The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Following my post yesterday, Julia and I were discussing about the work of the Holy Spirit in helping us to understand the Word of God. I happen to have a journal article by Roy B. Zuck which is quite good in addressing the issue, because I think that as much as the Holy Spirit is active in revealing to us the Word of God, many issues do arise.

Zuck in his "The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermenuetics" (Bibliotheca sacra 141 Ap-Je 1984, p 120-130) highlights amongst others these issues:

  • If true learning comes by the Spirit’s inner working, does this mean that one’s understanding of Scripture is ultimately a subjective matter
  • If a person senses the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart, does he automatically know the correct view of a Bible verse?
  • If the Spirit interprets the Word privately to individual believers, how can one determine the correct view among several conflicting interpretations?
  • If two people profess to be taught by the Spirit and yet hold differing views on some scriptural passage or issue, which view is valid?
The questions Zuck was trying to answer in this article are how does the Holy Spirit “guide and direct” believers in their involvement in the interpretive process and what does that guidance mean? He suggests 14 propositions which I have summarised here:

  1. The Spirit’s ministry in Bible interpretation does not mean He gives new revelation
  2. The role of the Spirit in interpreting the Bible does not mean that one’s interpretations are infallible
  3. The work of the Spirit in interpretation does not mean that He gives some interpreters a mental acuity for seeing truths under the surface that are not evident to any other dedicated Bible students
  4. The role of the Holy Spirit in Bible interpretation means that the unregenerate do not welcome and apply God’s truth, though they are able to comprehend many of its statements cognitively
  5. The Spirit’s role in hermeneutics does not mean that only Bible scholars can understand the Bible
  6. The Holy Spirit’s role in interpreting Scripture requires spiritual devotion on the part of the interpreter
  7. The Holy Spirit in interpretation means that lack of spiritual preparedness hinders accurate interpretation
  8. The role of the Spirit in interpretation is no substitute for diligent study
  9. The Spirit’s work in biblical interpretation does not rule out the use of study helps such as commentaries and Bible dictionaries
  10. The ministry of the Holy Spirit in Bible interpretation does not mean interpreters can ignore common sense and logic
  11. The place of the Holy Spirit in interpreting the Bible means that He does not normally give sudden intuitive flashes of insight into the meaning of Scripture
  12. The Spirit’s ministry in interpreting the Bible is included in but not identical with illumination
  13. The role of the Spirit in scriptural interpretation does not mean that all parts of the Bible are equally clear in meaning
  14. The Spirit’s work in interpretation does not result in believers having a comprehensive and completely accurate understanding of the entire Scriptures
Maeghan
Picture by Linda B

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6 comment(s)

  1. I love your subjects.

    I don't think Mr. Zuck is giving enough weight to the work of the Spirit outside of reading the scriptures. The scriptures are most properly explained to us by life, and by the Lord's workings in our lives.

    John 5:37
    And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape.
    5:38
    And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not.
    5:39
    Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.
    5:40
    And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.


    I, for one, don't even begin to believe that Jesus expected searching the scriptures to do these rebels any good at all. Jesus focuses on the fact that these men had never seen or known God. Then He points out that the Word is not abiding in them. And finally, he says that because they are wrong, they can look at the scriptures all they want, and they will see only wrong things.

    It is in coming to Jesus that every true interpretation is born.

    If I whine about my pain, and the Spirit whispers to me that I have gone too far, then the sermon on the mount has meaning to me. The Spirit uses our lives and the scripture in tandem. The meaning of "blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" is learned by eisegesis. What the Spirit puts into my heart, I see in the scripture. There is only one meaning for the verse, but it only touches me as I live it.

    Analogy:
    A theologian is like a scientific eater of food, trying to develop a giant physique by consuming exactly the right proportion of the perfect food. But perfect eating is not enough. If he consumes the most ideal of refined proteins and everything else, they will pass through his body unused, or be stored as the fat he is trying to avoid.

    Only as the muscles are worked do they require food.

