The Work of the Spirit | pt. 8

Prophecy

The ministry of a prophet does not contradict or add to Scripture but if truly from God is infallible. This is very controversial but it seems to be the correct conclusion when we unbiasedly consider the biblical evidence. It is helpful here to consider what Sam Storms has said, “If noncanonical revelation was not a threat to the ultimate authority of Scripture in its emerging from, neither should it pose a threat to Scripture in its final form.”[1] Many, however, do not buy that.

For example, John MacArthur says, “extrabiblical revelation always leads to error!”[2] Then he proceeds to look at cults and mentions the Book of Mormon as an example. It is true that there are many false claims to revelation but that in itself does not mean that there is not still revelation. If we truly believe in solo Scriptura we need to show where the Bible says there is no longer revelation.

Schreiner, in his helpful book Spiritual Gifts, argues that prophecy no longer continues because the prophecy in the New Testament was infallible and what is happening now is not infallible.[3] He never demonstrates, however, that all of what is called “prophecy” today is not at least in some cases from God and thus infallible. Further, this is not an argument grounded in Scripture. Instead, Schreiner is simply making an assertion about all modern claims to prophecy.[4] That, we should see, is a big sweeping claim.

I believe Schreiner actually helps the case for the continuance of prophecy because he makes a strong argument that not all prophecy is inscripturated. That is a big part of what I believe regarding prophecy. I believe infallible prophecy continues today but just like in the Old and New Testaments, not all infallible prophecy is included within the canon.

Schreiner shows that New Testament prophecy does not differ from Old Testament prophecy.[5] He says,

New Testament prophets spoke authoritatively and with complete truth to the situations in their churches. The fact that most prophecies weren’t written down and preserved is completely irrelevant as far as the truth of the prophecies is concerned. It is a category mistake to think that if prophecies are without error, then they must be written down and included in the Scriptures. And it doesn’t logically follow that prophecies must contain errors if they aren’t preserved and written down. God spoke authoritatively and truly through the prophets, even if their prophecies weren’t recorded and preserved. They spoke the infallible word of God to their contemporaries, who needed to hear these true and authoritative words of God.[6]

Further, in chapter 7, Schreiner makes a convincing case for infallible prophecy. He argues that “the idea that New Testament prophecies are mixed with error is mistaken.”[7]

I believe that what the prophets of today share is similar to what Agabus shared. Of course, some claim that Agabus’ prophecy in Acts 11 was wrong. They, however, are mistaken.[8] Ferguson concludes, “Paul’s testimony assumes its accuracy. We have no reason to believe that Agabus’ prophecy failed. Luke gives no indication that Paul thought it had done so.”[9]

Prophecy is never produced by human will[10]; instead, the person with the prophecy speaks what God gives them to say by the Spirit (2 Pet 1:20-21).[11] Thus, prophecy is infallible because prophecy gives the words of God and God always speaks the truth (Titus. 1:2; John 17:3,17; Heb 6:18; Prov 30:5).[12] Of course, we can misunderstand or disobey but God’s words are always without error.

So we see prophecy in the New Testament was both accurate and highly significant for the actions of the church[13] but it was not on par with Scripture in the sense that it was not to be inscripturated.[14] It is not the type of revelation to be inscripturated. It is not didactic revelatory teaching but pertains to the local body or a local situation. As in disclosing someone’s heart (as in the Spurgeon’s real-life example[15]) and that encourages the local body because they see the Lord at work. It is not something that would add to the canon.

As Grudem says, “Prophecy is seen as the most valuable of the Holy Spirit’s many gifts to the church.”[16] First Corinthians 14:23 tells us that “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” Do we believe that? Why would we not want that? Is not that something we would want to function in our church and why would the Lord take that away? I realize we have the canon now but the early church had Paul, the other Apostles, and many others who had seen the Lord face to face. Why did they need this prophecy then, maybe especially when the canon was not yet closed? Would not that potentially be the most dangerous time when something could be added to the canon that should not be? We now have a closed canon. Nothing should be added to it no matter what.

