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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Is the Bible the Authoritative Word of God?

Don Stewart :: What’s the Difference Between Divine Inspiration and Illumination?

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Question 10

What’s the Difference Between Divine Inspiration and Illumination?

The terms divine inspiration and illumination are used by people to explain certain aspects of the recording of Scripture, as well as the understanding of what is recorded. Since some people confuse divine inspiration and illumination, it is important that we have a correct understanding of how each term is used.

What Is Divine Inspiration and What Is Illumination?

The terms divine inspiration and illumination can be explained as follows:

  • Divine Inspiration: the Recording of God’s Truth

    Divine inspiration refers to the supernatural influence upon the writers of Scripture that caused them to accurately record God’s truth. It does not have anything to do with the giving of Scripture by God. This is revelation.

  • Illumination: the Understanding of Truth by Believers

    Illumination is the divine influence of God’s Spirit that helps individuals understand the truth of God contained in the Bible. Illumination is something that comes directly from the Holy Spirit and is available to every believer. Paul wrote:

    God has revealed these to us by the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God... The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:10,14 NET)

    Through the work of God the Holy Spirit, the believer is able to understand the things of God; they are to be spiritually understood.

  • Important Observations about Divine Inspiration and Illumination

    There are a number of important observations that need to be made about the differences between divine inspiration and illumination.

    1. Illumination Is for Believers Only

      The Holy Spirit can illumine only believers to understand God’s truth; unbelievers cannot spiritually comprehend God’s truth. However, Scripture says that unbelievers can actually make divinely inspired utterances.

      For example, the Holy Spirit divinely inspired the words of the High Priest Caiaphas:

      Then one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is more to your advantage to have one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.” (Now he did not say this on his own, but because he was high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the Jewish nation, and not for the Jewish nation only, but to gather together into one the children of God who are scattered). (John 11:49-52 NET)

      He uttered a divinely inspired message without being conscious of it. At that moment, he was divinely inspired of God, but not illumined by the Holy Spirit - seeing that he did not understand the full meaning of what he had just said. Therefore, the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit is for believers only.

    2. Illumination Does Not Have the Same Duration as Divine Inspiration

      Divine inspiration is something that happened only periodically to the writers of Scripture—God did not divinely inspire them every moment of their life. They were not always led by the Holy Spirit. At divinely appointed times, the Spirit of God came upon a limited number of individuals to record God’s truth for humanity. In this sense, inspiration was totally a divine work.

      Illumination, on the other hand, can be permanent. The anointing that the believer receives stays with them. John wrote:

      Nevertheless you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. (1 John 2:20 NET)

      All believers have this anointing to help us understand God’s truth.

      On the other hand, divine inspiration was something that was only intermittent—the prophets could not prophesy whenever they wanted to. Scripture says the prophets wrote as the Holy Spirit moved them:

      Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21 NIV)

      Today’s New International Version translates the verses in this manner:

      Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21 TNIV)

      God’s Word would come to them at various times. This can also be found in expressions such as, “The Word of the Lord came to Jonah,” “God spoke to Moses,” etc. Again, this is entirely a work of God. They could not conjure up God’s Spirit to come upon them whenever they wished.

    3. Illumination Reveals No New Truth

      Illumination does not reveal new truth, but rather gives understanding of old truth. We read, for example, of the conversation between two disciples that walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus on the day of His resurrection:

      They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32 NRSV)

      The truth of Scripture was opened up to them.

      Later that day, Jesus appeared to His disciples. The Bible then records the following:

      Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:45 NET)

      Jesus explained, or illumined to them, what the written words of Scripture meant.

    4. There Were Degrees of Illumination, Not of Divine Inspiration

      People vary as to the degree they are illumined to understand God’s Word. Some have greater insight than others. However, in the case of divine inspiration, a person was either divinely inspired, or they were not. There are no degrees of divine inspiration.

    5. There Is No More Divine Inspiration, but There Still Is Illumination

      Divine inspiration, as far as the biblical sense of the term, is not happening any longer. God is not adding any more “divinely inspired” or “authoritative words” to Scripture. This was completed with the New Testament. Illumination, however, continues to this day. Each believer, guided by the Holy Spirit, has the opportunity to understand and appreciate the great truths of the Word of God. This is something that is possible for everyone who has believed in Jesus.

    6. Illumination Is Needed to Understand Scripture

      Believers need to receive illumination to understand the divine revelation. When Jesus spoke to two disciples on the Emmaus road on the day of His resurrection, He said to them:

      Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory? Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:26-27 NRSV)

      Believers need the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit to properly understand Scripture. This is an ongoing need.

Conclusion: Divine Inspiration Occurred Only a Few Times and Only Through Specially Selected People: Illumination Is Something Every Believer Can Continually Experience

Divine inspiration and illumination, though often confused, do not refer to the same thing. Divine inspiration was limited to specially selected individuals during a limited time in history. It has not occurred for some two thousand years.

Illumination, on the other hand, is something that can happen to all believers. Moreover, it is something that they continually experience and desperately need. To be able to understand God’s truth, we need the constant teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Summary - Question 10
What’s the Difference Between Divine Inspiration and Illumination?

Illumination is the God-given ability for believers to understand divine truth. All genuine believers have this ability through the Holy Spirit. It is not possible for unbelievers to receive this divine illumination.

Illumination is not the same as divine inspiration. Divine inspiration happened only periodically and only in the lives of certain believers whom God chose to write Scripture. Divine inspiration, in the biblical sense, is no longer occurring. God’s Word is complete. Illumination is an ongoing process that continues throughout the life of the believer. It is imperative that believers receive the illumination from God’s Spirit in order to understand biblical truth.

Is There a Difference Between Revelation and Divine Inspiration? ← Prior Section
Can Revelation, Divine Inspiration and Illumination Act Together? Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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