Christians have always understood that the Bible is Spirit-wrought and God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21). Scripture is inspired or spirited, coming from the Holy Spirit’s work in and through human authors. But the Holy Spirit’s role does not stop with the writing of the texts. Good interpretation is also dependent on the ongoing work of the Spirit to in-spire us to understand, receive, and apply what God has spoken. We call this the doctrine of illumination of the Holy Spirit.
I mentioned above my old theology professor’s prayer: “Lord, open your word to us, and open us to your word.” The first part of this excellent prayer addresses the fundamental need for the Spirit’s work in our understanding of the Bible. We need the word to be opened to us. The good news is that God is willing and glad to grant us Spirit-given understanding, as Jesus himself tells us. We are invited to ask, seek, and knock because our heavenly Father will “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:9–13). This certainly applies to the Spirit’s work of illumination.
One of the passages that speaks most clearly and strongly about the role of the Holy Spirit in our understanding is 1 Corinthians 2:1–16. Paul makes clear that everything—from the basic message of the gospel to the deepest theological truths—is bound up with the active work of the Holy Spirit because the Spirit of God alone comprehends the thoughts of God (1 Cor. 2:11). The difference between those who truly understand the Bible’s teachings and those who do not isn’t based on education, skill set, or intelligence. It’s a spiritual matter. The Spirit reveals, instructs, and enables us to apply the beautiful and mysterious teachings of Scripture to our own lives.
I remember when I was in seminary that I wrestled with how to fit this truth together with the writings of many biblical scholars who were not Christians. I have benefitted from and continue to learn much from many scholars who are not Spirit-filled believers. They often have great insights into various aspects of the Bible, including historical background, grammar, literary structure, inner-biblical connections, and even application. The Spirit’s role in illumination does not eliminate or minimize these insights. We could put these under the category of common grace given to all of God’s creatures. Additionally, there is a difference between knowledge about the Bible and the Spirit-given wisdom that perceives and embraces the reality of which the Bible speaks (1 Cor. 2:6, 13). A nonspiritual person, what Paul calls “the natural person” (1 Cor. 2:14), may perceive certain things about God and the Bible (as Rom. 1 points out), but that person will not be able to receive and accept these things as the truth apart from the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.
The inability of unbelievers to embrace Scripture is related to the doctrine of the witness of the Holy Spirit through Scripture. Protestant theologians have especially emphasized that the Holy Spirit’s work in us ultimately convinces us of the truthfulness of Scripture. As the Westminster Confession states, “Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”1 Theologian J.V. Fesko comments on this helpfully:
In other words, fallen sinners will never humbly submit to the word of God. Rather, the Holy Spirit must first convict sinners of their need for repentance so that they will trust in Christ for their salvation. Once the Spirit has tamed our sinful hearts, we no longer come to the Scriptures with malice and rebellion but as hungry children seeking bread from our heavenly Father.2
Knowing is a spiritual matter—experiencing God through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Puritan theologian John Owen said it well:
That Jesus Christ was crucified, is a proposition that any natural man may understand and assent to, and be said to receive: and all the doctrines of the gospel may be taught in propositions and discourses, the sense and meaning of which a natural man may understand; but it is denied that he can receive the things themselves. For there is a wide difference between the mind’s receiving doctrines notionally, and receiving the things taught in them really.3
In John 1, Jesus invited people to “come and see.” This was an embedded lesson in biblical interpretation. Following Jesus by faith (i.e., discipleship) is the foundation of understanding. We don’t simply understand and then follow. We come to understand as we follow. This is the work of the Spirit.
At the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry, on his last night with his disciples, he revisits the matter of how to understand what God is saying to the world. And the key once again is the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells his disciples—who continue in succession down to us today—that after his departure the Father and he will send the Spirit of truth who will reside in and among believers (John 14:16–17).
We don’t simply understand and then follow. We come to understand as we follow. This is the work of the Spirit.
This person of God, the Holy Spirit, will “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Spirit will testify to the world who Jesus is (John 15:26), which certainly includes empowering the written testimony in Scripture. The Spirit will bring conviction on the world (John 16:8–10). Jesus taught his disciples much, but there was more to be said and more to teach the world (now recorded in the New Testament). The Spirit of truth will do this work. The Spirit will speak what Jesus says and glorify him (John 16:12–15). This spiritual reality means that we must begin and end and saturate all our interpretation of Scripture with a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit to enable us to understand and apply it. For me this typically means getting on my knees before opening the Bible and asking God to reveal himself to me. This physical posture is not necessary, but it helpfully communicates to my mind and body that my reading of Scripture is a deeply spiritual activity.
Here’s a great prayer from Thomas Aquinas that reflects this understanding and can helpfully guide our study of Scripture:
Ineffable Creator, Who out of the treasures of Thy wisdom hast appointed three hierarchies of Angels and set them in admirable order high above the heavens and hast disposed the divers portions of the universe in such marvelous array, Thou Who art called the True Source of Light and super-eminent Principle of Wisdom, be pleased to cast a beam of Thy radiance upon the darkness of my mind and dispel from me the double darkness of sin and ignorance in which I have been born.
Thou Who makest eloquent the tongues of little children, fashion my words and pour upon my lips the grace of Thy benediction. Grant me penetration to understand, capacity to retain, method and facility in study, subtlety in interpretation and abundant grace of expression. Order the beginning, direct the progress and perfect the achievement of my work, Thou who art true God and Man and livest and reignest for ever and ever. Amen