The following is part of a discussion (not debate) between two friends, Sam Storms and C. Michael Patton, about the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. Sam is a Charismatic. Michael is not. If you have come in late, you can access the entire series here.
Thanks much for detailing your argument in such a way. I know this is something you have to do often for people like me, so I pray this conversation is not redundant. While I am desperately committed to this remaining a discussion and not a debate, this is the first response in the series where I find we have significant points of disagreement. I pray you will bear with me while I respond. And please know that while my response will cover some major points of disagreement, I do love you and hold you in the highest regard, seeing you as a great mentor in my life.
Let’s begin with your Charles Spurgeon quote. It is very interesting and often used among charismatics. First, let me say this. My current position of “soft cessationist,” or more simply, “non-charismatic,” is not a position against prophecy. I know that some people are. Some believe that any prophecy given today puts the “closing” of the canon of Scripture in jeopardy. But as I expressed before, this argument is not strong. I have read a lot of Spurgeon. As a matter of fact, after my wife and I got married, we would read a sermon of Spurgeon every night. I am not kidding – every night! When I told a mentor/professor about this, he responded, “As a newlywed couple, can’t you find something better to do at night?!” Wisdom or folly? Who knows. But back to my point: In all my reading of Spurgeon, I would not dare to say he was a charismatic (and I know you would not either), even if he had a prophetic experience here and there. Why? Because, as we defined at the beginning, the key points we are arguing are that God wants gifts such as prophecy to be 1) continuing, 2) normative, and 3) actively sought out. Having some divine revelation a few times does not qualify as evidence of any of the three, in my opinion. Although I am open to correction here, I think the following quote, from a sermon called “Receiving the Holy Ghost” (#1790 Vol 30, Year 1884, pg. 386, Acts 19:2), evidences that Spurgeon was at least a soft cessationist. (This probably is better placed in our coming discussion about the history of the charismatic gifts, but since you brought Spurgeon into the discussion, I think this is proper):
You know, dear friends, when the Holy Spirit was given in the earliest ages, He showed His presence by certain miraculous signs. Some of those who received the Holy Spirit spake with tongues, others began to prophesy, and a third class received the gifts of healing. I am sure that if these powers were given now you would all be anxious to possess them. You would want to be healing or to be speaking in tongues, or to be working miracles by which you would benefit your fellow men and glorify God. Now be it never forgotten that those works of the Holy Spirit which are permanent must assuredly be of greater value than those which were transitory. We cannot suppose that the Holy Ghost brought forth the best wine at first and that His operations gradually deteriorated. It is a rule of the kingdom to keep the best wine to the last; and therefore, I conclude that you and I are not left to partake of the dregs, but that those gifts of the Holy Spirit which are at this time vouchsafed to the church of God are every way as valuable as those earlier miraculous gifts which are departed from us.
As well, when I look at Spurgeon’s first revelation, frankly, it seems to take a rather legalistic cultural bent. He condemned a man for having his shop open on Sunday? To me this is not unlike the people who claim to have near death experiences and go meet God in heaven. Their description of heaven – streets of gold, gates of pearls, wings on people, etc. – are not biblical (in my opinion). Most of what they describe is nothing more than a representation of the unbiblical folk theology of their culture. I could be wrong here, but I tend to think Spurgeon’s culture believed that leaving your place of business open on Sunday was a terrible sin. However, Paul said let no one judge a person with regard to the Sabbath (Col. 2:6).
Concerning your third point, we agree in a very important way. You distinguish between prophecy and teaching God’s word. Many people will combine the two, believing they are essentially the same. Prophecy, as I said in my post, is supernatural and direct divine revelation that comes by various means.
You make a point to say prophecy is a “report” of divine revelation. I am fine with that – to a point. Where I can’t follow you right now is where you allow for the short-circuiting between the revelation and the report. You say, “prophecy is occasionally fallible.” That is a hard thing to wrestle with. Part of me says you are right. It is fallible. That is why God instructs us, in both the Old and New Testaments, to test the prophets (Deut 13:1-3; Deut 18:20-22; 1 Cor 14:32). Where I can’t follow you is when you say that a prophet can be wrong (i.e., deliver a false prophecy), yet this not be seen as sinful or destructive to the community of God. This is God’s word we are dealing with. Sam, you are in no way frivolous with God’s word. I know you well enough to see this. However, I don’t see how encouraging the church to embrace claims to divine revelation (contingent or not), which may or may not be from God, can be seen as anything other than frivolous. I can’t get over the idea that adopting this acceptance of failed prophecy is a dangerous carefree lack of seriousness concerning those who speak on behalf of the Creator of the universe.
