The Spirit and Scripture: More than Divine Advice

The Spirit and Scripture: More than Divine Advice

Loss. A car accident -- with a "recovery" expected to last five years. Maybe ten. Maybe for the rest of this mortal life.

Poverty -- not just for a year, but for generations. One generation after another.

Obsession -- always needing another dozen Facebook likes, a new drug, a new "god" that leaves one hungry for more.

Response to problems like these often comes in one form: advice. Do this, don't do that. Here are the steps to healing and success. 

Our own day has seen a revival of short, pithy proverbs -- with advice about "five steps to be happy" or "six ways to financial security" going viral through social media. Often, the way that Christians approach the Bible fits the same mold: we approach the Bible as a divine self-help manual, with a collection of Bible verses to give us advice to help us live healthier, happier lives.

Indeed, good advice is a gift. Advice can be part of the wisdom that comes from God. Practical wisdom to address loss, poverty, and misdirected hearts can be a cup of cold water to those in need. Scripture itself offers proverbial wisdom in many places.

But if we approach the Bible primarily as a source for divine advice, we are in trouble. If we really believe that the Holy Spirit inspired scripture, and that the Spirit illumines our hearts and minds in receiving the Word, then we need a larger, deeper context for interpreting the Bible. As sinners, we do not just need advice. Our situation is more desperate than that: we need a Savior. Moreover, we need the new life that comes by the Spirit in God's household: with its costly discipleship which displaces our selfish preoccupations as we gather together to receive the Word of the one Lord. 

The Spirit's Word through scripture is not simply information, or a set of abstract "biblical principles." The Spirit acts through scripture, bringing us into a new state of affairs. Just as the minister's words "I pronounce you husband and wife" is an action that changes things, so also God's Word to us changes our identity. Specifically, through scripture the Spirit addresses us in multifaceted ways in order to generate dynamic, covenant fellowship. God promises, commands, consoles: "I will be your God and you will be my people." "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you." "Do not be afraid." Indeed, with the words of scripture in our mouths, we can join the Spirit in lamenting with the world's suffering and rejoicing in God's promise as we await the fullness of Christ's Kingdom. Through these various voices, genres, and acts of speech in scripture, the Spirit does not give us a convenient set of formulas so that we can accomplish our own goals. No - we are selfish, prejudiced, and alienated, and we need the Spirit's power to bring us out of those places in order to taste new life in Christ. The Spirit does this through the inspired Word of scripture in a variety of contexts - in corporate worship, in service, in witness. For through scripture, the living Christ speaks a powerful Word by the Spirit to his people, giving us the forgiveness and new life that we could never produce ourselves.

With our opening examples, we need to admit that even the best advice leaves us helpless to confront our deepest anger and grief in loss. Instead, we can find hope in a Crucified Savior who was both a man of sorrows and the firstfruits of resurrection life. Good advice can be helpful in confronting stubborn problems like poverty. But both the poor and the rich need more than a band-aid of self-help and technique; we hope in the Lord who has called his people into a covenantal, mutually-dependent love. And the person pursuing false gods will not ultimately find solace through following a list of steps about "how to be happy;" their restless desire can find its proper delight only in the Triune God. That is what scripture is ultimately about: the drama of the Triune God in creation, covenant, and Christ - and how the Spirit empowers us to enter into the drama as children in God's household.

Holding Inspiration and Illumination Together

In order to move beyond our tendency to approach the Bible as either a self-help manual or a collection of irrelevant abstractions we need to recover the way in which scripture fits within the Spirit's work. What is the Spirit doing through scripture? He has chosen a people to form into the image of Christ, in order to bless the whole creation. The Triune God is the central actor in this drama, but we are truly incorporated into it by the Spirit. God has welcomed us as members of his household, ambassadors of Christ's love in and to the world. And scripture itself plays a key role in how God brings us into the drama. Through scripture, the Spirit brings about both death to the old self and new life in Christ, as adopted children of the Father.

In approaching the drama of God's work through scripture, we need to hold together a theology of both inspiration and illumination. In the doctrine of inspiration, we confess the Spirit moved and inspired the writers of scripture. As such, scripture is the written Word of God, regardless of whether we believe its message. Yet, we also need a doctrine of illumination, which relates to our Spirit-enabled embrace of God's Word in scripture. Illumined by the Spirit, we can receive scripture as the Word of the living Christ to us. 

