John Owen’s View of Illumination: An Alternative to the Fuller-Erickson Dialogue -- By: David J. McKinley

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 154:613 (Jan 1997)
Article: John Owen’s View of Illumination: An Alternative to the Fuller-Erickson Dialogue
Author: David J. McKinley


John Owen’s View of Illumination: An Alternative to the Fuller-Erickson Dialogue

David J. McKinley

[David J. McKinley is Candidate Director of Evangelical Free Church of Canada Mission, Langley, British Columbia.]

In response to Daniel Fuller’s view regarding illumination, Millard Erickson periodically challenges his position from exegetical, biblical, theological, and logical perspectives.1 In turn, Fuller gives his own position on the doctrine of illumination. In part this article provides a summary of the significant issues raised by these two authors concerning the Holy Spirit’s role in understanding the Scriptures.

The other portion of this study presents an alternative model for illumination, a view presented by John Owen, Puritan pastor and theologian of the seventeenth century. Owen’s writings on illumination are chosen because of the high regard many scholars have for him.2 According to Packer, Owen is “the greatest among Puritan theologians. For solidarity, profundity, massiveness, and majesty in exhibiting from Scripture God’s ways with sinful mankind there is no one to touch him.”3

Issues Raised in the Fuller-Erickson Dialogue

Fuller’s and Erickson’s views on illumination exemplify some of the crucial differences on this doctrine. The following are some of the areas of central concern in understanding the Holy Spirit’s illumining work.

Volitional or Notional?

Fuller believes that any individual (including the agnostic or atheist) with adequate exegetical skills can interpret the Scriptures accurately. Thus the Spirit’s illumination is not needed to attain a cognitive understanding of the text.4

Rather than focusing on the noetic effects of sin, Fuller asserts that pride hinders the acceptance of truth; the desire to glorify self hinders a person from submitting to the truth of Scripture. This volitional aspect of sin can be subdued only by the Spirit, who leads one to embrace and welcome the truth of God’s Word. Thus illumination is related to the reception of the truth. The Spirit endows a person with love for God’s Word so that it will be applied to his or her life.5

Erickson, on the other hand, regards illumination as a matter of perception. He says the Holy Spirit assists in grasping the meaning. Insufficient understanding of God’s truth stems from the notional dimension of sin. As a result, the minds...

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