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To clarify what I mean by private revelations, I'm referring to revelations by God through extra-biblical means, such as prophecies, dreams, and visions.

Is the Westminster Confession's doctrine of Sola Scriptura incompatible with a continuationist view on private revelations?

Some appear to think that the two are incompatible. For example, Mike Riccardi writing at The Cripple Gate affirms:

Think of a magnificent, ancient temple and a foundation upon which everything rests. That’s sola Scriptura. Everything that we believe, obey, embrace, and hold dear in the convictions of our soul is based upon this foundation of sola Scriptura. Rome said, “We accept Scripture, but it is Scripture and. Scripture and church tradition; Scripture and ecclesiastical hierarchies; Scripture and the church councils; Scripture and papal authority. And the Reformers said, coming back to the Bible, “No, it is sola Scriptura: Scripture alone.” And if anything else is added to the foundation of the church, there will be cracks in the foundation and it will not hold up the teaching and the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At the same time, they said no to the Anabaptists and the libertines who wanted to add their dreams and visions and new revelations. They said no; it is Scripture alone.

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And what I want you to note is in [WCF] chapter 1 section 1, they begin with a statement on the cessation of any new revelation. They were determined to state that they will believe only the Bible. So please note, in the first section of chapter 1, they saw it necessary for the preserving and propagating of truth that would make the Holy Scripture to be most necessary. In other words, it has to be written down, so the message would be preserved and propagated far and wide with a uniformity of statement.

“Those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.” This is front-loaded at the very outset. No wiggle room. These Puritan divines who gathered perhaps the greatest generation of believers in the UK, began with this cessationist statement.

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In the sixth section [WCF 1.6], we read of its sufficiency. “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life is in Scripture.” No need to look anywhere else. No need to have anything else added. No appendices needed. They affirm the Scriptures that I have already read to you, that all things necessary for salvation and sanctification, for the glory of God is found in our Bible. In this sixth section also is another cessationist statement: “Nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.” Do not be bringing your “Thus says the Lord” into this house if it’s not found in chapter and verse.

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Number 10 [WCF 1.10] is a final summation of the authority of the Scripture. “The supreme judge by which all controversies are to be determined and…examined…can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” Not speaking in your revelations, in your dreams and visions, in your tongues. Speaking in the Scripture alone. And the Word of God will be the highest arbitrator in all matters in the life of the church.

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Sola Scriptura: Deluded by the Quakers

Whenever God opens the windows of heaven to bless his people, the devil opens the gates of hell to blast. While the Puritans were meeting in Westminster in the 1640s, at exactly that same time virtually across town, the devil was doing his work. There arose a fringe group that would come to be known as the Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends. They claimed to be receiving new revelations, prophecies. And with that they were being led astray into hyper-emotionalism and mysticism.

...

And out of this commitment to be “open and uncautious” to continuing revelation by the Spirit, they were led into all kinds of mystical experiences and bizarre patterns, not the least of which was going naked as a sign.

He was the person al chaplain to Oliver Cromwell. John Owen Addressed Parliament. This brilliant man gave himself to combat this Charismatic emotional departure from sola Scriptura with its new revelations. And Owen affirmed the deeper issue, which was sola Scriptura.


I got the inspiration to ask this question from:
Scriptural support for trusting Scripture over private revelation
Does Sola Scriptura imply that one should expect no personal spiritual experience of the Gospel?

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  • 2
    Yes that's a lot better! Though I think Mike Riccardi is misapplying the WCF. He's doing a bit of a bait and switch... while I don't think he's necessarily misinterpreting it, he's misapplying it to non-canonical, non-scriptural, non-authoritative revelations. Many reformers would have rejected them, but the text of the WCF is very careful in what exactly it says. Except for 1.1, which can be read broadly as cessationist...
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 3 at 4:27
  • What do you think about making this question specifically about the WCF? That would also help distinguish it from other similar questions. Or seeing as there's already an answer, perhaps that should be a new question, and we could roll this back to revision 3 then close it as a duplicate?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 3 at 4:31

3 Answers 3

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Yes.

