The Spirit of the Letter: The Role of the Holy Spirit and Human Humility in Biblical Interpretation

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what should happen when Christians agree on the concept of sola scriptura and yet disagree on the meaning of a biblical text. Navigating disagreement in biblical interpretations is the main driver of much of my past academic work. Here I am bringing together some work I have done on the hermeneutics of August Hermann Franke and how it applies to the conduct of intra-Christian dialogues when we disagree.

The Holy Spirit inspired the writing of the Scriptures. Do we need the Holy Spirit to understand the Scriptures? It is an interesting question. If you are a Christian, you probably want to answer yes. I am inclined to believe that the Spirit accompanies all reading of the Scriptures whether we are attuned to it or not. Therefore, the Spirit always comes first. However, does that mean we will ever come to a perfect spiritual understanding of the text? This is where we need to be careful. We need to appreciate the human aspects of interpretation even though the Spirit is always involved. The human aspect of biblical interpretation should lead to humility. Our confidence in the Spirit’s involvement while reading the Bible should be couched with humility and always ready for meaningful dialogue with other Christians who might disagree. With humility at the forefront of our minds, we can ask the question again. What does the Holy Spirit have to do with biblical interpretation? To look at some potential answers to the question (and some dangers), it is helpful to look at the work of August Hermann Franke. Franke was an early German Church Pietist whose work coincides with a period of growing literacy and Bible availability. These two factors led to a growing number of people reading the Bible and questioning authorities concerning its meaning. This growing cacophony of interpretations highlights a latent instability in the concept of sola scriptura. Most Protestants agree that the Bible is the sole authority in matters of Christian belief and practice. What happens when we disagree on what the Bible means? Can we ever be certain that our interpretation is correct? Franke sought to address certainty in biblical interpretation by appealing to the Spirit’s guidance in reading. His framework has much to commend; however, it is also dangerous if it is not approached with the requisite humility.

August Hermann Francke was born on March 22, 1663 in Lübeck, Germany.1 After graduating from Leipzig University in 1685, he eventually accepted a pastorate in Glaucha in 1691. At the same time, he was also appointed as a professor of biblical languages at the nearby University of Halle. He would assume a chair on the theology faculty in 1698. It was through his position at Halle that Franke exerted his significant influence over the religious practices of continental Europe in early 18th century. His work was inspired by the ministry of Philipp Jakob Spener and part of the pietist movement within the Lutheran Church.2 Franke’s primary genius lay in his organizational skills. Under his influence, Halle became the epicenter of pietism in Germany. He set up many institutes that would care for orphans, print economical Bibles, and send missionaries to a number of places around the globe. He also would train a generation of pietist preachers in his style of biblical interpretation. Although his organizational legacy lasted longer than his theological/hermenuetical influence, his framework for biblical interpretation is still historically significant.

Franke experienced a distinct conversion experience and it is difficult to separate any aspect of his subsequent life from that experience. After graduating university, Franke found himself in Lüneburg tasked with preaching a sermon on John 20:31 which reads, “But these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”3 Francke was distraught over the verse because he felt he lacked the requisite faith. He recorded in his autobiography, “I did not find the faith in myself that I was to demand in the sermon.”4 In his distress, Franke fell to his knees and prayed that God would deliver him from his uncertainty. According to Franke, God responded immediately. In rather stark terms Franke records his conversion, “With great care and doubt I had fallen to my knees but with an unspeakable joy and a great certainty I stood up again.”5 Notice how Franke’s conversion was from uncertainty to certainty. His dramatic conversion to certainty influenced Franke in his insistence that it is only the regenerate reader that can understand the true spiritual meaning of the Scriptures.

Franke wrote three primary works on biblical interpretation. Simple Instruction, or How One Should Read Holy Scripture for One’s Edification6 is an introduction intended for lay readers of the Bible. He also wrote two academic works intended for pastors and students. His earlier academic work is the Manuductio ad Lectionem Scripturae Sacrae (Manuductio) from 1693. Later in his career Franke wrote the Praelectiones Hermeneuticae, which were published in 1717. While the Praelectiones Hermeneuticae represents Franke’s most mature thought, we will concentrate on the Manuductio because it has been translated into English as A Guide to the Reading and Study of Holy Scripture and available online.7 Franke does modify his vocabulary and thought slightly in the years between the publication of the two pieces. However, his overarching schema for interpretation is maintained.

The Manuductio is divided into two primary sections, which represent the two levels of meaning. First, there is the reading according to the letter (sensus literae). This reading includes understanding the grammar, historical context, textual variants, and structure of the biblical writer’s arguments. Reading the Bible according to the letter is like reading any other book. However, reading only according to the letter is indulging a vain and unprofitable curiosity for Franke. It is the important first step to interpreting Scripture, but Franke is aiming for more. “Let the reader be admonished, not to devote his time and attention to the Letter of Scripture only, but hasten to the enjoyment of those sacred delights, which flow from the Spirit of the lively oracles.”8

Franke believes the reader must come to a deeper understanding than the bare letter of the text. He is rather terse in his Simple Instructions mentioned above. He writes that a scholar “can be damned with all his scriptural learnedness to the bottom of hell.”9 Franke wants the reader to come to what he calls the true literal sense of the text (sensus literalus). This is the meaning intended by the Spirit and comes through expository, doctrinal, inferential, and practical reading. Reading according to the letter is the gateway to the Spirit’s true intended reading.

