Westminsterian Theology and Charismatic Practice

In its 1986 position paper on the Holy Spirit, the EPC affirms the gifts of the Holy Spirit as described in the New Testament as valid for the church today. The EPC is self-consciously charismatic, though expressly not Pentecostal. Along with the ordination of women, the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the other issue the EPC points to as a “non-essential” where there can be disagreement among its churches. Yet, even in the position paper there are limitations placed on what the EPC teaches to be valid expressions of spiritual gifts. It holds that the new birth of Christians and baptism of the Holy Spirit are the same thing (thus ruling out baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second work of grace) and that the manifestation of specific spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of tongues, is unnecessary for salvation. In short, there are boundaries on the view and practice of charismatic gifts in the EPC.

Beyond the explicit statements in the position paper, the Westminster Confession (WCF) and Catechisms also speak to the subject. While the modern charismatic movement has its origins in the early 20th century, the Reformers addressed many of the same topics as they encountered them in Roman Catholicism and the mystic evangelicalism of their day. Calvin’s Institutes famously begins by contrasting the false miracles of Rome with the sufficiency of scripture. The Westminster Standards have much to say on the subject of charismatic gifts, and though they are most compatible with a cessationist view on the miraculous gifts, there is a degree of freedom for charismatic expression. My intent is not to evaluate exegetical arguments or to provide historical criticism, but to examine the ways that the Westminster Standards bound the view and practice of charismatic gifts in the EPC.

Preliminaries: The Providence of God and Spiritual Gifts

There is a distinction between God miraculously intervening in the natural world and God gifting people to work miracles. WCF 5.3 states that, “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.” In other words, God uses the laws of nature, which he established, to accomplish his will, but he is free to supernaturally intervene in creation. God typically does not operate outside his natural design (something I’ve written about in regards to prayer), but God does miraculously enter into creation.

The Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) also affirms that Christ provides gifts by his Spirit to his church (WLC 54). The saints are equipped by the Holy Spirit to serve one another for our edification (WCF 26.2), who empowers the church to do good works (WCF 16.3). The Standards teach that Jesus by his Spirit gifts the church spiritually; the question is the delimiting principle of that gifting. One of the main axioms is that God determines how he is to be worshiped, and so the church is not to worship outside of that divine direction. WCF 21 and WLC 108-109 define the biblical elements of worship, and the majority of miraculous gifts fail to qualify for inclusion. Since God gifts his church for its building up, and since spiritual gifts are given for the building up of the church, if those gifts are not included as appropriate elements of worship, their continuation in the present day is confessionally dubious. Even if they are given, their expression in worship is limited by this regulative principle.

The question is not whether God can work miracles (yes, and he does, albeit rarely) or whether Christ gifts his church (he does), but in what ways does Jesus provides gifts to his church that manifest themselves supernaturally and how can they be exercised.

Miracles and Healing

1 Corinthians 12:10 lists the gift of “working miracles” next to the gift of healing (12:9, 28, 30). Assuming that the gift of healing is not describing medical work, but supernatural healing as seen in the New Testament, neither the working of miracles or healing are directly addressed in the Standards, though inferences can be drawn on their compatibility. First, the promise of healing for the Christian finds its fulfillment in the resurrection of the dead at Christ’s return (WLC 84-87). Because the church is united to Jesus, his resurrection healing becomes true of his people. The sign and seal of Christ’s promise of redemption is not healing ailments (that’s the promise!), but the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. To look for healing and miracles as confirmation of God’s promises is to look beyond what he has promised to his church. The idea that God may regularly gift people to supernaturally work miracles or healing is inconsistent with the logic of the Standards, though not strictly out of bounds.

However, there are still some limitation. First, gifts of miracles and healing are not an element of worship and so should not be practiced in the worship of the church. Second, praying for God to resurrect the dead is inappropriate. That is not to say that praying for God to hasten the return of Christ and looking for the resurrection of the dead is wrong. Rather, prayer is not to be made for the dead (WCF 21.4, WLC 183). Praying that God would resurrect a specific person separately from the general resurrection of the dead is off limits. Prayer for healing, even supernatural, miraculous healing, is good. And this includes praying during the worship service. This is an example of the work/gift distinction: a prayer petitioning God to providentially intervene is different from exercising the gift of healing.

