(Originally posted February 2006)

Not long ago I listened to a tape of a message by D.A. Carson called, “Greater than King David”. The basic message was explaining why Jesus said John the Baptist was the greatest to have been born of a woman and why even the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he. But that, though interesting, is not what I want to discuss here.

In the message Carson suggests that when John the Baptist said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) the word “lamb” in the text actually refers to a “warrior lamb” as opposed to a sacrificial lamb. Carson appeals to Matt 11:2-3 and Luke 7:18-19 where John the Baptist questions whether Jesus is “the One” – Jesus was not acting like a warrior lamb.

It is clear John the Baptist was saying more than he knew at the time. Carson pointed out the same sort of speech occurs in John 11:49-52, where the text tells us that Caiaphas spoke prophetically without even realising it. It is not unreasonable, then, to say that John the Baptist spoke prophetically in John 1:29.

Many modern day cessationists protest that prophecy must be infallible and equal to the authority of Scripture, and therefore no revelation can exist today. But if Scripture itself identifies as prophecy words coming from the mouths of two people who did not even know it – how much more can Christians prophesy who have the Spirit (like John) and are priests (like Caiaphas) and are also beneficiaries of greater knowledge of the truth and greater blessings than the both of them?

(Of course, prophecy in the New Testament has an even wider definition than that – Cretan poets are attributed the title “prophet” by Paul – though some may argue sarcasm was used there.)

Historic Comments. (Since this is a re-post from years ago, I have included below comments that were made at the time).

One Salient Oversight February 15, 2006 at 11:25 am

I hate it when people start pasting in Bible passages when they comment, so please forgive me.

Prophets were an exceptionally important part of the church, as per Ephesians 2.19-20:

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”

As a semi-cessationist, I would argue that since Apostleship has ceased, so too would prophecy. After all, why continue to have people today still building the foundation of the Christian church?

I would also argue that the New Testament itself was written partly by some of these “prophets”. Mark was not an apostle, nor the writer of Hebrews, nor James, nor Jude… yet these people wrote spirit-inspired scripture. They weren’t apostles, they were prophets.

Hebrews 1.1-2 is important too:

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

In these last days, God speaks to us by his son. Notice that there is an implied loss of prophecy. In its place there is the proclamation of the Gospel.

And Revelation 19:10 is good too.

“For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”

This is my basic assumption:

Prophets were people that God sent to the early church, who, like the Apostles, were able to speak the inspired word of God to the church. Since they spoke the word of God, once the churches received the letters of Peter and Paul and the others, the churches continued to hear this prophetic word through scripture. In this sense, prophecy is not predicting the future, but speaking the mind of God to those in the present. Whenever a person speaks about the Bible and applies what it means, it is, in a sense, prophecy.

Aaron February 15, 2006 at 3:03 pm

I believe much more work needs to be done on this issue. Vern Poythress has argued for a view of prophecy that affirms Jesus Christ as the Prophet par excellence, and all believers as lesser prophets in him. This may be known as the “prophethood of believers,” analogous to the “priesthood of believers.” As a cessationist, he distinguishes between the infallible prophecy of Christ, the Apostles, and the New Testament prophets and the fallible prophecy of all believers, but he affirms that, in some sense, all believers are prophets. I think he is on to something. In practice, he may not be very far from Grudem’s charismatic view.

To my thinking, Grudem’s view suffers from several exegetical difficulties, Ephesians 2:20 being the biggest one. On the other hand, pure cessationism has a number of problems as well, because it seems to lean too heavily on giving the words “prophet” and “prophecy” one meaning–namely, infallible divine speech through a human instrument, when at least Titus 1:12 proves that this is not the case with every occurrence of the word group. I wonder if it is possible to distinguish between the office of prophet in the New Testament and the gift of prophecy. Perhaps we could understand that all prophets had the gift of prophecy, but not all who prophesied belonged to the authoritative office of prophet mentioned in Eph. 2:20. If this idea bears out exegetically (and I am not at all sure that it does), then perhaps we could affirm that the office has ceased–so that we no longer have the same kind of prophets who played a foundational role in the church–but the gift has continued in some ways.

It seems to me that this model may be helpful in answering the arguments of egalitarians who appeal to women who prophesied in Scripture as evidence of their authoritative roles in the church. It seems to me that cessationist complementarians are often caught in a dilemma here: they affirm that prophets were foundational to the church, but then they shrink back from attributing this kind of authoritative role to women, when it is clear that women in the early church prophesied (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5). However, if we postulate that not all who prophesied were necessarily prophets in the authoritative sense, we can affirm that women did indeed prophesy but did not hold positions of authority over men in the church. In other words, women could prophesy but could not be prophets in the sense of Ephesians 2:20. In any case, in the text where Paul mentions women prophesying (1 Corinthians 11), his main point is to affirm male authority over them in the church. It is ironic that one of the most complementarian passages in the Bible is often appealed to by egalitarians to make their case for women having authoritative roles over men in the church!

