The Holy Spirit's Role when We Read the Bible.

December 5, 2020

Doctrine matters. What you believe about God, the gospel, the nature of man, the bible and even the Spirit's role when we read the bible has profound effect on our lives. Every major truth addressed in Scripture filters down to every area of your life.

In this post i want to point out a problematic doctrine taught i many churchs and show how it leads to biblical illiteracy and even helps support an anti-intellectual spirit in the church. The problematic doctrine is the doctrine of illumination.

The doctrine of illumination attempts to explains What the Holy Spirit is doing when we read scripture. It attempts to answer the question, “What is the Holy Spirit's role in biblical interpretation?” How we view the relationship between the Spirit, the reader and the text is an important issue to get right. In many ways it drives how we approach the text as a whole. Further, If we get it wrong it will drive us to conclusion that will stunt a christian's growth and move them into the murky waters of anti-intellectualism.

Problematic understanding of a key doctrine

A commonly taught version of the doctrine has laid the ground work for much of the anti-intellectualism in the church today. This Common articulation states that it is the Holy Spirit's role to function for the believer as their Bible Commentary. In the academic world, it is called the cognitive illumination view. The key text in the debate is 1 Corinthians 2:14.

"the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God for they are foolishness to him and he's not able to know them because they are spiritually appraised"

The cognitive illumination view holds that a person can't even intellectually comprehend the meaning of a Biblical text without being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is necessary to supply this true and saving comprehension. This may surprise most people but the majority of conservative seminary textbook authors reject this interpretation and for excellent reasons

Greek scholar, Rob H Stein points out that there are several Greek words that Paul could have used in 1 Corinthians 2:14. When he says "the natural man doesn't accept the things of God". Paul doesn't use the common Greek term for accept which broadly and generically means "to take". Instead he uses the verb which is more nuanced and in its 56 occurrences in the New Testament always refers to the acceptance of a requested offering. In other words the natural man doesn't just fail to receive the things of the Spirit of God because he can't intellectually comprehend the message. The connotation of the Greek term is that he intellectually does receive the message but he then chooses to reject its request. Stein additionally points out the verb translated foolishness in this verse is also used repeatedly by Paul in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians.

"Thus in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians we have the following parallel. The unbelieving world can understand the things of the spirit, what the Bible text means but it rejects what it understands as foolishness. Similarly God understands the wisdom of this world, but rejects it as foolishness" [1]

1 Corinthians 2:14 assumes non-believers are indeed capable of mentally comprehending the Bible and that it is actually this very capacity that causes them to dislike what it says and to consciously reject its message. [2]

Roy Zuck, comments:

"the verse does not mean that an unsaved person who is devoid of the holy spirit cannot understand mentally what the Bible is saying instead it means that he does not welcome its message of redemption into his own heart" [3]

Brent Osbourne clearly states:

“The Bible does not state that an unbeliever cannot intellectually interpret it quite accurately.”[4]

Lastly Bavinck summarizes a proper view in contrast:

“The illumination of the Holy Spirit is not the cognitive source of Christian truth. It does not disclose to us any material truths that are hidden from the ‘natural’ person. It only gives us a spiritual understanding of these same things, one that is different and deeper.”[5]

As we see the cognitive illumination view is insufficient, if not just wrong. Paul is claiming that the Holy Spirit's illumination resides in the significance of the text not in the meaning. The meaning of a text can be grasped by anyone for it is derive from the cultural, historical, and linguistic evidence in the text. So anyone can understand what a text means but only a christian can value  and respect it in a way that leads to faithful action in pursuit of Christ. The Holy Spirit reveals the significance of the text. His illumination conveys personal application, ethical value and the divine authority of the text.

An Alternative view of illumination

What I would call a proper view of Illumination focuses on  the Spirit's work to covay the Word's value and authority to the reader. In this way, the doctrine of illumination properly understood bring the reader the Spirit and the text into communion. The Spirit enables us to perceive Scripture’s inherent goodness and to taste its inherent sweetness. Just as the physically blind cannot see the sun, the spiritually blind cannot see the glory of the Son, nore see life in light of his glory. The light of the sun does not illumine the eyes of a blind man. Nevertheless, the Spirit’s work of “illumination,” the work whereby he enables us to see and to receive Scripture as God’s word (cf. 1 Cor. 2.12, 14), does not add light to Holy Scripture any more than the healing of a blind man adds radiance to the sun. The Spirit, by his illuminating work, enables us to see the light and to savor the sweetness that belong to Scripture. We value what it has to objectively say for its value is in what it teachings.

