Holy Spirit vs. Holy Scripture

I love a good “Aha!” moment, and reading Jim Belcher’s book, Deep Church (read the review here) gave me more than one.

Consider the idea of the “relational hermeneutic.” (For those who are curious, “hermeneutics” is the technical term for the theory and method of how we interpret Scripture.)

As described Belcher describes it, in a relational hermeneutic “nothing is privileged, not even the Bible, over the community in discovering and living out truth. The Bible is just one of the conversation partners” (p. 145). Basically, truth is determined by the people of God, the Bible and the guidance of the Holy Spirit together in community.

This view is espoused by Doug Pagitt. Quoting Pagitt’s essay in Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, Belcher writes, “‘Community,’ not tradition or the Scriptures, ‘is the place where God dwells. . . . In this way, Christian community serves as a hermeneutic of the gospel. . . . ‘Christians have never been intended to be people only of a book, but a people who are led by the ever-present God, active in our lives, communities and the world'” (p.149). Truth does not and cannot come from outside the community; “truth resides within each particular community and must be worked out there.”  

Belcher goes on to write that what he found most interesting was the reaction to Pagitt’s essay, particularly that of Dan Kimball. In a nutshell, Kimball’s response is that while it’s good to wrestle with our doctrine, we need to have a foundation, a constant by which to measure our insights and keep us from falling into heresy. Historic doctrine (such as the Nicene creed) is a great aid in this. Pagitt’s response:

“Dan holds to an authority in the Bible that I believe is better placed in the Holy Spirit. . . . I am not trying to say the Bible is not an important part of our faith and following, but Dan comes from a tradition that places near total authority on the Bible” (p. 152, emphasis mine).


The statement above was kind of like the last piece of a puzzle for me in understanding the issue with the “relational hermeneutic” argument. If I’m understanding everything correctly, the problem stems from a deficient view of Scripture and the Holy Spirit because of a false dichotomy.

Authority is either in Scripture or in the Holy Spirit. But both don’t have equal authority. And so we’re left with a conundrum: Which is more authoritative? And who gets to decide it?

From the quoted passages, it seems that we do.

Scripture says that it is the very words of God. Second Peter 3:15-16, Psalm 119, and many other passages testify to this.  It also says that the Holy Spirit inspired its writing (see 2 Pet. 1:20-21, 2 Tim. 3:16-17, for example). It’s also only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can even understand what is plainly said in Scripture (as Paul writes regarding the message of the cross in 1 Cor 1:17-21).

The Bible’s authority isn’t separate from the Holy Spirit’s. The Bible’s authority comes from the Holy Spirit.

My concern with a relational hermeneutic is that it tries to pit the Bible against the Holy Spirit (as if the two are going to disagree) with humanity serving as the referee. But when people serve as the authority over Scripture, it goes bad. We naturally want to twist things, to do what is right in our own eyes.

We’ve seen in repeatedly over the centuries. Thomas Jefferson sitting in the White House cutting out the parts of the Bible that he didn’t like. The Jesus Seminar determining, essentially by preference, that the vast majority of the New Testament is inauthentic, especially the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus and the Resurrection. The Red Letter Christian Movement with it’s placing higher authority on certain parts of the Bible than others.

It always comes back to the question in the garden? “Did God really say…?”

We must be very careful of any system of interpretation that puts authority in the wrong place: Us.

And if I’m the authority over the Scriptures, it’s only going to go bad for all of us. It’s why we need to be humble enough to submit to the testimony of God’s written word and wise enough to see historic interpretation not as a hindrance to us growing in our faith, but a great gift in assisting us in growing.

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  • http://michaelkrahn.com/blog Michael Krahn

    Phyllis Tickle’s “The Great Emergence” is full of this type of “authority” language. Have you read it? I like read reading books that have a lot of humor and satire in them, and TGE had plenty of both – although it was all unintentional.

