Testing the Holy Spirit: A Noble Thing?

Theme Party for July 2 (’14), by Daniel Hoffman


The modern port of Thessaloniki with the White Tower in the background.

When Paul went to Thessalonica (the Greek roots lead me to assume that means something like “Sea Conqueror” or “Victory of the Sea” or something along those lines), he went first to the Jewish synagogue, as always (Acts 13:5; 13:14; 14:1, etc).  With full apostolic authority, and as the recipient of direct revelation of the gospel from the risen Christ himself, he spoke to the Thessalonian Jews by “reasoning from the scriptures” (Acts 17:2).  He was seeking to persuade them from the scriptures (file that away) that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and rise from the dead.  Then, with that established, he announced that the Jesus he preached was this Christ.

Some were perDownWithsuaded. Many others took the modern liberal route of toleration and acceptance: they formed a mob, vandalized property, and called upon the name of Mama Government to shut these troublesome Christians up by force (Acts 17:5-7), for did not Caesar have his decrees?  You would think the Thessalonian converts had refused to bake a gay wedding cake!  But this is really background to my point, which comes in the next episode. The apostles leave Thessalonica and get to Berea, the next city.  Ah, Berea, famed among Bible-study circles everywhere for the nobility of its Jews who, instead of storming houses and exacting arbitrary fines, “Examined the scriptures” (17:11).

Often the moral extracted from this passage is that it’s a great and noble thing to examine the scriptures.  Indeed, it is.  Examining the scriptures daily is one of the primary duties for a king (Deuteronomy 17:18-19).  But the slightly more subtle point that I want to bring out is that the Bereans were not simply examining the scriptures, but were by implication testing the words of the inspired apostle against them. Actually it isn’t an implication. It’s said explicitly: They were examining the scriptures “to see if the things spoken by Paul and Silas were so.”  The word spoken by the apostles was no less than the word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13), and still Dr. Luke considers that to test this apostolic word against the scriptures is a mark of nobility.

Is it too much then to say that even the word of the apostles was in some sense subordinate to what was already written?  Not that the Apostles didn’t indeed possess the Spirit, but that this could not be known for certain unless what they preached could stand the test of scripture?  Can we go a step further and say that the Holy Spirit himself is subject to the scriptures?  That may be a crude way of putting it, but it is really only to say that the Spirit is everywhere consistent with Himself, and there is no way to recognize what is truly of the Holy Spirit without testing by the scriptures.  This is not to denigrate the Spirit, but rather to exalt Him and His work.  It is to recognize that the scriptures are the very word of God, spoken and written by prophets in whom the Spirit of Christ was testifying, and that we may not recognize any spirit claiming to be from God unless it can stand the test of scripture.  What the French Confession of 1559  reading-biblesays is true: “that no authority, whether of antiquity, or custom, or numbers, or human wisdom, or judgments, or proclamations, or edicts, or decrees, or councils, or visions, or miracles, should be opposed to these Holy Scriptures, but, on the contrary, all things should be examined, regulated, and reformed according to them.”

This was a principle well-established. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 sets the written word of God above signs and wonders. A man healing the blind, making a serpent out of a staff, or parting a sea so that a people can escape their pursuers ought to have less persuasive power to the people of God than the written scripture, if the one who does such signs speaks contrary to that word. The Great Commission given to Joshua implies that long term success can come in no other way than obedience to the word of God written. No show of zeal for glory, no presumed worship of God has any value, and in fact is abominable, if done to the neglect of the established written word. I’m thinking here of the episode of Saul and the Amalekites, which someone might object is not a story dealing with the written word of God; just the prophetic word through Samuel.  But such an objection forgets that God’s intention for the Amelekites was indeed written in a book, by Moses, and recited in the ears of Joshua (Exodus 17:14).  Isaiah also, by whom the Spirit of God spoke, directed the people to the written word, “to the teaching [“Torah” is the word used] and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no light” (8:20). The prophet sets this in opposition to the people’s consulting of mediums, i.e., against those who would rather consult with the dead.  Better to consult with a living God, and the way to do that is to consult the written and living word.  Even those possessed of the official teaching office in Israel, the priests and the prophets, were perfectly capable of forgetting the Torah of their God and so losing their office and falling under the curse.  Read all about it in Hosea 4:4-6. Venerable and well-established tradition could likewise be nothing else than making void of the written word of God.

To have your conscience bound to the written word (being a doer and not a hearer only, don’t forget) is the safest position in which you can find yourself.  Is this you?


