With the rise of the Charismatic Movement among the confessionally Reformed churches, many new paradigms are being made to fit into older parameters of what it means to be Reformed. Although the Reformed tradition has been predominately Cessationist, many scholars have tried to demonstrate that some of the more prominent proponents of Reformed theology in history were actually at least somewhat Continuationists. Confessionally Reformed Charismatics especially point to a few key Puritan Westminster Divines as examples of Continuationism amidst Reformed Orthodoxy. They also put forward an interpretation of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF (which had been historically understood as Cessationist) in a way that would allow the continuation of the extraordinary spiritual gifts. Specifically, they point out that the restrictions on new special revelation are only applicable to new revelation concerning redemptive-historical information (aka individual salvation). Many scholars of Reformed history such as Bryon Curtis, Willem Berends, and William Kay have also advocated that some of the major Westminster divines believed in some form of continuing revelation and, therefore, could not have implied the cessation of all revelation outside of Scripture in the WCF. In opposition to this recent approach to the WCF, Garnet H. Milne has written an excellent book under the title, The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Cessation of Special Revelation: The Majority Puritan Viewpoint on Whether Extra-Biblical Prophecy is Still Possible. Milne convincingly demonstrates from his book such a conclusion is impossible when the context and the writings of the divines are properly understood. Base on this study and commentary of the WCF, it would be impossible for any individual to possess a full subscription to the confession in the proper sense.
Milne’s argument, in a limited presentation, is as follows:
- The term “Salvation”, according to the WCF and the external writings of the Westminster Divines, refers to any and all blessings/graces that are given to the Church or the individual believer. This includes both temporal and eternal blessings that are given in Christ (Milne 67-108).
- Passages such as Eph. 1:17-18, Heb. 1:1-2, and Joel 2:29-32/Acts 2:17 that are cited in the WCF to support the Cessationist clauses are always interpreted by the Divines in a way that explicitly states or implies the cessation of all other forms of special revelation other than the Scriptures (113-140)
- Although many Cessationist Divines recognized that God could guide individuals through dreams, deathbed revelations or physical/historical events around them, these were considered acts of providentialism. God was not necessarily giving immediate revelation but rather mediated revelation through creation, which cannot be properly called prophecy (147-159).
- Many so-called accounts of Westminster Divines prophesying, such as the predictions of John Knox, are merely Puritans applying principles from the OT to the modern nation and rulers around them. For example, If England, which has made a covenant to serve God, and subsequently fails to do so, it will certainly face the wrath of God. Hence, if the general hermneutical and eschatological approach of the Puritans is accepted. A Puritan pastor could utilize the principles of Scriptures and a keen awareness of God’s providential acts around them to make accurate predictions of the future (180-87, 219-238).
- Although there were a number of Continuationist Divines (Richard Baxter and William Bridges for example), In areas where the churches required strict subscription to the WCF , all ministers held to a Cessationist position (277-283).
Milne gets into a lot of other interesting things surrounding the topic of prophecy among the writers of the WCF but these five points are the thrust of his argument. Based upon Milne’s book I believe it would be dishonest for for any Reformed Charismatic or Continuationist to claim strict subscription to the WCF.
It also should be noted that the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBCF), which is largely based on the WCF, does not make any substantial adjustment to the Cessationist clauses that would reduce the Cessationist implications intended in the WCF. Therefore, it would also be dishonest for a Reformed Baptist to claim strict subscription to the LBCF if they were a Continuationist. This does not mean that a Reformed Charismatic could not claim system subscription to either the WCF or the LBCF. After all, Richard Baxter, a Baptist, an Amyraldian, and a Continuationist of sorts, was still able to submit and promote the WCF with a clear conscious (159-165, 264-267).
I strongly advise Reformed Charismatics to read Milne’s book before making claims that Continuationism is consistent with the teachings of the WCF or Reformed Confessionalism. Unlike Milne, I do think you can detect some instances of the legitimate gift of continued prophecy among the Puritans and I may address this in another blog post at some point. However, Milne’s argument is strong and well-supported and demands the full attention of the historical scholarship that surrounds this period of Puritan history.