What Does the Bible Mean? Is the Holy Spirit Necessary for Biblical Interpretation?
I know two kinds of Christians—those who think what the Bible “really means” is necessarily illuminated by the Holy Spirit such that ordinary, scholarly, rational exegesis alone does not yield its “true meaning” and those who think the “true meaning” of the Bible is discovered exegetically such that anything going beyond that is not its true meaning but its “significance” or application.
To the former I ask “How do you answer someone who discovers a ‘true meaning’ of the Bible that blatantly contradicts basic Christian doctrine and/or basic reason?” I point to sects and cults that claim to be Christian but teach esoteric meanings of Scripture that blatantly contradict what Christians have always believed about God, Jesus Christ, and salvation. (One such group even has its own Bible dictionary without which the Bible cannot properly be understood. The “true meanings” of many biblical passages are, according to the dictionary, esoteric, allegorical and contrary to sound doctrine.)
To the latter I ask “What is it that you think the preacher is communicating on Sunday mornings when he or she preaches from a text and God speaks through the sermon to afflict the comfortable or comfort the afflicted (or both)? Would you say the message of the sermon is not the true meaning of Scripture if it goes beyond what exegesis alone discovers?”
Let’s look into Scripture itself to see if it sheds some light on this disagreement over the “meaning” of Scripture.
An obvious example is the Apostle Paul’s use of “pesher exegesis”—especially in 1 Corinthians 9 and 1 Timothy 5—interpreting Deuteronomy 25 as applying to his own rights as an apostle. My question about this isn’t whether we, today, are permitted to do what Paul did (viz., practice pesher exegesis) but whether what Paul did was wrong when he did it.
It simply won’t do to say that Paul was just “using an Old Testament passage to illustrate a point.” That’s clearly not what he was doing. He found meaning in Deuteronomy that applied to his situation that nobody could have guessed just from exegeting that passage.
Sure, we might say Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit so that was part of the meaning of Deuteronomy 25. The Holy Spirit inspired that, too, so the Holy Spirit can invest meaning in it. But, of course, this simply raises the question of why the Holy Spirit could not invest any Scripture passage with meaning undetected by exegesis alone?
One traditional solution is to distinguish between “inspiration” and “illumination.” Inspiration is past; illumination is continuing. When a preacher proclaims the message of a text and expresses its significance for the congregation he or she is at best only expressing illumination. Only the biblical authors’ statements were inspired.
I’m not dismissing this distinction as wrong, but I do want to cast some doubt on it. The line between inspiration and illumination seems fuzzy when we are talking about what a Scripture passage “means.” Can we really limit a passage’s meaning to original authorial intent and what objective exegesis discovers or can “meaning” extend beyond that to what the Holy Spirit says to a person or congregation through the application of the passage to them?
Underlying that question is a deeper one: Is the interpretation of a biblical passage’s meaning discovered by a person devoid of spiritual life given by the Holy Spirit, devoid of faith in God and Jesus, really trustworthy? Can we trust it to deliver the fullness of truth in the text? Imagine two exegetes—one a scholar devoid of faith in God through Jesus, not under the influence of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the other a faith-filled scholar devoted to Jesus and the gospel filled with the Holy Spirit. They are equally knowledgeable in biblical languages, culture and exegetical techniques. Neither one is a sheer naturalist or a fanatic looking for exotic meanings in biblical texts or claiming some “gift” that gives him (or her) esoteric insight. Which one’s commentary would you be more likely to trust to deliver the better meaning?
(Please don’t go into side issues such as “How would we know their spiritual state?” etc. I’m asking you to imagine that you could and do know.)
I propose that even those Christian exegetes who insist on “objective interpretation” would favor the commentary of the born again Christian scholar over the one by the non-Christian scholar. This demonstrates their belief that spiritual illumination does give a person an “edge,” so to speak, in discovering the “real meaning” of biblical texts.
