Ongoing Revelation and the Westminster Confession of Faith

 

Dear Brothers in Christ,

    Greetings in Christ! I am sharing below the essential content of a letter recently sent to address the concerns of a friend in Christian ministry, who values, as I do, the Westminster Standards, but who has viewed the theological distinction between revelation and illumination so rigidly, in my judgment, as to diminish the power of the Gospel itself. In his mind to use the word revelation in any post-apostolic sense represents heresy and a violation of the Westminster Confession.  I am challenging this interpretation on the basis of Scripture, as well as the Westminster Standards themselves. In addition to this particular issue, I am following with comments on matters that closely relate.

    I am sending this to you because I know of either your thoughtful commitment to the Westminster Standards, or your particular interest in this subject, or both. In some ways, I suppose, this represents a follow-up on an article I sent to many of you on the historical problem posed by documented reports of prophetic experiences in the lives of such prominent figures as Scottish Reformers George Wishart and John Knox, as well as 19th century English Reformed Baptist, Charles Spurgeon. Particularly significant is that among the witnesses was Samuel Rutherford, himself a delegate to the Westminster Assembly.

    My purpose in sending this is to stimulate your own theological thinking, to spur all to a more consistent, biblical approach to these subjects, and to promote the unity of the body of Christ which has been sadly divided over this issue due to incomplete thinking on both sides. I welcome your feedback. I might also mention that I have posted an article on my website entitled "Viewing the Gift of Prophecy through a Closed Canon." That was written prior to what follows, and is somewhat a revised condensation of what you received about a year ago by e-mail. I am not so foolish as to think that I have the final word on this, but my prayer is that we might move beyond the present impasse of pejorative thinking where Scripture does not warrant it. Thank you for your review and consideration. 

Your brother in Christ,

David C. Brand


Q. 43. How doth Christ execute the office of a prophet?

A. Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in his revealing to the church, in all ages, by his Spirit and Word, in divers ways of administration, the whole will of God, in all things concerning their edification and salvation. (Westminster Larger Catechism)

 

    The Westminster Confession of Faith is an affirmation of "the entire perfection" of Scripture (I,v). To suggest, as some have done, that Paul's use of the word "reveal" in Romans 1:17, somehow contributes to confusion, challenges "the entire perfection of Scripture" which the WCF affirms, not to mention the Holy Spirit Himself who inspired the apostle to write that verse exactly the way he wrote it. The apostle in Romans 1:17 was not strictly speaking  of "objective revelation"(to use J. I. Packer's distinction) or, to put it in WCF phraseology, "those former ways of God's revealing himself to his people" which have now ceased with the completion of the canon (I,i) This fact is made clear by the apostle's use of the words "from faith to faith"--the sense is ongoing.

    The problem at this point is not with the Westminster standards, for the Larger Catechism (see above quotation), consistent with Romans 1:17, does not shrink from employing the word "reveal" in an ongoing sense. That this is the case is obvious by the adverbial prepositional phrase "in all ages." J. I. Packer's distinction between "objective revelation" and "subjective revelation," therefore, is not only quite scriptural, but consonant with the Westminster standards. Of course, the qualifying words are "by his Spirit and Word." This too is consistent with Romans 1:17 in which the subjective  revelation (i.e., the revealing of the righteousness of God from faith to faith), is said to take place in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, presumably through its proclamation.  Objective revelation has to do with historical redemption--the faith once and for all delivered to the saints; whereas, subjective revelation has to do with the application of redemption--the ongoing delivery of that faith in the context of gospel proclamation.

    Now let us focus on a section of the Confession.  

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.  (Westminster Confession I, vi)

    The subjective revelation of Romans 1:17, or any new insights brought to the Christian by "the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him" (Eph.1:17), if that is what is meant by the above expression "new revelations of the Spirit" add nothing to the Scripture, however "new" to the believer, such revelations may be. Such "revelations" are not in the category of objective or foundational revelation (Eph. 2:20), strictly speaking, however encouraging to the believer the experience of them may be (1 Tim. 1:18; 4:14). On the other hand, neither are such "revelations" in the category of "private revelation" so-called which stands under God's just condemnation (2 Pet. 1:20-21). On the contrary, they represent authentic experiential religion of the heart which consists of both heat and light, to use Jonathan Edwards's imagery. Surely this is the sense of the "revelation" spoke of in 1 Corinthians 14:26.

    Whereas objective revelation is direct and immediate, i.e., the apostles were first-hand witnesses of the Incarnate Lord, subjective revelation is indirect and mediate, i.e., mediated by God's Word and Spirit.  Subjective or applicative revelation consists of reflected light emanating from the Gospel--the faith once for all delivered to the saints. For that reason, the Westminster Assembly designated that ongoing revelation illumination (WCF I,v). Subjective or applicative revelation consists of nothing more than the shining of Gospel light, or to put it another way, nothing less than the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ upon the heart and mind of the sinner enlightening the understanding, kindling the affections of the heart, and inclining the will to serve and glorify God (2 Cor. 4:5-6).

