Why NT Prophecy does NOT result in "Scripture-quality" revelatory words (a response to the most frequently cited cessationist argument against the contemporary validity of spiritual gifts)15
The single most oft-heard argument by cessationists in defense of their view that revelatory spiritual gifts such as prophecy and word of knowledge are no longer given by God to the church is that this would pose a threat to the finality and sufficiency of Scripture. How can we argue that the canon of Scripture is closed, asks the cessationist, if we believe that God is still “revealing” inspired truths to contemporary Christians?
This is a critically important question that we who are continuationists must answer. So, what reason is there to believe that NT prophecy does not result in “Scripture-quality” revelatory words? In other words, why do continuationists believe that the authority of NT prophecy is of a lesser order than that of OT prophecy?
Undoubtedly the most oft-heard objection of cessationists to the validity of prophecy today is their belief that any prophetic utterance that is decidedly from God must be infallible and equal in authority with canonical Scripture. To embrace contemporary prophecy is therefore a fundamental denial of the finality and sufficiency of canonical Scripture. Referring to the NT gift of prophecy, Doug Wilson insists that “we must treat such words as the Word of God, which means that we must treat them as Scripture” (www.dougwils.com, August 11, 2011). Why do I believe Wilson and like-minded cessationists are wrong on this point? Here are ten reasons.
First, this view fails to reckon with what would undoubtedly have been thousands of prophetic words circulating in the first century, none of which are part of canonical Scripture and thus none of which are binding on the conscience of Christians throughout history.
According to Acts 2, revelatory gifts like prophecy, together with revelatory dreams and visions, are said by Peter to be characteristic of the New Covenant during these last days, spanning the time between the two comings of Christ. In Acts 19 we read of disciples of John the Baptist who prophesied, yet Paul and Luke show no concern for the need to preserve their words. In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul exhorts the church to desire spiritual gifts, especially that we might prophesy. Assuming that the Corinthians, and all other churches to which Paul ministered, obeyed this command, there had to have been countless thousands of prophetic words forthcoming in the first century (prophecy is found in the churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Caesarea, Rome, Corinth, and Thessalonica; no doubt it was also present in Colossae, Philippi, and other cities as well).
My question is this: If such words, each and every one of them, were the very “Word of God” and thus equal to Scripture in authority, what happened to them? Why were the NT authors so lacking in concern for whether or not other Christians heard them and obeyed them? Why were they not preserved for subsequent generations of the church? I’m not suggesting this proves that these “revelatory gifts” operated at a lower level of authority, but it certainly strikes me as odd that the NT would portray the operation of the gift of prophecy in this manner if in fact all such “words” were Scripture quality and essential to building the foundation for the universal body of Christ.
In an unpublished paper Wayne Grudem similarly asks:
“Were thousands of ‘prophets’ actually speaking the very words of God? Were God’s people to be expected to go around to the many hundreds or even thousands of churches in the first century world and collect the prophecies given week after week, and write them down, and produce hundreds of volumes of ‘words of the Lord’ which they were to obey as they obeyed Scripture? In fact, we have no record of anything like this happening, nor do we have any record anywhere in the New Testament of churches recording or preserving these prophecies as if they were ‘words of the Lord.’ Rather they preserve and obey the writings and teachings of the apostles, not of the prophets.”
In his book Strange Fire, John MacArthur takes up the cessationist argument in this regard. In one place he asks: “If the Spirit were still giving divine revelation, why wouldn’t we collect and add those words to our Bibles?” [emphasis mine] But this is a sword on which MacArthur himself (as well as Doug Wilson) must fall. After all, he himself believes that the Spirit was giving divine revelation to the men and women, young and old, on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18). MacArthur believes that the Spirit was giving divine revelation to the four daughters of Philip, all of whom prophesied (Acts 21:8-9). MacArthur believes that the Spirit was giving divine revelation to the disciples of John the Baptist who prophesied (Acts 19:1-7). And MacArthur believes the Spirit was giving divine revelation to Christians in the churches in Rome (Rom. 12), Corinth (1 Cor. 12-14), Ephesus (Eph. 4:11ff.; 1 Tim. 1:18), and Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:19-22), and undoubtedly in every other church throughout the ancient world. So why, may I ask, didn’t Paul and Luke and John and others “collect and add those words” to canonical Scripture? Why is it that, aside from the two recorded prophecies of Agabus (Acts 11:27-30 and 21:10-12; have I overlooked any others?) we do not possess so much as a single, solitary syllable from all those alleged “Scripture-quality” and divinely inspired words?
