On the willingness to say I don't know
Anyone acquainted with theological discourse and debate will know that humility is not always the virtue most commonly on display. These debates often feel quite entrenched engagement across disagreement is not always charitable. This state of things probably shouldn't surprise us. After all, it's a given that we a take the views we hold to be the right view. And if those views are strongly held, then we're all the more committed to them and probably less likely to embody the humility required to critique them. You don't have to look far to find someone making theological claims without a hint of humility shown by the awareness that they might be wrong.
In light of that general state of things, I was struck by John Wesley's posture toward the interpretation of the New Testament book of Revelation. Wesley was a trained, capable, and proficient theological thinker. And he often spoke quite assertively and with deep conviction. Nevertheless, he also exhibited a certain level of theological humility. He was comfortable saying that he didn't know.
In his introductory remarks on Revelation, he wrote:
It is scarce possible for any that either love or fear God not to feel their hearts extremely affected in seriously reading either the beginning or the latter part of the Revelation. But the intermediate parts I did not study at all for many years; as utterly despairing of understanding them,...Yet I by no means understand or explain all that is contained in this mysterious book."
And regarding the millennial reign of Christ, he wrote these words in a letter,
I have no opinion at all upon that topic. I can determine nothing about it. These calculations are far above, out of my sight, I have only one thing to do, to save my own soul and those that hear me.
It stands out to me that Wesley's theological humility emerges particularly with regard to questions of eschatology, if only because I've engaged so very many people over the years who've held their eschatological views with no humility whatsoever. His posture here is commendable. He's humble enough to say: I don't know. And he's confident enough to point his hearers to what's most important, namely the flourishing of human beings in saving union with Christ. All that is not to say we should hold our theological views strongly. It's only to say we should cultivate some humility as we do.
NB: The above quotes are taken from William M. Greathouse, "John Wesley's View of the Last Things," in The Second Coming: A Wesleyan Approach to the Doctrine of Last Things, ed. H. Ray Dunning (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1995), 140-141.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online.
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