    It should be especially noted that neither should the Westminster Standards themselves, which could certainly be included within the category of "the traditions of men" (WCF I, v), if not "new revelations in the Spirit," be understood to be on a level with Scripture, or to add anything to the Holy Scriptures. Even if these confessional documents be considered to fall within the category of that which "by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture," such deductions, in the spirit of the Berean Jews, should be examined by each generation of the church in the light of Holy Scripture (Acts 17:11) while instruction is received from them. 

   
Now, on another point, I do not think we can affirm "the entire perfection" of Scripture consonant with WCF I,v, if in the next breath, under the guise of carrying out the Great Commission, we proceed to persuade the lambs under our charge that they should not exercise particular charismata which the apostle specifically commanded should not be despised or forbidden. I am speaking here in particular of prophecy which Paul said we should not treat with contempt (1 Thess. 5:20) and speaking in tongues which he commanded we should not forbid (1 Cor. 14:39).

    In my paper on my website <dcbcom.org> I have tried to state what this prophecy is, and what it is not. The prophecy to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 14 cannot be considered on a level with Scripture, and adds nothing to it, but belongs to that category of "new revelations of the Spirit" (if we understand the WCF description [I,vi] here to mean "new" to the experience of the believer). These charismata may be said to involve revelation that is personal but not private, and subjective or experiential as distinct from the objective "faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). They are subject to evaluation by the body of Christ, and the elders in particular (1 Cor. 14:29; Titus1:9) who, presumably, are to examine the purported prophecies in the light of "the law" and "the testimony" of Holy Scripture (Isaiah 8:20).

    Anyone teaching on the subject of the charismata would be well-advised to begin by imparting an understanding of the gift of apostle, the foundational gift whose exercise has been completed and embodied in the New Testament for successive generations of the church. Though there might appear, from time to time, men who have very unusual ministries, and ministries involved in the planting of churches, these men would do well  to avoid the designation of "apostle" to describe their ministries. While the English word "missionary" carries the same literal meaning, it does not have the same association in people's minds and does not foster the confusion that would result from the word "apostle," which, strictly speaking, refers to those who were first-hand witnesses of Jesus Christ and especially commissioned by Him to  establish the foundational testimony for the church.  If "apostle" is used in a general sense of one commissioned to oversee the planting of new churches, the word should be carefully qualified so as to differentiate it from the foundational office bearing the same name (Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14).  We are all "sent," but we are not all apostles, and none in the official sense which the term itself suggests.

    Furthermore, those who prophesy ought not to assume or lay claim to the office of prophet, and it would seem that any believer who has the testimony within himself is a candidate for this ministry gift. Under the New Testament (Numbers 11:29; Acts 2:17-18; 19:6; 1 Cor. 14:1, 5, 31, 39; 1 John 5:10; Revelation 19:10), those who prophesy are to conduct themselves in the spirit described in such passages as Zechariah 13:4-6, Isaiah 57:15, 66:2b, and Jeremiah 23:28. 

    As for miracles (1 Cor. 12:28), these are never to be sought as ends in themselves (Matt. 12:39; John 6:26). Neither should they be demanded as though without them God's gracious purpose could not be carried out (Dan. 3:17-18; Heb. 11:5). Furthermore, claims to miracles in this post apostolic age should not be taken at face value except on the most reliable Christian testimony (Acts 10:40-41; 2 Tim. 2:2). The character, conduct, and message of the minister are critical to any objective evaluation of such claims. Miracles in themselves do not authenticate a ministry. Indeed, pretensions to miracles could well be a tactic of the enemies of Christ to sidetrack or deceive the church (2 Thess. 2:9).

    The coming of Christ and the proclamation which followed was attended by miraculous events many of which uniquely set apart Christ and His redemptive work from any other person or events in human history.  Any claim to a duplication of these events which by the very manner or nature of their repetition would serve to diminish the glory of the Gospel events themselves, the person of Christ, or the unique commission of His holy apostles, ought to be soundly rejected and condemned. 

    On the other hand, the church, if she is truly apostolic, could well find herself in such pressing circumstances in these last days, that God would be pleased to answer her heart-cries by remarkable acts of providence, even miraculous' intervention, such as is described in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, not as supernatural attestation to any human leader, but to the Word itself.  God would accomplish this for the sake of Christ and the vindication of His elect who cry to him day and night should he find such faith on the earth (Luke 18:6-8). Once again, any such miracles must never be demanded, for submission to the will of God is primary (Daniel 3:18), and faith always has its reward whether met with a resurrection in this present evil age or a better one in the age to come (Heb. 11:35).  

