Q & A With Dr. Warren VanHetloo

Compiled from Dr. Warren VanHetloo’s “Cogitations” October 13-21, 2009.


Dr. Van, In looking at the history of the Bible as we know it today, there seems to have frequently been a distrust of the laity to handle (understand) the Word of God. Obviously, only the more wealthy people were able to provide enough education so they could read or teach their children to read. But beyond that, religious leaders seemed reluctant to open the door to the common person to use the Bible in a way to gain understanding about God’s Ways. We look back and say that there were issues of power, politics, etc. But even today in Bible believing churches, you can hear home study groups described as “shared ignorance.” Not too many decades ago, home Bible study groups were publicly discouraged, often from the pulpit. It is almost as if there is fear among the Bible believing pastors that the dangers far outweigh the benefits (or at least threaten their authority). Small groups have become a bit of fad recently, but to deny their potential in spiritual growth, in spite of some risk, seems to underestimate the ability of the Holy Spirit to work through the Word in the hearts of people. What is your evaluation?

1) Looking back, I understand that Jesus even at 12 knew the Old Testament better than the learned scholars at the Temple. I am not aware of His access to sources. Individual families did not have scrolls. Even a local synagogue might have but one or two. Perhaps as a lad He was able to visit several synagogues and even sources at Jerusalem. My point is that of all peoples of past centuries, we of the last two centuries have had ready access far beyond that of any other time. God has enabled us not only to have individual copies of the entire sixty-six books, but many of us have several different translations of the sacred Book. Greater accessibility, greater responsibility. Yea, we are without excuse.

2) Contemporaries in OT times even had difficulty understanding God’s Word. Simple parts are simple. Wise men can help with the tough passages. Some sayings seem to have been deliberately “hidden” and capable only of conjecture. Ancient Israel had many individuals and groups of specialized interpreters. The respect for the historic authorities in Israel, however, did not lead to proper appreciation of Jesus as one with superior authority. Eyewitnesses and those who had been with Jesus were honored and respected in early churches. Peter, Paul, John and others guided, but did not exercise an authority of office. A hierarchical system developed after the third century. We have suffered from it ever since.

3) As Dr. Bauder pointed out, an interpretive community is crucial to proper handling of the Word. The most important is the congregational level. A scholarly level is also of importance, and small groups (Sunday School, youth Bible studies, home study groups, et al.) complete the spectrum. We do not recognize potentates or councils above the local church. Bible scholars set forth information and recommendations, but not binding conclusions. On the whole, in our culture, there should be no room for dictatorial declarations. Before God, there is individual accountability and individual responsibility.

4) So long as believers in a small group are seeking to know the truth, there should be no real difficulty. It is when one insists on a certain position and refuses to consider evidences to the contrary that the purpose of the study is defeated. The difficulty may come from one with extensive information, or from one with little or no knowledge, thus the occasional judgment that there is but a sharing of ignorance. The purpose of small group discussions should be, not to reach dogmatic certainty, but to seek to comprehend the truth God has for each one of us. The key, it seems to me, is the leader. Does he keep attention focused on what the passage actually says? Does he stress the point at which they shift from interpretation to application? A small group meeting for Bible study is not like a few boys gathering to share their views of life and girls; it is to be more like a gathering of disciples who are anxious to understand the ways being taught by their Lord.

5) Specifically, regarding those small neighborhood groups meeting in homes, continuation as a “fad” will depend on results people in the churches appreciate. So long as they are productive sources of new converts, they will be encouraged. If they are non-productive or even counterproductive, there will be criticism. A former student now working in Brazil has found sponsoring wrestling to be the best evangelistic outreach he has ever used. Others may not take up that “fad” but surely we all respect his use of it. So long as small groups in homes are doing what the church was assigned by the Lord Jesus Christ to do, we should encourage this means of reaching the lost.


Dr. Van, In Acts 13:1 and following, we read of the church at Antioch. It is described as having “prophets and teachers” (NIV). In that list are Barnabas and Saul. While this is the point in time where Saul (Paul) and Barnabas are called out by the Holy Spirit, I am interested in any details that may be available about this church. I note that it is in existence, so how might it have been started? Also, were the four individuals mentioned the leadership of the church? It appears that the calling of the Holy Spirit came through these four, and the other two sent them off. I realize there just is not much information about this church, but it was up and running before Paul began to plant churches, so there must have been some concept of organization, structure, and activity (fast, pray, worship). What is your take?

I think this is one of the crucial verses for understanding the purpose and function of the church. Since several things are involved, I will number what I try to say.

1) This verse is important both for what it does and does not say. We need to start with recognizing what Dr. Luke is endeavoring to set forth. The purpose of the church in God’s dispensational development was clear in Luke 24:45-48. The next step for them, after His departure, was to be empowered (Luke 24:49), continuing as a distinct group (congregation; Luke 24:52-53). This instruction also appears in Acts 1:4-5, 8).

2) With one witness (Judas) departed, another should function. They looked to Jesus for guidance (Acts 1:24-26); He had chosen the twelve. In succeeding days, Peter was the public spokesman, but James, one of the Apostles, was the pastor (Acts 12:2) and James the half brother of Jesus of Nazareth the next pastor there (Acts 12:17). We can conjecture that this group of believers may have acted unguided and uninstructed, or we can assume as much more likely that Jesus would have instructed His disciples through the years about procedures to be employed in the small groups He was about to initiate.

3) Following 300 A.D. much in the church ecclesiastical structure began to flow from the top down. Many today consider (I think incorrectly) that offices prior to that time were filled by appointment. There is no indication that Jesus appointed Judas as treasurer; his choice by election is just as likely, and I think more in keeping with the patterns throughout the NT. Those who established the church at Antioch were not sent out by the leaders of the church in Jerusalem; God “pushed” them forth (Acts 11:19).

