In what Specific ways does the Holy Spirit Help us Read the Bible?

We all need help to read the Bible. The Holy Spirit is that help. “These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things” John 14:25-26.

But, the crucial question we all want to know is, “How?” In what specific ways does the Spirit help us read and rightly understand Scripture?

I propose that the Holy Spirit helps quicken the Scripture to us in THREE dynamic ways:

1) intellectually (the inquisitive mind)
2) intuitively (the imaginative gut)
3) interpersonally (the devotional heart)

“Intellectuals” and “intuitionists” and “interpersonalists” each need to embrace the differing hermeneutical approaches of the other two, just as did the Jewish exegetes of Jesus’ day, and just as did the early church exegetes and fathers. Let’s summarize these three dynamics in more detail.

1) Does the Holy Spirit HELP to energize and elucidate our INTELLECTUAL thought processes? Yes, sure. I’ve personally experienced this countless times. Does the Holy Spirit always and automatically help maximize our thought processes? No, unfortunately, I’ve experienced spiritless, cloudy and confused thinking as well which left me either dryly dogmatic or mentally muddled. Thankfully, our mind’s abilities can be heightened and sharpened through intentional prayer, faith-focus, heart-yielding, and devotional awe, all of which give the Holy Spirit enlarged elbow room to guide and nourish our thinking. This is what putting on the mind of Christ is all about (1Corinthians 2:16; Romans 13:14). Paul called this “the spirit of power, love and a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).

2) Does the Holy Spirit likewise HELP our INTUITION to hear the promptings of the Spirit regarding various Biblical subtexts which may be non-apparent to the naked eye? Yes. The Emmaus-road disciples did not understand how ALL the law, ALL the prophets, and ALL the writings of the Old Testament always spoke primarily of Jesus (Luke 24:27, 32, 44-45). It was non-apparent to the naked and literal eye of these disciples just HOW Jesus was somehow embedded in every OT Scripture. That is until Jesus took them on an intuitive journey of discovery through the Scriptures where He revealed Himself to them EVERYWHERE. Both Paul, the early Jewish exegetes, and early church fathers called this reading style ALLEGORICAL. Here the text may mean “more than what the text literally says” or “other than what the text literally says,” but will always lend itself to a Christological reading. Galatians 4 is the clearest example where Paul allegorizes Sarah and Hagar as types of the New and Old covenants Galatians (4:22-31). Nothing could have been less apparent on its Old Testament literal face than was this Pauline reading, but Paul intuited this application with great clarity and certainty.

3) Does the Holy Spirit also commission us to occasionally receive INTERPERSONAL and subjective interpretations of Scripture which are applicable to us TODAY, HERE and NOW? Can the Spirit subjectify Scripture in order to specifically help US in our current circumstances, even though such reading was not originally intended by the human author? Jesus said we are to live by every interpersonal Rhema word that proceeds FROM God’s mouth TO our heart. Matthew 4:4. The three gifts of the Spirit, “the word of knowledge, “the word of wisdom” and “the word of prophecy” (1 Corinthians 12:8-10) cumulatively support this Rhema-reading style where God inter-personalizes Scripture to minister subjective “words” of truth to us now. Some call this dynamic Midrash, some eisegesis, some rhema-reception, and some homiletical embellishment.

Our problem today, however, is that we tend to only allow and acknowledge the Spirit’s quickening in one way and one way only– and that’s the particular way we ourselves individually choose to so read the Bible.

For example, someone who reads the Bible only scientifically (i.e. historically and contextually) will certainly admit that the Spirit works behind the minds of brilliant scholars to rightly research and read for literal precision in ascertaining the contextual intent and circumstantial background of the human author. Here the social sciences serve as the only “Jerusalem Council” of right Biblical interpretation. The text is seen as closed and is just, only, and always read for literal, authorial and contextual meaning. These scholars would certainly see their training and scientific method as instruments OF the Holy Spirit, but instruments which are to be scientifically verified.

These scholars (some, not all) tend to reject intuitive/allegorical readings as fanciful while dismissing interpersonal rhemas regarding Scriptural meaning as errant eisegesis. In other words, their hermeneutics do NOT allow for any other reading style than their own.

Unfortunately, people who employ the other reading styles mentioned above can be just as myopic. Intuitive readers can wrongly discount all scientific reading styles as hyper-intellectual and elitist. Allegorical readers can likewise act dismissively toward other reading styles accusing them of being dry and lifeless. So too, people who primarily focus on receiving interpersonal rhemas while reading Scriptures can also discount the other two reading styles as non-spiritual.

What I propose is that ALL three of the above reading styles have their place and that we can benefit from learning how to uses all of them. And, here is the amazing thing. The early Jewish and Church exegetes agreed!

