Does the Holy Spirit Really Tell the Church How To Interpret the Bible?

I have so much to say about this, and I have attempted to be brief, but I have failed. So here are my hard-hitting thoughts on the subject:

It is so frequently taught that “The Church”—whatever that’s supposed to be, exactly—has been guided all along by the Holy Spirit regarding its interpretation of the scriptures. But there’s some cognitive dissonance involved in this, for at the same time, they’re also faced with how the individuals in the church—who are also said to have the indwelling of the same Holy Spirit—will often be admittedly ignorant of the scriptures, and will tell you it’s something they’re “working on”.

So, how is this supposed to work, exactly? On the one hand, there’s this great institutional confidence that “we” have got the scriptures right, but on the individual level those (who are not totally infested with pride) will tell you that their own understanding of the scriptures could use work.

It seems to me that what they’re saying here is that the members can be confident that “The Church” has got it right—that God has somehow ensured that the institution has got its official interpretations and doctrines correct—even though he does not guarantee the same level of understanding in the individuals.

But how can this be? The preachers and teachers are individuals, are they not? When there’s a sermon or class, it’s not the historical church institution that’s teaching, but an individual. And even in the case of the creed-based churches, who put so much stock in what was decided by this or that council long ago, were not those councils made up of individuals?

And even so, we are expected to believe that all their work was sound—that God somehow worked it out to make it so. How could this be unless they were all inspired people whom God was directly guiding to get things right? (And I’ll address the problem with this idea below.)

How can God inspire the whole institution, but not the individuals in it?

So, back to the meme above. If God somehow worked it out that this or that creed or confession is 100% accurate, then why doesn’t God somehow work it out that everybody in today’s congregation down at Grace Basbyterian is 100% accurate in their interpretations of the scriptures?

Why would that be? If he supposedly did it for this or that synod in the year AD something-or-other, why would he not do it for the folks down at Grace Basbyterian today? Why was it important way back then, but now now?

It’s as if they cannot be directly accurate in their own right—inspired individually—altered and fortified individually in their own personal understanding—but must rather be helped collectively by virtue of their attachment to the institution, which, we are told, (almost) always gets it right because the Holy Spirit helps them to get it right.

Why the changes?

But there’s a pretty big logical problem with this: Those traditional creeds and doctrines do sometimes get changed. (And I’ll not go into the history of that here.) If God’s the one who inspired the creed in the first place, why should it need to be amended later? Was God wrong? Or has he since changed the Way, the Truth, and the Life? Has he altered “the faith that was once for all handed down to the holy ones”? (Jude 3.)

And so we get a glimpse behind the curtain of the great and powerful Oz!

I suspect that what’s going on here is that the institutions give in to the temptation to create this banter about how God’s behind it all, as a means of making the members more compliant and restful. And the members actually like the sense of certainty they get from the credal-certainty culture of the church.

But this self-assurance that we’ve got the scriptures figured out, more or less, is a pernicious habit, the negative consequences of which are so bad that they are difficult to calculate.

My own conviction continues to grow in this idea:

The man’s morality is behind how he uses his mind. If he were wholly honest, rational, and responsible, he would reason out the scriptures much better than he will if he is still lacking in these virtues.

I think that Charlotte Mason was right when she opined that the human intellect serves at the pleasure of the human will. If the will has not been purified and edified to be godly in its own right, there’s no way that the human is going to deal squarely with the scriptures in every regard—for he will not want to. He’ll want to cheat and fudge and procrastinate and ignore and work around and make excuses for himself—just as he does with those items on his daily to-do list that he doesn’t really want to do.

Indeed, why should we even expect that a man who is still so uninspired in his own daily character, is—the moment the scriptures are in view—endowed with a fail-safe of wisdom and understanding?

He has to develop.

He has to develop the virtue of diligence into his own character if he’s going to get it all done, including the things he’s not the most excited about. And I think it’s the same way with the scriptures. It takes quite a transformation of character for most of us even to want to understand the scriptures as God understands them. And then, after the wanting is in line, one still has a great many practicals to learn, regarding things like:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Understanding context
  • Image and metaphor
  • Genre
  • Idiom
  • Original language research
  • Understanding translation methodologies
  • Comparing passage to passage
  • How to handle the extrabiblical books
  • How to handle the Old Testament
  • How to handle the fact that the Bible books don’t explain everything that they mention
  • Etc.

I do not for a second believe that God has downloaded into any Christian today a full and flawless understanding of the scriptures. Nor do I believe that he has downloaded that into any institution. Yet if every institution that claims such a thing were right, they’d all be agreeing with one another. And in case you haven’t noticed, they aren’t agreeing with one another.