Like I said, this theory has not been tested, to my knowledge. But it may hold some potential for moving forward on this question

Ali February 15, 2006 at 8:28 pm

OSO (is your name Neil by any chance?) thanks for commenting. The following will look pretty critical of what you say, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what you say. In fact, you have given me a couple of things to think about, which hopefully I’ll be able to write about in the next comment.

You make some interesting points, but the crux of your argument seems to me to rest on the idea that there is only one definition of prophecy, a definition that sees prophecy as authoritative and infallible as Scripture. The verse I was thinking of and that Aaron refers to (Titus 1:12) gives pause to the idea that prophecy has one fairly static meaning – though as I mentioned, it is possible to understand the description as sarcastic.

I also question your understanding of Hebrews 1:1-2 because of the very fact that prophets existed after Jesus ascended to heaven. Yes, they were proclaiming and explaining the gospel, but there were prophets proclaiming and explaining the gospel – as well as other non-prophets who were doing the same. If prophets and the risen Lord co-existed then, you need another reason for the passing away of prophets. Most seem to go with the completion of the canon.

My understanding of that verse is that in the past, God revealed Himself bit by bit through prophets, but now He has revealed Himself completely through Jesus (because Jesus is the exact representation of His being v3). Therefore, our knowledge of God is no longer bit by bit, but focussed on Jesus – and so prophecy is also focussed on proclaiming Jesus.

This is confirmed in the verse you quote from Rev 19:10: For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. The context where the verse is given has John falling at the angel’s feet and about to worship him because he was so overwhelmed by what he was being shown through the visions (prophecy). The angel said, in essence, “The whole idea of this prophecy (and all prophecy) is that God be worshipped through the testimony of Jesus, not me. The testimony of Jesus is the reason for prophesy.”

Far from giving reason for prophecy to have passed away, this verse affirms it as existing for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel.

I agree with a lot of what you said. I think prophets were an important part of the NT church, I think those who wrote Scripture were doing so prophetically (though I’m not sure if consciously), and I think that preaching the Bible – proclaiming the gospel – is a prophetic act.

I also agree that prophecy on the par with Scripture is no longer being given, but I don’t agree that definition is the only one we have for prophecy. In fact, the very presence of the prophetic words in Acts regarding the coming famine (which had no direct focus on Jesus) shows that prophecy had other purposes too. Why should these necessarily have passed away?

I want to answer Aaron’s comment, and that will give some of the reasons I believe in different “types” of prophecy.

Feel free to disagree with me here. I am not adverse to changing my mind.

Ali February 16, 2006 at 8:19 pm

Aaron,

It has always been my understanding that the gift of prophecy in the NT was not identified as authoritative as Scripture. In fact, I have always seen the writing of Scripture as being in a quite different category, though as I acknowledged to OSO, it was obviously a prophetic task. The “one-horse definition” that cessationists use leads to incredible fear and to me it is understandable that they wish to negate the idea of prophecy being present today.

So, what are my reasons for believing that prophecy is not necessarily Scripture-equivalent? Hopefully I can do this quickly…

1st, almost every gift in the NT is a “specialisation” of gifts or character-traits all Christians are to have – evangelists specialise in sharing the gospel, and all Christians are to share the gospel; teachers specialise in teaching the Word of God, and all Christians are to teach (Col 3:16); those with the gift of serving (Rom 12) specialise in serving, and all Christians are to serve…and so on. Why not the same with prophecy? Joel’s prophecy seems to indicate that all New Testament believers will prophesy. This would support Poythress’ theory, but I can’t remember if he used this as an argument.

2nd, there is an acknowledged difference between the Apostles (the 11 and Paul/Matthias) and the (small) apostles such as Barnabas, Timothy, etc, re-enforced by Matt 19:28 and Rev 21:14. Even today there is a difference in authority between people with the same office or gifting. Why not between prophets and their prophecy?

3rd, the purpose of prophecy is to point to Jesus, and also for the church’s
“strengthening, encouragement and comfort” (1 Cor 14:3). This is done using foretelling as well as forth-telling, ostensibly Jesus-focussed and not. If it has this purpose, can this not be achieved through less-than-Scripture-equivalent prophecy? Certainly the testing that is constantly called for in the NT seems to indicate this.