I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that Jesus is the Great Prophet, the Great Shepherd, and the Great Teacher. There are other teachers, there are other shepherds, and there are also other prophets but Jesus is the pinnacle, He is the par excellence. Therefore, we see there is continuity but also difference. There are still teachers, pastors, and prophets, but that does not mean that each will be the ultimate example of what it means to have that gift. Moses and Jesus will always have a unique place as prophets. In the Bible, we see variation in the prophetic ministry.

I agree with MacArthur when he says that “all experience must be validated by the more sure word of Scripture.”[17] That is true and that is what the Bible teaches. Scripture and prophecy in the New Testament are never at odds and never compete against each other. In Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to be devoted to and immerse himself in Scripture there is mention of a prophecy about Timothy (see 1 Tim 4:11-16). If anything, prophecy was used as an encouragement for Timothy to persist in the word.[18]

Scripture teaches us that prophecies should not be despised (1 Thess 5:20) but must be tested (1 Cor 14:29; 1 John 4:1; John 7:24). Thus, the biblical way to handle prophecy is not to say that there is no prophecy but to test claims to prophecy. Paul actually says that prophecy is great. He, with Moses, wishes that all of God’s people were prophets (Num 11:29; 1 Cor 14:5).

It is important that we consider how prophecies are to be tested. The first test has to do with theology, does it align with the teaching of Scripture already given (see 2 Cor 11:4; Gal 1:8; 2 John 7-9) and exalt Christ (see 1 Cor 12:3)? Second, does it bring biblical edification, encouragement, and comfort (1 Cor 14:3)?[19] Third, it is important that we consider the so-called prophet’s motives, character, and fruit (Matt 7:15-20 cf. 2 Pet 2:1-22).

In chapter 11 of the Didache[20] it says that if a prophet asks for money or something else then they are a false prophet and you should not listen to them. It also says that every prophet who teaches the truth but does not do it himself is a false prophet.[21] The Shepherd of Hermas, a literary

work of the late first half of the second century, says that false prophets speak to their hearers according to their wicked desires. They fill their hearer’s hearts with expectations according to their own wishes.[22] This recalls 2 Timothy 4:3 where it says that people will “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” 1 John 4:5 would also have us consider if the world listens to them, if so, then they are very likely a false prophet.

The Shepherd of Hermas points out that a prophet should be tested by their life. “He who has the divine Spirit is meek, peaceable, humble, and refrains from all iniquity and the vain desires of this world. He contents himself with fewer needs than those of other men.”[23] But “the man who seems to have the Spirit exalts himself, and wishes the first seat. He is bold, imprudent, and talkative. He lives in the midst of many luxuries.”[24] Irenaeus says that false prophets do not possess fear of God but speak from vainglory or for some sort of personal advantage.[25]

Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 12.15.36 PM

Figure 1.1. Prophetic Criteria in the Bible[26]

In summary of this section on prophecy, we are going to consider two types of infallible revelation: (1) the completed canon of Scripture and (2) prophetic revelation that is judged against and by the completed revelation of Scripture. One form of revelation we know for certain and is therefore not tested; this is the Bible and we know that the canon is closed and contains the infallible words of God. The second form is ongoing but must always be tested by the word of God and in accordance with the criterion that is given there. The two forms of revelation then should never be in competition with one another and prophetic revelation should never contradict Scripture, add to it, or it’s theology. Instead, they should be in harmony and work towards the same ends.

The two forms of revelation have similarities and differences. They are similar in that they both: (1) come from God and as such (2) are infallible, (3) work towards the same ends (e.g. glorifying God, exalting Christ, building up the church), and (4) are in agreement with each other.