4) At Antioch, they were not left to “invent” structure or function; Jesus had instructed and given examples of all that He wanted to be done in churches. Church polity, as we call it, seems to have been very similar in all the several churches that arose from this initial scattering, as well as from deliberate church founding by those later sent forth to that task. Decisions are not according to what might work or what a certain leader proposed, but what Jesus would approve.

5) Barnabas and Saul were sent forth by the congregation and later returned to report to the congregation (Acts 14:26-27). They were not appointed by human leaders nor did they report back to a few leaders. The “church” at Antioch had four pastor-teachers, and as they (the church, not just the four) ministered to the Lord and fasted…and laid their hands on them and sent them away (Acts 13:1-3). They were designated by the Holy Spirit; they were sent forth by the Holy Spirit guiding the local congregation (13:4).

6) Luke’s emphasis is that the church is the supreme culmination of the earthly task of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that He designed it and continued to direct it. Yes, “it was up and running before Paul began to plant churches, so there must have been some concept of organization, structure, and activity (fast, pray, worship).” Not just “some concept,” but clear instruction and guidance. The place and function of the local church in God’s plan was taught by the Lord Jesus Christ to His disciples. It was not first revealed to the Apostle Paul in the wilderness. Jesus had personally trained those who directed the first churches. Paul and Barnabas and others fully fit into the patterns introduced by the Lord.

7) The ongoing expansion of individual congregations was according to the command of the Lord Jesus Christ and directly guided by the Holy Spirit. That is, it was not scattered and unrelated. Followers were not just doing what they chose to do. One very important verse (Acts 9:31) declares the interrelatedness of the endeavor: “Then the church (singular) had rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria, and it was edified, and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” The oneness of the body of Christ was not a new doctrine later with Paul; it continued what Jesus had taught.


Dr. Van, in light of John 16:13, do you agree with Kevin Bauder that “[i]llumination, however, does not take the place of good reading and hard study. It functions less at the level of interpretation and more at the level of application. In His illuminating ministry, the Holy Spirit does not teach us what the text says. Instead, He takes our knowledge of what the text says (gained through study) and shows us its significance for our own lives”? That does not seem right to me, especially since I have been convinced the Holy Spirit has led me even in study to reach an appropriate interpretation for decades.

We need to note differences and degrees. The enlightening work of the Holy Spirit is not the same as His guiding into truth. Both are distinct from His drawing endeavors. His illumination is not automatic at any point. I understood that sentence as a matter of degree. Consider two or three variations.

1) Where there is a single, simple reading, there may or may not be any divine illumination. The mind of one not yet saved may not comprehend the meaning of a word or two. The mind may not be “engaged” to want to receive anything from the verse. Illumination is not some “magical” stimulus to overcome a dozing mind. The Gospel message from God is clear enough that no man at the final judgment can justly say, “I could have believed if I had had illumination.” Illumination, at that stage, in my opinion follows faith.

2) Then, having made an entrance, the Holy Spirit may immediately grant spiritual insight. One newly saved can have thrilling comprehension of spiritual reality. The same can continue during early growth. My concentration, soon after conversion, was reading the Gospel of John over and over, enjoying greater illumination each time. That process of illumination is not discontinued in this life.

3) One who stresses illumination during study of a passage may, however, easily be overcome by personal pietistic impressions rather than genuine Holy Spirit work, which is what I see as the danger of over-reliance at the point of study of text and context. Divine guidance of wisdom, providence, and in weighing the value of relevant information can all be recognized, and all these are important, but this is not mere reliance on Spirit illumination.

4) For interpretation, God has provided many sources; for application, there may or may not be any helps easily available. For that part of the interpretative process in preparation for teaching or preaching, there is need for greater reliance on the Holy Spirit. In this I agree with the article: Illumination “functions less at the level of interpretation and more at the level of application.” It is only a matter of degree. God can personally guide each step throughout preparations for interpretation and application, and the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit can enable and enlighten throughout.

Warren Vanhetloo has A.B., B.D., Th.M., Th.D., and D.D. degrees. He served three pastorates in Michigan, taught 20 years at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN), taught 23 years at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and is listed as adjunct faculty at Calvary. Retired, he lives in Holland, Michigan. Since the death of his wife a year ago, at the urging of fellow faculty and former students, he sends an email newsletter called “Cogitations” to those who request it.

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There are 4 Comments

Becky Petersen's picture

Alex Guggenheim wrote:
But even today in Bible believing churches, you can hear home study groups described as “shared ignorance.”
Hilariously true far, far too often.

Which is true? The fact that ignorance is being shared, or the fact the home Bible studies are labeled such?

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Good question and so to be most clear I meant that often these study groups (I will even eliminate the qualifier "home" since they are not all in homes) are really "shared ignorance" as the article termed it. I have attended a good number of them myself only to excuse myself from more attendance when I realize just how unqualified the facilitator/teacher/guru was. Smile

But I must compliment most all of the groups I have been exposed to on one thing, the munchies are tasty. Smile

Aaron Blumer's picture


I've been both an observer and a participant in shared ignorance more times than I'd like to admit. But I do think balance is important in criticizing small groups... for one, none of us is all knowing so there is always some shared ignorance. For another, ignorance is actually a great thing when you know you lack information and are driven to get it. So sometimes these kinds of studies have been a blessing for me both to watch and to be a part of because questions arose that we were all interested in finding answers for... so we went digging.

Where it really gets unhealthy--as DrVan alluded to--is when folks start thinking that the spontaneous impressions of sincere believers are just as good as actual biblical facts... wow, does that get messy.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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