The making and breaking of secret codes. Kids love it. Think of the invisible spy pen that writes messages in disappearing ink that can only be read with that nifty ultraviolet light gadget. Or the ever-popular coded messages. Only those with the special code key can decipher the otherwise meaningless combination of letters, digits, symbols, and emojis.
It turns out that children are not the only ones fascinated by the making and breaking of secret codes. A surprising number of adult Christians approach God’s word in the same manner. To them, the Bible is a book of secret codes. Its words have some meaning at face value, but true meaning is hidden beneath the surface. The decoder is the Holy Spirit. When he mysteriously imparts his special code to the reader or shines his special light on the text, the letters on the page rearrange to communicate new meaning. This new meaning remains intensely personal—known only by the Spirit and the one to whom he has provided the code.
Such an approach is just one illustration of the many misunderstandings that exist among Christians with respect to the Holy Spirit’s role in Bible study. In fact, this role—called illumination—is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Bible interpretation. This confusion exists for several reasons.
For one, there is a vacuum of solid biblical teaching on the topic. Many contemporary textbooks on hermeneutics simply neglect the issue. The trend in scholarly circles is to discuss Bible interpretation from an academic or philosophical perspective rather than from a theological one. This leaves little room for discussion about the operations of the Spirit.
Secondly, anything related to the person and work of the Holy Spirit is usually treated with a high degree of mysticism in today’s evangelical church. Consequently, a biblical teaching like illumination—simply because it is connected to the Holy Spirit—is subjected to all kinds of abuse. Half a century ago J. I. Packer observed that “pitfalls and perplexities regarding the ministry of the Spirit abound among Christians today.” This has only intensified in recent years. The Holy Spirit is the most maligned person of the triune Godhead today, treated by many popular speakers and ordinary readers as an impersonal, magical power rather than as God Almighty. This shows itself particularly in the confusion over illumination.
What Illumination Is Not
How then must we define the Spirit’s work of illumination? It is helpful to begin by contrasting it with what it is not.
1. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination is not his ministry of revelation.
Revelation refers to the Spirit’s act of revealing that which was previously hidden from human understanding. Since God’s will for us in the church age is now perfectly revealed in the Scriptures (e.g., Eph 3:3-7; 2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:2-3; Rev 22:18-19), there is no on-going revelation of new, divine knowledge. The Spirit’s work in revelation has been completed. So, unless the Christian is going to quote Scripture verbatim, he must put away the inaccurate and deceptive language reflected in the popular refrain, “God revealed to me today . . . .” Such statements are often clever attempts to canonize one’s own opinions about God and his own self-importance.
2. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination is not his ministry of inspiration.
Inspiration pertains to the manner by which the Holy Spirit superintended the biblical writers in their recording of divine revelation (e.g., 2 Pet 1:19-20). It pertains to the Spirit’s role of ensuring that the original words recorded in human language—even to the level of “the smallest letter or stroke” (Matt 5:18)—were exactly those intended by God. Only the biblical writers experienced inspiration in this theological sense.
3. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination does not occur apart from the Bible.
The Spirit’s ministry of illumination is inseparable from his ministry of sanctification, and according to the prayer of Jesus, sanctification does not occur apart from God’s word (“Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth”—John 17:17). In other words, the Spirit works with the word and through the word, but never apart from the word.
4. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination does not change the nature or message of the biblical text.
It is important to recognize that it is not the word of God that needs improvement, but the reader. From its very inscripturation, the word of God possessed all the qualities necessary for it to be read and comprehended. Consequently, when the Spirit “illumines,” he is not shining a light on a dark and mysterious text. Instead, he is shining a light on the believing reader, removing the cataracts from his spiritual eyes. As Luther stated to Erasmus, “Let miserable men, therefore, stop imputing with blasphemous perversity the darkness and obscurity of their own hearts to the wholly clear Scriptures of God.”
5. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination does not ensure inerrant interpretation.
As Peter indicates in 2 Peter 3:14-16, the correct understanding of a biblical text is not always easy to achieve. There are “things hard to understand” (v. 16), especially for those of us who are far removed from the original recipients of Scripture’s writings. Just as spiritual perfection is unattainable in this life (see Paul’s admission in Phil 3:12-14), so is absolute understanding of God’s word. Illumination is needed precisely because of this. It does not impart perfect knowledge, but it does empower us in the pursuit of constant improvement (2 Pet 3:18). In fact, recipients of this special ministry still remain under the need for reproof and correction (2 Tim 3:16-17).