The Holy Spirit's Illumination of Scripture
by Alwyn York
The Lord Jesus said, I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes (Mt. 11:25).1 This expresses one of the mysteries and yet one of the glories of the Christian faith. True understanding of the Word of God is not dependent upon or even necessarily associated with what the world thinks of as learning or intelligence. Those who are accounted great minds by the world can be surprisingly clueless when it comes to the understanding of Scripture. Witness Lord Bertrand Russell, renowned twentieth century philosopher and logician, attempting to function as an exegete of Scripture:
You will remember that Christ said, Judge not lest ye be judged. That principle I do not think you would find was popular in the law courts of Christian countries. I known in my time quite a number of judges who were very earnest Christians, and none of them felt they were acting contrary to Christian principles in what they did.2
Even great familiarity with the Bible does not guarantee understanding of it, as I can testify from my experience of theological education at a liberal seminary. My New Testament professor carried a Bible as well thumbed as that of a believing Biblicist, but it had apparently done him little spiritual good. He told us of how he had become involved in New Testament study, not out of any reverence for the inspired Word, but because in college he had been introduced to the higher critical method of Bible study, and he had discovered that the exercise of trying to determine the origin of a saying in the gospels was intellectually stimulating. Trying to sift through what he saw as the different levels of tradition to determine whether a saying was original to Jesus or part of early church tradition or the invention of the gospel writer was an enjoyable mental challenge for him. He said that it gave him the same kind of satisfaction as solving a crossword puzzle or figuring out the ending of a mystery novel. He gleefully described how he had squelched a pious but na´ve student who once asked him to begin a class with prayer. He was on his fourth marriage, as I recall. His example illustrates how it is possible to derive mental stimulation from the Bible and nothing else.
The wise and learned may get no benefit from Scripture, while those who are unschooled may display powerful mastery. The Sanhedrin marvelled at Peter and John, who were powerful and bold preachers although they were uneducated and untrained (Acts 4:13). In this Peter and John were part of a long line in which we might include John Bunyan, the tinker of Bedford, William Carey, a cobbler who became a great linguist and translator, and the uneducated shoe salesman D. L. Moody. The way that comprehension of Scripture is not dependent upon worldly wisdom illustrates 1 Corinthians 2:14: But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
The necessity of the Spirits illumination for the saving understanding of Holy Scripture is probably acknowledged in principle by nearly all biblical Christians, and yet it is often ignored in practice, or it is poorly understood. Fred Klooster, a Calvin Seminary professor speaking on the role of the Holy Spirit in the hermeneutic process at the International Council on Biblical Inerrancys second Summit observed, The illumination of the Holy Spirit is regularly mentioned in theological literature; yet detailed discussion of this subject is rare.3 He referred his hearers to a work of John Owen first published in 1678 as the most detailed treatment of the subject. Another speaker also mentioned Owen, along with William Whitakers Disputations on the Holy Scripture from 1588, and contrasts the attention they devote to it with the neglect of the subject in modern evangelical works on biblical interpretation.4
The illumination of Scripture may be a neglected subject today, but it is not really obscure or unimportant. I fear that a practical neglect of the need for the Spirits illumination leads some in the evangelical world into a type of rationalism. The title of a popular apologetic work, Evidence That Demands a Verdict5, suggests that it will present evidence so persuasive that anyone reading it would be bound to become a Christian. The kind of apologetics that expects that anyone will become a Christian if only he is presented with the right evidence suggests a Pelagian understanding of conversion underlying it. The desire to show that Christian faith is reasonable, if not grounded upon an adequate theological foundation, can lead to an undervaluing or even a practical denial of the work of the Spirit in enabling understanding of spiritual truth.
But there are also dangers that emerge once we begin to speak of the need for the Spirit to illumine. Trying to avoid rationalism, we may end up with an approach to the Christian faith that presents it as irrational subjectivism. Some have argued that if it is the Spirit which gives understanding of Gods Word, then scholarly helps, linguistic and grammatical study, and the consultation of commentaries are unnecessary, even a form of intellectual presumption. Perhaps every preacher at some point will encounter an impatient hearer who declares, Dont give me Greek or Hebrew or theology, just tell me what the Bible says! There will be some who are so secure in the conviction that what they believe is a Spirit-given interpretation of a passage that they are immune to any instruction. Some expect a special private revelation as they are reading the Bible: I was reading my Bible this morning, and the Lord said to me The idea that the things of the Spirit are spiritually discerned is a glorious and comforting thought, but like so much in Scripture, it is something, which the ignorant can twist to their own destruction.
