What is the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Scripture? This question, while causing a number of theological debates, is one of great importance in the life of the believer. It is my contention that our understanding of the relationship between the Spirit and Scripture affects our experience of reading the Bible and sitting under preaching. A wrong understanding can either lead to a mechanical or mystical view of the work of the Spirit in Scripture.
The mechanical approach to the Bible is to believe that because the Holy Spirit inspired it, there will always be a uniform work of the Spirit when a passage is handled correctly. In a sense the Spirit and Scripture are indistinguishable at this point – if the Bible is preached the Spirit is at work, and if you want the Spirit to work then read the Bible. The mystical approach, on the other hand, focuses on the doctrine of illumination (or anointing, power, unction). This position sees no guarantee of the Spirit at work in reading or preaching as an automatic or uniform action. Rather, the Spirit can move in greater or lesser degrees depending on a number of factors.
In order to avoid the mechanical and mystical, we need a multi-doctrinal approach. That is, an approach that incorporates both an understanding of the authorship of Scripture (inspiration) and our approach to Scripture (illumination). While we must never conflate or confuse the Spirit and Scripture, we must ensure that we don’t lessen or lose the work of the Spirit in experiencing the Bible read and preached today. We need to hold both the doctrines of inspiration and illumination together in our hearts and minds as we come to the Bible in order to avoid these dangers.
The Holy Spirit and inspiration
Without the Holy Spirit there would be no Scripture as he is responsible for authoring it (2 Tim. 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-21). The Bible is the very Word of God as the Holy Spirit worked through the Bible writers in what theologians sometimes call ‘concursive inspiration’. God, in his sovereignty, shaped the lives and minds of the writers in such a way that at specific points they wrote Scripture, even within their personalities and contexts, yet what they wrote was nothing less than God’s Word. This in and of itself is an amazing miracle. Arturo G. Azurdia III defines this as the ‘objective and external way’ in which the Holy Spirit communicates. As evangelicals we have a rich heritage of defining, declaring and defending this truth.
It is worth noting that the Spirit worked in both transcription and transmission. That is, he not only ensured that the Word of God was written down verbatim, but he has also preserved the text over the centuries through his providential care. This means that what we have in our hands today is the authoritative, trustworthy, Word of God.
However, the doctrine of inspiration on its own is not sufficient in the life of the believer. When we look at Psalm 1, for example, we see that the blessed one not only looks to the authorship of the Scriptures (the Word of God) but also his approach to Scripture (he meditates on it day and night). We need to make sure that we don’t just have an understanding of the historic work of the Spirit in the authorship of the Bible, but also the present work of the Spirit in Bible reading and preaching. This is where the doctrine of illumination becomes so important.
The Holy Spirit and illumination
1 Corinthians 2:6-16 and 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6 are the key texts for understanding the illumination of the Spirit. Here Paul teaches us that we need the Spirit today in order to understand, apply and obey what the Spirit inspired historically. Our minds are dulled by sin, but can be illuminated by the work of the Spirit. In the first instance the Holy Spirit will give us an inner testimony. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones explained it like this: ‘no man can truly believe in and submit himself to the authority of the Scriptures except as a result of the testimonium Spiritus internum [internal witness of the Spirit]’. That is, the Spirit gives us the inner conviction that the Bible is true.
Throughout our Christian life, however, the Spirit also gives us more illumination. He opens our eyes to see wondrous things in his Word. David Jackman writes that ‘the Spirit who originated the Word is also its great interpreter … and it is the great delight of the Spirit to testify to Christ and to open our spiritual eyes to see who he really is.’ Every Christian has the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Bible, dwelling within them, illuminating their hearts and minds. This means that we not only see words, but we meet the Word himself. This is a work of staggering grace and blessing. Arturo G. Azurdia III defines this as the ‘subjective and internal way’ the Spirit communicates to us.
Allow me to try and sum up this amazing work with a weak illustration. We can think of the Bible as a sundial which is built and placed correctly. There are no errors. However, we need the sunlight to shine upon the sundial to know the time. Without the sun, the sundial does not function, and without the sundial, we cannot be sure of the accuracy. We need both the sundial and the sun.
Ralph Cunnington helpfully sums up Calvin’s approach to inspiration and illumination with the following illustration: ‘The Word without the illuminating work of the Spirit would be like the sun shining onto blind eyes and the Spirit without the radiance of the Word would be like healthy eyes staring into a dark abyss.’
This doesn’t mean the Spirit only works through the Bible, as the Spirit is greater than the Bible. However, the normative means of the Spirit’s work is through the Bible read, memorised or preached. Nor does it mean that we rely heavily on the Scriptures because there is a weakness or insufficiency in the Person of the Holy Spirit. Rather the use of Scripture in the work of the Spirit is by the design and decision of God.
The Holy Spirit and preaching
Finally, we need to pause and consider the work of the Spirit in preaching. There are two things we must acknowledge. Firstly, that both the preacher and the hearer have a responsibility to hold the inspired Word in their hands. Both must have their eyes on the words within the Word to test everything that is said. Secondly, both the preacher and hearer have a responsibility to pray for the illumination of the Spirit before the sermon in the preachers’ preparation, during the sermon for both the preacher and hearer, and after the sermon as it is only by the power of the Spirit that we can obey the Word. A clear and dear dependence upon the Holy Spirit in preaching and receiving is essential to the life of the believer.
So, let us read the Bible with full confidence in its authority from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and with a clear desire and anticipation of the illumination of the Holy Spirit.