Skeptical conversations, part VII: The Holy Spirit and the Bible

Continuing the conversation . . . Parts I-VI here.

A: Now, the Father and the Son I understand, and I can see how you speak of them as personal; but I don’t understand the Spirit. For one thing, there is no personal image there—“Spirit” seems rather vague and impersonal, much like the Force in Star Wars. For another, “Father” and “Son” are both relational labels, defining one person in relationship to a second person, but there is nothing relational about “Spirit”; it doesn’t seem to fit.

R: The most common answer, at least in the Western churches, is that the Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son; this dates to Augustine, who wrote a book on the Trinity. I don’t like it, at least not phrased that way; I think that understanding of the Spirit tends to depersonalize him, for one thing, and it’s already far too easy to conceive of the Spirit merely as an impersonal force. I think it’s true that there’s a connection between the Spirit of God and the relationship between the Father and the Son—you might perhaps say that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and Son in relationship, or in some sense the Spirit of the relationship between them—but I wouldn’t want to collapse it any more than that, for fear of limiting the Spirit.

A: I can see that; and I don’t see that it makes any sense to call love, or a relationship, or anything of that sort a person.

R: Well, it has the advantage of explaining where exactly the Spirit came from, and why; something which, as you noted, is much clearer in the case of the Father and the Son.

A: I didn’t think you were all that fond of explaining those sorts of questions.

R: I’m in favor of explaining as much as possible, just not of forcing explanations. In any case, that the Spirit is a person and that he is God are clear from the biblical texts, and beyond that they are primarily concerned with his work; for the Spirit is the one who carries out the work of God in the world, and he is God’s empowering presence with his people. Basically, I would say the work of the Spirit is threefold: he bears witness to the Father and the Son; he mediates the work of Christ to us; and he lives in us, empowering us to follow Jesus and grow in holiness.

The first point is where the doctrine of revelation comes in, because it is the Spirit who reveals God to us, and it is only through his revelation that we can know God at all.

A: Since God is incomprehensible.

R: Right, but also because we are fallen creatures—our reason has been damaged no less than the rest of us. God is too much for us to come to know by unassisted reason, but there’s also the fact that we prefer gods made in our own image, rather than the other way around. In any case, theologians have typically divided revelation into two categories, general and special revelation. General revelation is God’s revelation of himself to everyone, in nature—through the physical world with its laws, through human nature with its laws, and through human history. Special revelation, on the other hand, is communicated supernaturally by God, either directly or through a human agent.

A: That would be the Bible.

R: Yes, and as far as God’s self-revelation, that is the end of it. Now, I don’t agree with the division of revelation into general and special revelation, though to be sure the Bible is not the same sort of thing as a scientific study or a history textbook; but fundamentally, as the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has argued, the important point is that God reveals himself through his activity in creation and history. The Bible is of particular importance because it is a particular record, inspired by the Holy Spirit, of particular acts of God in history, but this is not truly a different kind of revelation, because it is all the work of the Spirit in and among us; it is, rather, a different depth of revelation, and it is necessary because without it, we cannot perceive God’s disclosure of himself in nature and human history.

A: Because of sin, I suppose?

R: Yes, for two reasons. One, our sin has blighted the order and beauty of God’s creation. To take the most obvious sort of example, if you go up into the mountains and come upon a valley that has been thoroughly logged, leaving the small river flowing through it brown and choked with soil because of erosion, what does that make you feel?

A: Revulsion for what we’ve done to the earth.

R: On the other hand, a logger might look at it and see a job well done, a job that fed their families and provided wood to build homes for other families. For my part, I don’t think logging is bad, but the way it’s done often is—which illustrates, I think, the way that human sin has disordered and damaged God’s self-revelation in nature. Then too, of course, you have the way that human sin has blighted our history; one might conclude from the study of history that there is a God, but one might also say with Baudelaire that if there is a God, he is the Devil. It all depends on what you look at, and on what eyes you have to see; which is the other point, that our sin blinds us to the truth present in the world around us, leaving us unable to see God’s revelation of himself. As John Calvin, the great Reformer, put it, we need the lenses of the gospel to enable us to see the truth of God.

A: In other words, without the Bible, the rest of the world is worthless for trying to understand God.

R: I don’t know if I’d say “worthless”; but between the effects of sin on the world we see and the effects of sin on us, I’d say that we cannot come to anything really close to a true picture without the Bible. Just look, after all, at all the different cultures that have existed in this world, and how different all their pictures of reality have been.

A: And how different mine is from yours, you are carefully not saying. Which supports either your case or mine, of course. But I have a question: aren’t you putting too much weight on what is, in the end, still a book written by human beings?

R: I don’t think so, for two reasons. One, I believe the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible. I believe he inspired every part of it, working with the minds of its human authors and guiding the writing process so that the texts carry the meaning God intended. I also believe that he guided the church in setting the canon, so that the books we have are the books he inspired. As a consequence, I believe the Bible is a completely faithful and true witness and without error on its own terms.

A: What do you mean, “without error on its own terms”?

R: I mean that I affirm the Bible as without error, when it is properly understood. To take the most obvious case, I affirm Genesis 1-2 as a biblical text without error.

A: So you believe the earth was created in a calendar week a little over 4000 years ago?

R: No, I don’t, because I don’t believe that interpretation is a proper one of that text. People have reached that conclusion because they insist on reading Genesis 1-2 as a scientific text—they take the words to mean what they would mean had they been written by someone writing today. But it’s a liturgical text, not a scientific text, and it doesn’t share our modern preoccupations; we need to understand it in light of its own concerns.

