Christians believe that they have an indwelling of the Holy Spirit who acts as a counselor and guide, enabling them to rightly understand God's word. A term often used to describe this concept is "illumination".

How does the role of the Holy Spirit in understanding the Scriptures interact with hermeneutics as an academic field? How do different approaches to hermeneutics balance the importance of being "spirit led" with the study of fixed texts?

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    There's an interesting thread on this question in chat. Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 23:59
  • Gerhard Maier's Biblical Hermeneutics, published by Crossway, trans. from German by Robert Yarbrough handles this subject excellently. I do not want to start a debate, but this question could have a book written about it. Having read or reviewed very many texts on (Christian) Biblical Hermeneutics, I have to say, check that one out. Commented Apr 5, 2013 at 6:11
  • Worth noting, different Christian sects have very different takes on the idea that "they have an indwelling of the Holy Spirit who acts as a counselor and guide, enabling them to rightly understand God's word." To my understanding this is a Protestant take on sola scriptura -- the Orthodox Church, for example, relies a lot more on traditional interpretations than individual interpretations. (to be clear I am not a member of the Orthodox Church nor am I promoting their traditions, just pointing out the claim in the question is not pan-Christian.)
    – JimLohse
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 13:30
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    @SteveTaylor et all, the question here is not what role should the HS play. Please re-read the last line of this question in light of Good Subjective Bad Subjective. This is supposed to be a question that documents how different hermeneutical approaches vary in their approach to integrating this idea. That's something that can be answered using expertise in this field not primarily a matter of opinion.
    – Caleb
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 7:46
  • 2
    Any interested -- see the most recent Chat thread concerning this Q&A. In it, I've voiced my own opinion that it ought to remain open.
    – Dɑvïd
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 17:02

7 Answers 7


From one Christian perspective:

The Holy Ghost is capable of doing his job without any knowledge you have of hermeneutics. However he does not often do it if you do not have knowledge of his Word.

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. —2 Peter 1:20-21

Who better than the Holy Ghost to guide us in remembering and correlating Scripture?

If you wish to hear God propositionally, then you fill your head with Scripture.

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. —2 Timothy 2:15

Why should he give personal revelation if you haven't listen to the stuff he gave you in the word of truth?

As you have need, God speaks in the still, small voice bringing applicable Scripture to remembrance, and correlating Scripture with scripture until you have a testimony of Christ.

And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall answer, or what ye shall say: For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say. —Luke 12:11-12

But the Comforter, [which is] the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. —John 14:26

And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See [thou do it] not: I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. —Revelation 19:10

Your ability to remember and to correlate are the channels of propositional communication with God. If you have no scripture in your head you can't hear the words of God when you need them.


As I explained here, there are two phases to the interpretation of Scripture:

1) Knowing the text

This is where you learn the literal interpretation via a study of the language, cultural references, etc.

In this phase, you pretty much just need a working brain, good education in history and languages, diligence in your studies, and no weird spiritual stuff hindering you.

I suppose it could be argued that the Holy Spirit plays a role in this phase, providing you with discernment, helping your brain work properly despite your sin, helping you wake up for class when your alarm doesn't go off, etc... but really, if you are born-again and willing to put in the time and effort, I don't think this is a very "spiritual" endeavor; people learn Latin every day without supernatural miraculous revelation.

2) Understanding the purpose behind God's decision to include a particular passage in Scripture

This is where you "get it" and finally understand what God is "trying to tell mankind" through a particular passage.

I would argue that this phase is 100% Holy Spirit-driven.

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    So what would you say if you felt that the Holy Spirit had revealed to you why God chose to include a phrase in scripture, but then discovered that an early Church father who was also inspired by the same Spirit had come to a different conclusion?
    – Dan
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 19:58
  • @DanO'Day First, "early Church father" =/= "infallible superhero of the faith". I value their counsel, but I don't necessarily view them as more Saintly or as having more insight. Many times they do, but not always. With that out of the way, I am not advocating an open-ended free allegory in Phase 2; I'm simply saying that in order to understand a parable, you need the person who spoke it to explain it to you. In order to understand Moses, you need the veil lifted. In order to understand a passage of Scripture, you need the Spirit to open your eyes to it. (And counsel should be part of it.)
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 21:22
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    I hope you realize that I am often playing devil's advocate. I +1'd your response ;)
    – Dan
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 1:15
  • @DanO'Day Yeah, I figured... :p It is an excellent question though, and one that needs significant attention.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 3:47

According to Scripture:

2 Timothy 3:16

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness . . . "

and 2 Peter 1:20-21

. . . no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.

When one wants to know the intended meaning of something in a book and the author is available, one first inquires of the author.

If we want to interpret Scripture correctly we must know Him.

Jesus the Holy Spirit would guide his followers into all truth and that He is the Spirit of truth. He then prayed that the Father would sanctify them/ set them apart by His truth:

John 14:17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.

