Grant Osborne, like many evangelical interpreters, claims that biblical interpretation is “a spiritual act, depending on the leading of the Holy Spirit,” although Osborne also concedes, “God does not miraculously reveal the meaning of passages whenever they are read” (The Hermeneutical Spiral 21, 24). D. A. Carson sensibly observes, “When two equally godly interpreters emerge with mutually incompatible interpretations of a text, it must be obvious even to the most spiritual … that they cannot both be right” (Exegetical Fallacies 16).
Interpreting the Spirit’s Word
The most commonly cited passages that seem to support this idea of the Holy Spirit’s direct guidance are John 16:13 (perhaps also 14:26; 15:26) and 1 Cor. 2:6-16. If popular inferences are correct, then the production and utilization of Bible-study tools, the learning and application of exegetical methods, and having classes on biblical interpretation, all seem superfluous. Nevertheless, exegesis is still necessary to determine whether or not these passages are being interpreted properly. Otherwise, why appeal to them at all or engage in any kind of Bible study? If, in the exegetical process, it is determined that these texts have been misconstrued and misappropriated, the importance of sound exegesis is clearly demonstrated.
J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays place much emphasis on “context” in their Grasping God’s Word textbook, yet they curiously cite John 16:12-14 and 1 Cor. 2:14 as proof-texts for present-day Holy Spirit “illumination” (226-28) with no regard for the original context of either passage. While they offer a lot of their own opinions without any real basis in scripture, they do concede that since the Spirit has inspired scripture, “we should not expect him to contradict himself when he illuminates it…. The Spirit does not add new meaning to the biblical text…” (225). Irrespective of how one understands the Holy Spirit’s role, no passage of scripture means today what it has never meant.
In John 16:13a Jesus is reported as saying, “but when that one, the Spirit of truth, shall come, he will guide you into all truth…”1 Contextually, to whom is Jesus speaking and issuing this promise? Chaps. 13–16 of John’s Gospel comprise one and the same context, where the Lord is speaking directly to his chosen apostles who were to carry on his work after his departure. This is not a universal pronouncement for all believers of all time (note 17:6, 20), and the specific promise to these particular individuals was in fact fulfilled (Acts 1:1-8; 2:1-14; 4:33; etc.). Subjectively and arbitrarily attributing things to God’s Spirit for which he is not responsible (e.g. “The Spirit told to me …”) is presumptuous and dangerous. “But I say to you, every careless word that people will speak, they will give an account of it in the day of judgment” (Matt. 12:36).
The 1 Cor. 2:6-16 passage is also part of a broader context that determines its meaning and application. By reading the first four chapters of the epistle as a contextual unit, a clear distinction and contrast is seen between “you”—the spiritually immature, carnally-minded Corinthian audience— and “us”—the spiritually mature spokesmen of God who received the divine message through the revelation of God’s Spirit in the early development of the church. To stretch the applicability of this passage to all believers (including the misguided Corinthians!) is to ignore the context and the entirety of Paul’s argument, thereby twisting and misapplying it.
The Understandability of the Spirit’s Message
The Holy Spirit, as the agency of divine revelation and inspiration,2 is responsible for the collection of sacred writings we call the Bible, whose message is living, powerful, and intelligible.3 Paul acknowledges the understandability of God’s written revelation, expressing confidence in his readers in examining and thereby comprehending what the Spirit has conveyed through inspired penmen (Eph. 3:1-5; 5:17).
Since God wants everyone to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3-4), surely he has ensured this knowledge is attainable. Jesus promised that those genuinely wanting to follow him can and will know the truth (John 8:31-32). Not only has the Lord provided a revelation of his will that can be understood, he has given a revelation of his will that all can understand alike (see 1 Cor. 1:10; Phil. 1:27). That there are currently so many conflicting interpretations of the Bible and so much religious division is not God’s fault. The problem is the many ways in which the word of God has been misused, misinterpreted, and misapplied.
In rebuking the Sadducees, Jesus said: “Are you not in error because of this, not knowing the scriptures or the power of God?” (Mark 12:24). Peter warns his readers, “our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom having been given to him, wrote to you, as also in all [his] letters, speaking in them concerning these things, among which some things are difficult to understand, which the ignorant and unstable distort, as also the rest of scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:15b-16).
While we should intentionally avoid mishandling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15), at the same time we do not want to dismiss any divine assistance that is available. To help maintain the necessary commitment and mental focus that leads to understanding God’s word, it is important to couple Bible study with prayer, asking and searching for wisdom from above (Prov. 2:2-5; Matt. 7:7-8; 13:14-15; Jas. 1:5). By studying the scriptures with a humble, prayerful spirit, it is much harder to be misled by improper thoughts and personal biases. However God chooses to answer our prayers, we can be assured it is according to his perfect will (Matt. 6:10; 1 John 3:22; 5:14-15).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
2 Acts 1:16; 1 Cor. 2:10-13; Eph. 3:5; 6:17; Heb. 3:7; 10:15-16; 2 Pet. 1:16-21; Rev. 2:1, 7, 8, 11, etc. Biblical revelation is the means through which God has imparted facts and truths previously unknown, while biblical inspiration is the means through which God has ensured this information has been conveyed (orally and in writing) without error.
3 See, e.g., 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:23.
D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996).
J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).
Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Rev. ed. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006).
Related articles: Wayne Jackson, Holy Spirit "Illumination"
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