1 Corinthians 2:14 has also been taken as a charter for those who want to teach an esoteric method of interpreting Scripture. The ancient Gnostics have had many descendents down through the centuries. It is tempting to human pride to believe that the surface, straightforward meaning of Scripture is only a device to conceal deeper truth from the uninitiated. Kabbalists, Rosicrucians, Swedenborgians, Freemasons, Theosophists and modern New Agers have all been eager to give those who will listen a key to unlock what they see as the deeper spiritual lessons of the sacred volume. All this shows the importance of having a proper understanding of the doctrine of illumination.
In what follows I want to set forth biblical teaching on three subjects. First we will consider the spiritual condition of unregenerate human beings, and specify what sort of deficiency it is which the Spirits illumination corrects. Secondly we will examine the changes that occur at regeneration and the question of what new capacities are given to understand Scripture that were not present before. Third I want to say something about the continuing need for illumination in those who have experienced spiritual rebirth. I will conclude by saying something about the application of these truths in preaching.
The Incapacity of the Unregenerate to Understand Scripture
My basic point about the incapacity of the unregenerate man to comprehend the Scriptures can be simply stated. Unredeemed human beings are in a state of darkness, a darkness that is moral rather than intellectual. Statements describing the state of the unredeemed as being in darkness are plentiful in Scripture. Proverbs 4:19 declares, The way of the wicked is like darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble. Psalm 82:5 says, They do not know, nor do they understand; they walk about in darkness. Ephesians 4:18 speaks of the Gentiles having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them. 2 Corinthians 3:14 says of unbelieving Jews that their minds were blinded.
But despite being in a state of darkness, there is much that an unredeemed person can understand about the Scriptures. James Buchanan, a nineteenth century Scottish theologian, says,
There can be no doubt that the Bible, like any other book, may convey much instruction to an unrenewed man. When it is affirmed that a natural man cannot know the things of God, it is not implied that the Bible is unintelligibly written, or that he cannot understand the sense and meaning of scriptural propositions, so as to be able to give a rational account of them. He may investigate the literal meaning of Scripture, and may attach a definite idea to many of its statementsmay be able to see their mutual relationsto reason upon them, and even to expound them; and yet in the scriptural sense, he may be in darkness notwithstanding.6
He goes on to say that, The natural man is capable of acquiring, by the use of his rational faculties, such an acquaintance with the truths of Gods Word as is sufficient to make him responsible for his treatment of it.7 We have all known people with much knowledge of Scripture, even some able to rationally explain the tenets of Calvinistic theology, who, by their own admission, do not believe any of it. The Bible is not like some Delphic oracle, completely unintelligible except to those who are supernaturally given an interpretation.
The inability of the unredeemed to comprehend the Bible is a consequence of their moral condition. Romans 1:21-22 describes the process: Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:3, But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. The Pharisees were well versed in Scripture; they could quote chapter and verse to great effect. They did not need more informationthey needed to have the hostility of their hearts to the Son of God removed. As Edwin Palmer observes, In Jesus parable of the rich man and Lazarus, what the rich mans brothers needed for their conversion was not more knowledge or a proof by a man rising from the dead. No, they had Moses and the prophets. What they needed was a spiritual awakening and illumination so they could believe what was already in the Bible.8
Apologetics does have value. In a day and age when many are claiming that no intelligent rational person can believe the literal truth of the Bible, it is worth showing that believing in the Bible is not an irrational thing to do. It is worth looking at evidences for Christianity and answering the charges made by skeptics. But we still need to remember that no one can be argued into faith in Christ. The scribes and Pharisees believed in the literal truth of the Hebrew Scripturesbut still they rejected the Lord of Glory and had Him crucified.
The New Capacity Given to the Redeemed
The inability of the natural man to receive the things of God is not an intellectual problem but a moral one. So the change that occurs at regeneration operates on the heart and the will, not on a persons rational capacities. The Holy Spirit does not enlighten a man by giving him a secret revelation, some new knowledge. The Holy Spirit enlightens a person, not by giving an added content of knowledge, but by mysteriously operating on his heart so that he can see the revelation already given. The image used in Scripture is of removing a veil. In 2 Corinthians 3:15 Paul says of the unbelieving Jews, But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. He continues, Nevertheless, when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away (2 Cor. 3:16). The truth was there before them all the time, only they were prevented from seeing it. The disciples on the road to Emmaus portray the normal experience of a Christian. Jesus drew near to them, but their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him (Lk. 24:16). He expounded to them all the Scriptures relating to Himself as they walked along, but still they did not see. Finally as they sat at the table with Him and He broke bread with them, their eyes were opened and they knew Him (Lk. 24:31). After their eyes have been opened, their previous incomprehension is a matter of shame and amazement to them: And they said to one another, Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us? (Lk. 24:32). Their new comprehension was not the result of being given new information. It was being enabled to see and appreciate what was right before their eyes and they should have known all along.