In order to justify your position that one can have divine revelation (tentative or not) yet be fallible in its report, you give three steps that prophecy takes when it is given by God: 1) revelation, 2) interpretation of the revelation by a fallible person, and 3) application. Then you say something that I take as quite outstanding: “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 heard perfectly.” Therefore you say, “[T]he gift of prophecy does not guarantee the infallible transmission of that revelation.”
You must know where I am going to go with this, right?
This is the age-old debate about where inspiration lies. Speaking of the Scriptures, the reformers of the past and Evangelicals of today have fought hard for the final and absolute authority of the Scriptures. Our more liberal friends have sought to “save” Christianity by releasing the Bible of its status of being true in everything it teaches (inerrancy). Why? Because they feel that the Bible is hit or miss with regard to its accuracy in prophecy, history, and science. How do they do this? By doing the same thing you are suggesting. They create a short-circuit between divine revelation and human communication. They argue that because people are fallible, we should expect the Bible to contain characteristics of fallible man. The problem with this view is that it takes a very deistic view of God. In other words, God hands over the truth of the Scriptures to fallible men, then takes a hands-off approach to the communication of his revelation. Therefore, that which is true in the Scriptures is from God. That which is false is from man. God is relegated to being a cheerleader in heaven, hoping that man interprets and communicates his revelation clearly.
Now you, like me, do not take this liberal approach to Scripture. We believe that God is involved in both the giving and the recording of his revelation. Why? Because he is God. He is not going to go through the trouble to communicate his word, yet not care so much about whether it gets recorded correctly. Therefore we believe the very words of Scripture, every jot and tittle (Matt. 5:18). We even believe that the verb tenses recorded in Scripture are a perfect infallible representation of God (Matt 22:31-32). So when God communicates, he makes sure his communication gets to his people intact.
However, as ironic as it is to say, you seem to take an approach to prophecy that leans in the direction of deism. You do the same thing to divine revelation that those who are more liberal do to the Scriptures. You seem to short-circuit the revelatory process by relegating God to the heavens as a cheerleader. He gives his revelation to a person and then backs off, hoping it gets communicated correctly, but offering no guarantee that it will. I don’t even know how to respond to this idea that prophecy may or may not be true. This is kosher? If I applied this to Scripture I would not even bother reading it, much less obeying it. It is the same thing with this idea of a faulty prophet. “Here is a prophecy for you that I think might be from God. Caution: It may or may not be true. There is an asteroid coming to Edmond, OK that will destroy everything. Get all your possessions and move.” What do I do with that? I guess we can just hope that the prophecies people give are not so substantial. However, as we see in the New Testament, sometimes this is the type of prophecy given (Acts 11:28). Abagus prophesied about a great famine. What if the famine did not come? “Oh, sorry folks. I know you picked up your family, sold your business, loaded up your donkey and moved to Rome, but it’s okay. We sometimes get these things wrong. My bad.”
You seem to recognize this problem but quickly dismiss it by comparing prophecy to teaching God’s word. You say that someone can interpret and teach God’s word and be wrong, therefore a prophet can do the same: “The gift of prophecy,” you say, “may result in fallible prophecy just like the gift of teaching may result in fallible teaching.” However, I don’t see the relationship as tightly as you do. Certainly a teacher must be very careful. But a teacher is not claiming new divine revelation. The people know (or should) that the person teaching is fallible. But the key difference is that the teacher of the Bible is drawing from the same already-accepted-for-two-thousand-years-of-church-history revelation – the Bible. The prophet is claiming new revelation. The teacher is not. In teaching, the people have access to the same revelation the teacher does. In prophecy, the people have to just trust that what has been received and communicated is true. To make your parallel work, you would have to say that the teacher opens his sermon or lesson with this: “Today I am teaching from the Bible. God told me last night how to interpret this passage.” Therefore, the parallel idea of receiving divine revelation is intact. I do understand there are teachers who say things like this. They may say, “I was going to preach such and such a sermon, but last night God told me to teach this.” But I always encourage people to stay away from such language. The congregation or students should always be reminded that the teacher is fallible since he or she has not received divine revelation.