1 Corinthians and other New Testament letters speak of spiritual gifts, some of which are private revelations, such as dreams, visions, prophecies, and words of knowledge. That is in Scripture. If Sola Scriptura is Biblical and Scripture itself recognizes the charismatic gifts, then either the Bible is inconsistent or Sola Scripture and private revelations are compatible.

Of course, if the private revelation contradicts Scripture, then it is not to be trusted, as Paul said:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. - Galatians 1:8

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    Or, the private revelations, dreams, visions, prophecies and words of knowledge (seen in scripture) have ceased, or can be mimicked, or have both ceased and are mimicked, The two choices above are only true if these gifts have not ceased and cannot be mimicked.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 2 at 18:58
  • Paul, the question experienced a few edits. Just so you know.
    – Mark
    Commented May 6 at 3:49
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+50

While the Westminster Confession was written before the Pentecostal movement arose, I was interested to learn that there was a contemporary movement claiming direct revelations from the Holy Spirit, called the "enthusiasts". An article titled "Prophecy in the Reformation Tradition" by Willem Berends goes into a lot of detail about various Reformation era positions on contemporary prophecy.

So keeping in mind that the Westminster Confession was written against that background, not our modern Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity, it can't be denied that the WCF does teach a form of cessationism. There are three times in which it mentions the revelations of God:

WCF 1.1: Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.

WCF 1.6: 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. ...

WCF 18.3: This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith but that a true believer may wait long and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. ...

The first is the broadest, seemingly saying that all the diverse ways in which God revealed himself to the church have ceased. The next two are contextual, that specifically on the matters of the whole counsel of God, and the assurance of salvation, new revelations of the Spirit are not needed or permitted.

But there is no outright blanket statement that there will be no new prophecies or revelations; even WCF 1.1 seems to give slight wiggle room for new ways of revelation. The Westminster Confession was a consensus document - while it may seem to us to be very definitive and particular in what it says, when it was written there was still a great diversity of beliefs on many matters, and it doesn't say everything that some of its writers would have no doubt liked it to say.

Berends shows that even the broadly cessationist Reformers accepted a variety of things we might consider private revelations:

  • Calvin thought the offices of apostle, prophet, and evangelist would still sometimes be raised up by God, though these would be extraordinary, and not part of the perpetual constitution of the church. He seemed to not be certain of the existence of any current prophets, but did not rule out their existence.

  • William Perkins (who taught many of the Westminster attendees) said that extraordinary revelation could still come by the Spirit

    by way of an "immediate voice", or an angelic or human messenger of God, or by instinct (an internal voice).

  • George Gillespie was one of the commissioners of the Westminster Assembly. He wrote that the Scottish church had in a number of times seen prophecies come to fulfilment, but that these prophets were extraordinary, not perpetual.

  • John Owen thought that direct revelation was an extraordinary gift of the Spirit belonging to those with an extraordinary office. While he thought that those extraordinary officers ceased with the end of the time of the Apostles, he thought they did sometimes analogously continue until now.

In summary, the reformers, while still broadly cessationists, did accept that in extraordinary times God could still appoint prophets or give special revelations to his people. So they didn't go as far as the most extreme cessationists today, but they were also quite firm that they are not ordinary occurrences in the church, and we shouldn't expect it.


But the question wasn't actually what sort of cessationism does the Westminster Confession teach, it was more specifically whether the WCF's doctrine of sola scriptura is compatible with private revelations. This is easier to answer. The WCF's doctrine of sola scriptura is:

WCF 1.10: 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.

