Book Review: Seeing by the Light

This is published in the UK by Apollos, the academic imprint of IVP, for whom I work. I hope doesn’t cloud my review.

Seeing by the Light Ike Miller

Apollos/IVP Academic’s Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture Series continues to churn out some fantastic books. Steven J. Duby’s God in Himself, published earlier this year, is a masterful look at divine simplicity and related issues in theology and metaphysics. The book I’m reviewing today, Ike Miller’s Seeing by the Light is one that I particularly enjoyed. Miller deals with the oft-neglected Doctrine of Illumination, which he rather brilliantly describes (with reference to the Gospel of John) as ‘the a-ha moment’, where someone understands who Jesus is. In order to explain and expound the Doctrine of Illumination, Miller divides the book into three parts. First, he digs into Augustine’s Homilies on John, followed by Barth’s reading of John, and finally suggests (with, you’ve guessed it, reference to John’s Gospel!) a theology of illumination. This review will follow that structure.

At the outset of his Augustinian section, Miller notes that “As themes of light, illumination, and enlightenment abound in Augustine’s homilies, his text provides a rich resource for clarifying the doctrine of illumination implicit in John’s Gospel and letters“. Miller is sympathetic but not uncritical reader of Augustine – and this section of the book is both an important part of the argument overall, as well as being a helpful contemporary introduction to reading Augustine when Augustine is writing about Scripture. This section, particularly the first chapter, would make for a helpful teaching tool when explaining Augustine’s hermeneutical method. So what is going on in Augustine’s reading of John? Simply, according to Miller, this: “Augustine’s homilies on John will continually return to the theme of God’s presence among us and the need for illumination in order for humanity to perceive it. This perception of his presence is the illumination of one’s initial reception of the light of life“. This reader/reviewer wondered whether Miller’s own pastoral/preaching vocation makes him the ideal candidate to engage with Augustine, as some of his summaries made my heart sing:

Augustine likens reaching life and intimacy with God with reaching a distant shore. Augustine presses the point that it is by imitation of the humility Christ demonstrated on the cross that we are carried across the “sea of this world.” In his incarnation, the Word “came from him to whom we desired to go” like a vessel that will make its return trip. If we do not depart from Christ’s lowliness, if we are not too proud to identify with Christ’s humiliation, we might join him in reaching the shore, which we now only see from afar.

This aspect of imperfection, as it were, is neatly explained in the final chapter of thesection on Augustine: “Humanity attains that which pertains to sapientia (wisdom) insofar as it accords with human capacity to do so. Augustine identifies truth with God, and thus a vision of truth with a vision of God. But he does not discount the diminution of truth due to our infirmities. A vision of truth is still seen with dim eyes, as through as glass darkly (cf. 1 Cor 13:12).” The creator/creature distinction is upheld, by the Doctrine of Illumination is demonstrated to a key part of God’s relating to us, and Augustine’s reading of it and identification of it in John is shown to be helpful. A particularly interesting section deals with Augustine’s four-fold usage of the word light – which goes some way towards explaining both the title of the book, and the importance of the Doctrine of Illumination. Ultimately, though, this is not some ivory tower theology detached from discipleship, rather, as Miller observes, “Divine illumination for Augustine is accomplished by means of human participation in the divine light“. This is perhaps a key takeaway, as the book moves onward to engage with Barth, in Part Two.

The Barthian section of this book is one that has attracted a good deal of pre-publication attention, as Miller is engaging with an aspect of Barth’s work not previously translated into English. In fact, as he notes at the outset;

Karl Barth first gave his lectures on the Gospel of John at Münster in the fall of 1925 and the spring of 1926 (published in German as Erklärung des Johannes-Evangeliums).1 Simultaneously, he was completing his first attempt at a dogmatics, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion.2 This means we have both Barth’s articulation of his interpretive method at that time, and the exercise and illustration of that method in the Gospel of John at precisely the same time. This fortuitous coincidence is a tremendous asset to the current project in that it affords us both stated theory and illustrated practice of his approach

Miller alludes elsewhere that Barth is often seen as an exegete based solely on his famous commentary on Romans – so, again, this section both does the work of advancing an exploration of the Doctrine of Illumination and breaks new ground for understanding Barth’s hermeneutical work. Again, as with the Augustine section, Miller’s work should be used by teachers well beyond the primary topic at hand. A key observation, following Calvin, is that the way that we read scripture is important, especially noting that it is Scripture we are reading – thus, “In Calvin he found an interpretive method that did not disregard historical and linguistic questions but kept them in their proper place as preparatory for the task of interpretation.” Miller observes that these methods, seen in Barth’s commentary on Romans, “take a more mature form in his lectures on John“. Thus, for Barth (in a way that was particularly radical in the academic context of his time), “the Bible has one, single, indivisible subject matter—the revelation of God in Jesus Christ— thus making a theological claim about the text that is profoundly determinate for all of one’s interpretation” – which has an obvious and important echo for thinking about the Doctrine of Illumination, wherein it is God illuminating humans to the truth about God.

