This is a common misrepresentation of the continuationist understanding of New Testament prophecy. Neither, Wayne Grudem, nor any continuationist who agrees with him, believes that God gives fallible revelation today. On the contrary, continuationists hold that all revelation given by God is perfect, both in its content and its communication. When continuationists speak of fallible prophecy, they are not describing the revelation that God deposits in the minds of his prophets, they are speaking about the utterances that are ultimately delivered by the prophets; after the infallible revelation has gone through the fallible process of comprehension, interpretation, application, and communication.
To understand how a perfect revelation could become imperfect upon transmission, one needs only to consider the gift of preaching. Most would agree that preaching is a Spirit-wrought and Spirit-empowered exercise, yet no one would ever dare say that preaching is infallible. Though preaching is derived from a perfect and infallible source, the message preached is never as perfect in its delivery as the source from whence the message is drawn. Think about the process a preacher must go through, from the point he selects a text to exposit, to the point where that exposition is communicated to his congregation. The text must be read, comprehended, interpreted, meditated upon, and converted into notes before the sermon is ever communicated to anyone orally. And each step in that sermon prep process is vulnerable to contamination. The Scripture the preacher selects may very well be infallible, but the preacher, his study methods, and his presentation of that Scripture is not. Preaching is a spiritual gift,1 wherein the preacher speaks the oracles of God,2 yet every preacher gets it wrong from time the time.3 So if the spiritual gift of preaching is fallible, yet there are no questions being raised over its usefulness in the church, on what basis are those questions being raised over the value of prophetic utterances; as fallible as those utterances may be?
In his autobiography, Charles Spurgeon writes,
While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said, "There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence! A city missionary, when going his rounds, met with this man, and seeing that he was reading one of my sermons, he asked the question, "Do you know Mr. Spurgeon?" "Yes," replied the man, "I have every reason to know him, I have been to hear him; and, under his preaching, by God's grace I have become a new creature in Christ Jesus. Shall I tell you how it happened? I went to the Music Hall, and took my seat in the middle of the place; Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but he also said that I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit out of it. I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul."4There are two notable things that Spurgeon recalls from his sermon. First, he communicates information about the shoemaker, which could only be known if it were supernaturally revealed.5 And the effect of this disclosure on the shoemaker was exactly what Paul taught the Corinthians would happen, when prophecy is rightly exercised in church gatherings;6 the shoemaker acknowledged that God was among them. Second, while Spurgeon’s prophecy resulted in the salvation of the shoemaker’s soul, his prophecy was mingled with error. Spurgeon said, “There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning” (italics mine). The Sabbath is not Sunday, it is Saturday. And whether Spurgeon merely used a culturally recognizable and accepted synonym for Sunday, or he wrongly believed that Sunday had replaced Saturday as the new Sabbath, the infallible revelation he received from God was contaminated by his error when it was delivered to the shoemaker.
In 1 Thes 5:19—21, Paul writes, “...do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” (NAS) What reason would the Thessalonians have to despise prophecies; and why would prophecies need to be examined, unless some of them had proven to be wrong in the past? It’s certainly possible that wolves had crept into the church and made false prophecies, and that is why the gift was despised (though there is not evidence of this in the epistle).7 However, it is just as likely that the failed prophesies had come from believers within the church. Further, if the prophecies had come from false brothers, it’s odd that Paul would only tell the church to hold fast to the good prophecies, without telling them what they ought to do with the people who had prophesied falsely.8 There is no direction given by Paul for how the church is supposed to respond to those who deliver a prophecy that fails the test.9 Elsewhere, in 1 Cor 14:29, Paul writes, “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” (italics mine, NIV) If prophecies given in the NT church were as infallible and authoritative as the prophecies given by prophets in the OT,10 why would prophecies need to be weighed by the congregation?11
In conclusion, cessationists misrepresent the continuationist position on revelation, when they suggest that continuationists believe that God delivers errant information to his prophets. Again, the continuationist position is that the revelation is perfect, but the cognitive abilities and the interpretive processes of the vessel, through whom God speaks, is not. Accordingly, there is no contradiction created when pairing infallible revelation with fallible prophetic utterances. Therefore, the objection may be disregarded because it fails to accurately understand the position it attempts to refute. Moreover, while there is nothing in Scripture which explicitly confirms the continuationist position,12 the fact that Paul installed safeguards to filter the good prophecies from the bad,13 while leaving no instructions for how a church is to respond toward those whose prophecies are proven inaccurate or imagined,14 plausibly suggests that errant prophecies were being delivered by genuine believers in the Apostolic church. Therefore, the objection may be regarded as disputable.
