The Holy Spirit and Reading Scripture

Because not all seminarians have undergraduate degrees in biblical interpretation, I normally start my hermeneutics courses with the basics of literary context and cultural-historical context (my specialty) before turning to specific genres and other more detailed questions.

These principles matter because God inspired the Bible textually, in literary form. Most genres in the Bible also existed, in at least a fairly close form, in the biblical world outside the Bible, so principles relevant for reading such genres matter. That God gave us the Bible in this form means that we need to attend to the particular shape in which God inspired these documents, shaped to address those concrete realities. The God who speaks to us in Scripture will speak a message consistent with the message that God originally inspired.

This article, however, addresses a different aspect of interpretation — one that I used to simply take for granted when I taught hermeneutics. This is an aspect that typically receives less emphasis in academic settings, even Christian ones, though it is part of all of our Christian traditions.

Hearing the Author

Even though we have the Bible in textual form, it is not just any text. For us as Christians, it is God’s Word, and it not only spoke in the past but continues to communicate to us God’s message.

When I read a work by a friend or mentor I know, such as my teachers E. P. Sanders or D. Moody Smith, I hear it in their voice. When we read the Bible, there is a sense in which we can get to know many of its authors, such as Nehemiah or Paul. But because Christians hear the Bible as inspired by God, there is a sense in which we can, most importantly, learn to hear the divine author who speaks through these various human authors in various ways. As we grow to know God’s voice better in Scripture, we better recognize God’s heart toward us. This also helps us recognize when the same God speaks in our lives in other ways.

A Spirit hermeneutic is a thus relational hermeneutic: we know the God of the Bible and therefore read the Bible from a vantage point of trust in him.

Reading with Faith

Many lay readers of the Bible intuitively expect to hear God’s voice there. Such expectancy is a sign of faith. Often readers do not know how to approach the text as a text, but God meets them in their study because they have faith. Sometimes they go amiss, because faith is effective only when it has the right object — in this case, what God actually says.

But as academicians we sometimes go to the other extreme. Influenced by the Enlightenment, sometimes our institutions teach interpretive techniques mechanistically, as if an academic reading alone were enough. Even after we have finished our contextual study, however, we still need to approach the text in faith, embracing its message for us today.

Many Christian scholars through history, such as Chrysostom and many Reformers, engaged in careful exegesis. Nevertheless, they also emphasized our need for faith and the Spirit’s illumination. Luther, for example, insisted that God’s Spirit is present and active in a special way in Scripture. One should read the Bible alongside prayer and meditation. “Experience is necessary for the understanding of the Word,” which must “be believed and felt,” he declared (cited in Craig G. Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture [Baker Academic, 2015], 198). Calvin insisted that people could understand God’s Word only through the Spirit’s enlightenment (see, e.g., Yuzo Adhinarta, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Major Reformed Confessions and Catechisms of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries [Langham, 2012], 38). Wesley urged readers who found some biblical passages hard to understand to seek God in prayer (see Joel B. Green, Practicing Theological Interpretation: Engaging Biblical Texts for Faith and Formation [Baker Academic, 2011], 107).

We read from diverse cultural starting points, but one special vantage point is uniquely Christian: the vantage point of faith in God. Reading the biblical narrative with faith means reading its message as true. That does not mean debating every historical detail or treating biblical creation narratives like scientific treatises. It does mean that the God of the Bible is our God; the Jesus of the Gospels is our risen Lord; and the Bible’s verdict on human moral failure is what we see reflected in the world around us continually.

Letter and Spirit

It is possible to focus so exclusively on textual details that we miss God’s heart that the text is designed to communicate (note Jesus’s warning in Matt 23:23-24).

Paul explains that he and his colleagues are empowered not as ministers of the “letter” but as ministers of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:6). The “letter” may refer to the mere written details of the law; Jewish teachers played even with matters of spelling. Paul observes that Moses veiled God’s glory when addressing Israel, but he removed the veil when he was before the Lord (2 Cor 3:16; Exod 34:33-35). Paul laments that his people’s hearts remain veiled when the law continues to be read (2 Cor 3:14-15). But as the Lord revealed his glory to Moses in Exodus, so, Paul declares, the Spirit reveals God’s glory now (2 Cor 3:17-18).

For us, no less than for Moses, the veil has been removed (2 Cor 3:14-18). When we read Scripture, we read to learn about the Lord and be transformed by him (2 Cor 3:18).

