I have found that vague notions about the Spirit's role in guiding you toward truth translates into an excuse for undisciplined and inaccurate Bible study. If you feel the Spirit showed you a special meaning in a verse, you go with it. You excuse the need to use hermeneutical skills or check your conclusion in a community of better-trained Bible users. And why not? Isn't it just me + Holy Spirit = all I need to discern the truth?
In response to my recent articles connecting individual authoritative Bible interpretation to church division, commenters derided my warning against unchecked and untrained personal Bible reading. My reasoning was called “elitist” and “hierarchical." The call for untrained Bible interpreters to stop reading in isolation from communities and reliable teachers offended readers. Why? Because it takes the authority to determine truth out of your own hands. Every individual is no longer the inherent end all, be all for discerning the Bible’s meaning. There's actually more to the story than just you.
Here are a few snippets from detractors who defended the democratization of Bible interpretation from an “oligarchy” of well-trained, gifted teachers (note: the "oligarchy" is a straw man created out of my words to beat down with ease; here is how they verbally hit him):
"I will choose chaos over authoritarianism any day of the week."
"Making hermeneutics a gnostic like enterprise with secret and mysterious knowledge based on sophisticated academics or an authoritative group of Bible interpreters is not the answer."
"As a lay person, I need to make up my own mind about the Bible rather than just sitting in a pew possibly being fed nonsense. So I ask the Holy Spirit to guide my reading and comprehension."
I Have the Spirit so I Don't Need Teachers
I still remember my first Seminary class where I encountered a lady boldly committed to the individual determination of truth. In a discussion about the importance of teaching, she said: "I don't need a teacher because the Spirit will teach me everything I need to know." I almost laughed out loud, but then I realized it wasn't a joke. She was serious. Of course, I didn't know why she was paying for the class if she could learn it all on her own.
My first thought: how could that make any sense to someone who has read the Bible? The first converts at Pentecost committed themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Paul and Peter made it quite clear gifted teachers had a special role in bringing the church to maturity. Paul even appointed key teachers like Timothy and Titus to keep churches from swerving off the right track. Every epistle in the New Testament assumes Spirit-led Christians still needed direction from their spiritual fathers. So where did she get such an incongruent idea?
She was quoting 1 John 2:27. If you read the verse in isolation from the rest of the letter and the whole New Testament, it does simply say, “You have no need for anyone to teach you.” Her conclusion makes sense, that is, if you search for simple statements to extract and believe. If the context is irrelevant, the words establish the principle regardless of surrounding material. She found a nugget of truth packed into John’s complicated letter about abiding and antichrists and testing spirits so she ran with it.
I do understand how she arrived at her conclusion when the literary and historical context is removed. However, her mistaken doctrine could have been prevented. Hermeneutical training or at least checking contemporary and historical interpretations before assuming “what the Bible meant” could have put her on the right track (see Bible Reading Destroys the Church Part 2 of 2 for 4 Practices to Interpret Scripture more accurately).
1 John 2:26 makes the context clear in the preceding verse. John was discussing the appropriate response to deceptive teachers contradicting what Christians already knew to be true. “These things I have written to you concerning those who try to deceive you.” Proto-Gnostic teachers were introducing all sorts of new ways to access deeper knowledge of God and the spiritual realm. They were denigrating Jesus’ unique role as the one mediator between God and humanity.
Second, John told people not to trust teachers whose life betrayed a corrupt spirituality. The Spirit of righteousness is exhibited in a righteous life. If some teacher isn't obeying God’s commands and loving people, then you don't listen to them (1 John 2:29-3:24). You can judge a teacher’s (S)spirit by the fruit. So 1 John 2:27 is telling Christians under John’s care, “You don't need any teacher whose life betrays counterfeit Spirituality.”
"Judge the Spirit's involvement by the outcome and accuracy of one's teaching and character"
The only kind of teachers he dismisses are those who say Jesus didn't come from God and recommend other paths to experience the divine. Those guys aren't telling the truth and don't deserve your attention. 1 John 2:27 calls them liars. Spirit-led Christians should stick to the Spiritual path they have begun. Assessing the outcomes and accuracy in a teacher's life and message about Jesus helps discern which teachers are leading you down the wrong path. 1 John 2:27 says you don't need teachers who fail those tests.
But why do we extract and distort the meaning of Bible verses like 1 John 2:27 so often? Simple answer: We create a bible in the Bible. Parts of the Bible we use. Parts we ignore. All of it we extract from its context and wrap in our assumptions.
"We create a bible in the Bible. Parts of the Bible we use. Parts we ignore. All of it we extract from its context and wrap in our assumptions."
Everybody selectively uses Scripture this way. Evangelicals take Jesus’ last words in Mark and focus on the first part: preach the Gospel (Mark 16:15-16). Pentecostals focus on the second part: cast out demons, speak in new tongues, and heal the sick (Mark 16:17-18). We find what we are looking for. If you think proclamation is important, you find parts of the Bible to back your idea. If miraculous signs are important, you use those parts. We build a bible within the Bible when we separate the parts from the whole to support our preferences, consciously or subconsciously.
Christian hedonists practice the most common form of extraction and contortion. What is the most common extract and contort technique? Take the Bible words you want and leave the rest. Psalm 37:4 becomes God’s promise to “give you the desires of your heart” when you skip the whole message of the Psalm. David’s heartfelt desire in context is actually to vindicate his righteous living in a wicked world. He longs for the world to recognize what is right. God's promise is not to give him a big house, a private plane, a Christmas cruise, 2.1 honor students, and a hypoallergenic dog. But when you only extract a Bible part and wrap your preferences around it, you can make the Bible say anything you want. That's how 1 John 2:27 becomes a rally cry for individualistic authoritative Bible interpretation.
We need to subject ourselves to the same tests John commended: (1) assess the accuracy of our beliefs against the apostolic witnesses in Scripture and (2) judge the quality of our character against Jesus’ command to love. I am building the Bible Interpretation Competency Test to facilitate the first (FYI, the B.IQ website and free sample quiz are coming in 2015!). The second test requires more personal observation and critical reflection. You can start by asking those around you to see if they have observed the fruit of the Spirit in you.
This countercultural task is daunting. Biblical "Extract and contort" maneuvers are foundation on which we create versions of Christianity we like. But may this reminder move us away from the partial bibles we tame to embracing the whole Bible we were given.