If such prophetic words were, as MacArthur and Wilson contend, equal in authority to the Bible and thus ought to be included in and regarded as inerrant Scripture, where are they? Again, don’t miss the point: typical cessationists such as MacArthur and Wilson believe that each time the Spirit imparted divine revelation, which in turn was communicated through a prophetic gift, inerrant, Scripture-quality words were spoken. If they believe this requires that such words be treated like Scripture and thus added to the Bible (and they do; see their statements above), then why wasn’t this done in the first century when the gift of prophecy was, according to both men (and all other cessationists), still very much in operation? The simple fact is that cessationists like MacArthur and Wilson have created a concept of what NT prophecy entailed that simply does not correspond to how prophetic words were delivered and treated in the NT itself.
Second, a related point is found in Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians that they not “quench the Spirit” by “despising prophecies” (1 Thess. 5:19-20). Rather, they are to “test everything,” i.e., they are to weigh, judge, evaluate, or assess what purports to be a prophetic word and then “hold fast what is good” and “abstain from every form of evil” (vv. 21-22).
The Thessalonians held in high regard the Word of God, for Paul said of them, “when you received the word which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13). If these Christians believed (as cessationists tell us they should have) that prophetic words in their church were equal to Scripture, they would have esteemed them highly and would never have “despised” them. If Paul had taught them (as cessationists tell us he did) that such “words” were revelation on a par with and possessing equal authority to the very Scripture that he is writing to communicate this concept (namely, the letter of 1 Thessalonians itself), would the Thessalonian Christians have been guilty of despising them?
Is it not more likely that these believers were tempted to “despise” prophetic utterances because they knew that such “words” were a mixture of divine revelation and fallible human interpretation and application and that, for whatever reason, people in their midst had in some way abused the gift or had used such words to manipulate others or promote themselves or had predicted some event(s) that had not come to pass?
If the prophetic utterances in Thessalonica were equal in authority to Scripture and altogether infallible, would not Paul have harshly rebuked the Thessalonians for not receiving them as such but for treating them as dispensable and unimportant? If such “words” were perfectly infallible revelation on a par with Scripture would he not have simply said, “Submit to them without hesitation and obey them” rather than “test” them to see what is in them that is good and what is in them that is bad?
Third, although I realize that cessationists have a different understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:29, I believe Paul is saying here much the same thing as he said in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22. “Weigh” (diakrino) what is said by the prophets. That is to say, sift the word and identify what is of God and what is the human and thus fallible admixture. I find it difficult to believe that Paul would have commanded this sort of assessment if all prophetic words were by definition inerrant Scripture quality revelation from God.
Fourth, in 1 Corinthians 14:30-31 Paul writes: “If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” Paul appears to be indifferent toward the possibility that the first prophecy might be lost and never heard by the church.
Some object and say that the first prophetic word wouldn’t necessarily be lost. The person could simply remain silent until the second had finished and then resume his speech. But as Wayne Grudem has pointed out, “if the first prophet was expected to resume speaking, why then would Paul command this first prophet to be silent at all? If the first prophet could retain his revelation and speak later, then so could the second prophet. And in that case it would make much more sense for the second prophet to wait, instead of rudely interrupting the first prophet and making him give his speech in two parts” (The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 63). Again, Paul’s apparent lack of concern for the loss of such prophetic words seems incompatible with a belief that they were equal in authority with Scripture itself.
Fifth, yet another statement in 1 Corinthians 14 confirms this understanding of NT prophecy. In v. 36 Paul asks, “Or was it from you that the word of God came?” He doesn’t say, “Did the word of God originate with (or “first go forth from”) you,” as some have suggested. Let’s not forget that the “word of God” didn’t originate with Paul either!
Rather, Paul’s statement is designed to prevent them from making up guidelines for public worship, based on an alleged prophetic word, contrary to what he has just stated. His point is that a Scripture quality, authoritative “word of God” has not, in fact, been forthcoming from the Corinthian prophets. Paul does not deny that they have truly prophesied, but he denies that their “words” were equal in authority to his own. Such “words” were in fact of a lesser authority.
Sixth, related to the above is 1 Corinthians 14:37-38, where Paul writes: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” Paul is clearly claiming a divine authority for his words that he is just as obviously denying to the Corinthians. “According to Paul, the words of the prophets at Corinth were not and could not have been sufficiently authoritative to show Paul to be wrong” (Grudem, 68).
And yet Paul believed the prophecy at Corinth to be a good and helpful gift of God, for he immediately thereafter exhorts the Corinthians once again to “earnestly desire to prophesy” (v. 39)! Paul obviously believed that the spiritual gift of congregational prophecy that operated at a lower level of authority than did the apostolic, canonical, expression of it was still extremely valuable to the church.
