Eleven Theses on Private Spirits

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Before getting into it, my views on the subject of continuing revelation are basically found in the first chapter of the Westminster Confession.

“The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF 1.10).

That said, as the masthead of Credenda cheerfully states, the boundaries of our confessional commitments are smaller than the boundaries of our fellowship. I want to be in fellowship with men like John MacArthur and Mark Driscoll, despite the areas of our disagreements. That would include men who have more use for private spirits (showing them spirit footage) than we do, as well as men who have less use for private spirits (like Drambuie) than we do.

If you read any of this, be sure to read all of it. Or, failing that, if you read only part of it, be sure just to read the parts you agree with, which should help us keep the comments down. Now then . . .

1. The revelatory gifts have ceased. The foundation of our faith is the word of the prophets and apostles, with Christ as the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). The ability to work miraculous signs is an authenticating mark of an apostle (2 Cor. 12:12), which means that if the apostolic reality is no longer here, neither can there be a legitimate biblical proofs that it is too here. In the very nature of the case, foundation work is done first. When you are framing the house on that foundation, you must build in line with the foundation, which is not the same thing as continuing to lay the foundation. You no longer pour concrete when you are framing in the attic.

2. The revelatory gifts consisted of knowledge guaranteed by the Spirit however it might come – whether it is spiritual knowledge or natural knowledge. When God guarantees His revelation, He can do so through any means He chooses. That can of course include things that we would commonly call supernatural, like visits from angels (Luke 2:9-14), or visions of unseen realities (Eze. 10:1ff). But He can also guarantee His Word through ordinary and natural means. Paul was not in a trance when he wrote the book of Galatians. A man can speak the truth and a spirit can tell a lie. We cannot take anything as the Word of God unless God requires it of us, thus guaranteeing the truthfulness of it. It is not true because it is spiritual, and it is not false because it is natural.

3. In addition, a man might have a form of spiritual knowledge (that did not come to him through his five senses), but which knowledge is entirely natural, i.e. part of this created order. We are often tempted to say that some things are supernatural simply because we do not know how far nature actually goes. So spiritual insights, visions, premonitions, etc. are not the same thing as guaranteed revelations by God’s Holy Spirit, given to an authenticated prophet or apostle. Claims to the latter have a high bar for proof, and high consequences for an accuracy average less than 100% (Dt. 18: 21-22). This scenario is activated when the name of God is invoked.

4. The fact that a spiritual insight or gift of knowledge is not guaranteed by the Holy Spirit does not mean that the insight is necessarily false. It means the source is not authenticated, not authorized to write Scripture. There are truths outside Scripture, which means that God doesn’t want all truths to be in the Bible. A fallible man can write an infallible book. If page one says merely that two oranges added to two oranges will always result in four oranges, and page two claims the same thing for apples, and page three for pineapples, and so on up to a hundred pages, and the whole thing is proofed by a scads of copy editors, the result could well be an infallible book. But it wouldn’t be the Word of God. To claim that it is true is not to claim that it is the Word of God. To claim that “God told me,” however, is a claim that it is the Word of God.

5. There is no way to maintain that the revelatory gifts are ongoing without jeopardizing the integrity of the canon of Scripture. If the word given is a Word from God, and we believe that it is, then we must treat it as though it is. God can dispense with His own Words, as He apparently did in the case of Phillip’s daughters, but we have no authority to throw God’s Words away. We must treat such words as the Word of God, which means that we must treat them as Scripture. Not only are they the equivalent of Scripture formally, but they are given in our native language, and without centuries or millennia separating us from the culture in which they were originally given. This means that practically, as being far more accessible, they will come to assume a more privileged place among us.

