Thus Saith the Lord?
“LAST WEEK, THE LORD TOLD me.…”
To someone from a Reformed background, it is sort of jarring to hear a statement like that. But the proposition is not all that unusual—especially in Pentecostal circles. I remember once asking a question to a Sunday school teacher in my very young years in pietistic Lutheranism. She did not know the answer, but she replied, “Ask the Lord about it and I am sure He will reveal the answer to you.” As a very young boy, I took this to mean I should listen very, very quietly after I “asked the Lord” my question in prayer! I expected to hear a voice. And given that woman’s counsel, I don’t think my expectation was all that off the mark. What else could such counsel mean?
It is sometimes difficult for us as Christians to be content with a once-given, completed revelation via the incarnate Word and inscripturated words. We all too easily begin to imagine that we have a right to new special revelation to answer our immediate problems. But the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews makes very clear that God has revealed Himself most clearly in the incarnate Son (Heb. 1:1–2) and that, correlatively, we Christians living between the First and Second Advents are not to expect a repetition of the “various ways” of God’s self-revelation in what the writer calls “times past.”
Christians have a rationale for receiving the text of the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments as written revelation, as God’s inerrant Word. Jesus’ view of the Old Testament text is so clear that it is impossible to miss (think of His confrontation with Satan in Matt. 4, a contest in quoting the Old Testament text as divine truth). Jesus undoubtedly believed that the words of the Old Testament text were God’s very words, and, given the evidence of His deity (in particular His resurrection from the dead), we maybe confident that His view of the Old Testament text is the correct one. In the case of the New Testament text, we have Jesus’ promises to those who would (unbeknownst to them) later write the New Testament. The coming Holy Spirit, He said, “ ‘will … bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you’ ” (John 14:26), “ ‘will guide you into all truth’ ” (16:13), and ‘ “will take of what is Mine and declare it to you’ ” (16:14).
Thus, God the Son, prior to His ascension, put His stamp of approval on what some of His then-present disciples would later write. And the same is true for Paul. The objective nature of Paul’s true apostleship is available from his report regarding his visit to Jerusalem prior to his mission to the Gentiles (Gal. 1–2). After examining him, Peter and James did two things. First, they “added nothing to me” (Gal. 2:6). In other words, they recognized that Paul knew everything they knew even though he had not walked with them as one of the original Twelve; Paul had no need for other apostles to “fill in the blanks” in what he knew. Second, “they gave me … the right hand of fellowship” (2:9). They saw nothing in what the risen Jesus had revealed to him that needed correction. Thus, the original apostles confirmed Paul’s true apostleship.
Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones accurately sums up the Reformation position on the issue of “continuing revelation”: “There can be no addition to it [Scripture]. It cannot be added to because there cannot be any successors to the apostles. By definition they can have no successors.… If an apostle is a man who must have seen the risen Lord and who is therefore able to witness to the fact of the resurrection, there cannot be successors. Those originally chosen have had no successors.… There is to be no fresh revelation. There is no need for any. It was given and given finally to the apostles (Jude 3)” (Authority, p. 59).
Even if there were “continuing revelation” (to a “prophet” in every Pentecostal parish, to the Roman Catholic magisterium, or to “revelators” in Salt Lake City), we would have no reason to trust that it was revelation! Why? Because the last apostle is dead, and the apostles are our only confirmatory link to that which is genuinely revelatory.
We see this apostolic priority practiced even in the period of the book of Acts. In the case of local doctrinal disputes, the early Christians did not ask their local “prophet” to “get the Word of the Lord” on the problem.
They asked for, and knelt to, the words of the apostles as final and God-given. As Paul writes, “… you received the word of God which you heard from us … not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God …” (1 Thess. 2:13).
If all Christians of all ages are to align themselves with the teaching of the apostles, then Christians are to kneel only to the text of the Bible. Why? Because, as Anglican divine E. A. Litton put it, “no apostolical teaching is certainly extant except that which is embalmed in the New Testament.” If Christians are to be taught by and be subservient to the apostles’ teachings, then they are to be taught by and be subservient to the surviving writings of the apostles—and nothing else.
What about the Jesuitical (and Mormon!) type of argument that says: “God regularly spoke to the apostles during the period described in the book of Acts. Can’t we reasonably expect that He would continue to do this for His church until Jesus returns?” The simple answer to this is, “No.” Scripture does not tell us to do doctrine on the basis of any past actions or words of God we read in the historical books (including Acts). The text of Scripture is to be the basis of our doctrine—in particular the didactic books of Scripture. The fact that God once acted or spoke something revelatory gives today’s Christian believer no sufficient reason to believe that God is obliged to do or say revelatory things again—unless there is an attached promise on His part to do so. One of the basic rules of Reformation hermeneutics is that we must not universalize promises. A promise given to an individual is a promise solely to that individual (unless the promise is accompanied by words such as “all,” “world,” “whosoever,” “every,” “all,” “always,” etc.). This has implications for every Christian today who has an inclination, like Gideon, to “lay out a fleece” whenever he thinks he needs “a sign from the Lord!”
The early church had to face the issue of “continuing revelation” in the case of Montanism. And the Reformers were confronted by the “Schwärmerei” (“enthusiasts”), who defended their private revelations as Spirit-given—apart from and in addition to the Word. John Calvin confidently opposed these enthusiasts, writing, for example, “… the children of God … know no other Spirit than Him who dwelt and spoke in the apostles, Him by whose oracles they are repeatedly recalled to the hearing of the Word.” Martin Luther’s famous response to Thomas Müntzer was, “I wouldn’t believe you if you had swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all!” The late Dr. Robert Preus accurately summed up the position of Luther and the seventeenth-century Lutheran dogmaticians: “… Scripture alone is the source of all knowledge of supernatural theology.… Scripture must stand alone in this respect or not at all. If it is not the only norm of doctrine, it is not a norm in the true sense of the word” (The Inspiration of Scripture, pp. 4–5).
The old Lutherans made use of the distinction between “gross” (“gross sacramentarians”) and “crafty” (“crafty sacramentarians”). The situation in the case of the “gross continuing revelation adherents” has been well described by Dr. John MacArthur Jr. in the August 2001 Tabletalk and by Dr. R.C. Sproul in “The Establishment of Scripture” in Sola Scriptura! The Protestant Position on the Bible. The “crafty adherents of continuing revelation” are probably best represented by Dr. Wayne Grudem (The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today). One excellent reply to Grudem’s position is Dr. O. Palmer Robertson’s The Final Word, a book I highly recommend. Robertson correctly sees that Grudem’s position creates deep problems, not only with sola Scriptura but with the perspicuity and sufficiency of Holy Scripture, as well.
Given that we have a rationale for accepting the Old Testament text as God’s inspired Word, and given that we have a rationale for accepting the apostolic New Testament writings as God’s inspired Word, Reformation Christians should actively resist and/or reject anything that seeks to supplant these. Even if they do not mean to do it, even if they attempt to offer a rationale as to why their “other revelatory sources” are not revelatory in the sense that Scripture is revelatory, those who argue for “continuing revelation” lead the believer away from sola Scriptura. The Reformers were correct in rejecting the supposed new revelations of the “Spirit-drivers” (Abraham Kuyper) in their day. We must do no less.
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