The Role of the Holy Spirit in Biblical Hermeneutics

Robert J. May, M.Th.


Contents | Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Conclusion | Bibliography

Chapter 3 - The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics:

Tradition and Community

The Holy Spirit, Hermeneutics and the Tradition of the Church

Protestants and Tradition

The role of Tradition within the Protestant wing of the church has often been met with scepticism. Much of this is largely related to the genuine concerns that many Protestants have with the role that Tradition plays within the Roman Catholic Church. It has been difficult for many Protestants to differentiate between the concept of 'Tradition' and the Church of Rome, seeing one as being synonymous with the excesses of the other. Protestants are a product of the Reformation and part of the Reformation story was concern for what was felt to be the excessive authority that Tradition held within the life of the church. The early reformers' cry of sola scriptura was a reaction to the perception that the accepted traditions of the church had equal authority and, perhaps, greater authority than the written scriptures themselves. People had been blinded to the true teachings of the scriptures (partly due, perhaps, to the fact that none but the clergy could read and, therefore, interpret the scriptures) and the church was seen to be in bondage to the Tradition of the church. There was no alternative but to set the captive free and return to the Bible at once. From this point on all doctrine and church polity was to be measured against the plumbline of the Bible and either accepted or rejected on that basis.

For much of the Protestant church today, and particularly within much of its evangelical wing, this view, still holds. Evangelical Protestants are unsure and doubtful of anything that might bare the label 'Tradition'. For much of evangelicalism, the desire is that nothing should be allowed to stand between the modern reader and the ancient text. The Bible is widely available, should be widely read and therefore, should be the sole judge as to the rightness or wrongness of any particular interpretation.

Certainly within much of the Charismatic wing of the western church, there has been a strong desire to restore the life of today's Christian community to the kind of church that is described within the pages of the New Testament. The so-called 'Restoration Movement' of churches within the United Kingdom and elsewhere would be one clear example of this approach. All things historical, traditional or denominational should be rejected in the pursuit of the goal of the New Testament model of church, free of the hindrances of Tradition and historical anomalies.[1]

There are a number of questions that arise at this point which will serve to challenge this grand scheme, at first seeming ideal in principle but questionable in reality, morality and theology.

In reality, we must ask whether it is actually possible to read the New Testament (or any other part of the Bible) through clear lenses that give unhindered access to the New Testament writers? Is direct access to the New Testament actually possible for the church at the end of the twentieth century? Further, are we meant, in any case, simply to replicate the image of the church from the pages of the New Testament or might the creative work of the Spirit and the passage of time allow the possibility of new things never anticipated in the pages of the Bible?

Morally, is it in fact right for Christians at the end of the twentieth century, to attempt so wilfully to ignore the story of the Christian Church through two thousand years and the ways in which the saints of that history have wrestled with and understood the biblical writings? Are we able to so easily assume such a position of hermeneutical superiority that we no longer feel the need to draw on the insights of others through centuries of study and debate? Surely any perceived position of superiority is entirely indebted to insights derived from the history of the church.[2]

And third, is it not possible to conceive that the Holy Spirit has actually been active throughout the history of the church in the last two millennia and might have had some role in helping the Church to come to some of the conclusions that she has? Moreover, that it was, in fact, fully expected that the Holy Spirit would go on being active throughout the history of the church. By ignoring some of the received traditions of the church, could we be also ignoring the intended work of the Holy Spirit, insights that ought to be part of the hermeneutical task?

The next stage must be to clarify what we understand by 'Tradition' anyway. Then there is a need to look at the place of tradition within Protestant hermeneutics and to what extent it is in reality, already there. Then an attempt might be made to begin to assess how tradition could be helpful in understanding the hermeneutical task and, in particular, the Holy Spirit's role within that task.

Rethinking Tradition and Hermeneutics

To clarify our understanding of tradition we shall turn to the Roman Catholic writer and scholar Yves Congar who has written extensively on the subject of Tradition. Although he writes from within his particular 'tradition', one which many Protestants would be uncomfortable with, on a subject that they equally feel uncomfortable with, the insights that he brings as he critically assesses the place of Tradition within the life of the Roman Catholic church will be useful to our discussion.

The first helpful insight that Congar brings is to differentiate between what he calls 'Tradition' and 'traditions'. The first is unchanging, eternal and not to be tampered with, the second can change all the time and needs to be constantly reviewed.[3]

Tradition is an offering by which the Father's gift is communicated to a great number of people throughout the world, and down successive generations, so that a multitude of people, physically separated from it by space and time, are incorporated in the same unique, identical reality, which is the Father's gift, and above all the saving truth, the divine Revelation made in Jesus Christ. Tradition is the sharing of a treasure which itself remains unchanging; it represents a victory over time and its transience, over space and the separation caused by distance.[4]

Tradition, then, is the faithful transmission of the great truths of the Christian faith from age to age and from generation to generation.[5] Tradition, however, is not to be seen as Scripture.[6] The latter is closed, objective, it stands alone and, therefore, doesn't require some other means to pass it on and legitimate it in the way that Tradition does.[7] Tradition is the transmission by the Church of the Church's understanding of what the Bible teaches. Tradition, therefore, is the passing down through the ages of the hermeneutical insights and accumulated dogma[8] of those who have studied, debated and wrestled with the message of the Bible and have come to certain agreed and universally recognised conclusions.[9]

But for Congar, Tradition is more than just the passing down of the insights and understanding of biblical interpreters. It is also the passing down of the 'life of the church' independent of the scriptures but in relationship with the scriptures.

