Motivated by the conversation from yesterday’s thread regarding the dangers of so-called “fallible prophecy,” I kind of want to piggy-back on Nathan’s post by addressing a hermeneutical weakness I perceive in a certain argument for the continuation of prophecy.
In a nutshell, this particular argument seems to be that since Paul speaks directly about prophecy in the New Testament—giving directions about its proper use in the church and even commanding that the gift be sought—everything he says automatically applies to the church today in the same way that it applied to the church in the first-century. Continuationists appeal to these passages of Scripture as “biblical support” or a “preponderance of Scriptural evidence” that the miraculous gifts are to be normative for today. For those of us who believe that there are no prophets in the church today, it is asked how we avoid deliberately disobeying Paul’s injunction to not despise prophetic utterance (1Thess 5:20). Didn’t he command the Corinthians to “earnestly desire” the gifts, and “especially that you may prophesy” (1Cor 14:1)?
A Surface-Level Approach
So, it must be granted that continuationists are not seeking to base their theology on experience alone. Rather, they are indeed seeking to base their understanding of the continuation of the gifts on Scripture itself.
The problem, however, is that this use of Scripture fails to take into account the uniqueness of the New Testament church in its nascent form. The foundation of the New Testament church—the mystery of the one new man, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it had then been being revealed—was still being laid through the ministry of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20; 3:5). The Holy Spirit had not yet finished bringing to the disciples’ remembrance all the things which He had spoke (John 14:26); He had not yet finished guiding them into all truth, revealing to them the things they couldn’t bear while Jesus was among them (John 16:13). The New Covenant Scriptures had not been recorded. God’s final, sufficient revelation awaited completion.
Any approach to the Scriptures that does not honor the implications of this uniqueness remains shallow. Carson and Keller provide a helpful summary of this kind of approach to Scripture:
“There is a kind of appeal to Scripture, a kind of Biblicism—let’s call it Biblicism One—that seems to bow to what Scripture says but does not listen to the text very closely and is almost entirely uninformed by how thoughtful Christians have wrestled with these same texts for centuries.”
Brothers, Let us Query the Text
We don’t want to be guilty of being shallow interpreters of the Bible who don’t “listen to the text very closely.” To avoid this, we must ask the difficult questions of a text, intent on understanding how what any particular text is teaching coheres with the whole of Scripture. This is simply what John Piper calls “querying the text” (Brothers, We Are Not Professionals). Scripture was not revealed in a vacuum, but to a particular people in a particular context, for a particular purpose. Therefore, to understand and apply Scripture rightly, we must ask such questions as:
- Who wrote this?
- To whom did he write it?
- When did he write it?
- What was the occasion for writing?
- For what purpose did he write it?
After answering these questions, we must then ask ourselves: “Given the differences that exist between the original recipients and me, can this text be applied to me in the same way it applied to them? Or are the differences that exist between us of such a nature that there cannot be a one-to-one application?”
This is not merely “theologizing,” or imposing our own theological presuppositions onto the biblical text. These are essential questions, and they are the bread and butter of sound, contextual exegesis.
For example, it would be a naïve, shallow reading of Scripture to suggest that followers of Yahweh in this age cannot eat shellfish (Lev 11:10–11) or mix fabrics (Deut 22:11). That would be to ignore the fact that such laws were given through Moses (who), for the nation of Israel (to whom), in order to rightly relate to Yahweh (occasion) under the Old Covenant Law (when), for the purpose of distinguishing Israel from the nations (purpose), before the substance of those shadows came in Christ (when). “But,” it could be argued, “it’s in the Bible!”
“Oh, but that’s the Old Testament, though, Mike. We have clear Scriptural testimony that such things are fulfilled in Christ and are thus obsolete.” Right. And that is the kind of contextual interpretation and comparison of Scripture with Scripture that I’m calling for in the cessation/continuation debate.
But let’s push it further. How about women covering their heads in church? That’s a New Testament command that Paul gives regarding orderly congregational worship. Should we require that all women wear head coverings?
No. Because we’re going to query the text. We’re going to consider that Paul is writing to the first-generation Corinthian church in AD 56, and that in that culture a head covering symbolized that a woman was under authority. We’re going to consider that Paul was making a specific application of a general principle. And we’re going to recognize that the differences between the original context and our contemporary context require us to apply the principle (perhaps by the woman taking the man’s last name) without making a one-to-one application.
Answering the questions of authorship, recipients, context, occasion, and purpose is not a way to get around the text, or to hover above the text. It’s actually the only way of digging into the text and submitting to its agenda, rather that forcing it to submit to ours.
Bringing it Back
So how do we apply what I’m trying to say?
First, we must acknowledge that there is no argument that first-century churches like Thessalonica and Corinth included members who had the biblical gift of prophecy. For this reason, it is no wonder that apostolic directions regarding prophecy turn up in letters to those churches.
But when we seek to apply passages like 1 Thessalonians 5:19–21 and 1 Corinthians 12–14 to our present context, we must realize that it will look different for us than it did for them. Contemporary churches do not include members who have the biblical gift of prophecy. There are no prophets receiving infallible revelation from God today.* That constitutes a significant difference between our period of redemptive history and that of the Thessalonians and Corinthians. Therefore, just as the food and fabric laws and the instruction about head coverings, the texts regarding the miraculous gifts will not apply to us in the same way they applied to the original recipients.
Because of this, it is invalid to argue that the 21st-century church should practice the miraculous gifts merely on the basis that Paul instructed the 1st-century church to do so. Such texts do not constitute Scriptural evidence for the continuation of the miraculous gifts.