The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (3)

Part 2

Modern evangelicals often assume that the line between post-canonical and canonical life is blurry or non-existent. It is widely assumed that we are in the exact same place in history as the prophets and apostles and that we can, if we have enough faith, replicate the same phenomena that occurred in redemptive history. In other words, for many evangelicals, we live in “redemptive history.” Anyone who challenges this biblicist paradigm is said to be “spiritually dead” or “unregenerate” or “dead orthodox.”

Confessional Reformed piety has not been been able to satisfy the pietists or the Anabaptists before them. Thomas Muntzer accused the confessional Protestants of dead orthodoxy in the 16th century. The dividing line was the question whether there is a bright line between canonical history and post-canonical history.

Reformed folk have tended to respect that bright line. None of us has been taken up into the Third Heaven (2 Cor. 12:2). We haven’t seen the risen Christ (Acts 26:13). We don’t receive direct revelations from Christ (1 Cor. 14:30). We generally don’t have healing services (Acts 5:15-16; 8:7) or raise the dead (Acts 9:40-41; 20:11) literally nor do we put people to death (see Acts 5) nor do we teleport about (Acts 8:39).

Respect for the bright line between canonical and post-canonical history does not mean that we believe that the Spirit is no longer active. He most certainly is. Whether what he has promised to do and does interests anyone is another question (see part 4 of this series), but we certainly understand him to be active. We understand him to operate through the preaching of the Word (Rom. 10) and we understand him to operate through the holy sacraments (Matt. 28:20; 1 Cor. 11; Luke 22; Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5).

One great difference between Reformed and modern evangelical piety is the word “mediated.” We understand God’s presence and operation in the church to be “mediated” through the Word and sacraments. Like the 16th-century Anabaptists the modern evangelicals reject or are suspicious of the idea of mediated presence or mediated revelation.

Since the early part of the 18th century Americans have been deeply suspicious of all forms of authority. It wasn’t long ago that US Senators were elected by state representatives. Gradually what was once a representative republic is turning into a giant town meeting. That’s because we are a revolutionary, egalitarian people. Whatever social benefits there may be to this way of thinking, it is not the way of the kingdom of God. This is another very good reason to distinguish between the civil and spiritual spheres. The culture outside the church is one thing, and the culture of the church is another. The confusion of the two, particularly to baptize the prevailing anti-authority, autonomous spirit of modernity, threatens to do great damage to the church of Christ.

The prevailing American cultural resistance to mediation means that we want to know for ourselves, directly. We don’t want anyone to tell us. This is one reason why Pentecostalism and charismatic and other forms of pietist mysticism have flourished in the modern period in the USA. Who needs a preacher when the Spirit is giving everyone apostolic power and revelation? It feeds our cultural prejudices and it leaves unchallenged many cultural assumptions. Those traditions (revivalism, pietism, fundamentalism, Pentecostalism) that stress the immediate encounter with the risen Christ flourish here because they are most like the prevailing culture.

Part 4

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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  1. This has been a very helpful series.

    I routinely sigh when I hear Christians speak about the ‘secret will of God for their lives’ and the sincerely obedient who claim to be ‘in the very centre of God’s will for their lives’.

    Very often these things come from people who claim to stand in the Reformed tradition; it is good to know the historical development of these ideas as part of the corrective against them.


  2. History and tradition are not the creators of the “bright line”. Thankfully, the Word of God is that line. Why then no Scriptural explanation for the dismissal of these elements: “None of us has been taken up into the Third Heaven (2 Cor 12:2). We haven’t seen the risen Christ (Acts 26:13). We don’t receive direct revelations from Christ (1 Cor 14:30). We generally don’t have healing services (Acts 5:15-16; 8:7) or raise the dead (Acts 9:40-41; 20:11) literally nor do we put people to death (see Acts 5) nor do we teleport about (Acts 8:39).”

    Perhaps you discussed this in a previous line so forgive me for asking. I am brand new to your blog today.

    • Lawrence,

      Hi. Welcome. I have discussed this many times on the HB. You could start this this post:

      My point here is that there is a genuine difference between the sorts of things the Spirit did during canonical period, during redemptive history. God actually parted the Red Sea. He actually sent plagues in space and in time. He’s not doing that stuff anymore. He will when Jesus comes but that’s not right now. Presently we live in the in-between time. I don’t think most charismatic and neo-Pentecostal folk understand this. They want to pretend that we still live in the canonical period. They don’t want revelation mediated by Scripture and sacrament. They want to hear directly from God (without Scripture) or it doesn’t “count.”

