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Can unbelievers understand and interpret the Bible?

Can unbelievers understand and interpret the Bible?

The Role of the Holy Spirit and Worship in Interpretation

Mitchell Leach

Community Pastor

Peace Church

Published On:

November 10, 2023

Imagine it is your senior season of high school football, and the school you attend has historically been — let’s just say — less than excellent. So this year your school has hired a computer to be your head coach that is programmed to perfectly analyze each play.

But there’s one glaring problem. While it could technically call plays based on trends andrelevant data, it doesn’t love the game.


There is a huge difference between understanding the game technically and actuallycalling the plays in reality. You can’t simply expect theory to translate into intuition. Whatis missing is a love for the game. At this point could you just replace the coach with acomputer? If you’ve ever played a sport before you’ll answer emphatically, no! Imaginegetting into halftime, anticipating a rousing speech on overcoming adversity from yourcoach, only to be met with statistics on rushing yards verse their cover three concepts. Youcould hate football and become an analyst, but you can’t coach without loving the game.

The same is true for biblical interpretation.


St. Augustine, an influential early church father, wrote, "So anyone who thinks he hasunderstood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding buildup this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them”(Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 1.86).


St. Augustine accurately describes that true comprehension of the Bible comesthrough a combination of prayer, faith, and an attitude of submission to God's will. It is byloving God and being compelled into action, by the text that shows that we truly understandthe text. All of this is impossible without the work of the Holy Spirit regenerating one's heartto love the God they once hated and hate the sin they once loved.


But Can unbelievers understand and interpret the Bible?

True biblical interpretation must include the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Sometimes a straw mancan be made of this statement, where people will incorrectly conclude that this meansbiblical interpretation (via the Holy Spirit) relies wholly on one’s discernment of the text.Therefore it could have infinite possibilities for interpretation. Much more than this couldlead people to falsely interpret scripture because they falsely interpret or misjudge the HolySpirit. To this, I would say that the pendulum has swung too far. Never should biblicalinterpretation become a sort of fortune-telling-like practice where the text itself is mostlydisregarded for feeling. Rather, the text has a concrete main idea and transformationalintent from the original author. Where the Holy Spirit comes in is to quicken us to respond inapplication to this inspired work before us.


While biblical interpretation in the technical sense can be done well by anyonebecause there are clear steps in its approach, it fails more seriously to faithfully interpret thetext holistically. This is because it will fail to see the very nature of the text itself, let alonewhat that text insists it to be.


The Bible declares itself to be the very word of God. It is a story about God revealinghimself to his creation to enter into a relationship with them. It's about a God who loves hispeople so deeply that he would die in their place.


To technically interpret the story of Elijah, but failing to be transformed into worship by Godworking to bring sinners to justice and salvation to his chosen people is to fundamentallymisinterpret the story. Why? Because worship was the author’s (and authors’)transformational intent. Take, for example, the story of Ruth. You could spend a multitude oftime and research to bring great analysis to the four chapters in this book. You could; breakdown the narrative arc, identify the historical context in which this is placed, and how thatshows an even dire situation for Ruth and Naomi and exemplifies the character of Boaz, youcould trace the cross-references to other parts of scripture, or get to the root meaning of theHebrew word for Kinsman redeemer. But to do all of this and to miss being in awe of thesubtle sovereignty of God working to uphold his covenant to his people while sustainingRuth and Naomi, and how that leads to King David and eventually King Jesus is a grossfailure of proper biblical interpretation.


Luther's Four Stranded Garland

Only a regeneration of the Holy Spirit allows the Christian to interpret the text correctly. Martin Luther coined his hermeneutical tool "the four-stranded garland." In which he told people to think of four things while reading a passage of scripture. First, What instruction is God teaching me? Second, What in this passage causes me to praise God? Third, What causes me to confess in this passage? Fourth, what guidance do I now feel that I need from God?


Luther's questions were giving the Christians a way to allow themself to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit during their biblical interpretation. A non-Christian may be able to technically answer the first question, but they cannot answer the last three without faking their answer, or at minimum pretending to act as they believe a Christian should. The work of the Spirit to convict us of our sinful nature and our daily sins is something the non-Christian doesn't have access to. God's work to make me fall on my knees and beg for mercy because He has convinced me that I do not open my heart up to God as the Psalms do, is not on the surface of the text. Therefore it isn't something a non-Christian can authentically do.


This is even more true with the last question in Luther's strand. This is the question of application. This is the most spiritually significant, and dependent question. What the Holy Spirit is calling you to do in response to his word is ever-changing. This is one of the reasons Christians have loved scripture over the centuries, and equate a living aspect to it. It's not the meaning of the text that changes, it's the depth to which it calls us to be more connected to the image of the Son. This is the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation.


My question would be why would you want to interpret this story if you don’t desire to see the supremacy of Christ? Why would you care to work on scripture to get to its technical meaning without worshiping a Holy God at the end of it? What use is that literary analysis? Who will you present this to, if not to preach the Word and to exalt the most precious and glorious God of which it is most certainly about?


My conclusion is that not only is a true biblical interpretation not possible for those who don’t believe, but it is also a waste to perform literary analysis on scripture without believing the whole story of which it is about.


It would be as nonsensical as hiring a computer as a football coach.


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