The Spirit and Interpreting Scripture

A few days ago I posted a quote from Moises Silva’s book Interpreting Galatians. He was proposing that, all other things being equal, the accuracy of the exegesis of passage of Scripture would be no better for spiritual believers as it would for unspiritual unbelievers.

It was quite a surprise to read this, and one is tempted immediately to reject the idea. Surely a believer, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is much better able to get to the real meaning of the text of Scripture? This seems to be the accepted view. Silva cites Bruce Waltke to this effect. As a check, I looked at my copy of Know the Truth by Bruce Milne (easier than wading through my John Owen tomes) and found a section in it headed “Scripture can be interpreted only by the Holy Spirit”. In other words, it seems, the unbeliever has no chance. Waltke argues that the espousal of Enlightenment values has led to the percieved diminution of the role of the Spirit in exegesis.

Silva’s argument against Waltke is based on two pieces of evidence. Firstly, the scientific method of exegesis seems to work. Unbelievers do get it right. Secondly, many believers come up with bizarre interpretations. Silva therefore asserts that there is no discernible correlation between spiritual health and interpretation.

The interesting element of Silva’s argument comes when he tries to explain this apparent phenomenon. He believes that the key to this question is understanding the nature of the Bible. It is both human and divine. In one sense it is “just another book”, but in another it is completely unique. The human elements of the book lend themselves to human enquiry, independent of spiritual state. For example, the understanding of the Greek language is a scientific endeavour subject to rules and procedures. It is analogous, says Silva, to the procedure for driving a car. There is no reason why the spiritual state of the driver should have any bearing on the quality of the driving. So too with exegesis.

However, the Holy Spirit witnesses to us that we are God’s children, helps us to understand the things of God, transforms our hearts in obedience. These are things that happen as believers read and meditate on the Scripture, which cannot happen to the unbeliever.

It seems to me that in this view, the Holy Spirit takes the ‘knowing’ of the believer from mere knowledge of what the Bible is saying to knowing that it is true and, where appropriate, that it is true for him/her. Ultimately, the Spirit testifies to the truth of the relationship that the believer has with God.

All well and good. The only problem I have with this division of human/divine is that there remains the possibility that a believer can be way off track in interpretation, and therefore get the wrong idea of what the Bible is saying and still be called a ‘believer’. But there are certain elements of biblical revelation that must be believed to be true for the person to be a believer. If the individual gets the exegesis of any part Scripture wrong, the Spirit can’t testify its truth. The work of the Holy Spirit would be contingent upon the correct application of the scientific method of exegesis. This can’t be so. Therefore, doesn’t that mean that the Spirit must play some role in attaining a correct interpretation, at least in the key areas?

But what about Silva’s two points of evidence against this idea? A closer inspection of Silva’s assessment of the evidence for or against a correlation between spirituality and accurate interpretation does seem rather flimsy and subjective.

I’m afraid at this moment I must conclude that Silva is wrong.

The Spirit and Interpreting Scripture