Dale, I agree with you that the history of Protestant claims in favor of continuing charismata should not be inadvertently denied, and that Protestant discussions of charismata should not become a stalking-horse for Protestant-Catholic controversies that are essentially irrelevant to the discussion. I do not share the desire of some of my more enthusiastic but less wise Reformed friends to cast charismatics beyond the pale of Protestantism; even when we turn from the less wise among my Reformed friends to the more wise, I think we still speak confusedly in this area—we have to stop talking as if all aspects of Reformed theology shared the status of those great central pillars that define Protestantism, such as justification without the works of the law.

Those central pillars, which are core to Reformed theology, are indeed paradigmatic expressions of the Reformation. But they are not paradigmatically Protestant because they are core to Reformed theology, and we have to stop talking about other aspects of our theology as if they, too, were core Reformation doctrines. Our Lutheran friends, to say no more, could raise a plausible objection! The real variety of Protestant belief and practice is too rarely accounted for in the way Reformed people use the term “Protestant.”

However, I don’t think B. B. Warfield always shares that tendency in Counterfeit Miracles. He does sometimes slip in that direction. On the whole, however, I think he does a better job than you give him credit for.

He did identify opposition to Rome’s claims of continuing charismata as a core Protestant commitment, including some language much stronger than what you quoted. The first two sentences of Chapter 4 are: “Pretensions by any class of men to the possession and use of miraculous powers as a permanent endowment are, within the limits of the Christian church, a specialty of Roman Catholicism. Denial of these pretensions is part of the protest by virtue of which we bear the name of Protestants.” He then approvingly quotes another author who writes that Protestants don’t see a promise of continuing charismata in scripture.

But look more carefully at those first two sentences, and then compare them to what comes in the paragraphs that follow. In spite of that troublesome third sentence, overall Warfield seems to me to be setting up a contrast between Protestant-Catholic debates over charismata (the subject of Chapter 3) and intra-Protestant debates over charismata (the subject of Chapters 4—6). I think he wants to draw attention to how these debates are different in character—precisely the distinction you want to remind us of.

Note Warfield’s precise phrasing—the key words in the first sentence are “class of men” and “permanent endowment.” This is in contrast to the way he characterizes Protestant belief in charismata, which he describes as claims to the possession of gifts by “individuals”—that is, individuals qua individuals. These Protestant claims are different in kind precisely because they do not elevate a special “class of men” who have a “permanent endowment” of miraculous gifts, as the Roman claims do. I am open to correction if I have misunderstood Protestant charismatic theology, but if I understand it rightly, then Warfield’s statements in the first and second sentences are correct; opposition to the particular claims Rome makes about continuing miracles is, in fact, core to Protestantism. They are so not because Rome claims miracles continue to occur, but because Rome claims these miracles occur in such a way as to require the priesthood to mediate in an authoritative way between the believer and Christ.

In Chapter 3, his focus was on the connection between Rome’s belief in continuing miracles and its doctrine of the authority of church tradition. On both these issues I think he’s right; standing against the mediation of the priest and the coordinate status of church tradition alongside scripture are core to Protestantism.

In the argument that follows, Warfield does not depict Protestants who believe in continuing charismata as some sort of infection of crypto-Catholicism. To the contrary, he offers a theory as to why some Protestants accept continuing charismata that is grounded not in Catholicism (not even in a sort of unintentional semi-Catholic compromise on soteriology by those dastardly Arminians) but precisely in the nature of Protestantism itself. “Protestantism, to be sure, has happily been no stranger to enthusiasm; and enthusiasm with a lower-case ‘e’ unfortunately easily runs into that Enthusiasm with a capital ‘E’ which is the fertile seed-bed of fanaticism.” I do not think I have ever heard an apologist for Roman Catholicism who did not say something almost identical to this sentence about the nature of Protestantism, though of course with a different end in mind. It is not an especially charitable view, and can be criticized for that reason. But it is not conflating Catholic and Protestant views.

The very fact that Warfield devotes one chapter to Roman Catholicism and three chapters to Protestant claims in favor of continuing charismata is telling. (The chapter on the patristic and early medieval church is not about Catholicism. Warfield of all people would have been the last to cede figures like Augustine to Rome; in his majestic essays on Augustine and Pelagius he famously remarked that the debate over the Reformation was really a debate between Augustine’s doctrine of grace and Augustine’s doctrine of the church.) Warfield is against all claims of continuing charismata, and—alas—he does not always treat them charitably. But he does give the presence of those claims within Protestantism a pretty full representation.

You’re right that some of my Reformed friends need to quit trying to read charismatic claims out of Protestantism. But Warfield was better on these issues than they are.

Articles by Greg Forster

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