Can We Grasp God’s Word apart from the Spirit?
Looking at the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical interpretation raises the question of whether people without the Spirit can grasp God’s Word. We would answer this important question in three different ways.
If unbelievers use valid interpretive methods, they are able to comprehend much of the Bible (e.g., the sense of words, the rules of grammar, and the logic of a passage). People who are able to read literature effectively will certainly be able to detect a contrast or a command or a figure of speech in the Bible when they see one. The Bible does not insist that an unbeliever is incapable of understanding any of its basic grammatical or historical content. At the level of cognitive understanding, the Spirit appears to play a minimal role.
“Yes, but Only to a Degree”
Going a step further, can persons without the Spirit understand the meaning of a biblical passage? Here we answer “Yes, but only to a degree.” We would say that their understanding is limited (i.e., “only to a degree”) for at least three reasons. (1) Sin has had an effect on the whole person, including the human mind. We are not suggesting that sin prevents us from recognizing prepositional phrases or locating literary themes. We do, however, believe that sin has dulled our ability to discern or perceive scriptural truth.
(2) An unbeliever’s ability to understand the meaning of a biblical text is limited by the effects of the “unbelieving” preunderstanding that he or she brings to the text. As Vanhoozer observes, pre-text baggage has the power to distort the way people understand the Scriptures:
We should recall how common it is for readers to let their prejudices or ideologies distort their reading. Distortion is a real possibility whenever readers are faced with texts that require behavioral change, not to mention the death of the old self and the end of self-love. Interpretation never takes place in a cognitively and spiritually clean environment.
Since the Spirit plays a crucial role in helping Christian interpreters deal with the baggage of their preunderstanding, a person who does not have the Spirit will encounter an even greater degree of distortion.
(3) We say that a person without the Spirit can understand the meaning of a biblical passage “only to a degree” because understanding involves more than just taking in information with your mind. Understanding the meaning of a biblical passage involves the whole person—mind, emotions, body, and so on. Unbelievers, by definition, do not accept the things of the Spirit of God.
Will people without the Spirit accept the truth of the Bible and apply it to their lives? The Bible itself says “No.” In 1 Corinthians 2:14 the apostle Paul says that “the person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” Paul does not mean that a person without the Spirit will have no intellectual comprehension of what the Bible is saying. Rather, he means that an unbeliever will understand its basic message, but reject it.
When Paul goes on to say that a person without the Spirit “cannot understand” the things of God, he is referring to a personal, experiential kind of understanding. People without the Spirit do not know the things of God because they have not experienced them. Without the Spirit, although people may understand some of the Bible’s meaning, they will not be persuaded of its truth and will not live it out. They may grasp the meaning of the biblical text, but they refuse to allow the text to grasp them. We cannot apply the Word of God without the help of the Spirit of God.
Can we grasp God’s Word apart from the Holy Spirit? Perhaps now you can see why we have three different answers to this important question. When it comes to biblical interpretation, the Spirit appears to work little in the cognitive dimension, more in the area of discerning truth, and most in the area of application. Since many of you do have the Spirit of God living in you, let’s turn our attention to the role that the Spirit plays in your life as you interpret the Bible.