Unlike the WCF's vague expression of its cessationism, this is a very clear statement: the Holy Spirit speaking through the scriptures are the Supreme Judge, sitting above everything else. Whether tradition, reason, or spiritual experience, the scriptures are the supreme authority. Notably, this paragraph does not separate the scriptures from the work of the Holy Spirit who speaks through them, but neither does it simply view the Holy Spirit as the supreme authority, no it is the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

Whether the "private spirits" it mentions are the Holy Spirit or other spirits, they are to be examined according to the scriptures. Such a paragraph should not be taken as implying that the Holy Spirit could communicate fallibly, but instead that even if the Spirit were to speak directly to us, or through dreams, or through an angel, or anything else, our identification of the Spirit is not provable, and our transmission of the Spirit's message to others is not reliable. Of course our interpretation of a private revelation is as fallible as our interpretations of scripture, so I think it is our identification and transmission that are the reason why such private revelations cannot have the authority of the written scriptures.

So yes, whether we share the (partial) cessationism of the Westminster Assembly, or whether we're more continuationist, the WCF's doctrine of sola scriptura is compatible with private revelations, and governs how they are to be processed and used by the church.

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This is a tricky topic and we need to clarify our terms. There are three periods to consider.

  1. The period of the Old Testament
  2. The period prior to the end of the generation of the Apostles where the end of the scriptures were completed
  3. The period after the generation of the prophets

For the period (1) nobody would deny that God spoke through prophecies, dreams and visions. He spoke to make his mind known in general terms, in specific situations as well as through inspiring the prophets to writer the scriptures.

Nobody would claim that these visions or dreams ceased during stage (2) because we have the Apostles also experiencing them, For example Peter having a vision (Acts 10) and someone named Agabus predicting a future famine (Acts 11:28).

Therefore we are only concerned with (3) - the days after the generation of the Apostles and the early church in its initial founding.

From this perspective we can also make it clear that prophecies, dreams and visions as a subset to write scripture, or to provide any new revelation important for ones salvation, as compared to those that might be provided in a person's special circumstances or difficulties not relevant to a wide group of people and not related to their salvation, virtually all traditional churches would exclude and have ceased.

Therefore we are now only talking about the possibility of personal inspirations that might be giving by God in a kind of minor role through the inspiration of the Spirit. On this category I would quote the same that you quoted to show although in general it appears that these have ceased, we need not be so strict in thinking they have absolutely ceased. As long as we test any such experiences in our own life by the word and as long as we do not allow false teachers to claim great experiences and think that they are in any way necessary for any fullness in eth Christian life, there is no reason why it is not possible God might still communicate in this way. Though admittedly during the great revival of the reformation (which I consider the greatest revival of the Holy Spirit since the days of the Apostles) there seems little of such experiences being mentioned and those sects short after that caused conflict with the original reformers, like Luther, upon reading their histories, were clearly less impressive spiritually in doctrine and practice.

John Owen concludes this topic in the following way (Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen (W. H. Goold, Ed.; Vol. 4, pp. 474–477). T&T Clark.)

There was no certain limited time for the cessation of these gifts. Those peculiar unto the apostles were commensurate unto their lives. None after their decease had either apostolical office, power, or gifts. The like may be said of the evangelists. Nor have we any undoubted testimony that any of those gifts which were truly miraculous, and every way above the faculties of men, were communicated unto any after the expiration of the generation of them who conversed with Christ in the flesh, or those who received the Holy Ghost by their ministry. It is not unlikely but that God might on some occasions, for a longer season, put forth his power in some miraculous operations; and so he yet may do, and perhaps doth sometimes. But the superstition and folly of some ensuing ages, inventing and divulging innumerable miracles false and foolish, proved a most disadvantageous prejudice unto the gospel, and a means to open a way unto Satan to impose endless delusions upon Christians; for as true and real miracles, with becoming circumstances, were the great means that won and reconciled a regard and honour unto Christian religion in the world, so the pretence of such as either were absolutely false, or such as whose occasions, ends, matter, or manner, were unbecoming the greatness and holiness of Him who is the true author of all miraculous operations, is the greatest dishonour unto religion that any one can invent. But although all these gifts and operations ceased in some respect, some of them absolutely, and some of them as to the immediate manner of communication and degree of excellency; yet so far as the edification of the church was concerned in them, something that is analogous unto them was and is continued. He who gave “some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists,” gave also “some pastors and teachers.” And as he furnished the former with extraordinary gifts, so as far as any thing of the like kind is needful for the continual edification of the church, he bestows it on the latter also, as shall be declared.