I agree very much with your statement that prophecy is for up-building and encouragement. Who wouldn’t? It is there in the text (1 Cor. 14:3). However, I wonder whether you see this as a new use of prophecy that was introduced in the New Testament. I don’t think I could go there. Whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament, people perish due to a lack of vision (Prov. 29:18; and this is not a vision of man, it is prophetic vision). To receive a word from the Lord, whether corporately or individually, is always encouraging. The prophets, whether from the Old Testament or New Testament, are the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). You say this:
I’ve often spoken with believers who, in spite of what they knew theologically to be true, felt as if God had forgotten them. Their prayers seemed never to be heard, much less answered. Then, often quite without warning, they received a prophetic word from a total stranger that could be known only by God himself, and their faith is bolstered and their spirit consoled.
I, personally, would love to hear from the Lord. I would love to hear a word about my mother or my dad. Just to hear the Lord say, “I know you’re suffering. Be strong and courageous,” would be a tremendous encouragement. I would probably begin to weep a great deal if I really believed it was from him. However, I must resist such encouragement for, as I said in my piece about prophecy, anyone can come and say that to me. As much as I would like to just believe it was from the Lord, the word of the Lord is too precious, no matter how uplifting the claim, to believe without any demonstration that the prophet had really heard from the Lord. Look to the prophets in the Old Testament who brought false words of encouragement to the people.
Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. 17 They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, “No disaster shall come upon you.”
These were nice, warm, encouraging prophecies that the people were eating up. However, they were false. They did not test the prophets and ended up disillusioned and in much trouble. I find this to be the case often with modern prophets who have messages of well-wishing and, “No disaster shall come upon you.” It is easy for our emotions to bait us into skipping any test due to the comfort the message brings. All of this to say I agree that prophecy is for encouragement, but the ability of a prophecy to encourage is not the test of its veracity.
Concerning your comments about those who say that if prophecy is continuing today then the canon is in jeopardy, you know that I agree with you; this is not a good argument. Certainly there were, both in Old Testament and New Testament times, prophecies that were given and received that never made the “canon cut.” The canon is not simply an agglomeration of everything God has ever said, but a definite and intentional record of salvation history. So, if the gift of prophecy is continuing today, there is no need for a argument that the canon is still open.
However, you do seem to make a distinction that I am not ready to follow you in. You say about prophecies that did not make the “canon cut”: “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?” Here you are beginning to make a distinction between the level of authority of Scripture and the level of authority of modern or New Testament prophecies. You are making an argument that both are prophecy from God, but one (i.e. Scripture) is more authoritative. I don’t understand your argument, which is primarily based on 1 Thess 5:19-22. To test the prophets, as I see it, would not be to filter out the good from the bad in the sense that Paul believed legitimate prophets or prophecy can contain truth mixed with error, but to test to see if they are legitimate prophets by following the steps already laid out in Deut 18 and Deut 13. We test the prophets because we are protective of God’s name. Therefore, no prophet or prophecy gets a free pass until the prophet or prophecy is tested. It he or she fails the test, this is a serious matter, as they have misrepresented the word of the Lord. I don’t think it is a, “Good try. You will do better next time,” type of thing.
Implied with all of this (and part of the case you are building) is this idea that New Testament prophecy (and, hence, modern prophecy) is of a lower, less-important status than it was in the Old Testament. Simply put, how can God’s word be less important than God’s word? How can true prophecy be less important than true prophecy? That would be like saying the Gospel of John is more authoritative than the Gospel of Matthew. I would agree if you merely argued that some of God’s revelation through prophecy is less relevant than other revelation, but this is not your argument.
You claim that some prophecy (i.e., God’s word) is less authoritative than other prophecy (i.e., God’s word). To further build your case, you say,
“[R]elated 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.”
I don’t see that at all. He is simply saying that prophecy must always submit to previously-established prophecy or already-established prophets. In other words, when the word of God has already been established (orthodoxy), further claims to speak on behalf of God must be established first by agreement with (or submission to) that which is already established. This is simply one of the two tests of a prophet that I spoke of from Deut 13:1-4. I certainly don’t see this as saying God’s word can be less authoritative than God’s word. It is about establishing something as God’s word.
