You can Trust the Bible by John R.W. Stott 1991
ALL CHRISTIANS KNOW that the Holy Bible and the Holy Spirit are supposed to have something to do with one another. Indeed, all Christians believe that in some sense the Holy Bible is the creative product of the Holy Spirit. For whenever we say the Nicene Creed, we affirm as one of our beliefs about the Holy Spirit that “he spoke through the prophets.” This expression echoes many similar phrases which occur in the New Testament. For example, our Lord Jesus once introduced a quotation from Psalm 110 with the words: “David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, declared …” (Mark 12:36). Similarly, the apostle Peter in his second
letter wrote that “men moved by the Holy spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21), or, as the Greek verb means, they were “carried along” by the Holy Spirit, as if by a powerful wind. There is then an important relationship between the Bible and the Spirit, one which we need to investigate.
So far we have considered that God is the author of the revelation that has been given and that Jesus Christ is its principal subject. Now we have to add that the Holy Spirit is its agent. Thus the Christian understanding of the Bible is essentially a Trinitarian understanding. The Bible comes from God, centers on Christ and is inspired by the Holy Spirit. So the best definition of the Bible is also Trinitarian: “The Bible is the witness of the Father to the Son through the Holy Spirit.”
What then is the precise role of the Holy Spirit in the process of revelation? To answer this question we turn to the Bible itself and, in particular, to 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:
“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him.
These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for,
“Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.
It is important that we see this text in its wider context. Up to this point in 1 Corinthians, Paul has been emphasizing the “foolishness” of the gospel. For example, “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1:18), and “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1:23). Or, as we might put it today, the message of the cross sounds stupid to secular intellectuals, even meaningless. So Paul now adds a corrective, lest his readers should imagine that he is repudiating wisdom altogether and that he glories in folly instead. Is the apostle anti-intellectual, then? Does he scorn understanding and the use of the mind? No, indeed not.
Verses 6-7: “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, … a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed … for our glorification.” The contrasts which Paul is making must not be overlooked. We do impart wisdom, he writes, but (1) only to the mature, not to non-Christians or even to very young Christians; (2) it is God’s wisdom, not worldly wisdom; and (3) it is for our glorification, that is, our final perfection through sharing in God’s glory, and not just to bring us to justification in Christ.
We ourselves need to follow the apostle’s example. In evangelizing non-Christians we must concentrate on the foolishness of the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners. In building up Christians into full maturity, however, we should want to lead them into an understanding of God’s total purpose. Paul calls this in verse 7 God’s “secret and hidden wisdom” and in verse 9 “what God has prepared for those who love him.” It can be known, he stresses, only by revelation. “The rulers of this age [secular leaders]” did not understand it, or they would never have crucified “the Lord of glory” (v.8). They were not exceptional, however; all human beings, if left to themselves, are ignorant of God’s wisdom and purpose.
For God’s purpose, Paul writes in verse 9, is something which “no eye has seen” (it is invisible), “nor ear heard” (it is inaudible), “nor the heart of man conceived” (it is inconceivable). It is beyond the reach of human eyes, ears and minds.
It is not amenable to scientific investigation, nor even to poetic imagination. It is altogether beyond our little finite minds to fathom unless God should reveal it. Which is exactly what God has done. Listen again: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” — this unimaginable splendor of his purpose — “God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” The word us is emphatic, and in the context it must refer not to all of us indiscriminately, but to the apostle Paul who is writing and to his fellow apostles. God gave a special revelation of these truths to special organs of revelation, the prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New, and God did this “through the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit has been the agent of this revelation.
All of this is, I’m afraid, a rather lengthy introduction to help us see the context within which Paul comes to his theme of the Holy Spirit as the agent of revelation. What he goes on to write is a marvelously comprehensive statement. He outlines the four stages of the Holy Spirit’s work as agent of divine revelation.
The Searching Spirit
First, the Holy Spirit is the searching Spirit (vv. 10-11). It is worth noting, just in passing, that this shows the Holy Spirit to be personal. Only persons can engage in “search” or “research.” To be sure, modern computers can undertake highly complex research of a mechanical, analytical kind. But true research, as all postgraduate research students know well,
involves more than the compilation and analysis of statistical data; it requires original thought, both in investigation and in reflection. This then is work which the Holy Spirit does, because he has a mind with which he thinks. Since he is a divine Person (and not a computer, or a vague influence or power), we need to accustom ourselves to referring to the Spirit as “he,” not “it.”
