Spirit and Tradition—Orthodox Interpretation
For a brief appreciation of Orthodox pneumatological hermeneutics, we will draw on two Orthodox writers, Anton Ugolnik and John Breck. In the tension between focus on the individual and the community, Ugolnik maintains that Western hermeneutics falls on the side of the singular interpreting self. The Orthodox, on the other hand, see tradition and interdependence as a source of meaning in the Gospel. Ugolnik proposes a dialogic “socially constituted” hermeneutic, for the Orthodox hermeneutic is “not a private quest constituted in critical response, but a communal search for meaning, expressed anthropologically in socially organized prayer.” Consequently, “The text loses all autonomy. The self-sufficient ‘reader’ is no more. Our vision of the gospel centers it literally and figuratively amidst the people to whom the Word is addressed and among whom, in their common assent, the Word is reconstituted.” Ugolnik says that the Orthodox come to an understanding of the Word in the sobornost ‘being-together’.
Our hermeneutic is a triumph over the fundamental solitude of each human being. Our Orthodoxy calls upon us to reject radical individualism and its implications. Together we reconstitute among ourselves in every age, in any cultural medium, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Because the Orthodox hermeneutic is generated in community, it stands over against individualism. Although private reading of the Bible is important devotionally, meaning is forged in the communal and liturgical environment.
The axioms are threefold: that our act of interpretation is not private but social in nature, that our response to the gospel is a collective act of assent, and that the environment for its dissemination is oral and public rather than private and written.
Other writers confirm the Orthodox view of hermeneutics as communal and pneumatological. John Breck says that “the object of the biblical witness is actualized … only by God himself, acting within the eucharistic community through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The hermeneutic bridge between the biblical event and its actualization in the Church, then, is neither the preached Word nor the ecclesial institution—it is the person of the divine Spirit.” Therefore interpreters work, “not as a personal exercise undertaken on their own authority, but under the continuing guidance of the Spirit within the ecclesial community.” “To recover the proper doctrinal and doxological dimensions of scripture,” Breck says, “the exegete himself must participate in the process of divine revelation. … Exegesis, as an integral part of the Church’s theological activity, is a theandric process, a divine-human enterprise based upon synergy or cooperation between the divine Spirit and the human interpreter.” This can happen only within the liturgical, sacramental community of the Church.
The Orthodox hermeneutic also sees the Holy Spirit at work through the traditions, especially the liturgy; the Spirit constantly brings to life the memory implicit in tradition. Thus, Georges Florovsky wrote,
Tradition is the witness of the Spirit; the Spirit’s unceasing revelation and preaching of good things … To accept and understand Tradition we must live within the Church, we must be conscious of the grace-giving presence of the Lord in it; we must feel the breath of the Holy [Spirit] in it … Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words.
Particularly in the West, tradition and the Spirit’s work in making God known are often seen to be opposites. David Brown shows that, “tradition, so far from being something secondary or reactionary, is the motor that sustains revelation both within Scripture and beyond.” “Christians,” he says, “must disabuse themselves of the habit of contrasting biblical revelation and later tradition, and instead see the hand of God in a continuing process that encompasses both.”
Spirit and Authority—Catholic Interpretation
Particularly since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has strongly affirmed the role of the Spirit in guiding the individual believer and the Church in understanding of the Scriptures. Contemporary Catholic teaching on the Holy Spirit and interpretation of Scripture is founded on the Vatican II dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum and the 1983 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which say that, as the Biblical text was both human work and the work of the Spirit, its interpretation requires human work that is, “attentive above all to what God wants to reveal through the sacred authors for our salvation.” Further, “What comes from the Spirit is not fully ‘understood except by the Spirit’s action.'” “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written.” The Spirit indwelling the letter of the sacred text provides a grace to the whole Church, not a select few.
Catholic theologians have sought to recover the hermeneutic role of the Holy Spirit. Thus Henri Cazelles proposes a hermeneutic that centres upon the interpretive work of the Spirit within the liturgical-sacramental community of the Church. “Scripture presents itself less as a Word of God than as the witness to a new, lifegiving gift of God, a creative power. … Catholic hermeneutics will perceive [in the Bible] a historical witness to human life ‘in the Spirit,’ what we call ‘grace.'”
James Buckley writes of the “classic claim” that the biblical texts are themselves ‘the body of Christ’, and therefore filled by the Spirit of Pentecost.