A: What about the inconsistencies in the gospels?

R: I affirm the gospels as true reports of events, again on their own terms, and so I would say of all the histories in the Bible. We do need to understand, though, that the biblical writers didn’t have our standards for writing history, and again that they didn’t share our modernist concerns in these matters; to assume that if they were writing history they must have done it the way we would do it is anachronistic, and quite frankly rather arrogant. So take, for example, the cleansing of the temple. John places that very early in Jesus’ ministry—it comes in chapter 2—while the other three gospels set the story at the end of his ministry, in the week before his crucifixion. If both are telling of the same event, which seems likely, then it seems we have a problem. The question is, though, would the biblical authors have thought so? Setting events down in chronological order doesn’t seem to have been as great a concern for them as it is for us; we even have a bit from an early Christian writer named Papias who tells us that Mark in his gospel wrote down what he heard from Peter, but not in order—and that doesn’t appear to have been a problem to him.

More generally, I tend to follow a critical principle I learned from Coleridge, who wrote something to this effect in one of his critical works: when I meet with an apparent error in a good author, I begin with the assumption that the error is not in the author but in me. After all, these authors were far, far closer than we are to the events about which they were writing, and they knew much more certainly than we do what they were trying to do; it seems to me that to take our limited knowledge of the former and our assumptions and conclusions about the latter and use those to declare that the biblical authors were in error—well, that we should attempt to do anything of the sort only with great humility. It’s a sure thing that more than a few historical details declared false by modern biblical scholars were later proved true by modern archaeology.

A: Such as?

R: The existence of the Hittites comes to mind. The point is, assuming that a biblical author doesn’t know what he’s talking about is, as it is for any author, a problematic assumption; and sometimes, at least, it’s a way of avoiding having to ask whether or not one actually understands what the author is trying to say. In any case, I believe that the Spirit of God inspired the texts, and that he watched over their transmission as well; errors have crept in, to be sure, but nothing has threatened the central meaning of the biblical text.

A: That’s a bold claim.

R: That’s not a claim, it’s a statement of fact. There are a lot of places in the Old and New Testaments where the reading of the text is disputed, and some of them are of significance in one theological dispute or another; but not one of them threatens any of the central doctrines of the historic Christian faith.

A: If God were really preserving the text, wouldn’t he have kept it free from any errors at all?

R: You could argue that, and certainly it would have been a remarkable testimony if he had; but it’s a tricky thing to argue on the basis of what God would have done or not done, because he’s really not that predictable. Let’s just say that it doesn’t challenge my faith any to find variant readings in Scripture.

In any case, the work of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the text is one major reason that I don’t think I’m putting too much weight on it. The other is that it isn’t the words themselves as such that are my authority, but the Spirit of God speaking through the biblical text. The Bible is a trustworthy record of what God has said and done, it testifies to and preserves God’s revelation of himself, and as such it is objectively his word to us; but it is only as the Spirit illumines our minds and hearts to understand it and respond to it, only as the Spirit speaks through the text, that it becomes the word of God to us in our own experience.

A: Do you believe the Spirit speaks to people in other ways?

R: Yes, I do; but I believe that the Devil speaks to people, too, and that we are more than capable of deluding ourselves. That’s why John says in 1 John 4 that we need to test every spirit, because no spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ was God incarnate can be from God. That’s why the Scriptures are key, because we know the Spirit inspired them and speaks through them; they are our sure and certain guide, the lamp that lights our way. I believe that many writers throughout the ages have written true and wise things, and the Spirit does speak to us through their writings, but we must always test these writings against the Bible. I believe the Spirit speaks to us through the people around us, and sometimes directly in one way or another; but again, we must always test what we hear against the Scriptures, which we know are from God.

A: You make it sound easy.

R: Sometimes it is, but of course not always. And to be sure, there are many disagreements over what the Bible teaches; many in the church would disagree with the ma­jority of my beliefs. But this is where the church as a whole comes into play. Yes, we need to test the writings of the church against the Scriptures, and yes, there are many disagreements among Christian thinkers throughout the ages; that is, after all, much of the reason why we have so many denominations.

A: You do indeed. Interpreting the Bible clearly is not as easy as it seemed you were making it sound.

R: On a lot of points, that’s true. At the same time, though, the general consensus on the acceptable range of interpretations is solid. The church very early on staked out the most basic doctrines, those which could not be compromised, and built a fence around them through the great creeds—and while those are still human doc­uments and not to be equated with Scripture, they are very important for us as we seek to understand what the Spirit is saying to us through his word. And in the years since, the arguments within the church have spurred many to write about the things of God, and in the writings of such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Owen, Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, and many others there is considerable insight and wisdom; and during the Reformation, when differences in belief brought war and the threat of war, Protestant communities in places such as Germany, the Netherlands and England wrote the great Protestant confessions so that no one would have any doubts what they were fighting and dying for. These, too, are valuable guides for us in our interpretation of Scripture.

I don’t make the mistake of setting the tradition of the church equal to Scripture, as Catholics do, but I don’t want to fall into the opposite trap, as do many Protestants, of throwing out tradition. Those who do so claim to be following Scripture alone, but in truth they are exalting not the Scripture but their own interpretation of it, and in the end their own wisdom and understanding. As a practical matter, they are moving the source of authority from the Spirit to themselves, and that is both foolish and arrogant. We need to remember always that the Spirit illumines everyone, not just us, that there are many Christians who are wiser than us, whether alive or dead, and that we need to learn what we can from them. Our theology must always be characterized by humility.

Posted in Credo, Religion and theology, Scripture.

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