The theological term most commonly used by theologians to express the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical understanding is illumination. While the term isn’t directly used of the Holy Spirit, the concept is present, for example in John 1:5 and 1:9, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it… the true Light which coming into the world, enlightens every man.” In this context Jesus is the Light, and His enlightening or illumining work is accomplished with everyone.
But if Christ illumines everyone, to what extent does the Holy Spirit illumine? Does the Bible even teach that the Holy Spirit illumines, or is illumination by the Holy Spirit a theological rather than exegetical concept?
There are essentially three distinct views regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation, including: (1) the idea that “the Holy Spirit brings to the Christian greater cognitive understanding” of the Bible,1 (2) the idea that “one of the unique roles of the Holy Spirit is to convict, convince, and arouse sluggish hearts by applying the truths perceived in the text of Scripture to the lives of individuals,”2 and (3) the idea that “the basic thrust of the Holy Spirit’s illuminating or enlightening work relates primarily to our welcoming of the truths rather than our understanding of them.”3
Simply put, the views are that the Holy Spirit helps in cognitive understanding, the Holy Spirit helps with application, or the Holy Spirit helps a person receive rather than understand the truths of Scripture. To keep things simple, this discussion will refer to (1) the cognitive view, (2) the application view, and (3) the reception view. Let’s examine the biblical data to determine which of these views, if any—or more than one—best represents what the Bible teaches.
We start with the Psalms, a book that makes clear that God indeed illumines. Psalm 18:28 reads, “For You light my lamp; The Lord my God illumines my darkness.” Psalm 19:8 adds that “The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” Psalm 119, which includes a reference to Scripture in virtually all of its 176 verses, gives some insight regarding the concept of illumination. Psalm 119:18 records the Psalmist’s request—perhaps for illumination: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law.”
The Psalmist later seems to acknowledge how the eyes are actually opened: “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path” (119:105). This latter passage is particularly helpful because it identifies how God illumines, or specifically through what vehicle He illumines. It is the word of God that is the lamp to the Psalmist’s feet, in this particular context. The Psalmist adds for good measure, “The unfolding of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” Again, it is the word that illumines. Consequently, none of the three views are addressed in these Psalms, nor is the Holy Spirit directly mentioned at all in these contexts. So we reserve judgment for further examination, armed with the simple knowledge from the Psalms passages that God illumines, and He does it through His word.
In John 14:26, Jesus encourages his eleven disciples, saying to them, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” The Holy Spirit will teach them all things. Jesus adds in John 16:13 that the Spirit of truth will guide them into “all the truth,” including disclosing to them “what is to come.” These are vitally important passages to put in proper context. Jesus is addressing eleven men, assuring them of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to them. There is no exegetical reason to suggest that the ministry of guiding into all the truth extends beyond this prophecy that Peter recognizes is fulfilled in the recording of Scripture (see 2 Pet 1:20-21). Once again, these passages do not speak to any of the three views on illumination. Instead these encouraging prophesies from Jesus help prepare the eleven for the challenging task they would face when Jesus would depart.
In Luke 24:45 we encounter Jesus opening the minds of the disciples to understand the Scriptures (specifically the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms—the three basic divisions of the Hebrew Bible). The passage doesn’t give explanation regarding how He opened their minds, but it appears He did so by explaining, as He appeals to Scripture and explains them in the verses that immediately follow (Luke 24:46-48). He concludes the discourse with a prophecy of power that would come to his listeners—a prophecy corresponding to the promise of the Holy Spirit made in the upper room (Jn 14:26 and 16:13).
This passage is descriptive of an event that happened, but doesn’t provide any data that would lead one to conclude the event (that Jesus somehow opened the minds to cognitively understand Scripture) is normative in the life of the believer. While the passage does provide an instance of cognitive illumination, the Holy Spirit is not identified as having a direct part in it (in fact, He hadn’t even been sent by Father and Son yet), nor does the passage specifically identify how Jesus accomplished this opening of their minds (though the implication is that He did so by explaining). Once again, we cannot conclude in favor of any of the three views based on this passage.
Romans 8:9 is clear in its assertion that if a person does not have the Spirit of Christ—the Spirit of God dwelling in him—then that person does not belong to God. Paul adds a few verses later that “all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (8:14). Further, Paul explains, “the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (8:16). Clearly, by this point in the early history of the church, the Holy Spirit was the grounding of every believer’s life in Christ.
Ephesians 1:13-14 discusses how the Holy Spirit is even the guarantee or down payment of eternal life. In these Romans verses, Paul identifies the Spirit as indwelling (8:9, 11), leading (8:11), and testifying (8:16). With respect to the indwelling and testifying, there is no action implied on the part of the believer. But with respect to His leading, it is implied that the believer is following. The question in view here is how the Holy Spirit leads, and whether or not that is connected to the concept of illumination.
