In Spirit & In Truth: Charismatics and Prophecy
Last week, we went through a short history of the various charismatic and Pentecostal movements in America. If one thing stands out from that survey, it’s the fact that all of the modern continuationist groups place a high value on the practice of prophecy, healing, and tongues. There are differences in the ways the groups view the gifts, but they are all motivated by a desire to use the gifts in the life of the church.
As we saw in Tom Schreiner’s argument for cessationism, prophecy is one of the most contentious issues in the debate. Schreiner argues that prophecy is a spontaneous revelation from the Lord meant to edify and instruct the people of God. Because this is the case, prophecy carries a tremendous amount of weight and authority. So much so that in the Old Testament, people could be put to death for giving false prophecies (Deut. 18:20). The New Testament also has some harsh words for false prophets; Jude calls them blasphemers, hidden reefs, waterless clouds, and fruitless trees. He compares them to the prophet Balaam, who led the Israelites into sexual immorality. Since Schreiner sees no compelling reason that prophecy should be any different in the OT and the NT, he argues that the gift of prophecy must have stopped because no one today can speak with that kind of authority without contradicting the authority and truthfulness of the Bible.
Since charismatics believe that the gift of prophecy is still active in the church today, how do they avoid this problem? Simply put, some of them do not. Most of us can remember too many false prophecies to count. For a while there it seemed like the world was supposed to end every year! Rick Joyner has a page devoted to prophetic bulletins, most of which are either too vague to be prophetic or patently untrue and unfulfilled. And he’s one of the more conservative guys in the bunch. Benny Hinn, who is practically a poster child for why people distrust the Pentecostal movement, once claimed that Adam flew to the moon and prophesied curses over all of his critics. The apostles predicted this would be the case (2 Timothy 4:3-4; 2 Peter 2; Jude 17-19) - but just because there are false prophets doesn’t mean there aren’t any prophets at all.
Above All, Let’s Be Biblical
No matter which side of the debate you’re on, don't miss this: the Bible has to be our guide when it comes to the Holy Spirit, the gifts, and the life of the church. At both extremes, experience takes precedence over the Word of God. On the charismatic side, the experience of the gifts begins to define doctrine surrounding the use of gifts, sometimes in opposition to what the Bible clearly says.
In this study, we’re most interested in those who seek to have a biblical view of prophecy. Not all charismatics rely on experience to determine their theology. Men like Sam Storms, Wayne Grudem, and John Piper have written extensively about the biblical texts that command believers to pursue the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 14:1; 1 Thess. 5:20). Most of these pastors and teachers have the same definition of prophecy; in fact, biblical cessationists and charismatics usually agree on what prophecy is. They disagree about how prophecy fits with the authority of Scripture and how the gift should be used in practice. The biblical prophecy camp can be divided into three groups:
Prophecy 1: Not predictive or revelatory, consists of insights and encouragement, does not carry the authority of the Word of God
A few weeks ago, Matt Chandler preached a sermon on the gift of prophecy at the Village Church, and he outlined this view on prophecy. The series, “Gifted for Love,” is an exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14, and in this sermon, he zeroes in on 14:1-5 and the gift of prophecy. He defines prophecy similarly to Schreiner, Piper, Storms, and others as a revelation from God that is used for building up the church, but he adds a caveat; prophecy usually consists of God taking the Bible and making it personal. Referencing 14:1, Chandler encourages his listeners to pray for the gift of prophecy, specifically that God might bring someone or something to mind that might be encouraging, and then he urges them to go out on a limb and share that encouragement with the person God puts on their heart.
This is a really good introduction to walking by the Holy Spirit, and for anybody who feels a little bit uncomfortable with the supernatural gifts, this is a great sermon to listen to. Knowing a little bit about the Village and the congregation there, this is probably the perfect way to challenge the congregation. Chandler knows his people really well, and this series has probably been a way to begin practicing the gifts. However, this would not be considered prophecy in either of the other two camps we’ll look at because it does not claim any authority and it is not new revelation. Chandler tells his people that they should not ever claim to speak for God (Prophecy 3) and they should never attempt to reveal someone else’s sin or the attitudes of their heart (Prophecy 2). This is not to say that Chandler doesn’t believe in this kind of prophecy, just that the version he espouses in this sermon is the most conservative of the group.
