Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Westminster Confession of Faith and a Nuanced Cessationism

Garnet Howard Milne in his book The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Cessation of Special Revelation: The Majority Puritan Viewpoint on Whether Extra-Biblical Prophecy is Still Possible (Wipf and Stock, 2007) argues that the Westminster divines were cessationist in their understanding.  Yet Milne acknowledges that these same divines operated with a nuanced view of revelation.  Milne explains:

Secondly, when the divines penned their cessationist clause, they were operating with a conscious distinction between two types of revelations, one of which they deemed had ceased and one of which continued, and always would continue until the end of time.  That which had ceased was “immediate” revelation in the sense of a direct conveyance by the Holy Spirit upon the faculty of the understanding.  The key features of this “immediate” revelation were that it was equal to Scripture in authority and that is contained new extra-biblical revelation of either doctrine, ethics or other forms of divine guidance. (p. 287)

Milne goes on to explain the other kind of revelation that continued:

Thirdly, the divines allowed that dreams, angelic visitations and prophetic impulses or motions might have a role in the only legitimate revelation that now remained, “mediate” revelation.  “Mediate” revelation, as its name implies, was revelation mediated through some intermediary; in this case, the Scriptures.  The Scriptures were an essential mean whereby God imparted this revelation.  What was thus conveyed was a greater understanding of the meaning of  God’s mind in the Scriptures, not merely a greater grammatical or contextual understanding of the biblical text.  “Mediate” revelation was considered to be an application of the divinely inspired written Word of God to the life of an individual, nation or church.

An analogous use of the former modalities of “immediate” revelation was not, therefore, denied. (p. 287)

This may seem like the traditional distinction between “revelation” and “illumination” but the process of disclosure for “mediate” revelation could include “dreams, angelic visitations and prophetic impulses or motions.”  It is crucial to note that in practice “mediate” revelation did not really look distinct from “immediate” revelation.  Milne gives as an example of “mediate” revelation:

Angels too were considered to be able to impress the faculty of the imagination and move the thought processes in such a manner that secrets could discovered through contingent events.  The 1605 Gunpowder Plot was believed to be providentially uncovered through the means of an angelic agency putting it into the mind of Francis Tresham to warn his Catholic brother-in-law Lord Monteagle by letter, advising him not to attend Parliament on 5 November of that year.  Lord Monteagle subsequently revealed the plot to the government and so disaster was thwarted. (p. 288)

Why is this considered “mediate” revelation—what Scriptures are the medium through which this revelation is being conducted?  Milne argues:

The Scriptures were relevant in these sorts of cases as the source of the mediated revelation, because they contained promises of deliverances for God’s people, covenanted nations and churches, in a variety of contexts. (p. 288)

It should be notice that the connection between the revelatory modality (angelic agency acting on the mind) and the specific biblical text is a bit stretched.  Under such a rubric almost any non-discursive revelatory modality could be made to fit with some broad Scriptural theme. 

In light of the above, care should be taken not to merely respond to a word—the verbal token “revelation”—but, rather, to probe into the conceptual dynamics behind the language.  There may be resources in the Reformed heritage—both the conceptual distinction between “immediate” and “mediate” revelation as well as the actual practices of the heritage—that help bridge the gap in understanding between cessationists and continuationists.[1]

     [1] Two crucial essays that help bridge this gap are Dean R. Smith, “The Scottish Presbyterians and Covenanters: A Continuationist Experience in a Cessationist Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2001), 39-63 and Vern Poythress, “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit Within Cessationist Theology” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39 (1996), 71-101.