(Originally posted 2006)
Prophecy that communicates the words of God has divine authority. One big issue is deciding whether a prophecy is a divine communication. Another is what “divine authority” means.
When a prophecy is given, the task of the church is to discern the authenticity and accuracy of that prophecy (1 Thess 5:19-22; 1 Cor 14:29-33a). The testing of prophecies shall be discussed more fully in a following post, but suffice it to say that Scripture encourages various means of testing revelation: comparison with Scripture, the prophetic reputation of the speaker, the character and life of the speaker, personal subjective discernment, the agreement of other believers and holding the acceptance of the prophecy in abeyance until the accurate fulfilment (or not) of predictive elements. (In the NT, at times a prophecy was not even recognised or understood until after the event, eg. Luke 9:44).
This judging of prophecy should not be dismissed lightly. Often this is the downfall of many modern proponents of prophecy – prophecy is not judged, or if it is, there is very little willingness to truly give prophetic words a thorough going over. Even people with a good prophetic record are not immune to wrong prophecies. This lack of thoroughness is partly because people often really want to be hearing from God prophetically and don’t want to be let down, and partly because if words are said to be from the Lord, there is a fear that applying rigorous testing and not just accepting “God’s words” in much the same way they accept God’s Word in the Bible will be seen by God as a lack of faith. What such fear forgets, however, is that God is for rigorous testing. God’s words in Scripture have already been tested and approved for centuries – they have had their rigorous testing. The church has a responsibility to give new prophecies outside of Scripture a thorough going over.
Once a prophecy is judged and what are understood to be God’s words are identified (and let me reiterate, they will be words that are not contrary to Scripture, and the testing culls out a lot of prophecy), the prophetic words should be considered to have divine authority – ie. those who receive them will be judged by God if they do not pay attention to them. But there are two caveats that distinguish these words from the words of Scripture.
1) God has providentially arranged for the Church universal to recognise a body of writing as the definitive divine writings of the Church. In the same way that many prophecies were spoken, accepted as God-given and yet not adopted as Scripture both during NT times and the times up to the Montanist Movement, authentic prophecy today has no truck being added to Scripture. Scripture is the feeding trough of the Church from where we get our staple diet; prophecy confirms Scriptural truth and speaks into specific situations but is not to be relied upon as our authoritative source of truth.
2) Christians need to be humble enough to admit that even their testing is not fullproof. A prophecy they have identified as genuine may not actually be genuine. A prophecy speaking into their situation may, in the course of time, prove to be wrong or off-beam. This is not a reason to throw prophecy out the window any more than it is a reason to throw theological formulations out the window; it is only a reason to not attribute more authority to prophecy than is warranted. You work with what is given to the best of your ability and knowledge at the time, always open to reassess in the future. God is not displeased with our fumbling attempts to be obedient to what we understand of His will, and there is room for us to improve our discernment as we go on being guided into all truth (Hebrews 5:14; John 16:13).
Of course, having said all that, prophecies/revelation that require action or provide direction are rare in the New Testament. Agabus’ prophecies only state what will happen (Acts 11:28; 21:10-11) – the listeners decided what action they should take. Even Paul’s dream, which seemed a pretty clear direction, required Luke and the others to conclude what God was calling them to do (Acts 16:9-10). So, prophetic revelation does not necessarily entail obedience to a divinely authoritative direction. In fact, much (not all) of what many Christians identify as prophesy today has no element of obedience in it at all. Personally, my approach is to be cautious of prophetic direction. I prefer to submit anything like that to the counsel of others (as part of the testing), but I do not think specific prophetic direction doesn’t happen.
A final word before I conclude this post: Often the attitude even Charismatics have toward prophecy is that if it is a word from God, then of course immediate, unthinking obedience is required. But the truth is that even those who accept the Bible as the Word of God do not approach even the Bible like that. The Bible is written into a cultural context foreign from our own and speaks about things that we need to think through and wrestle with and apply in the correct way. Prophecy is no different in that it comes through another person and we similarly need to think through and wrestle with and apply in the correct way…and importantly, judge the validity of. To work with a caricature of prophecy as direct and devoid of the need for interpretation does violence to the evidence in the NT. We need to have a more nuanced approach to prophesy and the authority it carries.
