Logic vs. spiritual discernment
An old acquaintance recently challenged me to re-examine my belief that the lake of fire spoken of in the book of Revelation refers to a blazing cauldron that will consume the incorrigibly wicked in little more than a split second. This friend had discovered a web site called “Exposing Those Who Contradict” which interprets the lake of fire “spiritually”, asserting that it is synonymous with Jesus Christ Himself and that “brimstone” is God. (I kid you not.) In short, the purpose of the lake of fire is to purify the wicked in the day of judgment in preparation for an eternity of bliss rather than to utterly destroy the stubbornly impenitent.
As in the writings of many who patently depart from sound principles of interpretation, the reader is automatically branded as lacking “spiritual discernment” if he disagrees. The key to understanding the Word of God, we are assured, is “spiritual discernment”, a la 1 Corinthians 2:14:
But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned .
But does this verse justify ignoring the application of logic and sound principles of interpretation in order to understand any passage of Scripture? Don Carson relates how he was riding with a man who told him about a new understanding he had been given of a Scripture by the Holy Spirit. Carson immediately realized that, first, the man had misunderstood the archaic English rendition and, second, that the English translation the man used had “unwittingly misrepresented the Greek text” (Exegetical Fallacies, p. 13). Expecting to be thanked by the man for showing him his error, Carson was taken aback when his help was rebuffed. “The brother dismissed my view as impossible on the grounds that the Holy Spirit… had told him the truth on this matter”.
Robert Stein analyzes 1 Corinthians 2:14 in his book, “Difficult Passages in the Epistles” and concludes that it is not saying that one must have the Holy Spirit in order to understand what the Bible is saying. Rather, many people can understand what Scripture means but “discern” it, that is, judge it, as foolish and so do not accept it as truth. Stein says, “… we have interpreted this verse as meaning that the unbeliever, being unable to evaluate correctly the gospel message, judges it to be foolish, rather than as meaning that the unbeliever cannot intellectually
understand Christian doctrines” (p. 30).
The above comments underscore a fascinating “faith-reason” issue. We would agree that the Holy Spirit will never lead us to interpret Scripture contrary to sound principles of “historical-grammatical interpretation” (the application of grammar and historical context to interpret the passage in question). Scripture itself speaks of “rightly dividing” the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). This verse suggests that success comes as a result of hard work rather than of Spirit-led insights. The book of Proverbs over and over suggests that God-fearers, who have the “beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10) and therefore have the spiritual discernment Paul spoke of, will advance in knowledge and wisdom as a result of hard work — digging and searching (4:7).
But, assuming one has access to all the necessary data, such as “true” meanings of Hebrew and Greek words, is brilliance of interpretive skill sufficient for a believer to properly discern the meaning of any given passage? Surely we cannot deny the reality of being given understanding by God, of being led by the Holy Spirit. Two passages that seem to suggest a vital role for the Holy Spirit or divine guidance in order to understand the words of God come to mind:
1. Open my eyes, that I may see Wondrous things from Your law (Ps. 119:18).
David seems to have believed that the law contained truths that were not lying around on the surface, like exposed nuggets of gold, but lay deeper down and required God's help to find. Many Bible students who reject the notion of the need for divine guidance to understand Scripture accept the concept of biblical typology, a method of interpreting biblical “shadows” that relies on “spiritual insights”. Now for the second passage:
2. And he said, "Go your way, Daniel, for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end. Many shall be purified, made white, and refined, but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand" (Dan. 12:9-10).
The understanding of Daniel's prophecies clearly does not come entirely from the application of sound principles of interpretation, otherwise believers would have “cracked” them as soon as they were written. Future editorials will explore these questions further.