18 thoughts on “Testing the Holy Spirit: A Noble Thing?

  1. This is a really good post, Danny. I guess my question is, then, what standard is given in Scripture which the student of Scripture can follow to make sure he or she is not twisting the Scriptures?
    2 Peter 3
    14 Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. 15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.


    • Or, phrased another way, what if the Bereans, like other Jews who reject Jesus as Messiah on account of their interpretations of Scripture, had determined that the Apostles teaching about Jesus contradicted the Scriptures and thus rejected Christ because they misinterpreted the Scriptures?


      • The point is that in practice, written Scripture was always recognized and acknowledged as the final arbiter of truth. At the end of the day, proper interpretation has to be arrived at in a process of faithful reasoning, obedience, etc. It’s faith seeking understanding. None of the passages I referred to in this post, nor the one you quoted from 2 Peter, point to or assume the need for an external interpretive authority. Most of the OT passages assume sufficient perspicuity, and Acts says over and over that Paul would “reason from the Scriptures.” In the epistles, Paul often gives authoritative apostolic instruction, but he also engages in Scriptural argumentation and seeks to persuade the churches.

        In the specific example you gave, if the Bereans had rejected Paul’s interpretation of Scripture they would simply be rejecting the claim that Jesus was the Christ spoken of, and at that point we’re outside of hermeneutical questions and into questions of ultimate presuppositions.

        It seems clear to me, from the passage in 2 Peter and others, that “twisting the Scriptures” (in a way that would really count as a depraved kind of twisting, not a mere difference of opinion in secondary things) is pretty much always a symptom of underlying moral problems. Desire to pursue sin will lead to mis-hearing, and not being able to bear God’s word leads to not understanding it. Jesus said exactly that in John 7.

        An interpretive Magisterium that claimed ultimate authority for itself would only back the problem up a step (who’s going to authoritatively interpret Chalcedon or Trent? They are at least as difficult as any Bible passage), and the Bible itself doesn’t appear to me to ever assume the need for any such thing. It everywhere assumes that the written word is itself the final arbiter, and anyone who desires to do God’s will can understand it sufficiently.


  2. First, I want to make sure that I understand correctly the way that you believe Scripture teaches us to interpret it so that we don’t twist its meaning. Based on what you wrote, I came up with this:
    1) First accept the message with faith that Jesus is the Messiah.
    2) Make use of “faithful reasoning”/ “faith seeking understanding”
    3) Display obedience (I’m guessing you mean obedience to the commandments of God?)
    4) Not have an underlying moral problem or a desire to pursue sin
    Is there anything I’m leaving out? Am I right about #3?

    Second, I want to make sure I’m not attacking a straw man 🙂 – Did you mean to imply that the authority Jesus gave the apostles to teach and preach orally was only authoritative so long as the hearers were able to validate their teachings by way of OT interpretation?


  3. It (apostolic authority) certainly could not have been authoritative if it undermined or contradicted the Old Testament Scripture….Consider Galatians: Paul vs. Peter, the “Rock,” in Galatians 2:11.

    Even an Apostle can make a mistake, and even one that would condemn and damn its adherents without repentance. This should turn us all to the Scriptures in all diligence and prayer and humility.


    • Not quite. Their conduct was not in step with the Gospel. Their conduct threatened the very truths which saved them. Conduct can, indeed, lead to destruction insofar as it rejects justification by faith, the point Paul makes just a couple verses later. Context matters here, and for Paul, what Peter did was a threat to Jesus’ finished work.


      • I am not trying to be a pain, but what is “not quite”? That Paul was condemning Peter’s conduct? I agree that conduct is important. I am not sure that we disagree…
        Peter was not some sort of perfect disciple. He denied Jesus 3 times. Denying Jesus is pretty bad, considering that He said that if we are ashamed of Him before men then He will be ashamed of us before the Father.
        But what’s better than all of Peter’s failures (and ours) is the super abundant grace and mercy of God.


      • And, you didnt answer my question, but I admit that I was begging the question after all. Your comment prescribed studying the Scriptures, but the example you provided showed that Paul didn’t appeal to Scripture in his rebuke because the message of the gospel was also transmitted orally and through the persons of the apostles, by way of the authority given to them by Jesus Himself, and not just through writing. The Word of God was proclaimed by the apostles with both oral and written authority. Did we completely lose what was transmitted orally from the apostles? Did Jesus establish a way to preserve the traditions and teachings of the apostles, whether by letter or word of mouth? (1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thess 2:15, 2 Tim 2:2)


      • Actually, Paul was relying on written OT tradition: “The righteous shall live by faith” (Hab) as well as simple written logic: the promise came before the Law. It is even implicit in Eden: don’t eat this tree or you’ll die; therefore, eat the other one and live. He goes on to appeal to a more ancient tradition than the Law, and this theme runs throughout the entire letter.

