The Illumination of the Holy Spirit & Theological Traditionalism - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

Articles on the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith

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How do you know you have a right interpretation of Holy Scripture on a given passage, or that you are right in theological conclusions? How does Confessionalism and subscriptionalism fit with tradition? Is tradition a bad thing or a good thing? This article should help alleviate the “bad rap” that “traditionalism” often receives due to the false concepts presented by the Catholic Church, and how it should be rightly received by Protestants.

What is the role of the Holy Spirit in and through the student of Scripture? This question not only deals with orthodox hermeneutical exegesis, but the present reality of orthodox truth and whether or not an appeal to Theological Traditionalism is warranted. Theological Traditionalism is defined in two ways: 1) erroneously by those against its biblical design, and 2) correctly by those who recognize the Spirit’s providential guidance of historical orthodoxy throughout the generations of the church since its inception. Theological Traditionalism teaches that the Spirit’s work through the history of the church in and through pastors and teachers (those the Spirit has given to the church as gifts) should be followed as they agree with the Scripture; but that is not all. It teaches that they should also be followed as they agree with each other in their interpretation of the Scripture. Such “consensus” interpretation is found in the subscriptionist Confessionalism of the orthodox creeds and confessions throughout the history of the church.

Erroneously some theologians attempt to define Theological Traditionalism while simultaneously, and unknowingly, adhering to the false misconceptions of the “me and my bible hermeneutic.” This teaches that every individual Christian has the right and ability to interpret Scripture based on the misconceived presupposition that the Scriptures are perfectly clear and that all parts are equally plain. Their attempt at defining Theological Traditionalism in a negative light can be seen in the following points. They believe that Theological Traditionalism teaches that, 1) the individual Christian cannot interpret the Scriptures with any degree of accuracy or certainty since his corrupt nature is naturally drawn toward error; 2) a single individual’s interpretation of Scriptures must either be confirmed by or give way to the consensus of a multitude of individuals; 3) there has existed a “special golden age” in church history extending from the Reformation to British Puritanism characterized by exceptional unity among believers, unrivaled spiritual and intellectual giftedness, and special illumination of the meaning of Scripture by the Holy Spirit; 4) by God’s sovereignty, the “golden age” of learning produced a Confessionalism that has bound the orthodoxy of the church of Jesus Christ and therefore must be submitted to by all Christians, whereas all contradicting interpretations of Scripture must be rejected as error; 5) the work of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture is not accomplished on an individual basis, but on the basis of a majority consensus; 6) the work of the Holy Spirit in illumination is at an end because of this subscriptional Confessionalism. In practicum, as one Dispensationalist stated in conversation, “It is no good [for] Presbyterians [to wave] the Westminster Confession of Faith in front of Baptists expecting them to bow down in front of it. If you can’t convince us by the Scriptures, then you won’t convince us at all, and your confession carries no more weight than its adherence to the Bible gives it.”

