God, People, and the Bible: The Relationship between Illumination and Biblical Scholarship
As a canonical text, the Bible has two horizons: first, the ancient authors (divine and human) intention in the text itself and, second, the modern reader as he or she engages in the study of the text. The authorial intention in the text itself carries the Holy Spirit’s intended “meaning.” Therefore, on the one hand, the “meaning” of the text shines forth from the author/text horizon. “Understanding,” on the other hand, derives from the Holy Spirit’s work of “illumination” on the horizon of the reader. This finds corresponding categories in modern speech-act theory. What we need to engage in is the kind of biblical scholarship in which the Bible is not only the subject of investigation, but the investigation itself turns back upon the scholar in a transforming way. This is what illumination is all about. There are three parts to this discussion: (1) the intent of biblical scholarship -- our goal in the study of the Bible is the transformed life of love from a pure, a good conscience and a sincere faith, (2) the nature of biblical scholarship -- our way of studying the Bible is that it is encounter with God as fully human person in submission to the Word, and (3) the nurture of biblical scholarship -- is through guiding people into a kind of reading of the Bible that corresponds to this intent and nature of biblical scholarship.
Let me begin by affirming that the Bible offers the only divinely revealed and, therefore, reliable foundation and guide for life and ministry. Jesus, who always spoke with authority (Matt 7:28–29; 28:18), said in the Sermon on the Mount: “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt 7:24, niv). Of course, Jesus was referring here specifically to his teachings in the sermon, but we know that our Lord intends that we should take all of the inspired word of God seriously, both Old and New Testament, and keep it central to the way we think about and respond to him as well as in our relationships and ministry to people. According to Ezra 7:6–10, for example:
Ezra …was a scribe who was skilled in the law of Moses which the Lord God of Israel had given. The king supplied him with everything he requested, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.… he arrived at Jerusalem, for the good hand of his God was on him. Now Ezra had given himself to the study [lit. “to seek”] of the law of the Lord, to its observance [lit. “do it”], and to teaching its statutes and judgments in Israel.
Similarly, Paul writes to Timothy in 2 Tim 2:14–15 telling him to “warn” people “not to wrangle over words,” but instead, “make every effort” to gain approval from God by being “a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately”.
If you love someone, you take what he or she says seriously. So it is with the word of God. The great shema of Deut 6 begins with the proclamation of one great principle: “Listen, Israel: As for the Lord your God, the Lord is one” (v. 4). Since that is the case, the first commandment constitutes the natural implication: there should be no divided loyalties. There is only one Lord, so “love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and your whole strength” (v. 5; “and your whole strength” = literally, “with all your exceedingly,” perhaps meaning “with all that you are and have”). The next verse comes to the main point I am trying to make here: “These words I am commanding you today must be kept in mind” (v. 6). If we truly love God, his word will be “kept in mind.” His commandments are what we become preoccupied with. This naturally makes them that which we will talk about to our children in our various walks of life (v. 7), and we display his word in our public lives as well (vv. 8–9).
Of course, we could cite many such passages, and some will appear later in this article as we develop the two major discussions that make up the substance of this essay: (1) the Bible and human language and (2) the Bible and biblical scholarship. My major purpose is to describe and encourage the kind of biblical scholarship in which the Bible is not only the subject of investigation, but the investigation itself turns back upon the scholar in a transforming way. This kind of biblical scholarship takes place only when the Holy Spirit works powerfully in the scholar as he studies the very word that the same Spirit inspired (2 Pet 1:21, “men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God”).
Scholarly study of the Bible can be done either in a way that invites the Holy Spirit to do his transforming work through his word, or in a way that suffocates the work of the Spirit in the scholar’s study, and in his or her life and ministry. When it comes right down to it, however, who among us does not want to have “the good hand of his God on him” as Ezra did? I will argue that this requires that we not only do good scholarship from an academic point of view, but that we do it with the kind of heart perspective that invites—yes, calls upon and welcomes—the Holy Spirit to do what he intends to do through his word in our study, our lives, and our ministries. This work of the Holy Spirit is sometimes called “illumination,” the goal of which is to bring the word of God to bear so “that the eyes of” our “heart” may be “enlightened” (Eph 1:18; note “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation” in v. 17 [niv]). We will say more about this later.
First we need to take a serious look at the current scholarly discussion of the Bible as God’s word in human language. The hermeneutical issues that we face and the philosophical foundations that underlie them are important to my thesis that biblical scholarship done well will turn back on the scholar in a life-changing way. It is not my goal to deal with the standard hermeneutical concepts and exegetical procedures associated with historical-grammatical-literary interpretation of scripture (for example: grammar, semantics, syntax, historical backgrounds, literary genre, etc.). We have a number of fine textbooks on that subject.1 As important as such issues and procedures are, the matters we need to deal with here run deeper and manifest themselves on three levels of scholarly discussion: (1) distance between the ancient author/text and the modern reader (2) the nature of language and text as a means of communicating meaning that a reader can understand, and (3) the relationship between meaning, understanding, and illumination.
Distance between Author/Text and Reader
Our first concern is the historical, cultural, and linguistic distance between the ancient author/text and the modern reader of the Bible. Of course, this problem arises in the reading of any ancient and/or foreign document. In the case of the Bible, however, the situation is further complicated by the distance between the divine author (God) and the human reader on ontological, intellectual, and moral grounds (Isa 55:8–9). These kinds of issues are related in one way or another to three main realities of the text: (1) there were human authors as well as a divine author, (2) there were ancient readers and there are modern readers, and (3) the Bible itself is a text (or perhaps we should say it is a canonical collection of texts)—it is literature, it is written in languages that are foreign to most of us, and, at the same time, it is the very word of God.
From a historical point of view there are two horizons in biblical interpretation: the world and worldview of the ancient author/text, as opposed to the world and worldview of the modern reader of the text.2 Some would argue that the locus of meaning is in the intention of the original author(s). Others view the meaning of the text as that which arises in the understanding of the reader(s) in the process of reading and interpreting the text for today. In the latter case, the meaning of the text is regularly thought to be pluralistic because it arises from the world and concerns of the particular reader or group of readers. One person’s world may vary considerably from that of another, so the interpretations may vary too, and often do.
Hermeneutically, in my opinion, the most satisfying resolution to this problem is to think in terms of fusing the two horizons (author/text and reader) by means of a hermeneutical spiral.3 The modern interpreter naturally begins with his or her current horizon of understanding, which is actually a pre-understanding with which the reader necessarily approaches the ancient text. Pre-understanding is a good thing, but the more it has already been informed by previous well-accomplished readings of the text, the better it is.4 In any case, the reader must respect the horizon of the ancient author/text lest he or she simply read his or her own horizon into the text and, therefore, learn and understand nothing from God’s word.5 As the reading begins the modern reader initiates a “dialogue with the text in which the text itself progressively corrects and reshapes the interpreter’s own questions and assumptions.”6 Thus, the reader’s pre-understanding becomes better informed as the dialogue proceeds in a spiral forward toward a relatively sound understanding of the meaning of the ancient author/text brought about through the cyclical interaction between the two horizons.
