Associate Pastor, Agros Church
A decade has passed since Time Magazine labeled the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement one of the “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” Three years earlier in 2006 at a conference called Together for the Gospel(T4G), modern evangelicalism collided with the doctrines of grace by way of Matt Chandler, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler, CJ Mahaney, and Mark Dever. At the time, it must have seemed like God was breaking the chains of Charles Finney and C.I. Scofield from the ankles of the church. I hope in ten years time this proves to be true. This movement opened the door for many to the teachings of Paul Washer, R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur, and for others, it led to the old, beaten path of 17th century confessional Christianity.
The path of Calvinistic Christianity is divided like a two-lane road. They both are headed in the same direction, though they remain in two distinct lanes. It is not difficult to drift between these two lanes, and this is often the case for modern Calvinists. These two lanes can be divided into the categories of old and new Calvinism. The old Calvinism is distinguished from the new primarily by one distinctive: adherence to a confession. These confessional Calvinists enjoy, in many cases, a very different religious experience than the non-confessional Calvinists, though their soteriology remains very similar. This confessional distinctive roots the Calvinistic soteriology in a covenantal framework, which further separates the two camps in many cases. This is truly the distinction between a Calvinist and a Reformed Calvinist - confession and covenant. For more on this, see my article A Primer on Reformed Christianity. In the wake of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, this remains the key distinction between Calvinists in the American church. Each side of the road carries with it many blessings, and there is much value to be harvested from each.
This may develop into a larger project at some point, but for now I want to discuss what could be considered a painted line on the road dividing the two camps - the topic of spiritual gifts, specifically the nature of special revelation. The old Calvinists typically identify as cessationists, while the new Calvinists claim the title continuationist, though this is obviously not always the case. It is fair to say that Solomon’s storehouses would have trouble containing the nuance required to adequately handle this conversation, so I hope to keep this simple and accessible. While some may attempt to frame this discussion as a, “you either believe in the gifts or you don't’,” the reality is that many Calvinists, new and old, sit somewhere on a spectrum between cessationist and continuationist.
For the sake of inclusivity, let’s define these terms on a sliding scale. On one end, you have the extreme cessationist, who might as well have forgotten about the Holy Spirit. On the other, you have the extreme continuationist, who believes they can walk on water, raise the dead to life, and receive continual private revelations from God that are equal to or above Scripture on a daily basis. Most Calvinists exist on this spectrum somewhere in the middle, so it’s important to recognize that this conversation primarily lives in the realm of αδιαφορα (adiaphora - second hand issues). The tension which is already present between those that fall on either side of the spectrum becomes more strained when the conversation is defined in a black and white manner, so I will attempt to avoid such strict distinctions.
I recently found myself deep in the trenches of an internet debate regarding the issue by way of a John Owen meme, and quickly realized how complex the topic truly was due to unclear understandings of the terminology surrounding the word “revelation.” It wasn’t long before the accusations of being a “keyboard warrior” and “high tower internet theologian” began to fly, as you might imagine. One gentleman, in a rather enthusiastic moment, responded to his own comment thinking it was mine with a flurry of blows! Despite the sparks flying, the thread ultimately ended up producing many profitable dialogues, for which I am deeply grateful.
Framing the Discussion
This topic is far too broad to properly address in one article, so the effort here is to address one specific component: the difference between special revelation and illumination. I have already been much too verbose in writing this article, and as a result, I will save the topic of prophecy and miracles for another time. I will be employing Rev. G.H. Kersten to supply some definitions because he does not waste any words. As a side note, spend your next available $20 on his Reformed Dogmatics. It is, in my opinion, the most accessible systematic theology available.
Kersten opens his work with this quote, which furnishes the discussion well.
“By the natural knowledge we understand that knowledge which man receives from God in this life, by a revelation which God has given of Himself in nature, and which is to be distinguished from the saving knowledge which the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of the elect by the revelation of God in Christ, which is documented in His Word. All knowledge of God of His rational creatures is the fruit of and is limited by His revelation to them” (Kersten, 3).
The Dutch Reformed theologian begins by framing revelation in two ways: natural (general) and in His Word (special). These two categories of general and special revelation are employed by every systematician worth their salt, and these two terms are quite valuable for every Christian to have in their tool kit. Sometimes these categories are divided into natural and supernatural revelation (Bavinck, Vol. III. P.303), or the book of nature and the book of Scripture in the case of those who followed the Greek philosophical tradition, but the meaning is the same. In true Reformed fashion, Kersten identifies general revelation as what God has revealed in the natural world, and special revelation as what is found in the Scriptures.
