Nate Bostian on Prophecy
Nate Bostian is a friend and conversation partner of mine who lives and ministers in Coppell, TX. He recently wrote a response to an article on another blog which I thought would be a good follow-up to my post regarding the prophetic aspect of youth ministry.
Most, though I am very glad that not all, of the people who I know read this blog come from a Stone-Campbell Restorationist heritage. If you fall in that category you are likely going to be very familiar with the arguments against the modern day existence of authentic spiritual gifts such as prophecy, tongues and the like. For that reason I’m not including any reference material that Nate was originally responding to, outside of the introductory references that he himself mentions. I hope that this sparks some helpful and healthy discussion.
Our “fundy friends” over at Fide-O (www.fide-o.blogspot.com) just put up an article questioning the validity of the contemporary use of the gift of prophecy, and hinting at a Cessationist position regarding spiritual gifts. Check it out at Oops…
This article presents some GENUINE problems with the use and abuse of the gift of prophecy and some SERIOUS questions about what to do with the “miraculous” gifts of the Spirit. Specifically, Fide-O has some serious questions about the view of prophecy propounded by the “Charismatic Calvinist” Systematic Theologian Wayne Grudem. Furthermore, it has links to some other really thoughtful blogs written to question the abuse of the gift of prophecy. So, I write this blog not as a slam on them, but to genuinely
deal with some issues regarding the gift of prophecy.
In commenting on this I want to first be honest about the baggage I come to this subject with: When I “got saved”, I came to Christ in a Bible-Church environment and was mentored by a DTS dispensationalist (cessationist) pastor. So, I was taught (and believed) the ministry of the Spirit was truncated since the close of the NT canon. But, then I dated a girl who’s father was an Assemblies of God pastor and a professor of microbiology (and who had lots of friends on faculty at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary). After being around these guys, arguing with them, and seeing the Spirit at work among them, I went Charismatic. I experienced the power of the Spirit in tongues, healing, exorcism, and, I believe, prophecy.
It was at that time that I received my first systematic theology, which was Wayne Grudem’s. Fell in love with it, and soon started reading systematic theologies from all denominational stripes. I have tried to read all the major contemporary and classical systematic theologies written by every major denominational or theological camp, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Dispensationalists, Catholics, Orthodox, Emergent, Calvinist, Arminian, Anglican, and the rest. But, fast forward ten years. I am an Anglican evangelical charismatic Christian with emergent sympathies. I know this may not make me welcome in some people’s theological camps, but that’s the baggage I bring.
The first thing to say is that Jack Deere’s “Surprised by the Power of the Spirit” is probably the most effective book I have ever read to speak to cessationist, dispensationalist concerns. Granted, it is a much maligned and critiqued book, probably because Deere is a “traitor” as former faculty at DTS who “switched sides”. This doesn’t mean I follow him in everything, but I think he is a good start.
The second thing to say is that I have not read Grudem’s chapter on prophecy and tongues in the last three years, but from the several times I have read it, this is the interpretation I got from it. For him, prophecy today is derivative from, and contingent upon, the canonical content of Scripture. Scripture forms the boundaries within which fresh revelation works today, so that prophecy today cannot become new canonical material. Contemporary prophecy cannot be its own boundary, nor can it become part of the ruler which measures it. I could be wrong (and I could just be describing my own view, not Grudem’s), but I don’t feel like reading the chapter again tonight.
One of the admitted problems Charismatic / Pentecostal theologies of the Spirit is that there is a lack of terminological precision as you move from author to author. This happens when theologians are trying to clarify a new aspect of systematic theology that has not been clarified before. For instance, it took the early Church 300-500 years to attain terminological clarity in how to speak of the Trinity and the Incarnation. We are only 100 years into the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit, and people are searching for the right words to describe what the Spirit is doing. Different authors use different words to describe what the Spirit is doing. What Wayne Grudem speaks of as “prophecy” is what many charismatics (including myself) would consider a “word of knowledge”. Here is how I see the “miraculous” gifts of speaking / knowledge in 1Co 12:4-11:
+ Word [logos] of knowledge: A Spirit-given knowledge of a fact about someone or something that you could not have humanly known.
+ Word [logos] of wisdom: Knowing how to apply God’s Word in a situation and solve it with God’s wisdom.
+ Discernment of Spirits: A Supernatural knowledge of what types of spirits are at work in certain situations and people.
+ Prophecy: Speaking forth God’s Word powerfully and enthusiastically in a way that opens people’s hearts and minds.
These gifts may function together or separately. Prophecy is thus more of an empowerment for effective proclamation than it is a gift of new knowledge. As such, prophecy is uniquely practiced in anointed, powerful preaching (something most Evangelicals know a bit about). Yes, prophecy is a “blanket term” that covers all anointed utterances, so that technically Words of knowledge and wisdom, as well as discernment, are all considered prophecy. But, I like to speak of the “Word of Knowledge” as the specific gift of new knowledge, whereas prophecy is the empowered, effective utterance of knowledge, whether that knowledge is from natural or supernatural means.
A Word of Wisdom is a Spirit-inspired “lightbulb” that goes off over the head when the solution to a problem is suddenly and unexpectedly given. The Word of Wisdom is dependent and contingent upon Scriptural principals as they are applied to a unique situation.