        Beyond this, I have no problem asserting oral authority. I deny Rome’s ability to continue it. This is bigger than mere citation. It is a basic, presuppositional hermeneutic argument over principle stretching back even to Matthew 16, and this argument is broader than this blog, this article, and the space allowed.

        Thank you for raising these issues, however, and I hope you’ll continue reading future posts.


      • Please forgive me. In my haste to make a point (which you’re right, is really too big for this comment box section), I contradicted myself and resorted to an ultra-simplistic and ignorant form of proof-texting,”Paul didn’t say, ‘it is written’ so it must not have been a reference to Scripture!”
        I read back through the letter and saw what you were explaining, as well as his appeal back to God’s covenant with Abraham, the themes of slavery vs sonship, and other direct OT Scriptural quotations. I still think that he is showing the contrast between the old covenant works of the law (circumcision, etc) and the gospel of justification by faith, “faith working through love (formed faith),” “loving your neighbor as yourself,” and “walking by the Spirit and not under the law”… which I do know may not be the precise reformed distinction.
        Anyways, I was wrong in my response. I appreciate your responses and invitation to comment further. However, I think that when I read Daniel’s posts in the future, I’ll try to keep my mouth shut 🙂

        In the Peace of Christ,


  4. “First, I want to make sure that I understand correctly the way that you believe Scripture teaches us to interpret it so that we don’t twist its meaning.”

    – My reply was not meant to describe principles of interpretation. In general, the Bible should be interpreted as any other verbal/written communication. There are no special rules. So no, the four things you listed are not how “Scripture teaches us to interpret it.” Your question was about how to know whether we are interpreting correctly, and I gathered (maybe I was wrong) that the underlying assumption was that we need an official authority to tell us. The point I tried to make in response was that Scripture assumes its own perspicuity at least to the degree that anyone who is sincerely seeking salvation will find and understand there what he needs to know. And those who “twist” Scripture (again, I take it that in 2 Peter, etc, the “twisting” being talked about is not simply a difference of opinion) are those who are motivated by a desire to justify sinful behavior. It seems clear in the context that that’s what’s going on. When it comes to difference of opinion, the right path to take is humility, love, being faithful to what we do clearly understand, making use of lawful authorities (who can themselves obviously be wrong), etc.

    “Second, I want to make sure I’m not attacking a straw man 🙂 – Did you mean to imply that the authority Jesus gave the apostles to teach and preach orally was only authoritative so long as the hearers were able to validate their teachings by way of OT interpretation?”

    – No. The Bereans searched the Scriptures to see whether what the apostles were preaching was true, and Luke called that “noble.” The implication is that the written word is the appropriate testing point. But the apostles were inspired, so they were authoritative and right. I’m not sure how else to answer this because it’s a hypothetical. It’s like asking what happens if one of the elect gets hit by a bus before coming to salvation.

    How do YOU know whether or not you’re “twisting” Scripture?


  5. Danny,

    Your original post was about having one’s conscience bound to Scripture, so I was curious as to what principles you thought Scripture teaches as to the proper way to interpret it and also, probably not very well, was trying to clarify what boundaries you would place on how far personal interpretation of Scripture can take a person (as in, we would both agree that using Scripture to reject Christ would be a fundamental problem). I apologize that my question phrasing may not have communicated that properly.

    Do you think that there is a principle being taught in Acts 8:29-31 as to making sense of Scripture? It would seem that at least there are some Scriptures which a person may need assistance to interpret, as they are not sufficiently plain.

    I do agree with you that anyone who truly and wholeheartedly seeks after God with the means available to them will find Him (Jeremiah 29:13) and I also trust in God’s abundant love and mercy for those who seek after it , even if they don’t have or find all the “right answers.” Jesus never said that finding eternal life was a theological test of wit anyway – He clearly taught that people are judged on whether they have done good or evil (Matthew 7, Matthew 25, etc). The question of whether or not one is twisting Scripture is the one we have had to ask ourselves when confronted with a wide variety of Christian interpretations and traditions, specifically in regards to baptism and justification. In this conversation and in others, we have asked with the intent of getting you to think & consider these things from a different perspective, not to insinuate that we think you personally are intentionally twisting Scripture. And while we don’t agree with many of the reformed tradition’s systematic interpretations, as, among other issues, we find them to be overly precise where Scripture is not; we specifically strive not to pass any judgments on the people themselves or their faith.