The Holy Spirit enables us through illumination to acknowledge scriptures authority and respond to that authoritative Word (Jn 3.3, 5; 2 Cor. 3.14–18; 4.3–6; 1 Thess. 1.5; 2.13). Seeing God's word as authoritative enables us to approach it properly. As one who is under its authority. In this way, we gain a new frame of reference. The Spirit combats the noetic effects of sin (sin's effect on our mind and reason) by revealing the reality of God's authoritative word, the word takes on a gravety it did not have before. We gain a seriousness about the word equal to the greatness of the God it reveals.

Surely Paul believes God could supernaturally show you a verses meaning, just like he could supernaturally help you pass a pop quiz you haven't studied for. Such illumination would literally be a miracle and greatest life hack ever.

It would also be a miraculous exception that you shouldn't count on it,  as if doing so makes you spiritual, in reality it only makes you lazy.

To be clear, I believe God speaks, but this is not that. The doctrine of illumination is not an excuse not to study, does not give you the right to read into the text whatever you want. Further, it certainly is not a justification for dismissing scholarly aids (Study Bibles and commentaries).

One reason, I think, for the proliferation of this doctrine comes from misunderstanding a common experience of many young Christian. When a Christian is still young int he faith, God will do a Special work of grace and help the young believer to understand a text. We all have likely had an aha moment when mediately grasp grasp complex passage. Without much work we gained an intuitive understanding of a text that often was a spring word to growth. The problem comes when we reflect on this experience. Many confuse this moment as normative not extraordinary. They do not take it to be the exception that proves the rule but assume it to be the normal operations of the Spirit.

The cognitive illumination view has stagnated the church's maturity and promoted anti-inellecualism. While the cognitive illumination view is very common it is also very dangerous. The widespread popularity of this belief logically forces a great deal of churches to promote intellectual illiteracy as a mark of spiritual maturity.

Here is a syllogism to explain the logic behind neglecting the role of the mind.

Premise one
it is spiritually mature to prioritize the best aids for Bible interpretation over inferior ones.

Premise two
the Holy Spirit is a superior aid for Bible interpretation and intellectual aids are inferior sources for Bible interpretation.

it is spiritually mature to prioritize the Holy Spirit for Bible interpretation over scholarly work.

In other words people who believe the Holy Spirit is a superior source for Bible interpretation are logically forced to view the prioritization of intellectual publications as less valuable, if not immoral. If the choice is either going with the ghost or getting help from a commentary, then choosing the latter is sin. Because of this logic many do not believe academic literature is a priority for understanding the Bible for them the Holy Spirit takes eclipsing priority. Put plainly, It is often taught that Study Bibles, technical commentaries are ok but all you really need to understand the Bible is the Ghost. Just read the Word of God and let the Holy Spirit illuminate the text, that is let the Holy Spirit comment on it.

This view of Biblical interpretation cultivates a culture of light devotional reading. A church community where no one is doing serious in-depth study because it is expected that the ghost will do the work. Interestingly this view promotes an idea that each time you read the Bible you should come away with a profound truth or interpretation and if you don’t then your time in the Word was fruitless. People read until discouragement gets the better of them and then they stop. All because their expectations were misdirected by a bad understanding of illumination. Here is why so many churches can hold a high view of scripture with many in the pew almost biblically illiterate. In such contexts, Christians can believe the Bible is God’s inerrant, infallible, all sufficient and authoritative Word and at the same time be biblically illiterate. All because they gave away the responsibility to learn by believing that it was supposed to be fed to them like mother’s milk. Learning will always be hard work but it is worth it.

The “Holy Spirit is my Bible commentary” view also promotes relativism in the church. If everybody can get the interpretation of the text from its author then what happens when Christians disagree? If Christians disagree on the interpretation of a text and both are sure the Holy Spirit gave them the interpretation. They are locked in an emotional stalemate. The result is often either flame or feather. Sometimes, flames fly, things get heated, and often divisive, to the point of breaking fellowship. Most of the time, both parties throw their hands up in the air defaulting to an evangelical subjectivism. A view which borders on relativism. Where everyone agrees the Bible is truth but confesses everyone has their own personal interpretation of the truth. They avoided the flame but made truth as light as a feather.




[1] Rob H. Stein "A Basic guide to interring the Bible" 2 ed. (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids 2011) 66

[2] William J Larkin Junior culture and Biblical hermeneutics: interpreting in applying the authoritative word in a relativistic age (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 289.

[3] Roy Zuck “The role of the Holy Spirit in hermeneutics" Bibliotheca Sacra Vol 141, 1984. 123-4.

[4] Brent Osbourne, The hermeneutical spiral: a comprehensive introduction to biblical interpretation 2 ed. (Downers grove: inter-varsity Press, 2006) 341

[5] Henry Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 1: 594



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