Positively, and in refutation of the ideas surrounding a negative connotation of the above points, Theological Traditionalism stands light years apart from its caricature seen in those erroneous propositions. Theological Traditionalism does not teach that the individual Christian cannot interpret the Scriptures with any degree of accuracy or certainty since his corrupt nature is naturally drawn toward error. This is a denial both of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian to test what is true, and to have an answer for everyone who asks of him (1 Thess. 5:12, 21; Colossians 4:6; 2 Timothy 1:14; 1 Peter 3:15). It is an oversimplification of appealing to the wickedness of man, and a denial of his new nature and new mind in Christ Jesus (Romans 12:1-2). Secondly, Theological Traditionalism does teach that a single individual’s interpretation of Scriptures must either be confirmed by or give way to the consensus of a multitude of individuals, but not without first engaging in private interpretation. It is logically impossible to confirm or deny one’s theological idea without first having an idea based on private interpretation. Even among Roman Catholics, it is impossible for them to appeal to the Church for authority without first appealing to the private interpretation of “someone”. Roman Catholics are first Protestants in this regard since they must, of necessity, privately interpret the Scriptures before the Pope can decree a public proclamation on any given subject ex cathedra. Thirdly, Theological Traditionalism does not make a direct appeal to a special “golden age” in church history extending from the Reformation to British Puritanism characterized by exceptional unity among believers, unrivaled spiritual and intellectual giftedness, and special illumination of the meaning of Scripture by the Holy Spirit. Theological Traditionalism does make a direct appeal to proper biblical exegesis in any given age, and every confessional stance that aligns itself with a proper biblical interpretation. Appeal is often made to the Reformation and the Westminster Standards in submission to the Holy Spirit’s providence in giving certain men to the church as pastors and teachers that have correctly defined orthodox Christianity, and built upon the orthodox standards since the time of Christ and the apostles. To deny following after the teachings of men in this regard (not the men themselves as if these men were to be venerated) would be to sin against the providential gifts of the Holy Spirit (as will be discussed at length later). Fourthly, Theological Traditionalism does not teach that all Christians are bound by the Confession of the “golden years.” It should be accepted by every Christian that error of any kind should be rejected. And it also should be accepted by every Christian that Confessional Christianity is a necessary part of the Church’s witness to the World. Hetherington states, “Thus a Confession of Faith is not the very voice of divine truth, but the echo of that voice from souls that have heard its utterance, felt its power, and are answering to its call. And, since she has been instituted for the purpose of teaching God’s truth to an erring world, her duty to the world requires that she should leave it in no doubt respecting the manner in which she understands the message which she has to deliver. Without doing so, the Church would be no teacher, and the world might remain untaught, so far as she was concerned.”1 Fifthly, Theological Traditionalism does produce a subscriptionist Confessionalism by God’s providential sovereignty, but it has hardly come about by the Spirit’s work solely accomplished in the Protestant Reformation, or Puritan England. Such an orthodox Confessionalism should not be rejected but adhered to, and every Christian is bound to adhere to the truth if that confession demonstrates the truth biblically. Sixthly, Theological Traditionalism does not teach that initially a Spirit led exegesis is accomplished by “a majority consensus.” Rather, private interpretation is the first step in the necessary consequence of confessional Christianity (which is the only Spirit guided Christianity that exists). Theological Traditionalism does not claim that the Westminster Confession of Faith or any other confession was the result of a majority consensus, rather, the majority consensus conferred as to the truth of the subject matter after private interpretation and exegesis ensued. Sixthly, Theological Traditionalism does not teach that the work of the Holy Spirit in illumination is at an end because of this subscriptional Confessionalism. Illumination will be discuss and defined, however, every Christian is illuminated by the Holy Spirit to some degree, and every Christian who is illuminated, through the tools of the Spirit and the Spirit’s internal witness, will come to the truth. But what are the tools of the Spirit? And what does it mean to be illuminated by the Spirit? These two questions set down the heart and crux of the validity of Theological Traditionalism and the Spirit’s work through illuminating men throughout church history.

Subscriptionism to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Theological Traditionalism overlap but are not the same thing. This distinction must be made before continuing on to understand the role of the Holy Spirit’s illumination of an exegete. These two theological ideas are not simply the same concept or same definition as stated semantically different. As Theological Traditionalism is directed towards both the exegetical results of pastors and teachers, so it also relies on the pastors and teachers themselves as being more illuminated in degree (but not essence) as other regenerated Christians, and exercising that greater illumination in the various sermons, treatises, books and confessions through history that explain and interpret the truths of the Scriptures. That is why these pastors and teachers are gifts from God and are given tot the church to teach and care for the church as under-shepherds of Christ (Jeremiah 3:15; Ephesians 4:11). Subscriptionism itself tends only to deal with the confessions at face value, under the propagation of the ministerial vow that is taken to uphold the truth contained in the confessions. Smith says, “the vow requires the adoption of the Confession and Catechisms, and not just the system of doctrine. It holds that the ordinand is subscribing to nothing more nor less than the entirety of the Confession and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures.”2 One describes both the end and the means to that end, and another surrounds the adherence to those confessions.

The “illumination of the Spirit” is directly related to the role of the Holy Spirit in and through the exegete. The Holy Spirit is not trying to confuse the reader of the inerrant and infallible Word of God, but this Spirit-inspired word (2 Tim. 3:16) is not necessarily easy to understand in all its parts with fallen minds. The illumination of the Spirit, and other exegetical knowledge, is needful if the text and its propositions are going to be understood properly, and as God intended them. Christians should not think, however, that divine illumination is not a special intellectual paradigm for specially gifted teachers or pastors. Illumination may be defined as the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit’s supernatural help in clearly delineating the message of the inspired Scriptures to the reader. This does not mean that ever reader is able to clearly interpret the Scriptures knowing that illumination is not osmosis and is given in degrees. Illumination is a counterpart to reading, studying and exegeting the Scriptures using tried hermeneutical principles upon the text to reach its proper meaning. Illumination presses the reader to bridge the cultural gap on the meaning of a given passage to their life-situation and translates the biblical message into the language of today. It does not mean that the Holy Spirit changes or improves upon the truth in the Bible, but rather, He aids the student of the Word to properly understand the already orthodox position of the faith once delivered to the saints. In this sense there cannot be a dichotomy between orthodox history and orthodox theology. The history of divine illumination for the church is wed to historical orthodoxy because it is the same Spirit illuminating the Word. This is a confrontational illumination between the Word and reader. The illuminated text not only says something to the reader, but does something to him in conjunction with the text, and presses him to act. Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