They are different in very significant ways as well. (1) Scripture is completed and closed whereas prophetic revelation is expected to continue until Christ’s return. (2) Prophetic revelation needs to be tested whereas Scripture is the criterion of the test. (3) Scripture encourages the pursuit of the gift of prophetic revelation. (4) Scripture reveals mysteries never before disclosed regarding God, Christ, and redemption history whereas prophetic revelation does not. (5) Prophetic revelation is predictive and applicable and deals with local concerns, as such, it is not universally applicable, whereas, Scripture is applicable for all people, in all places, for all time, and it predicts the end of all things.

The view that I have articulated above best deals with all of the relevant biblical data and it enables prophecy to continue to build up the church according to God’s good design and yet Scripture continues as the authority of God that cannot be added to. This is because a prophetic revelation must be judged according to the authoritative written word of God and the canon of Scripture is closed.

_______

[1] Storms, in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?, 82.

[2] MacArthur, The Charismatics, 33.

[3] He says, prophecy “is inerrant and infallible. What most call prophecy in churches today, in my judgment, isn’t the New Testament gift of prophecy, for New Testament prophecy is inerrant” (Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, loc. 1256). It is interesting to me that he says “most,” so it seems he leaves room for what some to purport as prophecy may really be prophecy. I think that is quite biblical. Prophecy is to be tested or weighed to see if what is claimed as prophecy is really prophecy, that is, from God.

[4] I appreciate what Carson’s says regarding the frequency of prophecy. He says, “prophecy may occur more often than is recognized in noncharismatic circles, and less often than is recognized in charismatic circles” (Carson, Showing the Spirit, 168).

[5] Carson similarly says, “There is not single, stereotypical Old Testament prophecy and a different stereotypical New Testament prophecy” (Carson, Showing The Spirit, 98). “Prophecy was a gift through which God revealed mysteries and knowledge ([1 Cor.] 13:2; cf. 14:30). It involved more than just teaching God’s word (cf. 1 Tim. 1:18; 4:14), for the gifts of prophecy and teaching are often distinguished (Acts 13:1; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11)” (Gary V. Smith, “Prophet,” 1004).

[6] Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, loc. 1193. Carson says that “the truth of that matter is that in the first century ‘prophecy’ is a rubric so vast in semantic range that it can include phenomena with no significant relation to canonical prophecy” (Carson, Showing the Spirit, 154n27). He also says that “There are instances of prophecies in Acts that are viewed as genuinely from God yet having something less than the authority status of an Old Testament prophecy” (Ibid., 97).

[7] Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, loc. 1080. “New Testament prophecy doesn’t differ from Old Testament prophecy, and like Old Testament prophecy, it is infallible and always true. New Testament prophecies aren’t mixed with errors. Several arguments support this position. First, we expect New Testament prophecy to be like Old Testament prophecy unless there are decisive reasons for saying they are different. The burden of proof, in other words, belongs to those who say that New Testament prophecy is different in nature and character from Old Testament prophecy. Our natural expectation is that New Testament prophecy operates in the same way as Old Testament prophecy” (Ibid., Location 1098, ch. 7). John Frame similarly says, “There is not explicit indication in the NT that the office of prophet had changed in anyway” (The Doctrine of the Word of God, 91). Contra, Michael Horton, who says, “Paul treats prophecy (prophēteia) as preaching, which although illumined by the Spirit is (unlike the Scriptures) noninspired and there must be tested” (The Christian Faith, 884).

[8] Richard B. Gaffin says we should not demand “pedantic precision” on Agabus (“A Cessationist View,” 48 in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?) and Schreiner says, “Those who think Agabus erred define error too narrowly and ridgedly” (Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, loc. 1203). See Ferguson’s (Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 214-21) as well as Scheireners helpful discussion.

[9] Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 220.

[10] Grudem points this out too: “the prophet has no message of his own but can only report the message God has given him” (Grudem, “Prophecy/prophets,” 701 in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology).

[11] It is very interesting to me that Schreiner says that “God may lay something on someone’s heart, and it may be exactly right and exactly what a person needs to hear. Sometimes the impression may be quite astonishing and clearly miraculous, though this is quite rare” (Spiritual Gifts, loc. 1256. Italics mine.). He goes on to say, “God may give impressions” (Ibid., loc. 1285). Does the Bible, however, give the category of an impression that is God given and is “exactly right,” “exactly what a person needs to hear,” and “clearly miraculous”? Perhaps what Schreiner is referring to, is actually prophecy but is being incorrectly labeled as an impression.

