The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, article 10, reads,
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,1 are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.Notice here, that the Westminster divines do not argue that the decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, or private spirits are without some authority within the Church. They do not dismiss them as superfluous, instead they subordinate them and make them subject to the Supreme Judge of Scripture. Decrees, doctrines, and prophecy are, therefore, not excesses if they are derived from and examined by Scripture.
In actuality, unlike the Westminster divines, many contemporary cessationists are not arguing for sola Scriptura, but are instead arguing for solo Scriptura2 — sola Scriptura is Latin, meaning, Scripture alone, solo Scriptura3 meaning, Scripture only. That is, cessationists today, when they insist that modern day prophecy would render the Scripture insufficient and non-authoritative, are advocating for a position which was not held by the Reformed cessationists who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith.
When debating prophecy, cessationists rush to point out that granting authority to something other than the written text of Scripture violates sola Scriptura, without stopping to consider that they continually appeal to extra-biblical authorities; whether they be ancient creeds, particular confessions of faith, systematic theologies, or any number of other doctrinal positions. Ironically enough, when cessationists demand that charismatics submit to sola Scriptura (or Cessationism), they are calling them to submit their consciences to something other than the Bible. And in so doing, they violate the terms of the very position they are attempting to propound!
As a Reformed continuationist, I certainly do hold to sola Scriptura; because like the ancient creeds and confessions of faith, it is derived from Scripture itself. And since sola Scriptura is derived from Scripture, its authority is derivative and it carries obligation. But sola Scriptura, like all doctrines of men, is subordinate in nature to the final rule of Scripture. So, as a continuationist, I must formulate a proper doctrine of sufficiency which allows for the ongoing revelatory work of the Spirit in the Church.4 Fortunately, I do not need to modify what the Westminster divines have already written.
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.5Continuationists do not violate sola Scriptura because prophecy does not add new doctrinal matter to the completed corpus of Scripture. Every revelation which is purported to come from the Spirit of God, is scrutinized by the final and Supreme Judge of Scripture.6
On account of this, when sola Scriptura is properly defined, and prophecies are exercised within the limits of Apostolic instruction, the exercise of that gift is found to be within the scope of what the doctrine allows. In no way does it challenge the sufficiency or authority of Holy Scripture.
Return to first article in this series: Confronting Common Arguments and Objections to the Continuation of the Charismatic Gifts
<< Argument 7 Objection 2 >>
Byron Curtis has recently argued that at the time of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), "private spirits" meant "personal revelations," and that the Westminster Confession did not rule them out but insisted they were to be subject to Scripture. Curtis writes, "...in mid-seventeenth-century England there was an established meaning to the phrase ‘private spirits' denoting personal revelations." Curtis cites the Oxford English Dictionary, showing that at the time of the WCF the term "spirit" could take either the sense "opinion" or "revelation," but he then shows significant evidence from other literature close to the WCF in time and subject matter, evidence showing that "private spirits" was commonly understood to mean "personal revelations" that people claimed they had received from the Holy Spirit.
The historical and linguistic evidence indicates that WCF 1.10's phrase "private spirits" had a clearly recognized meaning which can be traced in [certain current controversies].... That recognized meaning denotes private revelation, not personal opinion. — Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 349.↩
2 Regarding tradition and sola Scriptura, Karl Barth, writes, “We do not live, think, and teach on the basis of a Scripture that is suspended all alone in the air, and thus not 'sola' (=solitaria) Scriptura. We live, think, and teach...in the communion of Saints, as we listen with filial reverence and brotherly love to the voice of pastors and teachers of God’s people, those of the past as well as those of the present. But first and last we do so as we adhere to the revelation of God to which the Holy Scriptures bear witness, which is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and which gives inspiration; that is, we do so in obeying in faith the living voice of Jesus Christ.” — Ad Limina Apostolorum: An Appraisal of Vatican II, Translated by Keith R. Crim (Richmond, AV: John Know Press, 1968) 49—50.
Richard Muller writes, that it is “...entirely anachronistic to view the sola Scriptura of Luther and his contemporaries as a declaration that all of theology ought to be constructed anew, without reference to the church’s tradition and interpretation, by the lonely exegete confronting the naked text. It is equally anachronistic to assume that Scripture functioned for the Reformers like a set of numbered facts or propositions suitable for use as ready-made solutions to any and all questions capable of arising in the course of human history.” — Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), 51.
While these quotations reflect a discussion over Tradition and Scripture as sources of God’s disclosure to the Church, the principle remains — If sola Scriptura is not violated when extra-biblical traditions, teachings, commentary, et al., are considered, then neither is it violated when extra-biblical prophecies are uttered and weighed. If a prophecy is tested by a church against Scripture, and the revelation does not add to, nor take away from, the doctrines that are derived from the Bible; if it edifies, exhorts, or consoles the Body (or the one to whom the prophecy is directed), then the utterance can rightly be considered divinely revealed and in compliance with the doctrine sola Scriptura.↩
3 Or, solitaria Scripturea↩
4 As someone who holds to sola Scriptura, I must submit myself to what the Scripture teaches about the Charismata. If Paul commands the Church, “Do not despise prophecies” and “Do not forbid speaking in tongues” then the Church is bound by his Apostolic authority to hold prophecies in high regard and to allow the speaking of tongues. Therefore, a proper formulation of the doctrine of sola Scriptura must accommodate the practice of spiritual gifts as they are described in holy Scripture. Otherwise, the doctrine would nullify the word of God (cf. Mark 7:13) — It is the cessationist who must lay his theology of cessation on top of Scripture, to make the Bible say what it does not plainly read.↩
5 The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, article 6↩
6 1 Thes 5:20—21↩