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In the last post, I explained the gist of the paper that I am presenting for the upcoming EPS conference. Within the ETS portion of the conference, I am also presenting, “Word and Spirit: Paul’s Understanding of Revelation as External and Internal.”

In light of the selected theme of the upcoming meeting of the society, this paper examines the Apostle Paul’s understanding of one central element of the kingdom, that is, revelation. By tracing some of Paul’s pertinent arguments throughout his epistles, the paper asserts that, according to Paul, the idea of revelation contains both external and internal dimensions. In other words, revelation may refer to realities that occur (1) objectively to the human person in the form of a disclosure of information (the external Word of Scripture) and (2) subjectively to the human person in the form of an unveiling of perception (the internal Spirit of illumination).

This thesis is attained organically: first, by introducing Paul’s broader understanding of revelation in the natural world and human conscience; next, by explaining the relationship between revelation as the Holy Scripture (external word) and as the Holy Spirit (internal illumination); and finally, by explicitly detailing his understanding of the external and internal dimensions. At the end of the day, the paper suggests that both dimensions of revelation, Word and Spirit, ought to be held closely together. The former is necessary to have a saving knowledge of the gospel, and the latter is necessary to open our minds to perceive this saving knowledge in a personal manner.

While external revelation is extremely visible in Paul (e.g., Scripture, creation, etc.), the internal dimensions is often overlooked. However, he strongly avers that God reveals himself through his Spirit to his elect for the purposes of believing that Jesus is Lord (i.e., regeneration) and perceiving and understanding the veracity and applicability of Scripture (illumination).

In other words, internal revelation may at least refer to two realities within Paul: revealing the reality of Christ and Scripture to the believer. First, the Spirit reveals Christ to the believer. Namely, the Spirit unveils to the believer the true understanding of Jesus as Lord. As Paul carefully declares in his first letter to the Corinthians, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in [i.e., “by”] the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). While there are a plethora of possible interpretations of this verse,[1] Paul’s salient point is that no one salvifically knows the identity of Jesus (as Lord) except for those who are in the Spirit. Gordon D. Fee aptly summarizes, “[O]nly one who has the Spirit can truly make such a confession because only the Spirit can reveal its reality.”[2] Indeed, Paul elsewhere can say that the Spirit helps believers to cry “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:6; cf. Rom 8:15-16). Or, he writes, if “the Spirit of God dwells in you,” then Christ belongs to you (Rom 8:9). The Holy Spirit, as he internally unveils gospel understanding, is the sole causal agent of truly acknowledging and understanding Jesus.[3] It is he who brings salvation-knowledge; it is he who unveils Jesus Christ to the person through his regenerating grace.

Second, and naturally resulting from the first, the Spirit unveils Scripture to the believer. This process refers to illumination. In some sense, one might wonder why some kind of illuminative revelation is necessary: is not Scripture readable and clear? In a large sense, the answer to this question is yes. However, Paul often notes the failure of Scriptural revelation in light of the (mis)perception of the gospel in Scripture. His answer to the lack of understanding is simple: the necessity of God’s Spirit. Namely, in the Corinthian correspondence (1 Cor 2:10-16), Paul discusses the Spirit’s special mediation of divine wisdom. Paul’s words here deserve special attention. He begins, “No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God (v. 11).” He then continues by claiming that God gave us his Spirit “so that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (v. 12). The Spirit, as Paul suggests, who alone knows the secrets of God, has been given to us so that we may know the secrets of God that he wills to reveal to his people. This action is clearly external revelation, as the Holy Spirit unveils the divine mysteries in scriptural words (v. 13); but such external revelation is not complete without the unveiling of understanding through the Spirit of God (i.e., internal revelation).[4]

Following his concise argument, Paul thereafter explains why the internal illuminative work of the Spirit is necessary to understand Scripture (vv. 14-16). Paul starkly suggests, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). Paul herein argues two distinct ideas: (1) the unbeliever is not able to understand (or believe) the revelation of the gospel, and (2) it is only by the Spirit that one can understand these things. Paul then continues by contrasting the natural person from the spiritual person, that is, the person illumined by the Spirit (i.e., the Christian or believer). He says, “The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (v. 15-16; cf. Isa 40:13). While Paul’s words here are packed, Leon Morris summarizes him concisely: “the indwelling Spirit reveals Christ” to the child of God.”[5] As Florian Wilk correctly asserts, the Spirit-filled person “is endowed with spiritual knowledge” that is only in Christ and through his Spirit.[6] In other words, believers have spiritual knowledge as the Spirit enables them to understand and to accept the realities of the gospel in Scripture.[7] Paul thus clearly refers to the illumination of Scripture by the Spirit. The Spirit internally unveils the truth of the gospel to people.

