The Holy Spirit and Biblical Interpretation

The Holy Spirit and Biblical Interpretation

We must recognize and respect the origin of the Bible because of the role of the Holy Spirit in the production, interpretation, and application of Scripture.

E. Edward Zinke is cofounder, past president, and current treasurer of the Adventist Theological Society.

Unlike ordinary literature, the Bible was written under the supervision of the Holy Spirit. Because its origins differ from that of other lit­erature, elements of its interpretation must also differ. The hermeneutic for studying the Gilgamesh Epic, Plato, Shakespeare, or Longfellow is not adequate for the Bible. Because the role of the Holy Spirit in the produc­tion, interpretation, and application of the Bible distinguishes it from all other humanly motivated literature, we must recognize and respect its unique origin. Though Scripture does not have a mystical, secret, or spiritual meaning unapparent in the text itself, its meaning is not captured simply by the study of syntax, gram­mar, background, author, genre, or structure. To correctly understand the Bible, we need to allow the Bible to be its own interpreter under the guidance of the same Spirit that originally inspired it.


The Bible depicts itself as a dis­tinct genre of literature, repeatedly claiming divine origin for itself: “the Word of the Lord spoke,” “the Spirit of the Lord,” “the Word of the Lord came to,” “thus says the Lord.” Paul refers to the Scriptures as the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2). He also states unequivocally: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17).1 Peter states that the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, foretelling the coming Savior.

Though written over centuries, because of its common origin, Scripture displays a unity of divine revelation that was channeled through the Holy Spirit to the proph­ets and apostles. Though a blending of the human and the divine exists, the result is the Word of God. That is why Scripture says that “prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).

Thus, Scripture is unique. Because of its divine origin, the Bible is its own authority. Scripture is not subject to human authori­ties, philosophies, or methods. Its hermeneutic comes from, and is in harmony with, itself.


The truth claim of a piece of literature is normally accepted by the power of its rhetoric, logic, philosophy, and science, or by its presentation of facts, the beauty of its language, and the accom­plishments of its author. Scripture, however, does not need the power of Aristotle, Bacon, Kant, or Whitehead. It comes with its own Power. The Spirit first prepares our hearts and minds to receive the Bible as the authority of our lives. The Spirit confirms the teaching of the Bible: “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). “[N]o one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). We are also told that the “gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance” (1 Thess. 1:5).

A worldly attitude or a human­istic, rationalistic, or empirical worldview imposed upon the Bible can close the mind to what God has conveyed through His Word. Jesus was the Light of the world; yet, when He came to His own, they preferred darkness. They clung to their human worldviews rather than be exposed to the Light (John 1:4–13) and thus were left in darkness.

Even His disciples suffered simi­larly. They were with Christ for three and a half years; yet, despite the prophecies of the Old Testament and the constant teaching and warning of Christ, they never expected the Crucifixion. Their worldviews did not allow for a suffering Messiah. Jealousy and bickering occupied their minds so much that they could not hear Christ’s warning of His coming death.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night; in darkness, he was laden with the worldview that the Messiah would be a worldly king. He brought his little human-centered candle to attempt to enlighten the Light of the world. He applied an earthly thought process to his understanding of Jesus (John 3:1, 2).

Knowing this about Nicodemus, Jesus came straight to the point: Unless one is born of the water and the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven. That which comes from an earthly perspective is earthly, that which is born of the Spirit is spiritual understanding. Nicodemus answered, “How is it possible to be born again?” Jesus answered, we speak out of what we know; that is, the worldly view of life that occupies our mind (see John 3:5, 6, 9, 11).

If we have difficulty understand­ing signs and miracles, how can we understand if Christ tells us about heavenly things? In contrast to worldly thinking, if the Son of man is lifted up, He will draw all men to Him (John 12:32). Those who come to Jesus will know who He is because they are born of and guided by the Holy Spirit (John 3:1–20; cf. John 1:31–34). In other words, only under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit can one come to know the Truth. Worldly systems of thought will not take us to the Cross; in fact, they will push us away.

Paul addresses the importance of the right perspective for under­standing God’s Word: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2, KJV). Thus he warns, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philoso­phy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power” (Col. 2:8–10).

The world through wisdom, Paul warned the Corinthians, did not know God. Some seek a sign, that is, empirical evidence, while others want philosophical wisdom; but God is not found through those systems. We can know God only through His own self-revelation, and through His Spirit God makes Himself known to us. The Holy Spirit, not the world, teaches us about Him. Our power and under­standing are not in human systems but in the wisdom and power of God as revealed by His Spirit.


When we surrender to the will of God through the Spirit, we are born again. The conversion that comes through the Holy Spirit is a complete reversal of directions. We were once living in darkness; we now live in light. Our lives were headed towards the things of the world; we know we desire heavenly things. Our minds were once entrapped within the errors of worldly perspectives; now, through the revelation of the Bible, we see things from God’s point of view.

That is why any denial of the biblical position that Scripture came by the will of God, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, denies the reason for the existence of the Bible. It rejects its immediate con­text. The interpreter, therefore, loses what is vital to the understanding of Scripture—that it is the Word of God. This imposition of an external worldview on the Bible denies the interpreter the basic principle and power essential to understanding the Bible; and thus, wrong interpreta­tions surely follow.

