The Role of the Holy Spirit in Biblical Hermeneutics

Robert J. May, M.Th.


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


The main difficulty that we have in drawing together some clear conclusion lies with the very nature of the topic we have addressed and the tensions that have formed so much of our discussion. We are dealing with a subject where little has been written and, arguably, even less understood. Both Pentecostal and Charismatic scholars are increasingly driving the agenda of the discussion. Unfortunately the perception of many of those who operate within a more conservative evangelical framework is one that would not automatically associate sound exegesis and thorough scholarship with these traditions. And to some extent, it must be agreed that their criticisms have foundation. But the situation is changing and Pentecostal and Charismatic scholarship is growing in stature. Therefore, the perceptions of those who look from the outside may need to change accordingly. Further, the increasing momentum of the debate is such that there needs to be a thorough reappraisal of conservative evangelical understanding of the Spirit's role in hermeneutics. This all seems necessary since both 'camps' have much to gain through dialogue and interaction.

It is certainly true that there is a substantial hole in the literature concerning the role of the Holy Spirit in hermeneutics. Pinnock and others are right to draw attention to this. It has not, however, been convincingly demonstrated by some that rational categories are irrelevant to the hermeneutical process. We are rational beings and would expect that aspect to play some part in the process. However, we would agree that these categories tend to have an excessive dominance of hermeneutical practice. Therefore, accusations of 'mere lip service' to the Spirit's role are justified. And this is where the task of moving the debate forward is much harder.

If we. wish to accept that there is a clear, subjective dimension to biblical hermeneutics, both anticipated within the Bible and experienced by communities and individuals that has more recently been lost to the dominance of rational methods, then a neat formula will continue to prove elusive. This is because we are dealing with subjective categories that do not easily fit within objective, rational approaches.

Stibbe's five point model (Biblical-Experiential-Devotional-Communal-Practical) is an exciting model and a good place to start. However, it lacks a clear sense of the recognition of Church Tradition with the sense that our present readings should lie in continuity with past readings. Since the Holy Spirit has been and is active in both, this should he freely acknowledged. Although weak in his exegesis of Ezekiel 47, Stibbe's model will only be proved viable through continued use and review.

In the light of all this, and to bring this study to a close, we tentatively propose the following framework as a complementary grid to those of both Stibbe and Pinnock. What we are hoping to do is to hold together the activity of the Holy Spirit in the hermeneutical task in the individual who reads the Bible within the context of the wider church community, and further within the context of the world and the church's ongoing commitment to mission in bringing the gospel to that world.


Our biblical hermeneutics should be reasonable. This both acknowledges the work of the academy and scholarly insight and also accepts that we are created rational beings and our rational faculties should be engaged in the process. But it also moves beyond historically-based hermeneutics to the acceptance of text-centred and reader-centred approaches. It also imagines that there is a continuum of 'least likely meaning' to 'most likely meaning'. Our aim should always to be as close as is 'reasonable' to the 'most likely meaning', the 'most reasonable reading'. There should also be the recognition that there is the need for a more holistic approach that takes greater account of the supernatural worldview of both the Bible and the world of the believer.


Our hermeneutics should resonate with both the past history of the church and also the present community. This dimension is the key to removing the locus of control from the academy and placing it back within the church past and present. There should be broad agreement with the thrust of the interpretation recognising the differences that exist within different traditions. We are looking for a greater sense of agreement rather than a clear sense of plain disagreement.


The work of the Holy Spirit should be recognised in both the past and the present context of the church. This work should be seen within the context of the believing community and, therefore, there should be a greater sense of relevance rather than irrelevance. Our interpretations should 'connect' with our present situation. There is a sense that a nostalgic approach to the Bible longing to stick with a past approach to hermeneutics has left many cold and dissatisfied. This 'relevance' should not just include those within the church but should move outside the church and speak relevantly into the world. There is, then, a sense that our Bible readings should be dynamic and creative. I here should be more than just the informing of minds, we are seeking to change lives.


This is perhaps the most difficult category to describe and quantify but is probably the most important aspect of all. Our Bible readings should bring people into an encounter with God Scripture has authority because in it and through it God speaks to individuals and communities. This must be our ultimate goal. We should seek to grow in our understanding and our experience of God through revelation.

So where our hermeneutics is reasonable to the Christian mind, where there is a sense of resonance with both past and present church communities, where our hermeneutics is relevant to the context of the one who reads and where God, ultimately is revealed, we suggest that there is a greater likelihood that the Holy Spirit is at work in our hermeneutics.

It is hoped that this model goes some way in holding together both the rational and the supernatural, the academy and the community, the past history of the church and the present context of the church, and the need to inform the human mind and ultimately to bring that human being into an encounter with God through the scriptures. The Holy Spirit continues to be active in the church and in the world. We should, therefore, seek to recognise the signs of that activity so that we might play our part in God's redemptive work in the world and through the church.

"What is important is that the Word of God inevitably comes to bear upon human situations as, week in and week out, the Bible informs the preaching and the prayer, the study and song, the pastoral care and compassionate outreach of the worshipping, believing community of faith".[1]

"But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth
He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears,
and he will tell you what is yet to come".
John 16:13 (NIV)


[1] Rogers, 'The Book That Reads Us', p.388.

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