The church could not wait until the critics were agreed among themselves: she had to live. She lived her own life, which had been handed down to her as such, before the texts and together with them, in the texts and yet not limited to them. She was the church from the time of the apostles, and not the product of their writings; she used these writings, not following them word for word, as a pupil copies an exercise imposed from outside, but treating them as a mirror and yardstick to recognise and restore her image, in each new generation.[10]

Therefore, Tradition can be seen as "...the communication of the entire heritage of the apostles, effected in a different way from that of their writings".[11] This understanding of Tradition seems much harder to pinpoint and evaluate. For Congar, this aspect of Tradition is more dynamic; it represents the life of the community that flows out of her writings. "For [this] Tradition to must be borne by those who, having received it, live by it and pass it on to others, so that they may live by it, in their turn".[12] It is about a life lived out from that which has been written on the hearts of God's people and not just what has been written in the sacred texts of the church. This surely is life lived out under the present inspirational work of the Holy Spirit, the one who wrote God's laws on the hearts of God's people and the one who continues to be active in the life of that community.[13] The external written text and the internal 'Spirit-text' working together, enabling the contemporary Church to live out the received Tradition of the Church.

It is this element of Tradition that is too easily missed by much of Protestantism. We cannot come to the Scriptures independent of the particular 'tradition' that we inhabit. That which we understand about the Bible is informed by our particular tradition and it is that tradition that influences and determines our reading of the text. Many evangelicals will claim that what makes them distinctive is the fact that they are 'biblical' Christians. This may be true in that they hold the Bible in high regard and seek to be faithful in interpreting the text, but that is, in essence, true for all Christians and so for all churches. All would claim that their particular expression of the Christian story, their tradition, is, in some sense, biblical. They would all look to the Bible, to a greater or lesser extent, to support their particular understanding. What is at issue is not that they all use the Bible, but the way the Bible is used, and this is determined by their tradition. "...[T]here is not a single point of belief that the church holds by tradition alone, without any reference to Scripture; just as there is not a single dogma that is derived from scripture alone, without being explained by tradition."[14]

The 'evangelical tradition' comes to the same biblical text with certain presuppositions about the ultimate authority of the Bible, the nature of God in Christ and his death and resurrection, the means by which men and women might be saved, the role of the church in mission and so on. Those who inhabit a more 'liberal tradition' will come to the same Bible but with a different set of presuppositions about the same questions. But because of their different presuppositions based from within their tradition, they come to different conclusions. Gordon Fee, writing from within the Protestant evangelical tradition states: "It is simply not possible for us not to bring our own experience of faith and church to the biblical texts".[15] And as we have stated previously, Bultmann has ably demonstrated the fallacy of 'presuppositionless exegesis'.[16] But which 'tradition' is right and which is wrong? Or perhaps more realistically, which tradition is at least closer to a truer understanding of the biblical text?

Perhaps the best place to begin to answer that question is to ask which tradition stands more closely to the received historical Tradition of the Church down through the ages. Where is there closer agreement between the written text, the historical understanding of that text and the present life of the church that has flowed out of that text? So, where there is a stronger sense of resonance within a particular tradition, that tradition may feel more assured that it stands on much safer ground.

The Holy Spirit and Tradition

One of the major strengths of this position is not just that it provides the potential for two thousand years of church history to offer support for a particular understanding of the biblical text, but, and perhaps more importantly, it has the potential to place a particular church tradition alongside the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit in that history, so concluding that we may or may not be part of that history. To quote from Congar again: "The special task of the Spirit is to ensure from within that many different people down the centuries and scattered over the face of the globe share in this unique form of truth and life".[17] The Holy Spirit was active in the writing and drawing together of the Scriptures and has continued to be active in the life of the church and the outworking of that text.

To limit the work of the Spirit to the apostolic age and to the writing and gathering together of the Scriptures seems suspect and untenable. We have indications that there was an expectation that the work of the Spirit would continue throughout and from within the history of the church.