    With that said, we have yet to find someone to satisfactorily explain how Martin Luther did not dangerously twist Scripture to teach a potentially antinomian gospel. He mistranslated Romans 3:28 to say that we are justified by faith alone, when it does not include the word “alone.” He desired to remove James (and Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation) from the NT. This seems rather convenient, considering that James 2 perspicuously teaches that faith is made complete by works and that we are not justified by faith alone. This blatant distortion and removal of Scripture raises major red flags for us, as does the veneration given to Martin Luther in protestant groups.

    “But the apostles were inspired, so they were authoritative and right.”

    I agree. And I’m going to assume you agree that the final arbiter of Truth is the Word of God – the Word of God made flesh – the very person of Jesus Himself who said that all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Him.

    From Scripture, it would seem plain that Jesus, who was the final arbiter of truth, breathed on them and thus gave His apostles the authority to bind and loose, forgive sins, the keys of the kingdom, etc… So, do you think Scripture teaches that Jesus provided for a continuing transmission of the Christian faith through the authority He gave to the persons of the apostles?

    Do you think that when the apostles laid hands on men in ordination, that they did so authoritatively?

    The apostles instructed the believers to hold onto the traditions they taught them and their teachings – both oral and written. Do you believe that any of the traditions which they taught and/ or their oral teachings were preserved in any way outside of writing? And if so, by whom?

    As to your question how I can know that I am not twisting Scripture, as you know, has been HUGE for us over the past several years. The conclusion we came to is that there are many Christians who honestly seek after God without any desire to pursue sin who interpret the Bible very differently. Baptism and justification are the big doctrinal issues that have bothered us the most, although there are others. Leaders in the PCA were/ are trying to condemn the Federal Vision pastors as heretics, but as we researched their teachings, we found them to be excellent Biblical scholars who make sense out of Scripture and handle passages which we’d always had a problem fitting into the Calvinistic system (such as about baptism, falling away from salvation, etc). We also found them to be people who honestly seek to live holy lives and bring each aspect of their lives into submission to Christ.

    So are the FV pastors heretics, and if so who has the right to authoritatively declare them as heretics? And do you think that the issues about baptism and justification are non-essential?

    And then even among groups that agree on the essentials, there is significant disagreement on the non-essentials leading to all sorts of little splits and new denominations – all among groups claiming to follow the plain teachings of Scripture. This visible disunity (not just because of Protestantism but also the East/ West schism) distorts the image of God which Christians present to the world. (John 17) I can no longer believe that Jesus, who prayed for His people to be one, would institute an ecclesiastical structure which would demand split after split after split in order to maintain “doctrinal purity.”

    What we came to is that to know we are interpreting Scripture correctly in the essentials is to do so within the boundaries and safety net of the Church, which is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15). Humility means not trying to figure it out on our own, but to stand on the shoulders of holy men and women who have gone before us and to read and interpret Scripture within the bounds that have been set for us. Doctrinal definitions have developed over time as doctrines have been challenged, thus providing more clarified parameters as to what is and is not orthodox. Not everyone within the church agrees on every jot and tittle – there is plenty of room for personal interpretation and convictions about non-essentials. The safety net of orthodoxy is found in being subordinate to the living teaching authority of Christ’s Church, and the safety net of orthopraxy is found in humility and prayer. “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on…” (V2, Divine Revelation, 10)



    • Ash,
      I’m not going to try to reply to everything, because this isn’t the best place for it, it would be super time-consuming, and I’m not sure how to best answer everything. But, a few points:

      “Do you think that there is a principle being taught in Acts 8:29-31 as to making sense of Scripture? It would seem that at least there are some Scriptures which a person may need assistance to interpret, as they are not sufficiently plain.”

      *No, not really. There are lots of things in Scripture that are hard to understand, and teachers can be a huge help. But the Bible is not unique in that regard. There are lots of hard books and books with hard passages. At the least, those verses are far from proving what you want to prove. I don’t see how this affects my point.