In scripture itself, inspiration points to the reality of the Spirit's powerful, multivalent work. As 2 Tim. 3:16-17 suggests: "All Scripture is God-breathed 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." As the covenant Lord, God does particular things through scripture as the inspired Word of God - teaching, rebuking, correcting, training, and equipping his servants. These actions shape us into our true identities in Christ. Inspiration is not just about abstractions, then, but about a set of relationships: God speaks as the covenant Lord to us as adopted children and servants of the King. Jesus Christ himself is the truth (Jn. 14:6), and the truth that we encounter in scripture is not an "answer book" to our felt needs but something better: the self-revelation of the Triune God, accommodating to us in our finite weakness. 

As certain theologians in the early church and the Reformation suggested, God speaks to us in scripture by stooping over, accommodating to our weakness as creatures in order to have fellowship with us. Strictly speaking, we cannot know God on the level of God. But God has not left us in the dark. Out of his lavish love, God speaks in the creaturely terms of human authors. In doing this, God accommodates his majesty to the weakness of creatures - like a nurse who speaks baby talk to an infant (to use an image from John Calvin). The Spirit's inspiration and accommodation through human writing, metaphors, and genres in scripture gives us knowledge adequate for its purpose: fellowship with the Triune God as traveling pilgrims, disciples of Jesus Christ. Even though knowledge of God through scripture is accommodated to our finite weakness, it "is nevertheless true, pure, and trustworthy" (Herman Bavinck). If we assumed that the Spirit's Word in scripture was unreliable or untrue because it is accommodated to us, then the covenant ordering would be reversed: we would be acting as lords rather than servants and children of the one Lord, deciding what aspects of covenant communication should be jettisoned. 

In light of the Spirit's gracious work in accommodation, we can see how God uses creaturely means in making himself known. Indeed, as Hebrews 1:1 says, "in the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways." The Spirit spoke in an organic way through the various cultural contexts and personalities of those who wrote and shaped the canonical texts. The Spirit generates, sanctifies, and sets apart these creaturely writings as Holy Scripture, without violating or bypassing creaturely agents.

The same Spirit illumines us as the hearers of scripture, making the Word fruitful in and through us. Technically speaking, scripture does not need illumination -- we, as its sinful hearers, need to be enlightened and empowered to enter our place in God's drama by the Spirit. To properly receive scripture, we need to receive it as ones who are dying to the old self and being made alive in Christ. "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). As we feed upon scripture in prayer, worship, and study, the living Christ uses scripture to confront us with our own sin, to lead us to repentance, to give us new life that displays the fruit of the Spirit.

The Spirit's illumination does not mean that interpreting scripture is easy. We need to wrestle with difficult passages of scripture, in all of their linguistic and historical complexity, precisely because we take scripture seriously as God's inspired Word. Moreover, we need to pray not only for the Spirit's illumination, but for the Spirit to empower us to be active participants in God's covenantal drama. We cannot do this without the Spirit. For as Jesus says in John's gospel, "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (3:3, NRSV). We do not have eyes to see, or ears to hear, unless the Spirit first gives us new life from above.

Beyond Advice: the Spirit and the Word

Our tendency to translate scripture into "advice" brings with it two unintended outcomes. First, it can lead to self-centered interpretations of scripture, where we look to the Bible for answers for how to be happy and successful, rather than reading the Bible on the path of carrying our cross in following Christ. If the church's message is nothing more than a boiled-down version of self-help theory, it is no wonder that many look elsewhere to receive the same "product" without the inconvenience of church. Want to be happy? Many self-help lists offer good advice: be grateful, love your family, serve those in need. But that is not the good news of the gospel - and we will be left hungry and thirsty if that becomes the substance of Christian proclamation. Even the best "principles for living" are no replacement for Jesus 
Christ himself, the one who is the good news. 

Second, translating the Bible into advice can lead us to approach biblical interpretation in search of abstract "principles" rather than entering into the rich tapestry of biblical genres and voices inspired and illumined by the Spirit. When someone faces loss, they may ask - why did God allow this? If we want to extract a "biblical principle" in response, we could probably find one. But it will probably reflect the unhelpful advice of Job's friends amidst his suffering. In contrast, when we approach scripture as the manifold speech of God to his covenant children, we can discover something better than an abstract 'answer.' The Spirit makes promises to us in the face of despair, gives us words of lament to pray, and words of loving protest to live in the midst of injustice. Through scripture, the Spirit presents to us the Word himself who conquers sin and death in his own person.

Just as the resurrected Christ "opened up the Scriptures" (Lk 24:32) to show their fulfillment in himself on the Emmaus road, the living Christ is still speaking through the scriptures as Lord of the church today. He is still speaking both a "Yes" and "No" to our desires and culturally-formed ideals, by the power of the Spirit. For the Spirit bears witness to Jesus Christ through the written, inspired Word of God, and he illumines hearers to receive God's Word on the path of dying and rising to new life in Christ.  

J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. He is the author of several books, the most recent of which is Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos, 2015). He also blogs at