Theology

Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost

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Since I teach New Testament at a seminary, I regularly teach students about the “academic” study of the Bible, especially what benefits can be gained from critical methods. But most of these seminary students are not going to be writing academic papers after they graduate. They will read, interpret, and apply the Bible for the purposes of personal and communal formation as Christians.

Seminary courses on biblical hermeneutics – “hermeneutics” simply means the philosophy of biblical interpretation – though do not always do a good job of helping students to read the Bible as Christians. One piece of that puzzle is the question regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical study. I myself have often wondered how to account for the Spirit’s work in the reading, understanding, and applying of Scripture.

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Spirit Hermenutics

keenerThanks to Dr. Craig Keener, we have an illuminating new book on this subject, Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading the Bible after Pentecost. Keener is himself Pentecostal and this book takes an interest in how Pentecostals in particular think about the role of the Spirit in Bible study.

Keener’s ultimate objective is to use the Pentecostal community’s experience and insight to help all Christians pay attention to how the Spirit relates to biblical interpretation. Below are five insights I gleaned from this outstanding book.

Transformed by the one Spirit of God. “All Christians should read Scripture as people who are living in the biblical experience—not in terms of ancient culture, but as people living by the same Spirit who guided God’s people in Scripture” (5). Keener underscores how Bible study is not merely about accumulating facts and information, shaping up your Bible knowledge. Much more than that, it is about engaging with Scripture in such as way as to know and experience God and to be changed by that experience.

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The Spirit is at work in the “natural.” Expecting the Spirit to work in us when reading Scripture is not primarily about being zapped with “Holy Ghost” revelations. Keener notes that the Spirit may often be “working” in the area of how our brains process what we are reading as we read and seek to understand the text.

Reading with Faith. A “Spirit” hermeneutic involves our trusting that what we read in Scripture is the Word of God, and involves our coming to the Bible in anticipation of encountering the living God. In Keener’s own words: “Methods and information help us, but there is no mechanical substitute for expecting to meet God in the study of Scripture” (48).

Reading in Light of our Experience of God. I have often wondered – what advantage is there in reading the Bible as a Christian? Are Christians more likely to read the Bible correctly in terms of meaning? Keener talks about reading the Bible as one who knows God’s heart. One advantage is that we can give God the “benefit of the doubt,” so to speak, when we encounter narratives or ideas in Scripture that may seem to make God look petty, rash, wrathful, or unloving. Because we know God (experientially) as loving and grace-filled, we can approach these texts with a broader perspective in mind.

The Spirit uses the perspectives of others to teach us. Keener strongly supports the notion that we can hear and heed the Spirit’s voice more clearly when we read in community with those who are different than us. He points to the key theme in Acts that the Spirit regularly crosses culture divides to send the gospel into the world. In terms of how this helps our reading of Scripture, Keener writes, “Too often Christian readings domesticate the Bible in ways acceptable to our own settings, but listening to Christians from different settings helps challenge our hermeneutical blind spots and canons within the canon” (81).

Throughout the book, Keener is insistent that faithful readers and interpreters of Christian Scripture must avoid two extremes: on the one side over-dependence on spontaneous spiritual readings of biblical texts that neglect careful study of the text as it was written in its ancient context and received into the canon; and on the other side the kind of biblical study that leaves no room for the ongoing work of the Spirit of God.

This is moderately heavy reading, but also immensely rewarding – take up and read!

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