Thursday, October 24, 2013

The "Hot Mess" of Modern Day Prophecy

I'm glad that Stephen Altrogge wrote his latest blog post over at The Blazing Center. The post is titled "How the Heck Does Modern Day Prophecy Work?" and the reason I appreciate the post is not that I am a Charismatic and want to know the best way to hear from the Lord. I am decidedly un-Charismatic and already know how to hear from the Lord (hint: the Spirit working through the Word). The reason I appreciate the post is that it is absolutely clear, and to a fault. I say to a fault because the post makes plain the agonizingly obvious problems with a form of prophecy in a protestant context that insists on retaining the principles of sola scriptura.

"Prophecy Is Not New Revelation About God"
Altrogge is trying to be balanced. He insists, in order to safeguard sola scriptura, that "Prophecy is never, ever, ever new revelation about God." Commendable. But what is it, then? Altrogge: "[M]odern day prophecy is God-given insight into specific circumstances which could not be known otherwise and which in turn enables a person to bring God’s word to bear on those circumstances."

Notice that he says it is not new revelation about God. But it must be new revelation from God. As I understand it, men like Wayne Grudem don't even like using words like "revelation" to refer to these "insights," (he insisted on this, repeatedly, in a public debate with Richard Gaffin some years ago) and one could certainly understand why. In a protestant, sola scriptura context, if you say that you've received new revelations from God, you're going to get punched in the nose by Martin Luther (with every other non-Anabaptist, Marcionite, or Montanist standing in line behind him). If you try to stop them by saying, "No, no, no... I did receive a new revelation from God, but it wasn't about Him, it was about me," they're still probably not going to pull their punches.  Altrogge is being careful, but not careful enough. And even if I try to be charitable and say, "Okay, it's not 'revelation,' I'll just call it 'insight' for the sake of discussion," this doesn't seem to help things much. After all, he's still hearing new words that were "not known otherwise" (how is this not Ἀποκάλυψις?) from a God who has already given his moral will and committed it absolutely and infallibly in the writings of the Apostles and Prophets. The maneuvers in place here to safeguard sola scriptura are absolutely inadequate.

What's The Point?
But even the practical results of this sort of attempted half-measure prophecy end up being impractically unhelpful. He gives the example of a woman who had a vision, and the vision ended up showing Altrogge, during a particularly difficult and tumultuous period, that "God will lead us one step at a time exactly where we need to go." Now, I am happy that Altrogge found something helpful or edifying on a personal level from this, but I am absolutely confused how someone would not learn the same principle from Scripture? Or from common experience? This woman did not need to come to them with the authority of God behind her for them to know that God doesn't tell us everything we need to know at once. The Bible says "thy word is a lamp unto my feet," not that it is a lamp unto "the road that leads ever onward." My point here is not to demean this person or the value that hearing this had for Altrogge, but simply to say that if this is the best that "modern day prophecy" can do for the church, then it would be better to just learn Scripture better (reading Deut. 29:29 ought to do the job) or pick up Poor Richard's Almanac once in a while. He even seems to understand this in a later section of his post when he says, "I don’t make major life decisions based on prophecy, I make major life decisions based upon the Bible." What good is a prophecy that you can't even take seriously? I mean, seriously!

"Prophecy Is Not Infallible"
Elsewhere, he speaks of the fact that prophecy is not infallible. He says that "If a person prophesies something which contradicts the clear revelation of God’s word I immediately discard it as false." That's a great principle. But what about prophecies that don't clearly contradict God's word? I remember clear as day, I had a friend who played for me a cassette tape of a recording from his church. In this recording, a "prophet" was speaking a prophecy over my friend and his wife. Their marriage was on the rocks. She had cheated on him, he had tried and tried to repair their marriage for years, and they needed encouragement. I listened to the audio of this prophecy, and this man, claiming to speak for God, told them that God was going to draw them back together and that God was going to repair their marriage and use her to minister to women all over the world. It has been 12 years since that prophecy. They are divorced, he is remarried, living on the opposite side of the country from his ex-wife, and she is carrying on a decade-plus long affair with a married man. The prophecy could not have been more wrong. He is remarried. Their marriage is over. In Israel they would have thrown rocks at that "prophet" until his brain stopped telling lies. What good is simply holding a prophecy up to Scripture in order to decide if it is true or not? Here's the answer: It isn't. Simply not contradicting Scripture is not the same thing as speaking truth on behalf of God.