Four times in the NT the Spirit is mentioned as leading. Matthew and Luke describe the Spirit leading Jesus into and in the wilderness to be tempted by Satan (Mt 4:1, Lk 4:1), and Paul twice refers to the Spirit’s leading—once in Romans 8:14, asserting that all who are being led (present, passive) by the Spirit of God are sons of God, and in a similar context in Galatians 5:18, if believers are being led (present, passive) by the Spirit, then they are not under law. Both of Paul’s references to the Spirit’s leading are present tense and passive from the believer’s perspective—meaning that the leading is ongoing, and that the Spirit is the one doing the action, and the believer is simply responding.
In these contexts the leading of the Spirit isn’t explicitly explained, but Galatians 5:25 gives us a hint of what that leading looks like: if we are living by the Spirit, then we should be walking in Him. There is a connection between His leading and our walking in Him. Simply put, if we are being led by Him, we are walking with Him. But still, nothing in these immediate contexts are indicative of a connection to illumination.
Another term we encounter that is related to knowledge is the anointing believers have from the Holy One that results in “you all know” (1 John 2:20, NASB) or “you know all things” (KJV). In the immediately following context, that knowledge is the knowledge of the truth (2:21). This passage does not identify what the anointing or assignment is, so it would be difficult to support this passage as a proof text for the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. Yet, in at least two separate contexts in 1 John, the Spirit is directly bringing about knowledge for the believer: in 3:24 we know He abides in us through the Spirit, and in 4:13 we know that we abide in Him, because He has given of His Spirit. Both of these assurances are accomplished simply by the truth of His presence. Once again, no illuminating work is directly in view. However, 1 John 2:27 describes the anointing as abiding in believers, and teaches them about all things.
Besides the reference in 2:27, John uses the term abide in reference to several general relationships: (1) the believer abiding in Him (2:6, 10, 24c, 28, 3:6, 24a, 4:13, 15b), (2) the word of God abiding in believers (2:14, 24), (3) God abiding in believers (3:9, 24b, 4:12, 15a, 16b), (4) the believer abiding in death (3:14), (5) eternal life not abiding in the murderer (3:15), (6) love of God abiding in believers (3:17), and (7) believers abiding in His love (4:16a).
Of these options, it seems that the anointing of 2:27 refers to the word of God, as a neuter pronoun is used rather than masculine (the Persons of the Godhead are not generally referred to with neuter pronouns, but rather masculine ones), and it teaches about (peri) all things. While we certainly cannot exegetically disconnect the Spirit from this anointing, we also can’t directly connect Him in any of the three senses of illumination.
In 1 Corinthians 2:6-11 Paul describes how God revealed His wisdom through the Spirit. Verse 12 makes clear that the Spirit is a Person, and not an “it.” Also, the verse indicates that we have received the Spirit of God that we may understand (eidomen) that which has been freely given by God. In the thought that follows (2:14-16), Paul contrasts a natural (psuchikos) man and a spiritual (pneumatos) one. The natural man does not receive (dechetai) the things of God’s Spirit—they are foolishness to the natural man, and he cannot experientially know (gnonai) them because they can only be spiritually judged or discerned (anakrinetai). Paul chastises the Corinthians because, while they have the mind of Christ (2:16), they are walking as fleshly (sarchinois) rather than spiritual (3:1ff). In other words, they have an incredible resource at their disposal in order to know intimately or experientially, but instead they were choosing to walk in ignorant immaturity.
In this context the wisdom is available to these believers, but it is not discerned or judged rightly because it is not received by these believers as it should be. There seems no reference here to illumination, per se, but rather to being properly connected to what has already been provided. We have the Spirit of God, He has revealed wisdom, we have the mind of Christ. Consequently, it is an absurdity if we do not understand what God has provided. If we fail in that way, then we are being fleshly, behaving and thinking as natural rather than spiritual people.
From 1 Corinthians 2:6-3:3 we can see how the ministry of the Spirit enables believers to have a better knowledge, but that seems to extend beyond understanding (oida) to more experiential or personal knowledge (gnosis), as indicated by the distinct terms Paul uses. The natural man isn’t receiving, because he doesn’t have the Spirit, and therefore he isn’t discerning or judging properly. But the cognitive understanding seems to be there. It does not appear that the Spirit is active in providing additional cognitive understanding, though clearly through Him God has revealed wisdom, which definitely results in greater cognitive understanding (2:12). But that understanding is not the result of ongoing activity by the Spirit in the believer, it seems more the result of responding properly to what He has already revealed.
The cognitive model for illumination doesn’t seem to fit this context, nor does the application model, as the Corinthians are chastised for not applying properly what they already had—the mind of Christ (2:16). They also weren’t welcoming what God had revealed—not because the Holy Spirit wasn’t doing His job, but because they weren’t doing theirs. Once again, none of the three popular models of illumination seems to fit Paul’s instruction here.
The reference to illumining in 1 Corinthians 4:5 speaks of how the Lord will return, bringing to light that which is hidden in the darkness and the motives of hearts. The context is not of judgment unto punishment, but unto praise or reward, as each person’s praise or excellence (epainos) will come to him by God. The last three verbs in this verse are all future. They don’t describe a present work of the Spirit, but rather a future work of the Son.