If we are to take the gospels and especially John's gospel seriously, Jesus himself seems to have had a clear sense that through the ministry of the Holy Spirit the saving moment of God's grace, of which he himself was the one source and centre, would go far beyond where he himself had taken it in his days on earth.[18]

The work of the Spirit should, therefore, lie in continuity with the written text and supremely in continuity with the revelation that is seen in Jesus Christ - the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ - and will not contradict the Bible nor the Christ revelation,[19] but will nevertheless reach out into the history of the church beyond the confines of the Bible. So, the Spirit will inspire within the history of the church understanding of the truth that "...none of the first apostolic witnesses could ever have contemplated".[20]

The Holy Spirit is the one unifying factor that ties the Bible to the life of the church; her Tradition and her traditions. And as Protestants, evangelical, charismatic or otherwise, we must humbly stand in line with this history, faithfully stored in the treasury we call Tradition and no longer lay claim to a true(r) interpretation of the biblical text that we might claim independent of the Tradition of the Church. Indeed, "We are part of a stream of tradition, not readers coming to texts that have never been read before in our community".[21] Scripture is the supreme rule of faith but it is not the sole rule of faith. Scripture confirms, supports or corrects Tradition and not the reverse, but Tradition continues to speak into the life of the church and should be heard, and we should acknowledge that we speak out of and teach from the context of our particular tradition as it stands in relation to the Tradition.[22]

To put it baldly, where there is no appreciation for tradition, for the rich heritage of reflective theologising with its general consensus on the basic Christian verities, Protestantism has spawned a mass of individual heresies, all vying for centre stage as the single truth of God.[23]

The Christian church has spent two millennia wrestling with the Biblical text under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we ignore this past at our peril. "Interpretation [therefore] is a matter of reconsidering what we and others have made of this text. We want to see things afresh, but if we see fresh things, we are probably the victims of over-fertile imaginations."[24] But not definitely the 'victims of over-fertile imaginations'. Reference to the accepted Tradition and traditions of the church is a brake and a corrective but not a master. Our goal should be that Scripture read under the inspiring work of the Spirit should have the final say. The creative work of the Spirit in the present life of the church has the potential for the new and novel, but that which appears new and novel will stand in broad continuity with the historic Tradition of the Church.

Tom Wright,[25] in a fascinating article concerning the authority of the Bible, suggests an interesting parallel between the present life of the church and the authority of the Bible. He begins by arguing that much that has been understood as the authority of scripture has been in reality, the authority of a particular tradition.[26] Authority has in some sense been removed from God, invested in the Bible at best or "has shifted from the Bible itself to the historically reconstructed event or experience"[27], at worst. Wright argues that we have misunderstood the nature of biblical authority by concluding that "God has…given us the wrong sort of book and it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in".[28] Wright suggests that biblical authority does not lie in the fact that the Bible is an authoritative 'source book' providing information and answers, but rather, in the fact that it is simply "a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book"[29] from which God speaks.

Wright draws upon an analogy with a Shakespearean play. The Bible represents four acts of an unfinished five act play. There is sufficient information provided from the four acts about the plot, the characters and the likely ending, that a company of highly-trained Shakespearean actors could 'improvise' the fifth act "by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency".[30] The church is similarly called to live out 'the fifth act' of the narrative of God's activity in the world, not through blind repetition or burying oneself back in the four acts, but through the creative action of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believing community as she seeks "to speak and act for God in his world".[31] And for Wright, it is the empowering presence of God's Spirit that enables this to happen.

…the Spirit broods over us as we read this book, to straighten out our bent thinking…And it is scripture that enables us to do that, not by crushing us into an alien mould but by giving us the fully authoritative four acts, and the start of the fifth, which sets us free to be the church afresh in each generation.[32]

Tradition, then, is both rooted in the objective given of the biblical text but also lived out in the creative presence of the Holy Spirit at work in continuity with the Bible but not straight-jacketed by the text. Therefore, as we engage with the Spirit in our hermeneutics, we shall be constantly wrestling to hold these three aspects of the work of the Spirit together: the original inspiration of the text - the Bible, the ongoing activity in the history of the church - the Tradition, and the present activity in today's church - the Community. And it is to this third context that we now turn.

The Holy Spirit, Hermeneutics and the Community of the Church[33]

God did not give the world a book or a collection of writings. God rather called a community of people to which he is unconditionally devoted and in which he continually acts through his divine Word and Spirit.[34]

The community of faith in the history of the church and within the biblical narrative has been the context, although not the exclusive context, in which God has continued to act. To read the Bible is to see that the work of the Spirit cannot not take place in an individual separate or distinct from the community of faith. The community of faith has always been responsible and accountable to itself and from within itself. With this in mind, we remember that one of the more remarkable aspects of the Spirit's work is not that individuals find God, although this is nevertheless remarkable, but rather that those who are called by God in all their diversity are then united in one body by the one Spirit.[35] The work of the Spirit is one that unites and draws God's people together, rather than being divisive, pushing God's people further apart. It is then this body together rather than the individuals alone that constitute the context for God's activity in the world.

Therefore, there has always been a great need within the world-wide church for dialogue. Homogeneous groups who have refused to listen and discuss with traditions other than their own have often bred within themselves suspicion towards others and an air of arrogance. The unity of doctrine and, most importantly, the unity of the body, is the goal of fellowship but should not be the condition of fellowship. No one tradition has the monopoly on all truth and this includes those who would call themselves evangelicals.[36] There is a prior need to find points of agreement in our dialogue with other traditions before there is a need for dialogue on issues of disagreement. This does seem to be an eminently more Christian way of proceeding.

