“Humility” might sound like a strange attribute to predicate of God. Two recent studies suggest otherwise.
Grant Macaskill’s The New Testament and Intellectual Humility is not a study of divine humility per se. Its broad concern is the nature and cultivation of humility as an intellectual virtue. Because of his commitment to theological interpretation of Scripture, however, Macaskill makes great efforts to locate humility as an intellectual virtue within the larger theological context of God and God’s works. Doing so leads him to discuss of texts like Philippians 2:5-11 and their implications for our understanding of divine humility.
Matthew A. Wilcoxen’s book, Divine Humility: God’s Morally Perfect Being, is the published fruit of his doctoral thesis, written under the supervision of Ben Myers. Wilcoxen writes as a systematic theologian seeking to define and defend humility as a divine attribute. He pursues his task in dialogue with three theologians in particular: Augustine, Karl Barth, and Katherine Sonderegger.
Macaskill and Wilcoxen are excellent theologians. Both of their books are worthy of a close read by anyone interested in the doctrine of God (Trinity, divine attributes) and Christology. I will refrain from offering a summary of their arguments in this space. Instead, I want to note a few important conclusions which I have drawn from reading their books.
First, both Macaskill and Wilcoxen argue in different ways that if humility is to be ascribed to God, then it must be redefined in relation to common uses of the term. Humility, as applied to God, does not suggest that God is characterized by a lowly status, that God is dependent on anything, or that God is subordinate to anything. Both Macaskill and Wilcoxen affirm, “The Lord is high” (Ps 113:4).
Second, both Macaskill and Wilcoxen argue, contrary to the claims of theologians such as Karl Barth or those who affirm eternal relations of authority and submission between the Father and the Son, that humility is not an attribute of one person of the Trinity over against other persons of the Trinity. The Father is not the “high” God and the Son is not the “lowly” God. Father, Son, and Spirit are one Lord and, as noted above, the one Lord is high.
Third, in different ways, Macaskill and Wilcoxen suggest that humility refers to God’s willingness to associate with the lowly and that this willingness, being more than simply an arbitrary choice on God’s part, flows from the fullness of God’s own life as the blessed Trinity. The God who eternally reposes in supreme beatitude as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit willingly condescends to lowly and insignificant creatures in order to grant them a share in his own perfect beatitude. This is what it means for the high God to be a humble God. The Lord who is incomparably high stoops far down to raise the poor from the dust and the needy from the ash heap (Ps 113:5-7).