Implications for Hermeneutics

Because my wife is from Africa, I remain keenly aware that most of the global church recognizes that the God who poured out the Spirit on the day of Pentecost did not pour the Spirit back afterward! (On the Spirit in Acts, see, e.g., Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, 4 vols. [Baker Academic, 2012–15], 1:519–28, 678–82, 804–31, 886–911).

While background provides essential context for understanding Scripture, the Spirit provides us with the needed spiritual context for appropriating it as God’s word to us (1 Cor 2:11-13). The Spirit reveals Christ and God’s character as we read Scripture (see 2 Cor 3:15-18).

Grammar matters, but our ultimate interest is the Spirit’s message spoken through that grammar. When we truly hear the Spirit’s message in the text, we commit to it. Exegesis in the usual sense focuses on the text’s original horizon; today some postmodern approaches focus only on present horizon. Exclusive attention to a present horizon without attention to the original one leads to overwriting the original inspired meaning with an unrelated one. Yet it is by hearing the Spirit’s inspired message in the text that we can communicate its points most accurately for hearers today.

Connecting the two horizons, without obliterating either of them, is often considered the role of hermeneutics. The Spirit can guide us in exploring and researching both horizons, but we need the Spirit especially in bridging the gap between them, in applying the principles of the text to our lives and communities. The Spirit may draw analogies consistent with the biblical messages to the first audiences and with the larger framework of the Spirit’s message in biblical theology.

A Spirit-led hermeneutic is not just making exegetical discoveries in our study and then going on our way. Ideally, we live our whole lives in light of Scripture.

Two Ways to Read the Bible

In light of the larger context of Romans, the contrast between the law of works and that of faith in Rom 3:27 probably refers to two ways of approaching Scripture (cf. 8:2; 9:32; 10:5-10). Approaching Scripture for works involves priding ourselves on our rules, traditions, or doctrines. Approaching Scripture for faith means that reading Scripture renews our trust in and dependence on God.

Thus, our understanding of the law is transformed. It may provide moral guidance, but it also reminds us of God’s activity in our own lives. We hide his word not merely on paper but in our hearts; it is God himself working within us who has not only accepted us in Christ but who also produces the moral fruit of his presence.

Accordingly, as we approach Scripture, it is appropriate for us to pray for understanding, humble and obedient hearts (see e.g., Ps 119:18, 27, 34, 73, 125, 144, 169). In Luke 24:45, it was the Lord himself who opened the mind of his disciples to understand the Scriptures; in 24:32 believers’ hearts burned in them as he explained Scripture. Let us pray for this!

The Word of God for the People of God

Exegesis rightly and necessarily concerns what the biblical writers were saying first to their ancient audiences. But once we understand the texts in their context, we also read them to believe and embrace their message, inclining us to live them out in our own contexts.

Believers’ cultures vary, but we all read Scripture as God’s people living in the promised messianic era:

Romans 15:4: “For whatever was written beforehand was written to teach us, so that through the endurance and the exhortation/encouragement provided by the Scriptures we should have hope.”

1 Corinthians 10:11: “These things happened to them to serve as examples, and they were written down to warn/instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.”

Paul affirms that, “these things happened to them” — they involve incidents in history. But he affirms that they were recorded so that subsequent generations could learn from what happened to them. This remains especially true for us as Christ’s followers, “on whom the ends of the ages have come.”

As Jesus’s followers, we should thus understand ourselves as living in a time of fulfillment, the already/not-yet time between Christ’s first and second comings. Recognizing that Jesus’s coming brought a new phase in the fulfillment of God’s promises, the earliest Christian writers repeatedly affirmed that the final era, the “last days,” had dawned (Acts 2:17; 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 3:1; Heb 1:2; 2 Pet 3:3; 1 John 2:18). Although they expected a future consummation, they also insisted that they experienced a foretaste of the future kingdom through the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:23; 1 Cor 2:9-10; 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:13-14).

Ancient historians and biographers often plainly and explicitly tell us that they expected their readers to learn moral and ideological lessons from their true accounts. In 1 Cor 10:11, already noted, Paul cites the examples of the OT Paul uses Abram’s faith (Gen 15:6) as a model for believers (Rom 4:1-25).

Human examples in biblical narratives are often negative, but how we see God acting in the Bible can shape our understanding of how God works. We learn not only from what we consider key verses of Scripture but also from patterns of how God works in Scripture. Expecting God to continue to act today in ways consistent with how he acted in the NT is closely related to biblical faith. We cannot always predict what God will do, but we can always be confident that God is working. What God did in the Bible God sometimes does, in various times and places, today.

