As I have written in the past, engaging in debates on Christian theology is important for the apologist. In discussions of Christian doctrine and beliefs with fellow Christians, the correct interpretation of particular scriptures is vital. A few weeks ago I discussed the claim by people that I may be "twisting" scripture to mean what I believe is true. But today I want to spend a few minutes on a related accusation.
I have had many long and short interactions on proper interpretation. On a few-too-many occasions the person I have been engaging says that their interpretation was given to them by the Holy Spirit. The expected response from me is that I will concede my position (regardless of my evidence and reasoning for my interpretation) because "God has spoken."
The Role of the Holy Spirit
As Christians fulfill the Great Commission, they are challenged by unbelievers and skeptics. These people will specifically raise issues with certain teachings of the Bible. Doctrines and beliefs such as the existence of God, the existence of objective moral values and duties, the sinfulness of man, the justice of eternal conscious punishment, the resurrection, the exclusivity of Christianity, and numerous others are among the challenges. There are a few interesting facts that need to be added to this list of challenges to draw a proper conclusion about the Holy Spirit's role in correct interpretation of scripture.
The above challenges are based on correct interpretation of scripture, yet many of these skeptics and unbelievers who raise these challenges will die without being saved. They believed that scripture taught these doctrines, but did not believe the doctrines were true about reality. They interpreted properly but did not accept the implications of the scripture for their lives.
Holy Spirit Not Necessary
Now, many Christians would say that the fact that a person does not come to Christ is evidence that the Holy Spirit was not working on them at all. If that is correct, then we must grant that the Holy Spirit is not necessary for correct interpretation of scripture, and the claim of the person in my discussion is completely unfounded. Thus we would need to keep moving along with reasoning through the evidence for both sides.
Holy Spirit Necessary
Another view is that the Holy Spirit is at work in the skeptic's life, but the skeptic is free to accept or deny the work. If this view is true, then the Holy Spirit may be necessary for correct interpretation. In this case, we have two options: the first is the same as above; the second is that the Holy Spirit is necessary for proper interpretation. If the latter is the case, then we run into a serious issue.
If we look across the Church, we see many different interpretations of the words inspired by the Holy Spirit (notice that I already mentioned two of them just in my discussion here). Many interpretations conflict with one another (the Holy Spirit cannot both be necessary and unnecessary for correct interpretation), yet all those who are doing the interpreting claim to be led by the Holy Spirit. They believe that God is constant and unchanging (James 1:17, 2 Timothy 2:13, Hebrews 13:8, etc.) and cannot lie (Numbers 23:19, Titus 1:2). Because we have conflicting interpretations provided by Spirit-led people and God will not give such conflicting information about his own words, it must be recognized that someone is not necessarily being led by the Holy Spirit in their interpretation (I'll explain my inclusion and emphasis of this phrase later). We must remember that the condemned heretics of Church history claimed to be led by the Holy Spirit in their interpretation of scripture. How did the early Church fathers know that condemning these people was correct? If even one of the heretics was led by the Spirit in their interpretation, then we are the true heretics, not them.
How do we discover who is and who is not being led by the Holy Spirit in interpretation? Do we assume that we are being led by the Holy Spirit in our interpretation? If we are to believe that the Holy Spirit is necessary for proper interpretation, then we must grant that those who have incorrect interpretation are either making stuff up on their own or are being led by a deceptive spirit- options that are very real for and may apply to us also.
The answer that is commonly given is that we must test the spirits (1 Thessalonians 5:21). But a warning signal must be sounded. We cannot test the spirit by the same spirit and expect a denial. We know that if it is the Holy Spirit that it will confirm to be true what it has told us is the correct interpretation, but this is also true of deceptive spirits- they aren't going to change their story; they will continue the lie. Remember, Paul warned the Corinthian church that "Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light," (2 Corinthians 11:14). We can't test a spirit's
reliability by asking the same spirit if we can trust it. A deceptive
spirit is not going to, all of the sudden admit, "I'm just kidding! I
was actually lying to you about what God meant by his words! Go on following God
now!" No, it will continue with the lie until we have believed it, and
the spirit will pull us away from God in a way that is gradual and unrecognizable (the "angel of light" disguise). But by just assuming and not testing, we are deliberately
ignoring a stern warning and disobeying a direct command God has given
His Church through His apostle. If there was not another reliable way to
test the spirits, why would God command us to do so? We must have another way to test the spirit who is providing us with the interpretation to prevent us from falling for a lie.
