Sunday, November 06, 2005


Two tiers of inspiration?

Over in the ongoing discussion on modern-day prophecy at PyroManiac, things have taken an interesting turn. At least one member of the continuist (aka non-cessationist) party has conceded that the gift of prophecy we see today isn't of the same type that was manifested in the apostolic age. For my part, I'm quite relieved to hear this. This means that I agree with at least some of my charismatic friends that the gift of prophecy as seen in the ministry of the Biblical prophets and apostles did indeed cease with the passing of the apostles. Wonderful!

However, I'm not yet in 100% agreement with my friends, for they continue to insist that (1) the gifts have not entirely ceased, and (2) a gift of prophecy, albeit one of lesser authority and reliability, remains in operation. Since PyroManiac himself has promised (threatened?) to address the issue of cessation, I won't touch that subject for now, but I would like to address myself to the matter of today's alleged gift of prophecy.

To set the stage, let's consider the type of inspiration that was reflected in the ministry of the Biblical prophets and apostles. In both offices, an exceedingly standard of accuracy and truthfulness was expected, and rightly so. The prophet or apostle was expected to speak with 100% accuracy and trustworthiness whenever he spoke in the name of God. That was a good thing both for their contemporaries and for us, because the Bible is largely a compilation of the recorded utterances of these inspired men. When a true prophet or apostle spoke, you can take it to the bank: they were surely speaking for God, so you could be assured that you were hearing from God whenever they spoke. Although they were otherwise fallible sinners like you and I, whenever they spoke in God's name, they were always on the money. If they were not, the consequences for them were severe: under Mosaic Law, false prophets were to be stoned to death.

So that's what a prophet or apostle of Bible times was like, but what of today's prophets and prophesying? My continuist friends tell me that those who exercise the post-apostolic gift of prophecy are prone to error. They are sometimes right, but other times wrong. Moreover, authentic predictive prophecy is exceedingly rare, and that's if one grants that it takes place at all. Although no one has yet gone out and said so, I surmise that what they're saying is that today's prophet doesn't predict future events, but instead instructs, encourages, corrects, or comforts the Body of Christ with God-inspired words.

So far so good. I'm relieved to learn that my Reformed charismatic friends are so skeptical about the perpetuity of predictive prophecy. However, I'm not completely at ease, because they're still telling me that are still other types of inspired prophecy continuing on in the church. From what I understand, they have a few main reasons for holding to the perpetuity of a kind of low-octane prophecy:

  • The Scriptures don't specify that the charismatic gifts will cease prior to the end of the Church Age, so they must still be in operation in some form.
  • The New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, mentions the gift of prophecy and provides some rules for its exercise and testing.
  • Certain types of prophecy are taking place in some churches, and those prophecies seem to often fit the description found in 1 Corinthians 14.

    On the surface, this seems like a fairly convincing argument. After all, the first two points are based on Scripture, and the third point is simply to explain that the same thing that Paul described in 1 Corinthians seems to be taking place today. However, things are in fact not nearly that simple, for in fact this argument opens up an absolutely huge can of worms.

    As I see it, the crux of the problem with today's alleged low-octane gift of prophecy is this: although it is conceded that it doesn't hold a apostolic level of inspiration or authority, it nonetheless claims to have a degree (albeit a lesser degree) of God-given inspiration and authority. Thus, if we are to accept the perpetuity of this low-grade gift of prophecy, we must accept a two-tired system of divine inspiration and authority: (1) the Biblical level and (2) the post-apostolic level. The first tier is admitted to be fully inerrant and trustworthy, whereas the other is conceded to be fallible but yet is admitted to be "from God" when a prophecy is proven to in fact be of divine origin. We know quite a bit about the first tier of inspiration, for it is that type of inspiration that's behind the Bible itself, but the question that occurs regarding the second tier is this: what do we know about it? What has God revealed about the vitally important matter of how a lower degree of inspiration is to work? How is the gift to be exercised, and how are utterances to be tested? Let us make no mistake: if God has indeed ordained that there would be a lower-grade type of inspiration, we are in great need of instruction and wisdom regarding how to handle it. Whereas the old-style prophets and apostles were to be treated in an all-or-nothing manner--if they weren't right 100% of the time, they were known to be wolves in sheep's clothing--new-style prophets are allegedly supposed to be handled differently. But how? Where are the instructions?

