UPDATE 6 June 2009. While working on another project today I stumbled across Garnet H. Milne, The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Cessation of Special Revelation: The Majority Viewpoint on Whether Extra-Biblical Prophecy is Still Possible (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster/Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008). Milne distinguishes between “mediate” and “immediate” revelation “as understood by the Westminster divines” and “attempts to show that only ‘immediate’ revelation was considered to have ceased, while ‘mediate’ revelation, which always involved Scripture, was held to continue.”
A detailed analysis of the writings of the Westminster divines reveals that these churchmen possessed both a strong desire to maintain the unity of the Word and Spirit and a concern to safeguard the freedom of the Holy Spirit to speak to particular circumstances through the language and principles of Scripture. God still enabled predictive prophecy and spoke to individuals in extraordinary ways, but contemporary prophecy was held to be something distinct from the extraordinary prophecy of the New Testament figures. In the minds of both the Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans, prophecy was considered to be an application of Scripture for a specific situation, not an announcement of new information not contained within the Bible. The Scriptures always remained essential for the process of discerning God’s will.
…[T]he Westminster divines intended the cessationist clause to affirm that there was to be no more extra-biblical, ‘immediate,’ revelation for any purpose now that the church possessed the completed Scriptures (xvi).
Here’s a related reference:
Milne, G. H. “‘Private Spirits,’ In the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Protestant-Catholic Debates: A response to Byron Curtis,” Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999): 101–110.
Original Post 28 Jan 2009—Nick asks this provocative question. The short answer is “yes.” When the Reformation asserted sola Scriptura she did so not only against Rome but also against an early version of the charismatic movement.
He also asks an interesting question, raised by Douglas Oss, created by the problem of Samuel Rutherford who, according to Oss, claimed the continuing existence of prophecy. I’ll address the theological question and then the historical problem.
1) However much Wayne Grudem wants non-canonical prophecy to remain non-canonical, any alleged Word from God is bound to be canonical in the nature of the case. A canon is a rule. if God speaks to us, it is, by that very fact, a rule. We cannot say, “Oh well, I know that God said x, but that’s just his opinion.”
I was nearly persuaded by Grudem’s arguments—indeed there was a time when I would have been glad for Grudem to be right—but ultimately I concluded that his argument is really too weak to be credible. Agabus is a difficult case for anyone and certainly a poor resting place for Grudem’s case and his exegesis of Ephesians is not convincing either. I think Dick Gaffin’s responses on these fronts are right.
Either a message comes from God or it does not. If it does it is canonical in some sense, even if not preserved. It is at least canonical in the broad sense of serving as a rule for a community and for a time. I understand there to have been such revelations in the apostolic period that were not preserved for us.
2) Claims to ongoing prophecy necessarily subvert the finality and authority of Holy Scripture. I recall being at St Aldates (I think) in 1993 when someone quoted an alleged prophecy by name and place. This person did so with a straight face and we were meant to take it seriously and others in the group did. I hadn’t heard it but had just worked through the Grudem argument (preaching through 1-2 Cor and hanging out with charismatics for a couple of years). The folk in this group seemed to take this “prophecy” as canonical and authoritative.
If there is a living voice then what of Scripture? It becomes, as it did for the 16th-century Anabaptists, a “dead letter.” Indeed, as I noted in RRC (331—34), this argument really goes back to the 16th century. As in the case of the ABs, Scripture is marginalized in favor of alleged continuing revelation.
We have the same problem with Rome. There the church is said to form the Scripture and the continuing revelations and unwritten apostolic traditions have quite marginalized Scripture. It’s impossible to norm Roman practice with Scripture because of the second stream of authority and revelation which effectively trumps Scripture.
3) On the historical problem of Reformed folk claiming continuing revelations (if that’s what happened) I reply, “So what?” The implied premise, I suppose, of Oss’ appeal to Rutherford, is that if he did it and he’s Reformed, we can’t say that Reformed folk don’t do it or shouldn’t. Sure we can. The great and liberating thing about having churchly confessions and by having them define “Reformed” is that it protects us from the weird things that Reformed people do and say.
If Oss is making such an argument and if he’s assuming that the adjective “Reformed’ must be defined by what Reformed people do and say. It isn’t. The adjective “Reformed” is defined by what the Reformed churches do and say. The Reformed churches do not confess continuing revelation, whatever Rutherford did or did not think or experience personally. Reformed pastors and writers have been wrong about any number of things. We’re not obligated to their private opinions or practices. Lots of Reformed pastors used to teach geocentrism even long after it was clear that geocentrism wasn’t tenable. Lots a Reformed pastors used to teach theocratic politics and today there are more than a few who teach theonomy (the necessity of the application of the Mosaic civil law and penalties). They were (and remain) wrong. If a Reformed minister says the moon is made of green cheese, that doesn’t make “The Green-Cheese Moon” theory suddenly a “Reformed” view!
Reformed folk are obligated to the Word of God as confessed by the Reformed churches and our confession is quite clear. Scripture alone is canonical. Nothing else is canonical beside it. We believe in natural revelation but in nature we only learn the law, not the gospel. The point of sola Scriptura is to say that it is the unique and un-normed norm for Christian faith and the Christian life and we confess that unique, canonical authority for faith and life over against Rome and the charismatics and pentecostalists of all ages. Adding a predestinarian doctrine of salvation (i.e. the doctrines of grace) to an otherwise charismatic theology doesn’t make that theology “Reformed.” It makes it predestinarian.
Nick has a follow-up post here on “Spurgeon, the Prophetic and Gaffin’s Deadly Pen“.