How God Speaks

One of the hallmarks of the 20th century Evangelical movement is biblical infallibility and (albeit with some competing definitions) inerrancy.  It has been a classical Evangelical, and typically Protestant in general, assumption that the Bible is the complete and sufficient Word of God.

But the Pentecostal movement, which began just over a century ago, brought to the fore some previously dormant questions: does God still speak through prophets?  Are there new revelations to be had?  If so, how do they comport with the authority of the Bible?  In response to this movement a clearer line of Protestant “cessationism” arose, arguing that the miraculous “gifts of the Spirit” ceased to be given as gifts after the generation of the Apostles died out and the New Testament was completed.

It can be interesting to look at evangelical writers from the centuries before Pentecostalism, as their views will be unfettered by our present “charismatic versus cessationist” debate.  For example, this quote by Charles Simeon, in his 1,933rd sermon, caught me a little by surprise.

In different ages of the world it has pleased God to reveal himself to men in different ways, sometimes by visions, sometimes by voices, sometimes by suggestions of his Spirit to their minds: but since the completion of the sacred canon, he has principally made use of his written word, explained and enforced by men whom he has called and qualified to preach his gospel, and though he has not precluded himself from conveying again the knowledge of his will in any of the former ways, it is through the written word only that we are now authorized to expect his gracious instructions.

This strikes me as interesting because while it is classically protestant material, it is not as hard-line as a cessationist would probably like.

After acknowledging the history of divine revelation in a manner reminiscent of Hebrews 1:1-2, Simeon emphasizes the teaching office in the Church – the ordained ministers authorized to preach.  This is all pretty standard stuff that one would expect.  But he slips in this curiously open door: God “has not precluded himself from conveying again the knowledge of his will in any of the former ways.”  It seems that, in his opinion, it is theoretically possible that miraculous visions and messages from God are repeatable.  There might be a place for elements of the modern charismatic movement in classical Protestant thinking.

The fence with which he binds this possibility is, I think, instructive for us today.  “It is through the written word only that we are now authorized to expect his gracious instructions.”  That is, even if God does speak through some other such prophetic utterance, we are not (or no longer) “authorized to expect” it.  So it could happen, but we cannot count on it.  The canon of Scripture is indeed sufficient, with the aid of the teaching office of the Church to interpret it.  If God still chooses to speak and reveal himself to people in more direct and unique ways, we should neither need nor seek such supplements to what he has already provided.

So, for example the writing of the book Jesus Calling, by Sarah Young, would be ruled out.  If Jesus indeed spoke to her, well and good; but neither she nor her church leaders have the authority to publish and spread such revelations to others.  As far as Charles Simeon is concerned, we already have all the books we need.


About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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