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The Spirit of Truth

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Posted by Kirsten Birkett, 15 Dec 2020

Kirsty Birkett continues her series responding to the Living in Love and Faith resources with an examination of John 16:13.

What is John 16:13 talking about?

‘But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth’ (John 16:13 NIV)

‘We believe that Christ has entrusted the gospel to the Church and sends the Holy Spirit to lead the Church into all truth (John 16:13).’ (Living in Love and Faith, p. 311)

‘[T]he purpose of the living in Love and Faith learning resources [is] to help us to learn and discern together so that right judgements and godly decisions can be made about our common life. This sort of learning and discerning relies upon the work of the Spirit of God, for - as Jesus said – it is the Spirit who takes what is true to Christ and declares it fully to us (John 16:13). Our hope is that the Holy Spirit will use these learning resources to open a way for us to find our deepest convictions about Jesus Christ also affirmed by those who we presently disagree with’ (Living in Love and Faith, p. 422).

As I explained in my previous blogpost, ‘theological reflection’, a process of hearing God’s revelation not just in Scripture, but in human wisdom and the changing circumstances around us, has become very popular in the Church of England. It is often given justification from John 16:13. Even when not linked directly to theological reflection, this verse is taken as reason to expect devout Christians, in conscience, to come to new conclusions about life and doctrine that are different from the received view, perhaps even different from biblical teaching.

Is this what Jesus actually taught in John 16:13?

John 16:13 in the Church of England
Such an interpretation of John 16:13 in the Church of England is relatively new, but has a back story. In the background is the influence of John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement. In Newman’s view, John 16:13 refers, not to the apostles as they are writing Scripture – part of the basis of the doctrine of Scripture – but potentially to the whole Church (see his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1845 and 1878). This allows for genuine development of Christian doctrine over time, as the Spirit reveals more truth to the Church.

However, traditional Anglican teaching contends that this is not a responsible reading of Jesus’ words.

Who is ‘you’?
The argument turns on who is the ‘you’ in John 16:13. These chapters are part of what is known as the ‘Upper Room Discourse’: what Jesus said to the disciples after the Last Supper. He got up and washed their feet; he predicted Peter’s denial; and then he taught the disciples about his leaving, and the coming of the Holy Sprit.

It is true that the Spirit, when he came, came not just to the Apostles who received this direct teaching, but to all people who came to faith in Christ. There also are many parts of the Upper Room Discourse which, although spoken to the Twelve, are applicable to all believers. We should all, for instance, keep Jesus’ commandments (14:15). We should all remain in Christ (15:4). We should love one another as Jesus loved us (15:12). Does this mean that the promise of 16:13 is that the Holy Spirit will guide all of us, collectively, into new truths about following Christ?

No; even though the teachings of the discourse has some secondary applications to all Christians, these particular words in context refer to the Apostles only.

Consider, for instance, 15:27. Jesus is introducing this section about the work of the Holy Spirit by specifying to whom he is speaking, and why. He speaks to those who ‘have been with me from the beginning’ – the Apostles. Jesus is teaching them specifically because of what is about to happen to them. He is about to leave them, but he will send the Spirit. He has already told them in 14:25 that the Spirit ‘will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you’. The Spirit will have this particular ministry of reminding the Twelve what they heard, in person, when Jesus spoke to them. Now in 16:13 Jesus adds to the Twelve that he has many more things to teach them; and the Spirit will lead the Apostles into this truth.

The Spirit will, in other words, make sure that the Apostles remember what Jesus told them in person, and also reveal to them the further things that they need to know, but cannot yet bear. Once this happened, the Apostles will be able to do what Jesus charged them to do in15:27: testify. They will write down the teaching of Jesus, and so create the books of the New Testament. Eventually Paul would be added to their number, Jesus sending him as his chosen instrument to proclaim Jesus to the Gentiles (Acts 9: 15), and also writing Scripture, as recognised by the other Apostles.

None of this suggests that new revelation would be given to the Church in general throughout history, or now.

Discerning the truth today
Jesus’ words in John 16:13 underlie the fact that the Apostles believed they were writing Scripture, inspired by God (1 Pet 1:12; 1 Thess 4:12; 2 Pet 3:16). The early church determined which writings were Scripture and which not on this basis, whether they held the genuinely apostolic teaching. We have Jesus’ assurance that such apostolic teaching would be true to him, because the spirit ‘will receive from me what he will make known to you’ (John 16:15).

As a church, we may come to realisations from time to time that an accepted reading of the Bible is wrong. We may need to revise our teaching. There was, for instance, a time when many believed that the Bible taught that the earth cannot revolve around the sun. Eventually it came to be seen that verses such as Ps 104:5 are a poetic way of referring to God’s power, not a specific teaching that the earth can never move through space. It can happen that we read the Bible wrongly; we are limited, and sinful beings, after all. We should always come to Scripture with close attention and prayer, and ‘sanctified common sense’, as John Stott put it. (For an excellent talk on John 16, by the way, listen to John Stott’s ‘The Two Comings of Christ’, https://urbana.org/urbana-70).

Yet recognising that we are capable of misreading Scripture is very different from saying that we can discover God’s revelation outside of Scripture; or that John 16:13 in any way teaches us to expect revelation through the ongoing discussions of the Church. Jesus did not teach us that we hear his teaching in reflection upon the world around us, or people’s lives.

Jesus told us where to find his teaching: in that of his Apostles. He has graciously given us that surety. It is up to us, now, to follow what he did say in the Upper Room Discourse that applies to us now: ‘if you love me, keep my commands.’

Dr Kirsten Birkett is the Theological Consultant to Church Society.

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