Another problem with this principle that prophecy is not infallible is in the principle itself. Just say it out loud: "Prophecy is not infallible." The principle is not "We don't always know, perfectly whether God is speaking in a particular instance." The principle is that "prophecy is not infallible." Think about it: "Words from God can be wrong." And then he does the same thing I have heard Wayne Grudem say: that Agabus made a false prophecy in Acts 21:10-12. This is a nightmarishly uncharitable reading of Agabus' prophecy. It is far more charitable to understand Agabus' words as being a conditional prophecy (of which there is certainly precedent in Scripture) and not a wrong prophecy from a true prophet (of which there is certainly no precedent in Scripture).

Another problem with this principle is that it posits Agabus as using this newer form of "fallible prophecy" before the Apostolic era of spiritual gifts has ended. Even Altrogge sees a difference between prophecy "back then" and "modern day prophecy." And yet he is treating Agabus, in his failed prophecy, as if he were a modern prophet coming up to someone after church for a word of "insight." Agabus is called "a prophet," not merely an average Christian who sometimes gets a bit of insight here and there. As mentioned before, for a prophet to prophecy wrongly would have meant getting stoned (and not in the Bob Dylan sense of the word). We know when the food laws were done away with (Acts 10), but when does Altrogge (or Grudem for that matter) think the bar for prophecy was dropped so embarrassingly low?

Concluding Thoughts
I like Altrogge. I read his blog. I prayed for him during his transition from being a pastor. I care about him and respect him. But let's face it: this modified form of prophecy that has been toned down to conform with sola scriptura is an inadequate half-measure. It neither benefits the church, has precedent in Scripture, nor safeguards the sufficiency of Scripture. In fact, in order to establish its own precedent it has to say that God can inspire wrong prophecy.


  1. Dear friend,

    Thanks for this post interacting with Altrogge's thoughts. If I may, I'd like to interact with yours.

    I completely agree with your statement that God "has already given his moral will and committed it absolutely and infallibly in the writings of the Apostles and Prophets.”

    When you move into your section on “What’s the Point?” you recount Altrogge’s illustration and you say "Now, I am happy that Altrogge found something helpful or edifying on a personal level from this, but I am absolutely confused how someone would not learn the same principle from Scripture? Or from common experience?”

    Please forgive me, but you seem to downplay the importance of the edification he experienced. God deeply loves His people and is in fact called “the God of all comfort.” Further, what you say makes sense. It’s logical. However, often our logic doesn’t lead us where Scripture does. And it is precisely for the purpose of encouragement that we are told prophecy is given. In 1 Cor. 14:3 Paul says: "3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.”

    Now that is interesting isn’t it? What if God in His kindness sovereignly ordained to give gifts of prophecy to His people (among many other various gifts) to sweetly upbuild, encourage, and console them?

  2. Later on in that paragraph you quote Altrogge as saying, "I don’t make major life decisions based on prophecy, I make major life decisions based upon the Bible.” Then you add, "What good is a prophecy that you can't even take seriously? I mean, seriously!”

    In this instance I believe you make the mistake of conflating the two types of prophecy found in the Bible and this continues in your article throughout. From the Old Testament to the New we see Authoritative Prophecy and then non-authoritative prophecy. Consider the many examples in the OT where it is mentioned that men or even groups are prophesying, yet, amazingly, no one seems in earnest to write all that prophecy down. Why? I propose that it is because these were not Authoritative Prophecies. These people weren’t specially called by God to the particular office of an Authoritative Prophet. Your line can be echoed “What good is a prophecy that you can’t even take seriously?” On the other hand, God has also graciously called and Authoritatively spoken through his Prophets. This we write down. This we listen to. This we stake our very lives on. It seems already in the OT that there is, strangely I admit, two different levels of prophecy. Often, I find that our concept of prophecy is so colored by the Authoritative type that we can hardly conceive of any other kind. And yet, we see it in Scripture. Moving to the NT, God’s mightiest and truest prophet of all arrives on the scene, Jesus Christ who not only speaks truth but is the Truth. And then through Him God calls a few more Prophets who are found to be none other than the Apostles. The words of Jesus, the true Prophet, and the words of His Apostles are words we listen to, we stake our lives on, we live by. However, once Jesus is raised from the dead what does He do? He fulfills the prophecy of Joel 2 and pours out His Spirit on all His people. He fulfills the wish of Moses even earlier. Are all then Authoritative Prophets? No, and they are never seen as such. Are many given the gift of non-authoritative prophecy that was already seen in places in the OT? Yes. Even later on in 1 Cor. 14 Paul seems to think that there will be multiple prophets present in a meeting in Corinth and when they receive revelations what does he tell the church to do? Write it all down because it is Authoritative? No, he commends them to good order so that they can be edified and even mentions that if a revelation is given to one prophet, while another is speaking, that the first should be silent. Now, if they were giving Authoritative Prophecy, that would be strange wouldn’t it?

