The Reformation and Private Revelation

It is commonly believed among Evangelical Christians that the spiritual gift of prophecy ended when the last of the apostles died. While there is no clear evidence from scripture that can be used to support that position, there is an obvious argument from silence. When compared to the Catholic Church, which has a rich tradition of various forms of private revelation, among Protestants it is rare and often treated with suspicion (excepting Charismatic churches).

reformation2Ironically, it is my opinion that one of the best books on the subject of Christian prophecy was written by an evangelical theologian. Wayne Grudem’s The Gift of Prophecy in I Corinthians lays out the biblical case for the persistence of the gift into the present era, and he believes it should be occurring in the churches today as it was in New Testament times. The book is based on his doctoral dissertation from Cambridge which I had read before he published the book. His exegesis of the relevant New Testament texts was comprehensive and I felt that his arguments were irrefutable.

Unsurprisingly, his affirmation of the persistence of the charism since New Testament times has attracted extensive opposition; he has had to defend it through much of his career. The problem with private revelation isn’t that it’s private, but that it’s revelation. The foundation of the Reformation is the doctrine of sola scriptura, “Scripture alone”; if revelation from God has continued to be expressed in the prophetic gift, then the Bible can no longer be viewed as the sole means of revelation. This notion would be unacceptable to most Protestant theologians. One critic of Dr. Grudem put it this way:

“The Reformers who paid with their life-blood for freedom from dominance by the traditions of the church were especially jealous in guarding future generations from the oppressions created by supposed words from the Lord. ‘Scripture alone’ was their uncompromising cry. Only the written Word of God, an objective standard which all men can see and read, communicates infallible truth to God’s people, since God has now stopped using his former methods in revealing his will to the church.”

Reformation Wall, Geneva, Switzerland
Reformation Wall, Geneva, Switzerland

He’s upset because the book demonstrates that the “Romanist’s” were right. Dr. Grudem answers the objections of this particular theologian in this article; he does a pretty good job until he gets to sola scriptura. He simply affirms that the continuance of prophecy and the doctrine of “Scripture alone” are not incompatible, and then names a few names from history that shared that view like John Knox and Charles Spurgeon. The weakness of his response to the above statement is obvious:

“My conclusion is that many of God’s people throughout history have held both to the doctrine of “Scripture alone” and to the fact that God continues to reveal his will and reveal facts about present-day situations in subjective ways, even through a gift of prophecy that functions to the present day.”

This is a fallacious argumentum ad populum, the notion that something is true because a significant number of people believe it is.

St. Paul, St. Peter's Square, Vatican City
St. Paul, St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City

Professor Grudem, a former instructor of mine, in his valuable doctoral study had stumbled on to an inconvenient truth, that sola scriptura is scripturally indefensible. As I sat in class as a student of biblical studies at a Baptist university and then at an evangelical seminary I was confronted by number of such truths, like the indissolubility of marriage, free will, and the relationship of faith and works, etc. My decision to become a Catholic was an act of intellectual integrity; and at the time it was an easy decision to make. Unavoidably, there was a price to pay, personally, professionally, and socially. But the alternative was a career in which I would have to assent to distortions of truth as demonstrated by the gentlemen in the previous two quotations. It was not worth it.


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