Jonathan Edwardss sermon, A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to Be Both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine,9 is a very helpful brief work on our subject. Here is how Edward describes the nature of the light that is given: It may be thus described: A true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them thence arising.10 It is the capacity to appreciate the things of God for their true worth that is given in regeneration. Edwards says that this spiritual light reveals no new doctrine, it suggests no new propositions to the mind, it teaches no new thing of God, or Christ or another world not taught in the Bible, but only gives a due apprehension of those things that are taught in the Word of God.11 The Spirits work is to drive home to the heart and conscience what the mind understands.
I think James Buchanan gives a very helpful description of the nature of the new capacity that is gained:
As it is difficult to convey an idea of colour to the blind, or of music to the deaf, so it is difficult to describe to a natural man the peculiar perceptions of one whose eyes have been opened by the Spirit. And the difficulty is not diminished but increased by the fact, that he has a kind of knowledge which is common to him with the true believer, and which is too apt to be mistaken for that which the Gospel requires. Perhaps the nearest approach that we can make to an explanation may be by asking you to conceive of a man who sees, but has no sense of beauty, or of a man who hears, but has no sense of harmony; just such is the case of a natural man, who sees the truth without perceiving its spiritual excellence, and on whose ear the sound of the Gospel falls without awakening music in his soul. Saving knowledge is not a knowledge of the dead letter or outward form of the Gospel, but a knowledge of the truth in the light, and lustre, and glory of it; gustful knowledge (Thomas Halyburton), which has in it a relish of the truth as excellent: O taste and see that the Lord is good.12
Thus we can see that the scriptural doctrine of illumination gives no encouragement at all to those who desire to find a secret higher meaning in Scripture. It is also no encouragement to those who look to the word of the Spirit to give them a personal private revelation. This is a tendency that I believe is rampant in the church today. Christians are encouraged in many quarters to come to the Bible with the expectation that they will receive a personal word from the Lord. I am afraid that people mean more by this expression than finding a portion of Scripture that has special relevance to ones situation or condition in life. A mystical approach is encouraged which deprecates the need for the work of understanding a passage in context and applying all the other rules of sound interpretation. People today are all too quick to attribute their own personal desires and inclinations to a special work of the Holy Spirit. A sound understanding of what the Bible teaches about the Spirits illumination is important if Christians are to attribute to the Holy Spirit the work that is truly His, and not give their personal whims and leadings a divine status.
John Calvin and John Owen have both been recognized as being to an eminent degree theologians of the Holy Spirit. Their work demonstrates that something often said about Reformed Christians is precisely the opposite of the truth. It is not true that Reformed Christians excel in the intellectual analysis of the Christian faith, but are in need of the appreciation for the work of the Holy Spirit that others more Spirit-filled can supply. Instead, those who consider themselves Spirit-filled need the insights about the work of the Spirit found in Reformed writers so that the work of the Spirit can be seen in its scriptural glory and splendor rather than being associated with the quirks of immature and impulsive followers of Christ.
A sound understanding of the Spirits work of illumination will safeguard Christians against two undesirable extremes. If we understand the need for the Spirits enlightenment, we will not expect too much from rational attempts to defend and explain the Bible. At the same time, if we understand the nature of the enlightenment the Spirit gives, we will not undervalue the work of interpretation and explanation of Gods Word. The Spirit makes it possible for our efforts to expound the Bible to bear fruit, but His work does not eliminate the need for careful, logical exegesis. In the design of God, the Spirit and the human mind are meant to work together, each performing its own proper function.
The Believers Continuing Need for Illumination
Much of the discussion of the Holy Spirits work of illuminating Scripture focuses on what occurs at the time of regeneration. There is indeed a great and momentous change that occurs then. A soul that was blind is now enabled to see. The veil is lifted. A person passes from darkness to light. Such a great and categorical change is indeed worthy of attention. But the attention given to this aspect of illumination should not make us forget that the Spirits illuminating work is necessary throughout the life of a believer. Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law, (Ps. 119:18) is the prayer of a redeemed man. Despite the blessings the Psalmist had already known, despite the fact that he had an evident relish and delight in the Word of God, he knew that this Word had treasures and depths yet to impart to him. Similarly it was for Christian believers in Ephesus that Paul prayed that the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe (Eph. 1:18-19).
