The Spirit’s Role in Biblical Interpretation

If the Holy Spirit moved holy men of God to speak (2 Pet. 1:21) and inspired the authors of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16) and gives believers the ability to accept the things of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14) then do we need any extra spiritual help in our biblical interpretation? Hasn’t the Spirit done more than enough already in giving us the text and the ability to understand it?

I’ve heard more than a few charismatic folks challenge non-charismatic exegesis on the grounds that it isn’t informed by the Spirit. But isn’t it? At least if it’s non-charismatic Christian exegesis? I don’t pretend that unbelievers can actually understand spiritual things. More times than not I’ll go with the careful and convincing exegesis* over the special spiritual revelation of the individual. How bout you?


*And that includes careful and convincing charismatic exegesis. I don’t really care who’s doing the interpretation as long as they’re doing it right, which of course means in agreement with me. ;-)

9 thoughts on “The Spirit’s Role in Biblical Interpretation

  1. I have another hunch that the Scriptures are written for the Son. For Israel as Son, for the King as Son, for the Son himself…and so for Sons. It is the Spirit that fashions us as Sons, that makes us cry out us sons. To say’ non-charismatic’ exegesis isn’t informed by the Spirit, is to question the Sonship of others…yikes!
    Like you say.. far better to have careful exegesis .

  2. I think biblical exegesis and interpretation can even be done by non-Christians. And sometimes they can conclude better than Christians (charismatic or not) what the text is communicating.

    Now, having said that, I note there are 3 points in interpretation: 1) the original context, 2) in light of Christ coming and the full implications of that reality and c) how does the text speak to me. I think #3 can take place, even if #1 and #2 was not done well. I’ve experienced this personally and in a local church context. None of this becomes canonical, but it still becomes part of the living and breathing Holy Spirit speak to us.

    Now, to only get us practising all 3 points. Most evangelicals mainly practice #3 – how does it speak to me.

  3. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of articles by people arguing for pneumatic exegesis, and, without exception, the exegesis on which they base their views is always very weak. Sometimes (as with Clark Pinnock’s last article for the *Journal of Pentecostal Theology*) the exegesis is practically non-existent.

  4. “..contrary to the claims of some who privilege the author’s intent as normative for interpreting and understanding a text, I contend not only that there is no avenue to that intent apart from the produced text but that there are meanings embedded within texts that authors may not have intended explicitly but would recognize as consistent with what was written when pointed out to them by readers.”–Spirit of Love, pg 111; Amos Yong.

    A relevant passage comes to mind in Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives…” (Colossians 1:9 TNIV). Notice that being filled with the knowledge of God’s will is accomplished through the ministry of the Spirit, giving wisdom and understanding. This means, then, that along with “the careful and convincing exegesis,” we need to be open to, as Amos Yong notes, any potential embedded meanings within the texts that would not be in conflict with the careful and convincing exegesis. These embedded meanings may be what some charismatics preach and teach on, which you call special spiritual revelation, but may best be identified as the Spirit’s illumination of the text. He is the Spirit of light and truth, after all.

    I think all to often that charismatics neglect sound exegetical treatments of the texts when they preach, and go right to their understanding of the Spirit’s illumination of the text leading them to see the embedded meanings within the texts. Their hearers are left with thinking that the embedded meanings are actual exegetical meanings. It would help along, and spare much confusion, if charismatic leaders would explain to their audience exactly where they are coming from before proceeding the teach and preach.

  5. troyacrider,

    I must say I strongly disagree with the words you quote from Yong. (I disagree with many things Yong says.) First of all, the idea of non-intended meaning is nonsense – just because a sort of unintended meaning can be constructed from a text does not mean that it is really a meaning. To be a “meaning”, it has to be *meant*. And how does the (purported) fact that “there is no avenue to that [author’s] intent apart from the produced text” logically inveigh against the principle that that intent simply *is* the meaning? Talk about a *non sequitur*!

    I must also take issue with your smuggling a doctrine of proper exegesis into Col 1:9. That verse has nothing at all to do with exegesis. It has to do with the Spirit revealing things to us – but it in no way hints that that revealing is done through so-called charismatic exegesis.

  6. (nick, could you join this reply to the above reply?) Thanks.