Hermeneutics and the Individual

Earlier we saw the way in which John Goldingay recounted an experience of Bible reading during a particularly difficult time in his life and we saw how the Bible had 'come alive' in a very particular way. Goldingay commented that his readings would sometimes break the conventions of accepted biblical interpretation while still providing a spiritual encounter that was helpful and edifying. If we hold to a view that one of the roles of the Holy Spirit in the reading of scripture is to bring the reader into a real and present encounter with the living God, then it seems that this was exactly what the Holy Spirit was doing in this case.

This is both liberating and troubling. It is liberating in the sense that the reader is now free to read their Bible and receive meanings and encounters with God without either necessarily knowing the 'accepted rules of biblical interpretation' (whatever they are anyway) or needing to constantly refer to those 'accepted rules'. They may not be able to explain how they met God, they simply met God. They were blind, they now see, but don't ask them to explain how.

But this approach is equally troubling. Is there then no longer a need to teach and explore the parameters that we might set for biblical interpretation? Does a subjective sense of an encounter with God now suffice? In one sense we would have to say yes. Some of the experiences that Goldingay had could be judged by none other than himself. But we would also have to say that this is only part of the story. Goldingay read the Bible from the position of a believer standing in line with the Tradition of the Church in the light of the biblical story. He is, therefore, subject to the received teaching of the church and still accountable to that community. His private reading was from within the community that he is a part of, not from the outside of that community. So, his reading of the Bible in some way would have a bearing on his relationship with that wider community, and, therefore, it is judged by that community.[37] Any reading that caused Goldingay to break away from the teaching of the church or was deemed to be destructive to that body, would have had to have been rejected, for this is the stuff of cults and heresy.

The accepted norms of biblical interpretation are to some extent a human construct. Although they have, to a greater or lesser extent, been brought together and shaped under the supervision of the Holy Spirit, they are a tool to serve a greater purpose - an encounter with the living God - not a control to be ultimately subject to. That encounter has to follow in the line of other encounters as we read about them in the Bible and as the church has understood them historically. It would seem, at face value, that Goldingay's experience fits within the parameters of the Bible and the received Tradition of the church. To conclude by quoting Tom Smail:

The supreme priority of Scripture for all Christian teaching consists, not in its being the last word about Jesus and the gospel, but precisely in its being the first word. Whatever follows must be in continuity and agreement with that first biblical word, because it is our only access to what God has done for us in Christ…The Holy Spirit that inspired the scriptural writers in one way and inspires the contemporary Church in another will never contradict himself".[38]

Hermeneutics, the Academy[39] and the Community

The role of the Academy in the history of the church is a long and varied one. To deny the positive role played by the Academy and the insights that have been brought to bear by specialist study would be narrow-minded and short-sighted. The church owes a tremendous debt to those who have committed themselves to the task of engaging themselves with the biblical text and critically assessing our present or past understanding of the Bible. There is the implicit and healthy assumption that we can never have got it ultimately right and, therefore, need a place for constant revision and re-evaluation.

However, the academy has been equally guilty of doing a disservice to the church in which it was meant to serve and not master. The church has often been called to subject its understanding to that of the academy's and rarely vice-versa.[40] The academy has formed an elite group who hold the true key to insight and understanding of the biblical text and all other readings are looked down upon, especially those interpretations that come from the uneducated and the unread.[41] But the Bible belongs to the church and not the academy, to all God's people and not a few or as Hopko states:

To remove the Bible from its organic churchly setting and to attempt to 'exegete' it outside its ecclesial context is itself 'uncritical' and 'unscientific' since such a method of reading and interpreting the Scriptures is contrary to the testimony of the writings themselves, as well as to the testimony of the church that has produced them.[42]

Further, the academy has been more subject to categories that are derived from the Enlightenment and modernism, and less from categories that are derived from a biblical worldview. Rationalism and scientific method has taken precedence over and against faith and revelation. "[The]…living, unfettered voice of God in Scripture cannot be held captive to the norms of human rationality".[43] Categories from outside the community of faith have been brought to bear in ways that have sometimes been not welcome.

When the church ignores the vital source of her life in the Word of God, the living word of Scripture becomes the dead letter of fundamentalism, Christian experience becomes a kind of self-centred piety, worship degenerates into an arena for making one's personal statement, the struggle for theological truth becomes the trivial pursuit of one or another momentary organisational model, social cause, or political agenda; and the church, her vital nerve cut, goes into ideological captivity.[44]

The task of ministry in general, and the academy in particular, is to enable men and women to encounter the mystery of God, and to allow that encounter to flourish in the context of the Tradition and the Community which informs their faith.[45]

So, as Hopko states:

...the Bible can be interpreted only within the church in and for which it has been written, the church to whose life and teaching it bears witness, the church whose ongoing Holy Tradition provides the hermeneutical setting for its proper interpretation and application.[46]

The Academy must recognise that it is part of that community and exists from within it rather than operating in detached isolation. However, the church rather than the academy should be the communal arbiter of biblical interpretation.[47] The church is both the guardian of the Tradition and the primary context for the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the expression of that Tradition.

