A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Holy Spirit and Biblical Interpretation: The Problem of Irreconcilable Readings

How do we know when the Holy Spirit is guiding the church and how do we know where the Spirit is leading? It is an important question that is not always easy to answer. There are times when the presence of the Spirit feels like holding Jello-- it's there, we can feel it, but it sure is difficult to get a firm grip on it. Couple this with the fact that Christians all too often equate the movement of the Spirit to having a warm, fuzzy feeling and/or getting what we want. If we feel warm and fuzzy or if we get our way the Spirit is leading; if not the Spirit is being resisted. We never resist the work of the Holy Spirit, only others who disagree with us do. Just as many attempt to manipulate Jesus to serve their own contemporary agendas, we often justify our own feelings and/or understandings by chalking them up to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

The dilemma is that we Christians do believe in the presence, power, movement, and leading of the Holy Spirit, so we must discern the direction in which God is leading. Jesus tells Nicodemus "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes," but he also says, "So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). We may not always know which way the wind of the Spirit blows, but we must discern; and discernment cannot be reduced to what I believe and what I feel alone. The Holy Spirit is the One in power; we are not.

So, how do we discern the work of the the Holy Spirit? In his post, "Reading the Bible Together When We Don't Agree," David Fitch offers some helpful reflections. I cannot comment on everything he says, so I encourage you to read his excellent post.

The central problem, as Fitch rightly notes, is when our interpretations of Scripture are incompatible. It is not the case, as some believe, that there is only one correct interpretation of Scripture, but neither is every understanding of a biblical passage a good interpretation. That's why discernment is so important and necessary.

It cannot be overstated that the movement of the Holy Spirit is woven inextricably with the reading of Scripture. There is to be no pitting of the Spirit against the Bible. The church has affirmed that the Holy Spirit has given us the Bible and we do not get to pick and choose what we like and dislike. That does not mean, however, that the Scripture is to be read in a wooden and inflexible way, as if there is only one meaning and as if all Scriptures are meant for all time. Christians believe that the Bible is fulfilled in Jesus and that means some Scriptures are fulfilled in that they have come to an end. (Notice the word some. There is no unhitching going on here or assigning Scripture to buckets.) 

Christ himself recognizes this ending as fulfillment.
Then he [Jesus] called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, "Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person " (Mark 7:14-23). 
In declaring all foods clean, Jesus fulfills the Old Testament kosher laws by ending them. But it is also important to note that Jesus continues to reinforce the vices he specifically mentions that are condemned in the Old Testament. So it is too simplistic to say that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament in ending all of it, nor is it right to assert that the entire law is still in full force. Just because Christians do not follow the prohibition in the law not to mix different fabrics in clothing does not mean that the rest of the law is irrelevant. It is more complicated than that. Indeed, as the Gospel of Matthew makes very clear, the moral law of the Torah remains in force. Both Jesus and Paul indicate that those aspects of the law that emphasize ethnically ritual practices are fulfilled in their end, but those regulations are few and far between. (see Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, pp. 120-123.)

Here's the point-- in the church's discernment of the leading of the Holy Spirit, such discernment cannot be divorced from the Bible, but neither can the Bible be read apart from the leading of the Holy Spirit in the church's context. The problem is when differing biblical interpretations are incompatible and cannot be reconciled. It is true that there can be more than one acceptable interpretation of Scripture, but it is also true that some readings simply cannot be reconciled. We cannot discern the leading of the Holy Spirit apart from Scripture, but neither would the Holy Spirit endorse every biblical interpretation.

And therein is the problem. More on that in a future post.

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