Reading with the Humble

The majority of Christian readers in today’s world live in the global South and are economically poor. Scripture often indicates that God is near the broken but far from the proud (Ps 138:6; Prov 3:34; Matt 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14; Jas 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5). If God normally reveals himself especially to the broken, why should he reveal himself differently (only to elites) among those who read (or hear) the Bible?

Seeking knowledge is important (Prov 4:7; 15:14; 18:15), and seminarians should take every advantage of their opportunity to acquire it. Nevertheless, in academia we are unfortunately sometimes arrogant about our knowledge; knowledge does, as Paul warns in 1 Cor 8:1, tend to lead us to overestimate our status. With few and usually private exceptions, it was not the intellectual elite of Jesus’s day, but the lowly, who followed him. “I praise you, Father,” Jesus prayed, “for you hid these matters from the wise and intellectual and revealed them to little children” (Matt 11:25//Luke 10:21). Only those who welcome the kingdom like a child will enter it (Mark 10:15).

The humble read Scripture not only to reinforce their knowledge, but with faith — and often in a situation of desperation — to hear God there. They read with dependence on God, trusting the Holy Spirit to lead them.

Conclusion

Responsible exegesis still requires us to explore the meaning of the biblical texts in their original contexts. But sometimes even non-Christian scholars do that. Where Christian readers go beyond non-Christian ones is that we believe these texts as Scripture. Study that does not lead to embracing and living biblical experience misses the point for which the biblical texts were originally designed.

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[Adapted from my Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost [Eerdmans, 2016); and my “Pentecostal Biblical Interpretation/Spirit Hermeneutics,” in Scripture and Its Interpretation: A Global, Ecumenical Introduction to the Bible, ed. Michael J. Gorman (Baker Academic, 2017), 270–83.]

Miracles

My recent book, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), responds to claims like R. Bultmann’s. New Testament scholars have often taken for granted Bultmann’s quip that no one in the modern world believes in miracles. Some have even assumed that biblical reports of Jesus’ miracles must have arisen by legend or later invention, excluding the possibility of reliable tradition from eyewitnesses. Yet from a sociological standpoint, such an approach is certainly wrong. However we explain the claims, firsthand witnesses can and do report miracles, and report them by the millions.

Indeed, most historical Jesus scholars today recognize that Jesus’ contemporaries experienced him as a healer and an exorcist. The scholars themselves explain this experience in different ways, sometimes as psychosomatic recoveries. But most recognize that all our earliest sources, both Christian and non-Christian, agree that Jesus was known for healing. The earliest form of Josephus’s brief comments about Jesus, for example, portrays Jesus as a healer as well as a sage (cf. e.g., G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew [Fortress, 1973], 79). Granted that some wish to leave the matter there historically, what options remain if we want to explain these cures theologically?

No One in the Modern World Believes in Miracles?

Bultmann felt no need to argue against the possibility of miracles, because no one in his circle believed in them. Yet I doubt that Bultmann himself would claim today that no one believes in miracles. He might not believe in miracles himself, but he certainly could not dismiss them by an appeal to universal modern opinion. We know too much about modern opinion for that.

United Methodist theologian J. González points out that “what Bultmann declares to be impossible is not just possible, but even frequent” (Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit [Orbis, 2001], 63). Likewise, Hwa Yung, Methodist bishop of Malaysia, challenges Bultmann’s ethnocentric approach to the modern world, noting that Asian worldviews do not find miracles or spirits problematic (Mangoes or Bananas? The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology [Regnum, 1997]). Even among people in the US, surveys suggest that roughly 80 percent believe in miracles, including 73 percent of physicians. Indeed, 55 percent of physicians report that they have witnessed treatment results that they consider miraculous.

Globally, the figures of those who believe they have witnessed miracles are enormous. A 2006 Pew Forum survey estimated the proportion of Pentecostals and charismatics in ten nations who claimed to have witnessed or experienced divine healing. For these groups alone, and in these ten countries alone, the figures come out to roughly two hundred million people. More surprisingly, some 39 percent of Christians in these ten countries who do not claim to be Pentecostal or charismatic offer the same claims. Even granting the serious possibility of inflation in some of these figures, we are talking about hundreds of millions of people.

KeenerCraigMiracles

Craig Keener, Miracles (2011).

Nor are these figures exhaustive. The ten countries surveyed did not include some countries that also boast high figures, such as China. More than a decade ago some members of the official China Christian Council reported that about half the abundant conversions of the previous two decades resulted from “faith healing experiences.” Some other Christian sources in China estimate as high as 90 percent. Whatever the precise figures, we are talking about vast numbers of people. Not only in China but elsewhere, many have been so convinced by the cures that they have made costly changes in their traditional religious or spiritual affiliation.

