striking lessons on this subject were called for at the time, and are far from being exhausted, for it is still true that ‘the really humble man is as great in the moral world as he is rare’ (Bruce, Expos. Gr. Test. on Matthew 18:4).

(a) The child, the unconscious type of humility (Matthew 18:1-4, Mark 9:33-37).—This was Christ’s object-lesson on the question that caused frequent heartburning among the disciples, ‘Who then is greatest?’ etc. Their assimilation of their Master’s mind proceeded slowly. As He went on absorbed in the thought of His approaching cross, His followers walked behind and stirred each other’s worst passions by raising questions of place and precedence. At their next interview the Master of men set a child in the midst of His disciples, and shamed them out of their unworthy temper. This is our Lord’s rebuke of pride, rivalry, and ambition in their thousand forms, His reversal of our ordinary and selfish ideas of greatness, and His warning against the world’s spirit of exclusiveness, intolerance, and class distinctions. The truly great is he who considers the claims of others and is slow to give offence (Matthew 18:6), and who on all occasions appears simple, teachable, unpretending, indifferent to questions of rank and superiority, and willing to humble himself ‘as this little child.’ It is only the childlike heart that is capable of knowing God (Matthew 11:25), and of finding the way into His kingdom. This image has stamped itself on the mind of Christendom, and this pattern of greatness is still fresh. Human character is once for all taught to mould itself after this original and lovely type. Christ first saw the hatefulness and unworkableness of a world without a child!

(b) The servant, the practical example of humility (Matthew 20:20-28; Matthew 23:1-12, Mark 10:35-45, Luke 22:24-27, John 13:1-17).—This ideal of service was presented on two distinct occasions: the one when the sons of Zebedee came forward with their request for the leading places in the Kingdom; and the other when the same love of dignity, and the jealous exclusion of each other’s claims, gave rise to the strife that marred the Last Supper. In rebuking this spirit, Christ had in view not merely the mistaken tendencies of His disciples, who were already fired by the promise of individual ‘thrones’ (Luke 22:30) dear to the Israelitish imagination, but also the popular and prevailing standards of the time. The rulers of the Gentiles aimed at supremacy, and, in the exercise of a harsh authority, delighted to ‘lord it over them’; and equally the scribes and Pharisees, in their fondness for places and titles of honour, coveted influence and recognition as the ‘great ones’ of Jewish society. Christ required a new standard and line of conduct from His followers. ‘Not so shall it be among you.’ Henceforth, greatness lies in conformity to a higher than the heathen or Jewish type: ‘but whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister,’ etc. The principle of this law is not impersonal, but personal; the seat of authority in the Christian religion and in Christian morals is Christ: ‘even as the Son of Man came,’ etc. (Matthew 20:28). Finally, in one concrete act, Christ gave an illustration of the great principle He enunciated, when, at the Passover meal, He rose and ‘took a towel and girded himself,’ and washed the disciples’ feet. This astonishing incident left an ineffaceable impression (1 Peter 5:5), and warranted the literal saying: ‘I am in the midst of you as he that serveth’ (Luke 22:27). Such an ideal and example of service have slowly effected a revolution in the moral sentiment and practice of mankind. We may add, if Christ’s setting forth of the child was evidence of His originality as a teacher, the substitution of the servant for the ruler was a no less striking proof of the uniqueness of His insight and methods.

‘It is one of the achievements of Jesus that He introduced into the world a new ideal of greatness, such an ideal as men had never dreamed of’ (D. Smith, The Days of His Flesh, 1905, p. 442. Cf. Herrmann in art. below: ‘Im NT ist ohne Zweifel der Eindruck wiedergegehen dass Jesus in dieser Beziehung seinen Jüngern etwas vollig Neues gegeben hat’).

Some ideals are too airy and remote to come into touch with actual experience and practice, but Christ’s Law of Service is capable of daily realization, and is within the reach of every one. It is open to all to do some simple deed of kindness, helpfulness, and self-denial, and no action inspired by Christ-like love and humility will pass unnoticed or unrewarded by the gracious Master and great Servant of all (Matthew 25:40).

iv. Characteristics and Relationships.—A few further points of general and practical interest are suggested by this subject, and may be briefly touched on.

1. Humility and character.—In ordinary experience, humility is related to sin and penitence, and marks the feeling of unworthiness in the light of the illimitable moral ideal. In presence of the holy revelation of the Son of God, conscience becomes sensitive, and the sense of guilt, as in the case of Peter (Luke 5:8), weighs men down. ‘This, however, is not one of the essential conditions of humility, for we know that humility was also an element in Christ’s character’ (Ritschl). The greatness of the Baptist was rooted in his humility and utter freedom from jealousy (John 3:27; John 3:30), and this grace has been the soil and safety of saints ever since. Keble treated others with a ‘humbling humility’ (Lock’s Life, p. 233. Cf. MacEwen’s Life of Cairns, p. 600: ‘The first personal impression that he made on all who met him was one of wonder at his humility’). The child, to which Christ pointed, represents humility as part of the essence and permanence of Christian character, and remains an immortal type, preserving the wonder and bloom of the moral world.