These texts are not wthe isolated Word of God but the Word spoken to and by a eucharistic community, empowered by the Spirit. Scripture and Eucharist and church, we might even say, are different aspects of the same thing in the sense that these texts are bound to eucharistic and ecclesial contexts.
Anton Minto concludes an essay on Charismatic renewal and Catholic interpretation by saying that “… when all is said and done, the heart of exegesis belongs to the movement of God through Christ by the Holy Spirit in the lives of everyday people of faith.” A correct hermeneutic and many other things are necessary, but the renewal of biblical studies depends ultimately on “God’s own work.”
The Pontifical Biblical Commission has strongly affirmed the interpretive role of the Spirit in the church, but insists that, “church authority, exercised as a service of the community, must see to it that this interpretation remains faithful to the great tradition which has produced the texts.” This stricture effectively limits the role of the Spirit to an illumination of accepted teaching, to the individual or to congregations. This consciously recalls Augustine’s affirmation that right interpretation and application of the scripture occurs only within the church and his declaration, “I would not believe the gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not permit me.”
Despite this assertion of authority, Catholic teaching submits itself to the Spirit as the supreme teacher and interpreter. Reason alone, the Commission says, “cannot fully comprehend” the biblical account. “Particular presuppositions, such as the faith lived in ecclesial community and the light of the Spirit, control its interpretation.” Further, “The church, as the people of God, is aware that it is helped by the Holy Spirit in its understanding and interpretation of Scripture. … “The Spirit is, assuredly, also given to individual Christians, so that their hearts can “burn within them” (Lk. 24:32) as they pray and prayerfully study the Scripture within the context of their own personal lives.” That said, the Commission is unable to resist an assertion of final authority.
“This kind of reading … noted, is never completely private, for the believer always reads and interprets Scripture within the faith of the church and then brings back to the community the fruit of that reading for the enrichment of the common faith. … [I]n the last resort it is the magisterium which has the responsibility of guaranteeing the authenticity of interpretation.”
Seeking common ground for a Catholic/Evangelical consensus hermeneutics, Ted Doorman draws on a study of Oscar Cullmann  to affirm that the Spirit did not stop speaking to the Church after the death of the last apostle and that we must recognize the implications of the Spirit’s interpretive work. In Cullmann’s view, the content of Scripture, analysed by best scholarly methods, is normative, contra, for example, the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church or other purported ecclesial authority. The Holy Spirit was uniquely present in Jesus Christ; the apostolic witness is therefore an objective, normative, revelation accessible through exegetical analysis. Cullmann goes so far as to say that, “The Holy Spirit interprets Scripture, but is at the same time controlled by it.” Doorman says that such a hermeneutic recognizes the ongoing hidden work of the Spirit in redemptive history, manifesting itself in various ways through the historical Christian tradition. The Spirit has given the church valuable (though not infallible) insights into the Scriptures—the formulation of the doctrines of the Trinity and the hypostatic union being particular examples in history.
The Spirit in the Foreground—The Pentecostal Example
There are significant hermeneutical differences within the Pentecostal tradition and no single ‘Pentecostal hermeneutic’. Rather there is a conversation, as Pentecostal and charismatic thinkers seek to understand and describe their interpretive encounter with the free Spirit.
James Smith writes of Pentecostal practice that it has an implicit epistemology that “privileges an affective mode of knowing”, that is more “more literary than logical”, and “more like a dance than a deduction.” Pastor and scholar Clayton Coombs writes as “a Pentecostal believer attempting to articulate a ‘hermeneutic of the Spirit'” and says that, “radical openness to God means that I must acknowledge the Spirit’s lordship over the text that he inspired and over the interpretive process.” Any methodology that limits the scope of the Spirit’s use of the text must be resisted. Coombs says that, “understanding God’s word is more of an art than a science. A hermeneutic of the Spirit, then, is a hermeneutic of intimacy rather than one of mastery.” Sound exegetical practice and intuitive spiritual reading are required.