    I do think there is something to the “interpreting in community” idea, but I’m not exactly sure what it is yet. Waiting for my “aha” moment there.

    Cheers. Good post.

    • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks Michael. I haven’t read that one. I’ve been thinking about the interpreting in community aspect; I wonder if it’s more helpful in terms of application?

      “If X is true, what does it mean for us not just individually, but corporately?”

      Still trying to figure that out.

      • http://ksanon.wordpress.com ksanon

        Definitely not an expert on the emergent church, so not sure this has ANYTHING to do with their interpretation, but I wonder if the idea of “interpreting in community” is the idea that there is no private interpretation.

        We’ve tended to make our spirituality to individualistic, but this is not the Biblical testimony. Bruce Wilkinson lays out various ways of recognizing God’s voice, knowing He never contradicts Himself, so it’s a matter of “comparing notes,” if you will between various media – prayer, the Word of God, circumstance, and the counsel of other believers. Seems fairly in line with your idea that there is no dichotomy, but that God works together through various means to guide and direct us in all truth.

        • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

          Nice way of putting it – “comparing notes.” Good thoughts :)

  • http://cleverphrasehere.blogspot.com Amber Van Schooneveld

    Very well stated. Thank you for that perspective. My small group is beginning a book on the Holy Spirit: The Forgotten God by Francis Chan. (We have advance copies as a friend works at the publisher.) So I’m interested in different perspectives right now.

    At our first meeting, it seemed to me that their view of the Holy Spirit was that His primary purpose in our lives is to guide us–nudge us when we ought to do something like give money to a homeless person, like a mystical spirit guide. My husband and I were both uncomfortable with this standpoint.

    • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

      Was that what you found in the book or in your group members?

  • Keystone

    Many in your audience are cerebral and gifted with an in depth knowledge of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    However, there are likely, just as many who read here, to grow in wisdom and stature. All of us are at different stages of understanding God, and His relationship with us.

    My own “aha” in this post is in the line:
    “It always comes back to the question in the garden? “Did God really say…?”

    How do we know for sure?
    Better yet, how do we know what we know now?
    A good way to come to terms with how we established the Bible we have today, is in a book I read recently called “Misquoting Jesus”.

    I bring that up for the less deep theologically-oriented, like me,…who ponder in bites and chew awhile on what I am tasting, before I swallow the message.
    If you, too, are one of those, Misquoting Jesus, a recap of the historical building of the Bible, can be found at your local library or inexpensively at Alibris here:

    This book does not equal a 4 year degree from Moody Bible or an equivalent spot, but does fill in the gaps of “Did God really say?”
    Happy reading.

    • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks for the link, Keystone.

      A couple years back I read a book called The Canon of Scripture by FF Bruce. It’s a bit dry, but so far the best I’ve read on the subject of how we got the Bible we have in its current form.

      Another really great book is Can I Trust the Bible by R.C. Sproul. Sproul’s got a real gift for taking issues that are complex and making them easy to understand. I really appreciate him and his work.


  • Cathmaggie

    This opinion seems to be rooted in the wickedness of the heart of Christians. Which is troublesome. Are we or are we not renewed, regenerated, one with God, filled with the Holy Spirit who teaches us all things, etc.?

    I find this type of base-level assumption one-sided, scripturally speaking (ironically).

    I don’t even think scripture itself is clear on this! Why, just read through 1John a few times. Or all of Paul’s epistles. There is a duality there that reflects much more than the “Christians are sinful and screw things up” approach. It’s just not that simple.

    As for me, the biggest red flag is the words of Jesus himself (in scripture, of course). He left us not a stack of letters yet to be penned nor the promise of such. He explicitly spoke of a coming of the person of the Holy Spirit as the answer for living the Christian life.

    I no longer see God’s hand in the canonization of scripture. In the penning of the originals to their intended recipients? Sure! To us, as “holy?” No. We assigned the holiness and continue to do so. Perhaps “informative” and “inspiring” and “wise” should replace “holy?”