Because of our contemporary societys craving for what is sensational and stimulating, Reformed Christians often bemoan the extent to which our world is experience-oriented. Yet there is a kind of experience that is holy and blessed and vital to our spiritual well being. Of course there are some things in the Christian faith that we must simply take on faith without any personal experience. We were not there to see the Creation; the events surrounding the return of the Lord Jesus Christ remain future. We are completely dependent upon what the Bible tells us about them. But there are spiritual truths that the Spirit can impart to us here and now. We are meant to taste and see that the Lord is good. If our spiritual experience is dull and impoverished, is it any wonder that our people may begin to hanker after teachers and fellowships that promise something more vivid and immediate? You who expound Gods Word week after week, has Pauls prayer for the Ephesians, referred to above (Eph. 1:18-19), been answered in your own experience? What have you felt, what have you known to the depths of your heart about the hope to which we have been called, about the riches of the inheritance we have been given, about the greatness of the power that the Lord is continually exerting on behalf of His chosen ones? God has caused His light to shine in the hearts of those who believe, but we still live in a world in which we see as in a mirror, dimly. We still dwell in a world of pale shadows and dim reflections. Our eyes have been opened, but still darkness and shadows remain.
Surely it is by the express design of the Author of Scripture that Psalm 119 is the longest of all the psalms in the Bible. Having our eyes opened should mean that we desire to see more and more. This psalm portrays for us just how absorbing the desire for more light from Gods Word can be. There is a richness and depth in Gods revelation that is inexhaustible. Shame upon us if we ever feel that the Bible is old hat, that in reading its pages we are simply treading down well-worn, familiar paths. What a sense of joy and gratitude it should give us to find new light on a passage that has always perplexed us, or to have a teacher make us see a passage in a different light that we have before. At the 1999 Banner of Truth Conference, Hywel Jones spoke from the book of Job about Elihu as a man of God. This was a new and startling perspective for meI had always seen this person in an unsympathetic way as an arrogant young know-it-all. Mr. Jones gave what was to me a new and yet ultimately convincing interpretation of this individual as a true man of God speaking the Word of God. There was something exhilarating about seeing what was a familiar portion of Scripture in a whole new light.
We do not know what further treasures the Spirit of God might show us from the Word of God if we would but dig deeper. Our Congregational forebear John Robinson advised the Plymouth Pilgrims, I am veryily perswaded, I am very confident the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of his holy Word.13 This was not an invitation for bold spirits to take liberties with the Scriptures. It was encouragement to those who loved the Word of God to seek greater and greater light from it. We do not believe, as many do today, that truth is ever changing. Our forefathers have discovered fixed markers that we dare not venture beyond or change. But we can add new insights into the meaning of Gods Word. There are questions upon which further light can be shed. There are topics for investigation and development to which no one has yet given adequate attention. The basic contours of scriptural theology cannot be changedbut if that means that theology remains static, it is only because we have succumbed to sloth. During my pastorate in New Lebanon, New York I inherited much of the library of a layman who remained a keen student of Scripture to the day he died, despite the infirmity that Parkinsons disease inflicted upon him. He kept on buying new, serious commentaries, collections of meaty sermons, and substantial volumes of theology even though he was suffering a dramatic physical decline. He was a living illustration of 2 Corinthians 4:16: Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. I hope I will remember his example if I am ever tempted to retire from the study of the Word of God!
Preaching on Illumination
In these pages I have been considering what some might consider an obscure topic in theology. In preparing this presentation I was encouraged to address the application of this topic in preaching. So in closing I want to address the question of what there is about the Spirits illumination of Holy Scripture that can and should be preached. Fortunately in this matter I was not left to my own devices, but am able to follow the lead of one who was a master in Israel. I have already mentioned Jonathan Edwardss sermon on A Divine and Supernatural Light. For my conclusion I will simply restate what he presents as a brief improvement, i.e. an application, of what he has said on the subject.14
In the first place, the doctrine of the Spirits illumination should be an encouragement to ordinary people that they can read the Bible with profit. Contrary to what the Roman church claimed at the time of the Reformation, we do not need some external human authority to present us with a sound intepretation of the Bible. And contrary to the fears of some people in the church, we do not need to have advanced degrees in Bible and theology to be able to read and understand Gods Word. Right understanding of the Bible is not dependent upon what the world considers great learning. As the Lord Jesus said, the truths of Scripture are often concealed from the wise and learned and revealed to babes. With the aid of the Spirit, all of Gods people can understand His Word. So we should encourage the peopleyes, you can read and understand the Bible. It is not above you. It is not a confusing and obscure book of puzzles which only a special priestly class can make sense of. This is a book that your Heavenly Father has given for your benefit, and for which He has made special provision through His Spirit for you to understand.
