On that point, probably not much

2 Peter 2:1

But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bringin destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.

I take this to mean that false teaching in the church replaces the danger posed by false prophets in the old covenant. From that premise, I think it’s safe to conclude that teaching in general replaces prophecy as God’s primary means of communicating to his people. You can see this in church history: where prophecy has been practiced, its influence has been insignificant compared to teaching in the church.

However, you can’t conclude that therefore prophecy has ceased. Was there no teaching in the old covenant? I think a better conclusion is that prophecy and teaching switch places in terms of relevance. Formerly, false teaching was relatively less significant, because any new doctrine would have to be ratified by prophecy, or it would be considered prophecy, and subject to prophetic tests. Now, any prophetic word has to be ratified by the guardians of church doctrine, or it is considered teaching and is subject to doctrinal tests.

The result should be that we are relatively free with prophecy and relatively reserved with our teaching. Suppose a man prophesies that it will rain on Wednesday, and lo! it doesn’t rain. Is he a false prophet? Not really. He’s a silly man, attempting to be obedient to the scripture that says to pursue prophecy. He should be advised that he blew it, but to keep trying. Suppose again that a man teaches that no one may prophesy regarding rain on Wednesdays. Well that man might well be on his way to becoming a false teacher. He should be answered directly, on doctrinal grounds, paying close attention to how great a risk, really, he poses to the life of the church.

Lost me at “finality”

Sinclair Ferguson has a very helpful article on inerrancy, that I agree with completely… until the last point.  Why do people insist on understanding the closing of the canon like this?  Taken this way, the closing of the canon must have had a more profound effect on the daily lives of saints than ever the Day of Pentecost did.

You can almost hear the shattering echo of a giant door being slammed as John penned the final “amen” of Revelation, and someone saying, “The passage is blocked behind us now, and there is only one way out – on the other side of the mountains.  I fear from the sound that boulders have been piled up, and the trees uprooted and thrown across the gate.  I am sorry; for the trees were beautiful, and had stood so long.”

It’s all so unnecessary, too, because scripture and prophecy were never the same thing.  Not all scripture is prophecy, and even in scripture, not every prophecy is recorded.  There is only one recorded prophecy from any of the sons of prophets that met with Elisha before Elijah had ascended. They told him that Elijah was going to be taken that day, which Elisha already knew. A whole school of them, and no significant prophecies recorded, neither from the sons, nor from the fathers.  Twice Saul got caught up with a school of prophets and prophesied with them till the next morning, and we have received not a word of what they said in scripture.  Philip the evangelist had four daughters who prophesied, and yet not one word that they said was ever scripture.

There’s simply no reason to think that all this prophesying that was not adding to scripture before the canon was closed should suddenly be understood as adding to scripture after the canon was closed. Prophecy and scripture are simply two separate things. So it is extremely unhelpful to take the testimony of scripture about what spirit-directed life must look like in the light of Pentecost and de-normalize it, especially in support of a doctrine like inerrancy.

Spirit of Prophecy

In my daily Bible reading, I’m coming up on Ezekiel, and he’s making me nervous.

Always in the back of my mind is a series of books that I want to write some day, about how people understand mystical experiences, the supernatural, prophecy, etc. I have in mind at least three books: The first one would cover the Old Testament and be titled, “Saul among the prophets,” referring to the two times that King Saul got distracted from whatever errand he was on because he ran into a group of prophets, had some kind of ecstatic experience, and ended up in a daze and naked. The second book would be called, “You may all prophesy,” from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and it would cover what the New Testament church thought about these things. The third book would be about the early Christian era, and I would call it, “With a loud voice,” which is a quote from Ignatius of Antioch. Around 100 AD, he wrote a letter to the church at Philadelphia, where he asserted that what he said during a church service had been a prophecy, because he said it, “with a loud voice, with God’s own voice.” (What grand aspirations he has for a soldier, you say. It’s all right. I know of a newspaper man who once wrote a tome on Biblical authority.)

Anyway, because I have this in the back of my head, I’m always asking the question, “What exactly was this experience like?” When God said to Samuel, Look not to his appearance, what exactly did Samuel experience? Was it an audible voice, a thought inside his head? How did he know it was God and not his own idea? Was there some sort of sense of dread?

Ezekiel is especially hard to answer these questions. He has these dramatic experiences, where he is taken to some place, shown some awesome thing, and it’s not always entirely clear if what happened was in some sort of trance, or if he physically saw it with his eyes. Did he go afterwards and see char marks on the ground along the paths of the four living creatures?

