Two corollaries must balance this:
A. Scripture is normal, logical communication. It is abnormal only in its revelatory nature, not in the manner it uses human language to communicate actual thoughts. Therefore, it is possible for the man without God’s Spirit (the unbeliever) to mentally grasp the meaning of Scripture, at least in terms of its logical content.
This explains why an unbeliever can write a perceptive biblical commentary. Likewise, Mark Twain, an avid unbeliever, said, “It is not those passages of Scripture I do not understand that bother me, but those that I do understand.”
Still, the man without God’s Spirit cannot understand God’s Word in the fullest sense, for he does not and cannot have a real appreciation of the spiritual implications of biblical truth, especially in relation to himself. He may grasp the thoughts, but he misses the spirit, the life-changing purpose behind the thoughts. In that sense he comprehends the raw concepts, but he does not truly “see.” Hence, the man without the Spirit of God cannot truly understand (fully grasp or appreciate) the things of God.
B. While the Holy Spirit’s presence in the life of the reader is necessary for total biblical understanding, it is not sufficient for it. The Holy Spirit is not a “cure all” for poor interpretation. He does not automatically reverse the consequences of violating hermeneutical principles.
This means that a person’s spirituality has no necessary bearing on the validity of his interpretation. This is why godly people sometimes differ widely in their interpretations. “If the Holy Spirit is our teacher (1 John 2:27), why don’t we all have the same interpretation?” Apparently, because his illuminating ministry is not normally independent of interpretive principles. He works through the proper treatment of communication, not independently of it.
Suppose two men have different interpretations. One may be considerably more spiritual than the other (in fact, the other may be an unbeliever), but the godly man’s interpretation may be incorrect. He is walking with God, but he fails to obey the basic laws of interpretation; so he is wrong, and the Holy Spirit does not automatically correct him.
If a physicist walks off a building, he will fall to the ground as quickly as an uneducated man. Likewise, if a godly man and biblical scholar violates interpretive principles, he will draw erroneous conclusions, as certainly as the ungodly or untrained. Neither the law of gravity nor the laws of hermeneutics play favorites. And, apparently, the Holy Spirit chooses to suspend the latter laws as infrequently as the former ones.
The bottom line is that the validity of an interpretation should not be judged by the interpreter’s spirituality (or eloquence), but by the interpreter’s fidelity to sound interpretive principles.
As John Stott put it, “Your mind matters.” As explained under the previous principle, God expects a thoughtful, careful human mind to discern and apply the principles of interpretation to Scripture. The concept of responding to biblical truth “with your spirit, not your mind” (e.g., Watchman Nee, Witness Lee and “The Church”), reflects an unbiblical and dangerous dichotomy. The objectivity of biblical interpretation is easily lost in the experiences and emotions of the interpreter. My mind is not perfect, but it is useable; and as I use it in biblical study, it should be increasingly renewed and sharpened.
It may be “new truth” to me, and in that sense a “revelation,” but look out! If it is different than what the author intended, if it’s some new message God is bringing to me, then it isn’t biblical study. “The way of the Spirit is the way of the Word.” The Spirit speaks through and in conjunction with the Word. He opens my mind to certain principles, implications, and unique applications of His truth. But the raw material the Holy Spirit uses is the revealed truth itself.
Many people have adopted a view where they are waiting for the Holy Spirit to speak, either verbally, in a vision, or through an “inner light.” They read books by people who confidently say they are speaking on God’s behalf. Emboldened, the reader may eagerly await, create, or fabricate a revelation from God. The desire to hear the Spirit speak is admirable. But the ironic truth is that the Spirit has already spoken. He has spoken in His Word.
If I expect direct revelation to me, who needs a Bible? I can simply ask God to speak, while I fail to study and absorb the vehicle through which He already has spoken. This shortcut or circumvention of direct revelation might be exciting, but it is a lazy man’s approach, and a dangerous one (I have many impulses and thoughts—how can I tell which are from God and which aren’t?).
If I would listen to the voice of the Spirit, I should “put my ear” to the Word of God. Why wait for the Spirit to speak when I have in my hands what He has already spoken?
The distance between me and God’s revelation is the distance between me and my Bible. I should prayerfully ask for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in my biblical study, but not ask Him for new revelation independent of it.
Don’t misunderstand. I believe that the Holy Spirit leads me and illuminates me every day. All I am saying is that I must weigh my subjective sense of what the Spirit is saying against the teachings of the Book which He inspired.