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 role of the Holy Spirit in the task of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) has found little space in much of the current literature. It is the purpose of this dissertation to explore the subject of the role of the Holy Spirit in hermeneutics, reviewing the main literature with the intention of providing some tentative suggestions as to where further enquiry and progress might be made. The motivation for this investigation is many-sided and forms the basis of the shape and direction of what follows.

Charismatic Hermeneutics

First, the rise in academic circles of so-called 'Charismatic Hermeneutics' and 'Pentecostal Hermeneutics' has increased the awareness of the activity of the Spirit in the hermeneutical task. 'Pentecostal Hermeneutics' is more established and provides some good insight.[1] However our primary concern is with the emerging field of Charismatic Hermeneutics.[2] Charismatic Hermeneutics seeks to place a greater emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in an experiential dimension of the reading task than has been traditionally acknowledged within more conservative hermeneutical approaches. What is sought, therefore, is a clearer definition of what this might actually mean.

An approach that places more freedom on the role of the Spirit is clearly susceptible to abuse and it is our intention to try and place some controls that will help to legitimate or otherwise the work of the Spirit in the task of interpreting the scriptures. To simply claim that an interpretation is 'authoritative' because it was 'inspired' by the Holy Spirit is inadequate. There must be ways in which these kinds of claims, often seen within some Charismatic circles, can be tested. This raises many questions about the place of traditional hermeneutics and the role of the academy; the role of the individual and the role of the community; and the role of the history of interpretation within the church and the present context that the church finds herself. We shall attempt to draw together these different strands in an attempt to clarify the subject.

Academic Understanding

The second point of motivation has already been alluded to. There is a clear lack of writing in much academic literature concerning the Spirit's role. A brief survey was taken of a 'random' selection[3](3) of modem textbooks that deal with the subject of biblical hermeneutics and the results were as follows:

Grant Osborne's excellent book, The Hermeneutical Spiral,[4] contains only two brief references to the Holy Spirit in the subject index. The first is in a short section on 'The Simplicity and Clarity of Scripture' and refers to Luther's distinction between 'external clarity' or the 'grammatical aspect' and 'internal clarity' or the 'spiritual aspect' which is attained when the Holy Spirit illumines the reader in the act of interpretation.[5] Osborne's second reference concerns the work of the Holy Spirit in Homiletics.

Osborne places the Spirit's work not in the task of finding meaning for that is a rational exercise open to both believer and unbeliever, but in the realm of implications. It would seem that Osborne understands the work of the Spirit to be in changing the will of the one who has understood so that they might "...separate truth from falsehood and... apply the Word properly to their lives."[6] Osborne understands the work of the Spirit to be in changing the will of the one who reads to accept what they have come to understand through their rational faculties.

In Biblical Interpretation,[7] Robert Morgan with John Barton make no reference whatsoever to the Holy Spirit in the index. However, Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard in their Introduction to Biblical Interpretation[8] provide a little more space for a discussion about the Holy Spirit's activity. They are willing to talk about a 'spiritual factor' in Bible reading believing that the full purpose of the Bible can only be realised by a work of the Holy Spirit.[9] This should not be seen as a replacement of careful analysis but it does "...assure that in conjunction with such diligence the believer can apprehend the significance and scope of God's revelation".[10] So only a 'spiritual interpreter' can gain full understanding of the Bible's message. Later in the book, Klein et al draw together some concluding remarks about the role of the Spirit referring to an article by Roy Zuck.[11] Although the discussion is of some interest, its brief and limited nature leaves one wanting a fuller exploration.

Sidney Greidanus in The Modern Preacher and The Ancient Text.[12] also gives little space to the role of the Spirit in interpretation and preaching. None of these, however, provide any further insight into his understanding of the Spirit's role in interpretation.

In Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation, edited by Joel Green,[13] once again we find a modern textbook on hermeneutics giving little space to the role played by the Spirit. Even Joel Green's helpful article, 'The Practice of Reading the New Testament',[14] perhaps a more obvious place to find a reference to the Spirit's role, contains no suggestion as to what the Spirit's relationship with the reader might be.

