Can a Christian be enlightened? Spiritual enlightenment is biblical, and enlightenment was an important way that Christians throughought history expressed their faith. But there’s a major difference between Christian enlightenment and New Age enlightenment. So what is spiritual enlightenment in Christianity? In this article, we’ll look at what some early Christian thinkers said about enlightenment.
The Bible’s Definition of Enlightenment
In this video I talk about the New Testament uses of the word “enlighten,” from the Greek word photizo.
Spiritual enlightenment is absolutely a biblical concept. But there’s one major difference between New Age enlightenment and Christian enlightenment: the Light Source. In New Age and other mysticisms, we reach enlightenment by actualizing ourselves. In the New Testament, it is always God who enlightens us through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Here’s a quote from my new book, Jesus: A Field Manual:
So can a Christian be enlightened? We have to be! Enlightenment is nothing less than Christ in us, according to the New Testament. And beyond the Bible, enlightenment was also an important symbol for early Christian spirituality.
Spiritual Enlightenment in Early Christianity
In early Christian writings, spiritual enlightenment was a common way to talk about the work of God in a person. Drawing from the New Testament and their own experience, many of the early Christian mystical writers described their spiritual experience in terms of enlightenment. Here are a few of my favorites.
Christian Enlightenment Is Our Reflection of God’s Light
What is Christian enlightenment? Gregory of Nyssa was the 4th-century bishop of Nyssa and the most philosophical of the Cappadocian Fathers. In his work On Virginity, ch. 11, Gregory gives a beautiful metaphor for the spiritual enlightenment of a Christian:
“In the case of a mirror, or a sheet of water, or any other smooth surface that can reflect the light: when they receive the sunbeam, they beam themselves. But they would not do this if any stain marred their pure and shining surface. We shall become then as the light, in our nearness to Christ’s true light, if we leave this dark atmosphere of the earth and dwell above. And we shall be light, as our Lord says somewhere to his disciples, if the true light that shines in the darkness comes down even to us… while [the soul] places herself like a mirror beneath the purity of God, and forms her own beauty at the touch and the sight of the Archetype of all beauty.”
Christians Are Enlightened by the One We Contemplate
How can a Christian be enlightened? By purity and prayer. The 4th-century monk Evagrius of Pontus was one of the great early Christian writers on the subject of prayer. The Philokalia quotes a passage of Evagrius’ instructions on the prayer and meditation that opens our souls to the enlightenment of God:
“Let us sit still and keep our attention fixed within ourselves, so that we advance in holiness and resist vice more strongly. Awakened in this way to spiritual knowledge, we shall acquire contemplative insight into many things: and ascending still higher, we shall receive a clearer vision of the light of our Savior.”
Christian Enlightenment Fully Depends on Christ
But our spiritual enlightenment is not something that we do to ourselves. John Chrysostom (Greek for “golden-mouthed”) was Archbishop of Constantinople in the 4th century. He was known for his eloquent way with words, hence the nickname. In his Homily 8 on First Corinthians, Chrysostom writes about our complete dependence on God for spiritual enlightenment:
“…There are many images by which Christ brings us into union with him… He is the Head, we are the body. He is the Foundation, we are a building. He is a Vine, we are branches. He is the Bridegroom, we are the bride. He is the Shepherd, we are the sheep. He is the Way, we are the ones who walk it. We are a temple, He dwells in the temple. He is the Firstborn, we are the brethren. He is the Heir, we are heirs together with him. He is Life, we are the living. He is the Resurrection, we are those who rise again. He is the Light, we are the enlightened.”
Christian Enlightenment is the Light of God’s Love
How do we know that our enlightenment is authentic? Christian enlightenment always results in the first fruit of the Spirit: love. Maximus the Confessor was a monk and theologian who was martyred by the Church in 662 AD. For Maximus, enlightenment came from focusing the mind completely on the love of God:
“When a man’s mind is constantly with God, his desire grows beyond all measure into an intense longing for God. His passions are completely transformed into divine love. For by continual participation in the divine radiance, his intellect becomes totally filled with light” (Four Centuries on Love, 2:48).
The light of God in the mind opens our spiritual eyes to God, and to see God in created things:
“When the sun rises and casts its light on the world, it reveals both itself and the things it illuminates. Similarly, when the Sun of righteousness rises in the pure intellect, He reveals both himself and the inner principles of all that has been and will be brought into existence by Him” (1:95).
Spiritual enlightenment was important in early Christianity. If we define enlightenment as Christ shining in and through us, enlightenment is still an important concept for Christians today.
Thanks for reading! My new book, Jesus: A Field Manual is available for preorder in the Kindle store right now, and the paperback is out October 3. Check out my website, withjonadams.com, to connect with me and get more information on the book and my other creative work.