rise and fall of Mars Hill series

Mark Driscoll and the danger of ‘God told me’

According to Mark Driscoll, when someone quite reasonably questioned the validity of his claim to have received a direct revelation, he scoffed. Who could doubt its validity, since it was in accord with Scripture and his aims were true? Well, any Reformed Christian would and should seriously question any claim made by anyone to have received a direct revelation from the Lord. Either God’s Word is sufficient or it is not.

Where has the Lord promised to give extra-canonical, extra-Biblical revelations? The best biblical case for such (for example, Wayne Grudem’s) is beyond weak, resting as it does on tenuous explanations of sometimes very difficult passages (for example, the Agabus narrative) and dubious explanations of clearer passages. The case mostly rests on assumptions rather than Scripture. Even Driscoll implicitly admits that his “revelation” must be at least correlated with and verified Scripture. If the core of his call was nothing more than can be found in Scripture, then why the claim to direct revelation?

This is an important question, and its answer illuminates the nature of American evangelicalism since the early eighteenth century. For centuries now, American Christianity has been, in its spirituality and often in its theology, piety and practice Anabaptist and Pentecostal. The Charismatic movement, which has become so prominent since the 1970s is, from a Reformed perspective, little more than the polite suburban relative of the more urban (that is, Topeka and Azusa Street) Pentecostalism.

It is not well known outside the ranks of scholars of the early Anabaptists, but one of the features that alienated the magisterial Protestants from the Anabaptist radicals was claims by leaders of the Anabaptist movements to continuing revelation. Indeed, many of the phenomena we associate with the modern Pentecostal and Charismatic movements (for example, tongues/glossolalia, being slain the Spirit, “healings,” etc) were an important part of the Anabaptist movements. Many know that Luther said that the Anabaptists believed that they had swallowed the Holy Spirit “feathers and all”, but they do not always understand the context of the remark. It was Luther’s colourful repudiation of their claims to replicate the Apostolic phenomena.

The Reformed pastor Guido de Bres (1522–67), who died as a martyr for the faith at the hands of the Papists and was the primary author of the Belgic Confession (1561), wrote a treatise against the Anabaptists in which he described in some detail the very sort of Pentecostal phenomena that we associate with groups such as the Assemblies of God.

At the core of the magisterial Protestant rejection of the Anabaptist Pentecostalism was our doctrine of sola Scriptura. Indeed, the Anabaptist leader Thomas Müntzer (c. 1489–1525) mocked the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura and derided the Protestant pastors as “ministers of the dead letter”. He had no need of Scripture, since he received, he claimed, direct revelations from the Lord. For him, the Bible only became the Word of God when it seemed so to him.

The post-Reformation history of Christianity is littered with claims of continuing revelation, beginning with Rome. It is of the essence of Romanism that the councils and popes receive, in effect, continuing revelation. Most of the sects, to one degree or another, claim continuing revelation. Today, claims of continuing revelation are so commonplace few seem fazed by them.

Americans seem to love the idea that their minister, rather than expositing the Bible as God’s Word, from the original languages, in light of the original context and intent of the human author and the Holy Spirit, receives direct, extra-Biblical revelation. Since the Cane Ridge Revival in the nineteenth century and the Topeka and Azusa Street revivals in the twentieth century, American evangelical Christianity has come to be increasingly dominated by powerful personalities who claim to receive direct revelations. Driscoll is just one in a long line of such claimants. Read the full article by R. Scott Clark.