2. Humility and kindred virtues.—No Christian grace is isolated or thrives alone. Humility is ‘part of a great moral whole. Instead of proscribing, it promotes the growth of virtues unlike yet not unfriendly to itself’ (Liddon on ‘Humility and Action’ in University Sermons). Thus it is closely connected with Truth, for humility or confession that does not rest on the recognition of facts is insincere and worthless. It is inspired by Love; ministering love appears always in the guise of humility. Meekness rests on humility as its foundation (Trench), and Patience expresses along with humility the practical virtue of the Christian religion, especially called for and tested in the world (Ritschl).

3. Humility and self-consciousness.—It has been the tendency of certain schools of theology and piety to make humility the result of self-contemplation, arrived at by the soul’s reaction upon itself. This gives rise to artificial and extreme methods of discipline, and misses the healthy objectivity of the life that forgets self in the consideration and service of others (see Herrmann’s art. for vigorous criticism of this tendency and ideal of asceticism, derived from Angustine and Bernard. Cf. Harnack’s History of Dogma [English translation], vi. p. 10, note). Humility is ‘the eye which sees everything except itself’ (quoted in Ritschl). Work and the school of life are the best discipline of humility, as of the other virtues.

‘We are to respect our responsibilities,’ wrote Mr. Gladstone, ‘not ourselves. We are to respect the duties of which we are capable, but not our capabilities simply considered. There is to be no complacent self-contemplation, beruminating upon self. When self is viewed, it must always be in the most intimate connexion with its purposes’ (Morley’s Life, i. 214).

On the other hand, the externalizing of humility and the danger of parading it in rules and ceremonies that lead to self-humiliation must equally be avoided. Christ and His Apostles discountenanced all needless self-consciousness and show of virtue (Matthew 6:1 ff., Colossians 2:23. Cf. Ritschl: ‘Even in ascetic forms of worship there is no particular form of expression necessary to humility’).

4. Humility and individuality.—This virtue is not to be cultivated to the neglect of manliness or at the expense of loyalty to religious and moral principle (Matthew 10:32). Christ honours the spirit of energy and enterprise in us, and blames the hiding of our talents and the misuse of our opportunities through diffidence or cowardice (Matthew 25:14 ff.). The manly and energetic character of the centurion, as shown in his faith, was doubtless as pleasing to Jesus as the soldier’s reverence and humbleness of address (Luke 7:6). Humility or the fear of God should banish all unworthy fear. Christ’s unflinching exposure of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23) calls us to be courageous in adherence to truth and righteousness, and in view of evil and opposition, however powerful. It was a wholesome saying of the Rabbis: ‘The disciple of the wise should have sufficient pride to stand in defence of the Law he represents.’ Self-assertion has therefore its legitimate sphere, and the ‘salt’ of individuality in religion and in society should in nowise be lost. There is the danger, however, of exaggerating our own view and importance: ‘it always needs much grace to see what other people are, and to keep a sense of moral proportion’ (Denney, Expos. Gr. Test. on Romans 12:3). In the adaptation of the Christian Church to society, and to reconcile conflicting interests, it requires humility ‘to adjust men in due order for the purposes of life’ (T. B. Strong’s Christian Ethics, Bampton Lect. 1895, p. 127).

5. Humility and science.—Christ’s interview with Nicodemus teaches that the assumption of knowledge (‘we know,’ John 3:2) may cover only ignorance and confusion. The ‘wise and understanding’ (Matthew 11:25) receive no new light: self-satisfied pride and prejudice are the foes of spiritual enlightenment and intellectual advance. The true student and investigator of nature must still feel, like Newton, that, notwithstanding his progress and attainments, the great ocean of truth lies undiscovered before him. Docility, not dogmatism, is the mark of the inquirer, and the means of intellectual development. In this important and ever-changing region of science, R. H. Hutton has well observed that humility ‘means the docility of learners towards a teacher infinitely above them,’ and that it requires wisdom to see the true relations between different kinds of knowledge, and to keep physical knowledge from being turned to a false and dangerous use in the sphere of moral truth. Here also the master of truth and knowledge must take the place of a servant, and illustrate his greatness by his humility—‘and science is humble only when it uses its knowledge and its ignorance alike to help other men and not to lord it over them’ (Essay on ‘The Humility of Science’ in Aspects of Religious and Scientific Thought, 1901). So manifold is the function of this indispensable and crowning grace.

Literature.—Besides works above named, Grimm-Thayer’s Lex.; Moulton-Geden’s Concord. to Greek Test.; art. ‘Humility in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible vol. ii.; Herrmann in PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] (‘Demut, Demutig’—an art. characteristic in its Ritschlian standpoint and criticism); E. Schreiber, art. in Jewish Encyc. 1904 (interesting and suggestive); B. Weiss, Bib. Theol. of NT, pp. 116, 117, and Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justif. and Reconcil. ch. ix. § 65 (both in Clark’s translation); A. B. Bruce, Training of the Twelve, chs. xiv. xxi.; Professor J. Seth, A Study of Ethical Principles4 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 264; Rothe, Sermons (‘The Humility of the Lord’—Clark’s translation); Liddon, Some Words of Christ (‘True Greatness’); Church, Cathed. and Univ. Sermons (‘the Condescension of our Lord’); Dante, Purgatory, Cantos 10–12; R. Browning’s exquisite little poem, ‘Humility’ (Asolando); Kip. ling’s Recessional.

W. M. Rankin.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Humility'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/h/humility.html. 1906-1918.

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