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The Spirit's Role In Helping Us Understand Scripture
March 11, 2006
Over the past few days, I have been reading J.P. Moreland’s book, Love Your God With All Your Mind. It is a good book; deeply challenging. Moreland says many of the same things Nancy Pearecy did several years later in the much-lauded Total Truth. Like Pearcey, Moreland is concerned with the intellectual environment within Evangelicalism, and increasingly worried about the presence of the sacred/secular dichotomy that exists within the church as much as without.
While several of Moreland’s points have stood out to me, there is one that I thought would make for interesting discussion. In a chapter in which he seeks to sketch a biblical portrait of the life of the mind, he discusses the importance of biblical revelation in developing a Christian mind. He challenges Christians to consider how the Holy Spirit helps us understand the Bible. What he believes on this issue is significantly different than what the average Evangelical believes and practices. Here is what he says:
Because of the Bible’s nature, serious study is needed to grasp what it says. Of course, the Scripture contains easily grasped portions that are fairly straightforward. But some of it is very difficult, intellectually speaking. In fact, Peter once said that some of Paul’s writings were intellectually challenging, hard to understand, and easily distorted by untaught (that is, uneducated in Christian theology) and unstable people (2 Peter 3:16). Anyone who has tried to grasp the theological depths of Romans or Ephesians will say “Amen!” to that. The more a person develops the mind and the understanding of hermeneutics (the science of interpreting the Scriptures), the more he or she will be able to understand the meaning and significance of the Scriptures.
Unfortunately, many today apparently think that hard intellectual work is not needed to understand God’s propositional revelation to us. Instead, they believe that the Holy Spirit will simply make known the meaning of a text if implored to do so. Tragically, this represents a misunderstanding of the Spirit’s role in understanding the Scriptures. In my view, the Spirit does not help the believer understand the meaning of Scripture. Rather, He speaks to the believer’s soul, convicting, comforting, opening up applications of His truth through His promptings.
Moreland goes on to say that there are three passages used to justify this idea that the Spirit helps us understand the meaning of a scriptural text: 1 Corinthians 2:14-15, John 14:26, and 1 John 2:27. He spends a paragraph or two on each of these passages in order to show that they do not teach that the Spirit actually helps us bypass the difficult work of discovering what a passage means.
“I fear,” he says, “that our inaccurate emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s role in understanding Scripture has become an easy shortcut to the hard work of building a personal library of study tools and using them. As Gallup poll after Gallup poll has shown, the result of our inaccurate emphasis on Spirit, along with our intellectual laziness, is that modern Christians are largely illiterate about the content of their own religion and feel inadequate because of it.”
And here, in brief, is Moreland’s solution. “We need local churches dedicated to the task of training believers to think theologically and biblically. We must develop intelligent Christians; that is, Christians who have the mental training to see issues clearly, make important distinctions carefully, and weigh various factors appropriately. If we are not planning to see this happen, then at the end of the day, what we are really saying is that a deep understanding of the Scripture, creeds, and theology of Christianity just doesn’t matter that much.”
While I doubt that many readers of this site would argue with Moreland’s proposed solution (increased intellectual training within the church) I do wonder how many would disagree with his understanding of the Spirit’s role in helping us understand the Bible. And so I appeal to you. Do you believe that the Spirit’s primary role in helping us understand Scripture is making known to us the meaning of a text? Or is it, as Moreland says, primarily in helping us apply what we have learned through diligent study of the Scripture, aided by the resources available to us? Or should we take a middle ground, suggesting that the Spirit is inexorably involved in both of these activities?