What Role Does the Holy Spirit Play in Bible Study?
As the supernatural source of Scripture’s inspiration, it would seem that the Holy Spirit would play an important role in how we read and interpret God’s Word.
But how? Can we understand the Bible apart from the Spirit’s influence?
To understand how the Spirit operates when we read and study the Bible, we need to understand the Spirit’s role in its origins.
When we recognize the Spirit’s role in Scripture’s creation, we can begin to see how the Spirit helps us understand and internalize the Word.
The Spirit as the divine Author
When we talk about biblical authorship, we’re talking about both the human authors and the divine Author.
The term “inspiration” refers to the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of the human authors, with the result that they wrote what God wanted to communicate (i.e., the Word of God). In 2 Timothy 3:16–17 the apostle Paul says that “all Scripture is God-breathed [sometimes translated “inspired”] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
The Spirit of God has breathed the character of God into the Scriptures.
The Greek word for “inspired” (theopneustos) is even related to the Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma).
The Bible has the power and authority to shape our lives because it comes from God himself. We hold to the authority of the Scriptures because they are inspired (“God-breathed”). Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy also reminds us that the Spirit and the Scriptures go together—the Word of God originated from the Spirit of God.
The Spirit’s work of inspiration is finished, but his work of bringing believers to understand and receive the truth of Scripture continues.
Theologians use the term “illumination” to refer to this ongoing work of the Spirit.
On the night before he was crucified, Jesus promised his followers that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth:
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.” (John 16:12–14)
Notice how Jesus stresses that the work of the Spirit is directly related to Jesus’ teachings (i.e., the Word of God).
Because of the Spirit’s work of inspiration and illumination, we know that the Spirit and the Word work together and must never be set against one another. Since the Spirit inspired Scripture in the first place, we should not expect him to contradict himself when he illuminates it.
This means, for example, that we should not allow personal experience, religious tradition, or community consensus to stand above the Spirit-inspired Word of God. The Spirit does not add new meaning to the biblical text; instead, he helps believers understand and apply the meaning that is already there.
In this regard Kevin Vanhoozer writes that the “Spirit may blow where, but not what, he wills.”
Vanhoozer goes on to describe the Spirit as the “Word’s empowering presence.” This description is helpful because it reminds us that the Spirit’s role isn’t to author a new Bible (i.e., revealing new meaning through personal experience or community tradition), but to illuminate the meaning He already authored.
Can we grasp God’s Word apart from the Spirit?
Looking at the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical interpretation raises the question of whether people without the Spirit can grasp God’s Word. We would answer this important question in three different ways.
If unbelievers use valid interpretive methods, they can comprehend much of the Bible, such as the sense of words, the rules of grammar, and the logic of a passage.
People who read literature effectively will certainly be able to detect a contrast or a command or a figure of speech in the Bible when they see one.
The Bible does not insist that an unbeliever is incapable of understanding any of its basic grammatical or historical content. At the level of cognitive understanding, the Spirit appears to play a minimal role.
2. “Yes, but Only to a Degree”
Going a step further, can persons without the Spirit understand the meaning of a biblical passage?
Here we answer “Yes, but only to a degree.” We would say that their understanding is limited (i.e., “only to a degree”) for at least three reasons.
- Sin has affected the whole person, including the human mind. We are not suggesting that sin prevents us from recognizing prepositional phrases or locating literary themes. We do, however, believe that sin has dulled our ability to discern or perceive scriptural truth.
- An unbeliever’s ability to understand the meaning of a biblical text is limited by the effects of the “unbelieving” pre-understanding that he or she brings to the text. As Vanhoozer observes, pre-text baggage has the power to distort the way people understand the Scriptures:“We should recall how common it is for readers to let their prejudices or ideologies distort their reading. Distortion is a real possibility whenever readers are faced with texts that require behavioral change, not to mention the death of the old self and the end of self-love. Interpretation never takes place in a cognitively and spiritually clean environment.”Since the Spirit plays a crucial role in helping Christian interpreters deal with the baggage of their pre-understanding, a person who does not have the Spirit will encounter an even greater degree of distortion.
- We say that a person without the Spirit can understand the meaning of a biblical passage “only to a degree” because understanding involves more than just taking in information with your mind. Understanding the meaning of a biblical passage involves the whole person—mind, emotions, body, and so on. Unbelievers, by definition, do not accept the things of the Spirit of God.
Will people without the Spirit accept the truth of the Bible and apply it to their lives?
The Bible itself says “No.”
In 1 Corinthians 2:14 the apostle Paul says that “the person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”
Paul does not mean that a person without the Spirit will have no intellectual comprehension of what the Bible is saying. Rather, he means that an unbeliever will understand its basic message, but reject it.
When Paul goes on to say that a person without the Spirit “cannot understand” the things of God, he is referring to a personal, experiential kind of understanding.
People without the Spirit do not know the things of God because they have not experienced them.
Without the Spirit, people may understand some of the Bible’s meaning, but they will not be persuaded of its truth and will not live it out. They may grasp the meaning of the biblical text, but they won’t allow the text to grasp them. We cannot apply the Word of God without the help of the Spirit of God.
Can we grasp God’s Word apart from the Holy Spirit?
Perhaps now you can see why we have three different answers to this important question. When it comes to biblical interpretation, the Spirit appears to work little in the cognitive dimension, more in the area of discerning truth, and most in the area of application.
Here’s J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays introducing the course:
This post is adapted from material found in the Biblical Interpretation online course, taught by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays.