I have a great deal of respect for Wayne Grudem. His Systematic Theology was required reading in seminary, and I learned a great deal from his clear and comprehensive discussions on everything from angelology to soteriology. Though I did not always agree with his conclusions, I appreciated his ability to articulate the major positions with fairness and objectivity.
Along with many others, I am thankful for Dr. Grudem’s contribution to the body of Christ — not only through his Systematic Theology, but also through his work with the ESV and his involvement in the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
Having said that, I find his views on the gift of prophecy to be particularly troubling. Hence today’s post.
Just a few days ago, a colleague pointed me to a video in which Wayne Grudem and Ian Hamilton engaged in a friendly debate regarding the definition of prophecy in the New Testament. I was already aware of Dr. Grudem’s espousal of a non-authoritative, fallible form of New Testament prophecy (from his Systematic Theology, his extensive chapter in The Kingdom and the Power, and his book on Prophecy), so I was eager to watch the interchange.
For those who have not watched the debate (it is over an hour long after all), the issue essentially boils down to this: What was the gift of prophecy in the New Testament, and is it still in operation today?
Ian Hamilton, representing the cessationist perspective (which I agree with), contended that there is only one kind of prophetic gift in the New Testament, and it is equivalent to prophecy in the Old Testament. It consists of error-free revelation from God. Thus, it is both infallible and authoritative, such that the prophet can proclaim, “Thus says the Lord” with absolute accuracy. Moreover, the gift of prophecy was for the foundation age of the church (Ephesians 2:20). Thus, it passed away, along with the apostles, when the foundation age ended.
Wayne Grudem, representing the continuationist position, argued that there are two kinds of prophetic gift in the New Testament. There is apostolic prophecy which was infallible, authoritative, and foundational; it alone was equivalent to Old Testament prophecy, and it ceased after the time of the apostles.
But, in Grudem’s view, there is a second type of New Testament prophecy — what we might call congregational prophecy. This form of prophecy is fallible, non-authoritative, and has continued throughout the church age. It is not equivalent to Old Testament prophecy (and therefore bypasses the strict stipulations of Deuteronomy 13 & 18) and might be better compared to “Spirit-led advice.” It generally consists of personal impressions from God, which are then interpreted by the prophet and reported to the congregation (sometimes incorrectly depending on the faith of the individual). The congregation is not bound to obey these words of prophecy, but nonetheless ought to consider them carefully within the greater context of life.
Here are a few key statements (with timestamps) from the video in which Dr. Grudem explains his views:
[26:00] Because this [congregational prophecy] does not have the authority of God’s words, I would counsel people never to make huge life decisions based on a prophecy alone.
[27:08] I don’t want to say that this ever comes — ever, ever, ever comes — with the force of Scripture, or stands alone, it stands in the whole complex of all of life and we take it into account as one factor.
[27:39] I would put this idea of God bringing things to mind in the same category of authority as advice or counsel from a godly person.
[35:10] So I do use the word “revelation” [when speaking of modern prophecy]. But I think it’s revelation that doesn’t result in canonical Scripture and doesn’t come with the force of Scripture, but is simply God bringing things to mind.
[38:51] I don’t see in the New Testament [discussion of prophecy] any parallel to the treatment of prophets in the Old Testament where they were taken out and stoned, or the New Testament equivalent would be excommunication. … False teachers are certainly condemned and should be excluded, but not anybody who makes a mistake on a prophecy.
[59:53 — regarding the evaluation of these prophecies:] Pastorally, if someone is in charge of a home fellowship group or if a pastor is in charge of a prayer meeting, you call it as you see it. I have to use an American analogy, it’s an umpire calling balls and strikes as the pitcher pitches the ball across the plate.
[1:09:15] To give a practical example [of prophecy], I’ll put it in terms of guidance. I’m convinced that a number of years ago, God led me to cancel my subscription to the newspaper to the Chicago Tribune, because morning after morning I was spending too much time reading it. And God finally put it on my heart, “Wayne, you’ve got to cancel that.” So out of obedience, I cancelled it. I think that was God guiding me.
Those quotes from Dr. Grudem are, obviously, just a small sampling of all that was said. But they highlight some of the key features of Grudem’s view. They underscore the fact that Grudem sees modern-day prophecy as non-authoritative, fallible, and essentially consisting of God guiding people through personal impressions.
Ian Hamilton did an excellent job pointing out some of the exegetical, theological, and pastoral reasons why Grudem’s view of prophecy is not tenable. (In my opinion, Hamilton overwhelmingly won the debate, though he was very gracious in doing so.)
But why is this issue so important?
Like Hamilton, I too have exegetical and theological reasons for rejecting a definition of prophecy that consists of non-authoritative, fallible messages. In this post, however, I want to outline several of the alarming implications for pastoral ministry that (I believe) stem from Dr. Grudem’s definition of prophecy. In my opinion, his position on this issue opens an ecclesiological pandora’s box.
Here are five of areas of concern:
1. By creating a category of modern “prophecy” that can include erroneous messages, this view makes it unnecessarily difficult for the church today to identify and refute false prophets (cf. Matt. 7:15). It further neuters (i.e. ignores) the strict requirements on true prophecy found in Deuteronomy 13 and 18.
2. By defining prophecy in terms of impressions and subjective guidance, this view provides no objective or authoritative means by which a person can know for sure if a feeling is from God or some other source. It also provides no objective or authoritative means by which church leaders can evaluate for sure whether a “prophet’s” message is legitimate.
3. By teaching that God still gives prophetic revelation today, this view encourages believers to look for messages from God outside of the Bible. While continuationists insist on a closed canon (and rightly so), this view of prophecy — in practice — calls into question the sufficiency of Scripture at the most practical levels of daily living.
4. By using terms like “prophecy,” “revelation,” and “a word from the Lord,” this view has the potential to manipulate people by binding their consciences to a fallible message or compelling them to make unwise decisions. Though proponents insists that congregational prophecy is not authoritative (at least, not at the corporate level), their understanding of prophecy is highly vulnerable to being abused within the local congregation.
5. By allowing for error in prophecy, this view permits people to say, “Thus says the Lord” when in fact their messages are fallible and erroneous. In effect, it allows people to attribute to the God of Truth messages that are errant, which is a very dangerous thing to do. Furthermore, by redefining fallible messages as “prophecy,” it demeans and cheapens the true gift of infallible prophecy as it operated in the Old and New Testaments.
There are other implications as well, but these are sufficient to make the point: the charismatic insistence on continued prophetic revelation (outside of Scripture) has significant implications for the life of the church. Thus, the cessationist-continuationist debate is not merely an academic exercise. Where one lands exegetically and theologically on this issue has very real ramifications for pastoral ministry.
In my judgment, those who open the door to modern-day prophecy not only do harm to the biblical text, they also open themselves up to all sorts of theological and spiritual danger. In so doing, they needlessly put themselves and their congregations at risk.
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Update: Mike Riccardi has written a helpful follow-up post on NT prophecy and the uniqueness of the first-century church. Click here to read it.