Continuing Revelation

Question

Recently I ran into a person who holds to Reformed theology, yet he claims that God is still bringing revelations today in dreams, visions, etc. Do you feel it is inconsistant that one holds to biblical theology, yet at the same time claims that the Canon is not complete?

Answer

Your question raises two significant issues: the Reformed position on the charismatic gifts; and the Reformed position on the nature of the Canon.

The Reformed community has not spoken unanimously on the question of the charismatic gifts. Three major positions exist:

1. Cessation: The most common position is that the "spectacular" or "sign" gifts (prophecy, miraculous healing, tongues, etc.) ceased with the apostolic age. These gifts were manifested for the purpose of validating the gospel and apostolic authority. Once the apostles' ministry had been sufficiently validated, the Spirit ceased to give these gifts. This view appeals in part to the phrase "foundation of the apostles and prophets" in Ephesians 2:20. From this phrase, it argues that the prophetic gifts were "foundational," pertaining only to the foundational period of the church, that is, to the apostolic period (from "apostles and prophets"), though some extend this period until the formal closure of the Canon. It also appeals to the evidence in the New Testament that the more spectacular gifts seemed to be on the decline even while the apostles were still ministering. This position tends to limit its list of gifts to those mentioned in the New Testament (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12; 14; Eph. 4).

2. Continuation: This position is probably the least common within the Reformed community. It asserts the continuing validity of all the gifts. However, it does not generally assert the necessary manifestation of any or all of the spectacular/sign gifts in any person, place or time. Rather, it merely asserts that God can do whatever he wants whenever he wants, and is not bound never to manifest these gifts simply because the apostolic age has passed. A fully practising charismatic position would also fall under this category, but these are few and far between in Reformed circles. This position tends to limit its list of gifts to those mentioned in the New Testament (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4), though those of a fully charismatic persuasion sometimes claim the manifestation of new gifts as well.

3. Modification: Somewhere between the cessation and continuation positions in popularity, this position argues that the gifts have been modified. They have not necessarily ceased, but are now normally manifested somewhat differently than they were during the apostolic age. For example, those who hold this position may argue for the continuation of the gift of prophecy, but assert that it is now limited to the proclamation of existing special revelation (i.e. Scripture), and that it excludes the reception and proclamation of new special revelation. Like the other positions, modification tends to limit its discussion of gifts to those listed in the New Testament. Some of those who hold to modification, however, believe that the gifts listed in the New Testament were only samples or examples of the types of gifts that were manifested during the apostolic age. They argue for this point in part by noting that the lists in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and Ephesians 4 differ from one another, and by pointing out that lists in the Bible are frequently not exhaustive (e.g., "love" is not limited to those manifestatins listed in 1 Cor. 13). Thus, this modification subposition argues for the continuation of "gifting," without specifically arguing for or against the continuation of any particular manifestation in any given person, place or time, and without limiting potential gifts to those listed in the Bible.

Regarding the nature of the Canon, one cannot be properly called "Reformed" without adhering to sola Scriptura ("Scripture alone"), which states that Scripture alone is the final authority in all matters of doctrine and religion. If one argues that special revelation (e.g. dreams, visions, spectacular prophecies) has not ceased, and that current special revelation is authoritative (i.e. on the level with Scripture), then one necessarily rejects sola Scriptura. One may still adhere to a Calvinistic system of salvation (i.e. the Five Points), and to covenant theology, but these in and of themselves are not sufficient to classify one as "Reformed."

There are people, however, who believe in the actual or potential post-apostolic presence of spectacular gifts of special revelation, but who do not believe this new special revelation to be authoritative. These, while accepting new revelation, do not challenge sola Scriptura. Generally, they argue that new special revelation is fallible, unlike biblical special revelation, and therefore that it is not as authoritative as Scripture.

A somewhat different version of the position is that new special revelation is true because it comes from God, and therefore it is infallible. It is not, however, authoritative. That is to say, infallibility/truth is not the source of authority -- God is. Because God has not commissioned any new authoritative covenant emissaries (the apostles were the last), there cannot be any new authoritative revelation. Thus, not only must all new special revelation be subjected to the judgment of Scripture to judge its truth, but it also must submit to the authority of Scripture. New special revelation does not in and of itself have the authority to bind believers or their consciences -- even if the new revelation is true. This may have been the case with non-apostolic prophecy even in the New Testament (1 Cor. 14:29).

So, there are a couple different possible scenarios in which one might believe in the modern manifestation of spectacular gifts like prophecy and tongues, yet still affirm sola Scriptura by saying that there is no new authoritative/canonical revelation. If one affirms sola Scriptura and the closure of the Canon, then there is no inherent inconsistency in also believing in the continuation or modification of the gifts.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.