How does the Holy Spirit Teach, and Through Whom?
By Aimee Milburn
After making my post about Papal Infallibility, I had a dialogue of sorts with a Protestant who was trying to refute the doctrine from scripture. He used the Protestant practice of “proof-texting,” in which individual verses of scriptures are quoted to prove certain Protestant doctrines, or disprove certain Catholic doctrines.
Although individual scriptures can be used in support of doctrines, the approach can be problematic, as they can be misused and misinterpreted if taken out of context. The dialogue gave me an opportunity to demonstrate this, and I decided to put it out here for the benefit of other readers, as my original comment is buried pretty deep in the (long and convoluted) thread.
In trying to defend the Protestant idea that the Holy Spirit teaches and interprets scripture directly for everyone, so we don’t need an infallible teaching authority outside of scripture itself, my reader quoted the following verses:
This is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life. These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him. (1 John 2:25-27)
The crux of his argument is “you have no need for anyone to teach you,” because we have the anointing of the Holy Spirit to teach us. This is a good illustration of how problematic it can be to quote individual verses of scripture out of context. It’s like quoting a comment from a politician out of context, and making it seem like he was saying the opposite of what he meant – which happens all the time in the media.
To understand what John is saying, we must look at both the whole letter itself and the context in which it was written, and what the rest of scripture says on the subject. Following is my explanation and exegesis of the context and content of 1 John, in which the verse in question appears.
The immediate context of the letter was divisive people spreading false teaching (John calls them “antichrists”), threatening the unity of the Body. The letter was written to believers who apparently were being harassed by the deceivers, and their unity threatened.
Divisiveness and disbelief have always been a problem in the Church. From the beginning of its existence there were people who believed and people who disbelieved, and even among believers were some who came up with different ideas, false doctrines, and tried to usurp authority from the Apostles and promote their own ideas, causing division (this occasioned, for example, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and his letter to the Galatians; Peter warned about them in his second epistle). It still happens today. These false and divisive teachers also are the cause of John first epistle.
It is typical of epistles in the New Testament to include in the salutation some indication of the theme or cause of the letter. John does so in the very first sentence of this letter, in which he says, “… that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1:3)
The theme of the letter is fellowship, unity, in Christ, the Son of God. John is writing in order to preserve unity. Throughout the letter John emphasizes fellowship and love, and later in the letter, after he addresses the source of the divisiveness, he says, “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”
Where did we hear this? From Jesus, on his last night on earth, which John recorded in his gospel. Jesus’ commandment that we should love one another (Jn 13:34) and become perfectly one (Jn 17:23) are in the background of this letter - indeed, His whole discourse at the last supper, spanning five chapters (Jn 13-17) and bookended with Jesus' words about love and oneness are in the background.
After the introductory section in the first epistle, John begins to move into the meat of the letter: “My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin,” (2:1), which he expands on through verse 2:15. What is the sin? “He who says ‘I know him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him … he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (2:4, 6) In other words, people who claim to be Christians, but don’t obey his commandments or follow his example.
He comes to the crux of the matter in 2:18: “Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.”
What is the antichrist? “This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also.” (2:22b) So there were people who were not only sinning by breaking the commandments, but also denying Christ in some way, perhaps by denying that he was the Messiah (the Jews did this), or accepting that he was the Messiah, but denying that he was truly the Son of God and so not really God himself (an early heresy).
Whatever the case, John is clearly warning against these false teachers, in order to keep true believers united and strong in their faith. He follows his condemnation of the antichrists, the false teachers, with, “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father” (2:24).
What did they hear, and from whom? They heard the gospel, heard it proclaimed and explained by the Apostles, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. When we hear and receive the gospel, we also receive the Holy Spirit, because it is the Holy Spirit that enables us to hear in the first place: God who draws us, through His grace, which is the power of the Holy Spirit. "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him." (Jn 6:44)
Verse 2:24 is followed by the verses my commenter quoted, “These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him."
It is the anointing of the Holy Spirit that inspires the Apostle to preach, and inspires the listeners to open up and receive the preaching - which the faithful believers that John is writing to have done. They have listened, and received, which means they have already been taught by the Apostles, which is the teaching of the Holy Spirit. And in the early Church, when they accepted the gospel, they were baptized and anointed by the Apostles, through which they received the Holy Spirit that ingrafted them into the Body.
Later he says, “We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” Who is the “us?” John was one of the Apostles, and a bishop of seven churches. He is talking about Church authority, Apostles chosen and given authority by Christ, and those chosen by them, the bishops, anointed by the Holy Spirit, teaching and writing with authority, the authoritative teachers of the faith through whom people received the faith, long before they had bibles to consult.