    If God is pleased to bless some Christian ministry with miracles to authenticate His Word and to bring deliverance from Satan's power or healing from disease, that is His business, and though we may not understand it, neither should we oppose it, even if that ministry does not conform in every respect to the fine points of our particular theological school (Mark 9:38-40). If we affirm the church's catholicity, in keeping with the Apostles Creed, we can hardly dismiss this principle which our blessed Lord has taught.  

    The Gospel and miracles, if they are authentic miracles, are never at odds or in conflict with one another anymore than Word and sacrament are in conflict. For this reason, Scripture designates miracles as "signs and wonders" (Acts 4:30). They are designated "signs" inasmuch as they do not stand alone but point to the greater reality behind them--the Gospel itself which is rooted in the eternal covenant of redemption, or to put it another way, the Gospel of the Kingdom. They are designated "wonders" because they stagger the mind in keeping with their author whose name is Wonderful (Isaiah 9:6).

    If any doubt should ever arise in the judgment of the church concerning whether a particular phenomenon is an authentic miracle, judgment should be suspended, and error, if it is unavoidable, should be made in favor of the truth of the Gospel itself. Where there appears to be conflict between the two, the Gospel always trumps miracles, for salvation comes through the Gospel, and not miracles per se.  Yet at the core of the Gospel stands the greatest miracle of all time; consequently, the Gospel shall endure though all other miracles fade and heaven and earth pass away.  Miracles, on that account, are not to be despised, however awesome or bewildering they may initially appear by their very nature.  Their design is to bring us to repentance and faith by pointing us to the Gospel of God's Son. 

    Finally, I want to state my views concerning the baptism of the Holy Spirit which I take to mean the confirmatory work arising from, and embracing, the believer's regeneration associated primarily with the risen, glorified Lord Jesus Christ but involving all three members of the Triune Godhead (Matt. 3:11; Acts 1:6; 1 Cor. 12:13; Titus 3:5-6; Acts 2:33; John 14:16, 26). Scripture describes this work, and the sacrament which corresponds to it, as a washing (Titus 3:5-6; Eph. 5:26; Acts 22:16; Heb. 10:22; cf. 2 Kings 5:10; Isaiah 52:15; Ezekiel 36:25; Zech. 13:1). The Holy Spirit accomplishes the effectual calling of sinners, convicting them of sin, regenerating their hearts enabling them to repent and believe the Gospel which they are hearing. The Holy Spirit's role in the covenant of grace is to seal the heart of the believer forever constituting him a child of God and a member of the body of Christ.

    The baptism of the Holy Spirit is a once-for-all event in the life of the Christian, just as its sacramental correspondent and the redemptive event upon which it is based are once for all events (Eph. 4:5; Rom. 6:10). In that regard, it is to be distinguished from the filling of the Holy Spirit, an event that is repeatable and ongoing (Acts 2:4: 4:31). Indeed, the filling of the Holy Spirit may be said to be the ongoing and progressive aspect of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18).

    The baptism of the Holy Spirit is promised to every believer and his offspring conditional upon their repentance (Acts 2:38-39; Isaiah 59:20-21).  Empowerment for the church's witness in the world hinges upon the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:46-49; Acts 1:8) through which the believer's spiritual abiding in the life of the Triune God becomes a daily reality (John 14:15-21).

     The baptism of the Holy Spirit is often, if not always, accompanied by the bestowal of spiritual gifts or charismata, or the gifts proceed as a result of it (1 Cor. 12:7), though no particular gift per se is an essential condition of it (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:11). These gifts are not to be allowed to lie dormant but are to be exercised by the believer in service to the body of Christ (Matt. 25:14-30; 1 Cor. 12:7; 1 Pet. 4:10-11; 2 Tim. 1:6-7).  

    
The Spirit's work, while deeply personal and applicable to the particular needs and circumstances of each believer, is not a private work, but is very much in keeping with the corporate aspect of the church. Hence, when the fruit of the Spirit is listed by the apostles, love stands at the top of the list (Gal. 5:22; 1 Cor. 13:1-13; Rom 5:5; James 2:8; 1 Pet. 4:8; 1 John 4:8). But truth and love go hand in hand (1 Cor.13:6; Eph. 4:15; 2 John 1-2); consequently, the Savior designated the Holy Spirit as "the Spirit of Truth (John 15:26;16:13). In that capacity the Spirit teaches us all things and only things that are true, as the truth is Christ  Himself (John 14:6) and everything about Him (Joh  1:14; 16:13-14; 18:37). Therein lies the basis for our sanctification (John 17:16).

Your brother in Christ,

Dave Brand