John 15:26 "But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.

John 16:13 However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.

John 17:17 Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.

1 John 4:6 We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

As the author of Scripture, The Holy Spirit's role in hermeneutics is:

  • speaking on the Father's authority
  • interpreting Scripture
  • guiding us into truth

Hermeneutics can certainly provide context toward understanding a particular passage, but only in an objective way. Some of the context required for understanding the truth is not accessible without obedience, a transformation of the subject (the disciple).

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    A relevant passage to back up fumanchu's comment is 1 Corinthians 2:6-14. Highlights include these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.; ...no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God; Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God; And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual; ...and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned
    – Jed
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 19:50
  • Also note John 8:32 where "and the truth will set you free" is preceded by "if you hold to my teaching, ...*then* you will know the truth."
    – fumanchu
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 23:46

There is an ontological relationship between Spirit and the Word of Elohim, which is that the dynamic Spirit of God causes the Word to be spoken:

Gen. 1:2b

"and the Spirit of Elohim hovered upon the waters. And Elohim said, let be..."

This shows cause and effect: the Spirit of God (cause) itself speaks the Word (effect).

John 6:63b

The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.

2 Sam. 23:2 The Spirit of Yehovah spake by me, and his word was in my tongue.

The words that are recorded in the Law and Prophets and Gospels are Spirit-breathed, yet accessible to you and I. The writing on the page, however, is not always perfectly clear to us, if we are not willing and inspired to seek out its truth using our mental faculties. The word on the page functions as an impression of the Spirit of Truth. It is a unique spiritual message to all. Approaching it with the wrong spirit/intent foreign to its author's nature produces an inevitable misunderstanding of its true meaning. This is not to say that its true meaning is secret or hidden, but is that of such simplicity as nature itself is, and yet will be passed over by those seeking an unnatural or unethical meaning, which is not how the Word was intended to be understood.

It is a fact that God uses a language WE can understand to communicate with us. We don't have to even believe or be filled with the holy spirit for him to accomplish this and to speak to us from his word. However, if we are to reach the true essence of the Word-the testimony of Messiah himself-we must learn from the Father through his word.

Rev. 19:10b: "Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is [of] the spirit of prophecy."

The Spirit of prophecy tells us that Jesus is the Messiah. It is this Spirit that shows us that the prophecies of the Old Testament are pointing to Jesus.


I can only answer this question under a Christian perspective.

The bible does not treat itself as literature which can be understood properly through human means. David prayed 'Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law (Psalm 118:19, ESV). Paul also prayed the same thing for the Ephesians that they would have 'the eyes of their hearts enlightened (Ephesians 1:18). It is here that we have a means of knowing God and the scriptures which rise high above all and every form of hermeneutics or exegetical discipline. The Holy Spirit alone brings an illuminating power to the mind, 'opening our eyes' through the preaching of the gospel:

to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26:18).

In performing this ministry Paul did not use wise and persuasive words but "in demonstration of the Spirit and of power", so that their faith "might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." (2 Cor 2:3-5)

What these and many other references suggest is that our natural minds are as blind eyes when reading and studying the scriptures, no matter our hermeneutic or exegetical training. No matter our knowledge, no matter our title, this is our natural state as men 'born in sin' and 'blind to God.' We literally do not have power to see and even the most renown bible scholar can see no more than a child, without a special illumination of the mind by the Spirit.

As we pause to appreciate how central this makes the Holy Spirit to understanding the Bible, the Holy Spirit must take a very important role in our hermeneutic. Without him we have no hermeneutic which might enable us to understand scripture.

But what does this mean in terms of hermeneutics? It means most of our misunderstanding is due to a hardness of heart, not a literary technical fault. Yes, an adult can understand the Bible in some ways more than a child from a natural standpoint, but the Spirit can reveal to a child things hidden from adults. Therefore, we must pray for knowledge and be obedient to the gospel, if we ever expect to have both a natural hermeneutic and its spiritual counterpart -- a strong annointing of the Holy Spirit. For who alone knows the mind if God and who alone can reveal his thoughts to us:

For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:11-13, ESV)

While we use a natural hermeneutic common to all men to understand words, we use repentance, faith and reliance on the Spirit in prayer, to understand the real thoughts which the letter expresses the mere form of in scripture. The two realms are distinct but not separate. Just as the mind and emotions are different but never without an influence one upon one another, so a spiritual and natural hermeneutic work together to understand God. A sinner uses a wicked heart to misunderstand him. To imagine that truth can objectively be collected, synthesized and communicated -- without emotional, moral and spiritual dependent laws determining the results -- is the fiction of modern day scientific philosophy and has little bearing to the truth as evidenced by our own conscience.