At this juncture, the person who believes that the Holy Spirit is necessary for proper interpretation is left with two options: either grant that we cannot reliably know which interpretation of any scripture is correct (thus all doctrine is up for grabs, including the ones listed near the beginning of this post- some of which are essential for salvation), or they must grant that there is another way to test for the proper interpretation of scripture- there are other sources of truth that may be used to interpret scripture.
The Point of Convergence
Regardless of whether one believes that the Holy Spirit is necessary for proper interpretation of scripture or not, both views logically lead to the same conclusion that it is dangerous to rely on the idea that the Holy Spirit will lead us into proper interpretation but not those who disagree with us. Both views require that other sources of truth be used to interpret scripture. I have already covered one other source of truth in a previous post (Are Nature and Scripture Compatible?), so I won't go over that one again. However, another source of truth that we can use is reason. Evidence does not only come in empirical forms (from nature and archaeology), it also comes in the form of philosophy. Using sound reasoning is a powerful tool in discovering the proper interpretation of scripture.
For example, as I've mentioned in posts in the past, I believe that no two passages in scripture contradict one another (an implication of my view of biblical inerrancy), thus if we are to have the proper interpretation of scripture, there can be no conflicting interpretations of any passages. Someone can call into question my interpretation by simply showing where my interpretation of another passage contradicts the first one, and I will examine it. That is not to concede that there is an actual contradiction in my interpretation, it may be resolved in a nuance of my interpretation. But it may also be a valid contradiction; in that case I would be forced to reexamine my interpretation of one, if not both, of the passages.
Next month I will be posting a review of a book by Dr. Robert Stein about interpretation. In his book he discusses many other sources to guide towards proper interpretation, including historical records, cultural context, and grammatical context.
So, What IS The Holy's Spirit's Role?
Whether the Holy Spirit is necessary for proper interpretation or not is neither here nor there after we examine the implications of both views. For those who are curious, I do tend towards believing that the Holy Spirit has little (if any) role in proper interpretation (that is not to say which of the two views result in that view, though). However, I do believe that the Holy Spirit is necessary in a person's recognition of the correct interpretation accurately reflecting reality. There is a difference between "I believe the Bible is actually saying 'this'," and "'This' is true and has implications for my life." The first is granting that an interpretation is the correct one, without necessarily granting that the interpreted statement reflects reality (there are correct and incorrect interpretations of false statements, after all). However, it takes the work of the Holy Spirit on the proud human heart for the person to grant that they are sinful, cannot make themselves any less sinful (much less, perfect), and must rely upon Another to save them from the consequences of their sin.
As I have written in "Can You Argue Someone Into The Kingdom?," we can be presented with every piece of evidence to believe that Christianity is true and every other worldview is false, but no amount of reason will force us to acknowledge that evidence, when we have an emotional determination to deny the truth of who we really are and the truth of who God really is. Only the Holy Spirit can convict the heart of the applicability of the proper interpretation of scripture to the human being.
Finally, I believe that it is necessary for me to alleviate one more possible fear: the idea that I am making God's Word subject to man's fallible logic, fallible science, or fallible historical records. My view of biblical inspiration dictates that God communicated accurately in everything that His inspired human authors recorded. What my view makes subject to what is man's interpretation of God's Word is subject to God's words (Scripture), God's works (creation and history), and God's nature (logic)- none of which can contradict one another (grounded in God's logical nature).
Discussions of theology and doctrine are important. But they cannot be cut short by one side claiming to be "led by the Holy Spirit" because of the dangerous implications. The view presented here recognizes man's fallibility in interpreting scripture (a direct denial of any particular person being directly led by the Holy Spirit in interpretation) and explains the ways that God has provided for us to correctly interpret His Word.
Other posts specifically about debating doctrines:
Zombies of Christianity
Your Challenge Does Not Apply- The Strawman
Providing Alternative Explanations
Other posts that apply to debates about doctrines:
Reasons In And Out Of A Worldview
Avoid Over-Stating Your Case
The Power of the Cumulative Case
Is Consistency Important?