In your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters (session 2), you ask us which of the instructions at the end of 1 Thessalonians we’d most like to see put into practice in our community of Jesus’ followers. Our small group has a couple of questions about one of those instructions. It’s the one that the TNIV translates “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire,” but which other versions such as the ESV translate “Do not quench the Spirit.”
First of all, which is it, the Spirit or the Spirit’s fire? Why the difference in translation?
And then, if it is fire, how are we to understand what that means within the context of the letter? There are numerous references throughout the Old and New Testaments of God’s presence/Spirit coming in the form of fire, so it’s easy for a reader to project this kind of imagery here. I suppose this is a specific case of a more general question: To what extent is it appropriate/accurate/permissible to project extra-textual meaning into a specific literary context? It seems to me that the answer cannot be “never” nor “always,” which means that it’s somewhere in between.
In this instruction Paul uses the Greek verb sbennúo, which means “to put out a fire.” (This root is found in our word asbestos, which originally referred to a substance, quicklime, that couldn’t be put out when it was on fire; pouring water on it only made it flame higher. Ironically, the word was then erroneously applied to a substance that couldn’t catch on fire, and the name, even though opposite in meaning, stuck!)
In Paul’s sentence the Spirit is the simple object of this verb; the word “fire” as an attribute or possession of the Spirit does not appear. So “do not quench the Spirit” is the more literal translation. The reading “do not put out the Spirit’s fire” appears in the 1978 and 1984 editions of the NIV as well as in the TNIV, but in the latest update to the NIV (2011), the reading is now “do not quench the Spirit.” So leading translations are converging in their understanding of what the object in the sentence should be.
I’m not sure they’ve gotten the verb translated right yet, however. Sbennúo can be used in a more literal sense of putting out a fire (e.g. as in Ephesians, “Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one”), but it can also be used in a more figurative sense, to describe doing to something what you would do to a fire to put it out. And so I think an even better translation of Paul’s instruction would be, “Do not stifle the Spirit,” particularly since the very next phrase (not necessarily a separate sentence) is, “do not treat prophecies with contempt.” In other words, if the Spirit wants to speak to you in your gatherings, let the Spirit speak, and listen. So the notion of fire, certainly associated with God’s Spirit in many places in the Bible, is not necessarily present here.
This means that this instruction may be an even better example than you perhaps realized of readers projecting extra-textual meaning into a specific literary context! I agree with you that we must expect readers to do this kind of thing sometimes, because words are full of meaning and they are bound to have associations for readers beyond what those who first used them intended. I’d say that we need to recognize that reading is a creative act, but that at the same time, like any creative act, it should be constrained by considerations that keep it from becoming so wild that it’s meaningless. I’d argue that these considerations include the author’s overall perspectives and social and historical context. These must exert some control over the meanings we bring in to an author’s words.
So while Paul probably meant “do not stifle the Spirit,” he was using a word figuratively that means more literally “put out a fire,” and in that word the rich biblical associations of the Spirit-as-fire can be heard echoing. This is particularly true since Paul was writing self-consciously within the biblical literary tradition, as evidenced by his frequent quotations from and allusions to the earlier Scriptures. So when we read the instruction not to “quench” the Spirit, I think we do have the freedom to think about what this means in light of the broader biblical imagery of the Spirit-as-fire, so long as we don’t miss Paul’s main point about allowing the Spirit to speak through individual members to gatherings of Jesus’ followers.