Recently, I had some dealings with a Christian who disdained the use of Biblical scholarship, and said that the only way we can objectively interpret the Bible is by using a “Spirit-guided process” which allows us to understand the Bible as God intended for it to be understood. In the view of this Christian, the indwelling Holy Spirit provides a stop against false teaching and interpretation, and reinforces a true understanding of the Bible. Indeed, it is said by this person, one must be Spirit-filled in order to interpret the Bible correctly.
Over the next two entries I post here, I want to discuss two problems with this claim. The first problem is philosophical and logical. The second will be exegetical.
The first and most obvious difficulty is that no one is able to meet the stringent demands of such a claim. It seems rather doubtful that anyone has maintained the same interpretation of every part of the Bible throughout their entire Christian walk. If a person like this has ever changed their minds about a reading in the Bible, it would have to mean one of two things: 1) They were not really Christians at the time they held one of those interpretive views, or 2) they were able to ignore the guidance of the Spirit — which in turn means that there can be no special claim to superiority for a “Spirit-guided” interpretive method.
An even broader problem is that many, many other people and religious traditions make the same claim concerning possession of a “Spirit-guided process” of interpretation. An example with which I am particularly familiar is that of the Mormon “internal witness”. Here is a representative statements from the Brigham Young University website (http://ldsfaq.byu.edu/viewEM.aspx?number=43):
Also sacred to Latter-day Saints is the Book of Mormon as a tutor in discerning the promptings of the Holy Ghost. Many Latter-day Saints, including those born into LDS families, trace their conversion to Jesus Christ and their commitment toward the Church to prayerful study of the Book of Mormon, and through it they learn to recognize the Holy Spirit. Thus, the book becomes a continuing symbol of personal revelation and of God’s love for and attention to the needs of each person.
My commentator claims to be guided by the Spirit, but the same claim would no doubt have been made by Mormon scholar and apologist Hugh Nibley (1910-2005). If my claimant and Nibley had ever been at interpretative odds, what would they have done? Would they have simply shouted down Nibley and said, “My Spirit-guided process is authentic and yours is not – because that’s because that’s the way it is”? Or would my claimant have given away the store by trying to prove, via some external factor, that Nibley’s interpretation was in error? Indeed, if my claimant even uses so much as a Greek lexicon to prove a point, the whole idea of a “Spirit-guided process” begins to die a death of a thousand qualifications.
The Mormons are, of course, not alone in this kind of practice. We know that many “mainstream” preachers — ranging from Oral Roberts to Benny Hinn — as well as many practitioners of New Age religion — James van Praagh, Donald Neale Walsch — have likewise claimed to receive “personal revelations” and have described them in terms that are similar (for whatever reason). I am not here assuming that one may tar the LDS belief with a basting brush coated with what comes from these. What I am doing is laying ground for broader epistemic concerns. I once joined a debate forum where someone accused me of heresy. His assurance was the “Holy Spirit.” So where does that leave us, in epistemic terms?
There is a final aspect of this that is also a problem. According to my commentator, as noted, the interpreter must be indwelt by the Spirit to interpret Scripture correctly. But is this intended as an absolute? If it is, then how do we explain it when even e.g., an atheist or Skeptic gets an interpretation of the text right? Having read the works of such people, I can assure the reader that in certain limited ways, their interpretations of the Biblical text are exactly the same as any that might be offered by a faithful Christians. How can this happen if the interpreter must have the Spirit to get it right? Are there exceptions to this rule? If there are, then it isn’t much of a rule!
Next time, in part 2, I will look at the alleged exegetical basis for these claims.