Invoking God’s Promise for Material Blessing

A common practices in charismatic churches is invoking God’s name with the demand and expectation of receiving material blessing: wealth, education, fame, power, jobs, relationships, mental health, etc. This is one of the most insidious manifestation of Pentecostal theology, and is used to manipulate people emotionally and financially. It is evil and takes God’s name in vain, and he will not hold those who do so guiltless.

The promises of God find their fulfillment in our union and communion with Christ, which is consummated in his return (WCF 12.1, WLC 34, 59, 64, 74, 83). God has not promised any material blessing apart from Christ prior to his return. Our assurance of salvation can also be shaken, through no fault of our own, but through God allowing suffering into our lives (WCF 18.3-4, 19.6, WLC 81), which means that suffering cannot be rejected on the basis of God’s promise. In other words, since Christians are united to Jesus even in his sufferings (WCF 26.1) we can expect suffering in this life and we have no grounds to demand that God give us ease. Rather, we are to pray “Give us this day our daily bread”, which is an acknowledgement that “by our own sin, we have forfeited our right to all the outward blessings of this life, and deserve to be wholly deprived of them by God…we [pray], waiting upon the providence of God from day to day…may, of his free gift, and as to his fatherly wisdom shall seem best, enjoy a competent portion of them” (WLC 193).

Baptism of the Holy Spirit

The EPC’s position paper affirms, on the basis of Ephesians 4:4-5, that there is but one baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is the moment of conversion and regeneration. There are no subsequent baptisms of the Spirit in the life of the believer. However, the position paper also affirms that there are moments of special growth and operation of the Spirit throughout the Christian life, and these special instances, whatever you may call them, manifest themselves with exceptional giftings from the Holy Spirit. So the question is whether the EPC affirms what charismatics mean when they refer to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and how this fits into the Westminster Standards.

The language of baptism is important, and confessionally is expressed sacramentally. The sacrament of baptism is the sign and seal of engrafting into Christ by his blood and Spirit (WCF 28.1, WLC 165, 177, WSC 94). There is one baptism, and the sacrament of water corresponds to it, not only as a memorial, but as means by which the Spirit makes what it represents effective (WCF 14.1, 28.6, WLC 165, 176). The two parts of the sacrament are physical and spiritual, and the spiritual part of the sacrament of baptism is the baptism of Christ’s blood and Spirit (WCF 21.1, 3, WLC 161-163). There can be no successive baptisms of the Holy Spirit because there is only one baptism of water for the church (WCF 28.7, WLC 177). Liturgically, the gift of the Spirit’s baptism is practiced in the administration of the sacrament of baptism. Being slain in the spirit is not an experience annexed to baptism of the Spirit, nor an appropriate liturgical action.

The Spirit continues to work in the life of the church, but on the foundation of this one baptism. Baptism is to be improved by the church (WLC 167), meaning that on the basis of our union with Christ by the Spirit we are to cling to Jesus and imitate him more and more. We are strengthened to do this through the ongoing work of the Spirit by our baptism who united us to God (WCF 26.1-2, WLC 65, 67). It is the Holy Spirit who influences and directs us in good works (WCF 16.3), and grows our faith, the strength of which waxes and wanes according to his influence (WCF 14.3). He is the author and director of our sanctification, which varies in its fullness from person to person in this life (WCF 13, WLC 75). So the Holy Spirit continually operates in and specially influences Christians throughout their life, not in a second grace comparable to baptism, but through the grace of baptism since that grace is Jesus. And while there may be times when the Holy Spirit seems more active in a Christian’s life, the difference is the appearance of activity. Sanctification and faith may grow in degrees, but these are normal operation of the Spirit, not a second burst of blessing.

New Revelation

The gift of prophecy and hearing from God is one of the most common practices in charismatic churches. Even traditions that do not identify as charismatic often de facto practice this: “God led me to do this”, “God spoke to me”,  “I had to obey the Spirit’s prompting”.