Among reformed charismatics, this is a really common way to approach the gift of prophecy. Sometimes its called, “open but cautious.” Prophecy 1 folks will readily agree that the Bible allows for Prophecy 2, but they typically stick to illumination of the Scriptures and words of encouragement.
Prophecy 2: Predictive and revelatory, consists of personal information that couldn’t be otherwise known, does not carry the authority of the Word of God.
Sam Storms is one of the foremost authorities on the spiritual gifts among biblical reformed pastors and scholars. He has several books on this topic including, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts and Practicing the Power, as well as dozens of articles and sermons on the topic. In Practicing the Power, he focuses on how to use the gifts properly in the church. The four chapters on prophecy are excellent, and regardless of whether you agree with all of his conclusions, he deals with nearly every pertinent question on the topic.
He defines prophecy similarly, the human report of a divine revelation, but goes on to give some helpful nuance to identify what is prophetic and what is not. He differentiates between two other facets of walking with the Spirit, encouragement and illumination. First, words of encouragement can be a gift of the Spirit and should be something every believer seeks, but they are not necessarily revelatory or prophetic. The same is true with illumination. Part of the Spirit’s work in every believer is to give them insight into the Word of God. But an insight does not necessarily qualify as prophecy either, because the information was contained in the text and the Spirit simply opened the eyes of the believer to see it.
This is also why Storms (and Piper) would argue that teaching and prophecy are different gifts; teaching consists of expositing the Word of God. In drawing a line between these different works of the Spirit, Storms makes a crucial point, “simply because the Holy Spirit is the instigator or initial cause of such mental and emotional reactions does not mean we are dealing with prophetic revelation” (86). The Spirit does far more than give believers prophecies. Encouragement and illumination are essential parts of the Christian life, but Storms argues they are not prophetic.
So what is prophecy? Storms writes, “in prophecy, the Holy Spirit supernaturally discloses information, facts, or insights not otherwise available by natural avenues of knowledge” (96). This is what separates Prophecy 2 from Prophecy 1: there is new information that could not have been obtained any other way. This is consistent with Paul’s description of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”
Even though Storms believes prophecy is a revelation from God, he warns believers to be careful about how they share what the Spirit has put on their hearts. Along with Mike Bickle and others, Storms divides the process of delivering a prophecy into three sections; reception, interpretation, and proclamation. While the Word from the Spirit can never be false, the interpretation and proclamation can be flawed, and so he encourages people not to say, “the Lord told me,” but, “I have an impression that might be from the Lord,” instead. Because of human fallibility, prophecies do not carry the weight of Scripture and should be tested by others in the church. At Bridgeway, they have prophetic training classes and a group of point people who must hear the prophecy and give the go-ahead before the prophecy can be shared with the church.
Prophecy 3: Predictive and revelatory, consists of information and insight, carries the authority of the Word of God.
This final version of the gift of prophecy is the most intuitive but probably the least popular among those who derive their theology of the gifts from the Scriptures. This may be because it is the preferred position of the word of faith and prosperity preachers who have illegitimately claimed to speak for God. Craig Keener, a professor at Asbury Seminary and one of the world’s premier New Testament scholars, holds to this position.
In his book, Gift and Giver, he argues that the New Testament presents the gift of prophecy in exactly the same way as the Old Testament. He actually agrees completely with Schreiner! There is no reason to think that OT prophets spoke with the authority of the Lord and the NT and modern day prophets do not. He writes, “The distinguishing feature of such prophecy is not the form used but whether the word of the Lord is being proclaimed” (120). He encourages modern day prophets not only to speak with the boldness we see in the Bible but also on the topics the prophets addressed in the Bible like justice for the oppressed, mercy, idolatry, and societal reforms.
What about the authority of Scripture? Keener argues that if the Spirit is giving the prophecy, there is no need to worry about authority because the Spirit will not contradict what he has already spoken. Our situation is no different than what was going on in the New Testament. There will always be false prophets, but that makes it even more important that there are godly spirit-filled prophets. Keener encourages believers to walk by the Spirit and hold fast to what is good, which includes seeking the biblical gift of prophecy.
All three of these groups have a biblical view of prophecy. Next week, we’ll look at the way charismatics handle the gift of tongues.
Check out the other posts in this series:
Part 1: Introduction and my story
Part 2: What are the issues?
Part 3: Cessationism and prophecy
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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