The Holy Spirit “Illumination” Theory: A Critical Review
There is a doctrine quite common in the denominational community that is making its presence increasingly felt among the people of God.
It is the notion that the Christian has the promise of a direct illumination of the Holy Spirit. This theory proposes that the Holy Spirit directly leads you to understand and interpret the text of the Bible.
The theory suggests that the Scriptures, as they presently stand, are incapable of being thoroughly understood. By implication, therefore, the divine message is incomplete. (But see: 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
And so, in addition to studying the biblical record with correct methods of interpretation, it is alleged that there must be a direct working of the Spirit of God on the heart of the Bible student. This miraculous influence effects an “illumination” that brings the meaning of the divine text into sharper focus.
The History of the Doctrine
The illumination theory is not new. Actually, it is a residue from the old concept of human hereditary depravity.
This is the idea that man is so hopelessly depraved by virtue of Adam’s fall, that the Scriptures are incomprehensible to his blighted mind. This dogma was popularized most prominently by the reformer, John Calvin (A.D. 1509-1564).
Some of the early “church fathers” introduced the idea that the guilt of Adam’s sin was contracted by all of his descendants.
Tertullian (A.D. 150 — 222) contended that a person inherits both his body and his spirit from his parents (De Anima, ch. 23-41). Later, Augustine (A.D. 354-430) taught a similar idea.
Cyprian (A.D. 200-258) had alleged that new-born infants inherit “the infection of the old death” from Adam (Epistle lviii).
Origen (c. A.D. 185-254) suggested that a child is polluted with sin “though [its] life be but the length of one day upon the earth” (Homily in Luc. xiv). On this account, he argued that no Christian should celebrate the day of the birth (Hom. in Leviticum , viii.3).
And so, due to man’s supposed corrupted nature, he cannot understand the Scriptures without direct divine guidance. Calvin, cited Paul’s statement that “no man can say, Jesus is Lord, but in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3) as proof of this dogma (see Calvin’s Institutes, II, II, 20-21).
But this Corinthian passage merely asserts that belief in Christ’s lordship is dependent upon the revelatory mission of the Spirit. To suggest that it affirms that each individual must have a direct, personal miraculous enlightenment of the Spirit is to assume more than the text states.
The Holy Spirit is the author of the Scriptures. Apart from that body of information, no man can declare Christ’s lordship.
Ultimately, this precious affirmation must be attributed to the Spirit.
But this by no means establishes the direct illumination theory.
Calvin likely borrowed the illumination idea from Augustine. As Norman Geisler has noted, the North African theologian not only taught that the Holy Spirit is “the means by which we receive God-written revelation (Confessions 7.21), he is necessary [also] for illuminating and confirming its truth” (Homily VI; quoted in Geisler, 331).
Other reformers (e.g., Luther and Zwingli) taught similar ideas respecting the need for some special power of the Holy Spirit in order that one might be empowered to comprehend the Scriptures. This notion has filtered down to many in the modern world of sectarianism.
Henry C. Thiessen, a Baptist writer, wrote:
“[T]he illumination of the Holy Spirit. . . is vouchsafed to every believer. . . [which will] enable us to understand the revelation God has already made of Himself, especially that revelation of Him in the Scriptures” (45).
Roy Zuck is a former Bible professor at Dallas Theological Seminary whom I highly regard. His book, Basic Bible Interpretation, is a valuable volume in my library.
However, Zuck contended mightily for the idea that “[n]o one can fully comprehend the meaning of the Bible unless he is regenerate” (22). He further affirmed that even the Christian “must also depend upon the Holy Spirit” for a correct view of the Scriptures. He quoted H. C. G. Moule who wrote: “The blessed Spirit is not only the true Author of the written Word but also its supreme and true Expositor” (23; emphasis added).
The doctrine of the “illumination of the Holy Spirit” is not defensible — either on a scriptural or logical basis. Consider the following points.
The passages that are appealed to as proof for the dogma are grounded either in unwarranted assumptions that are imposed on them (see the reference to 1 Cor. 12:3 cited above) or else the alleged proof-passages are extracted from their original contexts and misapplied.
For example, John 16:13 frequently is employed to prove the idea of special “illumination” (see Zuck, 24). “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.”
But this text refers to the apostles and, by implication, others who were to be endowed with miraculous teaching powers).