    The author of Hebrews in verse 2:12-14 quotes Isaiah 8:18 which refers to natural children and spiritualizes it to refer to spiritual children. This essentially interprets old covenant Scripture to reveal a New Covenant/Creation reality, extending meaning in that text that was not originally meant. Therefore, this is one example of charismatic exegesis, by the author of Hebrews.

    G.K. Beale, a leading biblical scholar on the New Testament usage of the Old, in His book “The Temple and the Church’s Mission,’ talks about ‘transhistorical intentions’ or ‘open-ended authorial intentions.’

    He explains that “Authors may wish to include a potential in what they say to extend meaning into the indefinite future by espousing principles intended for an indefinite number of applications. Or, alternatively, authors may be aware that their original meaning has the potential to be recontextualized by subsequent interpreters who ascertain creative applications of the meaning to interpret in a way that ‘extends meaning’. Thus an original meaning is so designed to tolerate some revision in cognitive content and yet not be essentially altered.” (pg 377)

  7. Mike: I wouldn’t have thought of it in those terms, but I agree.

    Scott: I believe that unbelievers can do exegesis as well; I just don’t believe that they can understand spiritual things.

    John: I’d love to take a look at more written material that provides examples of what I’m talking about. I’ve seen some, but I’m thinking more anecdotally. It usually manifests itself as a difference of interpretation with a non-charismatic preacher and the charismatic will say something like, “Well, they aren’t filled with the Holy Spirit so they’re stuck with the letter and not the spirit of the text.” And very often the non-charismatic exegesis is sound and the inner-witness that said preacher has is way off.

    Troy: It depends on what texts we’re talking about. The thing with Scripture is that there’s a dual authorship; God and man. So can God have used the men to say things that they themselves didn’t realize? Sure. I believe that he has. But we come to find these things out by carefully exegeting the texts. Either way, we’re dealing with authorial intent; we’re simply distinguishing the authors. What I’m talking about is more of a pride issue with certain charismatic folks who think they have added insight into the text because they know God personally and the Spirit speaks to them directly. I don’t deny that the Spirit can enlighten our understanding in various ways; but quite often it’s a cop out for people who either don’t want to engage the text, or want to, but can’t because they lack the ability.

  8. troyacrider,

    Thanks for your reply. I read Yong’s *Spirit – Word – Community* several years ago, but I found its argument difficult to follow. The thread of the argument seems to constantly get buried under an excessive name-dropping — Yong seems (in that book) to care more about showing how read he is than about what his argument is. (I’ll have to read the book again, so it’s convenient that it’s now available at a much cheaper price.)

    When it comes to arguments against authorial intention, I’ve seen some real doozies. Usually the arguments pay no attention whatsoever to the facts. For example, it is often claimed that a concern for authorial intention is a “modern”, “Enlightenment” concern, but the truth of the matter is that, prior to the rise of New Criticism in the twentieth century, *all* hermeneutics *throughout history* was about getting at what the author intended. There is only one exception: the editorial voice of the *stam* (from the fifth-century layer of tradition in the Bavli) invented the idea that Scripture could mean things that even God didn’t intend. That is a true exception, to be sure, but it is the *only* exception. Yet, to hear postmodernists and postliberals (and postconservatives) tell it, you’d think that pre-Enlightenment hermeneutics had nothing at all to do with authorial intention. It just shows how bad things can get when academics care more about their pet views than they do about the facts.

    It is true that the author of Hebrews spiritualizes the Old Testament. He reads Isaiah, recognizing that it’s a word of prophecy, and figures that, as God is ultimately the author of prophecy, the message in question might have a deeper meaning than Isaiah understood it to have. There is thus a sense in which this is “spiritual” exegesis, but I would venture that the author of Hebrews came upon this interpretation entirely by the working of his mind, according to principles of exegesis shared by Philo (and others), and that it did not come to him by the working of some charismatic gifting. It’s thus “spiritual” in a sense, but only because it’s not literal — it is not really “charismatic exegesis”. Personally, I think both kinds of exegesis are dangerous.

    You quote some ideas from Gregory Beale, but as I don’t buy into his evangelical view of Scripture, I can’t follow him in his idea of “open-ended authorial intentions”.

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