From the Archives: What Is the Role of the Holy Spirit in Interpretation

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 The historical content and context of these promises limit them to the disciples.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.

Bill Arp Bio


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.

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TylerR's picture

Editor

The author wrote:

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.

This isn't what the passage says. The Holy Spirit is teaching them (present, active verb) all things:

  • ἀλλ᾽ ὡς τὸ αὐτοῦ χρῖσμα διδάσκει ὑμᾶς περὶ πάντων

When I preached this message a few weeks back, I tied that teaching and illumination to the reading of Scripture. That is, the Spirit illuminates and applies Scripture to believer's lives. John's point was that his audience didn't need the gnostic heretics to teach them any "new" or "secret" truth about Christ ("But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you"). Why? Because they had the Spirit, who would apply, illuminate and give discernment to recognize the true body of faith they'd already received. 

I would really like to hear more from the author about why he believes the Spirit doesn't have a role in teaching the Scriptures. I suspect he's trying to avoid the implication that a reader just needs the Spirit, and doesn't need the Word. That would be a false assumption if anyone took it that way. 

What do you guys think? 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

To piggy-back on the previous post, I suspect the author is anxious to protect sola scriptura against charasmatic madness. That's a worthy goal, but I think he gives far too much away when he writes:

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).

If Jn 14:26 is only directed towards the disciples, then the following statements also have no application to believers today:

  • If you love Christ, you will be keeping His commandments (Jn 14:15)
  • The Holy Spirit will remain with you forever (Jn 14:16)
  • Jesus won't leave the disciples comfortless, because He'll send the Spirit to them in His name (Jn 14:18)
  • Jesus and the Father will make themselves known to the disciples in the Person of the Spirit (Jn 14:19-23)
  • Jesus will help the disciples remember what He taught them (Jn 14:26)
  • Jesus will give perfect peace to the disciples (Jn 14:27)
  • Believers should rejoice because Christ has returned to the Father's side (Jn 14:28-29)

At what point do we stop this restricting of context? Are we really willing to say that (1) the Spirit won't remain with believers forever, (2) that the Spirit isn't our Comforter and Helper, (3) that Father and Son don't make themselves known to believers in the Person of the indwelling Spirit, (4) that the Spirit doesn't help us remember what we've been taught, (5) that Jesus doesn't give believers perfect peace, and that (6) we shouldn't rejoice because Jesus has returned to the Father's side where He belongs?  

Let me illustrate - should we also restrict Jesus words about election and calling to the original crowd (Jn 6:37-44)? After all, He spoke to them, didn't He? Are those words not applicable to us today? Maybe those words were only applicable to the disciples? 

I don't think many sane people would use this kind of argumentation, but the author uses it here with the Spirit. I don't think it works at all. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

AndyE's picture

Tyler,

While not completely discounting what you are saying, I do think it is worth noting at least two things in regard to the promised work of the Spirit that Jesus mentions in these chapters.

First, is the all-encompassing terminology:  John 14:26 says, “bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.”   John 16:13 says, “He will guide you into all truth…and he will tell you things to come.”   These statements regarding “all things” and “all truth” and “things to come” are not what Christians should expect from the Holy Spirit today, is it?  They seem to be statements regarding direct revelation in a way we don’t experience today.

Second, there is in the text a specific limitation to Jesus’s disciples regarding their role in bearing witness to this truth that will be revealed to them by the Holy Spirit.  John 15:27 says, “you also will bear witness because you have been with me from the beginning.”  I think those statements regarding the Holy Spirit and revelation are thus limited to the disciples – i.e., those who have been with Jesus from the beginning.

Now, that’s not to say that there is no application to believers today. Just that the application is derivative – the Holy Spirit does these things for us via the inspired Scriptures written by specific witnesses.

Andy

alex o.'s picture

A theologian who doesn't do justice to the topic. He asserts things but doesn't cover related issues and is very thin in supporting his arguments. Altogether an inadequate study on the topic.

Regarding the "anointing" in in 1Jn. 2.20, 27, R.E. Brown identified this "teaching" and "knowledge" as fulfilling the promise of Jer.31.31. When Christ shed His blood to God in sacrifice it was the blood of The New Covenant, He clearly said this.

To me it seems the Dispensationalists (like Arp) want a 'law of language' to support their own bias that the New Covenant was only for Israel. Initially it was, since no Gentiles were included until the Samaritans received the Spirit.

The Olive Tree that the Gentiles were grafted into was the same that the (chosen) Jews were in the O.T. There is no "Church Olive Tree." The Gentiles will always be a "graft" but with all the same blessings from God but with different status.

Israel is still a nation in God's mind (not the present National Israel) and these promises of the New Covenant will be enjoyed by the nation when God deals with them again redemptively. This will usher in a greater age of miracles but it will still be on the basis of the New Covenant.

Probably the best way the read discourses of this night (from the upper room to The Garden of Gesemene) in John's gospel, is to include ch. 17. This is one of the most concentrated sections of scripture theologically and John's record is both clear and profound. It is quite easy to discern the various parties referenced in this section. To limit the teaching and other ministries of The Spirit to the 11 disciples is just inadequate.

 

 

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

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