6. The label of non-cessationism does not really solve any problems. What is it exactly that has ceased or not ceased? All orthodox non-cessationists believe that the authority to write Scripture has ceased. So then something has ceased. What is that, and why has it ceased? I would suggest that this would have to be the revelatory gifts on display in the pages of the New Testament. Someone who believes they have gone away entirely is a cessationist, obviously, but so is a man who believes that they are no longer doing the same thing they used to do. If I believed the gift of tongues simply enabled me to speak English more effectively (enabling me to do what I was already doing), would I have the right to call this non-cessationism? I don’t think so. Such down-graded claims are therefore no longer binding on the conscience in the same way the older claims would have been. I am not bound to accept a prophetic utterance from a charismatic friend the same way I am bound to believe the book of Romans.

7. Language like “Jesus told me,” “the Holy Spirit says,” or “this is God’s will” is language that is tantamount to a claim to revelation. The language has this implication even if the speaker thinks to himself that it does not. Men in leadership positions should be extremely careful to avoid such language.

8. Because it is a claim on behalf of God, it is difficult, if not impossible, for non-cessationists to explain how any of these revelatory events are prophecy lite, or discernment lite. God doesn’t do lite knowledge. If God is doing it directly, then He does what He does. If He is not the one doing it directly, then whatever it is that is going on, it is not what was happening in biblical times to Jeremiah, Isaiah, Paul and Agabus. And that means we shouldn’t talk as though it is still going on.

9. And yet, we all know that something is going on. The fact that guaranteed infallible revelation has ceased does not mean that uncanny or weird events cannot happen in the natural realm. We do not need to attribute them to the direct inspirational activity of God to believe that there is something to them. A Christian walking with the Lord, with all his natural gifts extended to their fullest extent, might be able to pick up on things that his friends don’t see at all. And it is to be expected that different people would have different sensitivities and abilities in this regard. “Why did you preach on that?” the man exclaimed, thoroughly convicted. “How did you know?” And the pastor can only say that there was a disturbance in the force – and that is why the shaft went home.

10. As Calvinists we believe that God is in everything, and behind everything. And so, there is a sense in which a man who has some gift of knowledge (say), one actually verified by the event, could say that God “gave” him that. But because of the rampant confusion surrounding these issues, his description of what happened should be extremely cautious, if he describes it to others at all. Shall I illustrate? I was once in a counseling session with a woman who was being recruited by a really bad cult. She had been impervious to everything I had shown or told her about that group. I was stumped. But one morning I was reading in 2 Peter, and read the phrase “with eyes full of adultery . . . they seduce the unstable” and I knew that the husband of the couple that was recruiting her was sleeping with her as a recruiting technique. I had no evidence that would hold up in any kind of just courtroom, but I did have enough to ask her about it. When I did, she dissolved into tears. That was it, and she repented. I believe that I knew that because the world is a weird place, and I believe the world is a weird place because Jesus is the Lord of it. So in that sense, sure, He gave me that knowledge, the same indirect way He gave me bacon for breakfast this morning. I thank Him for both. But I would never say “Jesus told me, that’s how I knew” – I would say, after the fact, that I believe the Lord “had led me,” or had “put it in my heart.” I would actively seek to avoid any language that could be construed as a claim to an inside revelatory track. Why? Because I don’t have one.

11. Because this is a complicated subject, and because the entire Christian church has shared in the confusion over the relationship of nature and super-nature, we need to be very careful to avoid condemnations that build upon assumptions about this inadequately examined metaphysical grid. Because of the rampant confusion of spiritual and inspired (which are not the same thing at all), we need to do more theological spadework in the garden of our studies, and less beating our brethren over the head with the spade. Many Christians do have the distinction down between evil/spiritual and inspired because, after all, the devil is a spirit. But we have spirits also, and we are wired into a spiritual web. This applies to good men and bad men, and good confused men and bad insightful men. When a man sees or knows something out of the ordinary, it might be God indirectly, it might be demons, and it might be just him. The one thing it cannot be is God revealing His infallible Word.

What should we do about all this then? To the law and to the testimony (Is. 8:20).

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