The ancient Jewish scholars of Jesus’ day used a multi-varied hermeneutic which later came to be known by the acronym “Pardes” (a late Biblical Hebrew word borrowed from a Persian word meaning “garden, or orchard”). Pardes described a dynamic by which the reader could legitimately interpret Old Testament texts on 4 different levels:

1) “Peshat” (“simple” meaning) is the first level, which meant reading Scripture for its “plain sense meaning” or “contextual sense.” This equates to what we would call the historical and/or grammatical meanings.

2) “Remez” (“hinted at” meaning) is the second level. This is is basically what we today call allegorical reading. It is predicated on the assumption that Biblical texts frequently say MORE than what the literal text says or OTHER than what the literal text says. Types, shadows, symbols, and metaphors all happily congregate here.

3) “Drash” (“search after” meaning) is the third level. It incorporates personal insights from the reader which cause him to subjectively interact with and then insert meanings and personal proposals and interpretations into the text. We call this eisegesis today. This allows the reader wide discretion in making the text relevant for today, here and now. This focuses NOT on the text’s historical truth and original grammatical meaning, NOR even on the allegorical subtext. But, rather, drash (aka midrash) focuses on subjectively finding divine truth and direction for the present moment. This is why this level is considered homiletical, the subject of sermons which modernize Scripture to better align with modern sensibilities. This allows for the reader to “fill in gaps” of ancient writings by loosely paraphrasing, or even rewriting, the text to comport with current sensibilities. Some Jewish scholars believe the “drash”are what the reader wishes the text would or should say rather than what the text does say.

4) “Sod” (“secret” meaning) is the fourth level. This is where hidden coincidences and meanings lay hidden in Scriptures waiting to be perceived through an epiphany or mystical extrapolation. This can include but is not limited to, Gematria and Etymological meanings to unveil esoteric secrets divinely embedded in the text.

[Sources: THE JEWISH STUDY BIBLE: Tanakh Translation, Oxford Press, Jewish Publication Society (2004); JEWISH NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY, David H. Stern, JNTPI, (1996): THE UNEDITED JEWISH ENCYCLOPEDIA, (The.JewishEncyclopedia. com)].

It is crucial to see that these four levels were not viewed as necessarily antagonistic, but often complementary and supplementary to each other. The Jews believed that, “Each of the four levels incorporates the other levels.” (Tzenach Tzedek). This was common in the ancient world, to read texts on multiple levels which were not mutually exclusive.

In his recent book, THE HERMENEUTICS OF THE APOSTOLIC PROCLAMATION, Pauline scholar Matthew Bates notes that ancient reading styles welcomed and embraced a much more expansive and a fluid dynamic in interpreting the text than do modern reading styles. He notes that the Greeks similarly read Homer’s ILIAD and ODYSSEY on many different literal and non-literal levels, much like the Jews read Scripture as described above.

There were six known Christian theological schools in the early church: Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, Edessa/Nisbis, Ephesus, and Rome/Carthage. The early Church’s hermeneutic, except for the Antiochan school, largely held to a similar multi-level hermeneutic.

For the most part, the church fathers ALSO held to four interpretive levels which later came to be formally known as the Quadriga in the Middle Ages 1) LITERAL: What the passage says about past events, 2) ALLEGORICAL: What the passage can tell us about Christ, 3) TROPOLOGICAL: What the passage can teach us about how to live, and 4) ANAGOGICAL: What the passage tells us about our ultimate fate).

St. John Cassian, for example, demonstrates this four-fold exegetical method on the meaning of “Jerusalem”: LITERALLY it is the city of the Jews; ALLEGORICALLY it is the Church of Christ; TROPOLOGICALLY it is the human soul which we are called to guard, rule and grow by faith; ANAGOGICALLY it is that heavenly city of God which is the mother of us all.

SOME of the church fathers held to just two levels (Justin Martyr and the Apostle Paul both spoke simply of the literal and the spiritual meanings).

The point is that practically all ancient hermeneutics allowed for multi-varied reading styles which included and incorporated both ALLEGORICAL (i.e. non-literal) reading and CONTEXTUAL (i.e. literal reading).

Unfortunately, today what was intended to be a multi-lane superhighway of interpretive adventure and awe, has instead been largely reduced to a one-lane log jam where the only legitimate Bible reading is literal “dead letter” exegesis. This exegetical and hermeneutical traffic jam has constipated church travel and has resulted in much spiritual road rage where the image of a wrathful God still largely prevails.

And this is why so few are enjoying the Bible. However, if we will go back and see HOW the church fathers actually read, then we will be liberated to better understand how they wrote. They would encourage us to see their texts as “open” and multi-varied in interpretive meaning, some of which they themselves were not even consciously aware of at the time they wrote it. This allows for the “sensus plenior” or “fuller sense” of the text to blossom fully from the “then and there” to the “here and now.”