The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Interpretation of Scripture

Posted by on Jun 9, 2015 in Budding Theologians | 0 comments

Ben O’Reilly for TH401 Knowledge of God

Thanks to Ben O’Reilly, a Vose BMin student, for providing the first essay for our budding theologians column. As the title suggests, his essay explore the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture. 

Abstract

The role of the Holy Spirit in the Interpretation of Scripture is to guide us to the truth contained within it. The Spirit assists us in interpretation by guiding us to truth, convincing us that it is true, and helping us understand and appropriate truth to our own faith and way of life. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writing of Scripture, interpretation of Scripture falls prey to our own bias and human understanding which may be flawed or unable to grasp spiritual wisdom of God. Thus a prayerful approach to reading and interpreting Scripture, open to the Spirit’s guidance, is required.

Part I – Interpretation of Scripture

In the reading of Scripture, there is an aspect of interpretation that occurs as the reader attempts to derive meaning from the text that applies to their life. This is because amongst Protestant denominations, and particularly in the evangelical tradition, Scripture is considered to be the highest authority when it comes to things of God and Christianity. This view comes about due to the belief that Scripture was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is a text given to humanity by God, through which he chooses to reveal himself to us. It contains a message of hope for humanity, or as Pinnock describes it, “the God-given documentation which preserves for all time the gospel of our salvation”.[1] As a divinely inspired message of hope and salvation for humanity, we look to it for guidance and sustenance in our faith.[2] When coming to read Scripture, we often read it with the intention of gleaning some kind of meaning that is applicable to our lives. The way we determine the meaning of a text is important, as it will affect the way in which we not only understand the text but will also affect our faith, theology, outlook, and way of life. The process of interpreting, understanding, and appropriation of biblical texts is the field of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics takes into account the genre, authorial intent, and historical context in trying to determine the meaning of a text for today.[3] A good hermeneutical process is important to Christians as the interpretation of Scripture and subsequent application leads to a particular way of life, and an improper interpretation may lead to an improper way of living.

The methods of interpretation used, as well as the previous understanding and bias we bring to the hermeneutic process, are vastly influential in the way Scripture is understood. Thus human reason and thought has a significant part to play in the interpretation of Scripture. Yet if interpretation of Scripture were to come down to human reason alone, how could we be certain of its truth? How can we be certain that what we read is indeed truthful and beneficial to us, and interpret it appropriately? This is the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture. If as already stated the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of Scripture, who better to guide us in the its interpretation. The Holy Spirit speaks to us as we read Scripture, convincing us of its truth. Calvin emphasises that we are convinced of the authority and truthfulness of scripture through the persuasion of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.[4] Bloesch states that faith itself is a product of God’s revelation of himself to humanity, and that faith is a work of the Holy Spirit ministering to our inner being, confirming from within the revelation we receive externally to ourselves in the world around us.[5] As we read Scripture, the Holy Spirit illuminates it for our minds so we can understand it and trust it and add to our faith through our reading.

An added layer of importance in the interpretation of Scripture is what Grenz refers to as its constitutional role. Grenz describes Scripture as being the product of the early formation times of the community of faith from the time of Israel for the Old Testament and the time of the early church in the New Testament, outlining what it means to be people of God. In addition, Scripture is the primary text on Christian faith; all other texts that have followed are based upon it. As such, it holds a central and foundational place in the faith community. Yet it was written many centuries ago in a time period quite different to our own especially in terms of culture and knowledge. And while the embedded message in Scripture is still applicable for us today, we need to interpret it in such a way that translates the original context of Scripture to our present context.

To this end, the Spirit speaking through the Bible orients our present both on the basis of the past and in accordance with a vision of the future. The past orientation transposes the contemporary hearer of the biblical narrative back to those primal events that originally constituted the community of God… But the goal of the narrative does not lie simply in recounting the story. Rather, through the retelling of the narrative, the Spirit recreates the past within the present life of the community. In so doing, the texts provide paradigms and categories – an interpretive framework – by means of which the community under the direction of the Spirit can come to understand and respond to the challenges of life in the present.[6]
The Holy Spirit illuminates our minds by helping us to see how the events in the past recorded in Scripture carry over to today a vision for the future, shaping our view of the world, of God, and a path for our life of faith in the process. The Spirit orients our present, on the basis of the past, towards the future vision.