Seventh, although I don’t have space to provide an extensive exegetical explanation of Acts 21, I believe we see in this narrative a perfect example of how people (the disciples at Tyre) could prophesy by the Spirit and yet not do so infallibly or at a level equal to Scripture. Their misguided, but sincere, application of this revelation was to tell Paul ("through the Spirit," v. 4) not to go to Jerusalem, counsel which he directly disobeyed (cf. Acts 20:22).
Now, if Paul believed that NT prophetic “words” were always inerrant and equal in authority to Scripture, why did he disobey this prophetic exhortation? Paul clearly resisted their “word” and went to Jerusalem in spite of the fact that following the word from Tyre and following the word from Agabus and following the “urging” of all concerned, including Luke, he was persuaded that they had not spoken the infallible “word of God” to him (see Acts 20:22-23).
Grudem correctly points out that “the expression ‘through the Spirit’ (in Greek, dia tou pneumatos) modifies the verb ‘they were telling in the Greek text (it modifies the imperfect verb, elegon). That is why the verse is translated, ‘And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem’ . . . . So here is speech given ‘through the Spirit’ that Paul disobeys! This fits well with a view of prophecy that includes revelation given by the Holy Spirit and an interpretation and report of that revelation that is given in merely human words, words that the Holy Spirit does not superintend or claim as his own, words that can have a mixture of truth and error in them. This is why the prophecies have to be tested, and this is why Paul feels free to disobey in this case” (unpublished paper).
Eighth, in conjunction with the previous point, I should also mention that the prophetic warning of Agabus, though correct in speaking of the persecution Paul would endure should he go to Jerusalem, was wrong on two points: (a) it was the Romans who bound Paul, not the Jews (Acts 21:33; 22:29); and (b) far from the Jews delivering Paul into the hands of the Gentiles, he had to be forcibly rescued from them (Acts 21:31-36). Those who insist that the NT gift is no less infallible than its OT counterpart are faced with accounting for this mixture of truth and error. To this point I have only heard that we continuationsts are being "overly pedantic" or are guilty of "precisionism." Yet it appears that the strict standards applied under the OT are now conveniently stretched in the NT under the pressure of a passage that doesn't fit the cessationist theory. Might it not rather be that NT prophecy is occasionally fallible, and therefore to be carefully judged (1 Cor. 14:29; 1 Thess. 5:19-22)?
Some have objected to this reading and insist that Paul’s report in Acts 28:17 of what took place in Acts 21 is essentially the same as prophesied by Agabus. But Paul’s point in 28:17 is simply that he was transferred from Roman custody in Jerusalem into Roman custody in Caesarea. In other words, Acts 28:17 is his description of his transfer “out of” Jerusalem into the Roman judicial system at Caesarea (as found in Acts 23:12-35), and is not a description of the events associated with the mob scene in Acts 21:27-36. Agabus cannot so easily be let off the hook.
Ninth, yet another reason why I believe the cessationist is wrong on this point is the failure to recognize different ways or senses in which God might “reveal” something to us. In Philippians 3:15 he tells the church that “if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” And in Ephesians 1:17 Paul prays that a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” would be granted to believers. “Once more,” notes Grudem, “it would not be possible to think that every time a believer gained new insight into his privileges as a Christian and reported it to a friend, the actual words of that speech would have been thought to be God’s very words. It would be the report of something God had ‘revealed’ to the Christian, but the report would only come in merely human words” (Grudem, Prophecy, 65). We see two other similar uses of the verb or noun form of “reveal/revelation” in Matthew 11:27 and Romans 1:18.
The point is simply that not all “revelatory” activity of God comes to us as Scripture quality, divinely authoritative, canonical truth. Thus, as D. A. Carson points out, “when Paul presupposes in 1 Corinthians 14:30 that the gift of prophecy depends on a revelation, we are not limited to a form of authoritative revelation that threatens the finality of the canon. To argue in such a way is to confuse the terminology of Protestant systematic theology with the terminology of the Scripture writers” (Showing the Spirit, 163).
My tenth and final argument comes from an implication regarding Paul’s permission that women can prophesy but his prohibition of them from teaching men or participating in the public evaluation of prophetic utterances.
Clearly women can prophesy (see Acts 2:17-18; 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5). But if that is true, what does he mean in 1 Cor. 14:34 when he says, "Let the women keep silent in the church; for they are not permitted to speak"? The likely answer is that Paul is prohibiting women from participating in the passing of judgment upon or the public evaluation of the prophets (14:29). Evidently he believed that this entailed an exercise of authority restricted to men only (see 1 Tim. 2:12:15).