But more close to home is that Ezekiel, being one of the most dramatic of the prophets, sets the standard for people who want to prophesy today. I am not a cessationist, and I think cessationists make their job too easy when they simply say the canon is closed. People have always had experiences. In former times, some of these were from God and some were nonsense. What help is it to say that now we are confident that all of them are nonsense? It’s a great help to those who want to be materialists and Christians also. But it’s kind of a Tolkien view of the world: In a former age, the world was flat and boundless, but in our current age, God has bounded it by curving it in upon itself. The way to the land of the Valar is now closed to mortals. They don’t seem to notice that, in Tolkien, the new rounded earth is a smaller, dimmer world.

But as I say, slamming the door closed on spiritual experiences is a kindness to folks who don’t have those experiences, and wonder if they should. But it’s a great harshness to people who continue to dream dreams and see visions. Those people are forced to resign the brighter half of their lives to the stuff of mental institutions and illegal pharmaceuticals. Yet they keep on seeing things.

As I said, Ezekiel in a lot of ways sets the standard for people who want to see visions. I mean, boy did he see them. But how much did he see them, and how much was it merely a divinely blessed imagination? I suspect the Hebrew word would have been the same.

It’s not an academic question for folks like me, with highly… enhanced… imaginations. If I’m meditating on a thing, and a picture comes into my mind, and boy what a humdinger, and with it comes a sense of dread and awe, how do I report it? How did Ezekiel report his experiences? “And saw a picture in my mind of four living creatures; whether they were real and imagined, I do not know. But as I contemplated these creatures, my heart rate was highly accelerated, and my hair stood on end.” Therefore: the word of the Lord. The ancient saints didn’t have the advantage of writing off Ezekiel’s visions simply because they were visions. (Unless they were Sadducees, but then the Sadducees were no saints.) There wasn’t any value in waiting to see if Ezekiel’s vision of the four creatures “came true.” There was no predictive element. Like all scripture, there was a certain component of his experience that must be self-authenticating.

And yet, charismatic though I am, I see in Ezekiel not only the authoritative word of God, but also the imaginative foundation of every two-bit quack and self-assured heretic in church history. Here is George Fox interrupting formal public meetings to ask why church houses are called churches. Here is William Blake writing vaguely seditious poetry, calling his acid-etched engravings visions of fire. Here is the hook for all the people Jude warned us about.

As the angel said to John, “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” As surely as there are antichrists, there are prophets who testify for them. Their visions must surely sound and feel quite a bit the same.

Here is scripture, both our model and our instructor. Let us handle and divide it carefully.

Not the Same

Jeremiah 26:20-23

Now there was also a man who prophesied in the name of the Lord, Urijah the son of Shemaiah of Kirjath Jearim, who prophesied against this city and against this land according to all the words of Jeremiah.  And when Jehoiakim the king, with all his mighty men and all the princes, heard his words, the king sought to put him to death; but when Urijah heard it, he was afraid and fled, and went to Egypt. Then Jehoiakim the king sent men to Egypt: Elnathan the son of Achbor, and other menwho went with him to Egypt.  And they brought Urijah from Egypt and brought him to Jehoiakim the king, who killed him with the sword and cast his dead body into the graves of the common people.

I share this because I’m not aware of Urijah being mentioned anywhere else in scripture.  Yet he prophesied and according to scripture, it appears that he was no false prophet.  What he said was the very word of God.  And yet, we don’t have a single word of it.  We know that it was generally the same sort of thing as what Jeremiah was preaching.

I think this is kind of a problem for people who want to say that prophecy today is basically the same thing as scripture.  “Since the canon is closed, there can be no more prophesying, because to prophesy would be to add to scripture.”  The problem is that the scripture that we have doesn’t teach that at all.  Being a true word from God was necessary, but not a sufficient reason to be included in the canon of scripture.  So prophecy today has no reason to be thought of as adding to the written word of God.

Tongues and Interpretation

I’m not sure what brought it to mind, but I’ve been thinking lately about the best example I ever saw of tongues and interpretation in a church setting.

In the church I went to in high school, we usually had a few pauses in the worship service that were sort of designed for an interruption from the congregation.  I’m pretty sure they were put there on purpose, but they always seemed like a natural selah in the singing.  That was the designated time for prophecy.  Sometimes it would be the pastor, or another elder, sometimes a member of the youth.  They would speak, the elders would lead the congregation in response if it was necessary, and the music would resume.

Occasionally, from the last or second to last row, this couple would rise, holding hands.  It was very striking, because he was a black man, with great bright eyes and a beaming smile, and she looked as though she might have been a combination of Inuit and Welsh.  First she would speak, in a tongue that sounded something like Chinese, her closed eyes rapidly fluttering, her hand clamped hard on her husband’s.  When she was done, there would wait a second or two, and then her husband would open his eyes and begin to give the interpretation, always comfort and encouragement, with a voice on the verge of rejoicing.

