Is the Bible final? Do we still have revelation? Are there still prophets and apostles? If experience is anything to go by, these questions are put to evangelical teachers today more frequently than any others. Furthermore, to say No! is to court not only contradiction but hostility. Modern evangelicalism has yielded virtually every point to Pentecostalism and anyone who takes a classic Confessional view on these issues is threatening not something peripheral but the very core of the prevailing spirituality. Today, evangelicalism is Pentecostalism.
This presents an immediate danger to those of us who belong to the Old School: to over-react and end up denying elements of religion which we can ill afford to lose.
For example, we must not be tempted into the position that revelation has ceased. The Westminster Confession has a very interesting way of expressing the truth here: those "former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people" have now ceased. These "former ways" refer to the "divers manners" (Hebrews 1:1) in which God spoke in the past. They include such things as theophanies, dreams, visions, prophecy, incarnation and apostolic tradition. These (according to the Confession) have ceased. But revelation itself has not. Instead, God has committed it "wholly unto writing", thus giving us the scriptures. These scriptures are not merely the record of revelation, like some museum of past divine-human encounters. They are revelation: God's word to us, today.
To the question, then, Does God still speak to men? orthodoxy categorically answers, Yes! He still speaks in scripture. There, psalmist and apostle, prophet and evangelist, continue to minister to the church. Even more important, through the Bible we still receive Jesus. Curiously, what has engrossed the attention of Christendom has been the union between Christ and the sacraments. Much more important is the union between Christ and the word. To receive the apostolic tradition is to receive Christ Jesus (Colossians 2:6). The word actually conveys the great salvation (Hebrews 2:3). This is true not only of the Bible itself but also of preaching which is faithful to the Bible.
Tis a right excellent thing, said Luther, that every honest pastor's and preacher's mouth is God's mouth. Therefore we do well to call the pastor's and preacher's word which he preacheth, God's Word. For the office is not the pastor's or preacher's, but God's; and the Word which he preacheth is likewise not the pastor's or preacher's, but God's.
Equally, we have to be careful not to deny that God still guides His people. To some extent, of course, this guidance is objective. God leads us through the great principles of scripture; through the counsel of Christian leaders and the advice and encouragement of friends; through the gifts He has given us and the limitations He has imposed; and through providential circumstances, opening some doors and closing others. But guidance also involves an inward, subjective factor. The Holy Spirit indwells our thinking. As we weigh the circumstances and assess the various pointers, He guides our minds and inclines our hearts. How He does so is a mystery. But it is as direct and effective as His work in the new birth; and not even loyalty to the principle of the Bible alone should betray us into denying it.
Nor should we deny that the supernatural is still an important factor in human experience:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
People forget, however, that the supernatural is not the same as the spiritual. Christianity certainly has no monopoly of it. The world of the witch, the séance and the Ouija-board is supernatural, as is that of the Brahan Seer and the Hindu visionary. This is no more than the Bible itself leads us to expect. The magicians of Egypt and the occultists of Chaldea were skilled wonder-workers, the children of the Pharisees cast out devils (Matthew 11:27) and the Man of Sin will perform lying wonders (2 Thessalonians 2:9). It is never safe to infer from the mere presence of the supernatural that what is going on pertains to the Kingdom.
Hugh Miller has a fascinating comment on this in one of the essays published in Scenes and Legends. Having remarked on the stark spiritual contrast between the pagan Highlanders of the 17th century and the Covenanters of the south, he adds:
Neither Peden nor Cargill, nor any of the other prophets of the Covenant, were favoured with clearer revelations of the future than some of the Highland seers. What was deemed prophecy in the one class was reckoned indeed merely second-sight in the other; but there seems to be little danger of error in referring what are so evidently the same effects to the same causes.
On the other hand, the Kingdom, too, has its supernatural, precisely because it is the domain of the Spirit. The new birth is supernatural. Mortification of sin is supernatural. Spiritual gifts are supernatural. The growth of the church is supernatural. The strength of a believer is supernatural. In fact, the whole framework of the Christian life is supernatural: It is not we who live but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20). A believer's life is one of constant interaction with God. He talks to God and God talks to him. God loves him, delivers him, listens to him. He shows him the most astonishing favours. We can even say that it is in the daily experience of His children that God vindicates His own existence. To adapt Melancthon, they know Him because they know His benefits.
Admittedly, this is not a supernaturalism of storm and fire and thunder. It is the supernaturalism of the still small voice, as God, by the constant gracious influences of His Spirit, transforms us into the image of His Son. Such influences are gradual and imperceptible, but they are invincibly effective nonetheless.
Why then is it so difficult for us to accept the claims to new revelations which are made in so many quarters today? Why can we not recognise that in the modern church, no less than in the first century, there are apostles and prophets?
Basically because we cannot begin to understand why such revelations should be necessary. Protestants believe, after all, that the Bible contains the whole counsel of God. It is a perfect rule of faith and life. It gives us all the salvation-history, all the theology and all the ethical guidance we need. To say that we still need fresh revelation is to suggest that there is some deficiency in scripture; and this represents a radical departure from the historic Protestant attitude to the Bible.
Is there not, however, a place for a group of men specially gifted to tell us how God's word applies in today's world? Such men would add nothing to the sacred deposit of truth. They would merely give authoritative guidance as to its application. They would be prophets in a secondary sense, indicating, for example, what strategy congregations should pursue, who is to perform certain tasks and where such people should serve. They would also be able to indicate the concrete modern applications of biblical principles. If they are Restoration Movement "shepherds" they would even be able to give counsel on specific issues such as getting married, buying a house or changing one's job.
