The last few posts have been inspired by several books on science I’ve been reading. They have explored the idea that we all come to the big questions in life with existing frameworks. These frameworks in turn lead to our holding various biases and presuppositions, which can result in our seeing what we wish to see rather than what is really there. I have adopted the term Vulcan Theology to describe this as it relates to interpreting Scripture.
As a result of these posts an interesting question arose. What is the role of the Holy Spirit in dealing with the Vulcan problem? If the Spirit provides illumination on a particular passage can that help us see it accurately?
This question invites us to first define the term illumination.
The Moody Handbook of Theology, defines illumination as “the ministry of the Holy Spirit whereby He enlightens those who are in a right relationship with Him to comprehend the written Word of God.” Going on to say that:
The believer is aided by the Holy Spirit’s ministry of illumination in guiding the believer to an understanding of divine truth (1 Cor 2:11-13).
J.I. Packer unpacks this term in Concise Theology: A Guide To Historic Christian Beliefs (link).
[Illumination] is not a giving of new revelation, but a work within us that enables us to grasp and to love the revelation that is there before us in the biblical text as heard and read, and as explained by teachers and writers.
Defining the work of illumination as the process in which the Spirit aids us in understanding the Scripture is a rather broad definition of the term. It does differentiate the work of illumination from other forms of guidance (ed. see this post and this one for more on that topic). However it still leaves open the question: does the Spirit help us arrive at the correct interpretation of a passage and thus eliminate Vulcan theology?
There is much that can be explored on the topic of illumination. However, for the purposes of this post we will assume that the Spirit’s work of illumination does not discount the need for reason, study, and hard work. Rather the Spirit works with us in the process of understanding a passage. But what should a reader expect from the Spirit when studying a passage? When a reader arrives at a particular interpretation of a passage how do they know if their understanding was given by the Spirit? And, if the Spirit does give the reader the correct interpretation of a passage are all other differing interpretations of that passage incorrect? More importantly, given the ministry of illumination, why is there so much disagreement in the realm of theology? And how do we know who is right and who is wrong?
For example, both John Wesley and George Whitefield were disciples of Christ who worked hard to bring the good news to people. Both led revivals. Yet both held very different ideas on various passages, particularly those related to predestination, election, and grace. How could these two men, both with amazing ministries, have such different understandings of the Scriptures and of God if the Spirit guides us to the correct interpretation? If the Spirit provided the correct interpretation to one of these disciples, how are we to discern which one that was?
And the Spirit doesn’t.
It is a mistake to assume that the Spirit will give us the correct interpretation of a passage. Illumination has more to do with the application of a passage in our heart than in our mind.
In Concise Theology, J.I. Packer goes on to write:
Illumination is thus the applying of God’s revealed truth to our hearts, so that we grasp as reality for ourselves what the sacred text sets forth.
Daniel Wallace’s preliminary look at illumination (link) agrees with Packer noting that the “Spirit’s work is primarily in the realm of conviction rather than cognition.”
… before the change, I pored over the Bible, questioning and analyzing it. But after the change it was as if the Bible, or maybe Someone through the Bible, began poring over me, questioning and analyzing me.
That is how Tim Keller describes how he approached the Bible before and after he became a Christian in his book King’s Cross. To be fair he does not call this illumination. But it is a rather fitting description of this work of the Spirit.
So what should a reader expect from the Spirit when studying a passage? The Spirit working in them to live out their life as a disciple of Jesus. They should not assume they are immune to the Vulcan problem (seeing what they want to see) nor conclude that their interpretation was divinely provided.