A hermeneutic is essentially nothing more than a bias. Even if that bias be a desire for objectivity, it is a bias at what we believe to be objective. The human heart is also under a bent bias, overruling all technical skill. By defining what our hermeneutic is, it will help enable us to more consistently apply our bias as we feel we should but this only helps us drive into further understanding or further blindness depending on the state of our heart. Everyone has a hermeneutic that will protect and guide our heart's desire. This 'bias' may, or may not, help us understand the scripture depending on how valid the hermeneutic is to begin with. For me, the only objective truthful hermeneutic is to know that all scripture has meaning only in terms of how it relates to Christ.

The scripture recognizes two types of doctrine: carnal thinking and spiritual thinking. Carnal thinking is thinking according to human nature and spiritual thinking is with the new eyes we have by a new birth through faith in Christ - eyes resulting from the work of the Spirit. In this new life we also obtain a body of knowledge. Christ and the doctrine concerning him is the head of this knowledge. Paul explicitly describes carnal thoughts as 'not holding fast to the Head' (Col 2:19). As this Head and the righteousness imputed to us by faith in him pertains to our acceptance before God, it must central to having correct thoughts. If our thoughts break away from this central truth found in the gospel then our hermeneutic is helping our thoughts break away from the head, rather than hold fast to it. Paul, therefore puts a proper hermeneutic in place by insisting all true thoughts lead to Christ. He makes his hermeneutic clear by refusing to boast in anything except Christ and forbids any boasting in anything else, including our own knowledge, hermeneutics, exegetical skills, titles, etc.

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14, NIV)

But how is it that we are able to see Christ as the only thing worth boasting in and the head of all true thoughts, or biblical understanding of God? Only by the Holy Spirit can we have this knowledge and although every believer has the Spirit to illuminate their mind, and that this 'anointing is true' and 'will guide us into all truth' (John 16:13, 1 John 2:26-27) yet we must actively rely upon the Spirit to illuminate our minds also. If our own participation in the Spirit was not required, then Paul would not pray that the Ephesians would have their 'eyes enlightened' and our knowledge would not be so interconnected with our own obedience, keeping in step with the Spirit and not gratifying the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16). For true knowledge and wisdom comes from submitting to God's word as a person, not as mere literature.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17, ESV)

Therefore as our moral and spiritual state is linearly dependent on our knowledge, if we live a life of sin we do not know scripture. Our eyes can lose the sight we have once obtained and like Samson we can become blinded through sin.

In summary, the Holy Spirit and obedience to Christ, is central to a hermeneutic that is true. All other hermeneutics only drive a wedge deeper between a sinner and God, making the sinner more ignorant and blind then if they had never learned to read at all.


1. Question Restatement:

What role does the Holy Spirit play in hermeneutics?

This answer presupposes that a "Hermeneutic" answer, drawn from Scripture, is what is being sought after.

2. Hermeneutic Roles of the Spirit—from the Bible…

Hermeneutics is the mindful examination of Scripture used to confirm the word purported to be of the Spirit:

NASB, Acts 17:11 - Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.

Hermeneutics can be a severe stumbling block - without the Spirit :

NASB, Isaiah 28:9-13 - “To whom would He teach knowledge, And to whom would He interpret the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just taken from the breast? 10 “For He says, ‘Order on order, order on order, Line on line, line on line, A little here, a little there.’” 11 Indeed, He will speak to this people Through stammering lips and a foreign tongue, ... 13 So the word of the Lord to them will be, “Order on order, order on order, Line on line, line on line, A little here, a little there,” That they may go and stumble backward, be broken, snared and taken captive.

Hermeneutics does not replace the Spirit for finding intimacy with God :

NASB, Isaiah 29:13 - Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote ..
Note: By definition, "Biblical Cannon" Is "tradition learned by rote". For example: By tradition, The Bible is considered divinely preserved, (as well as authored). Many of the fundamental presuppositions in hermeneutics, are also traditions, (Like authorship, when written, Greek, Aramaic, Markan primacy, etc.).

Hermeneutics is, at best, place-holder for the Spirit, for revelation of God's will :

Jeremiah 31:33 - But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

Note: This is also asserting an analogy between modern hermeneutical pursuits and the mentality of examining the "Law" - which is supposed to have caused the religious academics of Israel, to stumble, (Galatians 3:24-25).

The Spirit, not Hermeneutics, cannot reveal or impart life:

NASB, John 5:39 - You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; 40 and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.

The Spirit, not Hermeneutics, is the guide for understanding "all truth":

NASB, John 16:13 - But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.

Hermeneutics is superseded by Divine Affirmation/Confirmation:

NASB, Acts 10:13 - A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” 15 Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.”

Hermeneutics is Foolishness, without the Spirit :

NASB, Romans 1:21-22 - For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools,

Hermeneutics Cannot Establish Faith - apart from the Spirit :

NASB, 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 - And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.

Hermeneutics is not a substitute for the Spirit when interpreting prophecy:

NASB, 1 Peter 1:20-21 - But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

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