Later in the Corinthian correspondence, Paul elaborates the Spirit’s unveiling of Scripture to the believer by the contrast between the Mosaic and new covenants (2 Cor 3). While this section is not primarily aimed at an understanding of (internal) revelation, the passage contains several important implications. As Paul begins, he regards the Mosaic covenant as profoundly revelatory, but he claims that its people “were hardened” and so “when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted” (2 Cor 3:14). In other words, the Mosaic covenant lacked the unveiling power of the Holy Spirit. The new covenant, however, is a “stark antithesis,” as Ralph Martin aptly reflects, as it brings the revelation of the new covenantal realities.[8] Paul explains that in this latter covenant the “the veil is removed,” for “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (vv. 16-17). Leonhard Goppelt’s comments clarify Paul’s words: Whereas the “structure of the Old Testament and its meaning were veiled,” now “to the one who had turned in faith to Christ” through the Spirit, it is unveiled.[9] What is “unveiled,” of course, is the whole corpus of the new covenant, which includes the internal illumination of the Spirit. Whereas the people of the Mosaic covenant were veiled in misunderstanding, the people of the new covenant, through the Holy Spirit, are unveiled to understanding. Therefore, Paul describes a real and distinct form of revelation that emphasizes, not the disclosure of information (as in external revelation), but the disclosure of understanding or perception.

Paul further clarifies his understanding of internal revelation in the new covenant as he continues in the following chapter (2 Cor 4:3-6). Paul explains, “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing,” that is, to “the unbelievers” (v. 3, cf. v. 4). As Harris summarizes, to people who are perishing, the gospel is “hidden from their understanding.”[10] The veil is not yet lifted from every human heart (cf. 3:14-15), nor has every person turned to the Lord (cf. 3:16). Indeed, Paul continues, “In their case, the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” so that they cannot perceive “the revealed splendor of the gospel of Christ” (v. 4). Unbelievers, in other words, cannot recognize the glorious revelation of the gospel that proclaims “Jesus as Lord” (v. 5). Thereafter, Paul clarifies how this veil is removed: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). Because the truth of the gospel is not naturally discerned, God supernaturally enables people to understand the gospel through his Spirit’s regenerating and illuminating action. In the words of Calvin, “His [Paul’s] meaning, therefore, is that God has, by his Spirit, opened the eyes of our understandings, so as to make them capable of receiving the light of the gospel.”[11] Indeed, the gospel is not only externally proclaimed (in Scripture) but also internally unveiled (through the Spirit). In this manner, Paul again explains the special internal work of the Spirit that internally unveils the truth of the gospel to the believer.

Paul’s argument throughout 1 and 2 Corinthians also accounts for why he, at least in one instance, prays that believers have their hearts and minds opened through the illuminative work of the Holy Spirit. Namely, he prays for the Ephesian Christians that God . . .

may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened (“pefwtisme,nouj”[12]), that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe. . . . (Eph 1:17-19).

While Paul’s words here are dense, his main point is clear. Paul is not praying that the Ephesians receive further revelations beyond Jesus Christ and his Spirit. Rather, he is praying that they continue to receive, as Clinton E. Arnold reflects, “an illuminating work of the Spirit to impress already revealed truth about God into the conscious reflections and heartfelt convictions of the readers.”[13] Paul prays that these Ephesian Christians would have the eyes of their hearts enlightened, for this revelation is necessary to understand and believe the external letter of Scripture. He prays for their illumination.

To summarize Paul’s understanding of internal revelation (in the books to the Corinthians), Calvin is again quotable: “[T]he Spirit of God, from whom the doctrine of the gospel comes, is its only true interpreter, to open it up to us. Hence in judging of it, men’s mind must of necessity be in blindness until they are enlightened by the Spirit of God.”[14] The Spirit, in other words, internally reveals the reality of Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture to the believer. It is no wonder that elsewhere Paul strongly encourages people to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) and warns against quenching and grieving the Spirit (1 Thess 5:19; Eph 4:30).

In the final analysis, this paper argues that Paul’s theology inherently assumes both an external and internal form of revelation. He speaks simultaneously of God being revealed externally through creation and Scripture, on the one hand; and internally through the human conscience and the Spirit, on the other. Paul begins by demonstrating that a natural or general revelation (through external creation and internal conscience) is not complete, for such revelation is culpably suppressed without the Spirit. Therefore, Paul makes it particularly clear that revelation does not end with general forms of revelation. Indeed, if it did, then all people would reject that revelation as we reject God (Rom 1:18ff.). Paul therefore continues to speak about the special revelation of God’s (external) Holy Scripture and (internal) Holy Spirit. The former is necessary to have a saving knowledge of the gospel, and the latter is necessary to open our minds to perceive this saving knowledge in a personal manner. At the end of the day, therefore Paul construes revelation both in an external and internal sense.

[1]For a list of them, see Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 918-925.

[2]Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 582; cf. Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 165.