Further, the willful retention of sin in the life puts us at odds with God’s Word, for sin deadens us to the influence of the Holy Spirit, which we need to rightly discern God’s Word. “[T]he natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). “For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. . . . The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Rom. 8:6, 7).


Under the power and direction of the Holy Spirit, the Bible is our connection to God. Thus, it is Satan’s purpose to cause us to misread God’s Word. Satan desires to instill in us “an evil heart of unbelief in departing from” the Word of God (Heb. 3:12). Satan works by tempting us to doubt God’s Word (Heb. 3; 4). He leads us to use methods that are independent of God. He wants us to deify reason, causing us to think of our own intellect as independent of God. He suggests that we explain the influence of the Spirit based on scientific principles. He leads us to pervert Scripture’s meaning. He tempts us to reject a small portion of biblical truth, which simply leads us to reject more. In short, he knows that the gospel is hidden to those who are lost, to those “whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor. 4:4, KJV).

How crucial, then, that we never fall for these ploys by rejecting the essential role of the Holy Spirit in the understanding of Scripture.

Hearts and minds

Imagine the ease with which Shakespeare aficionados could read him if they were like-minded, if they had lived within his culture and understood his worldview. In a similar way, our understanding of Scripture is clarified when we open our lives to the Spirit, which transforms our hearts and minds. “[I]f the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). The power of Christ, working through the Spirit, removes the veil from our blinded minds (2 Cor. 4:4–17). With unveiled face, we behold “as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, [and] are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). Then He writes the law of God upon our hearts of flesh (v. 3), which brings our hearts and minds into harmony with the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). This union with Christ opens our minds to see the beauty and have understanding of God’s Word that we were unable to experience before conversion. In other words, a true understanding of the Bible depends upon conversion of heart and mind through the working of the Spirit!

Power and guidance

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 15:26). The Spirit does not speak of Himself, but always in harmony with the Bible. The Spirit brings to remembrance the words of Scripture. He quickens minds to enable deeper understanding of Scripture’s message. “ ‘[W]hen He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you’ ” (John 16:13, 14).

Imagine a Shakespeare fan was given the opportunity to speak with Shakespeare, to explore his shades of meaning, and to have the bard himself explain his specific intentions in a particular piece of work. In a similar way, we have the privilege of communing with the One who gave us the Word of God, to receive illumination on the Word, and to receive the quickening power that brings conversion to heart and mind. The Holy Spirit brings to us the words of life. He conveys God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He empowers us to live for Christ. He certifies our hope of eternal life with Christ. Only the Spirit, who gave us Scripture, can give us an understanding of Scripture. The Holy Spirit speaks to our minds and impresses biblical truth upon us. He exalts and glorifies Christ in His purity, righteousness, and salvation, “conveying [the truths of God’s Word] as a living power into the obedient heart.”2

By the Spirit, we enter the life of sanctification. The regeneration of our lives enables fuller understand­ing of truth. Christ said, “ ‘Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth’ ” (John 17:17). There is an interaction between the lives we live and our understanding the truth. The truth is not simply what we know, but what we do (1 John 1:6, John 3:21). Christ said, “ ‘If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concern­ing the doctrine, whether it is from God’ ” (John 7:17).


If our reading of the Bible is open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it will end with a desire to share with others what Christ has done for us. After the Resurrection, Christ met with the disciples and promised that they would receive power after the Holy Spirit came upon them and would be witnesses for Christ in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Afterwards, when the disciples assembled together, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word of God with boldness (Acts 1:5–8; 4:31). Paul also said that he did not come with excellence of speech, with persuasive words of human wisdom or empirical signs but in demonstration of the Spirit and power (1 Cor. 1:17–2:16).

The gift of the Holy Spirit impelled the disciples to take the message of the gospel worldwide. Instead of human speculation, the sword of the Spirit shed light upon Christ and cut its way through unbelief, bringing penitence, confession, and transformation. “Thousands were converted in a day.” The church expanded rapidly.3

The power of the Bible under the Spirit of God is not imaginary, ethereal, symbolic, or mythical. This power brought worlds into exis­tence, sight to the blind, healing to the deaf, and life to the dead. Satan would love nothing more than to lessen the force of this power in us, distance us from the transformation it brings, and separate our preaching from its influence.

The Holy Spirit is the Comforter. He longs to open the Bible to us, for it brings the message of God’s love, His plan of salvation, and His offer of forgiveness. He purges us of the sin that clouds our reading of Scripture. The Holy Spirit brings conversion of heart and mind that enables us to understand and live in harmony with God’s Word. Finally, through the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit brings the promise of Christ’s soon return, which will restore us to face-to-face communion with God—the purpose for which the Scriptures were origi­nally given.

In summary, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Bible can be understood only through that same Spirit. How crucial it is that we open our lives to the work of the Spirit.


1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version.

2 See Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 167; see also Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 671.

3 See Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 38; see also Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 284.

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E. Edward Zinke is cofounder, past president, and current treasurer of the Adventist Theological Society.

April 2012

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