The Holy Spirit and Biblical Interpretation
Because the origins of the Bible differ from those of other literature, the hermeneutic for studying the Gilgamesh Epic, Plato, Shakespeare, or Longfellow is not adequate for the Bible. The role of the Holy Spirit in the production, interpretation, and application of Scripture distinguishes it from all humanly motivated literature. Though it does not have a mystical, secret, or spiritual meaning unapparent in the text itself, its meaning is not captured simply by the study of syntax, grammar, background, author, genre, or structure. To understand the Bible correctly, one must allow the Bible to be its own interpreter under the guidance of the same Spirit that originally inspired it.
The Bible depicts itself as a distinct genre of literature, repeatedly claiming divine origin for itself. Paul states unequivocally: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16, NKJV).* Peter states that the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, foretelling the coming Savior.
Though written over centuries, because of its common origin, Scripture displays a unity of divine revelation channeled through the Holy Spirit to the prophets and apostles. Though a blending of the human and the divine exists, the result is the Word of God. “Prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
Scripture is unique
The truth claim of a piece of literature is normally accepted by the power of its rhetoric, logic, philosophy, and science, or by its presentation of facts, the beauty of its language, and the accomplishment of its author. Scripture, however, comes with its own Power. The Spirit first prepares hearts and minds to receive the Bible as the authority of life. The Spirit confirms the teaching of the Bible: “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). “No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
A worldly attitude or a humanistic, rationalistic, or empirical worldview imposed upon the Bible can close the mind to what God has conveyed through His Word. Jesus was the Light of the world; yet, when He came to His own, they preferred darkness. They clung to their human worldviews rather than be exposed to the Light (John 1:4-13) and thus were left in darkness.
Even His disciples suffered similarly. They were with Christ for three-and-a-half years; yet, despite the prophecies of the Old Testament and the constant teaching and warning of Christ, they never expected the Crucifixion.
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night with a worldview that the Messiah would be a worldly king. He applied an earthly thought process to his understanding of Jesus (John 3:1, 2).
Jesus came straight to the point: Unless one is born of the water and the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven. That which comes from an earthly perspective is earthly; that which is born of the Spirit is spiritual understanding. Nicodemus answered, “How is it possible to be born again?” Jesus answered, we speak out of what we know; that is, the worldly view of life that occupies our mind (see John 3:5, 6, 9, 11).
If we have difficulty understanding signs and miracles, how can we understand when Christ speaks of heavenly things? In contrast to worldly thinking, if the Son of man is lifted up, He will draw all people to Him (John 12:32). Those who come to Jesus will know who He is because they are born of and guided by the Holy Spirit. In other words, only under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit can one come to know the Truth.
Paul addresses the importance of the right perspective for understanding God’s Word: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2). Thus he warns, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power” (Col. 2:8-10).
The world through wisdom, Paul warned the Corinthians, did not know God. Some seek a sign, that is, empirical evidence, while others want philosophical wisdom; but God is not found through those systems. We can know God only through His own self-revelation, and through His Spirit God makes Himself known to us.
When we surrender to the will of God through the Spirit, we are born again. The conversion that comes through the Holy Spirit is a complete reversal of directions. Our lives were headed toward the things of the world; now, through the revelation of the Bible, we see things from God’s point of view.
This is why denial of the biblical position that Scripture came by the will of God, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, denies the reason for the existence of the Bible. It rejects its immediate context. The interpreter, therefore, loses what is vital to the understanding of Scripture—that it is the Word of God. This imposition of an external worldview on the Bible denies the interpreter the basic principle and power essential to understanding the Bible; and thus, wrong interpretations surely follow.
Further, the willful retention of sin in the life puts us at odds with God’s Word, for sin deadens us to the influence of the Holy Spirit. “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
Under the power and direction of the Holy Spirit, the Bible is our connection to God. Satan desires to instill in us “an evil heart of unbelief in departing from” the Word of God (Heb. 3:12). He leads us to use methods that are independent of God. He wants us to deify reason, causing us to think of our own intellect as independent of God. He suggests that we explain the influence of the Spirit based on scientific principles. He knows that the gospel is hidden to those who are lost, to those “whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor. 4:4, KJV).
How crucial, then, that we never fall for these ploys by rejecting the essential role of the Holy Spirit in the understanding of Scripture. Our understanding of Scripture is clarified when we open our lives to the Spirit, which transforms our hearts and minds. The power of Christ, working through the Spirit, removes the veil from our blinded minds. We behold “as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, [and] are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). Then He writes the law of God upon our hearts of flesh, which brings our hearts and minds into harmony with the mind of Christ. A true understanding of the Bible depends upon conversion of heart and mind through the working of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 15:26). The Spirit does not speak of Himself, but always in harmony with the Bible. The Spirit quickens minds to enable deeper understanding of Scripture’s message. “‘When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you’” (John 16:13, 14).
We have the privilege of communing with the One who gave us the Word of God, to receive illumination on the Word, and to receive the quickening power that brings conversion to heart and mind. The Holy Spirit brings to us the words of life. He conveys God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He empowers us to live for Christ. He certifies our hope of eternal life with Christ.
By the Spirit, we enter the life of sanctification. The regeneration of our lives enables fuller understanding of truth. Christ said, “‘Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth’” (John 17:17). There is an interaction between the lives we live and our understanding the truth. The truth is not simply what we know, but what we do (1 John 1:6, John 3:21).
If our reading of the Bible is open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it will end with a desire to share with others what Christ has done for us. After the Resurrection, Christ met with the disciples and promised that they would receive power after the Holy Spirit came upon them and would be witnesses for Christ in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Afterwards, when the disciples assembled together, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 1:5-8; 4:31).
The gift of the Holy Spirit impelled the disciples to take the message of the gospel worldwide. Instead of human speculation, the sword of the Spirit shed light upon Christ and cut its way through unbelief, bringing penitence, confession, and transformation. The church expanded rapidly.
The power of the Bible under the Spirit of God is not imaginary, ethereal, symbolic, or mythical. This power brought worlds into existence, sight to the blind, healing to the deaf, and life to the dead. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter. He longs to open the Bible to us, for it brings the message of God’s love, His plan of salvation, and His offer of forgiveness. He purges us of the sin that clouds our reading of Scripture. The Holy Spirit brings conversion of heart and mind that enables us to understand and live in harmony with God’s Word. Finally, through the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit brings the promise of Christ’s soon return, which will restore us to face-to-face communion with God—the purpose for which the Scriptures were originally given.