The Holy Spirit is active within the Church, both local and universal. Part of the Spirit's function is the bringing together and growth of a body of people that are known as the Church.[48] The distribution of the charismata is not primarily for the building up of the individual but instead for the building up of the body.[49] The church is the context in which God lives on earth by the Spirit.[50] Therefore, the activity of the Spirit should be seen within the context of the body, for the unifying and building together of that body. So, in the activity of Bible reading, that which is perceived by an individual under the supervision of the Holy Spirit should resonate with others throughout the body. There should be resonance within the local body, but also a degree of resonance within the larger body, the universal church. Hence there is clearly a need for the opportunity for dialogue both within the local church and throughout the world-wide church. Scholars, leaders and lay members of the church should be able to discuss and test the readings that they have within the security of the church community. This should be done with the understanding that the same Spirit who is at work throughout the church, was also at work within the history of the church, and will continue to be at work in the future of the church as she moves towards her eschatological climax.

The Holy Spirit, Community and Culture

The Holy Spirit is God's active presence on earth. There is no other way of knowing God apart from the work of the Spirit. "The Spirit is God's own self-communicating and self-interpreting activity for humanity in history."[51] The Spirit is the point of contact between heaven and earth, and this will include the Spirit's activity in the task of Bible reading. Therefore, whether in the reading of the Bible, or by other means, the Spirit bridges the gulf that separates humanity from deity. Further, the Spirit 'self-interprets' or re-interprets that revelation in each new generation and within each diverse culture. "Theology is what happens when 'Humanity's Story of Itself' encounters 'God's Story of Humanity'",[52] and this action must, too, be the work of the same Spirit.

This is an important aspect of the activity of the Spirit and one that would require greater study than we can engage in here, but to quote from Hall: "Truth is a contextual matter. Without becoming sheer relativists, we must nevertheless say that Truth is only authentic if it actually meets and addresses the human community appropriately."[53] That is to say that the Spirit takes the eternally objective gospel story and re-interprets it into the context in which the community lives and the Spirit is active.[54] This lends further weight to the notion that part of the Spirit's activity in hermeneutics is to bring a degree of 'prophetic relevance' to the culture in which the Bible is being read.[55]

So what do we now have? We have attempted to show that the Spirit has been present and active in both the past history of the church and is also presently active in the church today. That it is the same Spirit at work is essential to our understanding since the Spirit's activity in both past and present history will not be contradictory. Therefore, it becomes the task of those who seek to interpret the Bible to look for resonance and agreement with that which has gone before and that which is currently received by the wider church. What we should not seek is some sort of confirmation through a quasi-literalism that binds our interpretations to past generations and cultural contexts, even if they are biblical ones. Rather we seek to go on re-interpreting the Bible under the present supervisory activity of the Spirit seeking to hear the genuine voice of God speaking from within the context of the church. And this is where the authority for our readings ultimately lies: Does God speak? And is God recognised and known? This stands in line with Calvin and others. As McDonnell states:

"To speak of pneumatology is to raise hermeneutical questions…The authority of the Bible… [happens only]…as the Holy Spirit proves the worth and meaning of the Scriptures and brings us into the truth. One cannot know God unless somehow God is actually present within the knower. And this happens through the Spirit."[56]

So, we would want to say that all interpretations of the Bible from within whatever tradition of the Church they might arise must respect and acknowledge what has gone before in the Tradition of the Church and submit that reading to the wider church community recognising that it is to here that all are accountable and is also the context for the Spirit's ongoing activity.[57]

We shall now conclude by turning to one charismatic conservative evangelical scholar who has attempted to create a framework in which we can better understand the work of the Holy Spirit in hermeneutics, allowing space for a present subjective activity that holds firmly to the historical roots of the faith.

The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics: Clark Pinnock - A Framework for Future Debate

At the end of chapter 7 of the book The Scripture Principle, Clark Pinnock makes this provocative statement: "Both religious liberals and conservative evangelicals have conspired to leave the Spirit out of hermeneutics, and this must come to an end."[58] Pinnock is unequivocal in his amazement that this discussion is so blatantly absent from current discussions in the area of biblical interpretation. "I [Pinnock] challenge you to open the standard books on biblical interpretation and see whether you can find a serious discussion of the illuminating work of the Spirit in them".[59] What then is Pinnock's concern and what is his proposed solution?

The original inspiration of the Bible and the present illumination of the reader are widely acknowledged both to be the work of the Holy Spirit. However, the former has acquired a status that has far outshone the latter. Why, since both past and present inspiration (to use Pinnock's terms) are equally works of the Spirit, should they be given such diverse treatment by biblical scholars? Pinnock identifies three main reasons.[60] The first involves the dominance of rationalism within modern theological circles; the second follows on and is the preference for static, propositional categories - the Bible is seen as a code book rather than a flexible case book; and third, the polemical situation that evangelicalism continues to find itself in with the ongoing challenges of liberal theology. To fold to any or all of these three would be seen as opening the door to a subjectivism that can only undermine the biblical foundation of the gospel and lead to heresy within the church.