In other cases, claims are offered by those who are not Christians, sometimes even about Christian prayers. In one study in 1981, roughly 10 percent of non-Christians in Madras, India, reported having experienced significant healings through prayers to Jesus, with more than twice that number aware of such healings (M. Bergunder, The South Indian Pentecostal Movement in the Twentieth Century [Eerdmans, 2008], 233). I offer some concrete samples of miracle claims below.

Critiquing Hume Posthumously

In simply dismissing miracles, Bultmann followed a traditional argument developed by D. Hume. Although many philosophers today challenge Hume’s argument, many intellectuals simply take for granted that miracle claims are not believable, often without realizing that they echo Hume.

Recycling arguments of earlier deists, Hume’s brief essay sometimes confuses modern readers. The first part of his essay may try to explain miracles away: they are violations of natural law, and natural law cannot be violated. Hume’s argument depends on a then-current understanding of natural law no longer accepted. (Even in his own day, most English scientists who affirmed natural law, such as Isaac Newton, also believed in biblical miracles.) Hume’s definition differed from historic ones, and does not fit most biblical examples of miracles (e.g., even the parting of the sea employed a strong wind, according to Exod 14:21).

Most relevant here, Hume’s understanding of natural law extrapolates from limited human experience, the subject of the second part of his essay. In the second part of Hume’s essay, he denies that we should trust even eyewitness testimony for miracles because uniform human experience leads us not to expect that miracles happen. As most philosophers of religion point out today, Hume’s argument here is circular: uniform human experience is used to exclude claims about human experience that differ from the alleged uniformity. Today, when we are aware that hundreds of millions of people claim to have witnessed or experienced divine healing, it would be difficult for even Hume to appeal to “uniform” human experience. One might disbelieve in miracles, but one cannot argue from universal human experience to simply dismiss them.

Many even in Hume’s own day and shortly afterward (such as John Wesley) challenged his argument, but in many circles Hume got away with it. Miracles were not reported in his own circle, and he had ways of dispensing with reports in other circles. For example, he dismissed non-Western reports by attributing them to “ignorant and barbarous” peoples, following an earlier deist line of argument. Lest we suppose that Hume meant this in a less ethnocentric way than it sounds, he elsewhere claims that all true civilizations in history were white; others widely adopted his arguments supporting slavery and the inferiority of people of color. Confronted with the reality of a Jamaican Cambridge graduate who composed poetry in Latin, Hume compared him to a parrot that mimicked human sounds. Unfortunately, Hume’s racist dismissal of non-Western reports found ready hearers.

Hume also dismissed Western miracle reports, complaining that religious people’s claims were sectarian, hence untrustworthy. Blaise Pascal’s niece had a foul-smelling, running eye sore; she was instantly and publicly healed at a Jansenist monastery and the queen mother of France sent her own physician to verify the report. Hume cites some of the evidence supporting this cure, notes that it is better documented than miracles in the Bible, and then uses this observation to dismiss evidence for all miracle reports, since, after all, he considered this miracle unbelievable. Hume got away with this dismissal because Protestants already had the habit of dismissing all Catholic miracle claims.

Most thinkers today would reject arguments based on ethnocentrism or sectarian polemic. If we reject Hume’s circular argument against miracles, miracles should be allowed back on the table as a potential explanation for some anomalous events. Indeed, the firsthand claims available for miracles are stronger than much evidence we use for other claims about historical or current events that we commonly take for granted.

Various Explanations

Clearly firsthand witnesses do report miracles. They do not all arise, as biblical critics once supposed, through legends or the literary imagination of the writers. But even when miracle claims stem from eyewitnesses, do we need to suppose that they are genuinely miracles, i.e., divine acts?

Not always. In a small minority of cases, fraud is involved. More common is exaggeration or initial misdiagnosis. Moreover, studies show that “faith” itself has curative properties and religious practice encourages positive health outcomes. A large proportion of ailments have psychosomatic or psychogenic causes that can be treated psychologically. Psychoimmunology shows how belief influences immune responses.

Christians may believe that God can work through such factors to achieve cures in these cases, but is the Christian God limited to such means? Some accounts today invite other explanations, for example, in reports of cataracts instantly disappearing or persons recovering from apparent death. Cataracts require surgery for removal, and after six minutes without oxygen a person suffers irreparable brain damage.

