In this post, Adrian Warnock argues for his view that prophecy in the New Testament is far from infallible. Adrian's words are:
I believe the NT is clear that prophecy is far from infallible.
To respond to that we have to ask exactly what a prophecy is. Is it a word from God or isn't it. I have been re-reading Richard Gaffin's book, Perspectives on Pentecost, as a result of this debate and Gaffin offers the following definition of prophecy:
It is a revelatory gift; that is it brings to the church the words of God in the primary and original sense. Prophecy is not, at least primarily or as one of its necessary marks, the interpretation of an already existing inspired text or oral tradition but is itself the inspired, nonderivative word of God.
Now if I may have a moment of your time to explain how Gaffin writes, he is being unusually precise in this particular definition. Previously in the book he said that all Christians are prophets by definition because we are recipients of and speakers of the Word of God. Similarly, we are all charismatics because we have all received the charisma.
For the purposes of this discussion I'll point out Gaffin's emphasis on the fact that a prophecy is an original, primary, inspired, non-derivative Word of God.
In contrast Wayne Grudem's definition of prophecy is that it is a human report of something that God has brought spontaneously to mind. This is not inspired in the same way that Scripture is, and is not inerrant. This is what Adrian is getting at.
In his Systematic Theology on page 1057 Wayne Grudem has a graphic where there is an arrow marked revelation coming into the back of the head of a man and another arrow coming out of his mouth marked "prophecy" and defined as "report of the revelation." Thus, I suppose the process of going through the mind of the speaker in a sense dilutes the revelation and renders it fallible, though still prophetic.
There is a real sense in which Grudem's graphic is a picture of every man, not just the prophet. We are all recipients of revelation at all times. God is constantly revealing Himself to us through general and special revelation.
Theologians have traditionally distinguished between two kinds of revelation, or "words" from God. There is general revelation which is the general knowledge of God given generally to all men and made known in His work of creation. As to special revelation I'll refer to Louis Berkhof who uses the term "supernatural" to describe what others mean by "special."
It is supernatural when it is communicated to man in a higher, supernatural manner, as when God speaks to him, either directly, or through supernaturally endowed messengers.
Berkhof's definition is broad enough to encompass several different forms of special revelation, be they walking with Adam in the garden, theophanies, prophetic speech, a voice from heaven, the Bible, or the physical presence of Jesus.
All men at all times are receiving one or both kinds of revelation. All men receive general revelation and many receive special revelation through the Word of God. There is even a since in which unbelievers are recipients of special revelation as they receive the knowledge of salvation through the preaching of the Word of God. But, because they do not believe, it does them no good.
This debate about prophecy deals with Christians and their relationship to special revelation. The cessationist believes that God is no longer giving special revelation. The continuationist believes that God is still giving at least one, maybe some types of special revelation.
The charismatic believes that God has stopped giving inscriptured special revelation, but is still giving impressional special revelation. I don't know if they believe that God is still giving visions, theophanies or voices from heaven, but I doubt they do. Usually, these prophecies are "impressions on the mind," and are fallible.
The cessationist has a one-story kind of special revelation which is the primary, original, nonderivative Word of God, as Gaffin says. The charismatic has two-stories in his special revelation house - an upper story that would conform to Gaffin's description and a lower story of impressions on the mind that fallible.
It is the whole notion of fallible revelation that gives occasion for this debate. It is patently obvious to Adrian and others that God reveals himself in a fallible manner, and this is based on two assumptions. This is seen in the post I mentioned earlier by Adrian when he says:
Look, at the end of the day the cessationist has to explain why 1 Thess 5:19 is in the bible if prophecy in the NT times was always authoritive, or indeed how the Corinthian church could be in such a mess but still using the gifts, or indeed why Paul chose to ignore the advice given him not to go to Jerusalem? (italics mine).
Like Grudem, Adrian and others give two lines of evidence for fallible prophecy.
- Examples of inaccurate prophecies in Acts 21
- The existence of testable prophecies in I Thessalonians 5:19 and I Cor. 14:29
In speaking to the first line of evidence, that there are inaccurate
prophecies in Acts 21 I would point out that many of us look to the OT
prophet as a paradigm for
understanding the NT prophet. The OT prophet was one who assuredly
spoke the Word of God, with no fear of fallibility. Thus the prophetic
formula, "thus sayeth the Lord." The word of God that the Old
Testament prophet spoke was infallible. If an OT person claimed to be
a prophet and uttered a prophecy that was found to be fallible he was
worthy of death. Grudem introduces a new
class of prophet - one who speaks for the Lord without being able to
say "thus sayeth the Lord." And we have a NT gift of prophecy which
is of a lesser quality than the OT gift of prophecy, it is a fallible
In Grudem's view neiter the NT gift of prophecy nor the office of prophet have to meet the stringent requirements of the OT gift and office of prophet. On the surface of things it seems that in the New Testament era, an age of expansion of all the blessings of the kingdom we have a shrinkage in the quality and accuracy of the prophetic gift.
