“Divine Illumination”

Jerry C. Brewer

Any teaching that implies a false doctrine is, itself, false. That is the case with the doctrine of “Divine Illumination.” This doctrine, which John Calvin borrowed Augustine (from whom he borrowed much of his theology), teaches that man cannot understand God’s word until, and unless, the Holy Spirit “illuminates” it for him. This implies that God either would not, or could not, reveal Himself to man in words that man could read and understand by his mental faculties. That implication is false, as is the doctrine of “Divine Illumination” from which it is derived.

Divine illumination is frequently concluded from a false view of Paul’s words in First Corinthians 2:14: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Calvinists, and even some members of the church, look at these words and conclude that we must have supernatural help from the Holy Spirit to understand the word of God. Calvinists say “the natural man” is the unregenerate man who does not have the help of the Holy Spirit in understanding God’s word. That is not Paul’s thrust, as we shall see.

Paul was writing to Greeks at Corinth, a city that considered itself an equal of Athens when it came to Greek philosophy. Greek philosophers prided themselves on their ability to arrive at truth by means of their logic and human wisdom. That’s why he wrote, “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). Men could not find or know the Truth through philosophical pursuits, or any other natural means at their disposal.

Paul continued that thought in the next chapter, saying, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things that God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). His quotation is from Isaiah 64:4, indicating man’s inability to know the God’s plan of salvation in previous ages. That plan—unknown by human reasoning— has been revealed and Paul explains further: “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit; for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea the deep things of God” (v. 10).

The focus of Paul’s teaching here is Divine revelation. God has revealed His word to, and through, inspired men, the apostles and others on whom apostles laid their hands to impart spiritual gifts (cf. Acts 8:14-17). The mind of God was revealed to man, as man reveals his mind to others—in words easy to be understood and acted upon. Illustrating that, Paul asked, “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11). He then explained, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God” (v. 12).

Then comes Paul’s inspired explanation of how “the things of God” (His will) were imparted to inspired men—the same way man’s thoughts are revealed to others. “Which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (v. 13). God’s word has been revealed in words chosen by the Holy Spirit, given to inspired men, and written down for the world to know.

His next statement says, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God” (v. 14). The “natural man” is the man who seeks to know God’s mind by natural means apart from His revealed word. The chemist cannot discover God’s will through his laboratory experiments. The geologist cannot discover God’s will in his diggings, the philosopher cannot know God’s will through his human reasoning, and the astronomer cannot find God’s will in his study of the universe. These are all means that “the natural man” has at his disposal, but the will of God is found in His revelation to men in the Bible, not in natural pursuits of knowledge.

Now, do you think God would reveal His will through the Holy Spirit in such a manner that man could not understand it without direct “divine illumination?” That impugns the integrity and omniscience of God. Paul told the Ephesians, “How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit…” (Eph. 3:3-5). He said, “Whereby when ye read ye may understand,” and there is a parallel between what he wrote here and what he wrote in First Corinthians 2:9-10. The things of God that men did not know in ages past have now been made known by Divine revelation and they are things one can read and understand, without “divine illumination.” If one cannot understand the word of God without direct help of the Holy Spirit, God wasted time and effort to reveal His word. He could have simply had the Holy Spirit to directly implant His word into every person in the world.

Paul said, “when ye read ye may understand” God’s word was delivered through inspired men in the first century. It could be understood then by reading it, and it can be understood today when men read it. The doctrine of “divine illumination” is false. There is not a syllable in all of the Bible that indicates we must have supernatural, divine aid in understanding God’s word.

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