The Spirit and critical study (2)

RoleHSIn my previous post, I highlighted the dilemma we find ourselves in when there is a dissonance between our experience of hearing God speak through Scripture and our experience of engaging in more reflective study of the same texts. I characterised these two sets of experiences as follows:


Immediacy — Delay

Clarity — Ambiguity

Relevance — Distance

Familiarity — Strangeness

There are two possible responses to this dilemma. A common one is to retreat from the right hand side, and take refuge in the left. There are multiple problems with this. For one, we deny that the dynamic on the right is present in Scripture. For another, we also have to deny that we find the dynamic on the right present in our own experience and in the experiences of others in our fellowship. To stick with the left means closing ourselves down culturally and relationally, and in the end refusing to grow and learn. We get stuck in a nostalgic moment that is frozen in time, some short while after we first came to faith.

But an equally popular response is to move to the right and abandon the left hand side. This can be found easily enough within academic theology, either amongst those of no faith or those who would have formerly described themselves as people of faith. And it is not uncommon to find this response amongst people who were told that, to be disciples, they had to remain on the left hand side, so when the dissonance became too much, they ‘popped’ over to the right. And this side, in its fullest form, is not hospitable to faith. As Paul Ricoeur highlights, criticism creates a desert, because putting the ‘self’ at the centre as the perceiving subject makes all other things the object of study, to be scrutinised and assessed rather than engaged with—to be treated with a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ rather than a ‘hermeneutic of retrieval’. Yet, Ricoeur goes on to say, those who wish to live authentic lives long to be ‘called again, beyond the desert of criticism.’

This kind of response is also found (it seems to me) amongst those who say ‘The evangelical/charismatic tradition was important to me in the past’ but cannot own it now. Very often the things on the left are the things that brought them to faith, but they feel that the things on the right are the ones that are bringing them maturity. This creates a real paradox, in that it appears that ‘mature’ faith does not have the power to bring others to new faith—which must be at odds with just about every thing that we read in the Bible itself.

It is, in fact, possible to live with and continue to inhabit both sides of this dilemma—but to do so requires the formation of a particular attitude, or (perhaps better) the formation of certain characteristics or qualities.

The first is patience. If ‘love is patient’ (1 Cor 13.4) and if we love God, shouldn’t we be patient with God? We usually think of an unanswered prayer as one that has not been answered instantly, rather than (for example, from ‘Heavenly Man’ Pastor Yun’s story) after five months of intense intercession. Are we prepared both to listen carefully, expecting to hear God, but also patiently, read to wait if we don’t hear immediately? Just such patient attentiveness is surely the mark of maturity here.

The second is discernment, which is perhaps the supreme gifting of the Spirit. I explored previously how ‘judgement’ was closely associated with the work of the Spirit; it must also surely be connected with the prophetic, which involves discerning what God is doing and saying, and this explains why they are linked together in 1 Cor 12.10. Discernment or judgement is only needed when there is ambiguity or a conflict of views; where there is clarity and unanimity, discernment has no function.

20110215_33681The third quality needed is the perhaps surprising one of discipline. In his Grove booklet Scripture and Authority TodayRichard Bauckham talks of the need for a ‘historically disciplined imagination’ in the process of constructing meaning as we read Scripture. Since there is a distance between the context we are in and the context of the text, there is a challenge to connect the two. Meaning cannot reside in the text alone, as this leaves it at a distance from us. Neither can meaning reside in ourselves as readers, since we then make the text mean what we want it to. No, meaning must reside in the disciplined interaction between modern reader and ancient text if we are going to be genuinely open to what God is saying to us through it.

Finally, in entering the strange and often unfamiliar world of Scripture, we need the quality of wisdom. Richard Briggs suggests (in Reading the Bible Wisely) that this is the key virtue we need. There is familiarity in Scripture—in the characters and their situations we often find our own situations mirrored. But we need to be wise in this, and deep familiarity is one that has to be learnt, as we recognise that Scripture’s logic and outlook is often very different from our own.

These four things then take their place in our experiences as follows:

Immediacy — Patience — Delay

Clarity — Discernment — Ambiguity

Relevance — Discipline — Distance

Familiarity — Wisdom — Strangeness

It is clear that the work of the Spirit in these four areas is essential for our reading. (If you are in doubt of that, consider a context of Bible reading where these four qualities are absent.) But it is also clear that the Spirit’s role is not to bring additional information, or to be part of a technique, or to supply a magic answer that we would not otherwise have had access to. The role of the Spirit in us as readers must be analogous to the role of the Spirit in the first writers of Scripture—forming them, giving insight and allowing discernment, rather than dictating words.

To hold on to both sides will involve both criticism of possible meanings of the text we are reading, but also a realist commitment to discern and to act on what we find. To do this, we need to emulate Paul’s approach in 1 Cor 14.15: I will (pray/study) with the Spirit but I will (pray/study) with my mind also. And if we do so, this will be very attractive to others. People do want answers but they don’t just want simplistic answers, and answers that have been sifted and thought through will be answers that have credibility.

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4 thoughts on “The Spirit and critical study (2)”

  1. Dear Ian,

    Thank you for your excellent and very helpful post. I’m a member of a charismatic evangelical church, I currently work with a more conservative evangelical student movement, and I’m considering postgraduate studies in theology and philosophy. The situation facing potential students as you have outlined it above seems very familiar and your suggestion of Spirit formed character is very encouraging to me. One question I had though was what you might consider the role of church history and tradition plays in the formation of our character and our reading?

    Yours sincerely,

    • Thanks Matthew. I think that history and tradition can contribute to either side of the discussion, and have done so clearly.

      For example, one part of ‘tradition’ is the legacy of a long period of historical scepticism about Jesus and whether we can know anything about him ‘scientifically’. On the other hand, other traditions perpetuate an unwarranted naivety about our reading.

      One of the traditions I keep bumping into is the language of ‘God so loved the world’, which means (in Greek and 1611 English) ‘God in-this-way loved the world’, whereas it is, under the weight of misunderstood tradition, read as ‘God loved the world to this degree.’

      So tradition is really about how previous generations have read. We should be suspicious and retrieving as appropriate!

  2. Interesting stuff, Ian!

    “… criticism creates a desert, because putting the ‘self’ at the centre as the perceiving subject makes all other things the object of study, to be scrutinised and assessed rather than engaged with …”

    Criticism aims to put the *evidence* at the center. Sources must, of necessity, be interpreted by the person doing the criticism, but then, human mediation occurs in all interactions with texts, whether critical, devotional, or a mixture of the two.

    • In the end, it comes down to our conviction that these texts are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are truthful and intended for divine purposes. Secular criticism doesn’t deal with such categories. Patience, discernment, discipline and wisdom are simply the application of God-given gifts (never achieved without effort) to the God-given Word. ‘Engaging’ with the word means being addressed and challenged by it, as well as striving to understand it first in its original context – which is what the Reformers always began with, in their critique of medieval exegesis.


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