In the meantime, the reader’s understanding of the impact that the true meaning of the ancient text has for his or her current situation also advances. The reader does not leave his own horizon behind but, instead, brings it with him into the engagement with the text. Here it helps to keep in mind that people from all times and places have always had to cope with essentially the same basic issues in life and death. There is common ground between us and the ancients. The cultures are different, but the basic human concerns have always been the same. Moreover, the image of God in people (Gen 1:26–28) lends us the capacity to hear God’s concerns in the text and respond to them. In other words, we have common ground with both the God who inspired the writing of the Bible and the ancient authors and readers of the text. This makes it reasonable to assume that we can come to a meaningful understanding of the significance of the scriptures for our lives. We shall return to the importance of the Holy Spirit in transforming us through the reading of the text later in this essay.7
Language and Text, Meaning and Understanding
The second level of scholarly debate today in hermeneutics is even more fundamental than the first. It takes us deeper into the nature of language as language and the problems of “meaning” in texts and “understanding” of texts. Some of the most influential scholars in the fields of philosophy of language and literary theory have, in effect, turned language on its head. They emphasize the difficulties with “meaning” in language and texts, rather than the fact that, by definition, languages and/or texts normally serve as a means of communication. I am neither a philosopher nor fully trained in the theoretical foundations of modern literary theory. Nevertheless, this very “heady” discussion has had a profound effect on current biblical scholarship, especially through many of the new literary approaches to the Bible (e.g., deconstruction, reader-response, liberation hermeneutics, etc.). We live in a world and in a scholarly environment that has been deeply influenced by the questions about the nature of language, literature, and meaning raised in these disciplines, so biblical scholars dare not ignore them.8
My most helpful guide through this maze has been the writings of Kevin Vanhoozer, especially his recent book entitled Is There a Meaning in This Text?9 It is widely recognized as an important book on language, meaning, and how the language of the Bible carries meaning about God and people, and about the Bible itself. It is about the history of the philosophy of language and the effects of modern literary theory on how people, especially biblical scholars, generally read and understand the Bible today. It is also especially significant for this essay that Vanhoozer includes in his book one of the most extensive and well-articulated treatments of the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination available anywhere in recent theological literature.10
Basically, it all comes down to a certain “despair of language” that is at the core of postmodern thought about language as it relates to meaning and truth. The question is: Can we really speak of truth?11 Premodern language theorists such as Plato, and the theologians who depended on their theories, such as Augustine, thought of words as signifiers of reality. “As words signify things, so things signify higher things,” whether it be Plato’s “eternal Ideas” or Augustine’s allegorical interpretation or spiritually higher meaning of (figurative) language in the Bible.12
Modern language theorists (as opposed to both premodern and our contemporary postmodern theorists) break into two basic groups. The first group saw language as information about subjective reality (as opposed to empirical reality, see the next paragraph below). This was based upon Immanuel Kant’s thesis that our mind does not actually know the world but shapes our perception of the world. Language, therefore, expresses our human subjectivity—our perceptions and experiences of the world—not the world directly. Our metaphysical ideas about ultimate reality beyond the material world are even more subjective, since the mind has no ability to penetrate beyond this world.13 Theologically, Karl Barth accepted Kant’s basic point of view and argued that, since God is so “wholly other,” human language on its own can speak only of the world, not of God directly. The work of interpreting the words of the Bible only provides the occasion on which God may, through an event of his divine grace, disclose the word of God through the words of the Bible.14
Other modern language theorists were uncomfortable with such a subjective view of language. For them language is information about empirical reality (e.g., Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein in his early days). According to this view, one could take each individual empirically observable fact about the world and build a verifiable proposition about that fact. The logically-arranged combination of these verifiable propositions would then paint a logical picture of truth—of what we can know. This is called “logical positivism.” Language, in the meantime, can say nothing about metaphysics; that is, the study of ultimate reality beyond what is empirically observable. The theological equivalent, according to Vanhoozer’s analysis, is “biblical positivism,” by which he means the biblical theological method of Old Princeton theologians such as Warfield and Hodge. While they all along denied the logical positivist dictum that one can say nothing about ultimate reality, nevertheless, from the point of view of the philosophy of language, their goal was to treat theology as an objective, inductive science by isolating and building propositions out of biblical facts one by one and then simply arranging them in a logical order.15
Postmodern language theorists return to Kant in the sense that they view all language as subjective, but they go further by arguing that language cannot get beyond itself to any reality outside of itself, not even the observable material world. They are committed to the indeterminacy of language. The structuralist view of language stands in the background here. According to the structuralists (e.g., Ferdinand de Saussure), a word in a language does not really represent anything outside of the language itself. Words are known only in relation to other words within the language system to which they belong. Poststructuralists (i.e., such postmodernists and deconstructionists as Jacques Derrida) go a step further when they argue that stable language systems do not exist. Every language is an ever-changing social construct, not really a means of expressing stable absolute truth. The possible meanings of words within texts or language systems change. So we find ourselves back at the “despair of language.” Some postmodern theologians (e.g., Don Cupitt), therefore, do not think of theology as language about what really is. Instead, theologians should strive to speak creatively in order to generate meaningful human experience through the use of theological language.16
Can we turn this “despair of language” into a productive despair? Vanhoozer (following Paul Ricoeur and Ludwig Wittgenstein in his latter days) thinks so, and I agree, although being a biblical rather than a philosophical-systematic theologian, I would want to articulate the same answer in a different way. Much of what postmodernists observe about language and literature is indeed true, but there is another way of coming at the whole problem. The way forward is through language as communication. Language is not just a system of signs (semiotics), but a means of communication (semantics). We need to move away from a focus on words, to sentences and discourses that bear communicative purpose. Semiotics studies language as a system unto itself, but semantics and the pragmatics of language treat language in relation to the socially interactive communicative event it inherently serves. This involves both “intentions and conventions” and such is the stuff of “meaning.”
Viewed in this way, language does “say something” in the context of the communicative event (it is “locutionary”), and because it says something it also “does something” (it is “illocutionary”; e.g., it warns, asserts, or promises). Moreover, the intention of language in the communicative event is to “make something happen” by addressing a person or group of persons (it is “perlocutionary”; e.g., it may simply inform, or it may persuade, encourage, or discourage). This, in turn, “invites a response” of some sort from the person(s) addressed (language is “interlocutionary”; e.g., the addressee[s] may agree, disagree, act, react, or simply respond with further discourse). Thus, “language is ultimately a medium of interpersonal interaction.”17
Meaning, Understanding, and Illumination
This interpersonal communication occurs not only between people, but also between God and people. The Bible presents itself as a combination of the two, being intentional communication from divine and human authors to human readers, whom God himself created in his own image and likeness. The Bible “says something” and as such it “does something, makes something happen, and invites response,” but how is the Holy Spirit involved in this process?
