This post helps you think about what is meant by Spirit-empowered Bible reading and reflection.

In chapter 13 of What’s So Amazing About Scripture? I speak about reflecting on Scripture until God gives us the gift of insight.

People often raise a question about the claim of “hearing God” through Scriptural meditation. Surely we are meant to find out the ancient meaning and the timeless message then assume we have heard God. In other words the Spirit works objectively and uniformly through each text.

I respectfully disagree. Minds properly engaged, we may nonetheless underplay the Spirit’s role in our reflection on Scripture.

I argue that the Spirit may re-apply a text’s timeless message to us in our situation in a fresh, timeous and even unique way. This is part of what makes it so exciting and helpful to read the Living Word in the presence of the Living God.

The Spirit and the Word in Speech-Act theory

A well-known model for what is called “the speech act theory” divides words that one person says to another into three parts: locution (the actual words spoken), illocution (what the speaker means to say), and perlocution (the effect of the words on the hearer’s understanding, response and actions). For example, if a parent tells a child, “We are leaving in five minutes” (locution) she may mean, “Be ready to climb in the car before then” (illocution) and the effect may be that the child packs her lunch in her bag and climbs in the car (perlocution).

Applying this speech-act model to the relationship of Scripture and the Spirit, we can say that the Spirit inspired the original authors in their locution (the words they chose) and in their illocution (what they were trying to say, the author’s intended meaning). But the Spirit’s work is not done: he is also involved in perlocution, first to the original hearers to whom the words were written but then also to every subsequent hearer for whom the words were written. The Spirit not only breathed upon the writing of Scripture, he continues to breathe upon the effect of Scripture on whoever reads or hears it.

What the Spirit will not do with the Word

Can the Spirit use the same passage to produce different perlocutions in different people, or in the same person at different times?

The first thing to say is that the Spirit will not convey to us something entirely different or contradictory to what he said to the first readers. As Gordon Fee says, “We cannot make a passage mean anything that pleases us and then give the Holy Spirit ‘credit’ for it. The Holy Spirit cannot be brought into the process to contradict himself. A text cannot mean for us what it never meant to them.”[1]  

But, I add this qualifier: the Spirit may re-apply the timeless message to us in our situation in a fresh, timeous and even unique way. This is part of what makes it so exciting and helpful to read the Living Word in the presence of the Living God.

The Spirit may re-apply the Word to each of us

How so? Return for a moment to our earlier speech-act example of a mother saying, “We are leaving in five minutes.” Now imagine she has three children. One of them is already ready and itching to leave, so takes her words as a comfort. The other two pick up urgency and spring to action, but each in a different way: one packing his sporting equipment into his bag, and the other is getting her homework book signed. As you can see, in this example, one locution and illocution leads to many perlocutions.

Since the Spirit knows each of us and each of our specific situations, his perlocution through the same Scripture for each of us at a specific point in time may differ even while the Spirit remains true to the illocution he originally inspired. This is most evident when a group of people studies a passage of Scripture together and come to agree on its intended meaning, but when each person is asked what they believe God is highlighting to them personally through this passage, they each answer something different. One locution and illocution leads to many perlocutions.

Read the Bible prayerfully

This fact of the Spirit’s perlocution provides another reason to read Scripture prayerfully. Prayer is the way we put ourselves “in the Spirit”, connecting ourselves to the same Spirit who originally inspired the words of Scripture. The same Spirit who once illocuted the Scripture as it was written is the one who is busy perlocuting through the Scripture, as we reflect on it. Changing metaphors, prayerful reliance on the Spirit is how we “tune in” to allow the Spirit to affect and effect our understanding, response, and actions as he sees fit. 


[1] How to read the Bible for all its worth, 4th Edition, Zondervan, 2013, Kindle location 531