Those so empowered proclaimed the gospel in that time period preliminary to the completion of the New Testament canon.
This promise from the Lord does not have a direct application to Christians today (see Jn. 14:16-17, 26; 15:26-27; 16:12-16; cf. also Mt. 10:19-20; Lk. 21:14-15).
It is a travesty to misuse these contexts in such an irresponsible fashion.
Here are some important questions that must be answered.
- If the Holy Spirit illuminates the mind of the Christian student, is the Holy Spirit as infallible as an expositor as he was in his role of author of the sacred message? If not, why not?
- Furthermore, how would we know if or when we have been “illuminated”?
- If someone affirms that he’s been illuminated with reference to a particular passage, may he ever alter his view of that text? If so, did the Spirit misdirect him earlier?
Then there’s this. If one person has been illuminated regarding a passage, are all others who take a different view in error? If two people claim illumination but they differ on the interpretation of a passage, how could I know which of these is correct — or if either is?
Can the Holy Spirit Do a Better Job the Second Time?
And perhaps the gravest implication of all is this. If the Holy Spirit could not make the Scriptures comprehensible to man the first time by the revelation in an objective written form, how can we be confident that he is able to make God’s will comprehensible the second time around by a seemingly subjective illuminating process?
Note professor Zuck’s concession. He says that the Spirit’s role in illumination “does not mean that one’s interpretations are infallible” (24; emphasis added).
This is woefully inconsistent with the esteemed professor’s endorsement of Moule, namely that the Spirit is both Author and Expositor of the Scriptures for the believer.
And if the “one Spirit” is illuminating these men (who accept this position), why do they disagree with each other in their doctrinal positions? Common sense says that something is seriously wrong with this theory.
Why Write Books on Bible Interpretation?
If the Holy Spirit provides illumination to men today, why do scholars who subscribe to this ideology write books teaching folks the proper methods of Bible interpretation as professor Zuck has done?
According to their theory, such efforts have no value to the unbeliever, because he has “no spiritual capacity for welcoming and appropriating spiritual truths” (Zuck, 22). And their books should not be needed by anyone who has the illuminating Spirit, the alleged “Expositor” of truth.
A Test of the Theory
What if we proposed the following experiment.
Select two spiritual Christian people and put them in separate rooms. Provide them with a difficult biblical text with which each person is equally unfamiliar.
Let one of them have access to a good library of reference works, and provide the other with nothing but an empty room and his illumination of the Spirit.
Allow each several hours of concentration. Then have each write his explanation of the obscure text.
Most assuredly, the person with access to the library will have a better grasp of the passage than the one who has relied solely on the “presence” of the Spirit.
If someone objects to this test, we need only to appeal to the admonition of Christ’s apostle.
“Beloved, believe not every spirit [i.e., every person making a religious claim], but prove [test — ESV] the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1).
What Do the Scriptures Say?
The doctrine of special illumination contradicts the clear testimony of Scripture. The devout student is promised that he is able to understand the Word of God as given originally.
When Paul wrote to the Ephesian brethren, he affirmed that “when you read, you can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). The apostle did not suggest that reading plus a special intervention of the Spirit would be required.
Later, he admonished these saints: “Wherefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17).
If the theory under review is true and if the Christian does not understand the will of the Lord — even though he studies diligently — the responsibility must be laid at the feet of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, Paul’s testimony could not be clearer. The inspired Scriptures are:
“profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction, which is in righteousness: that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
The Scriptures alone are sufficient for man’s understanding of the divine will.
We have no doubt but that many of those who advocate the theory of special illumination of the Holy Spirit are sincere. But sincerity does not guarantee accuracy (Acts 23:1; 26:9).
Moreover, it should be a matter of great concern to church leaders that so many of our people are beginning to use this sort of language, reflecting unsound beliefs that they have adopted regarding the Spirit’s operation.
The problem is this. We have numerous Christians these days who have a most superficial knowledge foundation in New Testament doctrine. Combine this fact with the reality that many constantly are feeding themselves (or are being fed by others) on sectarian literature that is rank with such ideas.
There is an inevitable result in the wake of such a course.
Surely it is time for some serious teaching in the church of the Lord on matters pertaining to the Holy Spirit.
- Geisler, Norman. 1999. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999,
- Thiessen, Henry C. 1949. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
- Zuck, Roy. 1991. Basic Bible Interpretation. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.