Thursday, August 08, 2013

What is prophecy?

The nature of prophecy is one of the dividing lines between cessationists and charismatics.
i) Cessationists frequently distinguish between mediate and immediate miracles. They deny that God still works miracles through human agents. But they make allowance for God to work miracles apart from human agency.
ii) This distinction is deployed to rule out the spiritual gifts. But is that consistent?
Take prophecy. From what I've read, the continuation of prophecy is what cessationists find most objectionable. They find that more objectionable than tongues or faith-healers. That's because they think continued prophecy jeopardizes the sufficiency of Scripture. It yields an open canon. A rival canon. 
But one problem is how to classify prophecy according to this rubric. What kind of miracle is prophecy? Immediate or mediate?
Prophecy can be either. God can give one person a message to share with others. That would be a mediate miracle, where God conveys his message to others through a spokesman.
However, God can also speak to an individual for the individual's benefit. Private rather than public revelation. That would be an immediate miracle. God is speaking directly to that individual rather than through that individual. He's not using that individual as an intermediary to communicate with others. That's not for public consumption. Not for posterity. Not for the church. Not to be included in the lectionary. 
Yet I think cessationists regard continuing private revelation as scarcely less objectionable than continuing public. But in that event, the cessationist classification scheme fails to filter out the kind of miracle that they most oppose. 
iii) Let's go back to the question of whether continuing prophecy threatens the canon of Scripture.  One charismatic response is to point out that NT examples of prophecy aren't about ethics and doctrine, but directions like "Go here!" or "Don't go there!" That's not the sort of thing Scripture tells you anyway. So the content is a differential factor.
iv) Another charismatic response is to say continuing prophecy is fallible. Cessationists respond by objecting that the notion of fallible prophecy is confusing.
However, I think that debate may be a category mistake. It depends on how we define "prophecy." In the Book of Acts, the programmatic passage is 2:17ff. That passages invites a distinction between verbal and visionary prophecies. Prophetic dreams are visionary revelation rather than propositional revelation. Strictly speaking, visionary revelation isn't true or false, fallible or infallible. Pictures aren't propositions. Imagery doesn't affirm or deny something to be the case. 
v) In addition, there's a further distinction between allegorical and representational dreams. Allegorical dreams (and visions) employ figurative imagery. Taken in isolation, the meaning is ambiguous. What do the picturesque metaphors stand for? 
That may not be recognizable in advance. Rather, that may only be recognizable after the fact. But that's still edifying, because it shows us that God knows and controls the future. 


  1. Another charismatic response is to say continuing prophecy is fallible. Cessationists respond by objecting that the notion of fallible prophecy is confusing.

    Jack Deere (like some other continuationsts) makes the following distinctions:

    1. true or false REVELATION,
    2. true or false INTERPRETATION of a revelation
    3. true or false APPLICATION of a revelation

    In his book The Beginners Guide to the Gift of Prophecy (pages 79-82) he gives an example of how he (allegedly) received a revelation from God and how he BOTH misinterpreted it and misapplied it. Looking at a woman in a meeting the words "blood pressure" came into his mind. So, he asked her whether she had "high blood pressure". She said "no." Then he asked if anyone in her family had "high blood pressure". Again she said "no." Then he asked if anyone around her had "high blood pressure." Everyone said "no." In his mind he says he was tempted to ask facetiously, "Well does anybody know anybody anywhere in the world that might possibly have high blood pressure, or had it once upon a time?" That's how bad he realized he missed it. So he just went ahead and admitted his mistake and continued the meeting. Later, at the end of the meeting the same woman came up to him and asked him whether her husband's "low blood pressure" might be what he was referring to. Her husband's low blood pressure was so problematic that he would sometimes pass out. Deere then goes on to show how he both misinterpreted and misapplied the word of knowledge. He presumed that the word of knowledge "blood pressure" referred to "HIGH blood pressure." Then he assumed that it applied to the woman he was looking at when he received the word of knowledge rather than asking her whether the issue of "blood pressure" was something that was relevant to her life and circumstances.

  2. Strictly speaking, visionary revelation isn't true or false, fallible or infallible. Pictures aren't propositions. Imagery doesn't affirm or deny something to be the case.

    Amen. Not all supernatural experiences are propositional in nature. Take for example philosopher Alvin Plantinga's (apparently) supernatural experience in his youth. I posted excerpts of it HERE.

    1. Here's another example by R.C. Sproul. In this first audio file of his classic lessons on the Holiness of God he recalls his own dramatic life changing experience of being in the presence of God.

      Here's a link to access all 15 audio files in their proper order. HERE

  3. Help me out here, please, in that case.
    Joe comes to me: "The Lord gave me a prophetic word for you."

    What do I do?

