The articles in this six-part series are from an oral address presented by Dr. Rob Plummer at the Southeast Regional Evangelical Theological Society meeting, March 2005, and are posted here with his permission. Quotations of Luther’s preface are from the following English translation: “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 63-68. An online version of Luther’s preface is located at http://www.rockvalleybiblechurch.org/ResourceLibrary/LutherPreface.htm.
In our age of pragmatism (in which we seek seven simple steps to solve any problem), is it any surprise that we do not want to be told to wait? And prayer – a waiting and dependence upon God – has become less and less emphasized in Biblical study, whether that study be academic or pastoral. A survey of recent hermeneutics textbooks reveals the cursory attention given to prayer. Some hermeneutical discussion even implies that prayer biases the student of Scripture towards a pre-conceived conclusion. According to this understanding, it may actually be the non-believer who has the advantage in determining the meaning of Scripture, for he comes with little bias as to what the text will say, for it makes no authoritative claim on his life.
Daniel Fuller is the most recognized proponent of this view, though it has other prominent adherents. Fuller bifurcates understanding into cognitive and volitional categories. That is, there is cognitive understanding and volitional response, and the two are not to be confused. Fuller claims that supernatural intervention only functions on the volitional level (“The Holy Spirit’s Role in Biblical Interpretation,” in Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation, ed. W. Ward Gasque and William Sanford LaSor [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1978], 192). In other words, it is only in inculcating a desire to obey the meaning of the text that God supernaturally intervenes in the life of the believer. Thus, determining cognitively the authorial meaning of the text is solely the application of acquired skill and natural reason.
It seems striking to me that Fuller, who would likely pray readily for a surgeon’s increased skill in an operation, believes that prayers for increased exegetical skill are to no avail. “No,” an objector will say, “What one needs is more lexicons, more grammatical study, more time in the text!” Undoubtedly, grammatical study, lexicons, and time in the text are essential. But, is there a place for God’s supernatural aid in understanding, acquired through prayer and God’s gracious intervention? If not, then the traditional Protestant understanding of the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit is incorrect.
More common than an outright rejection of the value of prayer or divine aid in the understanding of the text is brief lip service to the idea, with the subsequent wholesale neglect of it. Where in any modern hermeneutics textbook can be found a thoughtful and biblically-based discussion of how prayer should practically be used in study? By failing to appropriately emphasize and instruct our students in the school of prayer, we are implicitly teaching them not to pray. Jesus’ disciples saw the prominence of prayer in his life, and asked, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1) When our disciples view our lives, do they ask this question, or do they ask, “How do you read so many books?” Or, “How do you write so much?” Or, “How do you sleep so little?”
Is it any wonder that modern sermons and Christian writings so rarely fail to expose and cast out the spirit of the age? Indeed, (to commit my own hermeneutical faux pas), “this kind can only come out through prayer” (Mark 9:29).
A brief survey of texts that discuss the doctrine of the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit illustrate a lack of clarity and exegetical grounding. On the other hand, Fuller’s system, while clearly understandable, is biblically unconvincing and dangerous. While I do not personally impugn Fuller or any who follow him, I believe his system does encourage an arrogant independence from God in approaching the text. A semi-Pelagian reliance upon one’s unaided reason seems to me also dangerous and unbiblical. The doctrine of total depravity teaches us that the entirety of the human person is affected by the fall – reason, emotions, will. We need the specific and supernatural aid of God to counteract our sinful nature in the regular study of the Scriptures. No one can win a biblical argument by claiming, “The Spirit told me,” or “I prayed before I wrote this article.” However, it appears to me that the Biblical evidence presents understanding as an indivisible mixture of both cognitive and volitional elements – an understanding in fallen creatures that can and must be aided by God’s special intervention.
Does this mean, then, than non-believers cannot understand some portions of the Biblical text? No, but it does mean a believer who seeks God’s aid in understanding a text has advantages over a non-believer with equal intellectual gifts, background, and skills. It is not that the Spirit provides additional information that is not in the text, but the Spirit helps in seeing clearly the information there and in the weighing of contextual and debated factors. It is as though the Spirit provides the spectacles that bring the picture into clearer focus. As believers wearing the spectacles of faith, however, we must make our arguments on the basis of the words before us in the text – not by appealing to supernatural assistance, regardless of how real and ongoing that assistance may be. As I observe the revelatory landscape along with my non-believing dialogue partner, I must make my argument on the basis of the facts in front of me.
As I strain to see through my God-given spectacles, I might say, “I see a small white bird that has just landed in the cedar tree.”
My unbelieving, un-spectacled partner counters, “I saw a movement in the tree, but a bird you did not see – only the wind blowing.”
The same facts are there before us, but only one sees rightly.
NEXT TIME: Meditatio (Meditation)
Dr. Rob Plummer serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is author of Paul's Understanding of the Church's Mission: Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Paternoster Press, 2006).