Ike Miller. Seeing by the Light: Illumination in Augustine’s and Barth’s Readings of John (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), xviii + 229 pp. $35.00 (paperback).
Before I review Ike Miller’s particular contribution in this book, I want to talk about Intervarsity Press Academic’s “Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture” series as a whole. I was refreshed after reading the series introduction prepended to Miller’s work. The series understands itself to be grappling with the state of “two disciplines that should never have been divided” (xiii), the study of Scripture and the study of doctrine. The series editors inform the reader that they can expect constructive theological works, marked by an “evangelical commitment to a deeply scriptural theology” (xv), which attend to the tradition of theological reflection, in order to come to a better understanding of Christian doctrine. Finally, the purpose of these investigations is for the life of the church. The work of the series is meant to help people read Scripture and so “come to know God and ourselves more truly” (xvii). These aims are robust enough to help stave off pablum, yet flexible enough to allow many different approaches to Scripture and doctrine. I hope to see ongoing contributions to this series for this reason.
A word of disclosure before I proceed. I am a Roman Catholic theologian who has studied gratefully and learned much from the writings of Karl Barth. My own specialization is in the work of St. Augustine, so I will have more to say on Miller’s retrieval of the bishop of Hippo than his use of Karl Barth—perhaps to the chagrin of my reader. My situatedness as a Catholic theologian will perhaps help the reader understand my particular quibbles with the book. My criticisms are of the places where Miller does not go far enough in his retrieval of patristic exegesis. Before explaining this, I will tackle the structure and purpose of the work as a whole.
Miller has done an admirable job putting Augustine and Barth into conversation concerning the doctrine of illumination. He has written a book that will be useful to undergraduates, graduate students, and clergy interested in this topic. The premise of the work is that Augustine and Barth shared some major insights, particularly in their readings of the Gospel of John. These shared insights give Miller a way into his constructive proposal, wherein he offers a dogmatic account of the theology of illumination. On the first page, he proposes a definition of illumination he intends to support through his readings of Augustine and Barth: “illumination is human participation in the Son’s knowledge of the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit…it is human participation in the light of the divine life” (1). To argue for this proposal, Miller offers an introduction plus nine chapters divided into three equal parts. Parts one and two provide expositions of Augustine’s and Barth’s interpretations of the Gospel of John and their respective doctrines of illumination. These parts are set out in parallel, three chapters each. In the first, Miller gives an account of each writer’s method of theological interpretation, the second shows how that method of interpretation plays out in their readings of John’s Gospel, and the third offers an interpretation of their respective doctrines of illumination.
Part three of the work is where Miller synthesizes his findings from parts one and two, applying what he has learned to offer his own proposal for a doctrine of illumination. He does this, too, in three chapters. The first is his own treatment of illumination in John’s Gospel that draws on contemporary Johannine scholarship in addition to Barth and Augustine. This first chapter also includes an excursus on illumination in the wider canon of Scripture. The second is where Miller gives his own definition of illumination and puts flesh on that definition’s bones by treating illumination in terms of the economy of salvation and participation. In the third chapter, Miller gives a description of illumination in terms of the reading of Scripture and in human experience more generally, using Barth’s concepts of determination (Bestimmtheit) and acknowledgment (Anerkennung).
The strongest of these three chapters is chapter nine, which I will briefly summarize. In this chapter, Miller brings us to his constructive proposal—articulating the doctrine of illumination by way of economy and participation. The force of the former is to come to terms with illumination in specifically trinitarian terms. Illumination as doctrine cannot be separated, Miller argues, from the doctrine of God as triune. Miller sees the weakness of some contemporary accounts of illumination to be their pneumatological focus, which misses the point that illumination “as an economic activity of God is grounded in and derivative of God’s being as light in God’s self” (186). God as Trinity—a Trinity of divine light—is the Trinity who illuminates the human person in the economy of salvation. The force of the latter, participation, is to describe how illumination is accomplished in human beings. This section is focused on participation in a Barthian key rather than offering a Platonic-Augustinian account of participation. Readers will be delighted or dismayed about this as their metaphysical proclivities incline them.
Finally, Miller counters a weakness he finds in other contemporary accounts of illumination, an exclusive focus on its cognitive dimensions. Here his disagreement is with John Webster, though it seems Webster is likely representative of a tendency rather than the sole perpetrator. Miller wants to hold together the cognitive with the “affective aspect of illumination” (198). Drawing on both Augustine and Barth, he argues for illumination as “regeneration” (201), which catches up the whole of the human person—emotions as well as intellect. In this way, we are asked to see illumination pertaining not just to human knowledge about God, but as a call issued to the whole person into new life in Christ. In a delightful phrase he repeats in this book, Miller says, “illumination is revelation communicated with particularity” (202). Knowing God by his own divine light elicits the cognitive, affective, and moral response of this human person.
I want, now, to return to my quibbles. Miller has done a good job of pulling together different strands of the tradition of theological reflection. His summaries of Augustine’s and Barth’s positions on illumination and his engagement with their readings of the Gospel of John are well done, though more careful treatment of Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on the agent intellect (58-59) would have improved it. I said before that I think Miller doesn’t go far enough in his retrieval of patristic exegesis. It is true that he laments the limitations imposed on the interpretation of Scripture by “modern historical critical scholarship” (22). I am in avid agreement with him that the patristic position on the divine authorship of Scripture guarantees the unity of the text and permits an approach impossible for someone who uncritically adopts the assumptions of historical criticism.
This makes it all the more baffling to me when Miller attempts a classification system of Augustine’s interpretations of Scripture into the “literal-historical,” “salvation-historical,” and “rhetorical-historical” (18-19). The upshot of this division is to be able to account for Augustine’s “seemingly arbitrary exegetical conclusions” (19) in the so-called rhetorical-historical register. The reason I find this confusing stems from what Miller himself says about the role illumination has to play in the reading and interpretation of the biblical text. He is sympathetic to Barth’s position that “we do not possess the Spirit of the Bible, the Holy Spirit—it possesses us” (87). For Barth, and I suspect for Miller, “the inspiration and illumination of Scripture are both acts of this work of the Spirit revealing this second person of the Trinity” (149). All this culminates in Miller’s case for the illuminated heart and mind encountering God in Scripture, such that he wants to say, “this Spirit-sustained way of being informs how we obtain ‘meaning’ from the text” (206). Why pull your punches then and worry over the difficulty of systematizing Augustine’s methods?
All this is to say that Miller has more of an ally in Augustine than he realizes, just as his own worries about Augustine’s spiritual readings of Scripture are more beholden to modern conceptions of meaning-making than he might realize. They are certainly more beholden than they need be given his robust position on illumination and its role in our readings of the Bible. Augustine thought of the reading of Scripture as an ongoing process that could take the reader deeper and deeper as she grew in sanctity and familiarity with God’s idiom. A multiplicity of true meanings can coexist in a single verse of Scripture because of its divine authorship, and the revelatory work of illumination is what brings those true meanings to light for any given reader. Miller’s book goes a long way toward opening up the possibilities of patristic interpretation to an audience perhaps less familiar with its riches than they would like to be. For that, Miller is to be commended. His constructive proposal for a dogmatic account of illumination opens the door not only to further work retrieving those texts for his audience but for taking them even more seriously than he does in this book.
Philip G. Porter, Assistant Professor of Theology, University of Mary
The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.