Pinnock happily sits within the evangelical camp and would claim to have a high view of the authority of Scripture and an equally strong concern not only for the dangers of liberalism but also the impact of other modern approaches on the Bible that emphasise more subjective categories, the reader in particular. Pinnock would want to argue for the historicity of the biblical text, the importance of the search for the author's original intention, and the timeless objectivity of the Christian gospel. However, for Pinnock this represents only one side of the task of biblical interpretation. The objective truth of scripture should not be set at polarised opposites with the subjective work of the Holy Spirit, leaving the reader with an either/or dilemma. The Spirit has a vital and active role to play in the hermeneutical process in conjunction with the objective elements, and without this dimension we are simply left with a lifeless and powerless gospel. For Pinnock, this aspect of the Spirit's work is essential for the believer and the church.

Pinnock is equally concerned about the dangers of allowing uncontrolled subjectivism into the interpretative task. For Pinnock the key is holding in tension the past inspiration of the Spirit and the present inspiration of the Spirit. The Spirit's role in hermeneutics is connected to both these aspects. "We have to avoid false objectivity in which revelation is independent of God's present activity and a false subjectivity in which revelation is swallowed up by human experience and cannot be normative for all".[61] There is, therefore, control on the activity of the Spirit, but also liberty within the present context of the reader. Pinnock states: "By controlled liberty I mean a freedom within parameters, a liberty which honours both the original meaning of Scripture and the fecundity of the text to be opened up". So, for Pinnock, "The Spirit helps us understand what was meant by the biblical authors with a view to our understanding what God wants to say to us today".[62] There has to be a coherence with the apostolic gospel once delivered to the saints; the gospel forms a normative canon to which the Spirit is eternally bound.[63]

But, for Pinnock, the text is also dynamic. The biblical text is not a static deposit of truth and information, but rather a text that is capable of bringing people into contact with the living God. "For spiritually energised biblical truth is the instrument through which God transforms human personalities".[64] There is a subjectivity we cannot turn away from. As with Calvin,[65] the Bible has authority not because it can be proved through human wisdom but because of the inner testimony of the Spirit that brings assurance. We are "not so much intellectually persuaded as spiritually converted".[66] The process of interpretation has to be seen, then, as more dynamic. God cannot be encountered except through the Spirit. "The Spirit's goal is to make firm friends for God among humankind".[67] So, the process has to be viewed more holistically. The Spirit does not function only on an intellectual level. The Spirit touches us in many ways to bring about his purposes, and so we must neither restrict the Spirit's activity to any one level, nor over-emphasise one at the expense of any others.[68]

Pinnock proposes a 'grid' for understanding the Spirit's role in hermeneutics.[69] First, interpretation should be seen as a corporate exercise and not an individual exercise. This applies both to the present community and to the past community as represented by the Tradition of the Church. Second, interpretation has a dynamic nature with an eschatological focus. The church is moving toward a given point in history and the Spirit enables her to reconsider the gospel at each point in that journey. Third, the interpretative task goes beyond the intellect and should be seen more holistically. Fourth, the church functions in the context of world mission and so should biblical interpretation. The church should be "adaptive, willing to risk new understandings [that are culturally relevant] because of its confidence in the Spirit".[70] Fifth, the Spirit helps the church to recognise the signs of the times and reflect theologically and biblically on current issues within the church as a whole.[71] Sixth, there has to be the willingness to allow for mistakes, but that these mistakes cannot ultimately thwart God's purposes. Seventh, there should be a clear desire for church unity that looks to break down the barriers erected by denominationalism. And finally eighth, allowance has to made for individuals in their private devotions finding meaning in the Bible that does not necessarily connect with the authors original intentions or with any accepted understanding, yet has been inspired by the Spirit as part of the ongoing task of bringing people into a love relationship with God. "In our devotions, we do not approach Scripture as an object to be mastered but as a sacrament which can put us in touch with God".[72]

Pinnock is calling for a dynamic approach to the Bible which, arguably, makes room for the best insights of both traditional and more modern approaches (although he seems sceptical of approaches that reject the authorial intention as the root for any meaning). Original meaning is the root of the contemporary significance, but there is more liberty in exploring that contemporary significance than is allowed by some approaches. There is a universal message and a local application, and both can be held together.

The challenge Pinnock has brought is simple. Here is an accepted dimension to the Spirit's activity which is simply ignored. The reasons that Pinnock proposes are valid and rather than polarising the debate as some are inclined to do, Pinnock has attempted a synthesis that makes ample space for the subjective while retaining the security of an objective root.