With his characteristic wit Vanhoozer writes: “The Spirit’s work in interpretation is not to change the sense [of scripture] but to restore us to our senses” (emphasis mine).18 His point is that the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination is different from his work of inspiration, although he recognizes that the former is a natural extension of the latter: “the one who inspired scripture cannot contradict himself when he illumines it.”19 The difference is one of “meaning” versus “understanding,” between the “objective” and “subjective” authority of scripture. Karl Barth collapsed the two into one, arguing that the Bible becomes the word of God only when the divine Holy Spirit makes it such for the reader in the act of reading.20 On the contrary, in the process of inspiring the scriptures the Holy Spirit deposited a divinely intended meaning in the text (2 Tim 3:16–17) by driving the human writers along the course of divinely intended meaning (2 Pet 1:20–21). Put in terms of speech-act theory, the text itself is locutionary by virtue of the fact that it carries the Holy Spirit’s intended “meaning”—it says something definite. Therefore, on the one hand, the “meaning” of the text shines forth from the author/text horizon.
“Understanding,” on the other hand, derives from the Holy Spirit’s work of “illumination” on the horizon of the reader.21 Here is where the argument becomes a bit confusing. The question is whether or not illumination enlivens the illocutionary or perlocutionary dimensions of the text, or both, and where does the interlocutionary dimension of the text fit into the discussion of illumination? Vanhoozer never mentions the interlocutionary intent of the Bible in his discussion of the Holy Spirit’s work in interpretation of the Bible. He argues that illumination is mainly perlocutionary, but also includes the illocutionary. The Spirit works to impress the reader(s) with the illocutionary force of the text and to promote obedience to its perlocutionary intent. Both are part of a proper “understanding” of the Bible, what Klooster calls “heart-understanding.”22
We might compare this to the use of the Greek word gnw'si" (gno„sis) in 1 Pet 3:7, “Husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration [lit. ‘according to knowledge’ (gnw'si")] as the weaker partners and show them honor as fellow heirs of the grace of life. In this way nothing will hinder your prayers.” This kind of knowledge or “understanding” involves more than cognitive understanding of spoken words. It includes hearing and understanding what is said, but it means that one also takes the words and the person seriously in a considerate way. It includes truly “knowing” one’s wife as a person, and honoring and valuing her in a special way. She is to have a privileged place in her husband’s life, a place of truly knowing and being known. Similarly, we are to take God at his word. We give him and his word a privileged place in our life. This is what it means to truly “understand” God and his word, and I would argue that this is what the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination is about.
The best way of viewing illumination is to attach it to the reader’s acceptance and reception of the meaning of the text rather than his or her intellectual grasp of what it says.23 What I have in mind here are the principles of 1 Cor 2:14, “The unbeliever does not receive [i.e., embrace, welcome] the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them [lit. ‘know’ ginwvskw, gino„sko„; cf. gnw'si", gino„sis, and the remarks on 1 Pet 3:7 above], because they are spiritually discerned [i.e., evaluated, judged].”The point is that as an act of communication or a collection of such acts, the scriptures already have all the elements of a speech act built into them, just like any other literary composition. Hermeneutics as a discipline is not limited to principles of biblical interpretation, but extends to interpretation of all kinds of texts, ancient and modern.
The special problem with God’s word is not with the scriptures themselves, but with our acceptance of what they say as true and our willingness to welcome that truth into our lives for impact on all levels: who we are and how we live. In short, the problem is that we are sinful down to the very core of ourselves. Therefore, we naturally resist scripture as an act of rebellion against the true God, whose divine intent was the reason for its composition on the first horizon and continues to be the divine purpose and goal of reading it on the second horizon. As Klooster puts it, “renewal of the heart in regeneration is the most radical form of illumination one experiences.”24 Taken in context, this regenerational illumination is what 1 Cor 2:14 is concerned about (see also 2 Cor 3:12–4:15 and compare John 3:19–21 and 1 John 1:5–7). Again, it is not so much a matter of perception of the meaning of sentences and paragraphs in scripture as it is the willingness of the reader to receive it.
This work of the Holy Spirit continues on into the Christian life as part of his sanctifying work in and among us. In Col 1:9–10 Paul writes about his prayers on behalf of the Colossian believers that God would fill them “with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may live worthily of the Lord and please him in all respects: bearing fruit in every good deed, growing in the knowledge of God.” Similarly, in the context of making reference to the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13–14), he writes to the Ephesian believers that he has been praying for the “enlightening” of the “eyes” of their “heart” by “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that they might “know him better.” This includes knowing “the hope to which he has called” them, “…the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Eph 1:17–19).
First John 2:20–27 binds the “anointing” with the Holy Spirit at regeneration to the ongoing teaching of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian: “…the anointing that you received from him resides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, it is true and is not a lie. Just as it has taught you, you reside in him”(1 John 2:27). There appears to be an echo here from the new covenant passage in Jer 31:31–34, where the Lord says, “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. And I will be their God and they will be my people” (v. 33). Therefore, “‘People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. That is because all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,’ says the Lord. ‘All of this is based on the fact that I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done’” (v. 34). On the one hand, one could be in the old covenant without having the law written on the heart; that is, without knowing the Lord. On the other hand, the nature of the new covenant is such that one will have the law written on their heart so that they know the Lord. No one will need to teach this to someone who has a new covenant relationship with the Lord.
John’s point is similar: “…you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. I have not written to you that you do not know the truth, but that you do know it, and that no lie is of the truth” (1 John 2:20–21). Therefore, no one needs to teach them that Jesus is the Son of God, nor the importance of abiding in him (vv. 22–24). Some teachers were trying to deceive them, but the anointing they have teaches them the truth and they need no one else to teach them these things as they continue to abide in Christ (vv. 26–27). Being in Christ brings with it the Holy Spirit’s illumination that begins with the initial baptism in the Holy Spirit at the time of regeneration and continues to enlighten the eyes of their hearts about the things of Christ, as Paul puts it in Eph 1:17–18 (see above).
In light of all this, we should probably think of illumination as applying to the perlocutionary and interlocutionary dimensions of the text. The locutionary fact that the text says something and the illocutionary nature of what it says are both part of the text itself and, therefore, part of the Holy Spirit’s work of inspiration, not illumination. These are the two parts of the “meaning” already accomplished in the text. For example, when Jesus says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20), he says something locutionary and what he says amounts to an illocutionary warning. The reader who perceives this has attained to a proper perception of the text. This does not require illumination by the Holy Spirit.
Whether the reader receives the perlocutionary force of Jesus’ warning as meaningful for his or her own life and responds to the interlocutionary invitation to act on the warning, this is another matter altogether. The following antitheses (Matt 5:21–48) and, in fact, the whole Sermon on the Mount provide instruction and guidance for those who would take what Jesus said seriously and actively pursue a righteousness that does indeed surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. This is what the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination is concerned with. The issue is not the “sense” of scripture but the need for us to come to our “senses.”