Role of the Holy Spirit in Guiding Us to Truth

In John 14-16 Jesus promised his disciples that after he was to leave them the Holy Spirit would come to them, and described the work the Holy Spirit would do. Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of Truth” in John 14:17. Concerning the function of the Holy Spirit in regard to truth, Jesus made the following four points.[7]

  • John 14:26. The Holy Spirit will teach the disciples all things and remind them of everything Jesus had already taught them.
  • John 15:26. The Holy Spirit will be a witness to the things Jesus said and did.
  • John 16:8. The Holy Spirit will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgement.
  • John 16:13. The Holy Spirit will guide the disciples into all the truth.

The fourth point, that the Holy Spirit will “guide you into all the truth”, is particularly applicable to this discussion. Erickson, commenting on John 14-16, describes the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture to be illuminating, convicting, and pointing us towards Christ.[8]

He guides into truth, calling to remembrance the words of Jesus, not speaking on his own, but speaking what he hears, bringing about conviction, witnessing to Christ.[9]
The Holy Spirit acts to convince us of the truth as we read scripture, convicts us of things we need to change or apply to our lives, and imprints the words of Jesus within us so we can remember them and use them in our daily life. However Erickson also points out that the Holy Spirit does not bring us new revelation that is not already contained in Scripture. If the Holy Spirit were to do so, it would be in opposition to the ideas of sola scriptura and the sufficiency of Scripture. Rather, the Holy Spirit works in association with Scripture, guiding us to the truth that has already been revealed within it. The Spirit does not add more truth to Scripture. They work together, with the effectiveness of Scripture seen when the Spirit is at work in the heart and mind of the reader to build their faith, enabling them to receive from Scripture.[10] The Holy Spirit guides us to the truth found in Scripture, and convinces us that it is authoritative.

We cannot fully interpret and understand scripture without the input of the Holy Spirit guiding us. Due to the ontological divide between God and humanity, it is impossible for us to fully understand or come to know the things of God without the help of the Holy Spirit. Human reasoning alone, while holding the potential to grasp some knowledge of God, is unable to fully understand Scripture or be convinced of its truth.[11] This is revealed to us in the New Testament in Matt 16:17, which says knowledge of God comes from God himself rather than through “flesh and blood”, and also in 1 Corinthians 2 where Paul outlines the fact that no one can understand God except the Holy Spirit. McGrath argues that revelation of truth does not occur apart from where the Holy Spirit guides us to that revelation. And even then, our ability to grasp that revelation and add it to our faith does not occur apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.[12] He quotes Calvin in support of this.

Now we shall have a right definition of faith if we say that it is a steady and certain knowledge of the divine benevolence toward us, which is founded upon the truth of the gracious promise of God in Christ, and is both revealed to our minds and sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.[13]
It should therefore be acknowledged that the Holy Spirit needs to be involved in biblical interpretation if we are to grow in our knowledge of God and be convinced that what we learn is the truth.

This is not to say that an unbeliever who does not have the Spirit cannot understand Scripture at all. A person who understands literary concepts will understand the words, grammar, and language used. And through using reason and textual interpretation methods they can gain some kind of meaning from the text. However their understanding and the meaning they glean is impacted by their unbelieving stance brought to the text, and they will never fully understand the deepest spiritual meaning of Scripture due to their lack of connection with the Holy Spirit.[14] As alluded to already, Paul makes this point in 1 Cor 2:12-14 where he writes that the truths contained within Scripture are spiritual truths. And that the person who lives without the Holy Spirit cannot understand the things taught by the Holy Spirit because they consider them to be foolishness. They do not have the illumination of the Holy Spirit to help them understand spiritual wisdom. Bringing faith and the Holy Spirit’s guidance to the reading of Scripture brings a depth of understanding for the believing reader that unbelievers cannot grasp.[15]

