I have heard on numerous occasions that the Holy Spirit is needed to understand the Bible. That is to say, the Bible will only make sense to Christians and requires the Holy Spirit’s interpretation. Why? Because it contains a spiritual message, as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 2:6-14. It is a mystery, that requires spiritual understanding. The unregenerate cannot understand such spiritual truths. Because the Bible was written to express spiritual thoughts, it takes the Holy Spirit to provide the interpretation. This premise treats the Bible like a magic code book and the Spirit is the decoder. But, I believe that negates the very purpose of the Bible and the work of the Spirit in providing a text that all can understand.
The Bible was put together as God moved through holy men to communicate his message. This is scripture, as 2 Timothy 3:16 denotes – breathed out by God- and comprises the compilation of 66 books, written by 40 authors over the span of 1,500 years. It is the very revelation of God and presents a cohesive message that is presented in a variety of genres. Each author was spiritually motivated but each author utilized language and certain literary styles to record whatever events, or principles or exhortation they were motivated to express.
What this means is that the Bible, while being a divine book, is also a human book. Meaning, God spoke and what he moved the authors to communicate was produced through literature. Each piece of literature requires the normal rules of reading as any other thing we read. There is no hidden spiritual meaning in the words, but the words convey a spiritual message by using plain language to explain it. So in the 1 Corinthians 2 passage, the spiritual message does not mean that when it is explained in plain language it requires a decoder.
What it does mean is that the Spirit is needed to embrace the message. A person reading the Bible can understand what it is saying but may reject the message, which is why atheists and cult members can understand the Bible, debate it but reject the message. I think Dan Wallace said it best in one of his comments to his Myth of Liberalism post.
I believe that evangelicals can learn a great deal from ‘liberal’ scholars. It comes down to how we think about 1 Cor 2.14: “The natural person does not welcome the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Many Christians think that this verse means that unbelievers can’t understand anything about the Bible. That’s not what the verse is saying, however. Instead, it is saying that unbelievers do not *welcome* the things of the Spirit of God. He understands the Bible well enough to know that he wants to reject its redemptive message. But some of the best commentaries are written by non-evangelicals (whether they are ‘liberal’ or not may be a different matter; in any event, it is often hard to tell). I have learned much from Bart Ehrman, J. K. Elliott, And David Parker, for example. And I recommend my students to study under them for their doctorates. Some of the best lexical, grammatical, historical, and even theological work has been done by unbelievers. But it always needs to be filtered through a christocentric grid.
So what role does the Holy Spirit play in reading the Bible? He enables the reader (or hearer) to accept the message – no one comes to the Father except the Spirit draw him. The indwelt Spirit in the believer testifies that the words expressed through the pages of scripture are true. It is more than just literature but the life transforming message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit does not interpret the Bible but will illuminate our understanding of the message so that it resonates in our hearts. He also can guide our understanding of how each piece fits together, which is tremendously important for grasping the overall message. This is why I believe it is important to approach scripture prayerfully and humbly in order to receive the message that is being communicated. It’s also why there are countless testimonies of those who have come to saving faith in Christ by reading the Bible.
Another passage that I believe lends to the belief that the Holy Spirit needs to interpret the Bible is John 14-16, and specifically 16:13 where Jesus tells the disciples “But when He, the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on his own initiative”. But the context of this discourse is that Jesus is communicating to his disciples how they will testify of Him after he is gone. The Spirit will teach them and bring things back to their remembrance of what Jesus said to them (14:26). The Spirit would help them because He testifies of Christ (15:26-27). This was needed since Jesus would not be with them any longer. The testimony of these apostles would eventually become Scripture as they transmitted the message of Christ and provided instruction and exhortation to his body of believers. While there is some application for every believer concerning the ministry of the Holy Spirit, it does not mean that the Holy Spirit comes and interprets the Bible for us.
But you may be asking, what of the mystery spoken about in 1 Corinthians 2? Paul also writes to the church at Ephesus concerning a mystery.
For this reason, I Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles-if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for you; that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ…(Ephesians 3:1-4)
But he makes it known by explaining the mystery in vs 6 “to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” What was a mystery is now explained in plain language, which he also does in Colossians
Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I may fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but now has been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:25-27)
Interpretation of the Bible comes through studying each book as grasping what each author was attempting to communicate. It is the same approach we would use in reading any other literature. Each book must be understood in its cultural, historic and linguistic context. The use of study aids will enhance the comprehension of cultural and historic background and enable the reader to correlate what is going on in each book to the overall redemptive message. Each book has been produced under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He will indeed guide our understanding of how each piece fits together so that God’s story resonates with us, but that is contingent upon us reading each book as it was meant to be read.
For more on Bible interpretation, see Michael’s excellent post here Bible Interpretation in a Nutshell.