Relying solely on pneumatic epistemology brings one into a danger zone where the human reader confuses his or her own interpretation with that of the Spirit of God. The problem is that when one invokes the Spirit as the guide for the interpretation, the interpretation is assumed to be beyond questions and demands a par with the sacred text itself. This is often but not always preceded with phrases like, “The Spirit has revealed to me.”
This idea led I. Howard Marshall, a biblical specialist, to write:
There are people who have claimed to be led by the Spirit who have promulgated shocking heresies…such people depended purely on what they conceived to be the Spirit’s help and so landed themselves in a subjective approach…they failed to listen to the voice of the Spirit as he spoke to other interpreters of Scripture within the fellowship of the Christian church over the centuries. In scriptural interpretation, as in any other area, it is essential that we “test the spirits” (1 John 4.1). [I Howard Marshall. “The Holy Spirit and the Interpretation of Scripture” in Roy B. Zuck. Rightly Divided: Readings in Biblical Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional. 73.]
Thus, Pneumatic interpretation does not give the interpreter free reign to interpret the Scriptures privately without any form of accountability.
One might ask: “Is experience valid for interpretation?”
There is also an experiential dimension to this form of pneumatic interpretation. The experiential dimension tends to let experience inform interpretation without being grounded in the historical significance of the text. This is not to deny a believer’s personal experience. It is to say that a process of informed interpretation should naturally lead to a personal experience of the text. Experience is not necessarily the starting point, but it does inform the process of interpretation as interpretation informs experience. God can communicate to us through personal experience as well as Scripture. Personal experience with God often unlocks previously undiscovered scriptural truth, but experience should never be the norm by which we test if our understanding of Scripture is helpful.
The Spirit enables us to free our minds to understand the text, but does not whisper to us the correct interpretation of the text. The Spirit does illuminate Scripture for us, but he does not give us new revelation which is equal to Scripture. He does not guarantee that what we interpret is infallible. He does not give one person insights that no one else has. Depending on the Spirit alone is not a substitute for diligent study. The Spirit does help the reader gain insights into Scripture, usually for a devotional purpose for the individual. Where readers go awry is when we take that devotional “word” and share it as the true meaning for everyone.
What is often argued is: if the Spirit could inspire the first writer, why can’t he inspire the reader now? We do not need to close the door to the Spirit and his use of Scripture in our lives. We need the personalized approach to reading. In this personalized approach to reading the text, we need to add to our diet a level of reading and observing which gives attention to the context in which content of Scripture sets. One without the other is useless. To only have the personalized approach and state as certain fact that the Spirit has shared a specific meaning is how the cults are born. God can and does speak to us personally and directly through Scripture when he initiates. Those times are specifically for us, for our time and space. Let’s hold on to the times when God intervenes and speaks directly to us. At the same time let’s learn to read and study Scripture paying attention to context and content so that we can know with certainty what he is saying to us today. In the final analysis, we can live into his story.
Pneumatic interpretation is important in allowing the Spirit to share with us a word of comfort, judgment, or exhortation. But, the insights shared in those moments are not necessarily the meaning of the text.
Pneumatic and Cognitive Harmony
We must find the harmony of the pneumatic and cognitive approach to interpreting Scripture. Thus, the proper control for understanding what a text means now is the original meaning which the first hearer had. God did not speak into a vacuum. He acted and spoke into real life situations, with real live people. The message was to them. That message is still available to us today and we in the church need to discover it.
If we do not use this control, then Scripture can mean anything that any reader wants it to mean now, and usually does. Subjectivity reigns! The most often leveled criticism of the pneumatic interpreter is his or her subjective reading of Scripture.
The original meaning of the text and its discovery — to the best of our ability — is the proper control for understanding what the text means for the present reader. This control will keep us from making such mistakes as “Jesus is not God” as the Jehovah’s Witnesses have, or that “we should baptize on behalf of the dead” as the Mormons have, or that “healing” and “prophecy” are more important that “caring for the poor, the widows and the orphans” as some church groups revel in today. These are all errors in application because they did not begin with good exegesis. In other words, the meaning now is invalid because one did not start with the meaning then.
We all want to know and need to know what God has said in Scripture and what Scripture means for us today. It is imperative! But we do not have the liberty to make it mean anything we wish it to mean and then give the Holy Spirit credit for that meaning. We surely do not want to be found in the place where we are saying that the Spirit is contradicting himself. Thus, understanding what he said to the first hearers will keep us on safe ground in determining what it means for us today.
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