“Private Spirits” In The “Westminster Confession Of Faith” And In Protestant-Catholic Debates: A Response To Byron Curtis -- By: Garnet H. Milne

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 61:1 (Spring 1999)
Article: “Private Spirits” In The “Westminster Confession Of Faith” And In Protestant-Catholic Debates: A Response To Byron Curtis
Author: Garnet H. Milne


“Private Spirits” In The “Westminster Confession Of Faith” And In Protestant-Catholic Debates: A Response To Byron Curtis1

Garnet H. Milne*

In the 1996 fall edition of this journal, Professor Byron Curtis examined the phrase “private spirits,” which is contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 1.10. He concluded that the phrase means genuine “private revelation” and not private opinions.2 This conclusion is significant. If correct, subscription to the WCF would tolerate belief in the ongoing immediate divine revelation apart from Scripture. This essay attempts to show that Curtis’ conclusion was premature. His argument consisted of several strands. However, for the sake of brevity, only two will be discussed, both of which concern the seventeenth-century meaning of “private spirits.” First, he claims that the Oxford English Dictionary allows the meaning of private revelations for “spirit.” Second, Curtis argues that William Whitaker’s Disputatio de Sacra Scriptura3 regarded private revelations in a similar way. Whitaker, arguably a primary source for the first chapter of the WCF,4 was responding to the Jesuit scholars R. Bellarmine and T. Stapleton, who had argued that God had appointed the Pope as the infallible judge of religious controversies. The Roman Catholic controversialists rejected the notion that a private spirit could be the judge. Whitaker agreed and said that the authority of a private spirit is secret and private, whereas a public judge is needed for adequate resolution. Curtis does not explain why he concludes that Whitaker taught “private spirit” was equivalent to “revelation to a private person” other than to say that it “is obvious” from two

*Garnet H. Milne is editor of Faith in Focus and minister of the Reformed Church of Wainuimata, New Zealand.

quotations extracted from the Disputatio.5 Curtis, then, infers that WCF Ch. 1.10’s use of private spirits is equivalent to private revelations.

However, the following observations need to be taken into account. The word, “spirit(s)” meaning “revelation(s)” is not attested in the OED. The closest comes in Section II 6. d., which is still talking about the Holy Spirit as a personal agent and not about personal revelations.6 The usage of “spirit” as opinion, in contrast, is well attested.

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