The Use of Prophecy
Earlier in the year John MacArthur’s ‘Strange Fire’ conference generated a lot of heat. In response to this The Gospel Coalition published two helpful articles, which we’ve previously linked to here: Sam Storms on ‘Why I am a Continuationist’ and Tom Schreiner on ‘Why I am a Cessationist’. If you haven’t previously given much thought to the subject, this is a great place to start.
A key text: 1 Corinthians 14:1
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy
Paul here gives a clear instruction to the Corinthians and it would be reasonable to assume that if this instruction no longer applies there should be an equally clear countermanding imperative. Throughout the chapters in 1 Corinthians concerned with the use of spiritual gifts, their practice and the pursuit of love are closely tied together. The logic of Paul’s argument is that if the command to love has not ceased, neither has the command to prophecy.
1 Corinthians 13:8 says prophecy will cease, but only ‘when the perfect comes’ (13:10). Often cessationists have argued that ‘the perfect’ refers to the completion of the canon, but this simply doesn’t stack up. Ciampa & Rosner’s superlative commentary on 1 Corinthians (Pillar, 2010) makes this plain: “The context (esp. v. 12) makes it abundantly clear, however, that the point at which Paul expects the gifts to pass away or disappear is when we see the Lord ‘face to face’ and ‘know [him] fully, even as [we are] fully known.’”
It seems to me that there are three broad responses we can make to Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians:
1. The ‘Strange Fire’ response
This is that Paul’s instructions to practice prophecy and spiritual gifts do not apply beyond the apostolic age. Exegetically, this is less than convincing, as Andrew has previously discussed here.
2. The Thiselton response
In his excellent commentary on 1 Corinthians (NIGTC, 2000) Thiselton argues for the historical Puritan and Reformed understanding of ‘prophecy’ meaning preaching: “Here prophecy amounts to healthy preaching, proclamation, or teaching which is pastorally applied for the appropriation of gospel truth and gospel promise, in their own context or situation, to help others.”
While this interpretation has a strong history it feels like special pleading – what Paul describes as prophecy is surely very different from what is normally meant by ‘preaching’.
3. The Continuist response
Surely the most straightforward way of handling 1 Corinthians 14:1, this response assumes the verse means what it says and we are to continue to desire spiritual gifts just as we are to continue to pursue love – in fact, part of the way in which we pursue love is in our desire for spiritual gifts.
Putting the continuist position into practice
Assuming the continuist response is a legitimate one, what might this look like in practice?
Firstly, it would mean that a failure to desire spiritual gifts and seek their operation in the church is to miss out on God’s intended blessing for us. As a continuist, this is my position. While recognising the many extremes and failings of many Pentecostals and charismatics, I am also convinced that the antidote for misuse is not disuse but proper use.
Four personal prophetic stories from my own experience might helpfully illustrate this proper use. Each one is a worked out example of 1 Corinthians 14:3, “The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding & encouragement and consolation.”
1. Moving to London and becoming a youth pastor
Twenty years ago I was in a meeting at which Carol Arnott prophesied over me that I would live in London and have an impact among young people. At the time I was living in Canterbury, had no desire to be in London, and no interest in youth ministry. However, a short while later I found myself serving in a South London church and eventually becoming the youth pastor and then heading up youth ministry for the Newfrontiers churches. Carol’s word was greatly affirming throughout this process.
2. Ugandan tongues
One time a member of our worship team sang out in another language during the Sunday morning service and I responded with what I believed to be the interpretation (1 Cor. 14:27). A Ugandan woman in the congregation told me after the service that what had been sung was a Ugandan victory song, to which I had brought an accurate translation. This was very upbuilding!
3. The naming of Gateway
When I moved to Poole the church I pastor was called Alder Road Baptist Church. For a number of reasons I thought it would be appropriate to change the name at some point but this happened much more quickly than anticipated when a Canadian prophet by the name of Keith Hazel came to town and spoke over some members of the church: “I believe God re-commissions you tonight to be a might army in the community, God wants you to touch Poole by the power of the Holy Spirit and be a gateway into the Kingdom of God.” As soon as I heard that prophecy the word ‘gateway’ leapt out at me, and the rest is history.