And these gifts of the Spirit, added unto his grace in real holiness, were the glory, honour, and beauty of the church of old. Men have but deceived themselves and others when they have feigned a glory and beauty of the church in other things. And whatever any think or say, where these gifts of the Holy Ghost, which are the ornaments of the church, her “clothing of wrought gold,” and her “raiment of needlework,” are neglected and lost, and they think to adorn her with the meretricious paint of pompous ceremonies, with outward grandeur, wealth, and power, she is utterly fallen from her chastity, purity, and integrity. But it is evident that this is the state of many churches in the world; which are therefore worldly and carnal, not spiritual or evangelical. Power, and force, and wealth,—the gifts, in this case, of another spirit,—under various pretences and names, are their life and glory; indeed their death and shame. I deny not but that it is lawful for ministers of the gospel to enjoy earthly possessions, which they do attain by any commendable way among other men. Neither are they required, unless in extraordinary cases, to part with the right and use of their temporal goods because they are so ministers of Christ; though those who are so indeed will not deny but that they ought to use them in a peculiar manner unto the glory of Christ and honour of the gospel, beyond other men. Neither shall I ever question that wherein the Scripture is so express, namely, that those who “labour in the word and doctrine” should have a convenient, yea, an honourable subsistence provided for them, according to the best ability of the church, for their work’s sake. It is in like manner also granted that the Lord Christ hath committed all that power which, with respect unto the edification of the church, he will exercise in this world unto the church itself, as it cannot, without a virtual renunciation of the gospel and faith in Christ Jesus as the head and king of the church, be supposed that this power is any other but spiritual, over the souls and consciences of men; and therefore cannot this power be exercised, or be any way made effectual, but by virtue of the spiritual gifts we treat of: but for men to turn this spiritual power, to be exercised only by virtue of spiritual gifts, into an external coercive power over the persons, bodies, liberties, and lives of men, to be exercised by law-courts, in ways, forms, manners, utterly foreign to the gospel and all evangelical administrations, without the least pretence unto or appearance of the exercise of the gifts of the Holy Ghost therein; yea, and by persons by whom they are hated and derided, acting with pride, scorn, and contempt of the disciples of Christ and over them, being utterly ignorant of the true nature and use of all gospel administrations,—this is to disorder the church, and instead of a house of spiritual worship, in some instances to turn it into “a den of thieves.” Where hereunto there are, moreover, annexed earthly revenues, containing all food and fuel of corrupt lusts, with all things satisfactory unto the minds of worldly, sensual men, as a meet reward of these carnal administrations,—as it is at this day in the church of Rome,—there all use of the gifts of the Holy Ghost is excluded, and the church is brought into extreme desolation. And although these things are as contrary to the gospel as darkness is to light, yet the world, for many reasons not now to be insisted on, being willing to be deceived in this matter, it is generally apprehended that there is nothing so pernicious unto the church, so justly to be watched against and rooted out, as a dislike of their horrible apostasies, in the corrupt depravation of all evangelical administrations. This was not the state, this was not the condition, of the primitive churches; their life consisted in the grace of the Spirit, and their glory in his gifts. None of their leaders once dreamed of that new kind of beauty, glory, and power, consisting in numberless superstitious ceremonies, instead of religious worship; worldly grandeur, instead of humility and self-denial; and open tyranny over the consciences and persons of men, in the room of spiritual authority, effectual in the power of Christ, and by virtue of the gifts of the Holy Ghost.

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