A friend recently commented on what he sees as a widely embraced twist in our Christian circles: “We believe in the Trinity . . . of a sort: in the Father, Son, and the Holy Scriptures.”
His wry point invites some reflection. He wasn’t saying that an overt opposition exists in some circles between honoring the Spirit and using the Bible. He was saying, instead, that the Spirit’s ministry is understated in too many settings that make much of the Bible and its authority. In my experience he’s right on target. Over the years many of my Bible college companions and pastoral colleagues have been Bible-strong but Spirit-shy.
Yet consider the connection. The Scriptures’ honor is ultimately due to the Spirit’s handiwork. He offers God’s heart through the Bible as its indirect author and as the defining presence in all its content. His role—as the Spirit of both the Father and the Son—is critical both to the writing and the proper reading of its substance. Through the human writers he offers encouragements, exhortations, exposés, historical narratives, devotions, poems, self-portrayals, and more—so when we read we have, potentially, the thrill of a Spirit to spirit engagement with God himself. This is what we call spiritual illumination—the promise of moving “from glory to glory” offered in 2 Corinthians 3.
Without a keen awareness of the Spirit as both the original author and the abiding presence in the Bible we may treat its writings as opaque resources rather than relational lenses through which we find a living presence awaiting us. Think of the relational difference, for instance, between a conductor reading a train schedule and wife reading a letter from her beloved husband.
Let me press the point: if we separate Bible words from God’s intention to share himself with us our Bible reading and study will soon reduce to an archiving exercise or a mining expedition for religious ideas. Yet the real point of the Bible is to present God and to engender faith. Faith comes by hearing the word so that we begin to trust the God who offers us his spreading goodness in the texts we read.
For readers still puzzled by this distinction let me turn to a tradition of bold Bible reading as an illustration. Years ago—when I was a newly minted high school graduate—I met a retired missionary, Sam, who had a habit of daily Bible reading. For fifty years he read from Genesis to Revelation twice or three times a year—taking about thirty minutes a day for the reading. The benefit was obvious: he knew and enjoyed the Bible like no one I’d ever met before. The Bible inhabited his life: he knew Christ in a very personal way. So, as an impressionable and spiritually hungry youth, I adopted his approach and never turned back.
Here’s what I discovered: in the Bible the Spirit communicates God’s personality to the caring reader. Personality as in what God likes, what he dislikes, what he emphasizes and what he dismisses. He’s frightening at times and winsome at others. He won’t put up with nonsense and doesn’t feel obliged to keep humans happy. Instead he wants us to be fit to dwell with him for ages to come. And by “him” I mean the Father-Son-and-Spirit who is the One God. He also loves to intrigue us with his puzzles and he prefers to whisper rather than to shout. He rewards patience and persistence and turns away from skepticism and arrogance.
Here’s an analogy. This weekend I was in Poland where I met a Pole named Adam who knew my friend, Dan. Dan and I, in 1989, had driven on a round trip to Poland from Fulda, Germany. Let’s just say the trip was an adventure! Adam, with a big smile, asked me about it. We were soon both laughing because we both knew how Dan’s unique personality would play into making the trip lively.
Think, next, of where “personality” comes from. God, himself, is the fount of every good quality of life, creativity, beauty, and intelligence. We were created in his relational image so that our own sense of what constitutes a close bond is only an echo of the Triune original. And he shares his character freely with any who meet him. So much so that I expect that anyone else who knows him will have the same sense of what he always brings into a relationship: his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And anyone who knows him well will be deeply shaped by the impact of this immense personality.
Yet too many Christians have been put off from expecting this in their faith. Part of the reason, I’m sure, is that a false version of the Spirit is at work and he offers a distorted portrayal of God. We know from Paul’s warning in Ephesians 2:1-3 that this alternative spirit is now working in the “sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived” and that he has certainly done as much as he can to blind us to the true Spirit. His personality produces followers who promote sexual immorality, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger—and the list goes on in Galatians 5.
So here is the clearest indication of the true Spirit: he always magnifies the Son and not himself, just as Jesus promised: “he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). And, as we spend time with him, and with the Bible he wrote, we too “will bear witness, because you have been with me” in the Word.
To wrap up, let’s always come to the Bible to meet someone. To meet with God himself by his Spirit who is there awaiting us…