Illumination—I do not think it means what you think it means

Scott Aniol

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I am convinced that a charismatic theology of the Holy Spirit has infected most of evangelicalism in ways we don’t often recognize. Carl F. H. Henry was right when he observed, “The modern openness to charismatic emphases is directly traceable to the neglect by mainstream Christian denominations of an adequate doctrine of the Holy Spirit.”1Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, 284.

This influence can be seen in a number of ways, but one that I’d like to focus on here is with our understanding and use of the term illumination. Often we hear prayers like, “Lord, please illumine your Word so that we can understand what it says,” or other similar language. Intentional or not, many believers seem to expect that the Spirit is going to help us understand what Scripture means or that he is going to “speak” to us specific ways that the Word applies to our personal situations.

Neither of these are what the biblical doctrine of illumination means.

Biblical Teaching on Illumination

The term illumination does not appear in Scripture; rather, it describes a collection of concepts involving the Spirit’s work in relation to his Word in the believer’s life.

1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16

One of the key texts is 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16. In this passage, Paul describes the fact that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). Though the concept of illumination or enlightening don’t really appear in this passage, it does clearly teach that a key difference between believers and unbelievers is the fact that unbelievers simply do not recognize the truthfulness, beauty, and authority of God’s Word (specifically the gospel), while a believer is one who has come to recognize Scripture as such, not because of any human persuasion, but simply through “the Spirit and of power” (2:4).

2 Corinthians 4:1–6

Second Corinthians 4 makes a similar assertion, this time using explicit language of “enlightening.” The gospel is “veiled to those who are perishing” (2 Cor 4:3), Paul argues. Believers accept and submit to the gospel only because God has enlightened their hearts:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

2 Cor 4:6

This is illumination—a work of God’s Spirit upon a believer whereby he recognizes the beauty and glory of the gospel and therefore willingly submits himself to it.

It is important here to recognize that this concept of enlightening happens at the moment of conversion and is always true of Christians. Once our hearts are enlightened, we will always recognize and accept the Word of God as true and authoritative for us. An enlightened believer does not doubt or reject God’s Word.

1 Corinthians 2:10–16

Another text frequently cited in discussions of Spirit illumination is 1 Corinthians 2:10–16.

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

Two points are important to recognize in this text: First, the “us” and “we” in verses 10–13 are the apostles and other authors of Scripture. Charles Hodge notes, “The whole connection shows that the apostle is speaking of revelation and inspiration; and therefore we must mean we apostles, (or Paul himself), and not we Christians.”2Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 40. These men certainly received direct revelation from the Spirit of God to the degree that whatever they wrote can be considered “inspired” by God (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Peter 20–21). But we must remember that such inspiration was unique. The Spirit uniquely revealed the truths of Scripture to these men, and these truths are now inscripturated in the 66 canonical books of Scripture. The Spirit does not “reveal” truth to us in the same manner. These verses describe inspiration, not illumination.

This is important to remember in any discussion of illumination: the primary way the Spirit brings God’s Word to us is not illumination, rather, God’s Spirit has already brought God’s Word to us perfectly and sufficiently through inspiration.

The primary way the Spirit brings God’s Word to us is not illumination, rather, God’s Spirit has already brought God’s Word to us perfectly and sufficiently through inspiration.

However, second, verses 14–16 do touch on what we may describe as Spirit illumination.

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

The key phrase is “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God.” When the natural man reads Scripture, he does not accept it as God’s authoritative revelation. Rather, he sees it as foolishness. He does not understand its spiritual significance.

On the other hand, the spiritual person recognizes the Word of God for what it is and therefore submits himself to it. These verses do not speak of intellectual understanding but spiritual understanding. If we want to use the term illumination to describe what’s going on in these verses, it refers to the Spirit’s work to cause believers to recognize the significance and authority of the written Word of God. Furthermore, this act of the Spirit is not something that necessarily happens in separate points of time as we read the Word; rather, it is something that comes as a result of the new birth—the Spirit gives us new life and enlightens our hearts to recognize the significance of his Word.

In other words, 1 Corinthians 2 refers to two acts of the Spirit: inspiration, whereby the authors of Scripture wrote the very words of God, and illumination, whereby believers are enabled to recognize the spiritual significance of the Word of God.

Ephesians 1:17–22

A text that more specifically refers to what we may call illumination is Ephesians 1:17–22. Here Paul specifically uses the phrase “having the eyes of your heart enlightened” (v. 18). And what is the result of such illumination? Like with 1 Corinthians 2, the result of this enlightening is that the believer recognizes the value and authority of the truth of God’s revelation. No new revelation is imparted; rather, illumination causes believers to accept God’s Word for what it is—the sufficient, authoritative revelation of God.