[3]One might also think of Titus 3:5. Herein Paul claims that God saves us not because of our righteous works preformed but rather “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). The Spirit, in other words, performs an internal or spiritual cleansing through regeneration that brings new birth and new life in Christ. Calvin argues this persuasively (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle, The Calvin Translation Society [Reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996], 333-334). As Lea and Griffin assert, the Spirit performs an “internal, spiritual cleansing” (idem, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, 324). The important phrase in v. 5 is dia. loutrou/ paliggenesi,aj kai. avnakainw,sewj pneu,matoj a`gi,ou (“through the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”). Due to the presence of one dia., the text “clearly indicates that the phrase” refers to a single event (Lea and Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, 323; cf. Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 479). While it is exegetically possible to understand the text to speak about a water baptism, it is best to understand the Spirit as the subject of washing and renewal (Ibid.). The words thus indicate that an internal cleansing is in view: loutro,n refers to physical washing that here takes on metaphorical import, paliggenesi,a, taking the genitive form, refers to the result of washing (i.e., “washing of regeneration”), that is, a spiritual new birth or restoration, and avnakai,nwsij is nearly synonymous with paliggenesi,a and refers to renewal (cf. Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, 313-322; for an excellent discussion of the possible meanings, see Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006], 782-784). In other words, Paul asserts that the Spirit performs an internal cleansing and renewal (Lea and Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, 324; cf. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 781-782). Indeed, Philip Towner rightly argues that this text, read canonically along with the new covenant texts within Jeremiah and Ezekiel, calls into mind the vivid images in which the promised Spirit is coming to renew and restore God’s covenant people. As he concludes, “Just as the tradition promised, God’s gift of the Spirit would change the way people live” (Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 784). In other words, as the Spirit re-births or regenerates a person, he also necessarily gives faith and thus unveils the salvific knowledge and truth of Christ to the person. In this sense, as the chapter has previously explored in the gospels, the Spirit’s work of regeneration entails internal revelation.

[4]Calvin elaborates this thought process most clearly: Paul “shows in what way believers are exempted from this blindness,” namely, “by a special illumination of the Spirit” (Calvin, Corinthians, 1:110). It is also noteworthy that, in this same instance, Calvin twice regards this illumination of the Spirit as “the revelation of God’s Spirit” (Ibid.; italics mine). Calvin continues, the Spirit introduces us to something “inaccessible to mankind,” and in so doing, he “makes us acquainted with those things that are otherwise hid from our view” (Ibid., 111). Therefore, the 1 Corinthians passage intends to teach that “the Gospel cannot be understood otherwise than by the testimony of the Holy Spirit” (Ibid., 111), for all spiritual knowledge “depends entirely on the revelation of the Spirit” (Ibid., 113). Calvin all throughout implicates that the work of the Spirit is here, as this dissertation terms it, an internal revelation, namely, an unfolding or unveiling of understanding or perception.

[5]Morris, 1 Corinthians, 60, italics mine; cf. Fee, 1 Corinthians, 117; Ambrosiaster, Romans and 1-2 Corinthians, 130-131.

[6]Wilk, “Isaiah in 1 and 2 Corinthians,” 140. Indeed, as Morris also comments, he says that because a natural person cannot avnakri,netai (i.e., scrutinize, examine, judge of, estimate, discern) the things of God, he or she is lacking something that must be unveiled to them by the Spirit (Morris, 1 Corinthians, 59; cf. Wilk, “Isaiah in 1 and 2 Corinthians,” 139; Peter Stuhlmacher, Biblische Theologie und Evangelium, 143-166).

[7]Therefore, it is important to understand Paul’s words correctly: he is not speaking about some deeper movement into spiritual life, as some elitist movements would hold; rather, he is speaking merely about the unveiling of the truth of the gospel to the person at hand (Fee, 1 Corinthians, 120). God illumines his words through his Spirit. As we are in Christ through the Spirit, we too can participate in this understanding or perception.

[8]Martin, 2 Corinthians, 202.


[9]Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament, 2:52; cf. 1 Cor 2:16.

[10]Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 327. Moreover, it is important to note that, while the gospel is veiled, “it is not on account of him [Paul] or his conduct” (Seifrid, The Second Letter to the Corinthians, 194).

[11]Calvin, Corinthians, 2:200.

[12]This verb is a perfect passive participle, which suggests that something has been done and remains in effect.

[13]Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 105. In this sense, Arnold suggests that the content of Paul’s prayer here is similar to Paul’s (formerly discussed) Corinthian correspondence (Ibid., 104). Arnold’s basic interpretation—that this prayer refers to spiritual illumination—is affirmed by Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, WBC, vol. 42 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), 55-61; and Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 129-137; among others.

[14]Calvin writes these sentences specifically in reaction to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:14 (Calvin, Corinthians, 1:117). The renowned Jesuit scholar also suggests in this context that “divine revelation and the emergence of faith are the two sides of the same event” (O’Collins, Theology and Revelation, 48). The same Spirit who wrote Scripture also interprets, opens, and enlightens it to blind eyes.