Return to first article in this series: Confronting Common Arguments and Objections to the Continuation of the Charismatic Gifts
<< Objection 2 Objection 4 >>
1 Rom 12:7—8↩
2 1 Peter 4:11↩
3 This says nothing of the hearers’ fallible interpretive process.↩
4 Charles Spurgeon, C.H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography: Compiled From His Diary, Letters, and Records (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1903), 226—227.↩
5 Some theologians have attempted to reclassify prophetic experiences, like Spurgeon’s, as something other than gift of prophecy. Pastor RW Glenn suggests “Edifying Impressions” — RW Glenn, “The Spirit of the Christian God Part 6: The Spirit of Generosity” [cited 3 Oct 2013]. Online: http://youtu.be/w5HMNvTsduA?t=20m28s
Phil Johnson purposes “Extraordinary Providence” — Phil Johnson, “Wretched Radio: Wretched Radio — Aug 18, 2011 — Hr. 2” [cited 3 Oct 2013]. Online: http://youtu.be/gF-OMBB_jZI
Richard Gaffin suggests “Spirit-prompted insight” — Wayne Grudem, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Robert L Saucy, C. Samuel Storms, Douglas A. Oss, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?: 4 Views. (Grand Rapis: Zondervan, 1996), 294.
However, each of these reclassifications fails to acknowledge and account for the information that was supernaturally transmitted to Spurgeon’s mind. Whatever name the experience is given, cessationists must contend with the information that God disclosed about the shoemaker; information that was otherwise unknowable. And if cessationists concede that God gave Spurgeon a revelation of his knowledge, then they no longer have a basis to continue their objection against post-Apostolic prophecy.↩
6 1 Cor 14:24—25↩
7 One would expect Paul to address the bad theology, which the prophecy would have contained (as he did in 2 Thes 2, concerning the “Coming of the Lord” [cf. Gal 1:8—9). It is far more plausible then, that the church had received an errant prediction, or a series of predictions, and was disappointed when the things that had been promised were not actualized.↩
8 One would expect Paul to address the bad theology, which the prophecy would have contained (as he did in 2 Thes 2, concerning the “Coming of the Lord” [cf. Gal 1:8—9). It is far more plausible then, that the church had received an errant prediction, or a series of predictions, and was disappointed when the things that had been promised failed to actualize. // Especially if Deut 18:20—22 were the prescription for how the church is to respond to those who prophesy falsely.↩
9 Those who introduced heterodox teaching into the church through a prophetic word (1 Cor 12:3; 1 John 4:1—3, 2:23), who refused to submit to correction and persisted in their error, would certainly fall under the rubric of false teacher; and therefore, the actions applicable to false teachers would be applicable to false prophets as well. // The only scriptures that the church is given regarding false prophecies, are those that have to do with false prophets who introduce aberrant theology into the church (Matt 7:15, 24:11, 24; 2 Thes 2:1—2; 2 Pet 2:1; 1 John 4:1—3). They say nothing of how the church ought to respond to someone who gives a false prediction, or who wrongly provides a-theological information. ↩
10 Can anyone imagine the prophet Micah telling the people of Judah to weigh what comes out of the mouth of Isaiah? Certainly, not. ↩
11 “1 Corinthians 14:32 says this, ‘And the spirits of the prophets are,’ what, ‘subject to the prophets.’ Do you know what that means? That even a prophet's got to subject his own spirit. Just because you've been called to be a preacher, it doesn't mean you don't have to subject yourself anymore. I'm not spiritual because I preach. I'm not even infallible. Verse 29 of 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Corinthians 14:29, look at what it says. ‘Let the prophets speak two or three and let others judge.’ Did you know that? Did you know that the prophets aren't even so infallible, they've got to have three people and somebody else judge who is right. Some people think just because they got the gift that settles it. No, sir, even the prophets had to check with two or three, work it out together and have somebody judge who was right. Gifts are no sign of spirituality. They are no guarantee that you're always right. Gifts are not always necessarily in connection with your own supposedly abilities or disabilities. And you can minister your gift in the flesh or you can administer your gift in the Spirit.” — John MacArthur, “The Gifts of the Body,” Grace To You, n.p. [cited 3 Oct. 2013]. Online: http://www.gty.org/resources/print/sermons/1311
Though MacArthur believes that the gift of prophecy is the gift of preaching, his exegesis and conclusions are correct. The gifts of preaching and/or prophecy are fallible.↩
12 Namely, that infallible revelation may be fouled by the prophets who deliver the revelation. // I will avoid writing about Agabus, since cessationists have reason to reject Grudem’s arguments. — http://thecripplegate.com/throwing-prophecy-under-the-agabus/ ↩
13 Paul instructs the Thessalonians to test prophecies, not the prophets. (1 Thes 5:20—21)↩
14 Cf. Deut 18:20—22↩