Philippians 3:15, Colossians 1:9

In Philippians 3:15, Paul tells believers, “if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” Here, too, “reveal” refers not to new knowledge but to a kind of spiritual maturity that rightly submits to and appropriates God’s written revelation. Likewise, in Colossians 1:9, Paul prays that believers “may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Again, this refers not to new revelation or even intellectual comprehension but rather to spiritual recognition of the significance of God’s Word in the believer’s life and the ability to rightly appropriate God’s Word.

What Illumination Does Not Mean

If we are going to use the extra-biblical term illumination, we must base our understanding and use of this concept on a proper interpretation of these texts of Scripture. But first, let us consider what illumination does not mean on the basis of these texts.

The Spirit does not give new meaning

First, as we have seen, these texts to not describe the Holy Spirit giving believers new revelation or even new meaning of a biblical text. As Henry argues, “The Spirit illumines the truth, not by unveiling some hidden inner mystical content behind the revelation . . ., but by focusing on the truth of revelation as it is. The Spirit illumines and interprets by repeating the grammatical sense of Scripture; in doing so he in no way alters or expands the truth of revelation.”3Henry, 283

The bottom line is that Scripture is sufficient. The Spirit revealed the things of God to specific men who penned the Words of Scripture (1 Cor 1:10). The meaning of Scripture is in the text, and it is sufficient and authoritative. Our responsibility is simply to apply the sufficient Word to our lives.

The Spirit does not give understanding

But neither does illumination mean that we are given new understanding of the text. In other words, illumination does not eliminate the need for diligent study in order to understand Scripture—it does not give us understanding in an intellectual sense. We must still work to grasp the meaning of Scripture. As Paul tells Timothy, we must work diligently so that we might “rightly [handle] the Word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).

What Illumination Does Mean

As we more clearly define what, exactly, illumination means, it is important to clarify that it is incorrect to say that the Holy Spirit illumines Scripture; rather, the Holy Spirit illumines the mind and heart of believers. Illumination does not make Scripture clear; rather, illumination enlightens a regenerated Christian to recognize the truth, authority, and significance of what is already clear but is veiled to those who are perishing.

The Spirit causes us to recognize Scripture as God’s revelation

When an unbeliever reads Scripture, he may understanding everything he is reading, but he simply does not recognize what he is reading to be the very words of God.

An illumined believer, however, simply recognizes that what he is reading in Scripture is from God. As Rolland McCune argues, “illumination removes man’s innate hostility toward God and Scripture and imparts intuitive certainty that Scripture is from God and is, therefore, truth and authoritative.”4Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, I:56.

In this sense, there really is no such thing as a believer who has not been illumined; the enlightening of the mind and heart that removes any doubt as to the truth of God’s written Word occurs at the moment the Spirit regenerates a new believer. J. I. Packer observes that illumination opens “minds sinfully closed so that they receive evidence to which they were previously impervious. . . . It is the witness of the Spirit . . . which authenticates the canon to us.”5J. I. Packer, “Biblical Authority, Hermeneutics and Inerrancy,” 143.

The Spirit causes us to recognize the truthfulness of God’s revelation

Second, a fundamental benefit of Spirit illumination is that when a believer reads the Bible, he recognizes the truthfulness of what he is reading. A Spirit-illumined Christian does not doubt that what God has written is the truth, though he may have to work to intellectually understand the meaning of what he is reading.

When an illumined believer reads that God created the heavens and the earth, he simply accepts it as truth. When he reads that he is a sinner in need of forgiveness that is possible only through the substitutionary death and victorious resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ, he simply accepts it as truth.

The Spirit causes us to recognize the beauty of God’s revelation

Third, An illumined believer recognizes not only the truthfulness of what he is reading in Scripture, he also apprehends its beauty. Calvin argues, “Man’s mind can become spiritually wise only in so far as God illumines it. . . . The way to the kingdom of God is open only to him whose mind has been made new by the illumination of the Holy Spirit.”6John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II, iii, 20. An illumined believer finds value and worth in what he is reading, because it is the very Word of God. He delights in the Word of God (Ps 1:2); he loves God’s Word (Ps 119:97).

Once again, as Calvin seems to suggest, illumination occurs primarily at conversion, not as distinct occurrences later: “Christ, when he illumines us into faith by the power of the Spirit, at the same time so engrafts us into his body that we become partakers of every good.”7Calvin, III, ii, 35. From the moment our hearts are enlightened at conversion, we recognize the truthfulness and beauty of Scripture, and therefore we delight in it.

The Spirit causes us to recognize the authority of God’s revelation

Fourth, illumination causes us to recognize that what we are reading in God’s Word is authoritative for us. Since our enlightened hearts recognize the Bible as God’s revelation that is true and beautiful, we know that it has authority over us. These are not simply abstract words from God, they are words we ought to obey.