You could envision Franke’s hermeneutic as a kernel with a husk. There is an outer husk to the Bible that any regular reader can understand intellectually. Then there is the true kernel of meaning that is only available to the spiritually attuned reader. Franke illustrates the concept using Jesus’s teaching on “thou shall not kill” from the Sermon on the Mount.10 You could read the commandment according to the letter and feel that you have understood it completely. One should abstain from actually killing someone. However, Jesus teaches that the commandment can be broken “in lip, in life, in gesture.”11 There is a deeper spiritual meaning to the commandment beyond the actual taking of a life. The true meaning of the text is beyond the simple meaning of the words.

For Franke, this deeper meaning is only available to regenerate Christians who are guided by the Spirit. He elaborates on how this occurs by appealing to the affections that accompany speech in an appendix to the Manuductio. The affection with which we say something helps to determine its meaning. Consider the statement, “It’s raining outside.” If you were a farmer in the middle of a drought, the statement would probably be shouted enthusiastically and with joy. If you were planning an outdoor wedding, the words would be accompanied by sadness. The affections that accompany words are vital to understanding their full meaning and import. Franke argues that the biblical authors wrote with holy affections supplied with the Spirit. To truly understand the Scripture, they have to be read with these same Spirit-provided affections. Unregenerate readers have no access to these holy affections and thus a full understanding of Scripture is not possible for them. You have to be a converted Christian to understand.

As mentioned above, if you are a Christian, Franke’s schema might appeal to you. However, there is some danger in his methods and Franke had opponents in the Church who opposed his hermeneutic of kernel and husk. The most vocal opponent was Valentin Ernst Loescher (1673-1749). In Franke’s framework, understanding the Bible depended on whether one had converted to a pious form Christianity. Correct interpretation is only found among a particular community of regenerate Christians. In other words, as Loescher is keen to point out, the objective literal meaning of the Bible is then dependent on the subjective piety of the reader.12 Postmoderns might want to inform Loescher that objectivity is impossible. I actually agree with postmodernity on that point; however, Loescher still has a decent point. If the true meaning of the text is dependent on the subjective piety of the reader, then how can we ever be sure of the true meaning of the text itself?

We might answer that we can never be sure, but that was not Franke’s response. Remember that Franke’s conversion experience was from uncertainty to certainty. That pious arrogance spilled over into his interpretive framework. The Spirit has gifted him with this understanding and therefore it cannot be wrong. This confidence is displayed when Franke and Loescher finally meet to try and iron out their differences. After failing to reach an agreement, Franke concludes, “if someone is truly with Christ, he cannot possibly be against us.”13

Franke’s certainty regarding interpretation has rendered any dialogue between dissenting opinions inert. The test of correctness in interpretation (and conversion itself) has become agreement. He has conflated the correctness of his own interpretations with the truth of God. In his certainty, I hold that he assumes a role properly assumed by God. We can boldly argue for a position and consider it true; however, we must also maintain a distinction between human understanding and God’s truth. Failing to do so violates the proper boundary between the creator and the created.

I still think Franke is on to something with his two-layer schema of understanding. I do think that a more robust understanding of the biblical text is available to regenerate Christian readers. The Spirit is always with us when we read Scripture. We may even become convinced that we are generally correct. The danger lies in believing that the Spirit has granted us a full and complete understanding of the Scriptures. That is a perspective only afforded to God. Therefore, our Spirit-gifted understanding should always be accompanied by humility inspired by the reality that we are only human. When we are humble regarding our understanding, complete agreement is not a prerequisite for dialogue. It is also not a required result of dialogue. Humility encourages a meaningful dialogue that considers the best in all participants. We will still have disagreements, but meaningful dialogue concerning our disagreements will lead to a more unified body of Christ. It will lead to a better understanding of our commonly held beliefs. It will also help to see the motivations of those who ultimately disagree. We might find that we actually share the same motivations, but express them in different ways. That shared motivation could be a foundation for a way forward in unity. A way forward that is in all ways guided by the Spirit.

[1] Germany as we know it today did not exist as a nation in 1663. I refer to Germany as a matter of convenience.

[2] This really is not the place to discuss Pietism as a movement. It is enough for now to know that it was a dominant force on the religious landscape of the European continent for at least 150 years.

[3] Translation from the English Standard Version.

[4] August Hermann Francke, “Autobiography,” in Pietists: Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Peter C. Erb (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 102.

[5] Franke, “Autobiography,” 105.

[6] August Hermann Francke, Simple Instruction, or How One Should Read Holy Scripture for One’s Edification, trans. Jonathan Strom, Lutheran Quarterly 25 no. 4 (Winter 2011).

[7] It can be found at https://ia800502.us.archive.org/3/items/guidetoreadingst00fran/guidetoreadingst00fran.pdf. To the best of my knowledge, the Praelectiones Hermeneuticae have never been translated out of the original Latin.

[8] Franke, Manuductio, 36.

[9] Franke, Simple Instructions, 376.

[10] Franke, Manuductio, 68-72. Matthew 5:21-26.

[11] Franke, Manuductio, 69.

[12] Valentin Ernst Loescher, The Complete Timothy Verinus vol 1. (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 1998), 71.

[13] Martin Greschat, Zwischen Tradition und neuem Anfang. Valentin Loescher und der Ausgang der lutherischen Orthodoxie (Wittenberg: Luther Verlag, 1971), 300.

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