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 The historical content and context of these promises limit them to the disciples.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.
William Arp, (ThD, Grace Theological Seminary) has taught various New Testament and Greek courses at Baptist Bible Seminary since 1988. Before teaching at BBS, he taught at BBC for 18 years. He has written two Sunday school quarterlies as well as several journal articles and is active in ministry at Heritage Baptist Church.