“A special revelation is indispensable in order that fallen man may learn to know God...This revelation is complete, i.e., it comprehends everything that is necessary unto man’s salvation. Certainly without regeneration and a renewing of the understanding, man cannot understand this revelation of God, but this does not detract from the all-sufficiency of the revelation itself. This revelation is contained in the Holy Scriptures” (Kersten, 21).
This sounds great, but the new Calvinist tradition might object on the basis that this definition puts “God in a box” and is far too wooden. Kersten replies to the Roman church in this quote, and the application is quite pertinent to the topic at hand:
“In opposition to this we contend that Scripture is necessary, not as if God could not do without the Written Word in performing His good pleasure, but because in His free sovereignty, God has determined in His eternal counsel that the Scriptures shall be the means unto salvation. Those who deny this necessity of the written Word of God offend the sovereignty of God in determining the way of salvation (Rom. 10:17; Eph. 2:20)” (Kersten, 23).
The old Calvinists are also concerned with not “putting God in a box,” yet they contend that the Scriptures are the means that God has ordained in New Testament age to speak to His people (Heb. 1:1-2). The old Calvinists might argue that the new Calvinists also put God in a box when they say that He has ordained another means of communicating to His people than Scripture, which is often a neglected debate point. We do not get to decide how God moves or speaks - only He does - we are His creatures, after all. In both cases, it is important to recognize that the only final way to determine how God has determined His communication to mankind is in His Scripture. We do not get to decide how God has chosen to reveal Himself. Our opinions must be planted on something solid and unchanging (Mat. 5:18).
Herein lies the real tension in the discussion. On the cessationist side, Christians say that God has, in these last days, spoken to mankind in His Word, and that Word is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. On the continuationist side, Christians say that God augments His Word with personal revelatory experience that is vital to the Christian life. These revelations do not disagree with Scripture, but ultimately are in addition to Scripture. The contention lies in the definition of sufficient. Are the Scriptures sufficient if they need to be augmented by personal revelation? The cessationists argue no. The continuationists argue yes.
Let me share an anecdote from my time at Arizona State University. There was a red-faced campus preacher hollering away at students, and I was on my way to grab lunch at the Memorial Union. At the time, being the card-carrying-charismatic that I was, I thought, “God just told me to go minister to the crowd.” In that moment, I genuinely thought that God told me to go talk to the distressed college students circled around the shouty-sign-holding-man. I approached the outskirts of the mob, and picked off several students, sharing the Gospel and praying with them. I walked to lunch nearly an hour later thinking, “Thank you God for telling me to do that,” as if I had received special instruction to do so.
Looking back on that day with my current lens I see it much differently. I was spurred on by a thought, and accredited it to special revelation in the moment. Later that day, I would tell my friend that I, “heard God tell me to go minister to those students.” The reality is, I never heard a voice. I had a desire and a thought to go and minister to those students, and I did. I would even say that God fed me Scripture, and told me which verses to quote and when. It was my charismatic tradition that influenced the way I interpreted that sequence of events. Kersten addresses this very topic when dealing with the Quakers:
“The enlightening of the Spirit opens the heart for the Word of God, as is testified by Lydia, and makes that Word continually useful “for doctrine, reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Tim. 3:16,17)...We must emphasize that experience does not add to Scripture, nor does it stand above Scripture, but is entirely subjected to it. God the Holy Spirit leads His people into the truth, and it is false mysticism, and imagination, often the result of a nervous disorder, if we support an experience which cannot stand the test of God’s Word. It is not worshiping the letter, as some call it, when we use the Word as the only touchstone, for the Word is the discerner of thoughts. (Heb. 4:12; Isa. 8:20).” (Kersten, 22).
Thus a major distinction arises from the words of Kersten, and the topic is truly revealed as a spectrum. It is easy to slip from an orthodox position on the work of the Holy Spirit into Christian mysticism and beyond. It is also interesting that the Owen meme in question was also dealing with the Quakers. We arrive now to the heart of the debate that occurs at the center of cessationism and continuationism: What is the difference between special revelation and the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer?
The root of the conversation for those in the middle of the spectrum is whether or not the leadings of the Holy Spirit constitute special revelation by God. I will argue that no, these leadings are not special revelation. They are the normal operation of the Holy Spirit in the believer. The substance of the revelation is still found in Scripture. Even in the event where a Christian believes they have been fed a verse, or led to pray or preach the Gospel, this does not fit the proper category for special revelation. You do not need to believe in the continued spiritual gifts to believe in the power of the Holy Spirit working in the believer to understand the Bible or preach the Gospel.
Special revelation is a specific category on its own, a type of revelation that God used to provide new information about Himself and what He would do to and for the people of God. This is the foundation of the covenantal view of special revelation - that God revealed Himself to man for a covenantal purpose. In every case of prophecy in the Scriptures, God reveals Himself to man for this singular purpose: that He would be their God, and they would be His people (Gen. 17:17). This is the Biblical pattern of special revelation. This brings to light another massive distinction between new and old Calvinists - that old Calvinists generally tend to view God as a covenantal God, and new Calvinists generally tend to view God as a personal God.