Pentecostal scholars have sought to show that dynamic, ecstatic, encounter with the Spirit complements, not compromises, the interpretation of Scripture. Thus John Levison sees a symbiosis between ecstasy and comprehension as integral to experiences of the Holy Spirit narrated in the Book of Acts. The Pentecost narrative in Acts 2, for example, is a “combination of ecstasy and restraint”. This is echoed in Michael Welker’s suggestion that the miracle of Pentecost “lies not in what is difficult to understand or incomprehensible, but in a totally unexpected comprehensibility and in an unbelievable, universal capacity to understand.” “[T]his is what is truly shocking about the Pentecostal event . . . [It] connects intense experiences of individuality with a new experience of community.”
Life in community is important to an outworking of Spirit-led Scriptural interpretation. John Thomas says that, “the emphasis upon our corporate life together and the appreciation for the spiritual and scriptural phenomenon of unity and diversity within the body rather naturally call for an extremely tight interplay to exist between the ethos of the tradition and the work of those called to be hermeneutes …”. One way to “learn to hear in community”, Thomas, says, is “through participation in pneumatic discernment in the formation of self and others,” in which the sharing of personal testimony is particularly valuable. Through sharing personal testimonies, “one becomes more and more experienced at discerning the way in which the story offered in the testimony, the biblical text, and the Christian story intersect.” Thomas goes on to elaborate a fairly detailed and careful process by which to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church through the Scriptures, following which he asserts that, “the role of the Spirit in the interpretive process cannot be reduced to rather vague claims about illumination, for the Spirit’s role is concrete and discernible throughout the entire process … the Spirit is present at almost every turn.”
Paul Ricoeur’s post critical method has been suggested as an attractive resource for Pentecostal hermeneutics. Ricoeur has shown that objectivity and subjectivity need not be considered as opposites. He challenges readers to acknowledge that they project their own interests, desires, and selfhood into a text. Ricoeur says that readers typically change over time from a naïve and intuitive approach to a more self-critical balance of the creative and the analytical. Ricoeur’s approach combines historical analysis of the text with respect for differences in interpretation. It allows a diversity of meanings between differing communities and recognises the creative effect of symbols, metaphors and narratives on the religious imagination and thoughts. This allows a claim that the Holy Spirit reveals deeper, culturally and locally relevant meanings of the text.
Anthony Thistleton finds that Pentecostal concerns about the readers’ experience find parallels with secular reader-response theory. He argues that in a “careful and cautious form … this can facilitate genuine engagement with the text.” Thiselton cites Wolfgang Isler, who says that biblical texts are deliberately ambivalent, inviting the readers to place themselves into different roles within the textual setting. Thiselton is wary, however, of approaches in which “the rights of the text can become unduly compromised in favour of prior attitudes held by the reader.” Similarly, Thiselton finds that some Pentecostals are insufficiently careful in their appeal to postmodern hermeneutics, which, leads to a “fragmentation and pluralism” that “undermines the very identity of Pentecostalism and the Renewal Movement.”
Pentecostal writer Sam Hey counters that, “Pentecostalism claims to provide answers to the overconfidence of modernity and to the uncertainty of post modernity,” for it “claims that a truth can be found in an easily comprehended, single source of revelation in the Bible. It is open to guidance by a contemporary interpreter in the Holy Spirit.” The emerging hermeneutics of Pentecostalism, Hey says, seek “to invite the same Holy Spirit who inspired both Scripture and scholarship to interpret the text anew into contemporary contexts and needs.”
On the other hand again, Clark Kinnock  and Daniel P. Fuller  each rely on a distinction between “meaning” and “significance” articulated by E. D. Hirsch and others  to say that that the role of the Spirit in Biblical interpretation is not to impart new information beyond the grammatical-historical data but simply to help the reader to accept the Scripture’s message. Although the Holy Spirit may interpret Scripture for the reader apart from historical-critical investigation, the resulting interpretations are still subject to the control of the historical-critical method.
Amid the considerable diversity of hermeneutic theories and methods, Pentecostal scholar Amos Yong proposes a ‘consensual’ hermeneutical and theological method. His work is helpful in the context of this essay as it exemplifies the possibility of a developed consensual hermeneutic that is pneumatological, ecclesial and Trinitarian.
Yong’s proposal is not readily summarised in a couple of paragraphs. In a 7,000 word article  he outlines ideas argued at length in a substantial book. Yong’s thesis is that to hear what the Spirit is saying, Christian theology occurs in a continuous hermeneutical trialectic of Spirit, Word and Community. Theological reflection starts with movement and experience of the Spirit. It is formed by the Word, the interpreted object in context, and adjudicated by the community in its interpretive situation.