  3. Finally, I feel the pain of many cessationists. You want to uphold the sufficiency of Scripture. You want to preserve the unique authority of Prophecy. I certainly do as well. But, again, I ask you to consider whether or not you are conflating something that Scripture splits apart. I too strictly hold to the sufficiency of Scripture. And because of that I hold to a belief that God sovereignly gifts some of His people with the gift of non-authoritative prophecy. The purpose of this prophecy isn’t to be a new Authoritative Word, but to upbuild, encourage and console. I actually think that many who believe in this non-authoritative prophecy make a similar mistake of conflating the two different types as I mentioned above. These people pattern the way they introduce these non-authoritative prophecies in like manner to the Prophets of old… “Thus saith the Lord.” This should never happen. Further, they begin to speak only of future events. Their prophecy becomes predictive. I think this again conflates the two. The non-authoritative prophecy isn’t depicted primarily as predictive but as, again, upbuilding, encouraging, and consoling.

    So, what’s the upshot? If we are seeking to be obedient to Scripture then I can find no other position than one that, against all seeming logic, on the one hand upholds and adheres to the Authority of the God-Breathed Words of Scripture and on the other hand believes, yea, even seeks after, a non-authoritative form of prophecy for the edification, encouragement, and consolation of God’s people.

  4. Bentley, thank you for your kind tone and your pleasant demeanor. It makes dialoguing about these sorts of things easier. More light, less heat and all that.

    It seems like the real meat of your objection to my objection lays in this one question: Is there a new category of unauthoritative prophesying? If there is, then I owe some apologies. Stephen (and Grudem) use Agabus as their model. You don't exactly jump to their defense at that point, and you don't have to, but it might be the clearest example of this sort of thing if it was happening.

    Instead you offer the example from 1 Corinthians 14. I don't find this as an example of unauthoritative prophecy to be compelling for one primary reason: Scripture doesn't give us grounds for a new category of prophecy. You're giving me an example that doesn't necessarily lead one to the conclusion that these prophecies aren't authoritative. After all, Paul basically is saying "Speak one at a time." This does nothing to indicate a diminished authority to the prophecies that were happening at the time of the early church. Aside from Agabus and 1 Cor. 14 (and the general sense that many people in the early church were prophesying), do you see any solid grounds for thinking that people were making prophecies in the NT that did not carry the authority and infallibility of God Himself?

    If you're perceptive, you'll see that I'm putting the onus on you (or Stephen). A new category of unauthoritative prophecy certainly should be established from Scripture, and I hope you'll appreciate that.

  5. Hey Adam,

    Thanks for taking the time to reply. Briefly, in regards to engaging with the story of Agabus, I came to the conclusion for my continuationist belief exegetically because of 1 Cor. 12-14 and find in general that narratives are a little more difficult to build a doctrine on. Certainly, finding the doctrine substantiated in the epistle of 1 Cor. I am happy to look back and consider that Agabus was probably a man with this type of non-authoritative gifting, but I don't think that is where the root of the argument is found.

    Back to my distinction of two types of prophecy and the onus put on me. I thought that I did try to demonstrate in brief fashion that Scripture seems to demand a view that sees two types of prophecy in both the OT and the NT.

    A brief question would be in regards to Paul's two exhortations that buttress 1 Cor. 14:

    1 Cor. 14:1: 4 "Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy."

    1 Cor. 14:39-40: "39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order."

    Let's take the argument that there was and is only one type of prophecy in Scripture, that of Authoritative Prophecy. Thinking about the office Authoritative Prophet or Apostle and how it was always God who initiated the calling and installing of those people to that Authoritative office, wouldn't it be quite peculiar that Paul would twice here urge the Corinthians to earnestly desire that they may have that? In essence he would be saying "earnestly desire to Authoritatively Prophesy" or "earnestly desire to be an Authoritative Prophet." I'm not saying that this would be impossible, it just seems highly unlikely given how those in such offices in history were always called and initiated with by God. Also, I'm not sure that such an exhortation to pursue and desire such a gift and office has any precedent in Scripture. It's curious that apostleship is never listed as a spiritual gift nor are Christians urged to pursue it, and yet prophesy is.

