Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Spirit of prophecy

20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:20-21).
In this post my argument doesn't turn on the correct interpretation of v20. But as long as we're discussed the passage, we might as well consider that verse.
1) There are two plausible ways of construing v20:
i) It refers to the divine origin of prophecy. In visionary revelation, inspiration is a two-stage process. The recipient has a revelatory dream or vision. But that requires inspired interpretation. Sometimes the dreamer or visionary is a different person than the interpreter. Classic examples include Joseph/Pharaoh and Daniel/Nebuchadnezzar. Or sometimes the same person is both recipient and interpreter. Take Peter's vision, which he later expounds (Acts 10). 
This can also include divine signs (e.g. portents, prodigies, miracles) which require interpretation. 
On this view, prophetic inspiration covers both the revelatory imagery and their interpretation. Logically, it also extends to inscripturation. A seer must verbalize what he saw when he writes it down or dictates the vision to a scribe. It's more than a record of raw content. Rather, it's verbalized content. Interpreted content.
It's possible that the false teachers whom Peter is combatting denied the inspiration of OT messianic prophecies about the Day of Judgment. 
ii) It refers to the interpretation of written prophecies. The prophecies in question have already been inscripturated. The question at issue is how they ought to be understood, or who should interpret them.
On this view, there's a contrast between the apostolic interpretation of OT messianic prophecies, and the way Peter's opponents misinterpret them. False teachers spurn apostolic authority. They twist Scripture, presuming to interpret the OT in defiance of the apostolic kergyma. 
Both ways of construing v20 have textual and contextual merit. 
3) This verse also crops up in Catholic polemics. Catholic apologists quote v20 as a prooftext against the right of private judgment. There are, however, two basic problems with their appeal:
i) It's self-refuting. A Catholic apologist must interpret v20 for himself before he can deploy it against the Protestant position. But in that case he's resorting to the right of private interpretation of v20 to disprove the right of private interpretation! 
Put another way, the church of Rome has never given the infallible interpretation of v20. So a Catholic apologist must fall back on his own personal, individual exegesis. 
ii) The right of private judgment doesn't mean a reader's interpretation can't be challenged. Rather, it's a check on illicit arguments from authority. The pope or bishop or Roman episcopate can't dictate the meaning of Scripture. Interpretations are subject to responsible appeal. Interpretations are only as good as the supporting arguments. 
2) Moving on to v21, which is the main point of my post, Peter tells us that true prophecy has its origin in God's initiative rather than a prophet's initiative. A prophet must wait for God to speak to him or through him. A prophet is on the receiving end of the process. He has no control over when or if God will give him a revelation. This, in turn, goes back to the classic OT distinction between true and false prophets. A false prophet presumes to speak of his own volition, unbidden by God. 
3) And this has some bearing on the cessationist/noncessationist debate. Many cessationists take the position that since the charismata are "gifts," a gifted individual can exercise his gift at his own discretion. It's a delegated ability. 
This claim is typically applied to the case of faith-healers. If someone really has the gift of healing, then he can heal anyone at will. Failure to do so is evidence that the charismata ceased.
However, the logic of that argument would extend to other gifts, like the gift of prophecy. If someone really has the gift of prophecy, then he should be able to prophesy at will. 
Yet that's precisely what Peter here denies. Because prophecy has its source of origin, not in the prophet, but in God, a true prophet cannot conjure up a revelation on the spur of the moment. A true prophet is someone who only speaks when spoken to–by God. An authentic prophecy is not a product of the prophet's mind. 
Moving along:
26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace (1 Cor 14:26-33).
1) V32 raises interpretive questions, both on its own terms, and in terms of how it jives with 2 Pet 1:21. Given what Paul has said about the Spirit's sovereign dispensation of the charismata, it seems prima facie incongruous for Paul to then say "the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets." Surely the Spirit of God isn't subject to the human recipient. The timing is up to God. By way of explanation:
i) Paul is tacitly contrasting Christian prophecy with pagan prophecy. In pagan prophecy, the prophet (or prophetess) worked himself into a state of frenzy, in an effort to induce prophecy through bypassing rational processes. But even if they trigger an experience, that's still a figment of their own imagination. 
By contrast, the Spirit of God engages the mind of the prophet. The Spirit of God won't sabotage his own aims by fomenting mania. 
ii) There's a distinction between when a revelation is received and when it is delivered. Although a prophet can't control when God will speak to him, he doesn't have to prophesy as soon as he is given prophetic insight. He can exercise discretion and self-restraint in terms of when he reveals what was revealed to him. Wait for a suitable time to express himself. 
For instance, when the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, warning him to flee to Egypt with his wife and child, it wasn't necessary for Joseph to awaken Mary and tell her his dream. He could wait until morning. 


  1. Charismatics often interpret 1 Cor. 14:32 in the way you've suggested here. By way of application, they will teach each other that when someone. say in the pews, believes he is receiving a revelation he shouldn't disturb and interrupt the flow of the worship service by standing up and sharing it unexpectedly. That one has the control ( Gal. 5:23) to reserve it for a more appropriate time. Part of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control (Gal. 5:23) and that Christians are given a/the spirit/Spirit of discipline (2 Tim. 1:7).

    However, I now prefer another interpretation of 1 Cor. 14:32 that I heard from Steve Gregg. After holding to the usual charismatic view for a long time something his wife said made him view verse 32 to mean that the prophetic utterances of a claimed prophet are subject to the judgment and evaluation of the other prophets in verse 29.

    Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.- 1 Cor. 14:29

    "Subject to the prophets" would then mean "subject to the evaluation of the prophets."

    1. I believe the NT gift of prophecy is "inferior" to the office and prophetic ability of OT prophets. Also that NT Christians should be able to exercise self-control regarding the charismatic gifts (as I cited Gal. 5:22-23; 2 Tim. 1:7). However, in the OT there were times when some of the OT prophets seemed to have been so possessed by the Spirit of the LORD that they couldn't help doing some of the things they did. For example, how God compelled Ezekiel to such an extent that he often said that the "hand of the LORD was upon him." In at least one instance it was "strongly" upon him.

      Jeremiah said, "But if I say, "I will not remember Him Or speak anymore in His name," Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire Shut up in my bones; And I am weary of holding it in, And I cannot endure it."- Jer. 20:9

      Or think of the Spirit of the LORD coming upon Saul unexpectedly and uncontrollably to prophesy.

      So, I wouldn't rule out completely the possibility that the Holy Spirit might take control of a Christian this side of Pentecost. Speaking anecdotally, it's not uncommon to hear many testimonies of Christians who started speaking in tongues for the first time unexpectedly either while praying normally, or even unexpectedly waking up and speaking tongues for the first time. Sometimes when they were cessationists or didn't even know anything about the gift of tongues.

    2. The point is that a prophet can't will a revelation into being. Rather, God wills to reveal himself to a prophet, at a time of God's own choosing.

    3. That was your main point of the blog and I agree with it.

      Unfortunately, some charismatic practices imply that with enough training one can almost twist the Holy Spirit's arm to give them a prophetic utterance.

  2. I've collected most of Steve's recent posts on cessationism and continuationism in chronological order at the following blog:

    Steve Hays on Cessationism