Illumination is not the same thing as the kind of “enlightening” that is found in Hebrew 6:4-6, which is a general work of the Holy Spirit in convicting some of sin and enlightening them to a better way as they partake of divine blessings surrounding the covenant community. Divine illumination for true believers, as Jonathan Edwards says, is described as, “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them thence arising. This spiritual light primarily consists in the former of these, viz., a real sense and apprehension of the divine excellency of things revealed in the word of God. A spiritual and saving conviction of the truth and reality of these things, arises from such a sight of their divine excellency and glory; so that this conviction of their truth is an effect and natural consequence of this sight of their divine glory.”3 He clearly states that it “is not the suggesting of any new truths or propositions not contained in the word of God.” The Holy Spirit’s divine illumination of a believer does not create new doctrine not already contained in the Bible and believed in the church. Divine illumination, as a result of further reflection and study, refines doctrines that already exist.

As the student of the Word is illuminated by the Holy Spirit, one must ask, “What does it feel like to be illuminated by the Holy Spirit?” How does one know whether they are being illuminated by the Holy Spirit or not in order to be guided into the truth of the Word? First, one should understand that illumination does not necessitate new revelation. Demarest states, “The theory of dogmatic development rests on the false premise that special revelation is an ongoing reality in the Church. But God, in fact, has given a complete and infallible self-disclosure in Scripture and in Jesus of Nazareth. The Church’s growth in knowledge through reflection and dialogue with history must be attributed to Holy Spirit illumination and human interpretation of general revelation rather than to fresh special revelation.”4 Secondly, it must be understood that the Holy Spirit illuminates every believer. Jude 1:19 states, “These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit.” There are some who have the Spirit and others who do not. There are some saved and some lost. 1 John 4:13 says there is a knowledge that goes along with this indwelling and “having” of the Spirit, “By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” There is a clear delineation between those who have the Spirit and those who do not in terms of their obedience to Christ’s commands, 1 John 3:24 states, “Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” The Holy Spirit, then, witnesses to Christians through the word of God (Heb. 10:15). He works righteousness in them by the Word (Titus 3:5) impressing upon them the reality that Christians belong to the body of Christ and are His (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Tim. 1:14). He speaks to the covenant community through the Word (1 Tim. 4:1). The fruit of the Spirit in a believer is the product of adhering to the truth of the Word (Eph. 5:9). The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit in this regard is stated plainly in Romans 8:16, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” The Spirit uses both the preaching of the Word and the reading of the Word to affect the soul of the believer toward sanctification. Nehemiah 8:8 states that, “they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.” In Acts 26:18 the Spirit “opens their eyes” to spiritual truth. Psalm 19:8 says, “the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.” Even after the disciples conversion, Luke 24:45 says that Christ, “opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.” 2 Corinthians 3:16-17 also says, “Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” All believers, when they are converted, receive the illuminating principle of the Spirit in them to aid them in understanding the Bible but in differing degrees according to the sovereignty of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:11). Every believer is then required to read the Scriptures (Deut. 17:19; Rev. 1:3; John 5:39; Isa. 34:16), and is concurrently illuminated by the Spirit as he reads, again, in differing degrees of illumination. Some believe that because the Christian is regenerate, then they subsequently all receive the exact same gift of illumination to the exact same degree. If this were the case, then the regenerate disciples would not have been further illuminated to the truth of the Word more than they were when Jesus opened their mind further (Luke 24:45), and the role of pastor and doctor (or teacher) in the church would be immediately undermined since all Christians have the same illuminative ability to come to a perfect unified conclusion about every doctrine.

In terms of the necessity of the illumination of the Spirit, John Calvin saw this as a great necessity for rightly understanding and receiving the Word of God. Calvin says “that we have no great certainty of the word itself, until it be confirmed by the testimony of the Spirit.”5 Calvin also says, “Hence without the illumination of the Spirit the word has no effect; and hence also it is obvious that faith is something higher than human understanding. Nor were it sufficient for the mind to be illumined by the Spirit of God unless the heart also were strengthened and supported by his power.”6 The Word has no effect in that it does not press one to action without receiving the things of God as both true and good. The Christian must see the excellency of the Word and that which it contains as both true and good. Boyd says, “Calvin was emphatic on the “mutual bond” that existed between the Word (here meaning Scripture) and the Spirit and thus continually emphasized the fact that it is impossible to hear, believe, interpret and obey God’s Word rightly unless one is in personal communion with the Holy Spirit as one encounters Scripture.”7 As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word.”8

