November 20, 2013

Is New Covenant Prophecy Fallible?

Regardless of how one answers the question of whether or not the gift of prophecy continues today, one must also answer the more basic question of just what prophecy is. Related to that question is this one, "Is New Covenant prophecy fallible?" And make no mistake, this is most definately a separate question.

The idea of fallible prophecy is advocated by continuationist Wayne Grudem, who has argued that prophecy in the New Covenant is of a lower order than that of the Old Testament prophets (as well as the New Testament apostles). The gift of prophecy, according to Grudem, involves simply reporting (not always accurately) something that God has brought to mind. The words of the prophet, then, carry no "Thus saith the Lord"-type authority. Prophecy, on Grudem's view, is on the same level as advice from a wise, Christian friend and is something that all believers can experience (either as a prophet or one who benefits from the prophecy of others).

A cessationist could, in theory, agree with Grudem's thesis, yet still insist that the (fallible) gift of prophecy has ceased. I haven't come across any who hold that position, but it seems that many cessationists seem to agree that the phenomenon Grudem describes actually occurs while insisting that it is not the gift of prophecy. Similarly, a continuationist does not necessarily have to agree with Grudem's thesis in order to believe that prophecy continues. Greg Koukl, for instance, has argued against Grudem's thesis despite that fact that he agrees with his continuationist theology.

As for this (soft) cessationist, I don't agree with Grudem's thesis. It seems to me that he (like many Charismatics) is simply reading his experiences into the text. His arguments just don't hold up to scrutiny (I won't deal with them in detail, for that sort of thing, see the resources listed below). Frankly, I'm shocked that men like John Piper and D. A. Carson have found them convincing.

How, then, do I respond to the anecdotes used by Grudem (and others) to support the continuation of this modern "gift of prophecy." First of all, I don't see any resemblance between these supposed instances of God spontaneously bringing something to mind and the New Testament gift of prophecy (which, by the way, seems to be the exact same prophetic phenomenon seen in the Old Testament). Exegetically, there is simply no basis for calling an instance of God bringing something to mind "prophecy."

Am I then open to this phenomenon under some name other than "prophecy?" No, not really. I don't deny that things like this happen. I don't even deny that the Lord is truly at work in some of these instances. I just don't see any biblical reason to expect them or seek them out. The problem is, I just don't see this sort of thing modeled in Scripture. "But," some will say, "What about all the instances in Scripture of God supernaturally speaking to and guiding his people?!" To that I say, "What instances?" I do not see this sort of thing happening in Scripture. The supposed prooftexts, when looked at in detail and in their proper context, do not endorse this particular practice.

There are two main differences between the way God spoke to his people before the closing of the canon and these contemporary "words from God." First, in Scripture, when God revealed himself to an individual, he did so in a way that was objective and undeniable. When God spoke in Scripture, there was no doubt about it because he actually spoke—people actually heard Him. In contrast, this modern phenomenon is completely subjective. This "still, small voice" that many contemporary evangelicals speak of is no voice at all. It's nothing more than a feeling. And what's more, this feeling—this hunch—that is supposedly a word from the Lord is practically useless. It's useless because it is just that—a hunch and nothing more. In Scripture, when God spoke there was no doubt that He had spoken, now, supposedly, when God speaks, no one can really be sure what He has said or if He has even spoken at all. Am I really supposed to believe that God would be the author of such confusion? This is pure mysticism, not prophecy.

Secondly, when God spoke in Scripture, the individuals to whom he spoke always had an important role to play in redemptive history. There is no indication in Scripture that God has ever had the kind of casual and conversational relationship with every one of his people as individuals that many continuationists claim ought to be the norm. In fact, not only did God not have a casual and conversational relationship with all his people, he didn't even have this sort of relationship with most of his inspired and authoritative spokesmen. Moses, for example, was considered greater than the other prophets because he spoke with God face to face (cf. Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 34:10). Even then, though one might call Moses' relationship with God conversational, surely no one would call it casual. Even if one is not against the continuation of this sort of revelation on principle (as all cessationists, and even some continationists, are), continuationists must be willing to acknowledge that the average believer is no Moses.

That is not to say that God is not active in the lives of His people. God is just as active in the life of the average believer as He has ever been. The Spirit leads believers out of sin and into holiness (Romans 8:13-14). The Father grants wisdom to those who ask in faith (James 1:5). God is guiding and directing all of creation including His people, working all things together for the good of those that love Him (Matthew 6:26; Romans 8:28). So, of course, God can bring something to mind if He wants, but that doesn't mean that one will know when He does it. It seems to me that this sort of thing falls under the umbrella of providence rather than prophecy. That is, this is the sort of thing that goes on behind the curtain. God is doing all sorts of things in the lives of His people that we are simply not privy to. Scripture never teaches believers to seek or even expect this type of experience. Yes, God can use all sorts or means—both ordinary and extraordinary—in the lives of His people, but let's not confuse these acts of providence with something else, something that ought to be actively sought or even expected. To look at examples of God's extraordinary acts of providence in the lives of other believers and to then extrapolate that God should operate that way normally and in the lives of all believers, well . . . that's just putting God in a box.

And, just to bring it all back around, I should remind the reader that none of this settles the question of whether or not prophecy actually continues (though I don't believe it does). In fact, none of this even answers the question of what prophecy is (I'm persuaded that it was basically inspired, infallible preaching). It merely rules out one possible answer: Grudem's. 

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