Concerning Paul’s interaction with Christians in Tyre as described in Acts 21, this is indeed confusing, though I have much trouble coming to the resolution that you propose. You see two things: 1) Paul disobeyed the prophecy of the people who “through the Spirit” (Acts 21:4) were telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem since he would be arrested, and 2) that Agabus’ prophecy was not completely correct.
Concerning the first: your contention is that there was an actual prophecy given to Paul not to go to Jerusalem, yet Paul’s interaction with the Spirit, knowing he had to go to Jerusalem, took precedence over the prophecy of the people of Tyre (Acts 21:13-14). In short, the people prophesied that Paul should not go to Jerusalem and Paul prophesied that he should. I agree that this passage is problematic. But I don’t think it can carry the load that you place on its back. Essentially, you are saying that a legitimate prophecy can be more authoritative than another legitimate prophecy. God can disagree with God. I find it much better to agree with Richard Longenecker, who says that “through the spirit” should be taken as their revelation concerning God’s plan for Paul and “his new friends’ natural desire to dissuade him” (Acts, Expositors Bible Commentary, 516). This seems to be clarified in Acts 21:10-12 when Paul goes to Caesarea. Agabus gave the prophecy of Paul’s upcoming imprisonment. After this the people began to urge him not to go: “When we heard this (Agabus’ prophecy), we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:12). I would think it is better to see these as the same type of urgings given after they knew, “through the Spirit,” that Paul was to be arrested. I will admit that this is not the natural reading of Acts 21:4, but it does work and keeps us from having a rather awkward situation where God’s word contradicts God’s word.
Concerning the second: you believe that Agabus’ prophecy was “truth mixed with error” due to the fact that he said the Jews would bind Paul in Jerusalem, when in fact it was the Romans who bound him. Since Agabus was wrong and suffered no penalty, so you believe that we can be wrong and not suffer penalty. First, let me say again, this is a tremendous burden to place on such an obscure text. I think we need to follow St. Augustine’s principle of hermeneutics: never build doctrine from obscure texts. From this text you build a case that God is not quite as protective of his word as he used to be. Though in the Old Testament there was restriction after restriction concerning those who claimed to speak on God’s behalf, though God expressed this warning in one of the ten commandments (the third), now he is more tolerant of misrepresentation. Is it now less dangerous to misrepresent God? In the Church age, is it less likely to be abused? I don’t see it. In fact, I don’t think Agabus was wrong. Yes, he said that the Jews would bind Paul. Yes, it was actually the Romans that did it. However, by extension of culpability, it was the Jews that handed Paul over by instigating his arrest (Acts 21:27-32). All one has to do to see how this works is to look at Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2. Peter holds the Jews responsible for Christ’s crucifixion, even though it was the Romans who actually crucified Christ: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36; emphasis mine). Was Peter also wrong here? This was not a prophecy, but a historic account that Peter witnessed. Yet he uses the same type of language. Therefore, there is no reason to say that Agabus was wrong, much less build a theology which says that modern prophets can be wrong and it is not that serious.
In conclusion, I agree with your desire for God’s word. I long for it. We are greatly blessed to have it in the Bible. To have a prophet would be another blessing. Ironically, this issue is not a deal-breaker for whether or not prophecy has continued. However, it is very important to the modern Evangelical charismatic movement. From what I can tell in my studies (and I am open to being corrected), there are not many (if any) theologians of the past who have seen this distinction, believing that the New Testament prophets can be expected to fail. It seems this all started with Grudem’s dissertation The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament in 1982. Just as Richard Dawkins said about evolution, “Evolution made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” (which I disagree with), it would seem that Wayne Grudem made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled charismatic. It would seem that you need biblical permission for the gift of prophecy to be fallible, simply because in real life that is what you and I experience. I just don’t know how to respond to a fallible prophecy – how can it have any authority. I would imagine the track record of Christian prophets could conceivably be the same as the track record of non-Christian prophets and palm readers. Anyone can get some things right here and there. But the difference in our message and our God is that he reveals himself conclusively. Because he is truly God, his messengers will be perfect. If they are not, they are not from him.
In Isaiah 40-48, God’s mocking polemic to the nation of Israel who were following after other gods was that he was the only God who predicted the future and did so accurately.
And who is like Me? Let him proclaim and declare it; Yes, let him recount it to Me in order, from the time that I established the ancient nation. And let them declare to them the things that are coming and the events that are going to take place.
If you are right, this polemic is no longer valid. Isn’t this too much of a theological shift for your arguments to bear?