In dealing with Theological Traditionalism, then, and the realities standing behind a correct interpretation, the question is not, “What does it feel like to be illuminated by the Spirit,” (since every believer is illuminated to some extent) but “how does one know they have rightly interpreted a given text or rightly understood a given biblical proposition, concept or systematic idea as an illuminated Christian still under the remnants of remaining sin?” Since Christians are still fallen beings, and have the remnants of remaining sin in them (Psa. 51:5; Job 14:4; 15:14; John 3:6), how might they misapply the illumination that the Spirit has already given them as a regenerated believer as they study? Turretin said, “Man cannot be the infallible interpreter of the Scriptures and judge of controversies because he is liable to error.” It would be impossible to say that men have the final authority in matters of faith and practice because they are liable to error. He continues his line of thought toward the crux of the issue, “The Holy Spirit is the efficient cause and principle from which I am induced to believe. But the church is the instrument and means through which I believe.” The church is the instrument by which men believe the truths delivered once to the “saints” (Jude 3) – not simply truths declared to individual Christians. Turretin clarifies, “Hence, if the question is why, or on account of what, do I believe the Bible to be divine, I will answer that I do so on account of the Scripture itself which by its makes proves itself to be such. If it is asked whence or from what I believe, I will answer from the Holy Spirit who produces that belief in me. Finally if I am asked by what means or instrument I believe it, I will answer through the church which God uses in delivering the Scriptures to me.”9 Theological traditionalism, then, at its core, rests on the Scriptures authenticity, the Spirit’s witness to its authenticity and authority, and the doctrine delivered to men through the church. This does not detract from Sola Scriptura, rather, it binds it as necessary. The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”10 The questions, “If the individual is unable to come to an assurance of what God’s words (which are without guile) mean by reading and studying and comparing them, how can he hope to come to any assurance of what the words of men (whose hearts are deceitful above all things) mean, with any effort? How can he know that his understanding of the creeds is any sounder than his understanding of the Bible? If you take away the foundation, aren’t you left with nothing?” are a helpful critique to Theological Traditionalism. But to answer this objection, and to understand how the Holy Spirit works by the Word delivered and interpreted through men in the church, misconceptions surrounding Sola Scriptura must be investigated briefly.

Sola Scriptura and Theological Traditionalism lie in direct opposition to “Solo Scriptura” and the “me and my bible hermeneutic.” It is imperative that Christians do not commit Hermeneutical Nihilism with the “me and my bible are enough” hermeneutic. At no point in church history, excepting for heretical sects or schismatics that often appeared on the historical scene with such an idea, did the church hold to a “me and my bible” hermeneutic. The individual Christian was never (and is never) free from the church to determine, on his own, what was right and what was wrong concerning orthodox doctrine. Evangelical Christians often completely miss this point in dealing with the doctrine of the Spirit’s divine illumination. For some reason Christians believe that divine illumination means that the Spirit continually reinvents the biblical wheel with each Christian so that they, and they alone, may determine what is accepted doctrine and what is not. In juxtaposition, evangelical doctrines are already set by the Word, and taught by the church throughout redemptive history as it unfolded. Christians, rather, align themselves to the truth as accepted and propagated by the Word through the instrument of the church. This involved an element of tradition in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Holy Spirit, the Christian, and his bible are all that are needed to interpret Scripture rightly. Tradition, when used by the orthodox Christian church through the centuries, simply designates the complete corpus of “truth” as the inclusive set of Christian beliefs or the whole of “the faith” given to the saints (Jude 3) in which the Church contends for as orthodoxy. This kind of tradition is either verbal (such as the teaching that came verbally from the Apostles) or written (such as any of the books of the Bible that were penned). This does not incur “secret” traditions that were handed down to the church that are shrouded in some mysterious unwritten or secret documents that only a select few recognize (which is Rome’s position). Rather, Scripture and tradition are paralleled ideas that mean the same thing in orthodox Christianity. For example, when a Christian says, “Jesus is Lord,” that is the same thing as quoting John 1:1-3. It is verbal tradition that the church has always believed, and it attests to the truth of John 1:1-3 (and other Scriptures that could be cited). One could look through any of the early church fathers (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, etc) and find this type of thinking throughout their writings. Irenaeus used an interesting term called the regula fidei to describe the tradition of the Church. This places the Holy Scriptures on the same level of confessing the truth of the Holy Scriptures in verbally relatable terms. Again, to use the example, “Jesus is God” is to say, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM (John 8:58).”olyHH Both of those testimonies (one written and inspired, and one creedal or tradition) are in fact part of the regula fidei. The regula fidei is, as Augustine stated, a summary of Holy Scripture. Without this summary, without Sola Scriptura explained by the church, there would be no faith to believe. Christians should rightly have in the back of their mind that Christ has come to build his church – not individual Christians, or “Lone Ranger” Christians. He is building a church – the organically unified covenant community of believers (Eph. 1:10, 22-23; 5:23, 27, 32; Col. 1:18; 1 Cor. 1:2; 12:12-13; Psa. 2:8; Rev. 7:9; Rom. 15:9-12; 1 Cor. 7:14; Acts 2:39; Gen. 17:7-12; Ezek. 16:20-21; Rom. 11:16; see Gal. 3:7, 9, 14; Rom. 4:12, 16, 24). How then does this church, not a Catholic See or succession of apostles, interpret the Bible rightly so as to be assured that interpretation is correct, and that they know they have been lead by the Holy Spirit to do so? This is the heart of the issue.