I am not suggesting here that the work of the Holy Spirit in illumination has no effect on our “thinking.” On the contrary, how we evaluate and respond to the word of God under the influence of the Holy Spirit constitutes a significant part of our thinking. My basic concern is that we distinguish between the qualities of textuality that make any text an act of communication, including the word of God, as opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit that enables us as sinners to receive what the Spirit’s inspired scriptures say as meaningful and, in fact, authoritative for our own thinking and acting. I would also add that, ultimately, the fact that we receive the word of God as the guiding authority for our lives informs the ongoing development of our pre-understanding for approaching the biblical text anew. When all is said and done, the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination has a “backlash effect” even on our perception of what the Bible says from a locutionary point of view and what it does by means of what it says from an illocutionary point of view. Illumination, therefore, helps us on both horizons (author/text and reader) even though its direct application is to the second horizon (the life of the reader).
Our second major concern in this treatise is a natural extension of the first. We need to take the philosophical discussion of language and the biblical discussion of illumination articulated in the first section of this article and bring them to bear on the actual practice of biblical scholarship. The goal is to describe and encourage the kind of biblical scholarship in which the Bible is not only the subject of investigation, but the investigation itself turns back upon the scholar in a transforming way. There are three parts to this discussion: (1) the intent of biblical scholarship, (2) the nature of biblical scholarship, and (3) the nurture of biblical scholarship.
For some readers it may seem silly to go through the previous review and discussion of the history of the philosophy of language and new literary criticism (see above) only to come to the conclusion that the best way to read the Bible is as an act of communication. What else would it be? However, by following this line of thought we have accomplished three things. First, we have brought our discussion into contact with the core hermeneutical debates of our day. I hope the reader finds this helpful in his or her own engagement with the world of biblical scholarship today. What else is biblical scholarship about but the study of the Bible, especially its interpretation? Second, we have gone some distance toward putting pluralism in its proper place. One of the cultural effects of postmodernism is that language is indeterminate—it does not communicate a stable meaning and there is no such thing as absolute truth. Therefore, there can be no authoritative “metanarrative.” That is, neither the Bible nor any other story can claim “to make sense of all other stories and the whole of reality.”25 But this is the very claim that the Bible does indeed make. I will return to this point in the conclusion.
Third, and most importantly for our present discussion, there is something very important to be gained for our topic by looking at the language of scripture as an act of communication, ultimately a divine act, but through human writers using human language. In summary, from this point of view, the text of scripture intends to make something happen in the heart of the reader that will bring about the appropriate response in the reader’s life. This is, in fact, the arena in which the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination takes place. This brings us to the issue of God’s intention for us as we read the Bible, and that, in turn, is the most helpful point of departure for defining the divine purpose and perspective in biblical scholarship.
What response does God himself intend to call forth from us through his self-revelation to us in his word? What impact does he intend to have on us as we study his word and on others through our teaching of it? From a biblical theology point of view, the best way to answer this question is through the use of what I have come to call “boil down” passages in the Bible. These are passages that come right out and say that they are “boiling down” the message of the Bible, or the goals and purposes of that message. In other words, there are occasions in the text when the text itself underlines the intended effect of biblical teaching on its readers. The Bible turns back upon itself. It is not surprising to find that many times the stated purpose has something to do with relationship between God and people, and between people. After all, the Bible is first of all and above all a relational book. God could be God without the Bible. People could be people without the Bible. The real reason for the existence of the Bible is the relationship between the two. We can put it this way: if we come away from the Bible without relating well to God and people we have not read it well. A spiritually formative approach to the Bible will have a profound relational effect on the scholar and through the scholar on his or her students.
The goal of our teaching. For example, according to the Apostle Paul there is one main goal for teaching God’s word; namely, so that people grow to love better. In the first chapter of 1 Timothy Paul confronts a teaching problem in Ephesus. There were those who were spreading “false teachings” having to do with “myths and interminable genealogies,” were promoting “useless speculations rather than God’s redemptive plan that operates by faith” (1 Tim 1:3–4). Paul had given Timothy a “command” to restrain them (v. 3), and in v. 5 he refers to this “command” as having a certain goal (Greek telos): “the aim of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.” Paul then proceeds in vv. 6–7 to refer to these false teachers as those who “have strayed from these” principles; namely, the principles listed in the previous verse. In wandering away from these principles they have “turned away to empty discussion. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not understand what they are saying or the things they insist on so confidently.”
Good Bible teaching has as its goal “love”—the kind of love that comes only from “a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.” One could reach hither and yon for a biblical definition of love, but perhaps it is better to just stick with the context here and say that it is the kind of relational involvement with God and people that comes, first of all, from a “pure heart”—one cleansed of impurities (2 Tim 2:22). Second, it comes from a “good conscience”—a conscience that is not tainted with guilt, perversity, and ulterior motives. Thirdly, it comes from a “sincere faith”—an unhypocritical faithful walk with God. We dare not lose sight of this goal when we study and teach the Bible because if we do, then we have compromised the biblical integrity of our study from the point of view of what we are studying. Our scholarship loses its way.
The summary of the Law and the Prophets. We all know how easy it is to get caught up in controversy. We are so easily distracted from God’s purposes even as we pursue those very purposes. It is instructive to observe that in 1 Tim 1:2–11 the real problem seems to have been how these false teachers were teaching the Old Testament law. We cannot go into the details of how they were misunderstanding the law and, therefore, misleading others in the way they were teaching it, but we know that the whole point of the law and the prophets was the same kind of love that Paul referred to in v. 5 as the goal of his own instruction. This is clear from the way Jesus summarized the law in the two great commandments. The Gospel of Matthew records it this way: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments”(Matt 22:37–40).
Of course, this is not new in the New Testament. Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament itself and is suggesting this is the perspective from which we should understand all that is written there. If one does not get this out of their reading of the Old Testament then they have read it wrongly. Jesus says so!
My own experience in teaching the Old Testament is that many do not read it with this kind of understanding and effect in their lives. In some circles at least, there is a tendency to pit the Old and New Testaments against one another in some way. Jesus strenuously opposes this. The Old Testament was his Bible, and he had no intention of undermining its authority and importance through his life, death, or resurrection. Of course, various misunderstandings persist even today. Even the second great commandment itself is often misunderstood. I have heard people say that the second great commandment means that we need to learn to love ourselves so that we can love others. This turns the text on its head. The context in Lev 19 betrays this. The passage (vv. 15-18) reads:
“You must not deal unjustly in judgment: you must neither show partiality to the poor nor honor the rich. You must judge your fellow citizen fairly. You must not walk about as a slanderer among your people. You must not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake. I am the Lord. You must not hate your brother in your heart. You must surely reprove your fellow citizen so that you do not incur sin on account of him. You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you must love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
You would not want someone to pervert the system of justice in such a way that you are treated unfairly, so don’t do this to your neighbor. You would not want someone to slander you, so don’t slander them either. You would not want someone to endanger your life, so don’t endanger their life. You would not want someone to hate you or bear a grudge against you in their heart, so don’t allow yourself to do that to them. Note the concern here for what is going on in one’s heart. This is another common misunderstanding of the law. It is not just concerned about external behaviors, but also the activities of the heart. But the point I am making here is that the second great commandment is really essentially the same as the so-called “golden rule” in Matt 7:12, “In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.”
