Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sam Storms on Fallible Prophecy: Point 2

Second, a related point is found in Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians that they not “quench the Spirit” by “despising prophecies” (1 Thess. 5:19-20). Rather, they are to “test everything,” i.e., they are to weigh, judge, evaluate, or assess what purports to be a prophetic word and then “hold fast what is good” and “abstain from every form of evil” (vv. 21-22). -

“A good part of the meaning of these five imperatives is lost if we do not first understand the relations between them. The first clear distinction is between the two negative commands of verses 19–20 and the positive commands of verse 21–22. In Greek the two groups are separated by an adversative “but” (omitted in many manuscripts, probably accidentally incorporated into the next word). Within each group, Paul moves from the generic to the specific; despising inspired messages is a special case of restraining the Holy Spirit. Keeping what is good and avoiding every kind of evil are the two consequences of putting all things to the test.”[1]

With every text, there is a context. Storms seems to be looking at this text through the lens of the modern Pentecostal phenomenon of prophecy. But the text is a little more specific than Storms wants to acknowledge. The immediate context of these commands must be understood in light of v. 12 where Paul commands the Thessalonians to appreciate those that labor among them and have charge over them. As is typically the case with modern non-cessationists, the classification of prophecy is too narrowly defined. BDAG defines prophecy here as the gift of interpreting divine will or purpose. Storms assumes it is a reference to the very same phenomenon in which modern Charismatics and Pentecostals engage. There is no exegetical basis for this assumption.

Paul wrote the Thessalonian correspondence to (1) encourage the church during persecution; (2) defend the purity of his mission; (3) urge the church to live holy lives characterized by sexual purity; (4) define a Christian work ethic; (5) correct confusion around the coming of Christ; (6) prompt the church to respect its leaders. [Koestenberger, The Cross, The Cradle, and The Crown, 444] There are two basic areas that we must understand if we are to understand Paul’s command to the Thessalonians. The first one is in point (6) above, that the Thessalonians were having issues with respecting their leaders, those most likely to be the ones giving inspired utterances.

The word “despise” means to despise someone or something on the basis that it is worthless or of no value. This command and the challenge around respect for godly leaders must be viewed in light of the decrees of Caesar regarding prophetic utterances.

These decrees are actually used as the basis for the persecution of Paul and Jason in Acts 17:7. “Augustus decreed that the seers were forbidden to prophesy to any person alone or to prophesy regarding death even if others should be present. The emperor Tiberius gave another decree: But as for all the other astrologers and magicians and such as practiced divination in anyway whatsoever, he put to death those who were foreigners and banished all the citizens that were accused of still employing the art at this time after the previous decree [dogma] by which it had been forbidden to engage in any such business in the city.” [Burge, Cohick, & Green, The New Testament in Antiquity, 283] Caesar had issued a decree that forbad prophecy. From Acts 17, we know that the Thessalonians were deeply familiar with and had embraced the decree. That Paul was dealing with an element in the Church that had continued to embrace this ungodly decree must be given very serious consideration.  

Notice that immediately after Paul commands the Church not to quench the Spirit and not to despise prophecy, he immediately contrasts this command by issuing a second command. Rather than immediately despising prophecy itself, not the content of the prophecy, Paul says but examine everything carefully, hold fast to the good and abstain from every form of evil.

In summary then, it seems fairly obvious to me that Paul was not commanding the Thessalonians not to despise godly prophecy, but rather, to purge themselves of the decree of Caesar, which had led to an ungodly attitude toward the gift of prophecy and those that prophesy, namely, the leaders. In addition to purging themselves of this ungodly bias against this gift of God, they were also commanded not to be naïve to the content of prophecy and have the pendulum swing to the other extreme. On the one hand, the Thessalonians were commanded to abandon Caesar’s decree against the practice of prophecy, but to do so while making sure that everyone claiming to speak in the name of God was actually speaking in the name of God. They were to examine these claims by comparing and contrasting them with the divine truth that they had received from Paul and his associates. In light of the background of Paul’s commands to the Thessalonians, we can conclude that Paul was far more specific than Sam Storms has understood him to be.

[1] Paul Ellingworth and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1976), 123.

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