If the gift of prophecy is speaking truth to power or possessing a penetrating judgement of character, then the Standards have no limitations on the gift other than the requirements of the 9th commandment on speech (WLC 144-145, WSC 77-78). But generally speaking, the gift of prophecy is understood to be the gift of revelation, whether that is something that can be worked at will by the speaker or occurring spontaneously through the Spirit’s inducement. This is a subject to which the Westminster Standards speak thoroughly and strongly, and is at the heart of its system of doctrine.

The opening paragraph of the WCF concludes that “those former [sundry ways and diverse manners] of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased” because he has committed his will and revelation to holy scripture. God now speaks to his people through scripture alone. You cannot have a more clear statement of cessationist theology of revelation than this. All of God’s will for his people’s faith and lives is laid out in scripture; this is the only rule of faith and practice (WCF 1.6, WLC 3, WSC 2). The Holy Spirit reveals God’s will and revelation through scripture alone (WCF 1.4-5, 10, 8.8, WLC 4).

Prophecy in the old covenant looked forward to Christ who fulfilled its terms and thus abrogated new revelation as a means by which God addresses his people (WCF 7.5-6, WLC 34-35, 43). Christ executes his mediation through the office of prophet, by anticipating his advent in the old covenant and guiding his people in light of it in the new (WLC 43). Prophecy, then, is Christ executing his mediation by revealing through his Spirit, by his word, God’s will for our salvation (WSC 24, WLC 43). Insofar as prophecy is the Spirit-empowered exposition of Christ’s word, the gift continues in the church today (WLC 155, 158-159). This is not new revelation, but an exposition of God’s revelation of Christ in scripture under the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit for understanding (WCF 1.6, 9-10, 14.1-2, WLC 72, 155). In this case, the work of prophecy is gifted to people in their calling to the ministry of the word, and only those lawfully called to that ministry should exercise that gift in church; no spontaneous prophetic pronunciations allowed (WCF 27.4, WLC 156, 158).

The gifts of prophecy, word of knowledge, word of wisdom, or discernment of spirits as gifts of new revelation or vision from God either ceased in the apostolic era or do not include new information from God. The question is not whether prophecy is fallible, as some continuationists argue (fallible truth from God is an absurd contradiction), but whether God is revealing his truth in ways other than scripture. To the extent that dreams are God directly speaking to people, this mode of revelation has ceased. Dreams could be the providential synthesis of naturally acquired information and experiences of the sleeper that God uses, but that is not the same as God speaking to the dreamer. The Westminster Standards clearly teach that God only speaks to his church through his word by his Spirit.

Tongues

The gift of tongues is the most famous charismatic gift. Perhaps surprisingly, the Standards have very little to say on this subject. But they do contain some teaching on it, either directly or by implication. If the gift of tongues is speaking new revelation, then it has ceased for all the aforementioned reasons. The Standards do allow for understanding the gift of tongues as being skilled at learning new languages, but this is a natural (rather than supernatural) gifting of the Holy Spirit.

If speaking in tongues is speaking a langue, whether human or angelic, hitherto unknown to the speaker as they attempt to communicate normally in their known language, this practice in and of itself is allowable under the Standards. This would apply even if the speaker was attempting to communicate in language they did not know, in the confidence that they had been supernaturally gifted to speak the otherwise unknown language. Praying privately to God in glossolalia is also permitted under the Standards’ theological structure.

However, preaching or praying in an unknown tongue in worship is forbidden. Vocal prayer in the worship of God must always be made in the known language of the congregation (WCF 21.3). If the audible prayer is not made in the language generally understood by the congregation, having it translated in the service transforms the foreign prayer into a known prayer. This principle applies to those who are praying in tongues supernaturally and to those who are intentionally praying in a non-native language. Similarly, reading and preaching God’s word must be done in a way that can be understood by the congregation (WCF 21.5, WLC 155-160).

Apostleship

The gift of apostleship is usually understood as a spiritual office of the church. If the office is presumed as authorized to speak new revelation or to exercise authority above or on par with scripture, then the Standards certainly disallow its practice. WLC 53 is the only comment in the Standards on the apostles, and the implication is that they were distinct from the other officers of the church by being foundational (rather than perpetual) to the church’s work.