We could go on about this passage, but the point here is that this is another “boil down” passage, and it comes down to the same basic underlying rationale for teaching the Bible as Paul did in 1 Tim 1:5. The goal of our instruction is love, and that was in fact the whole purpose of the law and the prophets from the start.
Faith and hope, with love above all. Similarly, one can turn to the transition and connection between 1 Cor 12 and 13. Paul summarizes the spiritual gifts and their significance, and then turns in another direction, saying, “And now I will show you a way beyond comparison” (1 Cor 12:31b). He immediately launches into a contrast between all things spiritual as opposed to love. He even concludes: “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). How important is faith in Paul’s writings? It is pivotal to the very gospel itself. How important is hope? Paul makes much of it for the life of the Christian (e.g., 1 Cor 15:19). But he still writes his praise song in 1 Cor 13 to love and gives it pride of place in relation to faith and hope (note also 1 Cor 8:1, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”).
The main point is this: love outweighs any knowledge, giftedness, or abilities we may have. By definition, if we do not love well we do not serve well no matter how well gifted we may be. This includes our giftedness as scholars. We all know that very gifted people have a lot of power, but that power can be used for either good or bad, whether in the Church or in the world. I in no way intend to diminish the importance of spiritual gifts, but I do sometimes get concerned about an overemphasis on spiritual gifts, as if they are what carries the ministry. The Holy Spirit has given these gifts to us for one reason and one reason only: so that we can use them to go love God and people. The spiritual gifts are neither an end in themselves nor the bottom line in ministry. The bottom line is how well we love. That is certainly clear from 1 Cor 13, and it is just as important for us as biblical scholars as anyone else.
The mark of the Christian. Finally, I turn to one more passage, John 13:34–35. Jesus said: “I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.” Loving one another well is to be the distinguishing mark of the Christian and the Church. It is what makes us stand out as a community in the midst of this world. Unfortunately, the Church has not always been known for this in the world, and neither are Bible teachers and scholars. We too often lose track of the divine purpose as we pursue our study and our ministry.
If love is to be the goal of our instruction, if it is the summary on which all the law and the prophets hang, if it outweighs any giftedness we may have, even the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and if it is to be the distinguishing mark of the Church, then there is only one conclusion we can draw. Love is of primary importance in our lives as Christians, even as biblical scholars. In fact, it seems to me that one of the most important goals we could set for our scholarship is to bring the word of God to bear upon the people of God in such a way that they go forth and love God and people better. We as biblical scholars and teachers need to ask ourselves how well we are serving this expressed purpose of the Bible in the way we study and teach it. Not only “do we get it?” but are we keeping others focused on “getting it” by the way we do our scholarship and our teaching?
This brings us to the nature of biblical scholarship. From time to time, we need to reassess ourselves and our scholarship in terms of what God has called us to do as scholars. Of course, each person has his or her own peculiar calling, but we also have a common calling to serve God and his Church well through our scholarship. I distinctly remember as a seminary student walking down a particular hallway one day thinking about God’s call on my life and having it occur to me that perhaps God wants me to invest my life in helping the Church with the Old Testament. I thought, “the Church certainly needs some help here.” It was a defining moment for me. Our scholarship is to be as much a mission as any other purposeful calling in the Church.
Here is where I would like to make a rather bold proposal. The fact that, as biblical scholars, we sometimes undo the divine intent of what we are called to do by the way we do it. Biblical scholarship is too often separated from simply being a good Christian who hears and responds to the work of God’s Holy Spirit as we pursue our scholarship. One way of saying this is that there is a problem with our hermeneutic—a serious problem that keeps us from receiving the full impact of God and God’s word in our lives as we are in the study. This, in turn, keeps us from teaching the Bible according to God’s divine intention. We lose track of life in the study. As a result, we lose effectiveness in the lives of our students in the college or seminary classroom as well as in the church.
A simplistic or mechanical study of the Bible will not have the impact on us that God intends to have through his word. The common step-by-step process of first analysis, then synthesis, and finally application is inadequate and misleading. It does not yield the same kind of results as “meditation” on the word of God day and night, which is what the Bible calls us to in several places (e.g., Josh 1:8 and Ps 1:2). We need to come back to the question of the Holy Spirit in the study of the Bible and the nature of “illumination.” I am suggesting that biblical scholarship that is worthy of the name will involve the full engagement of a scholar’s spirit with the Holy Spirit in the process of studying the Bible. This means at least three things.
Taking God seriously in the study. First, we need to take God himself seriously in the study by making our study an encounter with him.26 The most personally transforming activity we can engage in is worship. This is true even for us as scholars while we are doing our scholarship. What do I mean by making our study an encounter with him? I mean a sort of “practicing of his presence” in the study. True worship, true conscious practicing of God’s presence, is the most transforming experience available to the Christian because it is the main way our heart (Hebrew bl@, lev) gets turned around to go in a different direction. We are told in Prov 4:23, “Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it are the sources of life.” As is well known, the “heart” in Hebrew is a term that includes not only intellect but also attitudes, volition, perspectives on life, and the inner life overall. One mode and effect of worship is what one could refer to as “getting impressed with God.” Putting it in those terms, one of our main problems in life and as scholars is that we are often impressed with the wrong things, something other than God himself.
We can know a lot and learn more without being transformed. Biblical transformation of the heart (mind, understanding, feelings, attitudes, motivations, etc.) takes place when we become so deeply impressed with God and his purposes in our lives that our will, our volition, becomes engaged in the ongoing process of change and growth. When what we are impressed with changes, then what we desire changes along with it. Deep and meaningful change takes place when the things that matter to us change, and that should be one of the major goals in our study of the Bible. We need to see God with the “eyes” of our “heart,” as Paul puts it in Eph 1:18 (niv). One thing is for sure, if we do indeed see God, like Isaiah in God’s throne room, we will most certainly be impressed (Isa 6:1–4). That, in turn, will put the issues of our own lives and ministries in proper perspective as it did for Isaiah (Isa 6:5–8).
The Holy Spirit is directly involved in bringing about such encounters with God in our hearts and lives as part of his ministry of illumination. Consider especially 1 Cor 2, which is one of the most cited chapters in the Bible on the subject of the Holy Spirit and illumination. According to vv. 10–11, “the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the things of a man except the man’s spirit within him? So too, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.”So the Holy Spirit knows the depths of God and a person’s human spirit knows the depths of the person. According to v. 12, the divine Spirit is in direct and intimate contact with the human spirit of one who is in Christ: “we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God.”