Yong’s is a pneumatological theology that illuminates the hermeneutical process by showing how the Holy Spirit engages the human imagination to empower liberative praxis. In a full-length review essay, William Oliverio assesses Yong’s work as “the most significant work on theological hermeneutics to date by a Pentecostal theologian,” and “as helpfully urging Pentecostal theology toward a ‘hermeneutical realism’.”
For Yong, the key to the hermeneutical role of the Spirit is that “Not only does the Spirit glorify and declare the Son, but the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus and the Spirit of Christ. … More than that, however, [is] the recognition that the Spirit of Jesus Christ is also the Spirit of God. Rather than denying the role of pneumatology in hermeneutics, however, “the Spirit’s identity as the Spirit of the Son and the Spirit of the Father means that an authentic pneumatology requires an equally vigorous Christology and patrology—in short, a robustly and perichoretically Trinitarian theology.”
This essay began by reviewing some of the Biblical evidence that the Holy Spirit is actively engaged in assisting followers of Jesus Christ to recall and understand Jesus’ words and to interpret (and reinterpret) Biblical texts. We observed that some see the Holy Spirit as self-effacing, working through human thought and traditions and we have noted other perspectives that attribute more directly discernable interpretive activity to the Spirit.
Most theologians and church traditions alike agree that the fruits of interpretation can and usually should be moderated ecclesially (which does not exclude discussion within the academy!). There is considerable diversity, however, as to how this should and might occur. We took the Orthodox, Catholic and Pentecostal approaches as examples.
My conclusion is that none of the established approaches to pneumatological hermeneutics should necessarily dominate. Rather, I would opt for something of an ‘all of the above’, reflecting perhaps the Spirit’s own great diversity of action. To do otherwise would seem to attempt to constrain the Spirit of freedom, who cannot be constrained by human will. In some situations a frank exercise of interpretive authority may be wise. Traditional interpretations can be a rich voice testifying of the continuing guidance of Word and Spirit in community. The dynamic experience of Pentecostal interpretation and fellowship challenges us to trust in the work of living, speaking, God.
Throughout Biblical history and since, the Spirit of God has called individuals to hear the Spirit’s voice and to interpret and proclaim the Truth afresh. The Spirit interprets God to us ‘spirit to spirit’. Yet we have seen in this essay that the interpretive work of the Holy Spirit—pneumatological hermeneutics—is above all the living experience of the community of faith.
- Anton Ugolonik, “An Orthodox Hermeneutic in the West,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 27, no 2 (1983): 93-118.
- John Breck, “Exegesis and Interpretation: Orthodox Reflections on the ‘Hermeneutic Problem’,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 27, no. 2 (1983): 75-95.
- Ugolnik, “An Orthodox Hermeneutic”, 102-3.
- Ugolnik, “An Orthodox Hermeneutic”, 107.
- Ugolnik, “An Orthodox Hermeneutic”, 107.
- Ugolnik, “An Orthodox Hermeneutic”, 117-118.
- Ugolnik, “An Orthodox Hermeneutic”, 108-9.
- Breck, “Exegesis and Interpretation,” 84. (Emphasis orginal.)
- Breck, “Exegesis and Interpretation,” 90.
- Breck, “Exegesis and Interpretation,” 91.
- Georges Florovsky, “Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church,” in The Church of God: An Anglo-Russian Symposium by the Members of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, edited by E.L. Mascall, 51-74 (London: SPCK, 1934), 64-65.
- David Brown, Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1.
- Vatican II Council. Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. (Hereafter DV) Promulgated 18 November 1965. See http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Hereafter, CCC) (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993), http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM. See patricularly Part 1, section 1, article 3, ‘Sacred Scripture’.
- CCC, §137.
- CCC, §137, quoting DV, §1.
- DV, §12.3 as cited in and clarified by CCC, Part 1, Sect. 1, Ch. 2, Art. 3.III, §109, 111.
- DV, §8.
- Henri Cazelles, La nouvelle hermenéneutique biblique (Brussels: Paleis der Academiën, 1969), 10f.
- Buckley’s footnote: “On the patristic view of scripture as body of Christ, see the literature cited in Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. I: Seeing the Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 527-56. In medieval theology, see Henri du Lubac, Corpus Mysticum: L’eucharistie et l’église au moyen-age (Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1949).”