William Whitaker, a great opponent of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, said, “For we also say that the church is the interpreter of Scripture, and that the gift of interpretation resides only in the church: but we deny that it pertains to particular persons, or is tied to any particular see or succession of men.”11 This is a very helpful statement of how the Holy Spirit works through the church. The gift of interpretation that is exercised by qualified individuals given in specific offices in the church (Ephesians 4:11) is used for the edification of the body. Individual Christians, then, do not own the market on a given doctrine or theological truth. One person, or one group of Christians does not dictate truth. Rather, it is read, explained, interpreted and applied by those whom the Spirit has both illuminated as a regenerate Christian, and gifted in the science of biblical exegesis – those ordained by Christ and the church as ministers of the Word (1 Tim. 3:2, 6; Eph. 4:8-11; Hosea 4:6; Mal. 2:7; 2 Cor. 3:6; Jer. 14:15; Rom. 10:15; Heb. 5:4; 1 Cor. 12:28-29; 1 Tim. 3:10; 4:14; 5:22; Jer. 3:15). Illumination, then, is not tied to a specific group or class of Christians in the church, but it is biblically certain that specific classes or officers are more qualified to engage the text of the bible critically than others. Throughout the history of the church these men are called prophets, apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers depending upon which age of the church one is studying (Eph. 4:11). This does not mean that Christians cannot interpret passages on their own, nor does it mean that salvation is found through apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor and teachers. The Protestant position on Sola Scriptura remains historically that all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and to understand it. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture.”12 However, though the church may induce or persuade, “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”13 This does not mean that everything in the bible is clearly understood by all illuminated by the Sprit of God. Again, the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”14 This is a logical fact simply based on the providence of God which determines whether a man will be born with a greater or lesser intellect, and also presupposes the given age of a Christian, whether they are a child or an adult. It continues to say, “yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” That which is necessary for salvation, which the Holy Spirit uses to affect salvation, are clearly seen in the Scripture. A wonderful testimony to this is 2 Corinthians 5 (a concise statement of the Gospel), or John chapter 3 (an explanation of election, regeneration, saving faith and the Atonement of Christ). This does not mean that everyone alike will clearly understand what they are reading in the Bible even as an illuminated Christian which includes exegetical nuances in 2 Corinthians 5 and John chapter 3. Certain areas of the prophets are exceedingly difficult to understand with much study and aid, and other areas of a translated text from Hebrew into English may lose the initial meaning almost completely, especially surrounding difficult passages to translate (as is the case with Isaiah 28:13). Aside from regeneration, the greater or lesser degree of skill and ability, coupled with a greater or lesser degree of illumination by the Spirit, are key factors in determining the exegete’s ability to properly interpret a text of the Bible. These factors, though, are given at the discretion of the Spirit and are often given in a higher degree to those fitted for the task of a church office to lead the people of God (Numbers 11:25; Acts 4:8).

To make this especially practical, imagine that a man was on a desert island having just his academic knowledge and a copy of the Holy Scriptures. For this example, assume this man is a great bible scholar, knowledgeable in Greek and Hebrew and studied in all types of theology. During a given week, he studied the Bible and came to a conclusion on passage. He believed he was right on his final interpretation. The next week he does the same thing with another passage. He believed in his heart that the Spirit of God aided him to the truth of the passages. A few days later a box of his books washes up on shore. They happened to be commentaries (the reader may choose which ones he would like them to be or prefer). He then checks his work. On the first passage he finds he missed a critical verb form of a Greek word and it throws his theological conclusion into error. On the second passage he found his ideas and study were almost word for word as the commentators. This man thought he had the truth, and found he had blundered on his first passage. How would he have known what the “prompting” “internal testimony” of the Holy Spirit bearing witness with his heart to the truth of the Word felt like to know for sure he was right? The issue here is not whether one is being illuminated by the Spirit (for all Christian are illuminated to some degree if they are regenerated) but how does one know the Holy Spirit is leading them, as a regenerate believer, and enlightening him or illuminating him to further understand the truth? In this example (which is not such a fantastical case) the scholar was wrong, and he was wrong 50% of the time! But if he did not have someone to check his work, he would not have known he was wrong and would have thought, erroneously, that the Holy Spirit was guiding him in all truth. Certainly, he would have been happily mistaken. How would someone tell the difference between what the Spirit was leading him to believe based on his own study, and whether he ultimately was in error? How did he know he was right? A better question would be, “how can he know he is not wrong?” Does the Spirit osmatically instill in his head the truth? Or does study, proper study, exegetical study, come into play?