To sum: Non-Scripture-equivalent prophecy has divine authority, but an authority that does not touch the place of Scripture (in that it is not part of the sacred writings of the Church – our staple diet), an authority that applies only after testing, and an authority that does not eliminate the need for thought, wisdom and continued learning when it comes to any application of the message given and so reduce us into unthinking automatons.
Historic Comments. (Since this is a re-post from years ago, I have included below comments that were made at the time).
centuri0n April 4, 2007 at 10:09 am
Well, far be it from me to wrestle with exotic animals, but this whole prophecy thing makes my head spin. And it’s not because I’m a cessationist — I am probably the least-rigid cessationist I know, and I’ll admit that I’d be willing to stand next to and defend a modern-day prophet if such a thing could be produced.
Here’s my problem, which is simply all over this post on this subject: When Scripture prophetically says (for example, from Paul), “Be imitators of me as I am an imitator of Christ,” (1Cor 11:1) I know what to do with that — it’s actionable, and it causes me to go deeper into Scripture to see what exactly to do.
But can you point me at a modern prophecy, and a modern prophet, who does this kind of work? See: I can buy into the definition that a prophet is someone who speaks forth the truth from God with authority. John MacArthur and John piper would be men whom I would place in that category. But then we have guys like Rick Joyner who wants to be a prophet, and this fellow Don Piper who gives me the creeps, and Mary K. Baxter who sells more books than is right — and they want to be called “prophets” in the sense that they have authoritative statements from God about things which Scripture covers in (if I may say so) a different way.
If you’re saying that Piper and MacArthur are prophets and the others aren’t, you’re not disagreeing with me. You’re actually coopting the cessationist examples and claiming they are continualist examples. The debate term is “equivocating” which does not me “to lie” but “to confuse the meaning of terms by claiming unlike things are alike”.
Come across with an actual continualist prophet who is exercising the gift you describe in this post, and then we can talk specifically about what you mean and whether it’s true or not.
ali Post author April 5, 2007 at 12:03 am
Thanks for responding to my request for your opinion on this piece, Cent. (And thanks to Glenn for reminding me how to put some hyper-links in).
Let me quickly define terms, or we’ll get nowhere. I understand non-Scripture-equivalent prophecy to be a message communicated from God to man via the Holy Spirit but apart from the Bible, including God giving a message directly to an individual (eg. Luke 2:25-26). My general understanding of a prophet is someone who receives prophetic messages for others with a high degree of accuracy and some regularity.
I can give you examples of prophecy (which is what the post is about), but not clear examples of a prophet. Since cessationism denies both for today as a rule, I’m assuming that the examples of prophecy below will do just as well.
1. Lloyd-Jones’ outline for the Spiritual Depression sermon series. His testimony implies this was not a once-off.
2. Mark Driscoll’s testimonies about receiving revelation from God. (See the mini-series on Spiritual Gifts in the series on 1 Corinthians for example).
I can give you more, but this is a long comment as it is. I have quite a few local examples but you are unable to verify them, so I settled for the above two. Whether you accept those two or not depends on your opinion of Lloyd-Jones’ and Mark Driscoll’s integrity.
I do not think of Piper and MacArthur as prophets per se, (though if cessationists do, aren’t they embracing a form of fallible prophecy – unless they believe Piper and MacArthur are infallible?). No, my understanding of Scripture is that these two would fit the mold of Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) who was powerful in speech and the Scriptures, but was never seen as a prophet. That is unless they were given a message to preach like Lloyd-Jones.
But you said:
When Scripture prophetically says (for example, from Paul),”Be imitators of me as I am an imitator of Christ,” (1Cor 11:1) I know what to do with that – it’s actionable, and it causes me to go deeper into Scripture to see what exactly to do.
But can you point me at a modern prophecy, and a modern prophet, who does this kind of work?
I confess I’m not 100% sure what you mean here. Do the above examples count? I do not see prophecy as always giving direction or increasing theological knowledge. The examples in Acts 11:27-30, 15:32 and 21:10-11 show greater variety. The fact that a prophecy is given should cause people go to Scripture for confirmation – whether literally, or just because it’s in their blood. Perhaps you could explain that to me a little more.
Just to conclude, I am at a point where I am far more theoretical about these things than hands-on. My preference, by far, is a good exegetical look at the Bible. When it comes to prophecy, I think there are dangerous charlatans around – quite well-known ones too – but for all that, I don’t believe that false prophecy/prophets precludes God-given prophecy/prophets, nor that a desire to get a staple diet from the Bible precludes receiving prophecy for today.