This role of the Holy Spirit helps us to ensure the interpretation we make is not based on our own experiences. If we were to rely on our own reason and experiences alone, the knowledge of God we form will be twisted to fit our own experience and our own preferences. This narrow hermeneutic without the help of the Holy Spirit gives us an inaccurate picture of a God who turns out to be, as Bonhoeffer states, “a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature.”[16] Such an image is a limiting view of God designed to suit us. Instead, if we utilise the help of the Holy Spirit we will gain a far more comprehensive picture of God.

Conversely, we should not attempt to interpret scripture relying solely on the Holy Spirit without any hermeneutical study of scripture itself. Such an approach is lazy and presumptuous that the Holy Spirit will impart meaning to the reader without much thought required. Having the Holy Spirit does not make valid interpretation of Scripture an automatic given. God expects us to use our minds, to use interpretive methods and study in forming an accurate interpretation.[17] Hermeneutical methods of study play a complementary role to Holy Spirit interpretation; they are not in competition with or a replacement for each other. The best interpretation of scripture will come about when we prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to work through the means of exegesis and hermeneutics.[18] Thiselton rightly says that a comprehensive hermeneutic approach to scripture that helps us towards a more accurate knowledge of God involves a combination of the reader’s own study and reasoning along with the illuminating and convicting help of the Holy Spirit.

“In a co-operative shared work, the Spirit, the text, and the reader engage in a transforming process which enlarges horizons and creates new horizons.[19]
With these thoughts in mind, it seems most beneficial that when determining the meaning of the message contained in Scripture and assessing its practical application, we must engage in the process of interpretation with the help of the Holy Spirit.

 

Part II – Interpretation of Scripture in Church

We now turn to discuss how this can apply to biblical interpretation in the local church. The interpretation of Scripture is not something that is done simply by academics or preachers. Rather it is an approach all believers should be taking towards the reading of Scripture. Taking the time to explore the hermeneutics and listen to the Holy Spirit on Scripture is part of the “art and act of interpreting and communicating the Bible to others.”[20] We don’t have to rely solely on the work of others to interpret Scripture. It is an act that each of us can do. But we must approach it with both a sincere seeking of the Holy Spirit’s help and guidance, and a careful study of the text.

Having said all this, if our interpretation process is good, and we have with due diligence studied Scripture and allowed the Holy Spirit to guide us in our interpretation, does this mean our interpretation is always going to be right? When we consider we are trying to interpret a meaning to a text for our own context, we can easily get this wrong. Zuck points out that our own spiritual devotion and preparedness is a crucial factor in hearing the Holy Spirit clearly. Also our own bias and desires can get in the way of a clear interpretation. Or to even assign infallibility to our own interpretations would be to raise ourselves up to the level of Scripture’s infallibility and authority, a key issue for the Protestants against Roman Catholicism in the reformation. As such our interpretation is not something we should do on our own. The use of tools such as commentaries can aid our study. Even using common sense and logic to check our interpretations do not contradict established consistency in truth. We need to rely on the Holy Spirit for discernment as we make our interpretations. Comparing our interpretations with other whether they are our peers, pastors, or Bible scholars can help us to ensure we work out our metaphorical interpretive blind spots.[21]

We can also be going through the interpretive process in community. Especially when we come to a wide, diverse, and controversial area of interpretation such as ethics. As Penner points out, the Biblical narrative does not provide a guideline procedure for how to negotiate every conceivable situation. It does however provide principles through the issues it does address. Working through issues in a community sense helps us to form a clearer picture of how Scripture should be interpreted and applied in a given context. Yet it all needs to be done through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our united work as a community, along with the help of the Holy Spirit, comes together to work through the issues that we face.[22]

