Reforming Illumination

  • Jeff Crotts
Old photo of a man reading and writing with a quill

The last time I wrote, I introduced the concept of illumination as it relates to the ministry of God’s Word. Now, for a lot of people, illumination—the truth that conversion and spiritual “sight” comes through the ministry of the Holy Spirit as God opens up our hearts to understand His word and the truth of the gospel—that doctrine is most likely pretty obscure. In fact, one may conclude that it’s a truth that doesn’t find much attention throughout the 66 books of the Bible. Others might assume that it’s a relatively new doctrine, which then immediately makes it somewhat suspicious. Both ideas are far from true.

In reality, men of God throughout church history have recognized the significance of the doctrine of illumination that is so widely found throughout the Word. In particular, what makes this doctrine so significant is how it actually protects the message of the gospel.

Understanding the reality and importance of illumination drove the church in the early 16th century to value the expository preaching of men such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and William Tyndale. Puritan writers like John Owen and others were profoundly influenced by the doctrine of illumination, as evidenced by the way it flows in and through their writings and reflections. Jonathan Edwards, the great American preacher and theologian from the 18th century, was another man of God whose writings and thoughts were permeated with this doctrine. It has been said that for one to truly understand Edwards’ apologetics, sermons, and teachings, one must first grasp his understanding of doctrine of illumination.

Over the next few blog posts, I want to talk about several theologians throughout church history who have investigated and developed this doctrine and shown its powerful ability to illumine the truth of God’s Word. So follow along as we re-trace those who lifted the doctrine of illumination from the pages of Scripture and imprinted it on the hearts and souls of their hearers, beginning with the eminent french theologian John Calvin. 

John Calvin

The man who stands out as a forerunner in crystallizing the teaching of illumination is John Calvin. Reading his testimony, it is readily apparent that this doctrine meant a great deal to him. When Calvin was a young man in the early 1500s, a significant transition was taking place across Europe. Through-out the Middle Ages God’s Word had been held at a distance from the common man by the established church, resulting in massive spiritual darkness in the world. Most people did not have access to God’s Word because it was not translated into the common tongue. The Bible was unreadable and impossible to understand; however, with the Protestant Reformation, all this changed. Access to the Bible was gained. In fact, one of the heart-cries of the Protestant Reformation was the slogan post, tenebras lux: “After darkness, light.” This light was the spiritual light of illumination believers receive from God’s Word. At this point in history, through the Word being preached and read, spiritual awakening came with blinding brilliance and spread the gospel across the globe.

Calvin understood well the need for people to be illumined, so from the very start of his ministry in Geneva he was committed to expository preaching, as was reflected in his work ethic. He was a busy pastor. His time was filled with counseling, visiting sick members, writing letters, officiating at public ceremonies such as weddings, baptisms, and the Lord’s Table, as well as with the private duty of praying for his flock. He was, however, first and foremost a preacher. He devoted much of his time to studying his Bible, pre-paring to preach two sermons every Sunday plus one sermon every day of the week on alternating weeks. Every two weeks Calvin was preaching, on average, nine to tent times. He also taught as a theological professor and preached to and mentored local Genevan pastors on Fridays. So, in a typical year, Calvin preached about 286 sermons. It has been said that Calvin’s elders insisted upon this rigorous preaching program so that the light from his preaching would effect change in the surrounding Genevan culture. While this arduous preaching schedule must have been physically demanding, his elders gave good counsel. The light from his pulpit ministry is still shining around the world today.

For Calvin, this was not an unwelcome requirement because he understood the doctrine of illumination well. Throughout his Institutes and ser-mons runs the teaching of what he called “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit,” which is the certainty of the Scripture confirmed by the Spirit in the heart of the believer. Calvin also called this “the internal witness of the Spirit” or the “enlightenment” that comes through “the medium of verbal testimony [where a believer’s] blind eyes of the spirit are opened, and divine realities come to be recognized and embraced for what they are.”

He was so convinced of the reality of the “inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit” that he compared it to his physical experience, saying illumination was “… as immediate and unanalyzable as the perceiving of a color, or a taste, by physical sense … [that] when it happened [a person knew] … it had happened.” Calvin clearly stated that the testimonium, or this witness of the Spirit, was not some kind of additional revelation beyond the Scripture. He says, “Therefore the Spirit, promised to us, has not the task of inventing new and unheard-of revelations, or of forging a new kind of doctrine, to lead us away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but of sealing our minds [the testimonium] with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel.”

The Spirit’s work “…awakens us, as from the dead, to see and taste the divine reality of God in Scripture, which authenticates it as God’s own word.” Again, for Calvin, the Word of God is saving, but is made certain by the “inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit.” So a person illumined will automatically have the perspective that Scripture “wins reverence for itself by its own majesty … illumined by its power, we believe …; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God…” Calvin declared this as “more excellent than reason,” when, by the sealing work of the Spirit, the Bible obtains full “acceptance” in a person’s heart.

Reading Calvin’s testimony of his conversion makes it easy to under-stand why this doctrine meant so much to him. For Calvin, this teaching framed his personal experience of becoming a Christian. While the exact date of his conversion is not known, sometime after 1533 Calvin described his own original illumination that took place while he was still a practicing Catholic. What is noteworthy is how he measured the authenticity of his conversion in terms of the spiritual light that caused his mind and affections to be moved by the Word.

Calvin describes this thus:

… A very different form of doctrine started up, not one which led us away from the Christian profession, but one which brought it back to its fountain … to its original purity. Offended by the novelty, I lent an unwilling ear, and at first, I confess, strenuously and passionately resisted … to confess that I had all my life long been in ignorance and error … I at length perceived, as if light had broken in upon me, in what a sty of error I had wallowed, and how much pollution and impurity I had thereby contracted. Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen … as in duty bound, [I] made it my first business to betake myself to thy way [O God], condemning my past life, not without groans and tears. God, by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame … Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with [an] intense desire to make progress. (Quoted in John Dillenberger (ed.), Introduction, John Calvin: Selections from his Writings ([n.p.]: Scholars Press for the American Academic of Religion, 1975, p. 26).

He was given spiritual eyesight and he suddenly embraced the truth for what it was—the revelation of God. He had discovered the certainty of Scripture by what he called “the secret testimony of the Spirit” or “the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit.” It is no overstatement to say that his under-standing of this doctrine was what drove his ministry in the Word. Why else would John Calvin have given his life to expository preaching? Calvin knew that God’s light only shines in a person’s soul through the vehicle of biblical truth, and so he devoted his entire life to exegetical study from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.

History makes it clear that his preaching ministry influenced his own culture, with the effects felt far beyond—reaching even down to today. Calvin maintained the simple commitment to preach truth to his community in Geneva about three out of every four days—all with the purpose of bringing light! What Calvin called the “testimonium” should be categorically understood as an “application” of the general doctrine of illumination. For this reason, Calvin is a foundational theologian for the development of this doctrine as a whole. Calvin’s commitment to biblical illumination testifies to the doctrine’s powerful ability to specify the nature of the gospel message.