What Is the Role of the Holy Spirit in Interpretation?

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Bill Arp's picture
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What Is the Role of the Holy Spirit in Interpretation?

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From Paraklesis, a resource of Baptist Bible Seminary (Fall, 2012). Used by permission.

We might better ask the question, “Does the Holy Spirit have a role in interpretation?” If the Holy Spirit does have a role, what is that role?

The purpose of this article is to propose first that the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation is not to enable the reader to grasp the meaning of a text. We will look briefly at certain verses which supposedly teach this to see whether they actually do teach this.

This article then proposes that a role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation is actually post-interpretation. The role of the Holy Spirit is to enable the reader to make a correct evaluation of the meaning of a text so that he can welcome or accept that meaning. The Holy Spirit also assures the reader of the truth of Scripture. A role of the Holy Spirit also may be to enable the reader to relate the meaning which comes from interpretation to his life. The article looks briefly at texts which seem to support these proposals and this suggestion.

The Holy Spirit does not enable the reader to discover the (author’s intended) meaning of a passage. He does not teach the reader the meaning of a text. The Holy Spirit does not help the reader to comprehend Scripture.

Christ’s promise to the disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them and cause them to remember what He had said to them (John 14:26) is directed to, and restricted to, the disciples and consequently is not applicable to subsequent readers. Also, His promise to the disciples that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth (John 16:13) is limited to the disciples and is not applicable to subsequent readers. These promises were given to specific recipients (disciples), for a specific reason, purpose, and time. The historical content and context of these promises limit them to the disciples. They are “situation-promises” which Jesus gave in a non-repeatable situation (His return to His Father).

Similarly, Jesus’ opening of the disciples’ minds that they might understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45) was limited to the disciples and situation-prompted. The disciples needed to understand that Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfilled certain Messianic prophecies in order that they might proclaim repentance and forgiveness for sins to all the nations. The specificity (recipients, time, reason, purpose, and result) of Jesus’ teaching historicizes His instruction and limits His opening their mind to the disciples.

It also is a non-repeatable situation.

In his first epistle, John tells his readers that they have an anointing from the Holy Spirit which remains in them (1 John 2:20, 27). This anointing enables them to discern error and to stand firm against those deceivers who propagate wrong teaching about Jesus. The Holy Spirit’s anointing does not teach them; they already know the truth. Instead, the Holy Spirit’s anointing assures them that what they already know is true.

The role of the Holy Spirit is not teaching but assuring. Since there is no indication that only John’s readers have this anointing, John’s teaching is applicable to all believers. Subsequent readers may encounter false teachers and struggle when these teachers try to influence them. Consequently, both the situation and the problem are repeatable. As they learn scriptural truth, the Holy Spirit assures them concerning this truth. This role of the Holy Spirit is post-interpretation.

Paul tells the Corinthians that the natural (unsaved) man does not welcome words which come from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14). He does not welcome them because they are foolishness or stupidity to him.

The unregenerate man does not have the capacity to draw correct conclusions about these words. He is not able to make appropriate judgments about them. He knows what the words mean (apart from the Holy Spirit), but does not welcome them because he cannot evaluate them correctly.

By way of contrast, the spiritual (saved) man is able to evaluate the Spirit’s words correctly and to draw correct conclusions about them. Therefore, he welcomes these words. The Holy Spirit enables the believer to discern the truth of God’s word and therefore to welcome them.

Since Paul is addressing a repeatable situation which occurs whenever someone proclaims the Scriptures, the ministry of enabling a believer to welcome God’s written revelation is a continuing role of the Holy Spirit. This role of the Holy Spirit is post-interpretation.

After Paul exhorts Timothy to be a faithful soldier, athlete, and farmer (2 Tim. 2:1-6), he commands him to think about these exhortations and tells him that God will help him understand them (2 Tim. 2:7). God will give Timothy insight into their meaning for his life.

As Timothy meditates on the meaning of these three metaphors, God will help him relate their meaning (which is quite obvious to Timothy) to his life-situation. God will enable Timothy to practice these metaphor-principles in his life and ministry when and where needed.

Although Paul does not mention the Holy Spirit in this passage, it may be that this understanding which God gives may be a ministry of the Holy Spirit. If this is a ministry of the Holy Spirit (which is likely), it is also post-interpretation.

In conclusion, the Holy Spirit does not have a role in interpretation. He does not teach readers the meaning of a text.

Rather, the Holy Spirit has a post-interpretation role. He enables the reader to welcome the meaning of a text. He assures the reader of doctrinal truth. The Holy Spirit may also help the reader relate the meaning of a text to his life.

May we study the Scriptures to discover (as much as possible) the author’s intended meaning.

May we also welcome this meaning. May we then think about this meaning and ask God to show us the significance of this meaning in our lives and ministries. Finally, may we do the meaning of the Word as God directs.