- James J. Buckley, “Beyond the Hermeneutical Deadlock,” in Theology after Liberalism: a reader, edited by John Webster and George P. Schner (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 198-9.
- Minto, “The Charismatic Renewal,” 270-1.
- Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, edited by J. L. Houlden (London: SCM Press, 1995), 28.
- “Ego vero Evangelio non crederem, nisi me catholicae Ecclesiae commoveret auctoritas.” Contra epistolam Manichaei quam vocant fundamenti liber unus, 5:6.
- Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible,” 54.
- Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible,” 65.
- Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible,” 70 (Emphasis orginal).
- Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible,” 70, 72.
- Ted M. Doorman, “Holy Spirit, History, Hermeneutics and Theology: Toward an Evangelical/Catholic Consensus,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41, no. 3 (1998): 427-438, relying on Ted M. Doorman, The Hermeneutics of Oscar Cullmann (San Francisco: Mellen Research University, 1991).
- Oscar Cullmann, The Early Church: Studies in Early Christian History and Theology, edited by A. J. B. Higgins. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), 20.
- Doorman, “Holy Spirit, History …,” 430.
- The origins of Penetcostal hermeneutics are discussed by: L. William Oliviero, Jr., Theological Hermeneutics in the Classical Pentecostal Tradition: A Typological Account. (Leiden: Brill, 2012).
- James K. A. Smith, “Thinking in Tongues,” First Things 82 (April 2008): 27-31.
- Clayton Coombs, “Reading in Tongues: The Case for a Pneumatological Hermeneutic in Conversation with James K. Smith,” Pneuma 32 (2010) 261-268.
- John R. Levison, Filled with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), particularly chapter 3, “Filled with the Spirit and the Book of Acts,” 217-365.
- John R. Levison, “Recommendations for the Future of Pneumatology,” Pneuma 33 (2011): 91.
- Welker, God the Spirit, 230-1.
- Welker, God the Spirit, 233.
- John Christopher Thomas, “‘What is the Spirit Saying to the Church: The Testimony of a Pentecostal in New Testament Studies,” in Spawn and Wright, Spirit and Scripture, 115-129 (116).
- Thomas, “‘What is the Spirit Saying to the Church'”, 117-8.
- Thomas, “‘What is the Spirit Saying to the Church'”, 128-9.
- See: J. Byrd, “Paul Ricoeur’s Hermeneutical Theory and Pentecostal Proclamation,” Pneuma 15, no. 2: (1993): 203-215.
- See: Thiselton, New Horizons, 472.
- T. B. Cargal, “Beyond the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy: Pentecostals and Hermeneutics in a Postmodern Age.” Pneuma 15, no 2 (1993), 174.
- Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 58-79, 516-57. Thisleton gives the work of Wolfgang Iser as an example.
- Thiselton, New Horizons, 517, citing Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978).
- Thiselton, The Holy Spirit,” 96-7.
- Thiselton, The Holy Spirit, 96-7.
- Sam Hey, “Contemporary Developments in Pentecostal Hermeneutics,” Pentecostal Charismatic Bible Colleges 5, no. 2 (August 2001) (online) http://webjournals.ac.edu.au/journals/PCBC/vol5-no2/contemporary-developments-in-pentecostal-hermeneut/.
- Sam Hey, “Contemporary Developments …”.
- Charles H. Pinnock, “The Role of the Spirit in Interpretation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36, no. 4 (1993): 491-497.
- D. P. Fuller, “The Holy Spirit’s Role in Biblical Interpretation”, in Scripture, Tradition and Interpretation, edited by W. W. Gasque (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 189–198.
- E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 121–122; E. D. Hirsch, The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1976), 1–13.
- Amos Yong, “The Hermeneutical Trialectic: Notes Toward a Consensual Hermeneutic and Theological Method,” Heythrop Journal 45, no. 1 (2004): 22-39.
- Amos Yong, Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective (Burlington, Ashgate Publishing, 2002).
- Yong, “The Hermeneutical Trialectic …,” 34-5.
- L. William Oliverio, Jr., “An Interpretive Review Essay on Amos Yong’s Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 18, no. 2 (2009): 301.
- Yong, “The Hermeneutical Trialectic …,” 25-6.
- Yong, “The Hermeneutical Trialectic …,” 26.