Frequently Asked Symbolics Questions: Private Spirits

Over the years, I have taught Symbolics in many places. Without fail, my students are bright and interested and ask me very useful and thought provoking questions. In a few posts over the next few days, I want to explore some of those questions. Let’s begin with Chapter 1.

What is intended by the phrase ‘private spirits’ in paragraph 10?

This question arises out of the claims of some (influenced by Wayne Grudem) that the phrase implies support for some form(s) of personal revelation. It has been debated in the scholarly literature in articles such as Byron Curtis, “‘Private Spirits’ in The Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10 and in Catholic-Protestant Debate (1588-1652),” Westminster Theological Journal 58 (1996): 257-266, and “’Private Spirits’ in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in Protestant–Catholic Debates: A Response to Byron Curtis” by Garnet H. Milne in the Spring 1999 fascicle of WTJ. More recently, Milne has published the exhaustive study The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Cessation of Special Revelation (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2007). He shows that the term frequently had reference to personal claims to a ‘testimony of the Spirit’ experienced by some believers. But is this akin to revelation? The simple answer is ‘no.’ You will do well to consult Milne on this question! I want to add one or two thoughts:

The language of 2LCF (and WCF and Savoy) does this: it may acknowledge that there were some claims to private revelation, but in no way authorizes or legitimizes them. Rather it is seeking to state comprehensively that there is nothing men may claim that is above or beyond Scripture.  Notice how “private spirits” is preceded by “doctrines of men.”  There is no way that the WCF legitimizes “doctrines of men.”  Notice for example 21:2 and its clear statement as well as Chapter 16 scripture reference b; ch. 21 “n”; ch. 30 “f”.

Similarly, one must factor in the challenge that was presented, from the late 1640s, by the Quakers. They regularly and frequently accused the Puritans of holding to a ‘dead letter’ by the Puritan focus on the centrality of the written word. For the Quakers, the living internal testimony of the Spirit was of exceedingly greater importance than dry and dead words printed on a page. In the case of the Confession, even claims to ‘private spirits’ (without giving any credence to them) had to be subordinated to the Scripture, given by the Spirit, as a fixed rule of faith.

So does the Confession in any way authorize or permit private revelation by the use of this phrase? No way.