Paul takes this point further in Rom 8. The chapter begins with the fact that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1) and ends with what is virtually a hymn of thanksgiving to God that he will never condemn us; in fact, absolutely nothing in heaven or earth is “able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 39b; cf. all of vv. 31–39). Between the beginning and the end of the chapter there is a great deal said about the Holy Spirit, and once again the intimate connection between the Holy Spirit of God and the human spirit of a believer is expressed. This is especially clear in v. 16, “The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children.” We are God’s adopted children, and this is truly something to rejoice about. This is the main thing among the gifts that “are freely given to us by God” (1 Cor 2:12b).
Yes, we struggle and groan in our fallenness in the midst of this fallen world, but the Holy Spirit helps us and even prays for us in the depths of our despair when we cannot even express it in words (Rom 8:17–27), so that through whatever happens, good or bad, we are conformed to the likeness of Christ (vv. 28–30). Then comes the hymn (vv. 31–39). So in spite of the pain of life we can still have our lives filled up with the Spirit, which will naturally lead us into worship of God (Eph 5:18–20).27 This should be true in our study as much as anywhere else. I do not mean to suggest that all we ever do is rejoice and praise and give thanks. On the contrary, we often struggle as Rom 8 indicates. We will come back to this in the next section as it relates to the genuineness of worship. Nevertheless, in the midst of life the Holy Spirit continually works to help us see God’s glory and grace with eyes of our heart, and to overwhelm us with that vision of God wherever we are and whatever we are doing, no matter what our circumstances may be for the moment.
Taking our humanity seriously in the study. Second, in addition to taking God himself seriously in our scholarship by seeing our study as an ongoing series of occasions for encounter with him, we need to take our human nature and experience seriously by functioning as a fully human person in the study. Our mind, will, emotions, attitudes, perspectives on life, personality, personal and interpersonal problems, background, and all the rest of what we are as a living breathing person need to be fully engaged as we study. I would argue that the most important exegetical and theological “tool” we have is our own “heart” as it has been shaped by our life experiences and especially by personal encounter with God himself. We have been taught and continue to use all sorts of tools in our study of the Bible. These include the biblical languages, various kinds of reference books, and so on. But the most important tool for reading and understanding the Bible is our heart.
We are not just a brain to be filled with data to manipulate, even biblical data. God did not write the Bible to computers. It was written to reach and impact people as they are—fully engaged in life on all the levels mentioned above. As we encounter God in all our humanness we are presenting our whole person to him for change, because what is real and deep within us is what is encountering him. I would argue that we should not “bracket out” or disengage with anything in our person or our lives while we are in the study at any point in the exegetical process. Doing this would amount to shutting that part of our life off from God in the midst of encountering him in his word.
By the nature of things, our knowledge of God through his Holy Spirit is intimately bound up with our knowledge of ourselves, that is, our human spirit. This is the so-called “double knowledge” that Calvin discusses in the first chapter of his Institutes.28 Every first year Hebrew or Greek student knows that the major terms for the human “spirit” and the Holy “Spirit” are also common words for “wind” or “breath” in both the Hebrew Old Testament (j~Wr, ruakh) and the Greek New Testament (pneu'ma, pneuma). The existence of a human spirit in every person, and the affective nature of that human spirit, is clearly testified to in both the Old Testament (e.g., Jacob’s revived “spirit” in Gen 45:27, and Ahab’s sullen “spirit” in 1 Kgs 21:5) and the New Testament (e.g., Paul’s gentle “spirit” in 1 Cor 4:21, and the “spirit” of power, love, and self-control rather than timidity in 2 Tim 1:7). In fact, one can argue from the Bible that it is precisely the presence of the immaterial “spirit” of a person that makes his or her material body alive as opposed to dead (Jas 2:26a, “the body without the spirit is dead”; see also Ps 31:5 echoed by Jesus on the cross in Luke 23:46, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”). In other words, our human “spirit” consists of all that we are other than a physical body. When it is gone from our body we are physically dead but still a person.
We come to know God when we personally “receive” the Holy Spirit of God (who knows God deeply) in such a way that we experience the effect of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our human spirit (which knows us deeply; 1 Cor 2:11–12). Thus, “we speak of these things [i.e., “what God has freely given us,” v. 12b] in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual” (v. 13 [nrsv]), for “we have the mind of Christ” (v. 16b). God is actually present “in” us and among us in the form of the third person of the Trinity (as well as the first and second persons [cf. John 14–16]). As Christians we are a temple of the Holy Spirit both individually, as a person of faith (1 Cor 6:19–20), and corporately, as a community of faith (1 Cor 3:9–17; cf. also Heb 3:6; 1 Pet 2:4–8; and especially Eph 2:19–22 and perhaps also 3:14–21).
We are called to “practice” the “presence of God” as persons of faith and as communities of faith, and that requires that our human spirit(s) be fully engaged in the process, whether it be in prayer, worship, Bible study, mission, or whatever. Our whole way of life is to be an act of worship (see, e.g., Rom 12:1), and this includes what we do as biblical scholars in the study. This is what it means to take God seriously in our study by making each occasion an encounter with him (see above). Similarly, taking our humanness seriously in the study of the Bible will require that we stay fully engaged as a fully human person as we study God’s word. In a sense, our human spirit is the common ground on which we meet God in the person of, and through the presence of, the Holy Spirit. Of course, what we are saying here naturally raises the issue of objectivity and subjectivity in biblical interpretation.
Taking the Bible seriously in the study. Third, we not only need to take both God and our humanness seriously as we study, we also need to take the Bible itself seriously by allowing the scriptures to have control in our study of it, not our own subjectivity. We are by nature subjective, and that’s okay, but we need to be well informed in our subjectivity. To be sure, one scholar’s exegesis and interpretation of a particular passage may be different from that of another. This is a reality. We are fallen, so our scholarship is fallen too. The problem is that sometimes we confuse our humanness with our fallenness. We cannot separate the two in our present condition, but we can and must distinguish between them. There is nothing wrong with being human, but there is plenty wrong with being fallen. We do not want to eliminate any part of our humanness when we read and study the Bible, but one of the main purposes of reading the Bible is to transform our fallenness into godliness. As I have already argued, that is precisely the reason for the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination.
So we dare not eliminate our humanness while studying the Bible. God wrote the Bible through fully human and subjective people in order to reach us as fully human and subjective people. As we engage in the study of the biblical stories, commands, parables, songs, letters, and so on, the Holy Spirit uses them to draw forth, scrutinize, and transform our drives, commitments, goals, attitudes, feelings, and beliefs. We cannot attain to absolute objectivity and, in my opinion, should not even try. But we don’t just read things into the Bible from our own previous knowledge and experience either. Rather, as we become more and more well informed in our study of the Bible we have more to bring to the further reading of the text.
Moreover, if we have been fully engaged with God as a fully human person along the way, there is now passion for our life and ministry in the study as well as in the pulpit or behind the lectern. Then the exegetical tools become resources one is driven to use in his or her pursuit of God. Now the methods, techniques, and conceptual tools of historical-grammatical-literary interpretation become the servants they need to be in the pursuit of genuine understanding of God’s word for our own lives and the lives of others. They make sense not only in the study but also in life outside the study.