I always thought how convenient it must be, to always bring your interpreter along with you.  Paul doesn’t give the prophets any favors in his passage about decency and order.  If a person prophesies and another person interrupts him, the one who was interrupted should give ground to the person who so rudely interrupted.  The one who speaks in tongues, apparently, has the responsibility of ensuring that an interpreter is there.  No interpreter?  He should keep it to himself.

I think this places an even greater burden of charity on the congregation (and thereby on the elders as well) to plan ahead.  Do you believe that these Spirit-led utterances are supposed to be a normal part of the service?  You do well to set parameters and practice.  Without parameters, you will get chaos, and your primary means of guiding the church in these things will be stamping out the disorder.  Without practice, having stamped out the disorder, you get… nothing.  Your service will be identical to our brothers in the cessationist camp, broken up by six-month swings into Pentecostal hysteria.

Mystic, Desist!

I was getting all set to do battle with this article, until I read it and discovered it doesn’t say anything interesting. To wit:

1. Everything he says here would be affirmed by even the most wild-eyed pentecostal I know of.
2. He identifies no particular practice under the heading of “mysticism” that he considers biblically inappropriate.

I am therefore left with the conclusion that it is the actual word “mysticism” with which he has his beef. And this I will grant: the word itself is found nowhere in scripture, though some of it’s more distant cognates are present (i.e., mystery). If Tim Challies wishes, I am fully prepared to abandon the word.

There is something to Whitney’s definition of mysticism: “those forms of Christian spirituality which attempt direct or unmediated access to God.” And if, by “unmediated access” he means “apart from the cross,” I agree. There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ.

However, there are multiple accounts in scripture of people receiving “special revelation” without recourse to reading scripture. This is, of course, how the bible was written in the first place, but even with a closed canon, there are numerous examples of people receiving special revelation, which special revelation was never included in scripture. For example, Philip the Evangelist had 4 daughters who prophesied, and yet not one word of theirs was entered in the Bible. It was apparently normative in the early church for people to receive various kinds of extra-biblical special revelation.

So I will throw out my standard trope: If your theology disallows a practice that is normative in scripture, stop. You’re doing something wrong.

Now, what is it, exactly, that Mr. Challies wants the wicked mystics to cease and desist?

Prophecy

Bibliolatry:
When a person relies on the authority of scripture to undermine what the text actually teaches.

This definition pops up for me whenever I hear a cessationist argument. Here we have a summary by Nathan Busenitz of a debate between Wayne Grudem and Ian Hamilton over the idea of “fallible prophecy” in the New Testament.

For my purposes, we’ll leave aside the question of fallibility for a minute. Let’s just look at authority, or urgency. Does scripture portray any kind of prophecy, in the Old Testament or New, which has less authority than the full weight of Biblical law? Is Saul also among the prophets? If all true prophecy has the full weight of scripture behind it, how is it possible for Paul to instruct the Corinthians that “spirits of prophets are subject to prophets”? Can you imagine someone saying that the text of Jeremiah was subject to Jeremiah, that if someone had interrupted him, he would have done best to sit down and shut up? Of course not. “there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

Scripture itself presents prophecy as being a thing that has different levels of urgency and precariousness. Who then are you to argue that the nature of scripture requires prophecy to be sealed off like scripture? The implication then would be that all prophecy necessarily has the same weight as scripture, and therefore becomes scripture the minute it is written down and preserved. But that simply isn’t the case at all. There are references in scripture to literally thousands of prophetic events of various levels, that nobody thought even worth writing down. An entire school of prophets in Elijah’s time was able to come up with only a single message worth writing down – for dramatic effect. Most prophecy in ancient times never ascended to the level of being considered scripture, so why should it be disturbing to think that, though there may still be prophecy today, none of it reaches the same level of authority as scripture?

Brothers, we are not Platonists. Neither scripture nor prophecy come down like a mathematical proof, with all the edges carefully sealed. If we are to obey scripture, we must obey it as it is, both in what it says and in the characteristics that it models. What you mustn’t do is determine what it ought to model, based on what it necessary for the formula, and use that to determine what the text must mean.

Busenitz lists 5 dangers of prophecy. They strike me more as 5 inconveniences. The possibility of modern prophecy creates scenarios where people might be subject to influences that can’t be shot down with a cannonade from scripture. But scripture wasn’t given us so that we might have confidence in the teachers of the law. It was given us that we might have confidence in Christ. God forbid that we should build up a confidence in the text in such a way that we fail to perceive what the text actually says, about itself, and about how we relate to Christ and each other.