Whether a man on a desert island is used, or the proverbial ploughboy is used, the question remains, “How does the ploughboy, or anyone, know he is being lead by the Spirit, and how does Theological Traditionalism fit nicely with that “leading” experience and with private interpretation?” The answer to this inquiry revolves around the way Sola Scriptura and the illumination of the Holy Spirit work, and inevitably, one is led back to the church as a covenantal community (an organic body linked together) for answers. This is in radical opposition to the nonsense of sectarianism, schism, or radical individualism. The ploughboy ought to find a good church to attend.

Theological Traditionalism (which encompasses the work of the Holy Spirit through the life of the church and the doctrine of Sola Scriptura) answers the dilemma of knowing whether one is right or wrong in a historically orthodox fashion.

Reading the Word of God as an individual Christian is an imperative. Understanding truth is imperative. But, understanding truth based on personal opinion without consulting the officers of the church (pastors and teachers which have been given to the church through its history) is a fatal mistake. The Word of God is not delivered just to individual Christians, it is delivered to the body of believers through individual exegetes. 1 Peter 4:1 says, “arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.” 1 Corinthians 1:10 masterfully states, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” Philippians 3:16 states, “Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” In contrast to false teachers Peter says in 2 Peter 1:20, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.” It is not by the false prophet’s own interpretation that Scripture is given as true and authoritative, but by the Holy Spirit. Collectively, the Church is to be of one mind.

How do pastors and teachers in the church solve the problem of the “me and my bible hermeneutic” and establish Theological Traditionalism? Without iron sharpening iron the church would not have sharp swords, but simply hunks of iron. The Christian church may have confidence in their brethren who lead them and who have been gifted to teach them the word of God. This is the way the Spirit has worked in the church delivering the truth of God to the church since it inception. For instance, Moses, in Deuteronomy 32:46-47, states, “he said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” The words which Moses spoke were written down, the people can and must listen to it, they must learn it, and in the words which Moses spoke there was found life. Moses acted as a faithful messenger, sent by God, as a prophet, to the people. There is an important sense in which private interpretation is commanded, and another in which it is dangerous. Ultimately, Christians have the theological axiom of Sola Scriptura to lean on (1 John 5:13) and the gifted pastors and teachers to guide them. Hebrews 13:7-9 makes this abundantly clear, “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” The sentence “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” is associated with the ruling message of the teachers and pastors of the church – those who rule over the church as under-shepherds before Christ. These men are gifts given by the Holy Spirit in the church as Ephesians 4:11-12 declares, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” This is their obligation by which submission ensues as obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”

Deviation from historical orthodoxy on any point is a very dangerous place to be. It claims the church has subsequently been without a “bit” of information for centuries until it was “discovered” by someone who thought it would fit well into a new theological scheme, or became a new theological scheme in and of itself (like the Anabaptists of the day in the Reformation who denied the Trinity and the deity of the Son but embraced believer’s baptism).

The problem that Christians have with Theological Traditionalism or the orthodox doctrine of Sola Scriptura is that it removes the ability to have solitary interpretation that one can be assured by and upon. It causes them to rest solely in the work of the Spirit both in them and through the Church. It is certainly a far more significant thing for a man to be regenerated, than to have the best Greek, Hebrew and philological education one can have. But one would have to also agree that apart from the Providential work of the Holy Spirit, we can have no hope of interpreting the Scriptures properly, and this would include having the best Greek, Hebrew and philological education one can have. Unregenerate men can have a good interpretation of the text, but the inward spiritual reception of the text as true and good would never come about unless the Holy Spirit testified in the heart to that truth. They can know “Thou shalt not kill” and they may not kill someone. But they are stirred up by self-love in not being arrested for murder, not because they desire to follow God’s commandments. That is why the Westminster Confession of Faith states that salvation is found in the Scriptures plainly, but also by “good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”15 Deduction is only accomplished through more study than what is plain in and of itself. Christians do not despise the use of means as they study, for without those means they can never come to a greater knowledge of the Bible than they had before. The use of means is not only their bible, but all the skills that are necessary for proper biblical interpretation. These skills are more or less given to men, and some men are especially gifted to exercise them through the Spirit (Eph 4:11). It is not that Christians simply need “some external help” to interpret the Bible, but that they need the help of those ordained men who have been given as gifts to the church. They are authoritatively given power by the Holy Spirit to present the church with a sound interpretation of the Bible. The Form of Presbyterian Church Government in the Westminster Standards speaks of the doctors or teachers of the Church in this way, “The Scripture doth hold out the name and title of teacher, as well as of the pastor. Who is also a minister of the word, as well as the pastor, and hath power of administration of the sacraments. The Lord having given different gifts, and divers exercises according to these gifts, in the ministry of the word; though these different gifts may meet in, and accordingly be exercised by, one and the same minister; yet, where be several ministers in the same congregation, they may be designed to several employments, according to the different gifts in which each of them doth most excel. And he that doth more excel in exposition of scripture, in teaching sound doctrine, and in convincing gainsayers, than he doth in application, and is accordingly employed therein, may be called a teacher, or doctor, (the places alleged by the notation of the word do prove the proposition.) Nevertheless, where is but one minister in a particular congregation, he is to perform, as far is able, the whole work of the ministry. A teacher, or doctor, is of most excellent use in schools and universities; as of old in the schools of the prophets, and at Jerusalem, where Gamaliel and others taught as doctors.”16

There is no contention with the orthodox that the doctrine of the Spirit’s illumination should be an encouragement to ordinary believers that they can read the Bible with profit. All Christians can read the Bible with profit, but this is not the same as saying the entire Bible can be read by all believers with equal profit. If this were true, there would be no need of preaching, teaching or encouraging one another in the faith. When it is said that a Christian must interpret the Bible for himself (which is quite true), it must be realized that the Christian is dependent on a great many things in order to accomplish this goal with profit: he must have an ability to read in some fashion, an ability to properly remember what other scriptures say as a systematic study through the Bible, an ability to understand and use the original languages (or else he is completely dependent on a non-ecclesiastical and non-ordained authority – that of the publisher of his translation of the Bible or book on the Bible he is reading), an ability to systematize the doctrines of the Scripture and cohesively interrelate those doctrines in historical orthodoxy through the ages, etc. It is totally erroneous to believe that the Christian opens his bible and suddenly, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the meaning of the text jumps out of the pages into his intellect and understanding. Theological Traditionalism stresses that the ordinary means of study and intellectual equipment are essential to interpret the Word rightly. The Christian is completely and utterly dependent on ordinary providential means to understand the Bible. However, even these are the work of the Spirit — for even the ability to think and understand language is the work of the Spirit in “ordinary” providence. It is then important to ask the crux of the question as to where the Holy Spirit works, “What is the Church?” Easily stated, it is the aggregate of the work of the Spirit. Next it would be imperative to ask, “What is the Church’s confession or regula fide?” This too is the work the Holy Spirit in fallen but redeemed men chosen as vessels to teach the church. This is the covenant community that is the “sum total” of the providential work of regeneration and illumination. How could it be possible for a Christian to say he trusts the Holy Spirit to illumine him, but not to illumine millions of others through the history of the church, and some of those others in a greater mental capacity? This is where personal illumination and corporate illumination must be compared and contrasted.

Personal illumination is the work of the Spirit in every believer as a result of regeneration to the degree that the Spirit chooses. Corporate illumination is the work of the Spirit through the history of the church as a corporate body as iron sharpens iron. It is impossible to think, then, if this is true, that the Church (the gifted officers gifted and given as gifts to that body) cannot speak authoritatively on matters of faith and practice. The Church speaks authoritatively about matters of doctrine and faith, not like the Roman Church where doctrine is given by one man’s opinion of truth, but on the authority of the Holy Spirit who is continually working in the Church through individuals towards a corporate unity of like-mindedness. This does not argue the infallibility of the Church, but it does mean that the Church has authority in matters of interpretation. Otherwise, for the Church to discipline its members would be impossible. And this is often the sad consequence of the Independent Church structure since one offending person may leave a church and go to another that is not associated with the first. Unless there is one body and one church the authoritative structure of the church fails.

In dealing with the dangers of rejecting confessional Christianity and Theological Traditionalism it is easy to see how Christians can become novel in their approach to both the authority of the church and the divine message of Scripture. This should cause every Christian to stop dead in his tracks when offering a new or novel approach to Biblical interpretation of orthodox ideas already solidified in the church. As one brother so eloquently said it, “It is far more likely that we are out to lunch than that the Holy Spirit has been asleep on the job for millennia.” To “discover” a doctrine not commonly held for the last two thousand years is to undermine the authoritative work of the Holy Spirit in the church through those He has gifted to teach the church. The Holy Spirit has not been lazy for two thousand years, and He is not ineffectual in His ability to illuminate, and continue to illuminate the regenerate mind.

