How can NT Prophecy be "Fallible" (and of benefit to the church) if it is based on an "Infallible" Revelation from God?1
In the previous article I argued that the NT spiritual gift of prophecy is not the same as OT prophecy, that it operates at a lower level of authority, and that it does not result in “Scripture-quality” words of revelation.
But this would appear to pose a problem for those of us who are continuationists. Here is why. All prophecy is based on revelation. In 1 Corinthians 14:30 Paul wrote, “If a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent” (emphasis added, see also v. 26). In 13:2 Paul seems to suggest that prophecies are based on the reception of divine “mysteries.” The verb to reveal (apokalupto) occurs twenty-six times in the New Testament, and the noun revelation occurs eighteen times. In every instance the reference is to divine activity, never to human communication.
Thus, prophecy is not based on a hunch, a supposition, an inference, an educated guess, or even on sanctified wisdom. Prophecy is not based on personal insight, intuition, or illumination. Prophecy is the human report of a divine revelation. This is what distinguishes prophecy from teaching. Teaching is always based on a text of Scripture. Prophecy is always based on a spontaneous revelation.
But if prophecy is rooted in divine revelation, how can it ever be fallible? “How can God reveal something that contains error? How can God, who is infallible, reveal something that is fallible?” The answer is simple: He can’t. He doesn’t.
We must remember that every prophecy has three elements, only one of which is assuredly of God. First, there is the revelation itself, the divine act of disclosure to a human recipient. The second element is the interpretation of what has been disclosed, or the attempt to ascertain its meaning. Third, there is the application of that interpretation. God is alone responsible for the revelation. Whatever he discloses to the human mind is wholly free from error. It is as infallible as God is. It is true in all its parts, completely devoid of falsehood. Indeed, the revelation, which is the root of every genuine prophetic utterance, is as inerrant and infallible as the written Word of God itself (the Bible).
The problem is that you might misinterpret or misapply what God has disclosed. The fact that God has spoken perfectly doesn’t mean that you have understood perfectly. It is possible for a person to interpret and apply, without error, what God has revealed. But the mere existence of a divine revelation does not in itself guarantee that the interpretation or application of God’s revealed truth will share in its perfection.
This is especially troubling to some and has led them to conclude that New Testament prophecy is of no benefit to the church. After all, how can a gift that is potentially fallible be a blessing to anyone? A comparison of prophecy with the gift of teaching should put your fears to rest.
Consider this hypothetical, but not uncommon, scenario. The pastor of your church is teaching a series on the book of 1 Thessalonians. Each week in the pulpit he has before him the revealed, inspired, written Word of God, from which he draws (I hope) his comments. He has come to chapter four where Paul discusses the rapture of the church. He tells you that, after careful study and much prayer, he believes the rapture will occur before the tribulation.
After church you’re having lunch with a friend who insists the rapture occurs at the midpoint of the tribulation. You, on the other hand, are no less persuaded that the rapture won’t come until after the tribulation. Yet another friend insists that the great tribulation is an established fact of past history, having occurred when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 70 a.d. What’s going on? All four of you are reading the same Bible (even the same translation). Each of you has been diligent in studying the passage in question. Each of you has prayed for divine illumination. Yet, notwithstanding the presence of the objective, written revelation of God, you walk away with conflicting interpretations and differing applications of its relevance for your life. We might wish that God had promised to guarantee that our interpretation and subsequent communication of his revealed Word would always be accurate. But he didn’t.
What should you do? Should you denounce teaching and insist that a gift so obviously susceptible to error and abuse be banned from church life? Of course not. In fact, you’ve been tremendously blessed by the series of sermons on Thessalonians and are excited about what God is doing in your own life. You realize that only the Bible has intrinsic divine authority. What your pastor says, in the exercise of his spiritual gift, has authority only in a secondary, derivative sense. Simply because he may have come up short in his interpretive and homiletical skills is no reason to repudiate the spiritual gift of teaching.
Like teaching, prophecy is also based on a revelation from God. In some way beyond ordinary sense perception, God reveals something to the mind of the prophet not found in Scripture (but never contrary to it). The revelation, having come from God, is true. It is error-free. Like the Bible, it alone has intrinsic divine authority. But the gift of prophecy does not guarantee the infallible transmission of that revelation (i.e., from the prophet to the people). The prophet may perceive or understand imperfectly, and, as a consequence, she may communicate imperfectly (not unlike what happened with your pastor and his exposition of 1 Thess. 4).
That is why Paul says we see in a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). The gift of prophecy may result in fallible prophecy just as the gift of teaching may result in fallible teaching. Therefore, if teaching (a gift prone to fallibility) can edify and build up the church, why can’t prophecy be good for edifying as well (see 1 Cor. 14:3, 12, 26), even though both gifts suffer from human imperfection and stand in need of testing?