    Even so, the massive studying we sometimes do passes right through us unused, except as the Lord allows things into our lives that use the food we take in.

    But the scripture is necessary too! If we work our bodies to exhaustion, and don't eat the right foods, we are broken down without being built back up.

    Bottom line:
    I believe the scriptures can only be ingested by eisegesis. Exegesis corrects our errors, but eisegesis feeds us. The Spirit does not just interpret and illumine the text for us, but He interprets and illumines us for the text. He makes us hungry by making us aware that we are failing in some way, then He reveals to us how we are failing through the word.

    It seems to me that this way of looking at answers a lot of the questions that Mr. Zuck's 14 propositions raise. His statement, "The Holy Spirit in interpretation means that lack of spiritual preparedness hinders accurate interpretation," seems both too obvious to mention and oddly unfounded. Now we see why it's true, and we see the foundation beneath it. Life preparation is how the Spirit interprets the text for us.

    Enough rambling. Thanks as always for putting these great thoughts out here! I'm sorry I have not had the time to comment on every one of them. They are all so valuable.

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  2. Thanks for penning down your thoughts :) It is an honour for me to have gotten such a long comment - thanks for spending the time, which I truly appreciate.

    I agree with you on most points. Just a few comments in respond.

    work of the Spirit outside of reading the scriptures
    I am sure he is not against the fact that the Spirit's work is beyond just interpretation of Scriptures, but I suppose his intention of the article is to point of certain issues pertaining to the interpretation of the Bible.

    John 5:37-40
    I believe that Jesus was addressing the Jews when he says those words, Jews who are already familiar with Scriptures and he is proclaiming himself as the very person that the Scriptures is pointing to. Yeah ... like you said they can look at the scriptures all they want, and they will see only wrong things unless they see for themselves that Jesus is THE one the Scriptures are talking about -- the Messiah, the Suffering Servant ...

    Even so, the massive studying we sometimes do passes right through us unused, except as the Lord allows things into our lives that use the food we take in.
    The beauty though is that the massive studying we do gets stored away and is really useful when needed.

    I believe the scriptures can only be ingested by eisegesis.
    To me, it boils down to what one really mean by "eisegesis". My Acts lecturer is mainly against it -- that is it not right to read things into the Scriptures what isn't there, which I totally agree. But from reading you, what I think you refer to is the application of Scriptures into our lives, that when we experience what we experience, we see what we should be doing in the light of Scripture, and in that I am with you.

    The Spirit does not just interpret and illumine the text for us, but He interprets and illumines us for the text. He makes us hungry by making us aware that we are failing in some way, then He reveals to us how we are failing through the word.
    I agree - the work of the Holy Spirit in our life is far and beyond. I was leafing through articles concerning Him in preparation for my Acts paper on His role in the Acts and I can see His work and function is far and wide - in the OT and in the NT. In the Gospels we can see him in the Christological sense, in Acts ecclesiological and soteriological side, and in Paul the transformational work of the Spirit in our lives as believers.

    I don't your ramblings :) Ramble on.

    Blessings!
    Maeghan

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  3. Sorry ... I meant - I don't mind your ramblings.

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  4. Thanks, Maeghan.

    Like I said, I am only sorry I'm getting out here so infrequently. I'm hardly getting out at all, these days, and it's sad.

    I appreciate all your replies to my comment, and I still think eisegesis is a good thing :-)

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  5. Maeghan,

    I find that when working with children, their view and understanding of theology is, in many cases much sounder than most adults I know.

    This is to say that I would have to say that our 'knowledge' may get in the way of the Spirit.

    Though God does call us to study the word and to hone our beleifs, the baggage that we have accumulated from other sources sometimes inflicts its toll on what we able to 'receive' from the Spirit.

    Over time, I believe that God works through this, and the Spirit 'gets' through to us. But it comes down to our willingness to submit to His Spirit.

    God Bless
    Doug

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  6. Doug,
    I am with you in that, which is so important that we read passages in context. I always say that Scriptures can be easy but difficult at the same time.

    God bless!

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