    1. You tell Joe, "I'm waiting for confirmation from the angel Gabriel."

    2. Seriously:

      i) In a post-apostolic context, I don't think third-party prophetic claims ("God told me to tell you...") obligate you do it or even to take the claim seriously. It's something you can discount without giving it a second thought. Indeed, something you should normally discount.

      ii) To some extent it might depend on whether Joe was a reputation for being reliable or unreliable in the "prophetic" advice he gives.

      iii) To some extent it might depend on the content of the alleged prophecy. Is it "Quite your job, sell your home, and move to Madagascar"? or is it "There's going to be a 20 car pileup on the I-5. Take an alternate route to work this morning"?

    3. You tell Joe, "I'm waiting for confirmation from the angel Gabriel."

      Joe replies, "I totally understand. Thing is, Gabriel is the one who gave me this word."


    4. i) If I were living in 50 AD and the Apostle Paul told me he had a prophetic word, should I normally discount that as well? If not, help me understand why not.

      ii) So a man can give prophecies from the Lord that are wrong?

    5. Rhology

      "i) If I were living in 50 AD and the Apostle Paul told me he had a prophetic word, should I normally discount that as well? If not, help me understand why not."

      That raises the epistemological issue of how we know Biblical prophecies are legit. There are different ways of explaining that:

      a) So-called "sign-gifts" can function to divinely attest the messenger. By itself, that's not a failsafe, for there's such a thing as demonic miracles (e.g. Deut 13:1-5). Still, the oracle has a "supernatural" source. So that narrows the field.

      b) It also depends on whether we're judging a prophecy before or after the fact. If it comes true, then you know, retrospectively, that it was a true prophecy. So that depends on whether or not you're supposed to act on the prophecy ahead of time.

      c) Normally, I think God's people simply find themselves in a cognitive state where the prophecy is credible to them–just as we believe many things simply because we find them believable, and not because we can point to confirmative evidence. In many cases, confirmatory evidence may be available for our beliefs, but that's not the immediate basis for our beliefs. The belief is automatic. We believe many things because they are intuitively evident to us, even though it might be hard for us to explain or formally defend our impression.
"ii) So a man can give prophecies from the Lord that are wrong?"

      I was responding to your hypothetical case. Obviously, we need to distinguish between God speaking to Joe and Joe saying God spoke to him. The latter doesn't entail the former.

    6. Rhology,

      In regards to your ii) I posted comments on a dialogue that C. Michael Patton and Sam Storms were having in 2011. Here is one comment that may be relevant.
      As I heard Sam state it: in the OT there was an infallible connection between a) the revelatory act and b) the communicative act. He believes that this does not necessarily hold in for the NT conception of prophecy. Michael took issue with this. Sam urged that these two contrasting views of prophecy be examined by looking at how prophecy is described and functions in the NT. Toward that end I would urge a look (again) at Acts 21.4–”and through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” Grudem writes about this passage:
“The difficulty with the entire passage…is the fact 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’)…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.”
 The amazing thing is that many hard cessationists handle the verse in the same way! They recognize that the Holy Spirit revealed something but the people added something else in. Richard Gaffin in “Perspective on Pentecost” talks of not confusing the revelation and their speech act (p. 68). O. Palmer Robertson likewise says: “To this perfected revelation the concerned disciples appended their own conclusion: that Paul should not proceed to Jerusalem.” “The Final Word” p. 111. He goes on to cite others (Munck, Bruce, Alexander, and Calvin) who agree with him. I have mentioned in another thread George Gillipsie’s view is the same on this passage. I know it’s only one passage but we begin to see the reality of a revelation from God that is added to by the receiver and then the whole complex of revelation/communication is said to be “through the Spirit.” This seems to accord with what Grudem and Storms want to say NT prophecy is.


      Here is my blog post where I put this comment as well as other comments dealing with this issue.

    7. Thanks!

      I think that there may be another angle to that. The reason "not go to go Jeru" is in there is because Agabus told Paul that the Jews would bind him. So that's the explanation. That's the "not to go" - because he'd be bound. But Paul didn't care.
      ISTM that renders Storms' conclusion less straightfwd.

  4. I think another difficulty cessationists and charismatics have failed to account for is assuming all prophecy was intended to have an eschatological element. I think Frank Crusemann was on to something pointing out that in Deuteronomy, where we get a description of the role of the prophet in judicial/legal terms, prophecy did not have an eschatological element and was to be consulted after case law had been consulted, judges or priests consulted, and that after all that a situation could still not be adequately adjudicated. Prophecy has been viewed by cessationists and charismatics as a fixed, permanent office or role of some kind when it may have been something closer to a situational ultimate ad hoc committee. We know that a number of authors of prophetic texts had other, normal day jobs and that their prophetic activity was considered outside the norm for them (i.e. I'm not a prophet or the son of a prophet in Amos, if memory serves). In other prophetic writings the "professional" prophetic enterprise is itself criticized in the OT canon. If we keep these things in mind it may be a necessary corrective to misunderstandings about prophetic activity introduced by both cessationists and charismatics about the scope and nature of prophetic activity in both OT and NT settings.