In a fascinating chapter entitled 'Subjectivity and Objectivity in Interpretation.[15] John Goldingay, in Models for Interpretation of Scripture , speaks of the dilemma in approaches to the Bible that tend to be taught within academic circles (more objective), and other more subjective approaches.[16] "The central tragedy of the history of biblical study over the past two centuries is that the objective, distancing critical approach to scripture and the obedient, trusting, experiential approach have proceeded in substantial independence of each other".[17] Goldingay sees these two different approaches as complementary and interdependent rather than at odds and independent. The problem for Goldingay is that scholarship has forgotten why it studies the Bible.

"Scripture is designed to be a means of revelation not merely theological but experientially, a means of meeting God".[18] He even goes on to talk of the need for "inspired intuition" in understanding the application of the text to "our own age and world and lives"; "the inspired intuition gives a general principle concrete embodiment in real life".[19] Is there a task of application in the Spirit's work?

Whether Goldingay is using 'inspired intuition' as a euphemism for a work of the Holy Spirit in interpretation would, unfortunately, be left unanswered were it not for a brief reference earlier on in the book in a section entitled, 'Interpretation That Goes Deeper than the Historical'.[20] This is the only place that Goldingay gives any clues concerning his understanding of the role of the Spirit. First, "[The Spirit is involved in the intellectual work of exegeting the text...". Second, "Interwoven with the active analytic work of my mind is a periodic receiving of a spark of insight on the actual subject matter of the text I am wrestling with...The Holy Spirit is behind both the mental labour and the intuitive insight."[21] Our concern is that despite Goldingay's useful analysis, there is still no space for a fuller discussion on the role of the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit is at work in the 'mental labour', then is that 'work' the same for both believer and unbeliever? Is the reader provided with intellectual insight by the Holy Spirit that is not available through rational means? Or does a believer, having received the Spirit, have access to a different dimension of meaning that is inaccessible to the unbeliever?

Goldingay gives us one other tantalising account of Bible reading that would lend itself to a discussion on the role of the Holy Spirit. He tells of the time when he was preparing the material for a particular part of the book, when he wanted to speak about "the possibility of letting God's word show its capacity for speaking today and its effectiveness in our lives".[22] He encouraged his listeners to keep a notebook and record in it the things that God said to them through the passages that they read. Goldingay decided to do the same. During the Tollowing months he recounts that he went through a very difficult time in his personal life, but...

"Again and again I found that some aspect of one of the daily readings addressed the particular despair or temptation or challenge or darkness that overwhelmed me... that... spurred me on or drew me out. In my notebook I collected pages and pages of evidence that scripture had the power and the relevance...[to speak into his life]... Some of the encouragements I received from scripture could be easily justified by literal exegesis, but others could not".[23]

When Goldingay's 'dark experience' was over, so too was the experience of the daily interaction with the Bible that he had known. Nevertheless, what was experienced should not be seen as unusual; it has been the experience of countless Christians through the ages. However, "...we have lacked a place for it in our discussion of biblical interpretation".[24] Goldingay is right to call for more discussion of this dimension of the task of interpretation. He indicates that there is a dimension that goes beyond the rules of rational exegetical methods but is still valid.

So from our brief, limited and 'random' survey, we have attempted to show that in some key textbooks that deal with the subject of hermeneutics, there is little if any space given to the Holy Spirit's role in the hermeneutical process.

The Hermeneutical Community

The third motive for this study is the place of the 'Hermeneutical Community' in the task of biblical interpretation and particularly as the primary context for the Spirit's activity in biblical interpretation. There is an increasing awareness of community-based readings and a community-based hermeneutic. Much of this has come out of the insights and teaching of liberation theologians, but it is gaining wider acceptance from other groups disenfranchised by a perceived institutional elitism and the subsequent removal of the Bible's hermeneutical home away the church community and into the academy. Is there then a role for a community-based hermeneutic in a more experienced-based interpretative process?

Church Tradition

The fourth motive is the role of Church Tradition in the interpretative task. What place do two thousand years of Christian investigation into the Holy Scriptures have in modern interpretations? Can we or should we start again from scratch or should the insights and the tradition that has been passed down through the ages have a particular place in biblical interpretation? And most importantly, has the Holy Spirit been active throughout the history of the church and, therefore, acknowledging this activity in the history of the church might give us greater understanding of the Spirit's work in the present?