Paul uses two fascinating little pictures to indicate the unique qualifications of the Holy Spirit in the work of revelation. The first is that “the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God” (v. 10). It is the same verb which Jesus applied to the Jews “searching the scriptures,” and Moulton and Milligan in their Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament quote from a third-century papyrus document in which the “searchers” appear to be customs officials. At any rate, the Holy Spirit is depicted as a restlessly inquisitive research worker or even (though the depths was a favorite expression of Gnostic heretics, and Paul may be borrowing it from their vocabulary) as a deep-sea diver who is seeking to fathom the deepest depths of the unfathomable Being of Almighty God. For God’s Being is infinite in its profundity, and Paul boldly declares that the Spirit of God is searching the depths of God. In other words, God himself is exploring the riches of his own being.
The second model or picture Paul gives is taken from human self-understanding. Verse 11: “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except
the man’s spirit within him?” Thoughts is literally “things,” a human being’s “things,” perhaps what we could call our humanness. An ant cannot possibly conceive what it is like to be a human being. Nor can a frog, a rabbit or even the most intelligent ape. Nor can one human being fully understand another human being. How often we say, particularly in adolescence as we are growing up, “You just don’t understand; nobody understands me.” That is true! Nobody does understand me except myself, and even my understanding of myself is limited. In the same way nobody understands you except yourself. This measure of self-understanding or self-consciousness Paul applies to the Holy Spirit: “So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (v. 11). The Holy Spirit of God is here almost likened to the divine self-understanding or the divine self-consciousness. Just as nobody can understand a human being except that human being himself, so nobody can understand God except God himself. We sometimes sing in a hymn, “God only knows the love of God.” We could equally well affirm that only God knows the wisdom of God; indeed only God knows the being of God.
So, then, the Spirit searches the depths of God, and the Spirit knows the things of God. He has an understanding of God which is unique. The question now is this: What has he done with what he has searched out and come to know? Has he kept his unique knowledge to himself? No. He has done what only he is competent to do; he has revealed it. The searching spirit who
knows the depths of God became the revealing Spirit.
The Revealing Spirit
What the Holy Spirit alone has come to know, he alone has made known. This has already been stated in verse 10: “God has revealed [it] to us [the apostles] through the Spirit.” Now Paul elaborates it in verse 12: “Now we [it is the same apostolic “we,” the plural of apostolic authority] have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God [namely, the searching and knowing Spirit] that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” The apostles had, in fact, received two gracious gifts from God, the first his grace in salvation (“the gifts bestowed on us”) and the second his Spirit to enable them to understand his gracious salvation.
Paul himself is the best example of this double process. As we read his letters, he gives us a superb exposition of the gospel of God’s grace. He tells us what God has done for guilty sinners like us who are without excuse and deserve nothing from his hand but judgment. He declares that God sent his Son to die for our sins on the cross and to rise again, and that if we are united to Jesus Christ, by faith inwardly and by baptism outwardly, then we die with him and rise again with him, and experience a new life in him. It is a magnificent gospel that Paul unfolds in his letters. But how does he know all this? How can he make such comprehensive statements of salvation? The answer is, first, that he has himself received it. He knows the grace of God in experience.
Then, second, the Holy Spirit has been given to him to interpret his own experience to him. Thus the Holy Spirit revealed to him God’s plan of salvation, what Paul calls “the mystery” in other epistles. The searching Spirit became the revealing Spirit.
The Inspiring Spirit
Now we are ready for stage three: The revealing Spirit became the inspiring Spirit. Verse 13: “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.” Notice that in verse 12 Paul writes of what “we have received,” and in verse 13 of what “we impart.” I might perhaps elaborate his sequence of thought like this: We have received these gracious gifts of God; we have received this Spirit to interpret to us what God has done for us and given to us; now we impart to others what we have received. The searching Spirit, who had revealed God’s plan of salvation to the apostles, went on to communicate this gospel through the apostles to others.