Now imagine another hypothetical scenario. Imagine two Christian preachers—one who delivers sermons that only communicate what is believed to be the biblical author’s original, intended meaning then—when he or she wrote it. Now imagine another preacher of equal scholarship and spirituality who goes beyond that in sermons and communicates also the significance of the text for today’s audience (e.g., twenty-first century urban Americans). The latter’s sermons comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and draw on sound exegesis to communicate the meaning for today. Who would say that the second preacher did not communicate the “meaning” of the text while the first one did?Well, some scholastics will argue that the first preacher communicated the passage’s meaning while the second communicated its significance. That seems to me a distinction without a difference. I would prefer to distinguish between Spirit-inspired “authorial intent” (difficult as that is to pin down) and “Spirit-inspired” (or if you prefer “Spirit-illumined”) application for today. Both are ingredients (to use an inelegant word) in the passages “meaning.”
I think it is possible for a person to discover and repeat a biblical passage’s “authorial intent” without any special help from the Holy Spirit—if by “authorial intent” is meant the bare, historical meaning of the words. But surely that is not the main meaning of Scripture—for us, sinners intended to hear the Word of God and respond today. The latter must not be uprooted entirely from the former and allowed to float away into fanciful nonsense. However, the former is just a dead letter, mere datum, possibly interesting but lacking spiritual nourishment, without the latter.
Without the Spirit the Bible is just literature.
I am well aware of some potential objections to this view of the Bible’s meaning. I will try to answer them in advance.
First, someone may object that I have endorsed the distinction between “logos” and “rhema” commonly found among “Word of Faith” charismatics—opening the door to “new truths” that go beyond anything in Scripture and even supersede it. I am not opening that door—I have held it shut tightly be emphasizing that Scripture’s meaning can never be divorced from sound exegesis that discovers original authors’ intent.
I will use a word picture to illustrate my view and show how it is different from that held by many charismatics in the “Word Faith” movement. A kite is no good if it is not anchored to the ground (by someone holding it). It becomes useless if it is allowed to fly free into the wind. On the other hand, a kite is also no good if it is not allowed to fly and float in the wind above the ground. The ground (person standing on it holding the kite) is, of course, sound biblical exegesis. The wind, of course, is the Spirit bringing Scripture “to life,” so to speak, in contemporary proclamation. In my opinion, too often people who talk about the “rhema” or “Word of God for today” (in the “Word Faith” movement) do allow the kite to float away from its anchor. Then it becomes useless for sound proclamation of the Word of God. On the other hand, too many conservative biblical scholars insist on keeping the kite on the ground in which case it is also useless.
Second, someone may object that I have endorsed the “neo-orthodox” view that Scripture is not the Word of God but “becomes the Word of God.” Whether that is really the neo-orthodox view is debatable, but that’s how it has come to be described and I think there is some truth in that description. That is not my view. I believe Scripture is always already the Word of God because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit. However, I also think there is some truth in what is commonly called the neo-orthodox view. It should not be rejected entirely. Unfortunately, many conservative biblical scholars, theologians and preachers reject it too quickly and go to the opposite extreme—expelling the Holy Spirit from any close connection with the Word of God except in its actual writing.
I agree with Donald Bloesch’s “sacramental view” of the relationship between the Bible and the Word of God. The Word of God, God’s truth-telling and life-transforming activity, is always already in, with and under the Bible. It is inseparable from it. The Bible is its unique medium. But it is the Word of God in this sense because of the Holy Spirit, not just as literature (which it is).
Again, I’ll use a word picture to illustrate this view. Imagine there is only one light bulb in the world. (There probably was a time when that was the case!) Now imagine it’s connected to a rheostat such that electricity is always flowing into it and its filament is always already energized by that electricity. But people cannot see that energy, that light, unless the rheostat is turned up. An electrician can detect the energy, the light, playing on the filament, but even he or she cannot see anything by it yet. As soon as the rheostat is activated, turned up, the light begins to shine brighter and illumine life. The energy that causes the light never leaps out of the bulb! But the light shines out from it. Faith-filled proclamation of the biblical message is the rheostat being turned up by the Holy Spirit. There is no “new light” in the physics sense, but there is “new light” in the sense of its intensity and illumination. The light always was the Word of God and the bulb always was its unique medium, but through the Holy Spirit the light in the bulb is being intensified so that it can be transforming of the darkness (dispelling it). But without the bulb and its filament (etc.) the light would not be present and transforming.
So, it is true both that the Bible “becomes the word of God” and that it “already always was the word of God.” It is also true that Scripture’s “meaning” lies in the Spirit-inspired authorial intent and in the Spirit-illumined proclamation that is faithful to the authorial intent but goes beyond it in transforming application.