[12] Grudem says, the “fundamental idea of the prophet as a messenger of God pervades descriptions of prophets in both Old and New Testaments” (Grudem, “Prophecy/prophets,” 701 in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology).

[13] Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 218. Ferguson goes on to say that “prophecy deeply affected apostolic behavior” (Ibid., 219). Storms points out that “Even the apostle Paul occasionally altered his travel and ministry plans based on prophetic revelation (see Acts 16 and Gal. 2:1-2)” (The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, 130).

[14] Of course, in the NT some of it was but did not have to be. “Even Old Testament prophecies didn’t have to be written down and preserved to be true and authoritative. In fact, many prophecies—indeed most—aren’t part of the Scriptures, but such a state of affairs doesn’t indicate that prophecies that weren’t written down contained errors. Everything Elijah and Elisha said when they were speaking in the name of the Lord was true, but most of what they prophesied hasn’t been preserved in the Scriptures. We have no record what the fifty prophets hidden by Obadiah prophesied (1 Kings 18:4). Nor do we know the prophecies of the sons of the prophets who were associated especially with Elisha (2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1; 9:1). Both of these groups must have prophesied since they are called prophets. But nothing that the sons of the prophets prophesied is contained in Scripture. Still, everything they prophesied was true! They didn’t make mistakes in their prophecies even if their words haven’t been preserved for all time. Notice that we have the words of at least sixty prophets in these two examples that were not written down or saved for posterity, showing that prophecies don’t have to be included in Scripture to be completely true” (Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, loc. 1156). Carson says, “Paul takes the prophecy of his own day to be in some sense revelatory (14:30) and yet to have less authority than his own written word” (Showing the Spirit, 133).

[15] See Charles Spurgeon, The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon (Cincinnati: Curts & Jennings, 1898-1900) 2:226-27.

[16] Grudem, “Prophecy/prophets,” 701 in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. “Of all the χαρίσματα, this is the one mentioned most often in the Pauline letters. It is specifically mentioned in 1 Thess 5:20; 1 Cor 11:4-5; 12:10-14:40; Rom 12:6; Eph 2:20; 3:5; 4:11; 1 Tim 1:18; 4:14; and probably lies behind ‘through the Spirit’ in 2 Thess 2:2 and ‘in keeping with a revelation’ in Gal 2:2. This implies the widest range of occurrence in the Pauline churches” (Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 890).

[17] MacArthur, The Charismatics, 64. Gaffin too says, “experience itself is not a source of Christian knowledge and doctrine” (Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 10).

[18] I am not saying this is always the contemporary practice but it is the biblical practice and our practice can and should fall in line with Scripture.

[19] Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 61.

[20] Didache means “teaching” and the Didache is an early, some scholars argue first century, writing on the teachings of the early church.

[21] It is important to remember, as the Apostolic Constitutions, a disputed document from circa 377 says, “Every person who prophesies is not holy… For even Balaam the prophet, the son of Beor, prophesied, although he himself was ungodly” (cf. Matt 7:22-23; 24:11, 24; Acts 16:16) (A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 303).

[22] Hermas says, “The Holy Spirit does not speak when man wished the Spirit to speak” (A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 539).

[23] See David W. Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 539.

[24] See Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 539.

[25] See Ibid., 540. Gary Smith says of the Old Testament false prophets that most “were seduced into false prophecy by their own desires for recognition and acceptance by the masses, their political leanings which supported nationalistic interests, and their blind application of traditional teaching about the temple and the messianic age to the temporal problems of their day” (Smith, “Prophet,” 985).

[26] “Holding Prophets Accountable” is an unpublished paper by Jon K. Newton who holds a Ph.D. from Deakin University and is Senior Lecturer at Alphacrucis College.

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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