In chapter 11 of his otherwise excellent book, Respectable Sins, Jerry Bridges (1929-2016) discusses pride generally and what he calls “the pride of correct doctrine” specifically. Much of the chapter is good and convicting. Pride is, as another author has noted, the most stubborn of sins and the “chief inlet of smoke from the bottomless pit to darken the mind and mislead the judgement.” If we are going to grow in holiness, we must be about the hard work of rooting out the respectable sin of pride (James 4:6).
But there is danger in talking about pride and the corresponding spiritual grace of humility. The hazard lies in mis-defining these two qualities and leading oneself and one’s readers to wrongly apply God’s Word in this vital area. Because the spiritually sensitive heart senses an immediate need to deal definitively with one’s pride, there may be the tendency to over-correct and start classifying certain qualities in one’s life as instances or symptoms of pride when they are actually not a direct indication or fruit of pride. I am afraid that Bridges’ definition and subsequent discussion of “doctrinal pride” confuses more than it helps because it is guilty of this misclassification. He comments,
Closely akin to moral pride is doctrinal pride, the assumption that whatever my doctrinal beliefs are, they are correct, and anyone who holds another belief is theologically inferior. Those of us who care about doctrine at all are susceptible to this form of pride. It doesn’t matter if we are Arminians or Calvinists, whether we subscribe to Dispensational or Covenant theology, or perhaps some form of eclectic theology, we tend to think our doctrinal beliefs are the correct ones and look with some disdain on those whose beliefs are different than ours (92).
There are a few problems with this quote I want to highlight. First, Bridges defines doctrinal pride as “the assumption that whatever my doctrinal beliefs are, they are correct, and anyone who holds another belief is theologically inferior.” But if we are convinced of a particular truth or set of truths (“my doctrinal beliefs”) and we engage with someone who holds to a position contrary to our own, we conclude that their viewpoint is theologically inferior, by definition.
What Bridges classifies as pride is precisely the reason why we hold our position: it is the correct (i.e., superior) position to hold. It is an intellectual impossibility to willingly embrace an idea we know to be false. We may defend positions of which we are unsure as though we really believe them (we usually do this to impress or cofound others with our intellect or to just engage in rational banter), but we do not heartily embrace ideas that we are convinced are incorrect. We hold to certain doctrinal beliefs because we are persuaded that they are the correct ones.
Pride, therefore, is not located in act of believing our view is the correct one and that other views are inferior. The nature of truth and error and the biblical call for discernment requires that we make such judgments (e.g., Rom 12:9). Rather, pride has gripped our hearts when we believe the person with whom we disagree is ontologically or spiritually inferior to us (Is 65:5; Luke 18:9; John 7:48-49). The person with whom we disagree, despite their inferior theological position, is made in God’s image and, if they are in Christ, justified by the same righteousness as you are (Rom 3:21-31). If they are not in Christ, they are in need of the same saving grace that you were prior to your conversion. Furthermore, your ability to embrace what you deem as a theologically superior position is also entirely a gift of God’s grace (1 Cor 4:6). There can be no attitude of superiority toward another image-bearer, regardless of what they believe. But we can deem certain theological positions as inferior or superior. That’s the essence of biblical discernment.
Bridges makes it clear that he is not saying that we should avoid developing convictions about what Scripture teaches. But he qualifies this statement by saying that “we should hold our convictions in humility, realizing that many godly and theologically capable people hold other convictions” (92-93). He then provides an example of what this humility looks like in practice:
I was once asked to comment about a book that taught a system of sanctification with which I strongly disagree. In my letter, I wrote the following: “Please note that I am saying ‘things with which I disagree,’ not things wherein (the author) is wrong. I may find out when I get to heaven that I am the one who was wrong.”
Bridges goes on to say that his convictions about sanctification did not decrease due his reading the book he reviewed. Nevertheless, in his engagement with the author, “I want to hold my convictions with humility and treat the author with the same respect I would treat people whose doctrine of sanctification is the same as mine” (93).
According to Bridges, therefore, to hold our doctrinal convictions “with humility” means that we are willing to admit that we may be wrong about our convictions. But this definition of humility undermines the very nature of doctrinal conviction and disagreement. When we disagree with someone (the quality of our position and the basis for our disagreements notwithstanding), at the moment of disagreement we do believe that we are right and the other person is wrong—that’s why we are in a dispute.
I believe Bridges was trying to convey Christian charity in his letter when he said he was noting areas of disagreement and not marking where the author was wrong. But such a statement is ultimately confusing: to disagree is to communicate implicitly that, in your judgment, the other person is wrong. A conviction is not holding to a position while simultaneously conceding that you may be wrong about it. We can call such a mental state a tentative belief because we are, concerning a given issue, still unsettled on what is really true and whether or not our belief is superior to other options. But we cannot classify such mental states as convictions.
The point is that humility is not found in thinking that I might be wrong. Rather, humility is manifest in how I think about and treat the person with whom I disagree. Despite our disagreements, do I still consider this person a fellow image-bearer, a child of God (if they know Christ), and someone worthy of my love and respect? Do I engage them with the balance of gentleness and doctrinal clarity (2 Tim 2:24-26)?
I have no desire to single-out Bridges or to suggest that his comments about pride and humility undercut his other writings. Early in my Christian life I was massively helped by Transforming Grace and The Discipline of Grace. I’ve probably read The Gospel for Real Life at least three times during my pilgrimage. Bridges is a trustworthy teacher, and he has blessed many Christians. Though dead, he still speaks (Heb 11:4).
Nevertheless, I believe his comments above represent a general lack of clarity among evangelicals when it comes to the sin of pride, especially as it relates to theological convictions. Yes, within the realm of Christian theology, there will be issues about which we have more or less clarity. Our educational background, church experience, and time devoted to biblical study are all factors (among many others) that contribute to our theological formation. And we need the Spirit to help us recognize where we are deficient so we don’t claim certainty where it isn’t warranted. But when certainty is well-founded, we shouldn’t apologize for it. Nor should we think we are acting in sinful pride if we think that opposing positions are inferior. “Test everything,” Paul told the Thessalonians, “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess 5:21).