Just as the Spirit did not keep his researchers to himself, so the apostles did not keep his revelation to themselves. They understood that they were trustees of it. They had to deliver to others what they had received. Moreover, what they imparted or communicated was in words, and their words are specifically described as “not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit” (v. 13). See how the Holy Spirit is mentioned again, this time as the inspiring Spirit. Here in verse 13 is an
unambiguous claim on the part of the apostle Paul to verbal inspiration:
This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words (1 Corinthians 2:13).
That is to say, the very words with which the apostles clothed the message that had been revealed to them by the Spirit were words taught them by the same Spirit.
I strongly suspect that the reason the notion of verbal inspiration is unpopular today is that people misunderstand it. What they are rejecting, in consequence, is not its true meaning but a caricature. So let me try to clear the concept of some major misconceptions. First, verbal inspiration does not mean that every word of the Bible is literally true. We fully recognize that the biblical authors used many different literary genres, each of which must be interpreted according to its own rules — history as history, poetry as poetry, parable as parable, and so on. What is inspired is the natural sense of the words according to the author’s intention, whether it be literal or figurative.
Second, verbal inspiration does not mean verbal dictation. Muslims believe that Allah dictated the Qur’an to Mohammed, word by word, in Arabic. Christians do not believe this about the Bible, for, as we have already seen and as I shall further emphasize later, the Holy Spirit treated the biblical authors as persons, not machines. With a few minor exceptions they seem to have been in full possession of their faculties while the Spirit was communicating the Word through their words.
Third, verbal inspiration does not mean that every sentence of the Bible, in isolation from its context, is God’s Word.
For not everything contained in the Bible is affirmed by the Bible. We see a good example in the long speeches of Job’s so-called comforters. Their major thesis, repeated ad nauseum, namely, that God was punishing Job for his personal sins, was mistaken. In the last chapter God says to them twice, “You have not spoken of me what is right” (42:7-8). So their words cannot be taken as God’s words. They are included in order to be contradicted, not endorsed. The inspired Word of God is what is being affirmed, whether as instruction, command or promise.
Verbal inspiration means that what the Holy Spirit has spoken and still speaks through the human authors, understood according to the plain, natural meaning of the words used, is true and without error. There is no need at all to be embarrassed by this Christian belief, or to be ashamed or afraid of it. On the contrary, it is eminently reasonable, because words are the units of which sentences are made up. Words are the building blocks of speech. It is therefore impossible to frame a precise message without constructing precise sentences composed of precise words.
Think of the trouble we all take to compose a cable or telegram. Let us say we’ve got only twelve words. All the same, we are determined to send a message which will not only be understood, but which will not be misunderstood. So we draft it, redraft it and draft it again. We scratch out a word here and we add a word there until we have polished our message to our satisfaction. Words matter. Every speaker who wants to
communicate a message that will be understood and not misunderstood knows the importance of words. Every preacher who takes pains to prepare his sermons chooses his words with care. Every writer, whether of letters or articles or books, knows that words matter. Listen to what Charles Kingsley said in the middle of the last century: “These glorious things — words — are man’s right alone … Without words we should know no more of each other’s hearts and thoughts than the dog knows of his fellow dog … for, if you will consider, you always think to yourself in words, though you do not speak them aloud; and without them all our thoughts would be mere blind longings, feelings which we could not understand ourselves.” We have to clothe them in words.
This then is the apostolic claim: that the same Holy Spirit of God, who searches the depths of God and revealed his researches to the apostles, went on to communicate them through the apostles in words with which he himself supplied them. He spoke his words through their words so that they were equally the words of God and words of man. This is the double authorship of Scripture, which I have already mentioned. It is also the meaning of “inspiration.” The inspiration of Scripture was not a mechanical process that bypassed God’s personhood or the writers’. It was intensely personal; for it involved a Person, the Holy Spirit, speaking through persons, prophets and apostles, in such a way that his words were theirs and their words were his simultaneously.
The Enlightening Spirit
We come now to the fourth stage in the Holy Spirit’s work as the agent of revelation, and in this I shall describe him as the “enlightening” Spirit. Let me set the scene.
