Monday, August 17, 2020

Seeing by the Light

 Part of my holiday reading was Seeing by the Light by Ike Miller, subtitled Illumination in Augustine's and Barth's Readings of John.  This is the first book I've read in the Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture series, published in the UK by IVP under the Apollos imprint, but the aim of the series - to promote constructive contributions to systematic theology from an evangelical perspective through faithful Scriptural engagement and engagement with the tradition of the church - definitely appeals.  This particular book fits the vision perfectly, exploring the important theme of illumination - that is to say, how it comes about that certain people are enlightened, enabled to see the truth of the gospel.

Miller tackles his subject in three sections.  The first two look at Augustine and Barth respectively, and in particular the readings of John's Gospel in Augustine's sermons and Barth's lectures of 1925-6.  In both cases, Miller takes us first to the systematic/dogmatic statements of the theologian in question, to show us their general thoughts about illumination as a topic.  He then turns to their treatment of John's Gospel to see these principles worked out in exegetical practice.  For Barth, in particular, he highlights the contemporaneity between the lectures on John and the writing of the Gottingen Dogmatics.  We can be confident that 'theory' and 'practice' were being developed together.  Both historical sections of the book were fascinating, even if I did get a little bogged down in some of the discussion of Augustine reception.  I have always found Augustine pleasantly straightforward to read; books about Augustine less so!  But Miller helps us to navigate certain critical points around the influence of Neo-Platonism on Augustine's thought as it touches on the subject of illumination, clarifying especially that for Augustine light is not a faculty of human reason, but is a divine gift.  It will come as no surprise to the regular reader here that I was particularly interested in the section on Barth.  What comes across clearly here is that, whilst Barth does not devote much space to discussions of illumination within his dogmatic works, this is largely because he subsumes the topic under the heading of revelation.  This is not incidental; for Barth revelation has not occurred unless it has gone all the way, so to speak.

The third section of the book is devoted to turning these historical exercises into a constructive theological proposal.  Here Miller draws on the resources offered by Augustine and Barth, but is not afraid to supplement and correct them.  By offering first some Biblical Theology - an attempt to draw out the doctrine of illumination presented in John's Gospel (and Epistles) - he ensures that his work is not merely a reflection on past theological constructions, but a positive contribution to theology now.  The proposal proper is offered in two chapters, dealing with the theological nature of illumination and illumination as a human experience.  The latter in particular draws heavily and positively on Barth's Church Dogmatics II/1.

You'll need to get the book to see the full proposal, but here are a few things that I'm taking away from it.  Firstly, if we're going to treat the theme of illumination in a way which conforms linguistically and conceptually to Holy Scripture, we need to avoid making illumination merely an annexe of Pneumatology.  The 'Spirit as spotlight' version of illumination is not consonant with John's Gospel as a narrative of Christ entering the world as its light.  Second, we need to see the doctrine of illumination as what Miller calls 'an economy of light'.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are working in their distinctive but united ways to shed the divine light abroad in the world and in human hearts.  Third, we need to recognise that the experience of illumination is one which simply may not be explicable in human terms, because it is grounded firmly in God himself and his action.  That is to say, illumination is something that happens to human beings; it comes from without.  Fourth, it is helpful to see illumination in terms of participation.  The Spirit enables us to participate in Christ's own knowledge of the Father.

The topic of illumination is surely of critical importance, particularly in this cultural moment.  At a time when Christianity is very definitely a minority interest, and belief can no longer be taken for granted, it becomes more important than ever that believers be able to give an account of how they come to be believers.  This matters for us, in terms of having a secure basis in our faith; and it matters for our witness to the world.  So as I got to the end of the book, I wanted another couple of chapters.  I want to think about what the Biblical doctrine of illumination means for apologetics and evangelism; and I want to think a bit more about whether what is being proposed here is necessarily a version of fideism - and what that means for those who struggle in their faith.  But maybe that is all somewhat beyond the scope of this volume, and is stuff I will need to think through for myself.  When I do so, I think Miller will have provided me with plenty of theological fuel for my ponderings.

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