by Kees van der Knijff
Let me start with a confession: lately, I have been deeply disappointed with, or even disillusioned by, much evangelical theology. I’ve found it hard to even open a theology book and concentrate on it. For how is it possible that after all these centuries of biblical interpretation and theological thinking, there is still so much shallow theology? How is it possible that readings of Scripture legitimizing so much violence are still widely prevalent, especially in the West? Are we failing at our task?
While preparing for a class on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, I came across an idea that struck me. The focus of the class was on the relationship between the Spirit and Scripture. In one of the readings, Amy Plantinga Pauw discusses the different roles of the Spirit when it comes to our interpretation of Scripture. The final, and most surprising, role of the Spirit she introduces is the role of the Exorcist.
Now, to be honest, the topic of exorcism does not play a big role in my theological thinking. Popular notions and practices of exorcism are surrounded by so many peculiarities that I tend to be very reticent. But this time, the idea of exorcism in connection to our readings of Scripture struck me as profoundly helpful and hopeful. Let me try to explain why.
In her text, Plantinga Pauw points out how, despite deep hermeneutical thinking and proper exegetical processes, the history of biblical interpretation is full of readings of Scripture that produce “deep and long-lasting harm.” It seems that powers are at play that cause us, either personally or communally, to interpret the Bible in ways that are not only unhelpful, but deeply dangerous. She points to readings of Scripture that support slavery, uphold gender inequality, or inspire antisemitism.
The exorcising ministry of the Spirit is the slow work of untangling the church from such readings of Scripture. This is not a one-time event, a dramatic kind of exorcism. Mistaken interpretations of the Bible are often deeply entrenched, developed over centuries, and related to a whole range of exegetical and theological decisions. We cannot expect a tradition to get rid of them all at once. That would be setting ourselves up for disappointment. But the truth is that, through the gradual work of the Spirit, the church has gotten rid of some such interpretations of Scripture, while others are seriously weakened.
If this exorcising ministry of the Spirit is not a sudden, mighty act, but a slow process, how does it happen? How can we unlearn readings of Scripture that have been in place for a long time? According to Plantinga Pauw, “this exorcism is usually brought about through the web of communal practices, rather than individual feats of exegetical brilliance. It happens through prophetic words, repentance, efforts at reconciliation, and large-hearted attention to the spiritual gifts and discernment of others.” Like most other works of the Spirit, this is a mediated ministry: it requires opposition from outside and within the church, it requires people asking hard questions, it requires people who repent of their previous convictions, it requires churches where differences of opinion are allowed to exist without breaking the bonds of love.
A critical question might be whether we should call this process of resisting mistaken and deeply entrenched interpretations of Scripture the exorcising ministry of the Spirit. Our evaluation should focus on both parts: whether this is exorcism, and whether this is the Spirit’s work. In my view, Plantinga Pauw’s choice for the image of the exorcist is very powerful for three reasons. First, it raises our awareness that evil plays a role in the church’s use and interpretation of Scripture. Some readings of Scripture are not just exegetical misjudgments, but they are used to support or justify unjust situations. Second, the image of the exorcist reminds us of the structural nature of evil. As evangelicals, we sometimes tend toward a superficial understanding of sin, as though it is focused only on the individual and his or her specific sinful acts. But, as many theologians have highlighted over the past few decades, sin and evil are often hidden in the institutions, worldviews, and powers of the world we live in. This includes the structures of the church, its theology, and also its interpretation of Scripture. Finally, the image of the exorcist highlights that such deeply ingrained, structural forms of sin are the hardest to cast out. Against such opposition, critical theological thinking is important, but not always enough.
That is why the image of the exorcising ministry of the Spirit struck me as profoundly hopeful. At times, we encounter interpretations of Scripture or are involved in theological debates that make us feel desperate. Both parties have formed their opinions, are unwilling to really engage with the critique from the other side, and only harden their positions. We wonder whether things will ever change and start to doubt whether debating mistaken opinions makes any sense at all. I think all of us would be able to name some of these polarized topics and discussions within the church. They make us feel hopeless at times. Does it make any difference to try to preach, teach, and write healthy, constructive theology?
That is where the exorcising ministry of the Spirit makes all the difference. It gives us hope that in the end change is possible. It will take time, but the Spirit has proven that he is able to move the church beyond the most entrenched misinterpretations of Scripture. It will not happen overnight, but eventually it will happen. And that is why it is not only a hopeful, but also an empowering idea. In this ministry, the Spirit can use our feeble attempts to challenge wrongful interpretations of Scripture, even if we ourselves do not see any change. It does make a difference to try to preach, teach, and write healthy, constructive theology.
But it will only be a hopeful and empowering idea under one important condition: we must include our own interpretations of Scripture and our own theological thinking among those subject to the Spirit’s cleansing work. Otherwise, this will just be another tool to demonize others and their ideas. Unless we are willing to acknowledge that our own thinking is provisional, and that our own reading of Scripture is deeply influenced by sin-infected structures of thinking, it would be better to get rid of the idea at once. Only humble theology can thankfully receive this part of the Spirit’s ministry, looking forward to the day that our thinking will be purged and refined, even if that might be a painful experience. It might be helpful to regularly remind ourselves of the words of the American theologian A.J. Swoboda: “All earthly theology is essentially preparing for embarrassment” (After Doubt, Ch. 2). With that mindset, we can honestly pray: Come, Holy Spirit!
The chapter by Plantinga Pauw is found in David H. Jensen, The Lord and Giver of Life: Perspectives on Constructive Pneumatology (Louisville: John Knox, 2008).
Kees van der Knijff teaches in the areas of systematic and historical theology. Originally from the Netherlands, he lives with his family in Lebanon.