Second, the doctrine of the Spirits illumination has an evangelistic use. We can describe the kind of enlightenment that is necessary for a saving knowledge of Scripture, and ask people to examine themselves as to whether this kind of enlightenment has occurred in them. Have they seen the truths of Scripture as more than mere objects of intellectual knowledge? Have these truths become glorious and precious in their sight? Have they perceived the moral perfection of Christ and the holiness and righteousness of their Father Almighty? Have they seen how the sacrifice of the Lamb of God was an utter necessity because of the horrible depravity of the human race and the detestableness of sin in the sight of God? When the Bible speaks of sin, do they see the applicability of what the Bible says to their case? Do they know what the Psalmist is talking about when he says the judgments of the Lord are more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey (Ps. 19:9-10)? In preaching we can press home some searching questions: Though you think you know the Bible, how has what you read there affected you? Has this Word worked a transformation upon your heart and your mind? Has the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shined forth in your heart, or do you remain in darkness?
The third and final improvement of this doctrine that Edwards gives is simply an exhortation to seek this spiritual light. He gives four incentives to this seeking which should be powerful motivation indeed. First, it is the most excellent and divine wisdom to which any created being can aspire. What is the greatest of human learning compared to the knowledge of God? As Edwards says, The least glimpse of the glory of God in the face of Christ doth more exalt and enoble the soul, than all the knowledge of those that have the greatest speculative understanding in divinity without grace.15 Second, it is the most sweet and joyful kind of knowledge; no other knowledge can give such pleasure. This light gives a view of those things that are immensely the most exquisitely beautiful, and capable of delighting the eye of the understanding.16 No other knowledge can give such support in affliction, such comfort and hope. Third, this is a kind of knowledge that can transform us personally at the deepest level. This knowledge changes the soul into an image of the same glory that is beheld,17 and causes us to give ourselves wholly to Christ. Fourth and finally, this knowledge bears fruit in holiness of life. No merely notional or speculative understanding of the doctrines of religion will do this. It changes our hearts so that we give God willing obedience, which will be evident in the things we do. Thus in speaking of illumination, we begin by referring to something that occurs within the heart and mind, but this is not just a speculative or even devotional exercise. The end result will be seen in the kind of life that we live. The Spirits illumination is not just a topic for theological disputation. This work of the Holy Spirit is necessary before anyone can have the kind of understanding of Scripture that will really make a difference.
Thus the doctrine of illumination has an important lesson to teach about the shape and direction that our preaching should take. It is a reminder that our preaching is not to be with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (2 Cor. 2:4). The basic thrust of evangelistic preaching is telling sinners that they need to repent. We may preach with great eloquence, we may have unanswerable arguments, but if we are preaching to the lost, we must remember that they are people whose minds have been blinded by the god of this age. Our most eloquent appeals will make no impact unless a Sovereign God causes His light to dawn upon their hearts. Our approach in preaching should not be to say merely that we are offering something beneficial that you our hearer can and should take up at any time. We have a more disquieting message. We are to tell the lost, You are slaves. You are blind. You cannot even understand what we are saying unless God in His mercy enables you. The Lord must illumine. Our preaching can succeed only in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor. 2:4). That must be the starting point for preaching the Lord God will honor.
Presented to the Reformed Congregational Fellowship, May 24, 2000.Print Page
1All Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.
2Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), p. 15.
3Fred H. Klooster, The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Hermeneutic Process, in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 451.
4Arthur W. Lindsley, A Response to The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Hermeneutic Process, in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), pp. 491-492. Whitakers Disputations have recently been reprinted by Soli Deo Gloria.
5Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith (San Bernadino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972).
6James Buchanan, The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit (1843; reprint ed. London: Banner of Truth, 1966), p. 52.
7Ibid., p. 53.
8Edwin H. Palmer, The Person and Ministry of the Holy Spirit: The Traditional Calvinistic Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974), p. 59.
9Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (1834; reprint ed. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979), 2:12-17.
10Ibid., p. 14.
11Ibid., p. 13.
12Buchanan, Office and Work, p. 54.
13John Robinson, quoted in Cotton Mather, The Great Works of Christ in America, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979), 1:64.
14Edwards, Works, 2:17.