      “With that said, we have yet to find someone to satisfactorily explain how Martin Luther did not dangerously twist Scripture to teach a potentially antinomian gospel. He mistranslated Romans 3:28 to say that we are justified by faith alone, when it does not include the word “alone.”

      *There probably isn’t a satisfactory explanation because there is no justification for him changing the text there. But Paul was accused of Antinomianism as well, which he didn’t actually teach any more than Martin Luther did.

      “He desired to remove James (and Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation) from the NT. This seems rather convenient, considering that James 2 perspicuously teaches that faith is made complete by works and that we are not justified by faith alone. This blatant distortion and removal of Scripture raises major red flags for us, as does the veneration given to Martin Luther in protestant groups.”

      *Well again, he was wrong. The vast majority of the other Reformers and the Protestant church as a whole has rejected that move, so I don’t see the point in singling him out. Martin Luther was a spark for the en masse political aspects of the Reformation, but he had plenty of precursors and plenty of contemporaries who independently came to more or less the same conclusions as him, without changing the text or getting rid of books.

      In general, here are some quotes from Bavinck that I hope will give you a better idea of my perspective even if all the questions aren’t addressed specifically:

      “The Reformation preferred a measure of uncertainty to a certainty that can only be obtained by an arbitrary decision of the church. For, in fact, Scripture never offers a list of the books it contains. In the most ancient Christian church, and later as well, there was disagreement about some books. Now does the text of Scripture have the integrity that also Lutheran and Reformed theologians yearned for. The Reformation, nevertheless, maintained the self-attested trustworthiness of Scripture over against the claims of Rome, declared the church to be subordinate to the word of God, and so rescued the freedom of Christians . . .

      “Naturally, as long as the apostles were alive and visited the churches, no distinction was made between their spoken and written word. Tradition and Scripture were still united. But when the first period was past and the time-distance from the apostles grew greater, their writings became more important, and the necessity of these writings gradually intensified. The necessity of Holy Scripture, in fact, is not a stable but an ever increasing attribute…

      “[The teaching of the perspicuity of Scripture] brings with it its own serious perils. Protestantism has been hopelessly [I wouldn’t use that word] divided by it, and individualism has developed at the expense of the community. The freedom to read and examine Scripture has been and is being grossly abused by all sorts of groups and schools of thought. On balance, however, the disadvantages do not outweigh the advantages. For the denial of the clarity of Scripture carries with it subjection of the layperson to the priest, of a person’s conscience to the church. The freedom of religion and the human conscience, of the church and theology, stands or falls with the perspicuity of Scripture. It alone is able to maintain the freedom of the Christian; it is the origin and guarantee of religious liberty as well as our political freedoms . . . In any case, Protestantism with its division is preferable to the frightful superstition in which the people are increasingly becoming entangled in the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church. Mariolatry, the veneration of relics, image worship, and adoration of the saints increasingly crowd out the worship of the one true God.”

      ***I’m not sure what you’re getting at with “authoritative” ordination. Ordination doesn’t guarantee infallibility. I know you admit that when it comes to individuals, so why councils made up of individuals should be incapable of erring I don’t understand. And when it comes to the FV, I guess I’m not convinced that we need the kind of authoritative declaration of heresy that you want, and I would point out that the patriarch of Constantinople once anathematized the bishop of Rome. It would take some convincing to show that the binding and loosing authority given to the apostles corresponds in a one-to-one kind of way with their supposed successors, especially when those successors have authorized and encouraged all kinds of superstition and idolatry. And anyway, many of the Reformers were lawfully ordained before being excommunicated for opposing those idolatries. I’m not at all convinced such excommunications are honored by God. The church has a ministerial authority, but its “before his own master that someone stands or falls,” and a believer bound in conscience to Scripture is free to call out the church. The prophets did it on the basis of the Law, Jesus did it on the basis of the OT, and the Reformers did in on the basis of Scripture.


  6. I also think the divisions of Protestantism are in reality less severe – or severe in a different way – than Catholics think. The most fundamental unity of the church is in its confession of Christ and in love and humility, not in hierarchical structure. If Protestants and Catholics worked together in loving unity as far as they could with integrity on the basis of their confession of Christ, that would be a much more valuable and witness-bearing unity to the world than everyone lining up in front of the Pope. CS Lewis made the comment somewhere that when he was outside the church it looked like much more of a monolithic unity than it did when he was inside it. Obviously, being in the church, you’re going to see all it’s internal cracks. But the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17 is a unity that would witness to the world *outside* the church, so we shouldn’t underestimate what it looks like from outside.


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