It’s a lie.

To put it briefly and bluntly, it’s a lie. And a very stupid one at that. And it takes a bunch of people like us being pretty dimwitted to buy into it. Yet we do. Many many millions have lived and died believing that their church had it right by virtue of the Holy Spirit seeing to it that they had it right. And if you were to press them, some might admit to a lesser claim: that the church has it right, “more or less“. By such admission, though, they are cracking open the door to error. And who among them really wants to examine just how much error may have come through that door?

I think we love the promise and security of certainty. But the problem is that fewer things are certain than we might like to believe. And so we are tempted to feign certainty where it’s not always there. And in this way, we make our churches out to be institutions that are inspired by the understanding of God himself—even though the individual members may be all over the place in their understanding of the scriptures.

This is a chimerical idea—ethereal—fuzzy—blurry—foggy—but oh so comforting to so many of us.

Uncertainty is part of God’s design.

Meanwhile, however, I think that God made us to thrive on whatever level of uncertain actually exists in our world. Sure, we can know a lot from the scriptures, but they most certainly do not tell us everything. They don’t even answer all the questions that naturally arise when we read them. And surely, God knows this. He knows that if we care to understand, we’re going to have to work at it really hard. And he also knows that if we’re honest, rational, and responsible, we’re going to have to admit often about the scriptures that we simply don’t know this or that for sure. And all this, it seems, must be part of his design for our lives here.

But look how many of us would rather pretend that we are instead well-informed in all matters of scripture. Look how many of us prefer to take a smug view of it all, rather than to remain curious and exploratory like children.

I think what we are doing is very bad. Very bad, indeed. And I think it makes God angry.

When we get like this, we don’t read the scriptures for comprehension. We don’t read for understanding. We don’t read to learn—and certainly not to change ourselves into godlier people. No, we read instead to congratulate ourselves on how virtuous we are that we are reading—and on how great it is that we’re one of the cool kids, whose institution has been imbued with understanding from one high—even though we would score miserably on a Bible test if God were to give one.

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus. Matthew 18:3. NIV

In general, people in the churches take their time changing, repenting, growing, and learning. Few are in a hurry, and few have the conviction that they ought to be. And so it goes with learning the scriptures. And that’s why I believe that this lie of institutional accomplishment is such a popular one. It’s the idea, however blurry and hushed, that one can get into heaven somehow by riding on the coattails of “The Church”—that he doesn’t need to have his own knowledge and understanding and wisdom and righteousness, but that he can lean instead on that of “The Church”. (And people believe this without looking too hard to see whether “The Church” really has these things or not.)

And when you press them, some of the cleverer ones will push back with a counter-idea: That they’re not really riding on the coattails of The Church, but of Jesus himself. That is, that because they believe, he has imparted to them his very own righteousness, and they couldn’t possibly be more righteous in the eyes of God than they are right now, no matter how many decades they spend growing and learning before they die.

What about character?

But there’s a pretty big problem with this idea, too: This righteousness does not show up in their character. They may think that God has put a check mark in the righteousness column by their name in the Book of Life, but it has not yet transformed their actual character, as observed in the here-and-now. So it’s a make-believe idea that has no bearing in this real world. And I don’t think this is what Jesus teaches, for he says:

“…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Jesus. Luke 13:3. NIV

They had to actually change their minds. He did not say, “…unless I have imputed a mind change to you by putting a check mark in the Book of Life…” No, he said they had to repent. It was depending on them, and not on him. He wasn’t going to repent for them; they had to do it themselves.

And it’s the same with reading and knowing and understanding the scriptures. Unless you do it, it doesn’t count to your credit. It makes no difference on your account if your preacher does it, or Aunt Jenny; it’s you who must do it if you are to be enlightened by those teachings.

And that takes time. The more honest, rational, and responsible you are, the less time it takes. But still, it takes time. And mature Christians who are old and who have been working on this for a very long time will tell you that they’re not going to get it all figured out before they die.

But there will always be some foolish preacher standing in some pulpit somewhere, assuring his flock that they can somehow buy in to the knowledge of “The Church” by virtue of just being a member.

There are always charlatans ready to cash in on the adamance of others that life in this world is supposed to be easy.

…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God

Acts 14:22. NIV

But this is not the view that so many want to have. They have something much easier in mind.

“…the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation…”

Paul. 2 Timothy 3:15. NIV

Paul did not say to Timothy that being a member of the church institution would make him wise. No, it was the scriptures that would do that. And at this time when so many millions are congratulating themselves that their churches have got it mostly figured out, only a very few will be digging into the scriptures themselves, and wrestling with what they must mean.

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