At the end of the first section of this article I discussed the philosophical and hermeneutical relationship between meaning in the biblical text, understanding of the text, and the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination in our engagement with God as we read and study the text. I attempted to define and describe what illumination is about. In this section we have pursued the biblical theology of how illumination actually works. I am suggesting that as we become fully engaged on all three points of the triangle between God, people, and the Bible (see the figure below), we put ourselves in a place and posture for the Holy Spirit to impact us personally and relationally as we study the text. He “illumines” (or “enlightens”) our understanding, our attitudes, our perspectives on life, and our relationships. This is what illumination is, and this is how it works.
I have already argued that illumination is concerned with the impact of the text on how we think and how we live. In his work of illumination, the Holy Spirit intends to bring about a full-orbed experience of being impacted as a person by God while we are in the text. Yes, we need to diligently pursue the correct interpretation of the text in terms of its meaning (2 Tim 2:15). At least in some passages of the Bible this requires all the scholarly effort and finesse we can muster, all that we have available to us in terms of exegetical, conceptual, and intellectual tools for engagement with the text. The propositional statements and intent of scripture are of immense importance. Nevertheless, we must never lose track of the goal toward which the Holy Spirit is driving us. God is concerned not only about our intellectual grasp of his word, but the grip his word has on our hearts and our lives through the effective work of his Holy Spirit in our human spirit.
Many of the passages used in the discussion of illumination clearly point us in this direction. By way of review, take for example 1 Cor 2:10–16 where the Holy Spirit works in the human spirit so that we not only “know the things that are freely given to us by God” (v. 12) but also see the importance of these things for the way we live our lives (vv. 13–16). The message here is the simple gospel, “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (v. 2 [niv]; cf. all of vv. 1–10), which is “the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery” (v. 7) even though to “the man without the Spirit” it is a bunch of “foolishness” (v. 14 [niv]). The whole thing looks different in the Spirit. It is the gospel that transforms us as the Holy Spirit brings its various truths to bear upon us, which are the things “freely given to us by God.” Moreover, the gospel is always “good news” to everyone, non-Christian and Christian alike. Even if we are already true believers, there are always ways in which the impact and significance of the gospel still needs to be worked into our human spirit, and from there into every aspect of our lives.
Similarly, Eph 1:17–19 talks about “spiritual wisdom and revelation” associated with enlightening “the eyes of” the “heart.” Col 1:9–13 talks about gaining the knowledge of God’s will in spiritual wisdom and understanding so that we “live worthily of the Lord” and share in the light of the Kingdom of Christ.
In essence, we invite the Holy Spirit to have this effect in our lives by engaging well on all three points articulated above: encountering God as a fully human persons open to the impact of God’s word. In terms of language as an act of communication, the Holy Spirit, who is the original divine author of scripture in the first place, takes his word and creates an act of communication on the spot by bringing his inspired text to bear on the heart and life of the reader.29 When we purpose to study our Bible this way, application is no longer a last step after-thought taken up after we do all we can to “get the text right.” Instead, application becomes central to our experience of the Bible even in our study through the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination.
Let me emphasize here that I am not talking about a supposed distinction between academic study and devotional reading of the Bible. There can be different opinions on that. My point is that true biblical scholarship must not only concentrate on the Bible but on the expressed purposes of the Bible as God’s revelation. Only this kind of scholarship is thoroughly biblical, and the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination is absolutely required for those who wish to study it this way.30
All of this affects how we teach the text too. We need to nurture this kind of biblical scholarship. Once again, a mechanical or simplistic “teach and apply” method of using the Bible in ministry, whether in preaching, teaching, or in some other way, is not sufficient. We need to think deeply and implicationally about God, people, and the Bible as we relate to students in the church, the classroom, and in more intimate mentoring contexts.
First of all, in our teaching of the Bible we need to view personal change and transformation in the lives of the people to whom we minister as “worship” centered and empowered. We need to take God seriously as we approach them. I cannot reach inside someone’s life and turn their heart in a different direction, but the Holy Spirit can. He often does this in a situation where people truly “get impressed” with God. This can change how life looks and what is important. It gets their will engaged in what the Holy Spirit wants to do in their life.
Second, we need to recognize that, just like us, the people to whom we minister are not made up of just a “brain” to be filled with information, biblical or otherwise. All of the other human capacities with which they have been endowed by God and the tendencies with which they are plagued because of the fall must be taken seriously as well. We need to take people seriously as we bring our study to bear upon their lives. Simply depositing truth is not the answer. Truth is basic, but its purpose is to change lives and that means that it has to become more than just intellectual cognition. Just because people “know” something does not necessarily mean that what they know is “touching” them meaningfully.
We are after transformed hearts and lives and we cannot make that happen! We are totally dependent on God to reach into their life. Therefore, prayer becomes an absolute necessity from our point of view. We must not redefine the task so that we can attain it without the direct “hands on” work of God taking place. As a communicative act, God’s word in the Bible has a certain intention that we must not diminish or cheapen.
Third, we need to help the people whom we teach to take the Bible seriously. Again, we cannot make this happen, but if we model it in our own scholarship the Holy Spirit can use that too. From a biblical point of view, the Bible is not just one of the valid perspectives on life and meaning as the postmodern pluralist would argue. Our goal is to do our scholarship and teach the results of our scholarly work in such a way that our students grow ever more increasingly toward loving God well, loving people well, and living God’s word well in their own life and ministry.
First, they, like us, grow to love God well by encountering him regularly, meaningfully, and worshipfully as they are in the text. They become godly. Second, they, like us, love other people well because they are fully engaged on a human level as a godly person and are able to meet them where they are. They are genuine. Third, they, like us, apply God’s word well in their own life and ministry as a godly and genuine person; they are subjective, yes, but also well informed when they read and study the Bible. They are illumined by the Holy Spirit.
Finally, in conclusion, let’s return to the biblical metanarrative. In my own study of the Bible, attempting to read it in the way described above, I have come to a certain perspective on the overall flow of the biblical message that, for me at least, combines well the need to take God, people, and the Bible itself seriously from the point of view of an overall biblical theology. There is no need for big words or sophisticated theological arguments here. In fact, the more simple and straightforward the language is, the better. Here is how it goes.
First, although the world was created to be a place of “rest” (i.e., peace and purpose) for us, it is now a “mess” and so are we. We have lost our “rest,” and this loss manifests itself in the way we handle life. This is the burden of Gen 1–11, and the effects of these realities are manifest all the way through the rest of scripture as well. Genesis 1–11 is meant to level the ground of our human experience: who we are, the nature of our situation, and how we got ourselves into the mess we are in. One way of talking about the problem we face is that we lack “rest,” the kind of rest Jesus invites us to in Matt 11:28–30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.”We all manifest this lack of rest in different ways and down to the very core of our being. We are not in the situation we were originally created to live in. We were created for paradise; we are not there anymore, and we don’t like it.