How are we to think about the people who heard the apostles preaching and later read their letters? Were they left to fend for themselves? Were they obliged to struggle as best they could to understand the apostolic message? No. The same Spirit who was active in those who wrote the apostolic letters was also active in those who read them. Thus the Holy Spirit was working at both ends, as it were, inspiring the apostles and enlightening their hearers. This is already implied at the end of 1 Corinthians 2:13, a complicated phrase which has been variously interpreted. I take the Revised Standard Version translation as correct, namely, that the Holy Spirit was “interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.” Possession of the Spirit was not limited to the biblical authors. Certainly his work of inspiration in them was unique; yet to it he added his work of interpretation.
Verses 14 and 15 elaborate this truth, and they are in stark contrast to each other. Verse 14 begins by referring to “the unspiritual man” (or “the natural man,”), that is, the unregenerate person who is not a Christian. Verse 15, however, begins with a reference to “the spiritual man,” the possessor of the Holy Spirit. Paul thus divides humanity into two clear-cut categories: the natural and the spiritual, that is, those who
possess natural, animal or physical life, on the one hand, and on the other those who have received spiritual or eternal life. The first category lack the Holy Spirit because they have never been born again, but the Holy Spirit dwells in those to whom he has given a new birth. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is, in fact, the distinguishing mark of the true Christian man and woman (Romans 8:9).
What difference does it make whether we have the Holy Spirit or not? All the difference in the world — especially, although there are other distinctions, to our understanding of spiritual truth. The unspiritual or unregenerate person, who has not received the Holy Spirit, does not receive the things of the Spirit either, because they are foolishness to him or her (1 Corinthians 2:14). Not only does he fail to understand them; he is not even able to do so because they are “spiritually discerned.” Spiritual persons, on the other hand, born-again Christians in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, “discern” (it is the same Greek verb as in verse 14) “all things.” Not that all those things to which they were previously blind, and which God has revealed in Holy Scripture, begin to make sense to them. They understand what they have never understood before, even though they themselves are not really understood. Literally, they are “discerned by no one.” They remain an enigma, for they have an inner secret of spiritual life and truth which doesn’t make sense to nonbelievers. This is hardly surprising, however, for nobody knows the
mind of the Lord or can instruct him. And since non-believers cannot understand Christ’s mind, they cannot understand ours either, though we whom the Holy Spirit enlightens can dare to say, “We have the mind of Christ” (v.16) — a truly amazing affirmation.
Is this your experience? Has the Bible become a new book to you? William Grimshaw, one of the great eighteenth-century evangelical leaders, told a friend after his conversion that “if God had drawn up his Bible to heaven, and sent him down another, it could not have been newer to him.” It was a different book. I could say the same myself. I read the Bible daily before I was converted, because my mother brought me up to do so, but it was double Dutch to me. I hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was all about. But when I was born again and the Holy Spirit came to dwell within me, the Bible immediately began to be a new book to me. Of course I am not claiming that I understood everything. I am far from understanding everything today. But I began to understand things I had never understood before.
What a marvelous experience this is! Don’t think of the Bible as just a collection of musty old documents whose real place is in a library. Don’t think of the pages of Scripture as if they were fossils whose real place is behind glass in a museum. No, God speaks through what he has spoken. Through the ancient text of Scripture the Holy Spirit can communicate with us today freshly, personally and powerfully. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says” (“is saying” — it is a present tense — through the Scriptures) “to the churches” (Revelation 2:7 and so on).
If the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Scriptures today, you may be asking, why don’t we all agree about everything? If the Spirit is the interpreter as well as the agent of God’s revelation, why does he not lead us to a common mind? My answer to these questions may surprise you. It is that he does in fact enable us to agree with one another even more if we fulfilled the following four conditions.
First, we must accept the supreme authority of Scripture and earnestly desire to submit to it. Among those who do so, a substantial Christian consensus already exists. The big and painful differences which remain, for example, between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches are mainly attributable to the former’s continuing unwillingness to declare that Scripture has supreme authority even over church traditions. Rome’s official position, modified but not effectively altered by the Second Vatican Council, is still that “both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence.” Now Protestants do not deny the importance of tradition, and some of us should have more respect for it since the Holy Spirit has taught past generations of Christians and did not begin his instruction only with us! Nevertheless, when Scripture and tradition are in collision, we must allow Scripture to reform tradition, just as Jesus insisted with the “traditions of the elders” (see Mark 7:1-13).
If the Church of Rome were to have the courage to renounce unbiblical traditions, such as its dogmas about the immaculate conception and bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary, immediate progress would be made toward agreement under the Word of God.