However, by giving so much scope to the place of contemporary significance, Pinnock has not fully dealt with how the original meaning judges a more dynamic modern reading. For many, some of Pinnock's proposals for a modern understanding could open the door to meanings that could not hold if they were referred back to the original meaning. How, then, can the reader tell the difference between that which is eternal and inflexible and that which may change from context to context? If we are to view the Bible as a flexible case book rather than as a code book, then there must be some norm by which we determine the extent to which the Bible is flexible and in which directions. This would seem to be where the place of the accepted historic traditions of the church must function in part of the overall process. Tradition forms the bridge between the past work of the Spirit in the original inspiration of the text and the present inspirational work of the Spirit. We have already shown that direct access to the biblical text is neither possible nor acceptable where it deliberately ignores the history of the church. Difficulties in accessing the author's original intention and connecting this with the present circumstances of the church are very real and would surely find a greater degree of control if greater reference were made to the ways that a text has 'normally' been read. However, even where little may be known of the historic faith of the church, we would agree with Pinnock that it must be the real activity of the Spirit in the individual and the community that we should be seeking for. The authority of the Bible does not lie in "...the scholarly exegesis of the text, open only to an elite, but [rather] the Word that issues forth when the Spirit takes the Word and renders it the living voice of God".[73]

Pinnock has certainly provided us with a challenging model for a greater understanding of the Spirit's role drawing on both theological and biblical insights to help us better understand the process. It would be easy for those who are uncomfortable with this kind of approach to criticise and point out places of perceived weakness. But we would rather choose a path that acknowledges the real activity of the Spirit in the present even when we are a long way short of any real degree of understanding than a retreat back into dry and lifeless study that empties the gospel of the power to change lives. Mistakes will continue to be made, but without these, little learning takes place and progress is limited. So, aware of the difficulties, we should press on to opening up the possibility of a far greater and more dynamic role for the Holy Spirit within the life of the church he was sent to serve.


[1] T. Smail, The Giving Gift: The Holy Spirit in Person (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) p.78f.

[2] G.D. Fee, 'Hermeneutics, Exegesis and the Role of Tradition', in G.D. Fee, Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics (Peabody, Mass.: Hendickson, 1991) "…the first community to which we are debtors is that of the church in history". p.69.

[3] Osborne provides some interesting insights on the subject of 'traditions'. He suggests that they are the re-contextualising of the biblical statements in each new generation. See Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, p.292f.

[4] Yves Congar, Tradition and the Life of the Church (London: Burns and Oates, 1964) p.17.

[5] B.S. Childs, 'On Reclaiming the Bible for Christian Theology', in Braaten and Jenson, Reclaiming the Bible for the Church, p.9.

[6] Congar, Tradition and the Life of the Church, p.18.

[7] It is, however, worth acknowledging that Scripture is the product of an oral tradition. It was the means by which that which had been communicated orally in the earliest years of the fledgling church, could be preserved for later generations. However, the understanding of a closed canon has left us with an objective and to some extent, autonomous record that can be passed on in its entirety without reference to any external authority. However, the closing of the canon was itself a product of the early churches discussion, debate and early tradition but this aspect of tradition, though fascinating, is beyond the scope of this paper. See F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Glasgow: Chapter House, 1988) for a helpful and thorough introduction.

[8] It is worth noting that Protestants readily accept the doctrine of the Trinity and yet the word itself is not in the Bible nor is our understanding of this teaching explicitly and unambiguously taught in the pages of the New Testament. It is rather a construct of the Christian church as it has wrestled with the identity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is as much a product of Tradition as it is simply a product of the biblical text.

[9] Smail, The Giving Gift, p.79.

[10] Congar, Tradition and the Life of the Church, p.25-6.

[11] Congar, Tradition and the Life of the Church, p.26.

[12] Congar, Tradition and the Life of the Church, p.28.

[13] "[Tradition]…retains its vitality in the present, as the Spirit continues to give substance to the gospel and pours the love of God into the hearts of believers". F.F. Bruce, 'Scripture in Relation to Tradition and Reason', in B. Drewery and R. Bauckham (Eds.), Scripture, Tradition and Reason: A Study in the Criteria of Christian Doctrine (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988: pp.35-64) p.37.

[14] Congar, Tradition and the Life of the Church, p.41-2. See also Bruce, 'Scripture in Relation to Tradition and Reason', p.55

[15] Fee, 'Hermeneutics, Exegesis and the Role of Tradition', p.67.

[16] Bultmann, 'Is exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?', pp.342-351.

[17] Congar, Tradition and the Life of the Church, p.54.

[18] Smail, The Giving Gift, p.75.

[19] Smail, The Giving Gift, p.74.

[20] Smail, The Giving Gift, p.76.

[21] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, p.226.

[22] Congar, Tradition and the Life of the Church, p.94-5.

[23] Fee, 'Hermeneutics, Exegesis and the Role of Tradition', p.80

[24] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, p.229.

[25] N.T. Wright, 'How can the Bible be Authoritative?', Vox Evangelica 21 (1991: pp.7-32).

[26] Wright, 'How can the Bible be Authoritative?', p.9.

[27] Wright, 'How can the Bible be Authoritative?', p.12.

[28] Wright, 'How can the Bible be Authoritative?', p.13.

[29] Wright, 'How can the Bible be Authoritative?', p.14.

[30] Wright, 'How can the Bible be Authoritative?', p.19 (Italics his).

[31] Wright, 'How can the Bible be Authoritative?', p.21.

[32] Wright, 'How can the Bible be Authoritative?', p.26.