[node:bio/bill-arp body]

Ed Vasicek's picture
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Bold Brother

Bill,

Thanks for the article.  This is a hard issue, and I appreciate the fact that you have tackled, rather than evaded it. You are a bold brother.

Some questions/clarifications. You wrote: 

His promise to the disciples that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth (John 16:13) is limited to the disciples and is not applicable to subsequent readers.

By disciples, do you mean the apostles?  Jesus had hundreds of disciples and has even more today!  If not the apostles, then do you mean the 70?

Bill said:

The Holy Spirit’s anointing does not teach them; they already know the truth. Instead, the Holy Spirit’s anointing assures them that what they already know is true.

These seems a direct contradiction to I John 2:27b, which says:

But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.

I agree with your conclusion, but the text wording itself troubles me.  We know, both by other Scripture and by experience, that we need human teachers, authors, etc.  How would you paraphrase the meaning of this verse?

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture
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Not exclusively post-interp

Also appreciate the article. My own take: I agree that the Spirit's role is post-interp., even mostly post interp. But I do not see it as limited to post-interp. The reason is that, while the passages cited to give the H.S. the role of understanding the text don't really support that idea, neither do any passages set limits on the Spirit's work.

I'm not aware of any reason why the Spirit may only work in the heart/will/affections of men but not in their intellect... and thinking of the Spirit's work in this way leads to other problems (e.g., the tendency to associate the "leading of the Spirit" exclusively with non-rational conclusions we reach--impressions, "burdens," presence or lack of "peace," desire/lack of desire, etc.).

Where I'm strongly agreed w/ Dr.Arp here is that intrepretation--in sense of getting at the intended meaning of the text--is a rational process, the work of intellect.

SBashoor's picture
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Great points

This perspective is right on, but it's gonna be a hard sell. The verses he mentions are very often used to teach the Spirit's role in interpretation, and few Christians seem to ever question whether or not they're really teaching that. Many Christians are discipled from their earliest days that the Spirit helps them interpret the Bible.

That said, I'd also be interested in hearing how he would explain 1 John 2:27b.

M. Scott Bashoor Happy Slave of Christ

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"Christ’s promise to the

"Christ’s promise to the disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them and cause them to remember what He had said to them (John 14:26) is directed to, and restricted to, the disciples and consequently is not applicable to subsequent readers."

Not sure I agree you can pull this promise out and say it applies only to the apostles and the rest of the chapter applies to us today.  Does 14;27 only apply to the apostles?  Does 14:24 apply only to the apostles?  Just curious and wandering what is the basis for your understanding of the exclusivity of this verse (14:26).

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Don't forget v. 31

Good questions. It's clear that some of the phrases apply only to them. For instance, there's the almost-silly-to-point-out 14:31b, "Get up, let us go from here."

I think it's best to say that the meaning of the passage should be understood as specific promises to the Apostles, but those promises have ongoing implications for subsequent generations of believers. The intensity of relevance depends on the promise. For instance, the promise that the Spirit would enable them to recall Jesus' teaching ultimately produced the 4 Gospels, all written quite some years after the fact. We all benefit tremendously from that. And the promise that Jesus would be with them via the Spirit sets a pattern which the epistles explain to be ongoing.

 

M. Scott Bashoor Happy Slave of Christ

Aaron Blumer's picture
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Inference

There's an inference of restricted meaning there as well--in the nature of the promises themselves. That is, "will lead you into all truth" has to mean something much different before vs. after the Scriptures are penned. What truth is there to be lead into after guys who were there (mostly) were lead to write down a whole lot of inspired truth?

So, even apart from context, it makes some sense to see fulfillment in the revelation of the New Testament.

... all the same, I'm quite sure God has aided my mere intellect in interpreting the text many times. And since the Spirit is the Person indwelling believers, it makes sense that this activity is performed by the 3rd Person of the Trinity.

(There are all sorts of barriers to the "normal" operation of intelligence, even in believers. Smart people don't do smart things all the time... or read the Bible smartly all the time. ... understatement!)

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The Holy Spirit Showed Me

I have a good friend who is very passionate about his walk with Christ and the role the Holy Spirit (HS) plays in his life when it comes to interpretation of Scripture. He places a high value on the maturity of the believer as meaning ability to correctly interpret the text and that the HS helps one do that. He has told me many times about instances where he spent a few days in prayer and Bible study allowing the HS to reveal to him what the text says/means. He continually uses the phrase "and the HS showed/revealed to me______" and uses it like saying the understanding he came away with is the correct one and all others are not. I keep wanting to say to him, "Ok, but I did the same thing and the HS showed/revealed to me something else." I wonder what he would say then.......

Any thoughts on what you would say to this person Bill?

T Howard's picture
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To State the Obvious

Not all conservative evangelical scholars are convinced by Dr. Arp's understanding that John 14 only applied to the original disciples. For example, Millard Erickson believes much of John 14-16 is still applicable to believers today as they seek to understand Scripture (Introducing Christian Doctrine, 2nd., 79).

