Is It Proper to Refer to Christians as Enlightened?

This is the first in a sporadic series on the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem.

When we think of people becoming Christians, what term do we associate with this? Traditionally, Evangelicals would think in terms of “born again” or “saved.” It’s hard to know sometimes what others call it, because in other cases (especially with Roman Catholics) it’s looked upon more as a process, and in some cases the journey becomes more important than the destination.

One term that doesn’t come up very often for someone who is becoming or has become a Christian is “enlightened.” Cyril of Jerusalem, however, in preparing his students for baptism and full admission into both the church and the mysteries, makes no bones about using the term. Right at the start of his lectures he uses the term, in a passage that would do Tommy Tenney proud:

Already there is an odour of blessedness upon you, O you who are soon to be enlightened : already you are gathering the spiritual flowers, to weave heavenly crowns: already the fragrance of the Holy Spirit has breathed upon you: already you have gathered round the vestibule of the King’s palace ; may you be led in also by the King! (Protocatechesis, 1)

Later on Cyril attributes enlightenment to the Holy Spirit:

And as a man, who being previously in darkness then suddenly beholds the sun, is enlightened in his bodily sight, and sees plainly things which he saw not, so likewise he to whom the Holy Ghost is vouchsafed, is enlightened in his soul, and sees things beyond man’s sight, which he knew not; his body is on earth, yet his soul mirrors forth the heavens. (XVI, 16)

Some who are baptised aren’t really enlightened, as was the case with Simon Magus:

Even Simon Magus once came to the Laver : he was baptised, but was not enlightened; and though he dipped his body in water, he enlightened not his heart with the Spirit: his body went down and came up, but his soul was not buried with Christ, nor raised with Him. (Protocatechesis, 2)

However, these days it’s the rare minister who would refer to an individual’s passage from death to life in Jesus Christ as “enlightenment.” Why is this so?

One of the fascinating things about Cyril and his Catechetical Lectures is that he comes out with things that many contemporary preachers and priests would blush to say. I’ll cite some more obvious examples later, but this is one of those. I think there are three reasons why “enlightenment” is not a common term for Christian salvation.

The first is its use in Buddhism. The enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama under the bodhi tree was the turning point in his life and made him the Buddha. Enlightenment is the first step for the Buddhist. So Christians are reluctant to use the term. It’s interesting to note that Cyril was aware of the Buddha and mentions him once in the Lectures; the interchange between the Hellenistic world and India is one that doesn’t get a great deal of space, but anyone familiar with Neoplatonism knows it’s there.

The second, of course, is the whole business of the “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century, which included a turning away from Europe’s Christian heritage towards a secular one, one that continues to this day. It’s interesting to note that the United States, a country birthed in and moulded by the Enlightenment, has also been a welcoming place (until now perhaps) for Christianity, but things don’t always go as some of us think they should.

The third is that “enlightenment” has an esoteric ring to it, more akin to the revelation of secrets (think Masonic lodge) than the salvation experience that most associate with Christianity. That, in reality, is Cyril’s whole idea, but I’ll save that discussion for later.

I think it’s fair to say, however, that, for all of our squeamishness, the whole Christian experience of salvation in Jesus Christ is enlightenment par excellence.

  1. Jesus is the light of the world: “Jesus again addressed the people. “I am the Light of the World,” he said. “He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the Light of Life.”” (John 8:12)
  2. His light enlightens, in one sense, the human race: “That was the True Light which enlightens every man coming into the world.” (John 1:9)
  3. Those who internalise the light walk in it and are different: “These, then, are the Tidings that we have heard from him and now tell you–‘God is Light, and Darkness has no place at all in him.’ If we say that we have communion with him, and yet continue to live in the Darkness, we lie, and are not living the Truth. But, if our lives are lived in the Light, as God himself is in the Light, we have communion with one another, and the Blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5-7)
  4. That light in turn will shine on others: “It is you who are the Light of the world. A town that stands on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14)

There are many more verses that could be cited, but I think it’s fair to say that, for all of our reservations about using the term “enlightenment” to describe salvation, Cyril’s use of the term is correct.

One thought on “Is It Proper to Refer to Christians as Enlightened?”

  1. So far, so good.

    Another interesting reference: Hebrews 6:4 speaks of “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit…” and is obviously speaking of what we know call “the sacraments/mysteries of initiation”: baptism, confirmation/chrismation, and the Eucharist.

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