Friday, April 22, 2016

If private revelations agree with Scripture, they are needless

Some cessationists cite a statement attributed to John Owen. Commenting on Owen, Packer says:

He is quick to deploy against them the old dilemma that if their ‘private revelations’ agree with Scripture, they are needless, and if they disagree, they are false. J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1994), 86.

That has epigrammatic clarity and concision. However, it's unclear to what extent Packer is quoting, summarizing, or paraphrasing Owen. As it stands, the statement, while pithy, punchy, and quotable, poses a simplistic and fallacious dilemma.  

I assume "agree" is synonymous with "consistent". To "agree with" is to be consistent with. Put another way, to agree with means it doesn't contradict it. If so, the statement is deceptively appealing.

It's like saying, if medical science is consistent with Scripture, then it's needless; and if it's inconsistent with Scripture, it is false. The latter clause is true, but the former is false. 

To say something "agrees" with Scripture just means that it's consistent with Scripture. But that doesn't make it redundant. Something can be consistent with Scripture, but add to our fund of knowledge–like medical science. 

To take a hypothetical case: suppose I have a premonition or dream that if I board that plane tomorrow, it will crash. I reschedule. The plane I missed explodes in midair, killing everyone on board.

That "private revelation" doesn't contradict anything in Scripture. But it's not superfluous or needless. 

The statement attributed to Owen makes the mistake of attempting a quick and easy refutation of a position that isn't that simple. Whatever your position on cessationism, this gambit is a nonstarter. 


  1. Similarly, some claim (rightly or wrongly) that Muslims sometimes have destroyed libraries and performed mass book burnings with the reasoning, "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous."

    Or stated another way, "that if what is in the library agrees with the contents of the Qur’an, then it is redundant. And, if the contents of the library do not agree with the Qur’an, then such contents are heretic." In which case, burnt them!

    See the following link:

    Sadly, I'm sure some professing Christians have probably done the same thing. I'm reminded of the fictional work The Name of the Rose (both book and movie). The reasoning was also used by the Ori priors in the TV show Stargate SG-1.

    1. Testimonies of the Supernatural Among Respected Christian Leaders

      In the blogpost above I include a case where R.C. Sproul (!!!) apparently received a word of knowledge from an unexpected source.

      Here's a link to the edited version of Sproul's testimony HERE
      The original audio file in its entirety is the first in a series which is freely available at the Ligonier website HERE

  2. How would Sproul know if that was a message from God and not from a nefarious source?

    1. Listening to Sproul's testimony he seems to have concluded that in all likelihood it was a message from God. He may be right or wrong about his conclusion, but you've asked a good question for those who hold to continuationism.

      The same question and problem existed during OT and NT times. It has always been the case the any alleged further revelations be tested by already acknowledged and recognized revelations from God. Whether verbal, oral or written. But since (i.e. after) inscripturation the highest standard and the final court of appeal was always to the canonical Scriptures (even when the OT canon was still growing as was the case when there were only the five books of Moses (Torah/Pentateuch)). Any further alleged revelations were to be consistent with former revelations, not contradict it and not lead to idolatry. If they did contradict established doctrine, they were to be considered not from God, from demons, or from human invention, or a test on God's part (or a combination of the above).

      This is why in 1 Kings 13 God was able to judge the prophet from Judah. He was previously told by God not to eat or drink in Bethel where he was to give a prophetic message. When an older prophet from Bethel tested him to see if he would obey God by offering him food and drink claiming God had told him through an angel that the other prophet should eat at his home, the prophet from Judah should have realized that the older prophet's message didn't really come from God since it contradicted what he already knew to be God's command.

      Some continationists like myself further believe that there is a difference between OT prophets and the authority/infallibility of their prophecies and those of the prophets and gift of prophecy under the New Covenant. The former were more authoritative and certain while the latter are not. There are reasons for why some continuationists believe this. Nevertheless, it's not essential to the main point that further alleged revelations must be tested.

      This is why Paul said if an angel from heaven were to preach a different gospel, that that Gospel and its messengers are anathema (Gal. 1:8). Additionally, why Paul said in the context of New Testament prophecies to "..test all things and hold to what is good" (1 Thess. 5:19-21). Why the Lord commended the Ephesian church for testing (what turned out to be false) apostles (Rev. 2:2). Why the Christians at Berea were considered more noble-minded than those at Thessalonica because they tested Paul's teaching by the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-11).

      While I'm a continuationists, I don't believe God still gives universally binding inerrant and infallible public revelation (on par with Scripture) to the entirety of the church. Only private revelations which are not universally binding. The New Testament counterparts of Old Testament prophets are the Apostles. New Testament prophets and gift of prophecy are of a lower status and quality than that of OT prophets, gift/office of prophecy and prophecies. I also believe that the canon is closed. So no new books can be added to the Bible.

      I'm no one important, but if anyone is interested, my views regarding the continuation of the revelatory gifts are further explicated at my blogpost here.

  3. I just found this article (despite reading the blog regularly).

    I just want to say that I am so glad that you rightly attribute the quote to Packer's interpretation of Owen.

    So many sites attribute it directly to Owen.

    Regardless of whether it was Owen's sentiments or not, we need to be careful when we attribute quotes!