Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Content of the Ancient Gift of Prophecy


προφῆται δὲ δύο ἢ τρεῖς λαλείτωσαν καὶ οἱ ἄλλοι διακρινέτωσαν·

One of the greatest challenges to interpreting Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today is the tremendous temptation to do so in light of modern Charismatic practices and interpretations. The interpreter must work hard to ignore the noise coming from that quarter so as to allow proper exegesis to run its course. Only then are we in a better place to understand the truth revealed in the text. Perhaps then we are in a better position to discuss the question of NT prophecy.

Neither UBS nor NA28 lists any textual variants in this short sentence. Other than the fact that Comfort tells us in a note on p46 that δὲ was a superlinear addition, we have barely any work to perform from a textual critical standpoint.

Translating this text is also very straightforward. “But let two or three prophets speak and the others examine.” The NAS leaves the conjunction untranslated. I include it for the simple reason that it is there and I have no reason to exclude it yet, nor will I as far as the point of this post is concerned.

The Corinthian Church was founded by Paul in Acts 18. The work there seemed to begin to advance when Paul moved his work the house of Titus Justus. In fact, even the leader of the synagogue, Crispus, believed along with his household. Corinth was a very wealthy city, strategically located on the Peloponnesian peninsula. It controlled two harbors and all trade moving to Asia as well as to Italy. Corinth was a city of the strong. Wealth and strength quite naturally tend to produce pride. For the Corinthian, status was a prominent fixation. This creates an atmosphere where the virtue of humility and the idea of serving others are more than a little challenging. The occasion for this letter was one of rejoinder. The Corinthians had asked several questions of Paul and this letter is the product of that event.

Paul begins the larger literary context within which our text is located in 1 Cor. 12:1 with the phrase, “Now concerning the spirituals.” This indicates as in other places, that the Corinthians had questions concerning the spiritual gifts. Paul’s objective is to provide some clarity around the purpose and function of those gifts. It is in this context that our subject emerges.

The very first question that no one seems to be asking or answering in this discussion of the spiritual gifts is this: are there any differences between Christian living post the canon and Christian living during this period of the Church before the revelation had been completed? In other words, is there any difference between us, and the ancient Corinthian Church? Better yet, is there any difference between NT Christian living during the transition period and those living outside that transition period? I fail to see how the answer to that question could be anything other than, absolutely! Once that fact is established, we can then understand that drawing parallels between modern Christianity and transitional Christianity can be overly simplistic and even downright naïve. In reality, there are three periods that must be taken into consideration when examining God’s activity in the Christian Church. The transition period which is the period when revelation was still in progress. The second period is that period when the revelation was completed but was still being circulated and collected. The third period is that period of time that represents not only the completion of the revelation, but also the completion of the collection and recognition of that revelation in one document. It is the divine document of divine documents, known as the Bible. The transition period was completed at some point in the late first century. The second period was completed as all the writings made their way throughout the communities culminating in the fixed canon. The third period continues to present day.

The text I am examining is one that is used by many Continuationists to justify their conclusion that NT prophets were different, not authoritative, and non-binding. I will dispute the principle behind this view below. For now, I want to get back to our short exegesis of the text. The Greek word λαλείτωσαν, from λαλέω is a present, active, imperative. This indicates that Paul is issuing a straightforward command. It only appears in this form in the GNT in this text. It is a very common word used to mean, speak or talk. The second word we are interested in is far more nuanced that this one. The word διακρινέτωσαν, from διακρίνω, is also a present, active, imperative. Once more, Paul is issuing a command to the Corinthians. The root of this word is κρινω, which is the word commonly translated, judge. According to ANLEX (Analytical Lexicon of the Greek NT), it means “(1) as evaluating the difference between things discern, distinguish, differentiate (MT 16.3); (2) as making a distinction between persons by evaluation make a difference, decide between, pass judgment on (AC 15.9); (3) as a legal technical term for arbitration judge a dispute, settle a difference (1C 6.5); (4) in the aorist tense, the middle sense is conveyed with the passive form; (a) as debating an issue dispute, contend, argue (AC 11.2); (b) as being undecided within oneself doubt, hesitate, waver (JA 1.6)” Louw-Nida says, to make a judgment on the basis of careful and detailed information—‘to judge carefully, to evaluate carefully.’ BDAG informs us, “to evaluate by paying careful attention to, evaluate, judge pass judgment on w. acc. ἑαυτόν on oneself.”

It is for this reason that scholars like Wayne Grudem, believe that OT prophets and prophecy was fundamentally different from NT prophecy. After all, who are we to pass judgment on the Word of God? In our apologetic and theology, we repeatedly argue that the Word of God is self-authenticating and fully authoritative. The kind of judgment we see in 1 Corinthians is therefore new. Such a view fails to properly nuance what we mean when we say we hold the Scripture to be self-authenticating and authoritative. There is a distinction to be made between judging something to be the Word of God and judging the Word of God. Were OT prophets subject to the same kind of judgment? Deut. 13 provides for the clear judgment of dreamers and prophets who arise, even giving signs that come true. The test of whether or not they are true prophets is whether or not they point back to what has already been revealed. So the kind of judgment we see in the NT is not new at all. It has always existed since we learned about prophets thousands of years ago. Paul is not telling the Corinthians to do anything any differently than God, through Moses, had already told the ancient Hebrews to do. In addition, Jesus warned His disciples in Matt. 7 that many false prophets would arise and would deceive many. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Hence Paul was giving the Corinthians nothing new. In fact, the word προσέχω means to be in a continuous state of readiness to learn of any future danger, need, or error, and to respond appropriately—‘to pay attention to, to keep on the lookout for, to be alert for, to be on one’s guard against.’ To introduce a new concept in this text, that had not already been given by Moses and reinforced again by Christ Himself is clearly the product of eisgesis. It is understanding this word and this text through the modern Charismatic experience and interpretation. It is thoroughly anachronistic.

