‘The Spirit breathes upon the Word/And brings the truth to sight’, wrote William Cowper in the 18th century. So what is the relationship between the word and the Spirit?
For Paul, the word and the Spirit are inseparable. God’s pneuma is both breath and Spirit. We may trust Scripture because it truly is the word of God, breathed out by the Spirit.
But Paul also affirmed that understanding and receiving the word was possible only through the Spirit. Those of us who spend much of our time reading – newspapers, magazines, reports, books (whether in hard copy or online) – get used to using certain skills and applying particular criteria in order to understand what we read. But, Paul wrote, God’s truth – in whatever form it comes to us – can be understood only through the Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2:10-16).
A story is told of a young man preaching his first sermon, who was dismayed to see his bishop in the congregation. After stumbling through, he said to the bishop, ‘I realise that I didn’t pray enough’. The bishop replied, ‘No, you didn’t prepare enough’. Both were probably true. All the principles of reading and interpreting any written text apply also to our understanding of biblical texts. But we need to be in tune with the Spirit in order to understand and apply the word.
It is also clear, however, that the word of God has intrinsic power. It is ‘alive and active’, according to the writer to the Hebrews. ‘Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (Hebrews 4:12). Perhaps we need to have more faith as we read God’s word, believing that it can indeed, of itself, guide, convict, and teach, correct, rebuke and train in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
Many of us may have had experiences in which the words of the Bible (even – dare I say it? – taken out of context) have spoken to us personally, into our particular circumstances. Indeed, we sometimes hear of people who know nothing of the Bible, who, through the Spirit, ‘hear’ in dreams phrases or verses of scripture that ultimately lead them to Christ.
May we seek always to be careful readers of Scripture and open and alive to the Spirit-breathed word..