    In my charismatic days, I thought I knew the answer to that question: 1 Corinthians 14. Indeed, there's no other passage that goes on in such length or detail regarding how the spiritual gifts were to be exercised in the church, but yet I fear that Paul's instructions somehow fail to give us any idea of how to deal with a fallible gift of prophecy. Now, he does tell the church to reject the false and hold fast to what is good, excellent advice indeed: surely if a prophecy is evidently false, it ought to be rejected immediately. But what of the frequent modern-day cases in which it's unclear whether a prophecy is from God or simply from the imagination of a well-meaning believer? Often, nothing is blatantly wrong with the prophecy, but yet it seems to fall short of full-blown inspiration. For instance, "My children, I love you, and I have a wonderful plan for your life." I can't point out anything that's blatantly unscriptural about God saying that He loves His people or that He has a wonderful plan for them, but neither can I or should I conclude with any certainty that such a message was inspired by God. Would God have us accept every such "Hallmark greeting" type of prophecy as inspired or potentially inspired because it's not blatantly unbiblical? Neither Paul nor any other writer of Scripture tells us, but it seems to me that to accept such a "prophecy" as being of divine inspiration would tend to cheapen the value of divine inspiration and authority.

    My friends, if there is in fact a post-apostolic gift of prophecy, the Scriptural guidance for exercising or testing such a gift just isn't there. Whereas Paul's advice in 1 Corinthians 14 would have been plenty for a church that knew only the 100% accurate type of prophecy--they would have known to kick out a prophet the first time he missed the mark--he leaves too many questions unanswered to be able to tell us how to properly handle a lesser degree of authority and inspiration. Moreover, Scripture is (to my knowledge) devoid of any example of the low-octane type of prophecy. (Yes, I know that some folks argue that Agabus in Acts wasn't 100% accurate, but I've read at least one convincing argument to the contrary, so I won't grant you Agabus without a fight. :-) )

    Additionally, the notion of post-apostolic prophecy presents another serious problem: its lesser degree of authority tends to undermine the authority of Scripture itself. Whenever we read the Bible with the Holy Spirit's illumination or hear it rightly preached, we are literally hearing the mind of God. Scripture is 100% the Word of God, and so were the unrecorded utterances of the true prophets and apostles. However, the word of today's prophet is conceded by continuists to be less than 100% inspired, so when a prophet rises in church and says, "Thus says the Lord", you don't know for certain whether he's really speaking for God or not. What a contrast to Scripture, which speaks for God 100% of the time! But what of preaching? Isn't preaching prone to error, too? Yes, but a good preacher can claim to speak for God only when he rightly divides the Word of Truth; otherwise, he is evidently speaking only his own opinions. At no time does he claim to be passing on a freshly inspired "word" from God.

    To conclude, I'm glad to hear some of my charismatic friends admit that the apostolic gift of prophecy has ceased, but yet I submit that they have opened up a huge can of worms by asserting the continued existence of a post-apostolic gift of prophecy. If they are indeed committed to teaching a two-tier scheme of inspiration and God-given authority, I call on them to provide the church with sound exegetical books and sermons that demonstrate from Scripture the perpetuity of such a gift in addition to the proper practice of that gift and proper testing of its manifestations. Otherwise, I suggest that the perpetuity of such a gift is open to serious doubt if its only warrant is a handful of Bible verses referring to prophecy, Scriptural silence regarding the date of cessation, and a bunch of personal experience. There are admittedly Scriptural difficulties attendant with the cessationist view, but I would argue that the ramifications of a two-tier scheme of inspiration/authority present immensely greater difficulties.

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