If one should ask why Paul would allow women to prophesy but not evaluate the prophecies of others, the answer is in the nature of prophecy itself. Prophecy, unlike teaching, does not entail the exercise of an authoritative position within the local church. The prophet was but an instrument through whom revelation is reported to the congregation. “Those who prophesied did not tell the church how to interpret and apply Scripture to life. They did not proclaim the doctrinal and ethical standards by which the church was guided, nor did they exercise governing authority in the church” (Grudem, 121-22).
But to publicly evaluate or criticize or judge prophetic utterances is another matter. In this activity one could hardly avoid explicit theological and ethical instruction of other believers. If we assume that in 1 Timothy 2 Paul prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority over men, it’s understandable why he would allow women to prophesy in 1 Cor. 11:5 but forbid them from judging the prophetic utterances of others (especially men) in 14:34.
Answering a few Objections
In the book, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views (Zondervan), I interacted at length with some objections to the contemporary validity of prophecy articulated by Richard Gaffin (whose view differs little, if at all, from that of MacArthur, Wilson, and other cessationsts).
Gaffin objects to the possibility of post-canonical revelation on the grounds that we would be "bound to attend and submit to" it no less than to Scripture. Aside from the fact that this wrongly presupposes that contemporary prophecy yields infallible, Scripture-quality words from God, the problem is one Gaffin himself must face. For were not the Thessalonian Christians, for example, "bound to attend and submit to" (lit., "hold fast"; 1 Thessalonians 5:21) the prophetic words they received, no less than to the Scripture in which this very instruction is found? Evidently Paul did not fear that their response to the spoken, prophetic word would undermine the ultimate authority or sufficiency of the written revelation (Scripture) that he was in process of sending them. The point is this: non-canonical revelation was not inconsistent with the authority of Scripture then, so why should it be now? This is especially true if contemporary prophecy does not necessarily yield infallible words of God.
Someone might ask, "But how should we in the twenty-first-century, in a closed-canonical world, respond to non-canonical revelation?" The answer is, "In the same way Christians responded to it in their first-century, open-canonical world, namely, by evaluating it in light of Scripture" (which was emerging, and therefore partial, for them, but is complete for us). Such revelation would carry for us today the same authority it carried then for them. Furthermore, we are in a much better position today than the early church, for we have the final form of the canon by which to evaluate claims to prophetic revelation. If they were capable of assessing prophetic revelation then (and Paul believed they were; witness his instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:29ff. and 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 to do precisely that), how much more are we today! If anything, contemporary claims of prophetic revelation should be easier to evaluate and respond to than such claims in the first century.
Therefore, if non-canonical revelation was not a threat to the ultimate authority of Scripture in its emerging form, why would it be a threat to Scripture in the latter's final form? If first-century Christians were obligated to believe and obey Scripture in the open-canonical period, simultaneous with and in the presence of non-canonical prophetic revelation, why would non-canonical revelation in the closed-canonical period of church history pose any more of a threat?
Gaffin argues that contemporary prophecy cannot, in fact, be evaluated by Scripture because of its purported specificity. But this is no more a problem for us today than it would have been for Christians in the first century. Did not they evaluate prophetic revelation in spite of the latter's specificity and individuality? If they were obedient to Paul's instruction they certainly did (1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). Why, then, can't we? And are we not, in fact, better equipped than they to do so insofar as we, unlike them, hold in hand the final form of canonical revelation whereby to make that assessment?
Gaffin also believes that to admit the possibility of revelation beyond Scripture unavoidably implies a certain insufficiency in Scripture that needs to be compensated for. But one must ask, "What is Scripture sufficient for?" Certainly it is sufficient to tell us every theological truth and ethical principle necessary to a life of godliness. Yet Gaffin himself concedes that God reveals himself to individuals in a variety of personal, highly intimate ways. But why would he need to, if Scripture is as exhaustively sufficient as Gaffin elsewhere insists? That God should find it important and helpful to reveal himself to his children in personal and intimate ways bears witness to the fact that the sufficiency of the Bible is not meant to suggest that we need no longer hear from our Heavenly Father or receive particular guidance in areas on which the Bible is silent.
Scripture never claims to supply us with all possible information necessary to make every conceivable decision. For example, Scripture may tell us to preach the gospel to all people, but it does not tell a new missionary in 2013 that God desires his service in Albania rather than Australia. The potential for God speaking beyond Scripture, whether for guidance, exhortation, encouragement, or conviction of sin, poses no threat to the sufficiency that Scripture claims for itself.
Although much more could be said, I hope this brief exposition helps us in the understanding of this remarkable spiritual gift and also fuels our passion to obey Paul’s injunction: “Earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39).
[NOTE: You may be wondering: “How can a spiritual gift that is based on infallible divine revelation be fallible? And if it is, what good is it to the church?” I’ll answer that question in tomorrow’s post.]