4th, even the writings that became Scripture were not automatically accepted as Scripture – they were tested, and it is likely that some writers did not consider themselves to be writing Scripture (though Peter identified Paul’s writing as such and Paul shows some awareness of what he was doing). Before the canon was closed, therefore, the church was making use of writings that they did not necessarily recognise as having Scriptural authority, but no doubt considered prophetic to some degree. Is it fair to say that the view of the deutero-canonical books were considered in this light, even by the Reformers – though perhaps not described in those words (shoot me down here if I’m wrong)? Certainly, the book of Jude considered the source/s of vv14-15 and vv17-18 to contain prophetic and even somewhat authoritative content.

For the above reasons, I think that the NT assumes different levels of authority (and reliability) when it comes to prophecy. When reading OSO’s use of Hebrews 1:1-2 I was happy to understand the prophets referred to there as the writers of the OT whose revelations were now surpassed by the revelation of Jesus in the NT. That is the vein of the lesser-surpassed-by-the-greater theme that runs through the book. I think even that interpretation of those verses a little shaky, but I do think the Bible refers to different levels of prophetic authority, reserving the highest for Scripture. In fact, to me 2 Peter 1:20 makes a qualitative distinction between prophecy of Scripture and other prophecy – but really, that can’t be taken from the context, so maybe I’m just being influenced by cessationism!

Lastly, were you aware that your suggestion of a distinction between prophet and the gift of prophecy is commonly accepted among Charismatics? In my early Christian walk I grew up with that teaching and think there might be something in it. Now, however, churches like Willow Creek teach a distinction between 1 Cor 12:7-11 (temporary, occasional gifts), Ephesians 4:11-13 (offices) and Romans 12:6-8 (natural talents – the basis of who you are). Regardless, there are tests you can do to find out which Romans 12 type of person you are! Interesting, but I am not convinced.

Aaron February 17, 2006 at 8:00 am

No, I wasn’t aware of that. Interesting. And good arguments. If charismatics can show me a better understanding of Eph. 2:20 than Grudem offers, I might be on the verge of becoming one myself!

One Salient Oversight February 17, 2006 at 9:41 am

This is a short posting about Titus 1.12.

There are two ways to interpret Paul’s description of Cretans as “always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” and how that fits in with his reference to the Cretan poet Epimenides.

The first is to assume that Paul is being entirely literal.

If we make this assumption, then Paul is literally identifying Epimenides as a prophet sent by the Lord. In the same way as Balaam in Numbers, Paul sees Epimenides as someone that God uses in a prophetic manner. And what is it that Paul acknolwedges as prophetic? The fact that Cretans are liars, beasts and gluttons. That means that the Cretan people were in fact typified by a continual form of selfish sinfulness that was quite unique to their culture.

The second is to assume that Paul was using hyperbole.

If we make this assumption, then Paul is simply being sarcastic and adds a little in-joke for the readers. In this sense, Paul uses humour by referring to Epimendes as a prophet, and quotes one of this poet’s best known lines as a way of communicating with his readers. Far from being a literal description of Cretans, Epimendes’ quote is both humourous and a warning from Paul’s pov.

In my opinion, it is far more likely that Paul was using hyperbole, and uses the term “prophet” loosely. I think it is the only reasonable way to interpret the text.

One Salient Oversight February 17, 2006 at 9:51 am

Ali – my name is Neil. Check out the FAQ on my webpage for more info.

A question about prophecy.

Let’s assume that my cessationist position is wrong and that the “fallible prophetic message” that is being described here is correct.

Fallible means that God communicates to the prophet, who may then not get the message correct. I do have problems with this concept – the idea that God has trouble communicating, and is nonplussed when his prophets don’t get the message correct.

Teachers are warned to make sure their teaching is correct (James 3.1). Is there any passage that speaks about how prophets should be careful (apart from the obvious Deuteronomy 13 that cessationists would quote)?

I am looking after my 11 month old at the moment so I will have to come back and post more later once I have read your postings more clearly.

Ali February 17, 2006 at 8:54 pm

Aaron, I had a quick re-read of the relevant section in Grudem’s latest edition of his book on prophecy – in it he answers the Gaffin/Wallace objections. The little I can see is that the big issue is whether you can use plural nouns in the way they are used in Eph 2:20 and have the nouns describe one group.

I am aware that Granville Sharp stated there are many exceptions to his rule in the NT when plurals are involved, but my question is Are there any examples with two plural nouns in that construction that do refer to the same person/group?  I have yet to find out if there are examples in Greek literature outside the NT.  Would there be any clues there?