Reminiscent of Catholicism
The first response to be made to this is that it is strongly reminiscent of classical Catholicism. Catholics fully recognise that scripture is authoritative, but they draw a sharp distinction between the Rule and the Judge. The Bible is the Rule. But who is the Judge? None other than the Church, they say. What is the use of an infallible Rule without an infallible Judge? Only the Church can tell us what scripture is (in other words, define the canon); only the Church can tell us what scripture says; and only the Church can tell us what scripture means for us today. Without the Church (general councils, bishops and papal encyclicals) we are lost.
The Westminster Confession faced up to this precise issue in the last paragraph of its chapter on scripture: "The supreme Judge, in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture." The Bible is the Judge as well as the Rule, and, as such, it judges all other judges, including councils, fathers and "private spirits". This is closely related to another idea cherished by the Reformers: that scripture is its own interpreter. When we come across something difficult to understand we don't go to an expert Judge. We go to another passage which speaks more clearly. This doesn't eliminate all difficulty and doubt. But it does guarantee a "saving understanding" of the Bible. The quest for an infallible interpretation is, in any case, a forlorn one, reflecting only our own insecurity. We certainly have no right to seek a cure for that by registering in the clinic of some dubious prophet.
Secondly, the task of understanding scripture (and perceiving its modern application) is not nearly as difficult as the advocates of modern prophecy make out. Here again the Westminster Confession is helpful, stressing the perspicuity (clarity) of scripture and insisting, over against Catholicism, that "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them" (I.VII). You don't need to be "learned" (expert) to understand the scriptures; and you don't need extraordinary means (an infallible church, or prophets). All you need is "the ordinary means", especially the preaching of the word.
But this is not all. God has also promised the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit. The correspondence here is quite marvelous: the clarity of the Bible meeting the interpreting power of the Spirit. The best way of expressing this is to say that just as there is a priesthood of all believers so there is a prophethood of all believers. Just as we can go to the throne of grace for ourselves, we can go to the Bible for ourselves. This is something we surrender at our peril. The last thing we need is a new clerical caste presuming to come between us and our right to interpret the scriptures.
Thirdly, behind present-day claims to the possession of prophetic gifts there is a good deal of semantic dishonesty. Men are not using words in their plain sense. To the general public — and even to the Christian public — any man who claims to be a prophet appears to be saying that he is pursuing the same occupation as Isaiah and Jeremiah: or at least Huldah and Agabus. The earliest prophets were seers: they had seen God and told what they saw. Later, from Elijah to John the Baptist, they were God's spokesmen (nabhiim). They had an audience with God, He told them His secrets and He commanded them to share them with His people. When they spoke, they said, "Thus says the Lord! This is the secret He has shared with me!" The people believed them, put their words in a book, called it the word of God and expected all men to believe it.
Clearly this is not what is usually meant today by those who claim to be prophets. In fact, even those who are friendly to the Charismatic view concede that the kind of absolutely authoritative prophecy which claimed to communicate the very words of God no longer exists (see, for example, Graham Houston's Prophecy Now, page 110). It was unique and unrepeatable.
What then is left? That all the Lord's people are prophets? That some people like Martin Luther had special "prophetic" insights? That some men have a prophet-like ability to see the direction of current events? All of this is true, of course. But when men like Bryn Jones, Terry Virgo and Gerald Coates claim to be prophets (or even apostles) is this all they mean?
Here again there is an interesting analogy with Catholicism. The distinction between primary and secondary prophecy is very similar to the Catholic distinction between latria, doulia and hyper-doulia. When you accuse an intelligent Catholic of worshipping the Virgin Mary, he denies the charge vehemently. "We don't worship the Virgin," he protests: "that would be latria. We ascribe to her only hyper-doulia." When you accuse a modern prophet of putting himself on a par with scripture he becomes equally indignant. "I'm not a prophet in that sense," he says. "My words are not canonical. I'm only a prophet in the secondary sense." But to the popular mind such distinctions are irrelevant. The Virgin wears a halo and Mr. Jones is infallible. The only effect of the distinctions is to allow men to retain their public authority while still clinging to a semblance of theological credibility.
Finally, the new revelations often contradict scripture. For example, many of the prophets openly advocate so-called prosperity-theology: God wants His people to be healthy and wealthy and if they aren't there is something wrong. This is so remote from the teaching of scripture as not to merit refutation. Contentment, not prosperity, is the biblical norm.
Equally indefensible is the prophets' teaching on the subject of tongue-speaking and Spirit-baptism. All Charismatics argue that not only does the gift of tongue-speaking still continue in the church but that it is the sign of Spirit-baptism. Whatever we may think of the former claim, the latter is clearly unscriptural. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that no gift is proof of real spirituality. Men can speak with the tongues of angels and still lack love (1 Corinthians 13:1). And they can prophesy and cast out devils and still be strangers to Christ (Matthew 7:22f).
What a marvelous age we live in! Half the Christian church denies the authenticity of John's Gospel. The other half canonises Watchman Nee (Docetism, Gnosticism and all).
What is the antidote?
First, to get the people back to the Bible. Convince them that by the aid of the Spirit they can understand it for themselves.
Secondly, to get the pulpit to do what the Infallible Church and the Modern Prophet purport to do: show how the Bible applies in today's world. Get the word across the barriers of language, time and culture into today's world. Aim it at the needs of those before us: at their joys and sorrows, their hopes and fears, their problems, their questions, their doubts. Trust the Spirit to drive it home, not because we are prophets or because our words are inspired, but because it's His word and they're His people.
But let us always make sure that, when challenged as to why they act, our people will answer, not, because the preacher says so! but, because the Bible says so! The best of us are but expositors, not prophets.