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T Howard wrote: Not all

T Howard wrote:

Not all conservative evangelical scholars are convinced by Dr. Arp's understanding that John 14 only applied to the original disciples. For example, Millard Erickson believes much of John 14-16 is still applicable to believers today as they seek to understand Scripture (Introducing Christian Doctrine, 2nd., 79).

 

I should also add his work, Christian Theology, 276-8.

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CPHurst wrote: He continually

CPHurst wrote:

He continually uses the phrase "and the HS showed/revealed to me______" and uses it like saying the understanding he came away with is the correct one and all others are not. I keep wanting to say to him, "Ok, but I did the same thing and the HS showed/revealed to me something else." I wonder what he would say then.......

Any thoughts on what you would say to this person Bill?

Not sure Bill's available. FWIW, my approach would be to aim for underlying assumptions through gentle questioning. In my experience, folks with this POV are usually assuming things like these:

  1. Depending on God (Spirit) means not depending on my own intellect (particular view of Prov. 3:5-6 often has a role here... an incorrect view. Truth: even the intellect is dependent on God.)
  2. God is only at work when something unexplainable happens (ergo, if I know specifically how I arrived at an interpretation, it's not God's work.  Truth: natural cause and effect do not operate independently of God. He is in the explainable as well as the unexplainable.)
  3. The work of the Spirit takes the form of feelings/impressions not reasonings (Why should we believe human feelings are more divine than human reasoning? Is one more or less human than the other? Just asking.)

So questions that bring these assumptions out into the light of day are a great starting pt... and questioning as to what Scriptures support them is where I'd go next.

Disclaimer: I can't claim to have had much success. So far, when I've tangled with folks thinking this way, they are not interested in careful analysis. They have been of the passionately-nonanalytical sort. What this tends to do is put the key beliefs involved outside the realm of examination. They just know that this is how it is (or "the Spirit has told them"--same thing). How do you argue with anybody about what they just know?

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Aaron, thanks fro those

Aaron, thanks fro those thoughts. Funny thing is, this guy is very intelligent and analytical and does a lot of study. However, he also thinks there is a difference between God's logic and man's logic when it comes to Scripture and theology. So, God's logic is different than ours in the case of x,y and z.

He also keeps using the phrase "man's interpretation" as if to say anyones interpretation that is not what the HS revealed to him is not what God meant. Problem is, he has just included himself in that regardless of whether or not he believes the HS revealed something to him about the text.

Anyways, I'm getting a bit off topic now.

Thanks again Aaron.

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CPHurst wrote: He also keeps

CPHurst wrote:

He also keeps using the phrase "man's interpretation" as if to say anyones interpretation that is not what the HS revealed to him is not what God meant. Problem is, he has just included himself in that regardless of whether or not he believes the HS revealed something to him about the text.

I am not suggesting that this is what your friend is doing, but often this is the same approach taken by cult leaders as they claim that God has spoken to them, and thus they are the only ones with the truth.

 

Ed Vasicek's picture
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New Thread for I John 2:27

I started another thread to discuss the CORRECT meaning of I John 2:27.  Here is the link:

 

http://sharperiron.org/forum/thread-i-john-227-as-midrash

 

Being the "Midrash Detective," I put my detecting to work!

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture
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God's logic

CPHurst wrote:
... thinks there is a difference between God's logic and man's logic when it comes to Scripture and theology. So, God's logic is different than ours in the case of x,y and z.

He also keeps using the phrase "man's interpretation" as if to say anyones interpretation that is not what the HS revealed to him is not what God meant. Problem is, he has just included himself

Assumptions again. In this case, the assumption is that different kinds of logic are possible. In reality, "logic" is a term for what God has graciously allowed beings to discover about Him--and how the universe He made works. To the degree any "logic" departs from "God's logic," it's not logic at all.

What's really happening with these folks--in my experience--is that they're using a logical standard for their interpretive process sometimes but abandoning that process when the direction it points conflicts with one of their givens. So the view lacks internal consistency. It gets even worse, because, in my experience, folks with this approach all occasionally attempt to support logically the interpretations the Spirit supposedly gave them--and when they do, they employ the same kind of logic they normally reject as "human" (the only difference being that the premises are different.)

So what their view ends up being, in practical terms, is this: "God's logic" differs from "human logic" in that the former agrees with me and the latter does not.

Ed, I'm not yet convinced, but your midrash angle on 1 John 2.27 looks pretty persuasive to me so far.

Ed Vasicek's picture
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Midrash and Spinal Column

Aaron, I expanded my post and made it into an article.  It got me thinking.

 

As far as interpreting, if we do not use some sort of objective standard, our imaginations and the work of the Spirit can become as entwined as the spinal column.

"The Midrash Detective"

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