I would continue with a straightforward exegesis of the passage but I think we have gone far enough to recognize that there is no new concept or idea of prophecy revealed in this text. Moses had already established this very practice hundreds of years before Paul pinned the command. In addition, Jesus had also repeatedly warned of false prophets and clearly expected that any prophet and their prophecy would come under scrutiny.

So then, if what I have argued above is true, then one wonders, what was the likely content of these prophecies? First of all, we are not speculating on a teaching of Scripture. Scripture does not reveal the content of these prophecies. But let us see if we can eliminate some things that others think it might have been. Could it have been what we hear from modern Pentecostals today? For example, a prophecy comes out that Titus is to marry Mary. Now, how on earth could something like that be judged to from God or from man? The short answer is that judgment of such prophecies is impossible. We simply cannot know for sure. Therefore, the most important thing we learn about this text is that all NT prophecy was judge-able. In fact, all NT prophecies by divine command had to be judge-able. This is because Paul commanded the Corinthians to judge them all. No prophecy could escape scrutiny. Any prophecy that could be rendered unjudge-able would necessarily be judged false because it places the Christian in a position of not being able to obey the divine command. Most modern prophecies are not really prophecies. There are three popular types that come to mind. First, there are those prophecies that state what we already know from Scripture. For instance, someone may prophesy that I am going to be tempted to sin but that God is with me. Okay, thank you for telling me what God has already told me. Second, there are those prophecies that are predictive. These are the ones that never seem to pan out unless they are educated guesses and not really prophetic utterances. For instance, the church may have acknowledged that a young man has the attributes of a leader and someone prophecies he will become a leader some day and some day he does. Amazing! The third kind of prophecy concerns things that really aren’t judge-able. These prophecies are personal and instructive. They tell people what career to pursue, what job to take, who to marry, where to live, etc. We can rule them out as legitimate because they do not fall into the category of biblical prophecy because all biblical prophecies are judge-able. The first group of prophecies can be dismissed as well because they are simply the Word of God regurgitated. They are not legitimate, at the moment divine revelations or Words of God. One way to judge a prophet was first and foremost that he had to be recognized by the leaders as a prophet. Apostolic recognition was one criteria for judging prophets and prophecies. The apostolic component seems to be significant.

Agabus prophesied that Paul would be taken prisoner and amazingly he was. Predictive prophecies can be judged based on their fulfillment. Some prophecies can be judged based on their connection with apostolic authority. During this time of transition, prophecy played a critical role in the unfolding of divine revelation that came to be encapsulated in Scripture. In addition, it is quite possible, and highly probable that some prophecies contained what would eventually become encapsulated in Scripture. For instance, while Paul was writing to the Galatians his anathema upon all who preach a different gospel, a prophet in Corinth could have been giving the same light to the Corinthians. Another prophet completely unfamiliar with Isa. 53 could have been given that revelation someplace else to give to that local church. To speculate that these prophets were off giving revelation to these believers that no one else ever came to have is a fruitless exercise. If it is true, it is irrelevant. God withheld it from us for a reason, that is, if it is true which I doubt. Personally, I see no reason to embrace that view and I see no way it can be anything more than baseless speculation. The fact that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness in Scripture would indicate to me that what God revealed to them, he also revealed to us. Otherwise, we are back to the question of the universal sufficiency of Scripture. This would mean that some NT Christians needed more than we have in the text while the rest of us do not. I find that view enormously unappealing and relatively indefensible.

The view that there is a new brand of prophet and prophecy in the NT is without exegetical support. The scrutiny originally given by Moses in Deut. 13 was reinforced by Christ in Matthew 7 and here by Paul. There is no good reason to think otherwise. The warnings against false prophets are abundant in the NT. That there was some criterion in place by which prophets and their prophecies were to be judged is evident. When Paul and Barnabas were separated for the ministry by the Holy Spirit, it was through prophecy in the presence and under the consent of apostolic authority. For the most part, modern prophecy is either restating what is obvious in Scripture, not subject to judgment for lack of a criterion, educated guesses, and mostly failed predictions.


stupid human looks legit
The failure by Steve Hays, Wayne Grudem, Michael Brown, and others to recognize the transitional nature of the ancient Church and God’s dealings with men at that time has led to unnecessary confusion regarding the charismata. For example, Hays’ outrageous view that Jesus’ appearance to Paul should not be viewed as exceptional and instead, should be taken as normative, is just one example of the logical end of where this hermeneutic leads. With kind of interpretive method in hand, it is no wonder that Charismatics have been unable to contradict and refute error. My final point here is that this verse actually commands what the Strange Fire conference has set out to do: critically examine prophecy. It is a rare occurrence that you will find a Charismatic leader encouraging others to question their “Word from God!” In fact, most of them use their status as a way to discourage any questioning of their claims and prophecies. If you don’t believe me, just go to a Charismatic forum, pick a famous Charismatic leader, find a clearly unbiblical prophecy or sermon, and place him under scrutiny and see what happens. In other words, attempt to apply 1 Cor. 14:29 to the Charismatic prophets and watch what happens.


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