Second, we must remember that, as we have seen, the overriding purpose of Scripture is to bear witness to Christ as the all-sufficient Savior of sinners. When the sixteenth-century Reformers insisted on the “perspicuity” (i.e., clarity) of Scripture, and translated the Bible into the vernacular so that ordinary people could read it for themselves, they were referring to the way of salvation. They did not deny that the Scriptures contain “some things … hard to understand,” as Peter said of Paul’s letters (2 Peter 3:16); what they were at pains to affirm was that the essential truths of salvation were plain for all to understand.
Third, we must apply sound principles of interpretation. It is of course perfectly possible to twist the Bible into meaning anything we like. But our business is Scripture interpreting, not Scripture twisting. Above all, we have to seek both the original sense according to the biblical author’s intention, and the natural sense, which may be either literal or figurative, again according to the author’s intention. These are respectively the principles of history and of simplicity. When they are applied with integrity and rigor, then the Bible controls us and not we it. In consequence,
the area of Christian agreement increases.
Fourth, we must come to the biblical text with a recognition of our cultural prejudices and with a willingness to have them challenged and changed. If we come to Scripture with the proud presupposition that all our inherited beliefs and practices are correct, then of course we shall find in the Bible only what we want to find, namely, the comfortable confirmation of the status quo. As a result we shall also find ourselves in sharp disagreement with people who come to Scripture from different backgrounds and with different convictions, and find their beliefs confirmed. There is probably no commoner source of discord than this. It is only when we are brave and humble enough to allow the Spirit of God through the Word of God radically to call into question our most cherished opinions that we are likely to find fresh unity through fresh understanding.
The “spiritual discernment” which the Holy Spirit promises is not given in defiance of these four common-sense conditions; it presupposes that they are accepted and fulfilled.
We have considered the Holy Spirit in four roles, as the searching Spirit, the revealing Spirit, the inspiring Spirit and the enlightening Spirit. These are the four stages of his teaching ministry. First, he searches the depths of God and knows the thoughts of God. Second, he revealed his researches to the apostles. Third,
he communicated through the apostles what he had revealed to them, and did so in words that he himself supplied. Fourth, he enlightened the minds of the hearers so that they could discern what he had revealed to and through the apostles, and he continues this work of illumination today in those who are willing to receive it.
Let me give two very simple and short lessons. The first concerns our view of the Holy Spirit. There is much discussion today about the person and work of the Spirit, and 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 is only one of many passages in the Bible about him. But let me ask you this: Is there room is your doctrine of the Spirit for this passage? Jesus called him “the Spirit of truth.” So truth is very important to the Holy Spirit. Oh, I know, he is also the Spirit of holiness, the Spirit of love and the Spirit of power, but is he to you the Spirit of truth? According to the verses we have been studying, he is deeply concerned about the truth. He searches it, has revealed and communicated it, and enlightens our minds to grasp it. Dear friend, never denigrate truth! Never disdain theology! Never despise your mind! If you do, you grieve the Holy Spirit of truth. This passage should affect our view of the Holy Spirit.
The second concerns our need of the Holy Spirit. Do you want to grow in your knowledge of God? Of course you do. Do you want to grow in your understanding of the wisdom of God and of the totality of his purpose to make us one day like Christ in glory? Of course you do. So do I. Then we need the Holy Spirit,
the Spirit of truth, to illumine our minds. For that we need to be born again. I sometimes wonder if the reason some secular theologians today are speaking and writing, if I may say so, such rubbish (I am referring, for example, to their denial of personality to God and of deity to Jesus) is that they have never been born again. It is possible to be a theologian and unregenerate. Is that why they do not discern these marvelous truths of Scripture? Scripture is spiritually discerned. So we need to come to the Scriptures humbly, reverently and expectantly. We need to acknowledge that the truths revealed in the Bible are still locked and sealed until the Holy Spirit opens them to us and opens our minds to them. For God hides them from the wise and clever and reveals them only to “babes,” those who are humble and reverent in their approach to him. So then, before we preachers prepare, before a congregation listens, before an individual or a group begins to read the Bible — in these situations we must pray from the Holy Spirit’s illumination: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (Psalm 119:18). And he will.