It does strike me as odd the way Grudem's view relates to the difference between the blessings of the old covenant and the new. Most traditional theologians see the old as the shadow and the new as the substance. In regards to the gift of prophecy, in Grudem's view it appears that the shadow-prophecy of the Old Testament is more substantive than the prophecy of the New. Certainly Grudem posits that the gift of prophecy is given to more believers in our day but it is a lower quality kind of prophecy.
To introduce this new fallible prophet Grudem first appeals to the
fallible prophecies of Acts 21. Acts 21:4 tells of an incident
involving the apostle Paul at Tyre:
The fact that Paul disobeyed this warning is supposed to be an evidence of fallible prophecy. This is what Adrian was referring to when he said cessationists have to explain why Paul ignored the advice given to him.
Adrian, and Grudem neglect to point out is that these words were not
identified as prophetic speech in the context, and the disciples at
Tyre who spoke them were not identified as prophets. The assumption is
that the words "through the Spirit," signifies that these were
prophetic words. I suggest it is very possible that the Spirit was
motivating these believers to speak words of love and concern for
Paul's safety rather than this being prophetic speech.
This takes on greater weight by moving a few verses down. After Paul and his companions left Tyre they came to Ptolemais where they stayed wiht Phillip who had four unmarried daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9). While there they met Agabus, of whom we hear in Acts 21:10-11:
10 After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”
In reference to Acts 21:4 I simply want to note that here in verses 9-11 we have particular people who are identified as prophets and in verse 4 the people were simply identified as disciples. The concerns they expressed in Acts 21:4 were not identified by Luke as prophetic speech, but in verse 10 the notation that Agabus was a prophet clearly marks his speech in verse 11 as prophetic speech.
Also, I think there is some significance to the fact that in verse 4 whatever speech is uttered is the speech of human beings ("they urged Paul"), whereas in verse 11 the speaker is identified as the Holy Spirit. In other words, there is nothing in the text that identifies verse 4 as prophetic speech, thus this is one fallible example of fallible NT prophecy.
It is this very prophecy of Agabus that is the second example of fallible NT prophecy in Grudem's view. Again, the prophecy was:
“The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”
Some believe this prophecy was fulfilled based on Acts 28:17:
But Grudem finds that:
"The prediction was not far off, but it had inaccuracies in detail that would have called into question the validity of any Old Testament prophet." (Systematic Theology, p. 1052)
Now please understand that Grudem is not arguing that these inaccuracies render this a false prophecy, they just make it fallible. Thus:
On the other hand, this text could be perfectly well explained by supposing that Paul had a vision of Paul as a prisoner of the Romans in Jerusalem, surrounded by an angry mob of Jews. His own interpretation of such a "vision" or "revelation" from the Holy Spirit would be that the Jews had bound Paul and and handed him over to the Romans, and is what Agabus would (somewhat erroneously) prophesy. This is exactly the kind of fallible prophecy that would fit the definition of New Testament congregational prophecy proposed above - reporting in one's own words something that God has brought spontaneously to mind.
Grudem uses words like "erroneous" and "fallible" to describe this prophecy and his basis is that it had "inaccuracies in detail."
To prove that this is a fallible prophecy based on inaccuracies in detail is the same kind of proof that skeptics offer to prove the fallibility of the Scriptures themselves. It was to address this notion that "inaccuracy in detail" proves "fallibility" that the framers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy wrote the following denial in Article 8:
We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.
I contend that just as it is wrong to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error tha are alien to its usage and purpose it is also wrong to evaluate prophecy this way. If the inerrancy of Scripture is not negated by a lack of modern technical precision, why would the infallibility of a prophecy be negated for a similar reason?
In Grudem's view the innacurracy in detail comes because the fulfillment of the prophecy did not line up exactly and precisely with the original statement of the prophecy. Because the fulfillment did not match the prediction exactly it is therefore fallible. Under such standards I wonder if the following prophecy of Jonah could be considered infallible.
Looking at the outcome of the prophesy, someone might want to say it was a little more than "not far off," and that it had a few inaccuracies in details since the city of Ninevah was not overturned in 40 days.
I would love to get into the details of the Jonah prophecy and how it bears on our discussion but this post is way too long as it is. May I suggest Richard Pratt's paper "Historical Contingencies and Biblical Predictions" for a detailed and highly nuanced explanation that does justice to the infallibility of Jonah's prophecy while dealing adequately with the issues raised by its outcome.
For now I will simply say that it is not the case that the Agabus prophecy "had inaccuracies in detail that would have called into question the validity of any Old Testament prophet." Rather it is the case that Grudem has erected a standard of technical precision which, if it renders the Agabus prophecy fallible, it would do the same for much of the other prophecy in the Bible.
So Grudem and Adrian fail to sustain their assertion that the prophecies of Acts 21 are fallible.
