An Illumined Reading of Scripture

August 23, 2016

by David Garner

Surely it is one thing to claim that the Bible is the Word of God, but making such a claim does not by fiat create the truthfulness of that claim. A purely assumed certainty of Scripture makes quite uncertain the purported certainty itself. Is not the argument circular, so that the conclusion of the Bible’s truthfulness comes from the very presupposition of its truthfulness?

But such a crude, unreasonable, and deflating circularity is hardly at work here. Since we are corrupt and sinful people, our sinfulness dwells not only in our hearts, lives, and tongues (stubbornness), but also in our minds (blindness). In our rebellion against God we are wholly unwilling, indisposed, and unable to accept divine truth. “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” (1 Cor. 2:14).

Romans 1 indicates that as unbelievers we “suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18) and have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25). Such suppression and idolatrous substitution of lies for truth turn us into fools, though we claim “to be wise” (Rom. 1:22). In short, our rejection of God’s words in general revelation distorts our view of God and of reality. Such warping rebellion marks a point of no return morally and intellectually.

That being the case, God comes to us graciously and discloses to us forgiveness in the Son of God. His Word is a redemptive Word, and by faith in Jesus Christ—the Protagonist of Scriptureour eyes are opened to the truths and truthfulness of Scripture. Such understanding is entirely a gift. It is not a production of our wills or our minds. It simply cannot be.

The Spirit of Understanding

In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul explains this fact by way of the “impossible” task of gospel ministry. Why is it impossible? Because human hearts are blind, recalcitrant, and humanly irretrievable. Paul and his fellow apostles were fully aware that human words were positively insufficient to bring any sort of spiritual renewal. If it were not for the divine nature of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit, Paul and his fellow preachers were pitiable fools! What instead compelled them to preach was the divine and personal power of the Word of God to bring about change.

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s Word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled,  it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:1–6)

Into the darkened circularity of our sinful reasoning shines the Holy Spirit of God, who beams in with redeeming, unfailing, and wholly satisfying truth! God removes the blinders from our eyes and brings us from darkness to light.

So, here is what happens. We hear the Scriptures and the Spirit of God, Scripture’s Author, opens our heart and mind. By the instrument of faith, this Spirit gives light to our minds concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ and the words of Scripture. This point bears restatement: the Holy Spirit works in us, bringing about this change. The Spirit who gave the prophets and the apostles the Scriptures is the same Spirit who convinces us of the reliability of it. By the ministry of the Spirit of God, we now know what we could not know. We see what we could not see. The Spirit of God shines in our hearts this spiritual understanding.

Certainty cannot come by reasoning, but instead takes root in our hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit himself.

We turn once again to the New Testament. In his first epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul speaks directly about this Spirit-wrought change in us that enables us to understand the Word of God:

But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows as person’s thoughts except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. (1 Cor. 2:9–12)

How then are we persuaded? Answering this very question, Reformer John Calvin properly directs us away from human rationality, as it is simply inadequate.

Enlightened by his power we believe that Scripture is from God, not on the basis of our judgement nor that of others; but, rising above human judgment, we conclude with absolute certainty, as if we saw God’s own majesty present in it, that it came to us by the ministry of men from God’s very mouth. . . . It is a conviction which does not call for rational proofs; a knowledge with which indeed the mind rests more securely and steadily than in any rational proofs; an awareness which can only be born of heavenly revelation. I speak only of what every believer experiences, save that my words fall far short of a just account of the matter.(Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.5)

The conviction about Scripture’s truthfulness is no mere human phenomenon. It cannot be reduced to probabilities, proofs, or evidences. Certainty cannot come by reasoning, but instead takes root in our hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit himself. Such conviction is not irrational; it is supra rational, that is, it exceeds our powers of rationality.

So then, the Spirit who produced the Scripture by the agency of the prophets and the apostles is the very same Spirit who illumines us to receive the Scripture as wholly true. Note well that the Spirit does not change the Scripture; he changes us and opens our minds and hearts to Scripture’s truth. He enters the closed circle of our rebellion and blindness, in which we rely upon our finite and sinful  intellect, and delivers us from our self-absorbed darkness into his grace-filled light.

This piece is adapted from David Garner, How Can I Know For Sure? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014), 22–25. Used with permission of the publisher.

David Garner

Dr. Garner (PhD, Westminster) is associate professor of systematic theology and vice president for advancement at WTS.

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