[33] "A community is a group of persons who share a history and a common set of interpretations about that history which provides the basis for common actions. Their interpretations of their own traditions may be quite diverse and controversial even within the community, but sufficient to provide the community with the sense that they are more alike than unlike".
S. Hauerwas, 'The Moral Authority of Scripture: The Politics and Ethics of Remembering', Interpretation (October 1980: pp.356-370) p.359.

[34] T. Hopko, 'The Church, the Bible and Dogmatic Theology', in C.E. Braaten and R.W. Jenson (Eds.) Reclaiming the Bible for the Church (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1995) p.108.

[35] 1 Corinthians 12:13, Ephesians 4:4.

[36] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, p.247.

[37] Fee, 'Hermeneutics, Exegesis and the Role of Tradition', p.81.

[38] Smail, The Giving Gift, p.81 (Italics his).

[39] For the purposes of this discussion we shall define 'the Academy' as those who are engaged in academic research and critical analysis of the biblical text and wider theological issues who are themselves believers. It should be acknowledged that not all academic research into the biblical text is conducted by those who would claim to have faith in the God of the Bible, or in some cases any concept of God. However, some of these 'Christian academics' will work within secular institutions and others will work within explicitly Christian institutions. For a helpful introduction to the tensions within academic studies between Christian and non-Christian approaches, see A. Rowe, 'Are there distinctively Christian approaches to Biblical Studies?', Evangel 16:2 (1998: pp.41-46).

[40] "University-based experts have a vested interest in making biblical study difficult and thus worthy of a place in a university in the first place". Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, p.236.

[41] K.P. Donfried, 'Alien Hermeneutics and the Misappropriation of Scripture', in Braaten and Jenson, Reclaiming the Bible for the Church, p.19.

[42] Hopko, 'The Church, the Bible and Dogmatic Theology', p.116.

[43] Childs, 'On Reclaiming the Bible for Christian Theology', p.5.

[44] J.B. Rogers, 'The Book That Reads Us', Interpretation (October 1985: pp. 388-401) p.393.

[45] Rogers, 'The Book That Reads Us', p.393.

[46] Hopko, 'The Church, the Bible and Dogmatic Theology', p.115.

[47] Childs, 'On Reclaiming the Bible for Christian Theology', p.10 "…the church provides the context for its [the Scriptures] correct interpretation for faith and practice".

[48] A.C. Winn, 'The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life', Interpretation (January 1979: pp.47-57) p.48ff.

[49] Winn, 'The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life', "I believe that the Spirit's primary work is the bestowal of shared life on the community" (rather than the individual). p.50, see also 1 Corinthians 12:7.

[50] Ephesians 2:2.

[51] K. McDonnell, 'The Determinative Doctrine of the Holy Spirit', Theology Today 39:2 (July 1982: pp.142-161) p.146.

[52] D.J. Hall, 'Who tells the World's Story? Theology's Quest for a Partner in Dialogue', Interpretation (January 1982: pp.47-53) p.48.

[53] Hall, 'Who tells the World's Story?', p.49.

[54] See L.M. Russell, 'Authority and the Challenge of Feminist Interpretation', in L.M. Russell (Ed.), Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985: pp.137-146) for an analysis of how this idea might be viewed from a feminist perspective.

[55] Hall, 'Who tells the World's Story?', "It belongs to Christian theology to be engaged in an ongoing dialogue with 'the world'", p.47. See also Rogers, 'The Book That Reads Us', p.399.

[56] McDonnell, 'The Determinative Doctrine of the Holy Spirit', pp.144-5.

[57] Hopko, 'The Church, the Bible, and Dogmatic Theology', p.115.

[58] C. Pinnock, The Scripture Principle (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985) p.174.

[59] C. Pinnock, 'The Work of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics', JPT 2 (1993: pp.3-23) p.7.

[60] Pinnock, 'The Work of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics', p.8-9.

[61] Pinnock, The Scripture Principle, p.155.

[62] Pinnock, 'The Work of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics', p.9.

[63] Pinnock, 'The Work of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics', "I believe the Spirit binds himself to the biblical canon". p.12.

[64] Pinnock, The Scripture Principle, p.165.

[65] "[T]he highest proof of scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it...the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than reason...hence it is not right to subject...[the scriptures] proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit". J. Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion,. J.T. McNeill (ed),. F.L. Battles (trans), 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) I.VII.4 and I.VII.5.

[66] Pinnock, The Scripture Principle, p.167.

[67] Pinnock, 'The Work of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics', p.18.

[68] For example, conservative evangelicals could been seen as restricting the Spirit's activity to just the will of the reader; the Spirit enables the reader to respond to the message. However, some Charismatics could be accused of over-emphasising the emotional dimension of the Spirit's activity.

[69] Pinnock, 'The Work of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics', pp.16-23.

[70] Pinnock, 'The Work of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics', p.18.

[71] This would be seen as a very controversial area by many evangelicals. Pinnock is opening the way for changes in the church's understanding of many theological issues that have historically been seen as non-negotiable.

[72] Pinnock, 'The Work of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics', p.23.

[73] Pinnock, The Scripture Principle, p.156

Contents | Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Conclusion | Bibliography