After expounding on the marvelous glory of God expressed through the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit in salvation, in Ephesians 1:17-18 Paul offers a prayer for the believers, that God would give to them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him.” He has already told believers that they have the Spirit (1:13-14), so this prayer is not that believers would have Him, but that they would have a spirit, in the more general sense, of wisdom and unveiling in the knowledge (epignosei) of Him. The first of these two verses is a request for greater experiential knowledge, whereas the second verse requests greater cognitive understanding (eidenai) of the implications of what Paul had just explained in 1:1-14 and what he would expound on in chapters 2-3—specifically, the hope and riches God has provided to believers.
Paul is praying here that believers would truly understand God’s word. Unlike in his letter to the Corinthians, where Paul puts the onus on the believer, Paul seems to recognize here that the believer has some need that God can or must meet. Because the provision for that is not connected directly to the Holy Spirit in this context, it seems unwise to assume Paul is praying that the Holy Spirit might illuminate believers to understand. Even if that is what Paul was praying for, it wouldn’t be normative, since Paul places the burden of understanding on believers themselves in other contexts (as in 1 Corinthians). Instead, it seems that Paul recognizes the depth of “the surpassing greatness of His power to those who believe,” and wishes for believers to recognize the implications of that greatness.
As Paul concludes the section on the believer’s position in Christ, he offers another prayer that God would grant them “to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man” (3:16), ultimately so that they will be able to comprehend or grasp (katalabesthai) the breadth, length, height, and depth, and to experientially know (gnonai) the love of Christ. In this context, Paul does connect the believers’ receiving and experientially knowing with the present and ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit.
This passage would seem to support the third model of illumination, providing a welcoming, leading to better experiential knowledge. If one understands the verb to know (gnonai) as cognitive (I don’t), rather than experiential, then one could easily recognize this passage as supporting the cognitive illumination view instead. Either way, it is clear from this passage that the Holy Spirit is indeed involved in the believer’s processing of the truth. Whether or not that involvement is best represented by the term illumination is the question.
In 2 Timothy 2:7 Paul tells Timothy to think on what he says, and he adds that God will give Timothy understanding (sunesin) in everything. The formula is this: you take action (imperative), and God will take action (future). Perhaps more than any other previous reference, this one shows the relationship between God and man in the process of increasing cognitive understanding. Both Timothy and God have a responsibility here. Once again, this is not tied specifically to the Holy Spirit, but we have seen previously that the Holy Spirit is certainly involved in the process.
Hebrews 6:4 references “the having been enlightened” (photisthentos), as “having tasted” (twice), “having been made partakers,” and “having fallen away.” Because each verb is a participle, and only the first has the definite article, the person being described here has participated in each of these things. This seems a clear reference to believers who are neglecting their salvation (see Heb 2:2-3), and who cannot come to repentance as long as they continue to put Christ to open shame (6:6). The enlightenment here refers to their positional change from death to life, rather than to an ongoing learning or growth process. Enlightenment accompanied tasting the heavenly gift and being made partakers of the Holy Spirit. Ongoing or continuing illumination of the Holy Spirit is not in view here.
From these passages, it is evident that the Holy Spirit is actively involved in the ongoing growth of the believer. It is also evident that He was actively involved in the revealing of God’s truth through the Bible. It is evident from these and other contexts that He uses the Scriptures in the lives of believers, and that those Scriptures are the basis for the Christian’s walking in the Spirit. Further it is evident that the Holy Spirit actively helps believers to understand (2 Tim 2:7), comprehend (receive) and to know (experientially) (Eph 3:16-19).
Yet it is probably best not to describe the Holy Spirit’s work in that regard as illumination. Further, to quantify His ministry specifically as only bringing cognitive understanding, or only helping to apply, or only helping to receive, does not seem to be exegetically justified, and may go too far (or not far enough) in defining His work. It is also important to recognize that His ministry is not remedying any inherent deficiency or limitation in the text. Instead, He uses the text itself to inform and to illumine (Ps 119:105) us.
Paul’s model in Ephesians 3:14-19 is a helpful one: he relies on the text to inform us, and he prays that we too would be able to receive “with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know (experientially or intimately) the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” that we might be filled up to all the fullness of God. This involves the Father (it is His fullness we are being filled with), it involves the Son (it is His love we are knowing), and it involves the Spirit (it is His power that strengthens us). Ultimately, we are commanded to grow (2 Pet 3:18); we grow by His word (1 Pet 2:2); and God Himself causes the growth (1 Cor 3:7).
1 Robert Plummer, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010), 144.
2 William Craig, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Introduction, Revised and Updated (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 139.
3 Walt Russell, Playing With Fire (Carol Stream, IL: Navpress, 2000), 63.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Southern California Seminary. He formerly served as President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, Professor of Bible and Theology, and as a Pastor of Tyndale Bible Church. He has also held several teaching positions and is the author and general editor of several books. He blogs regularly at drcone.com.