What is the Spirit's Role in Our Reading of Scripture?
September 22, 2016
Building off of our important discussion about traditional doctrine on this week’s Mortification of Spin podcast, I want to address something I see in a lot of popular level Christian books. There is a false notion among evangelicals that we can either trust in the ordinary means of grace and the church’s creedal catechetical tradition, or we can be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading. The notion is that we can follow an old custom or we can follow the Source himself.
And so much of this teaching on following the Spirit sounds a lot like the game of telephone. In the game of telephone, one person passes along a message by whispering in another person’s ear. That person then whispers what they think they’ve heard to another ear, and this continues with the goal for the final receiver of the message to try and speak the original message. If you’ve ever played telephone, you know how silly the message can end up. Likewise, to some Christians the idea of following the Spirit goes something like this: Jesus is calling, his Holy Spirit will deliver the important personal message, and now you need to obey this inner voice and then figure out which Scripture supports it. We may even do some lucky dipping, hoping the Spirit will lead us to our devotion for the day by the “providence” of where our Bible randomly opens and to where our finger falls. Then maybe we’ll have that light bulb moment of clarity.
We all know the Spirit’s work is important, but many are unclear how to follow the Spirit. Do we take prayerful walks and wait on his leading? Is that how we receive his teaching? Do we clear our minds and wait for his prompting? Can we quiet ourselves enough to hear God’s whisper? Can others authoritatively deliver a personal message to us through the Spirit?
Many of you will agree that this is not exactly how the Spirit works. But how does he then? A more sophisticated approach may be to point to the Spirit’s illumination in our private reading and interpretation of Scripture. But this sort of Biblicism can also be misleading. I will get into that with more detail in a later post, but it's worth mentioning now that there is more to the Spirit’s work in our receiving God’s word than meeting us during our personal devotion and biblical studies.
Both the charismatic and the conservative, more subtle teaching on the Holy Spirit and God’s word cuts us off from the Trinitarian work in communicating God’s word to the whole communion of the saints. And for some reason this exciting teaching often comes off as as a spiritual buzz kill. I am referring to church tradition and ordinary means of grace.
Michael Allen and Scot Swain address the relationship between the Holy Spirit and church traditioning in their book Reformed Catholicity, emphasizing the importance of understanding that the Spirit’s identity as teacher to the church flows from his “eternal identity as the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father and the Son” (26). In John 16:13-15 we see that the Spirit of truth’s mission to his church expresses the outgoing nature in the Godhead. He isn’t just a Spirit with truths to share with us; he is the truth. His being, which is the same substance with the Father and the Son, is truth. Allen and Swain remind us, “This divine truth…is not something that the Spirit possesses, as a message that is distinguishable from its messenger. Truth is what the Sprit is: ‘The Spirit is the truth’ (1 John 5:6; cf. John 14:6)” (30).
In the inner life of the Trinity there is a distinguishing, outgoing order---one where the Son proceeds from the Father and the Sprit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. Derek Rishmawey refers to this eternal procession, not as “some event long past, but…God’s presently perfect overflowing liveliness. (Every now and then you find a tweet that spins gold.) In this order, the Spirit hears and “receives from the Son that which belongs to his own nature” (30). He is outgoing, overflowing. As a reflection of this procession, he then speaks and proclaims his self-knowledge to his church in the economy of salvation. The Spirit is God; therefore he comprehends the thoughts of God. And he communicates truth to his people.
But unlike the game of telephone, the Holy Spirit doesn’t merely speak a message to us, hoping we can decipher it. And he doesn’t leave us to our own private judgment in interpretation when we read Scripture. He is life giving, making us new creations as he dwells with us. He creates the very faith we need to hear his voice in his Word. He doesn’t merely dwell detached with individual believers, but with his entire covenant community of saints.
How does he do this? “The Spirit causes the prophets and apostles first to ‘understand’ and then to ‘impart’ the ‘secret hidden wisdom of God’ in ‘words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit’ (1 Cor. 2:7, 12-13) with the result that, in hearing the prophetic and apostolic writings, we hear ‘what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Rev. 3:6)” (32). By his work of inspiration, we are given the Holy Scriptures, and “by his work of illumination, the Spirit completes the movement of divine self-manifestation by causing the divine wisdom published in the prophetic and apostolic writings to be received and confessed by the church” (32).
Since God has communicated this way and Christ promised that his Spirit would abide with his church forever (John 16:14), Swain and Allen confidently identify the church as the “school of Christ” which “holds the promise of theological flourishing” (33). God has connected the work of his Spirit to his ordinary means of grace.
The Spirit’s work is so much richer than the low view we often give him. “The Spirit, who hears and speaks the truth within God’s Triune life, creates, sustains, and directs a fellowship that hears and speaks truth within history” (34). Notice that it isn’t a privatized truth for a single individual, or even a single church, but to the whole church within history. This is where traditioning comes in.
We aren’t talking about an old custom of extra teaching that becomes outdated. We are talking about the “Spirit-enabled”, passing down from one generation to another, “reception of Scripture” (36).
I’ll close with Allen and Swain’s quoting Herman Bavinck’s beautiful description of this:
After Jesus completed his work, he sent forth the Holy Spirit who, while adding nothing new to the revelation, still guides the church into the truth (John 16:12-15) until it passes through all diversity and arrives at the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 3:18, 19: 4:13). In this sense, there is a good, true, and glorious tradition. It is the method by which the Holy Spirit causes the truth of Scripture to pass into the consciousness and the life of the church. Scripture, after all, is only a means, not the goal. The goal is that, instructed by Scripture, the church will freely and independently make known “the wonderful deeds of him who called it out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The external word is the instrument, the internal word the aim. Scripture will have reached its destination when all have been taught by the Lord and are filled with the Holy Spirit. (36)