The Apostle Paul rightly warned that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor.8:1). Paul anticipates that you can understand much and not have it be real and powerful over your heart. Knowledge by itself can be a danger and a deception.
Jonathan Edwards’ short essay on Undiscerned Spiritual Pride is something that should be read by all pastors or Christians in leadership positions. In that work Edwards writes,
The first and the worst cause of errors, that prevail in [our day], is spiritual pride. This is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of religion.
There are few issues harder to talk about and more insidious than spiritual pride. How do you recommend an article on spiritual pride to someone without being accused of spiritual pride? How do you write an article on spiritual pride without being subject to spiritual pride? Even talking about it is a danger. But it must be talked about.
There is one specific kind of undiscerned spiritual pride that I think is not often discussed and is especially hard to recognize—the danger of doctrinal righteousness. Sadly, I think it’s a particularly prevalent danger among Reformed, theologically-minded Christians. It’s a danger I have fallen into at times. By doctrinal righteousness, I mean trusting in your doctrinal correctness as your righteousness, as opposed to trusting Christ as your righteousness. The difference can be very subtle, and, of course, will be marked by humility or pride.
Knowing About God vs. Knowing God
In the face of an anti-intellectual and a-theological, shallow evangelicalism, Reformed Christianity has been rightly concerned about the importance of theology. The Bible is a theological book. To know God requires us to know about God. Our relationship to him requires doctrine.
But it’s also possible to trust in your knowledge about him more than trusting in him personally. You can have a theoretical knowledge of something and not an experiential knowledge of something. Some people know a lot but it does not lead to faith, hope, and love. To paraphrase a Tim Keller saying, “There’s a difference between having the truth, and the truth having you. There’s a difference between trusting your grasp on him, rather than trusting his grasp on you.” (The Apostle Paul often emphasizes this nuance – “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” – Gal.4:9).
When you ‘have’ the truth, you own it; you have mastery over it. When the truth ‘has’ you, you are under it, humbled by it, shaped by it; it masters you. One is based on pride; the other leads to humility. Some people can implicitly treat their theology as something grasped on the basis of their own strength and intellect, rather than a personal knowledge of God received by grace through faith that is humbling and shaping them.
Discerning Doctrinal Righteousness
Edwards makes the point that spiritual pride can be hard to discern and easily hidden because it can look like righteousness and concern for truth. It looks right, until it doesn’t. He says,
Spiritual pride in its own nature is so secret, that it is not so well discerned by immediate intuition on the thing itself, as by the effects and fruits of it…Spiritual pride disposes to speak of other persons’ sins…Spiritual pride is very apt to suspect others; whereas an humble saint is most jealous of himself, he is so suspicious of nothing in the world as he is of his own heart.
Doctrinal righteousness is much the same. It is more accurately discerned in its fruit: by someone’s manner of communication, by their response to criticism or correction. The idol of doctrinal righteousness is especially exposed in an angry and hostile defensiveness whenever it is questioned. This is because it has become a matter of identity and personal righteousness. To echo Edwards, here are some possible evidences of a doctrinally righteous person: