The difference between revelation, inspiration, and illumination may seem to be a technical one; however, it is a very important one. Many Christians use these three words interchangeably. It is incumbent upon believers to understand how God makes himself known and how he gets that knowledge into the hearts of man.
FROM GOD TO MAN: The first step is revelation. This is the process by which God makes known to man truths that he otherwise could not know. For example – the details of creation as recorded by Moses in the first two chapters of Geneses. It would have been impossible for Moses, or for any man, to know these details since there were no men present to witness them. It is only because God revealed these things to Moses that he was able to record them in the Genesis account. Revelation happens in two main ways: natural revelation, and special revelation.
Natural revelation is the reveling of information about God that can be found in the natural world and is discoverable or discernible by such disciplines as natural science, astronomy, biology, physics, etc… The Bible says in Psalms 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” Natural revelation is also refered to as “general” revelation because it is part of Gods common grace which is given to all people everywhere to make known certain truths about God (Rom. 1:19-20). God also uses natural revelation to instill in people everywhere an ethical code of conduct – a sense of right and wrong (Rom. 2:14-15). So it is through natural revelation that we have both knowledge of God – that he exists and that we are somehow responsible to him; and knowledge of right and wrong and a sense of our inability to live up to Gods requirements.
Although natural revelation informs us about God and his ethical requirements, it does not give us specific information about how to be saved. That is the job of special revelation, which refers to the written revelation of God (the Bible) and to the person of Jesus Christ. Whereas general revelation lets us know about the existence of God and his moral code, special revelation reveals such things as the gospel, sin, heaven, hell, redemption, etc…
The canon of the Old Testament was completed by the end of the first century. The New Testament canon found its completion by the end of the fourth century. Since that time, the combined 66 books that make up our present Bible have been universally recognized by protestant Christians as the sole and final authority when it comes to the special revelation of God. All teachings and all doctrine must harmonize with the scriptures, for it is the revelation of Jesus Christ contained in the scriptures that make up the foundation of our faith (1 Cor. 3:10-12). Special revelation is considered closed. That is, everything that God would have us know about him concerning his nature, his attributes, and his character, has already been revealed to us and are contained within the Bible. If God had not closed the process 0f revelation, then we would continually be subject to “new” revelations without any standard to judge them against. Someone could come forward with the revelation that Jesus is unpredictable and will do whatever he wants to do, even lie, if it accomplishes his purposes. If we are open to new revelation, then what is to prevent us from accepting this teaching? It can stand on its own. On the other hand, if revelation is closed, then all new teachings must harmonize with what we already know from the scripture to be true about Jesus – that he cannot lie (Titus 1:2), and that he always acts consistently with his character and attributes (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17).
FROM MAN TO PAPER: The second step in the process is Inspiration. This is the means by which God ensures that his revelation is properly written down or in some other way communicated. The word “inspired” occurs only one time in the New Testament (II Tim. 3:16)1 and means literally “God breathed”.
There are several theories regarding the inspiration of the Bible. The Natural theory holds that there was no supernatural element at work in the process of writing the Bible. It states that the writers of the Bible where only inspired in the same sense that an artist might be inspired to create a painting or a composer a symphony. In this theory, human error is not only possible, but likely to happen.
The Dictation theory of inspiration states that God dictated the words of the Bible to the Bible writers, who had no input of their own with regard to individual perspective or style.
A third theory of inspiration is the Partial Inspiration theory. This theory states that the Bible “contains” the word of God, but you have to sort out all of the other myth and legend that are also present in order to get to the truth.
The Plenary-Verbal theory of inspiration, held to by most conservative theologians, teaches that all (plenary) of the very words (verbal) of the Bible are inspired by God. In this view, the Bible is believed to be inerrant (free from error or contradiction), and infallible (trustworthy, dependable). Peter said that this was true of the Old Testament scriptures (II Peter 1:20-21), that it was true of his epistles and those of the other apostles (II Peter 3:1-2), and that it was true of Paul’s writings (II Peter 3:15-16).
FROM PAPER TO HEART: The final part of the process is that of Illumination. This is the means whereby God causes the written revelation of his word, or the inspired preaching or teaching of his word, to be understood by the human heart. Whenever we receive a new insight into God’s word, we are having our hearts and our intellects illuminated by Gods inspired revelation. The Holy Spirit illuminates both the unsaved” (John 16:8-11; Acts 2:14-41) – to open their hearts to a saving knowledge of God, and the saved (John 14:26; 16:13-14; I Cor. 2:9-13) – to guide them in the process of sanctification.
Understanding the difference between these theological words can help us to guard ourselves against those wolves in sheep’s clothing that would come and try to pervert the gospel of grace with “new” teachings and revelations from God.
Soli Deo Gloria