“Private Spirits” in “The Westminster Confession” of Faith §1.10 and in Catholic-Protestant Debate (1588-1652) -- By: Byron Curtis

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 58:2 (Fall 1996)
Article: “Private Spirits” in “The Westminster Confession” of Faith §1.10 and in Catholic-Protestant Debate (1588-1652)
Author: Byron Curtis

“Private Spirits” in “The Westminster Confession” of Faith §1.10 and in Catholic-Protestant Debate (1588-1652)

Byron Curtis

Sometimes we misunderstand the words we encounter. Such misunderstandings appear in every aspect of human life, but perhaps nowhere more apparent to Christians (aside from arguments between spouses) than in the field of Biblical studies. Biblical preaching is often replete with dictionary definitions, word studies, contextual analyses, comparative lexicography, and other signs of exegetical labor, all in the hope of determining the true meaning of the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of Holy Scripture.

Sometimes similar methods need to be brought to bear upon later Christian literature as well, even upon those written in one’s own language. The Westminster Confession of Faith (henceforth abbreviated WCF) is no exception.1 Three and a half centuries have passed since the Westminster Assembly completed this classic work of Christian instruction. It should come as no surprise that some words and phrases, well known to them, should now be obscure to us.

Such is the case in the Confession of Faith’s first chapter. In WCF §1.10 the Divines confess the supremacy of Scripture:

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (emphasis mine).

We are at some pains to determine precisely what the Westminster Assembly meant by “private spirits.” Many expositions of the WCF, such as Robert Shaw’s, A. A. Hodge’s, and G. I. Williamson’s, omit reference to this term altogether.2 The recent paraphrases by Donald Remillard and

Douglas F. Kelly, et al., interpret it as referring to personal opinions, as does the recent commentary offered by John H. Gerstner, et al.3 Still others suggest “private revelations,” or “claims to private revelations,” or, perhaps “private impressions.” 4 Both senses for the word spirit—”opinion” and “revelation”—are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, and documented to be in common use in the 1600’s.5 How shall we define this phrase in WCF §1.10? Unlike WCF §1.6, this section refe...

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