    I find it difficult to sustain a view from 1 Corinthians that doesn't see some type of prophecy continuing.

  6. Well, this is the part where we start grinding up against the old cessationist/continuationist debates of old that aren't quite unique to Altrogge's article or my response.

    In terms of trying to establish this new class of prophet from the OT, you seem to argue that because they weren't writing down all of the prophesying that was done in groups, that shows that they didn't consider what they were saying authoritative. All that this demonstrates, though, is that they didn't write it down. Surely not everything that God's prophets say have been written down? Even words from God were not all written down (consider in the NT that not everything Jesus says was committed to writing).

    Your appeal to 1 Cor. 14:1, 39-40 doesn't give us any reason to think that these things are still taking place. Certainly at the time, Paul wanted the Corinthians to pursue these things, I'll grant that much. But even if we granted that this was taking place today, in the way that Altrogge describes, we still have the problems that I raised in terms of establishing a form of prophecy that - to be crude - I don't have to listen to, and can even disregard. I still need to see an example of a prophecy in Scripture that comes from God but a Christian can just straight-up ignore.

    Also, your observation that Apostleship and Prophetic office are not the same thing is very accurate, but it doesn't have any bearing on whether they could co-exist. Clearly they could. The prophecies don't have to be un-authoritative in order to exist alongside of the leadership of the Apostles. After all, what differentiated the prophets from Apostles? The Apostles had been with Jesus, seen Jesus, seen his teaching, and learned at his feet. The prophets in the early church did not enjoy this luxury and never pretended to, as far as we can tell.

  7. Question in regard to your comment:
    "Your appeal to 1 Cor. 14:1, 39-40 doesn't give us any reason to think that these things are still taking place. Certainly at the time, Paul wanted the Corinthians to pursue these things, "

    at what point do we stop saying it was only for them vs. this applies to us today? why is prophesy only for then ? what about 1 Tim 4:12, that was just for those people at that time , now its okay to look down on the youth of today?

  8. It sounds like your question, Nathan, is really a core question: does the Bible teach cessationism? If so, when does it teach that it started?

    It's a bit late, but I'm going to do a post in the near future summarizing Sinclair Ferguson's arguments for cessationism.

    In the meantime, it's worth pointing out something that Ferguson says at the beginning of his own discussion of the issue: simply proving that the Bible doesn't teach cessationism does not thereby equate to the Bible's teaching continuationism of the gifts. Those who believe the gifts continue have a case of their own to make. This particular post was concerned with poking holes in the practicality and usefulness of a stripped-down, non-authoritative form of prophecy.

    So my answer is: answer forthcoming.

    1. i see you made that post - i will have to sit down and dig through it- thankx for replying though

  9. Adam,

    It will be good to see Sinclair Ferguson's argument. I do have one challenge for you though, it seems that you are content to put the primary onus or responsibility on the continuationists to prove that the gifts continue. The simplest to even very detailed readings of Scripture do not indicate that. It seems to me that the overwhelming onus to prove one's point is on the cessationist.

    This is almost the exact reverse of the classic paedobaptist argument. Paedobaptists often like to argue that since infants were baptized under the old covenant and the new covenant doesn't explicitly abrogate their inclusion therefore we should now baptize infants of believers. In the case with cessationism, it's pretty much the reverse argument: the Holy Spirit was active throughout Scripture in miraculous ways, in the NT the last days arrive when He is poured out on all of God's people in a way He had not been previously. Yet, even though the Bible is silent to the ceasing of His work in particular ways, cessationists want to place the responsibility on the other side to prove their point.

  10. Bentley: Here is a positive case.

  11. Also, as regards paedobaptism, I would never argue that because the NT doesn't prohibit it, THEREFORE we should practice it. That's terrible reasoning. The paedobaptist argument (at least the best one) argues from the persistence of the Abrahamic covenant and that the church are ingrafted into that covenant and then therefore apply the sign of the covenant to their children just as all of Abraham's seed have done for centuries.

    Similarly, the cessationist argument comes from a deep-seeded principle that doesn't depend on simple proof texts.


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