Why bother to interpret the Bible? If the Holy Spirit is really the One that guides us into truth, what is the point of a formal process of interpretation? Doesn’t it just get in the way? Why worry about the “original inspired meaning of a passage”? Why not just read and let the Spirit speak to you? These questions are not uncommon—and the perspective they represent has, on the face of it, a good deal of plausibility.
Yet the Holy Spirit is not the only spirit that is speaking. Muslims have lists of ayat (verses) in the Quran that “speak spiritually to them.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have Pinterest boards devoted to Bible quotes that have “spoken to them.” Mormons routinely point to the “burning in their bosom” that they feel as they pray over the book of Mormon—and they urge others to pray also, promising that God will do the same for them. It may seem funny to write off their feelings as heartburn—but if we ourselves have no higher criterion of truth then the joke is on us.
No matter what we say to the contrary, if in practice our primary purpose in reading the Bible is to obtain a particular sort of experience, we have few grounds on which to criticize the externally identical experiences of other religious groups. If we do not give priority to the original inspired intent of the passages that we are reading, we cannot claim with integrity that the truth of Scriptures is what sets our experiences apart. If we allow the most important thing about Scripture to become the way that they make us feel then we have, no matter how unintentionally, become closet relativists.
The Spirit does speak through the pages of Scripture. He uses His Word both to open the minds of the unconverted and illuminate the understanding of believers. The process of understanding the Word is never independent of the Spirit—indeed apart from the work of the Holy Spirit it is impossible to come to a saving knowledge of the truth of Scripture or to make any progress whatsoever in the Christian life. If the work of the Spirit was not so vital it would be unlikely to be so counterfeited—yet the existence of counterfeits demands the use of a touchstone.
The touchstone of the Spirit’s speaking through a particular passage is always the original inspired meaning of that passage, as understood in the light of the original inspired meaning of the entire canon of Scripture. Every text in Scripture was and is a particular message that the Holy Spirit inspired a particular human author to communicate in a particular way to a particular audience for a particular purpose. Scripture was always intended for us but none of it was originally written to us. Authoritative application demands accurate interpretation. What God actually said back then is the only trustworthy test we have over what our feelings tell us He is saying today.
This is by no means to say that if we do not interpret perfectly our spiritual experiences will necessarily be illusory. What it is to say is that no matter how moving our experiences are—and no matter how genuine they may in fact be—they must never be our ultimate standard of truth. The original inspired meaning of the text is the standard against which we must always judge what we feel like it is saying to us now. Without this touchstone we have, regardless of our sincerity, no final protection against deception. We dare not consider it a bother.