This distinction between personal and covenantal is massively important, and probably deserves its own article, so I will table that discussion for later after making this point. The point of bringing that up is that the purpose of special revelation is extremely important to the conversation at hand. In the Scriptures, God never delivers prophecy to man outside of His covenantal purpose. Never in the Scriptures does God condescend to man to inform them on personal matters, (what they should have for lunch, or where they should move, who they should date, where they should work, etc.) outside of His effort to accomplish His eternal purpose (Titus 1:1-2; Eph. 1:4). The whole of special revelation points to the work of Jesus Christ and the application of that work to God’s people.
The main contention from the cessationist position is that special revelation has in Scripture a distinct covenantal property. In the last days, which were ushered in during the New Testament period, it is abundantly clear that God’s redemptive work was fulfilled in Christ, and will be ultimately fulfilled at the second coming. God’s covenantal purpose for revelation is complete in Christ, and there remains no further necessity for ongoing revelation (Heb. 1:1-2). He has fully furnished believers in the church era with an undying Word in His Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This is a covenantal view of special revelation.
The main contention from the continuationist position is that special revelation serves a personal purpose - that the believer’s faith is augmented by personal encounters with God that enriches their Christian practice. In this view, God continues to provide ongoing revelation for the benefit of His people in the last days, until the second coming. This is a personal view of special revelation.
Another crux of this discussion rests in this question: In history, has God revealed Himself to man in a covenantal way, or a personal way? Does God specially reveal Himself for the benefit of one believer or for the sake of His entire plan of redemption? What is the purpose of special revelation? These are the questions that must be answered. The incredible amount of analysis this question deserves is worthy of a book, but for now, let’s conclude by defining some terms and hopefully find some common ground. (If you’re interested in reading more, I can heartily recommend As Far as the Curse is Found by Williams, The Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson, or if you want more, The Economy of the Covenants by Witsius).
The foundation of the disagreement for those in the middle of the spectrum of cessationist and continuationist is often in confusion and conflation of terms. Is the leading of the Holy Spirit special revelation? Is a thought that seemingly comes from outside of a Christian a revelation from God?
First, I will argue that the leading of the Holy Spirit in ministry and Bible study and devotion is not special revelation, it is illumination. The substance of the thing revealed is present in the Word of God. There is no additional information revealed, nothing that needs to be written down and preserved for the church. If this is special revelation, it does not match the pattern of special revelation in the Bible. The Scriptures are still entirely sufficient, and God has not descended from on high to deliver such information. In other words, the information already exists, God has just shined a light on it (John 1:1-9). This is not a spiritual gift, or something that only some possess, but something readily enjoyed by all Christians walking in the Spirit. The fact that this can be cultivated by just reading your Bible more is evidence of that. You do not need to be a continuationist to believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. The cessationist views this phenomenon as God bringing to the forefront of their mind something they already knew. There are obviously more categories that can be discussed in regards to this point, but the format of an article limits what I can address in so many words.
Second, I will argue that God has no reason or purpose to speak audibly to people any longer. In every case in the Scriptures, God does this in order to deliver a message to further His covenantal purpose. In the last days, Christ has fulfilled this covenantal purpose, and with this New Covenant, the church has the New and Old Testaments to furnish everything necessary for faith and practice. Further, it is quite peculiar that in every anecdotal case of this, there are never 2-3 witnesses to confirm this happening - it is always one person testifying. There is no way to falsify these claims, they are entirely personal to the individual. What is the standard that Christians must use to test these revelations? Scripture (1 John 4:1). The apostolic teaching confirms Owen’s analysis on the matter - that these private revelations ought to agree with the apostolic teaching. And if they don’t, reject them.
This is why the old Calvinists, typically confessional, tend to lean towards the cessationist position. Their argument stands firmly on the sufficiency of Scripture. All matters of faith and practice, and that includes communion with God, can be planted firmly in the Word of God in His Scriptures. There remains no need for private revelation because God has revealed Himself definitively in the Bible. There is no room for error or discernment by way of personal experience, the Scriptures are the final authority (WCF 1.8). As J.I. Packer said in A Quest for Godliness, summarizing Owen, “If private revelations agree with Scriptures, they are needless; and if they disagree, they are false” (Packer, 86).
I will likely continue this post as a series, discussing the nuance between the two ends of the spectrum, but for now, let’s rest here. I have defined the difference between special revelation and the leading of the spirit, which seems to cause much confusion in the discussion. This will hopefully lead to productivity in the conversation, and serve to reduce miscommunication. In all things, let Christ be glorified.
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