So from this introduction, my thesis is as follows:

The role of the Spirit is poorly understood within academic circles generally, and evangelical circles in particular and, therefore, needs further investigation. There is a clear tension between the more experiential and subjective approaches of which 'Charismatic Hermeneutics' is but one contemporary example, and a more objective and rational approach that has dominated most modern hermeneutical methods. The latter pays little more than lip-service to the role of the Spirit, therefore depriving the wider church of a fuller understanding of a deeper, more experiential experience of God by his Spirit through the Bible. 'Charismatic Hermeneutics' freely acknowledges this subjective experiential role of the Spirit and so actively seeks to promote it.

However, a greater freedom for the Spirit's activity should not be a licence to promote new and novel interpretations. An individual is not at liberty to claim this new insight for the wider church and expect it to be received simply because they state that it is what the Spirit has shown them. Hence the place of the Hermeneutical Community and the Tradition of the Church. Any private interpretation that is put forward for the whole church has to be subject to that church community. Further, the activity of the Spirit in today's church has also to be set against the activity of the Spirit within the church over two thousand years. We do not wish to give this tradition so much authority that it becomes infallible, gaining equal status with Scripture, but nor do we wish to ignore the treasury of Christian heritage that has accumulated over two thousand years.

So, to summarise, the Spirit has a greater role to play in biblical hermeneutics and this takes the hermeneutical task into a more subjective, creative and experiential dimension. The dangers of a free-market of 'Spirit-inspired' interpretations are controlled not by solely (or even predominately) retreating into rational objectivity but rather by constant reference to the church community and to the received teachings of the church. It is these two that should set the primary parameters for interpretation rather than the enlightened human mind sitting in a position of detached judgement.


[1] Pentecostals, in general, would emphasise a distinct and definite experience of the Holy Spirit, subsequent to conversion but necessary to the life of the believer normally referred to as the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Charismatics would tend to be more broad in their understanding of subsequent experiences of the Spirit, still wanting to emphasise a definite experience but with more emphasis on an ongoing series of experiences. However, both Pentecostals and Charismatics would strongly want to emphasise a very definite and necessary experiential dimension to the Christian life that goes beyond mere rational categories.

[2] This will form the focus of chapter 2. Here we will examine the issues that have been raised by a group from Sheffield University (in Lloyd Pietersen (Ed.), The Mark of the Spirit: A Charismatic Critique of the Toronto Blessing (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998) in response to Mark Stibbe's book, Times of Refreshing: A Practical Theology of Revival for Today (London: Marshall Pickering, 1995). This will provide a focus for an examination of issues related to the Holy Spirit's role in hermeneutics as seen from within charismatic circles.

[3] These were either books owned by the author or were taken from the reading list for a taughtHermeneutics module as part of this M.Th. at Spurgeon's College, London.

[4] G.R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1991])

[5] Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, p.9.

[6] Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, pp.340-1.

[7] R. Morgan with J. Barton, Biblical Interpretation (Oxford: OUP, 1991).

[8]() W. Klein, C. Blomberg and R. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word, 1993).

[9] Klein et al, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, p.111.

[10] Klein et al, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, p.111.

[11] Klein et al, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, p.425-26. R. Zuck, 'The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics', Biliotheca Sacra 14] (1984: p.120).

[12] S. Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and The Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids/Leicester: Eerdmans / IVP, 1988).

[13] J.B. Green (Ed.), Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation (Grand Rapids / Carlisle: Eerdmans / Paternoster, 1995).

[14]() J.B..Green, 'The Practice of Reading the New Testament', in Green (Ed.), Hearing the New Testament, pp.411-427.

[15] Goldingay, Models for interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids / Carlisle: Eerdmans / Paternoster, 1995)

[16] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, p.264f.

[17] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, p.264.

[18] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, p.252.

[19] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, pp.259-260.

[20] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, pp.186-189.

[21] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, p.188.

[22] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, p.157.

[23] Goldingay, Mode/s for interpretation of Scripture, p. 157 (Italics mine).

[24] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, p. 157.

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