The doctrine of illumination is an oft-overlooked, oft-misunderstood (if understood at all) doctrine. It mostly falls under the realm of pneumatology, which might have something to do with it being so frequently passed over. I have always had something of a feeling of importance for this doctrine as it so critically explains many questions not only regarding how we know, but why we are blessed with a right understanding of Scripture when others are not. Why are you a Calvinist and your friend an Arminian? God’s grace, yes, but by what means of God’s grace? By your intelligence? Has God ordained that the intelligent shall inherit understanding of the mysteries of his word? Surely not. Paul sys that the world through wisdom did not know God (1 Cor. 1:21). If understanding is a grace of God administered by means as other graces, then how comes it?
Well, by illumination.
1 Corinthians—more than any other book I might dare say—is abundantly clear on the topic of understanding. It provides us with a wealth of information regarding how and why God reveals and does not reveal his word to people. From 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16, Paul sets down an extended argument for the necessity of the Spirit’s work to illumine the minds of believers. The passage of 1 Cor. 1:18-29 contains a critical part of the argument in which Paul describes the human mind as incapable of grasping God’s truth. Even more, Paul says that God will destroy the wisdom of the wise and being the understanding of the prudent to nothing (1 Cor. 1:19). Now if Paul had anything good or approving to say about man’s wisdom or his ability to come to an understanding of God he could have phrased this verse a thousand other ways. But he did not. Moreover, the subsequent verses simply serve to reinforce this point, not to mention the rest of Scripture. Indeed, he quite plainly thinks very little of man’s understanding, at least insofar as God is concerned.
He continues, “Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Cor. 1:20). And so, since the hardness of men’s hearts lead them to pursue worldly wisdom to fill the gaping void in their souls, God has seen fit to destory their pride and false wisdom with folly. Not true folly, mind you, but what appears to be folly to unregenerate men. The preaching of the word from its inception has been derided by men as foolishness and this has not at all changed in our day. While the vain philosophies of men have come and gone, the wisdom of the Lord has remained. Today the world exchangs scientism, psychology, liberalism, and new age spirituality for God’s word. But just as he destroyed Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, so will he destroy Sagan, Freud, and Marx. For by wisdom the world does not and cannot know God (1 Cor. 1:21). Natural theology is completely ruled out.
But does this mean that man cannot know God at all? No, it does not.
Paul tells us that Scripture is profitable and sufficient (2 Tim. 3:16), even for our understanding. But if so, why do many stumble at Scripture’s teaching? Why do the unleaned and unstable twist and distort the text to their destruction (2 Pet. 3:16)? Why did Christ speak in parables? Why did he obscure his message that his hearers might not understand? Jesus said many times that they could not hear (or believe) because they were not of his sheep (Jn. 8:43-45; 10:26; 12:39-41). Paul says man does not know the things of God; it is the Spirit who knows them (1 Cor. 2:11). Acts 1:2 tells us the apostles were taught of Christ by the Holy Spirit. They were taught by the same Comforter that Jesus promised even to us (Jn. 15:26). Paul says we have received not the spirit of the world, but of God (1 Cor. 2:12). Christ says his words are spirit and life (Jn. 6:63). And to further emphasize the point—”the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:14).
But what is illumination?
Well, simply put, illumination is a particular grace of God administered by the Holy Spirit to the elect according to the will of the Father by which their minds are enabled to receive and believe the true meaning of Scripture. The work of illumination is fully dependent on Scripture‐just as Scripture is fully dependent on illumination. Were the Holy Spirit to withhold illumination from all our minds Scripture would be a dark chasm into which we could not climb out of. The dimness of our minds would yield up only clouds and fog as we peered into that holy book; but by the illuminating grace of the Holy Spirit, the clouds part, the fog lifts, and we are made to see the Son. But we are thankful that the Holy Spirit did not inspire the word of God that it should remain hidden under a bush without a light by which to read it. Rather, he provids not only the text to study, but the light by which it can be studied.
This series will focus on the effect, purpose, and practical application of the doctrine of illumination (to apologetics, primarily). I pray that God will bless and illumine your minds as well as my own as we delve into his word and discover more about what he has done for us.
Soli Deo Gloria