Examples of Miracle Claims

When people speak about experiencing miracles, what do they mean? For the book I interviewed scores of people from around the world, as well as surveyed claims published in other sources. Reported cures addressed a wide range of illnesses. I offer the barest sample in what follows.

As a child, Brad Wilkinson had atrial septal defect, with two holes in his heart. A week before surgery was scheduled, the family went for prayer at their church, but on the day before the surgery tests confirmed that the holes remained. The next day, however, as the doctors went in to repair the heart, they found that it was completely restored — so much so that Brad was sent home the next day with no restrictions. Now an adult, Brad has never experienced further heart problems, and his father and former minister both remember the healing vividly.

Undergraduate Joy Wahnefried suffered from vertical heterophoria, a problem with her vision that generated severe migraines. During prayer, she was suddenly and completely healed, to the extent that she no longer needed glasses. She sent me material certifying the dramatic change in her condition.

Additional dramatic reports, from people I know personally, include cures of blindness. Although most cases of blindness are not supernaturally healed, hundreds of instances of healing are reported. Flint McGlaughlin, director of enterprise research at the Transforming Business Institute, Cambridge University, prayed for a blind leper in India whose eyes were clouded with cataracts. Both Flint and another eyewitness reported to me that the man was instantly and publicly healed. He went around the rest of the day looking at the sights he had not been able to see before and praising the God who had healed him.

Dr. Bungishabaku Katho, president of Shalom University in the Democratic Republic of Congo, shared with me that he came from circles that did not believe that miracles were for today. Nevertheless, one day he and his companions were doing evangelism in a village, and a man asked them to pray for his blind wife. They began praying, and after two minutes, she began exclaiming, “I can see!” Despite her advanced age, she began dancing joyfully. She retained her sight for the remaining years of her life. In September 2010, Southern Medical Journal published a study that attested people being significantly and instantly cured of blindness or deafness during prayer in Mozambique.

Raisings from the Dead

Some scholars who allow that Jesus may have cured psychosomatic ailments balk at claims that he raised anyone from the dead, pointing out that no one is raised from the dead today. Whether we explain raising reports as people coming out of deep comas or as literal raisings, however, there certainly are many raising accounts today.

From my wife, who is from Congo-Brazzaville, I heard a story that I followed up with my mother-in-law. When my sister-in-law Thérèse was two years old, she cried out that she had been bitten by a snake. When my mother-in-law reached her, she found her not breathing. Because no medical help was available in the village, she strapped Thérèse to her back and ran to a nearby village where an evangelist friend was ministering. He prayed, Thérèse started breathing, and the next day she was fine. “How long was she not breathing?” I inquired. After my mother-in-law stopped to calculate the rough distance between the two villages, I was shocked by her answer. “About three hours,” she concluded. Thérèse lacked brain damage. Now an adult, she recently completed seminary.

During three weeks of interviews with friends of the family in the mainstream Protestant church in my wife’s country, we received seven eyewitness accounts of people being raised from the dead, one of them involving a child clearly dead for roughly eight hours. When I asked a Nigerian friend, Leo Bawa, now a Ph.D. student in the UK, if he had witnessed any miracles, he said that he could share only a few. In one of the accounts that he shared with me, neighbors brought to him their son, who had died. After a few hours of prayer, he said, he handed the boy back to the parents alive.

At one academic conference, I was sharing such accounts with some of my colleagues. I was suggesting that the way that Majority World Christians read the Bible could help us hear its accounts of miracles more sympathetically. Afterward a professor and published scholar I know from Nigeria stood and recounted that his own son was born dead, but revived after twenty minutes. Lacking brain damage, the son has completed a master’s degree in London.

Closing Thoughts

Even in parts of the world where healing reports are particularly frequent, not everyone is healed. My wife, who shared with me accounts of miracles in Congo, also shared with me tragedies of many people who suffered and died for lack of medical treatment readily available here in the West. Miracles are no panacea for all the world’s diseases, hunger, and injustice. In the Gospels and Acts, miracles do not constitute the kingdom; rather, they are signs of the kingdom — promises of a better future when everything will be whole. As such, they reveal that God cares about our sufferings and invite us to work to make things better. We do so by whatever other means God has provided, whether prayer or medicine. Both are his gifts, working for the same ends.

Yet experiences like those reported in the Gospels do happen, and happen in vast numbers. Which is the more open-minded approach to miracles — to rest secure in Hume’s circular argument, based on a lack of eyewitnesses? Or to take seriously the firsthand claims of millions of people who believe that they have experienced miracles? In this light, scholars should begin to take much more seriously the accounts of Jesus’ miracles as well.

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