The problem I see, that Grudem points out, is that if apostles and prophets are two groups that make up the foundation, where else is that supported in the Bible? When the apostles are singled out as a group (as in Matt 19:28 and Rev 21:14) they seem to be given honour as foundational people would, but a separate group of prophets is not talked about anywhere (else) in like fashion. The very fact that the rest of Scripture does not clearly illustrate both an apostolic group and a New Testament prophetic group as foundational or even honoured as primary seem to be a problem for Gaffin’s and Wallace’s interpretation, though I recognise it is not impossible that such a group existed.

Another possible interpretation is that among the differring “levels” of prophetic gifts/offices the Bible talks about, the “foundational” one has passed, but the others still exist (even as not every apostle in the Bible would be considered foundational).  The fact that the prophets here did not refer to all prophets or prophetic gifts has, again, always been my understanding.  It was not until I came across the idea that all prophecy has to be equal to Scripture that I saw its potential as a problem verse for continuationists.  Since I don’t hold to the cessationist definition, I personally don’t see the verse as a problem.

ali Post author February 18, 2006 at 12:33 am

G’day Neil. I checked out your FAQ page, but failed to find your name. I think I noticed it in a comment on your site, or maybe a post. Regardless, it’s probably there, but I didn’t see it.

Your comments about “fallible prophecy” still hold on to the idea that God intends all prophecy to be “Scripture-equivalent”. In other words, you are attributing your definition of prophecy to God. You need to approach it differently to get what is being said here: If there is prophecy that is not necessarily “Scripture-equivalent”, what could that mean, how could it work and why would it exist? I have some ideas which I might share in another post. Let me just say for now that while Scriptural prophecy got out of the mouth/pen of the prophet ok, God’s communication to those who read/hear it is certainly not infallible from that point on.

You asked if there is any passage which speaks about how prophets should be careful. 1 Cor 14:29-32, 37-38 are about as direct a warning as Deut 13 (though without as dire consequences). Another warning to the church to test prophecy is in 1 Thess 5:19-22.

I’m happy to keep discussing this, but I’ll probably need to write another post to get my ideas down.

Aaron February 19, 2006 at 5:34 am

“The problem I see, that Grudem points out, is that if apostles and prophets are two groups that make up the foundation, where else is that supported in the Bible? When the apostles are singled out as a group (as in Matt 19:28 and Rev 21:14) they seem to be given honour as foundational people would, but a separate group of prophets is not talked about anywhere (else) in like fashion.”

1 Corinthians 12:28 identifies prophets as those appointed second in the church, right after apostles. Also, I think the usage of the words “apostles” and “prophets” elsewhere in Ephesians points to two separate groups (Eph. 4:11).

Ali February 19, 2006 at 2:13 pm

I guess, Aaron, it depends on how flexible you think the word “prophet” is.

Still, I must admit, I still don’t see the problem, even if they are two groups. As I said above, the presence of more than one apostolic group is good reason to see the presence of more than one prophetic group.

To be a little provocative: If this verse is the main one stopping you from accepting a continuationist position, I don’t think there’s much of a barrier there.

Aaron February 21, 2006 at 1:21 pm

Yes, Ephesians 2:20 is the main one that gives me pause when I consider the continuationist argument (I don’t buy the 1 Cor. 13:8-10 cessationist argument; if anything, it points to continuationism, because the gifts pass away when “the perfect” comes, which I believe clearly points to the parousia). But that’s why I see some hope that perhaps there is a distinction to be made between authoritative New Testament prophets who were, let’s say for convenience, “semi-Apostles” and other believers who prophesied and continue to prophesy today. I think Poythress has done a great service in pointing to the “prophethood of believers,” which is based on the Prophethood of Christ.

Exegetically, Poythress and Grudem deal with different texts in different ways. Practically, however, I think they end up very close together, even though Poythress would call himself a cessationist and Grudem belongs to the charismatic tradition. I see some trends in both groups that indicate that some kind of unity is being forged, and I think it is the result of both groups listening to the legitimate theological concerns of the other.

If I had to nail down a position on myself today, I would call myself a continuationist, but I do see some real exegetical difficulties with Grudem’s take on certain passages. That’s why I’m looking for a better, more defensible way forward.

Ali February 21, 2006 at 2:47 pm

Yes, I understand your point. I do not 100% agree with Grudem’s take on passages such as Agabus’ prophecy to Paul, but I can see why he comes to those conclusions. I do have some other thoughts floating around about Eph 2:20, but because they are floating, they are still not presentable. Perhaps by the time I work through the “non-Scripture-equivilent prophecy” posts I’ll be able to put them forward.

I hope you find “a better more defensible way forward.” I think the more certain footing we have in Scripture, the more confident we can be in the exercise of gifts, and the more careful we can be of over doing it.

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