So, in other words, what John is saying in his letter is: you have no need to listen to these false teachers, because you have already heard and received the truth from us, the true teachers of the faith, because it is the Holy Spirit teaching you through us, which you also have received through us.
It can be seen, then, from the larger content and context of the letter, that John’s phrase “you have no need for anyone to teach you” is not a reference to any and all teachers of the faith, but to false teachers, those who teach differently from what they had heard from the Apostles, and so threaten the faith and unity of believers.
Yes, all believers receive the Holy Spirit. But there are also deceiving spirits, who lead people astray. How do we know which is which? By listening to the Apostles and their designated successors, who are the real authorities of the Church, whom we are to obey. If we obey them, then we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. But if we don’t obey, and believe something different, we don’t have the Holy Spirit, but believe a deceiving spirit.
John concludes the section, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.” In other words, abide in your faith in Christ and in the sound teaching which you have received from the Apostles – and so receive eternal life. Which is the essence of Catholic teaching, and the whole reason for the existence of the Church: eternal life with God.
The larger context of scripture supports this. For example, Paul emphasizes the necessity of sound, authoritative teaching in his epistles to Timothy, whom he appointed a bishop. He warns against “deceiving spirits” (1 Tim 4:1), and exhorts Timothy,
Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me … guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. … What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim 1:13-14; 2:2)
This is also one of the indications in scripture of the beginning of the Apostolic Succession. Paul appointed Timothy a bishop, and instructed him to appoint others, handing on to them what he had learned from Paul. That’s how the faith was handed on in the beginning, and still is in the Catholic Church: by authoritative teachers in the Apostolic Succession, who had been chosen and taught the true faith by their predecessors in the succession.
In another example, Peter warns, regarding the interpretation of scripture,
There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Pet 3:17-18)
Note that he does not say, nor does anyone anywhere in scripture say, that when the going gets rough we should leave and found our own churches someplace else. That is completely against everything the bible says about the church, obedience, the unity of believers, and responses to division and controversy.
Paul also warns against division in 2 Tim, and warns, regarding eternal life, “If we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us.” (2 Tim 12) In other words, endure, don’t lose your faith and deny him, or he will deny you.
He later affirms of himself, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:7) In other words, Paul, writing from prison and awaiting death, knew that he had kept, not lost, the faith, and so would receive the crown of righteousness when he died.
In other words, you can lose your salvation if you lose your faith, and disobey or deny Christ. And Christ has sent the Holy Spirit to infallibly guide His Church, promised to the Apostles on His last night on earth (Jn 16:13). So to obey the Church is to obey the Holy Spirit, which is to obey Christ. This is what the Catholic Church and the bible both teach – but what many Protestants deny.
In Closing: Scripture itself led me to the Catholic Church
When I was a new Christian in the Evangelical church, I was taught that individual verses of scripture must always be interpreted in light of the whole of scripture, or you can get it wrong. So I taught myself to read the bible “holistically,” constantly using my concordance to compare verses and passages of scripture that dealt with the same subjects, for a fuller understanding.
Over time, I began to see contradictions between what I was reading in the bible and what I was hearing preached from the pulpit. It appeared to me that my pastors were taking individual verses of scripture out of context, and interpreting them in light of a pre-existing theology that contradicted other verses of scripture, on issues like Peter, authority, Mary, the nature of salvation, the nature of the bread and wine, etc. The key passages dealing with these issues either were never addressed, or addressed so poorly that it seemed to me the pastors were convoluting and contradicting scripture in order to justify their theology.
My observations contributed to my conversion to Catholicism, as when later I began studying Catholicism, I found, to my utter surprise, that the Catholic Church was teaching the very things that I had been observing for myself from scripture, and always had. And it also became clear, as I studied history, that Protestantism itself is based on a new theology, propounding new and false doctrines, a “different gospel” (2 Cor 11:4, Gal 1:6) based on misunderstanding of scripture that came along 1500 years after the fact, that early Christians had never heard of and would have been scandalized by, of the kind that the bible itself warns against because of its threat to the faith and the unity of the Body, and which we are not to pay attention to.
It’s not the fault of Protestants today, and many are sincere and believing Christians. But I believe they are also sincerely misled, which is one reason why I write: to share the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith with my brothers and sisters in Christ, which I believe both scripture and history demonstrate is the authentic and original Christian faith, the original gospel, and the original and true Church.
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