As to their second line of evidence, that the fact that these were to be tested proves their potential fallibility I will quote the main Scriptures they offer.
I Thessalonians 5:19 says:
And I Corinthians 14:29-32:
29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.
Adrian could also have been referring to I Corinthians 14:29-32 when he said:
Look, at the end of the day the cessationist has to explain why 1 Thess 5:19 is in the bible if prophecy in the NT times was always authoritive
Adrian is assuming that I Thess. 5:19 speaks of non-authoritative prophecies, but that is no where in the text. It only says that we are to not despise prophecies. Does this mean we are not to despise false prophecies? And it says that we are to test everything and only hold on to the good. I suppose Adrian means that some prophecies will fail the test of goodness. Though they have failed the test and are apparently not good they are apparently supposed to be accepted as genuine (though fallible) prophecies.
Similarly in I Corinthians 14 it says that prophets are to weigh the words of other prophets. It does not say what they are to do if these prophecies are found wanting. There is no mention here that, after being weighed, there are some prophecies that are still genuine though fallible.
It seems that, in Grudem's and Adrian's view, there are three kinds of prophecies - infallible (Scripture), fallible and false. I am sure that Grudem and Adrian would reject a false prophecy, but the merely fallible ones they would accept.
i have tried to show that the notion of fallibility cannot be proven from the Scriptures they offer in Acts 21. And as regards these prophecies in I Thess. 5 and I Cor. 14 neither passage tells us by what standard the prophecies are to be evaluated and what to do if they are not found to pass muster.
It seems that Paul assumed the Thessalonians knew how to evaluate these prophecies and what to do about false prophecies, so he didn't need to spell it out. Hence, the silence on those matters in those passages. But we are not without help in this matter. The Old Testament distinguishes between true and false prophecies and true and false prophets. It doesn't offer this three way thing with true, false and fallible. If it is fallible it is false and is to be rejected. I suggest we fill in the blanks that are left by I Thess. 5 and I Corinthians 14 with this data from the Old Testament instead of creating a new system.
The fallibility option leaves open the possibility for a gift of prophecy where sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don't. This isn't the biblical model. Prophets are either true or false, if they utter a false prophecy they are to be treated as a false prophet.
So, getting back to the statement that started this, I would answer my good buddy Adrian by saying the New Testament gives no warrant for thinking that prophecy is anything other than the primary, original, nonderivative Word of God, which of necessity is infallible.
As I bring this to a close I will again thank the reader for their patience in reading this horribly long post. And I will point out that, like Phil Johnson, I still haven't addressed the issue of cessationism. Adrian seems to know Phil better than Phil knows himself (maybe that's Adrian's gift of prophecy kicking in here) because he insists that, protestations to the contrary, Phil is talking cessationism.
Actually, what Phil and I are both talking about is the biblical definition of prophecy. We accept the traditional view of prophecy, that it is special revelation from God. I haven't and I am sure that Phil hasn't, seen an argument to dissuade us from this view and persuade us in favor of the nouveau "fallible prophecy" view.
And this is more than semantic games. Grudem and Adrian and others seem to want to protect the validity of their "spontaneous impressions" that they credit to the Holy Spirit. Although I put very little stock in such things I have said before that it is possible that, in His providence, God may use impressions to guide his people. Adrian and others have said that it is apparent that we are in agreement and are just using different terminology. In other words, I say providence, they say prophecy, it's semantic.
But semantics are vitally important here. In the Bible when someone uttered a prophecy they began or ended the prophetic saying with a "thus sayeth the Lord," or "the Holy spirit says" as in the case of Agabus. The Biblical prophet was doing so much more than offering his own interpretations of spontaneous impressions, he was speaking the very words of God.
When we call something "prophecy" that is really my own interpretation of some spontaneous impression we are giving a greater weight to that impression/interpretation than it can carry. The same applies when we use phrases like "God told me." Calling my own spontaneous (and subjective by the way) impressions prophecy escalates them in certainty and authority. There is a world of difference in the statements "I think God may be leading me," and "God told me." There is a world of difference in saying "I have an impression that I ought to do so and so," and "I have received a word of prophecy." In both of those examples, the first statement identifies me as the speaker and the latter identifies God is the speaker. If I use the first kinds of statements there is no authority to them, they are not binding, it is up to me whether or not I act upon them, and there is no harm no foul if it turns out my impression was wrong (unless I act on it unwisely). If I use the second kind of statement there is a binding authority to them which I must act upon.
And so I won't begrudge my charismatic friends their spontaneous impressions. I have met people who tell me of spontaneous impressions they have received and acted upon to great benefit, and I praise God for that. I have met others who regularly have spontaneous impressions that are completely off base and sometimes ludicrous, yet they believe them with all their heart because they are sure they are words from God, words of prophecy. But when you have your spontaneous impression, please just call it a spontaneous impression, not a word from God or a prophecy.