The Spirit causes us to recognize the significance of God’s revelation

Fifth, illumination does not reveal to us the meaning of a biblical text, but it does cause us to recognize the significance of Scripture for our lives. Calvin notes that “by the inward illumination of the Spirit he causes the preached Word to dwell in [believers’] hearts.”8Calvin, III, xxiv, 8. Because an illumined believer recognizes the truthfulness and beauty of the Word, he also recognizes how important it is that he intentionally apply the Word to his life.

However, the specific ways in which we ought to apply God’s Word to our lives are not going to be somehow “revealed” to us, through direct revelation, a “still small voice,” or some improper understanding of illumination. We have already been illumined, and that illumination is ongoing; we must now work hard to discern ways in which our lives need to change as a result of God’s sufficient Word.

As Paul prayed in Colossians 1:9, we ought to pray for “spiritual wisdom and understanding,” that is, the God-given ability to rightly apply God’s Word to our lives. And he will give us that wisdom. But spiritual wisdom means that we will be able to rightly apply the Word, it does not mean that the Spirit is going to apply it for us. The Spirit gives us wisdom, he does not give us new revelation.

As 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, by the Spirit believers are enabled to “accept the things of the Spirit of God.”

The Spirit causes us to submit our lives to God’s revelation

Finally, an illumined believer will willingly submit to the authoritative revelation of God. This is the natural outcome of all that has come before. Believers recognize the Bible to be God’s truthful, beautiful, authoritative, significant revelation, and since our hearts have been enlightened, we want to obey it.

This is not to say that we will perfectly obey or that we will not struggle with sin. But the same Spirit who enlightened our hearts at conversion also convicts us of sin, and at the end of the day, all true believers will progressively become more and more sanctified as they submit themselves to the authority of Scripture.

Toward a Biblical Definition of Illumination

In sum, we could define illumination as “that special activity of the Holy Spirit by which man can recognize that what the Scripture teaches is true, and can accept and appropriate its teaching”9Henry, 282. McCune is helpful here:

In short, illumination does three things: It provides (1) an intuitive certainty that the Scriptures came from God and are truth and authoritative; (2) a removal of hostility toward Scripture caused by depravity; and (3) an ongoing capacity to understand the significance of Scripture.”10McCune, 57.

Dangers of an Unbiblical Understanding of Illumination

Why is it important that we understand and use the concept of illumination correctly? If we have an unbiblical understanding of illumination, if we assume that the Spirit is going to somehow speak to us outside of his Word in giving us new revelation, meaning, or understanding of Scripture, it will lead to the following dangers:

We will subordinate the role of Scripture to what we expect will be the Spirit’s work apart from Scripture

First, if we expect the Spirit to do something apart from Scripture, we will inevitably subordinate Scripture itself to a subjective experience. We may say we believe Scripture to be sufficient, but ultimately we will ignore the objective Word, always seeking for subjective experiences, feelings, “inner voices,” or impressions that we assume to be the Spirit’s illuminating work.

Likewise, we will also find ourselves frustrated when we don’t experience some sort of feeling that we assume to be the Spirit’s illumination. We will wonder why he isn’t “speaking” to us.

Rather, we must recognize that he has already spoken to us through his sufficient Word—we ought not expect any further revelation. We must simply pray that he gives us wisdom to appropriate his Word and then actively apply and submit ourselves to what he has already spoken.

We will not do the work necessary to understand and appropriate Scripture

Second, when we come across a difficult passage of Scripture, instead of studying diligently and seeking the teachers God has gifted to his church, we will become frustrated. Why isn’t the Spirit helping me understand this text?

Even Peter acknowledged that some passages of Scripture are “hard to understand” (2 Pet 3:16). The Spirit is not going to somehow make them less difficult, but he will give us such a love for Scripture that we want to be taught and to engage in our own diligent study so that we may understand. Through illumination, the Spirit has already removed what is the most significant impediment to spiritual understanding—a heart veiled by depravity.

Praise be to God for his Spirit’s supernatural work of illumination in our hearts. Without it, we would not be able to accept the things of the Spirit of God, we would not recognize them as the truthful, authoritative revelation of God that they are, and we would not willingly submit ourselves to them.

But because at the moment of our conversion, our hearts were enlightened to the truths of God, we accept his inscripturated Word as God’s revelation, and we work diligently to apply the truths therein, for it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:13).

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1 Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, 284.
2 Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 40.
3 Henry, 283
4 Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, I:56.
5 J. I. Packer, “Biblical Authority, Hermeneutics and Inerrancy,” 143.
6 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II, iii, 20.
7 Calvin, III, ii, 35.
8 Calvin, III, xxiv, 8.
9 Henry, 282.
10 McCune, 57.
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Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.