Illumining Scripture

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (v. 14).

- 1 Corinthians 2:10b–16

Scholars of the Reformation regularly point out that in asserting the final authority of Scripture, the Reformers did not believe that unaided human reason was sufficient in order for the Bible to function as the last court of appeal in the church. The Reformers believed there was a place for reason, to be sure, but even the soundest rules of interpretation would be insufficient for appropriating the teaching of Scripture without the work of the Bible’s divine author. In other words, the Reformers held to a view of sola Scriptura that embraced the work of the Holy Spirit in illumining His Word in the hearts and minds of His people. Word and Spirit must go together in order for people to know, believe, and be transformed by divine revelation.

In noting that the illumining work of the Holy Spirit is necessary when we read Scripture, we are not saying that unbelievers are wholly unable to gain an understanding of the meaning of the biblical text. Non-Christians often are able to comprehend at least part of what a particular passage of Scripture means. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, however, a non-Christian cannot truly understand the significance of a particular text for salvation or come to saving faith. There is an understanding of Scripture that unbelievers can gain, but it is limited in its scope, and its efficacy will be only to harden the heart of the reader unless the Spirit does His work of changing the reader’s heart and mind. John Calvin comments on today’s passage: “It is not owing simply to the obstinacy of the human will, but to the impotency, also, of the understanding, that man does not attain to the things of the Spirit. Had he said that men are not willing to be wise, that indeed would have been true, but he states farther that they are not able. Hence we infer, that faith is not in one’s own power, but is divinely conferred.”

We require divine assistance to understand the full import of Scripture and to apply it rightly to our lives. The Holy Spirit must do His work of illumination, for as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:10b–16, only spiritual men and women can discern the things of God. And while the Holy Spirit certainly does this on an individual level, we must remember that the Spirit is given to all of God’s people (12:13). We need one another to enjoy the full benefit of the Spirit’s work of illumination, for the Spirit is often pleased to speak, as it were, through others, giving them insights to help us all know His Word.

Coram Deo

In all of our study of Scripture, we must never forget our need of the Holy Spirit’s assistance. As we read God’s Word, let us pray that the Spirit would illumine it so that we would understand and apply it rightly. And let us pray for this illumination when we read Scripture together so that we will be led in paths of righteousness through the Scriptures.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 119:18, 73
Isaiah 58:11
John 16:12–15
Ephesians 1:15–23

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