As the Westminster Confession of Faith stated earlier, some doctrines are more difficult to deduce from the Bible than others. But this is not because the Bible is unclear, but because basic tools of interpretation may be unknown to the reader or they are not knowledgeable in the science of interpretation, or biblical languages. Peter warns Christians about this emphatically in 2 Peter 3:16 when speaking about Paul’s writings. He says, “as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” Those who are unstable (literally being unsteadfast or unpredictable in their study) destroy themselves because they do not have the proper tools to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in biblical interpretation, and are often too pig-headed to listen to those who are gifted by the Holy Spirit in those areas. God certainly intended the believer in Christ to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. And Christ does not desire His people to remain ignorant (Eph 4:13-14; Hebrew 5:10-14; 1 Peter 2:2). Fred Greco, a Presbyterian Pastor in Mississippi said, “God does not intend for difficult doctrines to remain “purposefully enigmatic” although it appears clear that He intended for difficult doctrines to be initially enigmatic for His purposes (cf. Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21-24; John 9:39).” In attempting, then, to overcome the “enigmatic” nature of bible passages that Christians often befuddle, what can one do? What has Christ given average Christians to overcome these “enigmatic” texts? He has given them, as He has in every age since Christ and the apostles, pastors and teachers. This is the meaning and message of Paul’s spiritual building in Ephesians 4:9-16. Christian maturity is done in the context of the Church because the Church was incorporated with pastors and teachers given by Christ for that purpose. Christ has designed the Church so that pastors and teachers are illuminated and aided by the Spirit as textural leaders of the Church. He has not designed the Christian to grow outside of that context. That is why there is such a heavy historical emphasis upon the creeds and confessions of the orthodox Church – they are the statements of the Bible in succinct form that are to be believed because the Scriptures give them that authority. In the words of St. Vincent of Lerins, the creeds embody “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”17 The watersheds of historical orthodoxy are already fixed. It is now up the Christian to submit to the work of the Spirit in His Theological Traditionalism and conform to them. Hetherington says, “For all these purposes the formation of a Creed, or Confession of Faith, is imperatively necessary; and thus it appears that a Church cannot adequately discharge its duty to God, to the world, and to its own members, without a Confession of Faith.”18 Shall he create his own, or conform to the authority of the church and Sola Scriptura? Shall Theological Traditionalism rule his conscience by the Word or will he become an island to himself? Rayburn rightly states this practically, “It is doubtful that we will gain a true understanding of the Scripture’s teaching regarding the great issues of our time if we have not first a living appreciation of the truth already set down over the centuries.”19

Theological Traditionalism correctly demonstrates the Spirit’s work through the history of the church in and through gifted pastors and teachers. These pastors and teachers, through the history of the church have solidified orthodox doctrine in the creeds and confessions of the Church. Such orthodox confessions should be followed as they agree with the Scripture and with each other in their interpretation of the Scripture. These “consensus” interpretations are then found to be coherent in the subscriptionist Confessionalism of the orthodox creeds and confessions throughout the history of the church, and no Christian has the right to reject them as unorthodox to elevate a schismatic “me and my bible” hermeneutic. To do so is to bring reproach against the Spirit’s work through history in His illumination of men, and to sin against God.

[1] Hetherington, William M, History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1993) Page 343.

[2] Smith, Morton H. The Subscription Debate: Studies in Presbyterian Polity, (Address Given at the 20th General Assembly of the PCA: 1992) Page 5.

[3] Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Carlisle, Banner of Truth Trust: 1992) vol 2, Page 12.

[4] Demarest Bruce A., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Christendom’s Creeds: Their Relevance In The Modern World (1978;2002) vol. 21, Page 334.

[5] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol 1, Edited by John T. McNeil, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press: 1960) Page 119. (1:9:3)

[6] Calvin, John. Institutes, Ibid. Page 667. (3:2:32)

[7] Boyd Gregory A. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, The Divine Wisdom Of Obscurity: Pascal On The Positive Value Of Scriptural Difficulties, vol 28. (The Evangelical Theological Society: 1985;2002) Page 195.

[8] Westminster Confession of Faith 1:6

[9] Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol 1, (Phillipsburg, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: 1992) Page 32.

[10] Westminster Confession of Faith 1:4

[11] Whitaker, William. A Disputation on Holy Scripture, (Cambridge: University Press, 1849), Page 411.

[12] Westminster Confession of Faith 1:5

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Westminster Confession of Faith 1:6

[16] A Puritan’s Mind website, The Form of Presbyterian Church Government, url at this link.

[17]Demarest Bruce A., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Christendom’s Creeds: Their Relevance In The Modern World, (1978;2002) vol. 21, Page 334.

[18] Hetherington, William M, History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1993) Page 343.

[19] Hall, David (editor), The Practice of Confessional Subscription, Biblical and Pastoral Basis for Creeds and Confessions, by Robert S. Rayburn, (Oak Ridge, Covenant Foundation: 1997) Page 29.

Bible Verse:

"...knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot," (1 Peter 1:18-19).

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