It is perhaps particularly in the section on Barth, where the texts Miller is dealing with are perhaps closer to the method of contemporary theology, that the author’s skills come to the for. The series in which this book is published is Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture, and Miller seems to me to relatively effortlessly switch between exegesis and dogmatics, hermeneutics and historical theology, in a way that draws the reader along. This is not hagiography of Barth’s theological method, but constructive theological engagement, with a pace and readability that bely Miller’s obvious learning. And what comes out of this Barthian section is another emphasis that Illumination must lead to encounter, ” The prologue introduces the reader to the subject matter—Jesus Christ as the self-revelation of God. The remainder of the Gospel narrate a series of encounters with this life and light in Jesus in order that the reader herself might encounter the life and light in this text…The Gospel of John draws us to it in order to point us to the Lord.” Amen! The purpose of the Doctrine of Illumination is not some dry, philosophically convenient discussion, but rather the Christian life itself: “true worship is human participation in the divine life, conceived at the intersection of revelation, regeneration, and illumination“. The final chapter in Miller’s section on Barth seeks to clarify a Barthian understanding, before moving on to the constructive element of Seeing by the Light. I was particularly struck by Miller’s observation that “Barth locates the doctrine of illumination not only in pneumatology but also in Christology and ultimately develops a robust concept of illumination as a fully trinitarian work involving the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit“. Doctrine cannot be disconnected from other doctrinal loci, and it is important to ever keep the Trinity in view, which Barth does not always do (As Miller notes!).However, Miller concludes this section by unpacking his view that “Barth was building beyond a singularly pneumatological doctrine of illumination and toward a robust, fully trinitarian doctrine of illumination—that is, one that is inclusive of the works of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In my conclusion, a concise statement of a Barthian doctrine of illumination would go as follows: divine illumination is human participation in the Son’s knowledge of the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The constructive suggestion that rounds out Seeing by the Light echoes Miller’s work on Augustine and Barth, but takes a slight detour via biblical theology, “a setting forth of the text’s theology in its own terms, concepts, and categories“. The first chapter of this constructive section, then, is a whistlestop biblical theology of illumination in John. There is a very helpful excursus on illumination in the wider canon, which perhaps opens up the possibility of future work in this area for evangelical theologians. The very reliance on Scripture in this opening section reinforces both the method of Augustine and Barth, and the desire of the Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture series to not divorce the Bible from theology. Here, then, Miller draws the various threads that have been identified together:

The common threads that run the full course of this project include: illumination as the initiation of human participation in the divine life, participation as the means of our ongoing illumination, Christ as illuminating light (not only in John’s prologue but in Augustine as agent of illumination and in Barth as light of life), the trinitarian aspects of illumination—divine light, light of the Logos, and the Spirit of illumination—and the necessity of speaking of illumination as an economy both as it pertains to the external works of the triune persons and because of its dogmatic intersection with revelation and regeneration. All of these threads come together here as essential elements for constructing a doctrine of illumination.

Miller is very careful to unpack exactly what illumination means, in terms of participation particularly – making this academic work immensely practical, not least by providing preachers and pastors with a map of how to integrate all his hard work into the teaching of the church. We are reminded that “participation is necessarily eschatological… deeply covenantal and historical… humanity is made this faithful partner by means of identification and incorporation… one of the most profound contributions of Barth’s vision of participation in Christ is the language of repetition“. Further, this participation involves the re-determination of humanity, the active relationship “sustained by the present action of God“; it is communicative – “it communicates knowledge about God with the aim of drawing us into communion with God“; trinitarian (As has been noted particularly in the Barthian section), in the sphere of Christ’s control, and finally “mythical and ethical“. Miller notes that “The ethical dynamic of participation is that we become lamps that shine a light on earth, which have been lit by union with another, who is in heaven” – just as Christians are those that have seen the light of God by the light of Christ, so we are called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to illuminate others with our witness.

Ultimately, this seemingly dense academic book of theology is less like a dry biscuit, and more like a juicy, aromatic piece of pulled pork. This is doctrine for the head and heart, drawing together both the Bible and theological tools to breathe life into dry bones. Miller’s closing words to the penultimate chapter emphasise this:

All of that is to say, this vivification of humanity, the regeneration of human beings, is an event of revelation accomplished through illumination by the Holy Spirit. As we have said, illumination is revelation communicated with particularity. The legitimacy of its reality as illumination is granted by the present action of God and Spirit-enabled human participation in Christ. Barth writes that this “conversio and renovatio, applied to the actual sanctification of man, are nothing less than regeneratio. New birth!”79 This conversion, this renovation, this liberation, this awakening, this regeneration— all have their basis in the participatio Christi. In this participation in Christ, we see and know God by his own light.

The final chapter of Seeing by the Light masterfully applies the prior bulk of the book to the thorny matter of experience, and human reception of the illumination. As Miller writes, “illumination is humanity’s participation in the Son’s knowledge of the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a knowledge that humanity possesses as it participates in it, but humanity is not only informed by it but transformed and conformed to it as illumination has its full effect“. This is knowledge of the holy, a light so bright that it transforms and conforms those who encounter it.

Overall, then, this is a superb book. Illumination aside, it is worth reading if you fall into the following categories:

  • teach or study on hermeneutics, particularly with reference to Augustine and Barth’s methods.
  • preach or teach on the Gospel of John, as this book traces a key Johannine theme
  • want to see how theology can be done in conversation with and submission to the Bible, without being simplistic
  • want to see how theology can draw life out of seemingly dry and complex words.

As a study on (and, in my case, a book-length introduction to!) the Doctrine of Illumination, this seemed to me to be  both a robust constructive proposal and a helpful survey of the state of the conversation on Illumination. I wonder whether there are a number of further projects to come out of this – a biblical theology of illumination, a more popular book explaining why illumination matters, etc. But I digress. Miller’s book is a gift to the church and a challenge to the academy. I will be recommending it widely – including outside of work hours – and eagerly anticipate reading other things that he’s written.

I’ve alluded to the series this book is in – you can find out more about it at the IVP blog here.

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