It is only in a Word of Knowledge that a truly “new” revelation is given as an impartation of knowledge that is outside of the normal ability of the knower. I know that the cessationist argument here is: IF some “words of knowledge” are fallible THEN all “words of knowledge” are suspect. IF they are suspect THEN they can’t be the work of a perfect God and THEREFORE they have ceased. Combine that with some eisegesis into 1Co 13 and related passages, and you get the cessationist argument.
But, let’s flip the logic for a second. It is clear that at least sometimes people are given true knowledge about events and things that they could not humanly know about. Not all “supernatural knowledge” turns out to be fake. If this knowledge does not come from the Spirit, are we to attribute ALL of these occurrences of true knowledge to Satan? Are we to say that the only force in the world revealing supernatural knowledge is the demonic? Surely, if something is revealed that is “good, excellent, and praiseworthy”, and is coherent with Scripture, then it must be of God.
The way I see it, we are left with three choices about supernatural knowledge: 1. We can deny any and all occurrences of supernatural knowledge and explain them away as strictly natural phenomena (such as scams, insanity, chance, etc.) But, this sounds a lot like naturalist arguments against the existence of God. It also assumes that every one of the millions of people who report such knowledge are either in error or lying. This simply is untrue and overstates the case dramatically. Even if only 1-5% of supernatural knowledge claims are legit, you are still dealing with thousands, if not millions, of such claims per year.
2. We can say that the only force that gives supernatural knowledge is Satan and his demons, who are attempting to turn our eyes from Christ. Then there is the problem of all of the supernatural knowledge that leads people to Christ. I have heard several stories from missionaries about how Christ appeared to unreached peoples in dreams to prepare them to receive the Gospel that the missionaries later brought. What are we to do with claims such as this? Is this the work of Satan? I have had knowledge of people’s
lives and pastoral issues before, and I have no idea where the knowledge came from. It just happened to me. Is this Satan?
3. We can say that claims of supernatural knowledge are a mix of (1) hoaxes and false reports; (2) the work of deceiving spirits; and (3) the work of the Holy Spirit. But, in order to discern which is which we need two things: Extensive Biblical knowledge and a spiritual gift of “discernment of spirits”. That is how it all ties in.
But, if a true “Word of Knowledge” is a fresh revelation from God, why should it NOT be included in Scripture? First, Scripture is the foundation that such “words” are built on, and the ruler to measure these “words”.
Since something cannot be its own foundation nor its own ruler, these “words” cannot and should not become canonized. There is simply a difference in purpose between modern revelation and Scriptural revelation. Scripture is given as the source of data, the constitution for the Church. Modern revelation is given to help us interpret the data and apply its principals to the situations we find ourselves in. Furthermore, modern revelation may be given to reveal the situations themselves.
On a more practical level, as I have seen “Words of Knowledge” function in the local faith community, they are simply not Scripture-quality revelations. They are usually about issues that are very particular to
specific people at specific times and would not be edifying or generalizable to God’s people at large. For instance, I know of several times in the midst of healing ministry that someone got a “word” from the Lord that a healing had occurred. After a doctor’s visit, the “words” were confirmed. But these are hardly worth canonizing into a “third testament”. Should we put an entire appendix in the Bible of the thousands [or millions] of times that “On _______ date the Lord told _______ through ________ that they were healed of _____. They went to the doctor and behold, it was so!”?
I am not saying every so-called “Word from the Lord” is genuine, nor that every wack job on TBN is validated by claiming the gift of “prophecy”. I am saying exactly what Paul is saying: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good.” (1Thes 5:19-21). In fact, I find it interesting how the cessationist argument usually shoots itself in the foot by using Paul to try and prove their point. All of Paul’s discourses on prophecy (and tongues) were written to POST-APOSTOLIC churches! The Churches in Rome, Corinth, and Thessalonica had already been planted by the Apostles and thus no longer had “need” of sign gifts to validate the ministry of the Apostles. Yet, Paul gives them instructions because the Spirit was still being poured out on these people in miraculous giftings AFTER the Apostles left.
So, why is the modern gift of prophecy prone to fallibility? For the same reason that despite the best Biblical scholarship, despite the best computer programs, and despite the indwelling of God’s Spirit, we still have writing, teaching and preaching that is in error. The reason is sin. The fact of errant prophecy does not negate the power of the Spirit any more than error in ANY part of the Church negates the power of the Spirit. It is a real slippery slope to say that if there is error in something that the Spirit can’t be at work in it. If we say this and really mean it, we have to either (a) say the Spirit is absent from the Church because the Church is filled with errors large and small, or (b) say that our particular church body has no errors in teaching or preaching. Both of these positions are ludicrous and held by very few.
The most realistic (and dare I say Biblical) view is to say that the Spirit is always at work bringing good out of bad, light out of darkness, and truth out of error. This goes for preaching, teaching, evangelism, and prophecy. So, we are back to Paul: “Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good.” Let’s even use your favorite modern Christian author as an example (mine is CS Lewis). In thinking about your author, would you agree that parts of his or her books were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? Would you agree that portions are also factually and theologically accurate? If you believe your favorite author’s writing is both inspired and accurate, what stops you from printing it out and adding it to your Bible?
It’s instinctive and self-explanatory. You know what separates your modern Christian writing from being Scripture. This is the very same reason that the modern gift of prophecy, even if it is truly inspired and accurate, is still not Scripture quality. Modern teaching, preaching, and prophecy are derivative, not foundational. They are measured, not the measuring stick. They are the application of Biblical principles, not the principles themselves.
Hope that helps. Criticism is always appreciated… I’m sure there’s some
inconsistencies in there somewhere.
May Christ fill your life,