The Spirit and the Christian Interpreter

As a believer, what can you expect the Spirit to do for you (or enable you to do) when it comes to interpreting the Bible? What should you not expect the Spirit to do? In the observations below about the role of the Spirit, we talk in terms of what the Spirit does and does not do. Please know up front that we are not trying to tell God what he can or cannot do. We are simply describing a few of the main ways that the Spirit seems to work in relationship to the Scriptures.

1. a. When it comes to biblical interpretation, having the Holy Spirit does not mean that the Spirit is all you need. The Spirit does not make valid interpretation automatic. At first this observation may sound irreverent or even sacrilegious, but that is not our intention.

Perhaps an illustration will help. When children learn to walk, they usually want their parents involved in the experience. Usually the parents will sit a few feet apart facing each other, and one parent will point the wobbly child in the direction of the outstretched arms of the other parent. After playing “catch” with the child for a few days, the child finally gets the hang of it and begins to walk on his or her own. For the sake of illustration, what if the child thought: “Since my parents are here, I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to move one foot in front of the other or stumble backward or fall down. With Mom and Dad close by, walking will come automatically.”

Although this illustration borders on the absurd, many people reason just like this child when it comes to the Spirit’s role in biblical interpretation, saying, as it were, “Because I am a Christian and have the Spirit of God living in me, I don’t have to do anything when it comes to interpreting the Bible; it will happen automatically.” It simply doesn’t work that way. Having the Holy Spirit in your life does not mean that the Spirit will do all the interpreting for you.

b. The Spirit does expect us to use our minds, proper interpretive methods, and good study helps to interpret the Bible accurately.Roy Zuck points out a helpful parallel between the process of inspiration and the process of interpretation: “In the inspiration of the Bible the Holy Spirit was working but so were the human authors. In a similar way in the interpretation of the Bible, human work is involved.” God gave us minds, and he expects us to use them when it comes to Bible study. He wants us to think clearly and reason soundly. He wants us to study the Scriptures diligently and faithfully. Since God created us to think, study is “Spiritual” (i.e., in line with the Spirit’s will). We can also learn much from other believers by making use of good study helps such as Bible dictionaries, atlases, and commentaries. As our heavenly Helper, the Spirit wants to hold our hand and guide us as we learn to walk, but he will not walk for us.

2. a. The Spirit does not create new meaning or provide new information. The canon of Scripture is closed. This means that we should not expect the Spirit to add another book to the Bible or anything new to the sixty-six books that we have. The Spirit does not provide new revelation on a par with Scripture, but he does give us a deeper understanding of the truth that is already there. Similarly, we should not expect the Spirit to whisper in our ears new insights that have been kept hidden from other believing interpreters.

b. We can rely on the Spirit to help us grasp the meaning of God’s Word. The Spirit and the Word work together. The Spirit enables us to grasp the meaning of the Scriptures at a deeper level. Certainly this includes the ability to apply the meaning of the Bible, but it also includes the ability to discern the theology of a passage (what we have referred to as “theological principles”). The Spirit gives us “ears to hear” what God is saying to us in his Word. This insight from the Spirit may come after hours of study and reflection (normally the case) or it may come suddenly. Either way the insight comes not as new revelation, but as fresh understanding of the meaning of the Bible.

3. a. The Spirit does not change the Bible to suit our purposes or to match our circumstances. Much like the rapids of a river for the person in a kayak, life is constantly presenting us with a new set of circumstances—some good, others bad. In the midst of this dynamic environment, we are tempted to adjust the meaning of a passage to fit our situation, our purposes, or our feelings. We may even find ourselves ignoring or violating context as we desperately search for a biblical connection to our situation. It is especially easy for new believers to confuse their own feelings with the voice of the Holy Spirit. But we cannot expect the Spirit to change the meaning of the Bible to correspond to our feelings. (The Spirit always agrees with himself.) The Spirit does, however, work with the Word to transform the life of the interpreter.

b. The Spirit brings the meaning of the Bible to bear on the reader. Vanhoozer sees three ways in which the Spirit works in the life of the Christian interpreter. (i) The Spirit convicts us that the Bible is divinely inspired. We come to believe that the Bible is God’s Word because of the work of the Holy Spirit. (ii) The Spirit works in our minds to impress on us the full meaning of the Scriptures (see [2] above). We come to understand that a command really is a command, a promise is a promise, and so on, and we are empowered to grasp the importance of each. (iii) The Spirit works in our hearts so that we are able to receive the Word of God (application).

The Spirit’s ongoing work is to transform our character to the character of God (Rom. 12:1–2). Do you ever have the feeling as you study the Bible that while you are interpreting the text, the text is also interpreting you? That is the work of the Holy Spirit. As Vanhoozer puts it, “The Spirit’s work in interpretation is not to change the sense [i.e., the meaning of the text] but to restore us to our senses.”

Being restored to our senses is crucial because our spiritual maturity affects our ability to hear the voice of the Spirit (the divine Author) in the Scriptures. What often separates an effective Christian interpreter from an ineffective one is his or her level of spiritual maturity. The zealous but immature believer is typically the one who will come up with the most off-the-wall interpretations. He or she loves the Lord and means well, but such a person is spiritually immature, and it shows up in the way he or she interprets the Bible. Spiritual maturity includes learning how to listen to the divine Author by submitting to his Word.

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