In the context of the local church, how does all this help us? Interpretation of Scripture affects everyone in the church from the church leaders through to the pew sitters. All readers should be seeking the Holy Spirit’s help as they approach the Bible and read it for their own personal spiritual growth. Reading Scripture for growth requires more than solely reading the words on the page but also includes engaging with the text, listening for what the Holy Spirit is saying to us. Prayerful reading methods will let us discover what Scripture is actually saying and how it can apply to our contemporary life. The use of methods such as the ancient practice of lectio divina can help towards this end. At the same time this principle of Spirit guided study of Scripture should be expanded to the teachers and preachers of the church as they prepare sermons and bible studies. In seeking guiding principles for how to journey through arising issues a communal Holy Spirit guided study of Scripture can help the community find a strong foundational position that honours both God and the issue at hand. When we put aside our personal agendas of what we want to find in Scripture, those times we are seeking for a particular answer or statement to support our own position or desires, and let the Holy Spirit guide us to the truth Scripture contains, our interpretation of Scripture will be far more valuable. In all times that we read Scripture, we should pray for the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts and guide us to the truth so that we might interpret Scripture truthfully and appropriate it for our own lives.

Bibliography

Bloesch, Donald G. A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Brown, Paul. The Holy Spirit: The Spirit’s Interpreting Role in Relation to Biblical Hermeneutics. Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2002.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Vol. 1. Ebook. Edited by John T. McNeill. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1998.

Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.

Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. 3rd edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994.

McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology : An Introduction. 5th. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Penner, Peter F. “Hermeneutics, Biblical Ethics and Christian Witness.” Journal of European Baptist Studies 4, no. 1 (2003): 20-26.

Pinnock, Clark. “What Is Biblical Inerrancy?” In The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Inerrancy 1987, 75. Nashville: Broadman, 1987.

Thiselton, A. C. “Hermeneutics.” In New Dictionary of Theology, edited by Sinclaiir B. Ferguson and David F. Wright, 293-297. Leicester: Intervarsity, 1988.

Thiselton, Anthony C. New Horizons in Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

Wallace, Daniel B., “The Holy Spirit and Hermeneutics”, Bible.org https://bible.org/article/holy-spirit-and-hermeneutics (accessed 5th May 2015).

Zuck, Roy B. “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics.” Bibliotheca sacra 141, no. 562 (1984): 120-130.

 

All Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version, 2011.

[1] Clark Pinnock, “What Is Biblical Inerrancy?,” in The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Inerrancy 1987 (Nashville: Broadman, 1987). 75. Quoted in Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994), 507.

[2] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 507.

[3] A. C. Thiselton, “Hermeneutics,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Sinclaiir B. Ferguson and David F. Wright (Leicester: Intervarsity, 1988). 293.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans., Ford Lewis Battles, Ebook. vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1998), 1.8.

[5] Donald G. Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 15.

[6] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 509.

[7] This list is based on Erickson’s list in Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 219.

[8] Ibid., 226.

[9] Ibid., 219.

[10] Roy B. Zuck, “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics,” Bibliotheca sacra 141, no. 562 (1984): 122.

[11] Paul Brown, The Holy Spirit: The Spirit’s Interpreting Role in Relation to Biblical Hermeneutics (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2002), 9, 186.

[12] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology : An Introduction, 5th. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 231.

[13] Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.7, as quoted in McGrath, Christian Theology, 232. Emphasis added.

[14] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 227-228.

[15] Daniel B. Wallace, “The Holy Spirit and Hermeneutics”, Bible.org https://bible.org/article/holy-spirit-and-hermeneutics (accessed 5th May 2015).

[16] Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word, quoted in Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 619.

[17] Duvall and Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 229.

[18] Erickson, Christian Theology, 226.

[19] Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, 619. Author’s emphasis preserved.

[20] Brown, Holy Spirit:, 10.

[21] Zuck, “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics”, 122-129.

[22] Peter F. Penner, “Hermeneutics, Biblical Ethics and Christian Witness,” Journal of European Baptist Studies 4, no. 1 (2003): 24.

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