4. Eldership appointments
Last November we appointed three new elders at Gateway and at the ordination service a leader from another church brought a prophecy: “The picture I had was of a roof made up of thousands of shingles, each one of both the new elders and existing elders representing many of these shingles, which well laid in the hands of a master craftsman such as God have the most amazing patina and colour variations whilst making the most beautiful roof. I felt God was saying that he was growing the team by extending the roof and that you as a team were to focus on building the roof well and he would fill in the space under the roof by bringing in more and more people.” We now have a cedar shingle and the words of this prophecy framed on the wall of our office. It was a very encouraging prophecy.
Prophecy or illustration?
Commenting on a debate about prophecy between Doug Wilson and Adrian Warnock, Andrew Wilson observes, “Effectively, then, what we disagree about is not whether people hear from God today, but what we should call it when they do.” This is a helpful observation, and rather than black and white pronouncements about what is prophetic and what is not, it is sensible to acknowledge a prophetic spectrum. For example, sometimes a charismatic will ‘bring a prophecy’ and reasonably believe it is in response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, while the cessationist might reasonably believe it to be simply a helpful illustration or encouragement. The prophetic picture above concerning roofing shingles could come under this category. At other times a prophecy is much more obviously divinely given, such as in the example of a Ugandan song.
I would want to encourage everything on this prophetic spectrum, including ‘words of knowledge’ in which the speaker discerns something they could not possibly have known unless it was revealed by God. Illustrations, encouragements, preaching, and words of knowledge, all can be ‘prophetic’ and all should be pursued and practiced.
A practical safeguard in receiving such things as prophetic is that the more specific prophecy is, the more carefully it should be weighed. As the scripture says, “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess 5:20-21) Because we continuists do not see contemporary prophecy as carrying the same authority as scripture, there is no problem with rejecting what fails the test of scripture, without then dismissing prophecy as bunk. I think the New Testament gives us examples of exactly this.
Errant prophecy in the inerrant word?
There are a couple of examples in the book of Acts where it seems we have examples of prophecy which are clearly regarded as genuinely prophetic (i.e., from God) but are not completely accurate.
1. The case of Agabus:
Acts 11:28 is an example of prophecy that seems to be fulfilled as it was delivered: Agabus prophecies about a famine, and that famine then happens. However, in Acts 21:10-11 Agabus gives us an example of prophecy that was fulfilled, but not in its details. Agabus was correct that Paul would be handed over to the gentiles, but incorrect about him being bound hand and foot by the Jews. Commenting on this Schreiner says: “Agabus didn’t make a mistake in prophesying that Paul would be bound by the Jews and handed over to the Romans. To say he erred demands more precision than prophecies warrant.” But this ‘precision’ is exactly what cessationists so often demand of continuists!
The cessationist argument often goes that if prophecy is genuine prophecy it must be inerrant prophecy, in which case precision is key. This then creates a very circular cessationist argument: if such prophecy occurs, does it not then carry the same authority as inerrant scripture? But the canon cannot be added to. Thus there cannot be prophecy.
For the continuist, the obvious solution to this problem is that it is fairer to recognize that Agabus ‘prophesied in part’ (1 Cor. 13:9). This is an example of prophecy that is genuine prophecy, but prophecy that does not carry the same weight as inspired scripture. It is the same kind of prophecy that we should ‘eagerly desire’!
2. Paul & the Spirit
Before Agabus prophecies about Paul being handed over to the gentiles, Paul had already “resolved in the Spirit” (Acts 19:21) and was “constrained by the Spirit” (Acts 20:22-23) to go to Jerusalem and then to Rome. Yet, “...through the Spirit [the disciples in Tyre] were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4). Later on Paul states that an angel told him he must appear before Caesar (Acts 27:22-26). This might all seem somewhat contradictory – as a friend put it to me, “Someone was wrong—because they couldn’t both be right.”
For the continuist, this really isn’t a problem. In this case, clearly Paul was responding to the leading of the Spirit, and by the Spirit the Tyrian disciples were seeing something of Paul’s fate, also by the Spirit, even while their application was wrong. In that sense they were both right, even while some of the details were muddled. So we have here an example of the need to test prophecy, not a reason to abandon prophecy – which is exactly the position the responsible continuist takes.
I want to see more prophecy. I need more upbuilding, encouragement and consolation, and so does my church. I also want to avoid wackiness and anything that takes our eyes off Jesus. I want the Bible to be held up as our final authority and guide. These desires are not mutually incompatible – if they were Paul would never have told the charismaniac Corinthians to keep pursuing spiritual gifts. Love and prophecy: it can be a powerful combination, and it can be our experience.