      So I listed just some of the sorts of things that happened in the apostolic period. If neo-Ps are doing these things really then they’re keeping them a secret. Of course they aren’t doing them at all! That’s the point. They simply re-describe ordinary, post-apostolic life (which they share with the rest of us) in apostolic terms in order to substantiate their claims to reproduce apostolic power. I’ve been there. Got the t-shirt. Nothing to see. Keep moving.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for the articles. I have a question with regard to your understanding of Paul’s use of “revelation.” In Ephesians 1:17-18, Paul seems to describe “revelation” in the same terms I would use for “illumination.” In Ephesians 3, he uses “revelation” in the same terms as I would for “inspiration.” Do you think it is right to conclude that “revelation” still occurs today in the form of “illumination?” And, if so, what all would be included in this Eph 1:17-18 type of “revelation?” Could “impressions,” “promptings,” “peace with regard to a wise decision” etc, all be categorized as this kind of “revelation?” My experience is that what many charismatics who also try to hold to a reformed soteriology experience as “prophecy” is nothing more than illumination. What do you think?

  4. Hi Chad,

    No time today. I’ll get to illumination. Short answer: revelation in the NT means much more than that.

    There are two ways to fuzz the line between the post-apostolic world and the apostolic world. One is to make our life “apostolic” by elevating what’s happening to us. The other way is to lower, as it were, what happened to them.

    I’m not happy with either approach. The word “revelation” means “a disclosure from God.” A search of verbs and nouns with the same stem confirms this. See Rom 1:17-18, 2:5; 8:18, 16:25 just for starters. These are not subjective experiences. These disclosures have objective existence apart from my experience of them. For their use in 1 Cor see 1:7; 2:10, 3:13; 14:6, 26, 30; 2 Cor 12:1 etc. If we read the verses in question, in ch. 14 in the broader Pauline context (in all his letters) the objectivity of revelation seems clear.

    From this I see a clear difference between the sort of ordinary phenomena we all experience (holy intuition) and what happened in the apostolic period.

  5. Thank you for your quick and informative reply. I read the Reformed and Pentecostal post and agree with it entirely. However it disagrees with your one comment, “…there is a genuine difference between the sorts of things the Spirit did during canonical period, during redemptive history.” The Spirit of God is still doing the same things, but no longer through apostolic works/the apostles themselves (and of course there are no new apostles). God still speaks personally to His children, but not in new revelation. God is still Almighty. Amen.

    Thank you for this great outlet. I look forward to more dialogue as I continue to read.

  6. would love to see this bright line in scripture
    would love to see this scripture which reveals that live as a christian has changed and we no longer recieve direct revelations from Christ (do u include the HSpirit in this)
    I am not an intellectual and it takes me a long time to work out yr indicatives imperative and reformed history but most important I believe that God does reveal things to his people thru his word and whilst I agree that many evangelicals are way off scripturally i cannot see a biblical basis for the dividing bright line bet canonical and post canonical history

  7. Not necessarily, just because it hasnt happened to me or someone i know
    God is able to transport anyone he likes whenever he likes I cannot put a boundary around him because that hasnt happened in my life. Miracles do happen today, just because we have false teachers which spread lies about false miracles doesnt mean they dont exist.
    Why do we need the bright line theory? Does it qualify something – sorry i just dont understand?

    • Ka,

      1. It hasn’t happened to anyone in recorded history since the apostles. Why not? Because it was part of the administration of salvation that belonged to that period. In the same way that there was only one garden, one flood, one Exodus, one crucifixion, one ascension, and one Pentecost. These are unique events, part of a complex of salvation acts in redemptive history.

      2. There’s no question here about God’s sovereignty or freedom. What is in question is what God has promised to do. The question is how to interpret the significance of what actually happened in redemptive history as recorded in Scripture and how to assess where we are in history. We don’t live in the apostolic period. Failure to recognize this fact has led to tragic consequences in two ways. First, Rome pretends to continue to have canonical revelations (like the Mormons) which binds the consciences of since believers. The neo-Pentecostals have done the same, particularly since the outbreak of the Topeka and Azusa St “revivals” of the early 20th century. Second, it has led to the sad quest to reproduce the apostolic phenomena. This hasn’t happened so now folk hold scheduled “healing” services on Wed nights! If the healing fails, well it must have been because I had not enough faith. That’s not apostolic at all. So now we have folk trying to gin up enough faith. Well, if we can gin up enough faith to be healed or to heal, then why not gin up enough faith to walk on water or part the waters or calm the storm? Why stop at a little healing? Why not raise people from the dead? Why is it always, “I know a guy, who knew a guy, who’s third cousin once….” Whatever. This has led to despair and cynicism.

      3. There’s a lot of good reading on this. You might start with these:

      Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost (P & R Publishing, 1979).

      Benjamin B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1972).

  8. ok, not sure what i make of all this – but i will go away and read and pray on it
    thank you for taking the time and effort to explain
    i really appreciate it!

  9. I’m enjoying this series very much, but am also finding it a lot to swallow as I see in myself many of the false ideas presented. Thank you for sharing the wisdom God has given you.

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