Second, even though we are in this disastrous situation and continue to make it worse because of the many ways we reject God and his design for us and our world, still, he has stayed involved and there is a redemptive “rest” to be found amid the “mess.” This is what the rest of the Bible is all about, from Gen 12 through Rev 22. Here the focus is on what God has done to help us through the mess in which we find ourselves and back to himself. We can think of this as restoring our rest while we continue to live in the mess. One can recall here the inclusio-like envelope around the Bible as a whole when we compare Gen 1–2 with Rev 21–22—the creation of the heaven and earth, and the new heaven and earth. The paradise, the tree of life, all the freely flowing waters are there again in Rev 21–22. Moreover, there is no more curse, a reflection on Gen 3. By God’s grace we are heading back to where we originally came from; in fact, something even better.
Third, from the point of view of our current situation in this in-between age then, our goal in ministry is to work that “rest” down into the hearts and lives of people so that they love God and love people well in spite of the “mess” which we are and in which we live. This is what we are about in biblical scholarship as much as in any other ministry, if our scholarship is truly biblical not only in content but in its intention. In order to accomplish this ministry goal, first, we need to know how to meet people where they are by truly understanding and engaging with them as people. We need to understand people biblically. Second, we need to know how to take them from where they are to where they need to go. We need to be able to help them biblically in terms of working God’s “rest” down into their lives even as we ourselves continue to grow in this. On this level, the gospel is always “good news” to everyone, because there are always ways in which the full effect of it has not been worked into our lives.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring the dynamics of this gospel to bear in all levels and dimensions of our lives individually and as a community of faith in this corrupt world. This is his agenda, and his agenda is what we are all about as biblical scholars—if we are truly biblical.
1 . See, for example, Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991) and Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and Moisés Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).
2 . See Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), xix-xx and 10-23 for a basic description of the “two horizons” as a hermeneutical principle. This terminology and the hermeneutical concepts that arise from it derive ultimately from Hans-Georg Gadamer.
3 . In effect, Osborne’s hermeneutical spiral merges with Thiselton’s (à la Gadamer’s) fusion of the two horizons. For my present description of the principles and procedures involved see Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 370, 386, 411-415, and Thiselton, The Two Horizons, 17-23, 439-440, 443-445.
4 . Fred H. Klooster, “The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Hermeneutic Process: The Relationship of the Spirit’s Illumination to Biblical Interpretation,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 463-465.
5 . Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 413.
6 . Thiselton, The Two Horizons, 439.
7 . See Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 8-10 and 31-35 for helpful remarks on reading the Bible with transforming effect in the life of the reader. However, he says virtually nothing about the importance of the Holy Spirit in bringing about this effect.
8 . See Thiselton, The Two Horizons, 3-10, and most recently Craig G. Bartholomew, “Uncharted Waters: Philosophy, Theology and the Crisis in Biblical Interpretation ,” in Craig Bartholomew, Colin Greene, and Karl Möller, Renewing Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 1-39 for helpful explanations of the importance of these philosophical discussions for biblical scholars.
9 . Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998). I am also relying here on his own very helpful earlier summary of his approach in Kevin Vanhoozer, “Introduction: Hermeneutics, Text, and Biblical Theology,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 14-50.
10 . Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 407-431.
11 . Vanhoozer, “Introduction: Hermeneutics, Text, and Biblical Theology,” 24.
12 . Ibid., 19.
13 . Colin Brown, From the Ancient World to the Age of the Enlightenment. Christianity and Western Thought, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1990), 314-315.
14 . Vanhoozer, “Introduction: Hermeneutics, Text, and Biblical Theology,” 20, 29.
15 . Ibid., 21-23. Ed. note: What Vanhooser labels as “biblical positivism” appears historically under the rubric of “Scottish Common Sense” philosophy. See also M. James Sawyer, The Survivor’s Guide To Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), forthcoming, Ch. 3, “How Do We Know,” for a more detailed discussion of Scottish Common Sense and Princeton Theology. See also Sidney Ahlstrom “The Scottish Philosophy and American Theology,” Church History 24 (1955) 257ff; Daryl G. Hart, “The Princeton Mind and the Modern World,” Westminster Theological Journal 46 (1984) 4; and Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International), 4-7, 15-19, 32-35.
16 . Ibid., 24-26.
17 . Ibid., 32-33.
18 . Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 428.
19 . Ibid., 427.
20 . John M. Frame, “The Spirit and the Scriptures,” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 220-225. See in particular Karl Barth, The Holy Ghost and the Christian Life (London: Muller, 1938).
21 . The few who have written on this subject in the last two or three decades have often lamented the fact that “evangelical scholars are more interested in inspiration than illumination and in the first than in the second horizon” (Clark H. Pinnock, “The Role of the Spirit in Interpretation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36 : 492). The lack of serious discussion about illumination in standard theological and hermeneutical writings in recent decades and even centuries is also mentioned in Frame, “The Spirit and the Scriptures,” 219; Klooster, “The Role of the Holy Spirit,” 451; and Art Lindsley, “A Response to: The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Hermeneutic Process,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 487.
22 . See Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 410, 427-429, and Klooster, “The Role of the Holy Spirit,” 461-463, 468.
23 . See the helpful remarks on this pivotal point and the scriptures that support it in Frame, “The Spirit and the Scriptures,” 230-235; Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 341; Pinnock, “The Role of the Spirit in Interpretation,” 493-497; and most pointedly in William J. Larkin, Jr., Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics: Interpreting and Applying the Authoritative Word in a Relativistic Age (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 288-292.
24 . Klooster, “The Role of the Holy Spirit,” 457.
25 . See Vanhoozer, “Introduction: Hermeneutics, Text, and Biblical Theology,” 39 for this definition of the term “metanarrative.”
26 . See the helpful focus on this in Klooster, “The Role of the Holy Spirit,” 454.
27 . There has been debate over the meaning of Eph 5:18. Most modern English translations render it “filled with the Spirit,” or something very similar, although there is no definite article (“the”) and the preposition is most naturally translated “in” (Greek en). For a discussion of the interpretation of this passage see Richard E. Averbeck, “Worshiping God in Spirit,” in Authentic Worship: Scripture’s Voice, Applying Its Truth, ed. Herbert W. Bateman (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 92-94. Ed. Note: For an alternative view of Eph 5:18, see P. T. O'Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Pillar; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) 388-94; H. W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) 699-705.
28 . John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 1.37-39. See also Klooster, “The Role of the Holy Spirit,” 463.
29 . As defective as his view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible is, we need to take this side of Barth’s formulation of the Spirit’s witness in the reading of scripture seriously (Frame, “The Spirit and the Scriptures,” 221-222).
30 .“Where Application of God’s truth to the heart and life are highly valued the illumination of the Holy Spirit will also be highly valued. Where application to life is given a small place the illumination of the Spirit will be given a small place. We must keep clearly before us that the goal of inspiration and interpretation is application to life” (Lindsley, “A Response to: The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Hermeneutic Process,” 491).
Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)