I feel like ice is slowly melting

By Marv

“Charismatics need to chill out. Evangelicals need to thaw out.”

So spoke a pastoral mentor of mine, some two decades back, on his premise that the two sides would eventually meet in the “radical middle,” as Vineyard history has termed it. He has proved more right than not. I was a thaw-out case myself–in my paradigm shift to Continuationism. Well before I had reached ambient temperature I realized there was scarcely straw to grasp at in the Scriptures that I could construct a Cessationist straw man out of. The rest–coming to view Continuationism in a positive light–as affirmatively supported in the Bible–took a little more time–process. So I know the symptoms.

When all you have left to operate on is your preconceived notions, these still take a bit of processing. You tend to figure child-rearing experts at least have children of their own. You don’t go for business advice to those who’ve never run a business. And sooner or later you realize that if anyone has understanding of how spiritual gifts actually work–they are more likely to be Continuationists than Cessationists. So long-held Cessationist notions will likely have to give way, but it takes time.

I venture, therefore, a diagnosis. If you want to see a thaw in process, keep an eye on C. Michael Patton’s posts in the ongoing Patton-Storms summit at Parchment and Pen, AKA “Why I Am/Not Charismatic.” Something in his remarks seems diffferent this time around. I think I detect some movement (and it isn’t just because on the latest TUP podcast he seems to have quoted your truly, AKA “somebody.”) Could it be he has passed the point of no return? Only time will tell.

The latest round has covered prophecy, and in it Sam Storms lays out an excellent presentation of what prophecy looks like post-Pentecost. With the “democratization” of prophecy, by the coming of the Holy Spirit, everyone in the Body of Christ can hear the voice of the Spirit. As the priesthood of the believer contrasts with the Levitical priesthood of Israel, the “prophethood of the believer” (as my colleague Scott has explained), removes prophecy from the theocratic authority structure of the Old Covenant.

The dispensational change has a consequent effect on the nature of post-Pentecost prophecy in terms of its level of authority, but Patton, Dispensationalism notwithstanding, continues to party like it’s A.D. 32. However his latest round of objections to Storm’s presentation, sounds to me less like his putting up a vigorous defense than it does trying to wrap his mind around unaccustomed ideas. The fact that he has to dig deep into the Old Testament to back up his sticking points suggests he realizes he’s still driving his father’s Oldsmobile. What are some of these areas?

Prophecy in Church history

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, of all people, cites a few instances of prophetic confrontation from the pulpit, where secrets of the heart were disclosed (1 Cor. 14:25). Patton points out that Spurgeon was nevertheless a Cessationist. No doubt he was, but the “all flesh” of Acts 2:17-18 includes Cessationists as well as Continuationists, though it is arguably more consistent to do so as the latter. I can look back and see instance of hearing God’s voice during my Cessationist days. So can Patton, according to a recent post.

Prophecy in relation to Scripture

Patton also bristles at the idea of fallable prophecy, hung up on a parallel between spoken prophecy and the written Word of God. The notion of “slippage room” between revelation received and prophecy given strike him as akin to a liberal, even “deistic” view of the inspiration of the Scriptures. Deism is an odd label for a view that affirms “manifestations of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:7) are “normative” for today. But what Patton voices as an objection is essentially his own restatement of what Storms has been arguing is the nature of post-Pentecost spoken prophecy as contrasted with the Scriptures. Patton gets it, but it makes him uncomfortable. If liberals bring Scripture down to the level of non-Canonical spoken prophecy, it is because they discount the guarantee of 1 Tim. 3:16, which guarantee is given to the Scriptures but never to non-Canonical prophecy.

Prophecy in relation to teaching

It is an odd charge–this “deism” business–in that, as a teacher, his own process of expositing the Scriptures operates virtually identically to Storms’ process interpreting and applying received revelation. The step of “observation” is different, reading the Bible vs. hearing the voice of God afresh, but why from that point is it more “deistic” to grant fallable human input as a possible contaminant of the spoken prophecy than it is in the case of spoken teaching? Because the Spirit should be expected to protect His word? And we shouldn’t have the same expectation in terms of the Spirit’s work of illumination? If anything, the contemporary view of teaching, as a charisma, that it isn’t particularly “supernatural” is more open to the charge of deism than anything suggested by Storms in regard to prophecy.

More than a little disconcerting is the double standard Patton voices, apprehensive against fallability in prophecy as tantamount to outright false prophecy. This in view of the fact that it is to the teachers of the Church that we owe the false doctrine known as Cessationism. For centuries the teachers have pushed out the prophets, leading the body in a rousing chorus of “I have no need of you.” Patton’s sticking point here is that prophecy must be held to a higher standard than teaching–to wit, perfection–on the grounds that prophecy is “claiming new revelation.”

Never mind that the interpreter of Scripture has much less excuse for hearing revelation incorrectly, in that he or she has to do with the established, written, canonical revelation, which has been known and read for centuries, discussed, debated, argued. With two millennia of interpretive tradition, shelves full of commentaries, and three to four years of Seminary training in analyzing texts the teacher has an enormous advantage, prophetic revelation typically being fleeting, faint, indistinct. Prophecy, like its sister gift, teaching, entails skills to be learned. Egad, to view my seminary preaching videos would make stoning seem a mercy. To a large extent the church is only now relearning how to prophesy, a further step in reformation, but we ought to insist on flawlessness–while in the matter of teaching the Body of Christ is so wildly divergent that huge percetages of the exercise of this gift must be pure error?

At any rate New Testament does not share Patton’s higher standard of prophecy than teaching, much the opposite:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1)

But with regard to prophecy:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” (1 Cor. 14:29-32)

This last sentence, “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” is what gives the slippage room discussed above, and precisely why there is no guarantee of infallability with spoken prophecy. The Scripture is different; it is precertified–God-breathed (1 Tim. 3:16). Even though “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man” and those who prophecy are “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21), the spirit of the prophet remains subject to the prophet, and thus must be weighed. Not so a “prophecy of Scripture” (emphasis mine), which is guaranteed not be a product of “someone’s own interpretation” (ibid. v. 20).

So how is it that Patton the Bible teacher says: “The congregation or students should always be reminded that the teacher is fallible since he or she has not received divine revelation.” (emphasis in original). Really? Um, then what’s that book in your hand, Michael?

Prophecy as encouragement

Patton seems now to appreciates the truth that prophecy is for upbuilding and encouragement (1 Cor. 14:3), and is not just a so-called “sign gift.” Still he is wary of false encouragement: “the ability of a prophecy to encourage is not the test of its veracity.” That is very true, which is why prophecies need to be tested.

Prophecy in New Testament examples

As invaluable as NT precept regarding post-Pentecost prophecy are the Canonical examples of it in the pages of Acts. If post-Pentecost prophecy bore the same authority as Scripture, or as the Old Testament prophet, Paul would have been in violation by continuing to Jerusalem even though “through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” (Acts 21:4). Patton seems not quite sure what to do with this example.

The oft-cited Agabus example is that the wording of his prophecy was not technically accurate (Acts 21:10). He said it was the Jews who would bind Paul, when in fact it was the Romans. Now is this an “error” in an otherwise legitimate prophecy? It’s a debatable argument. Patton’s response is to point to Peter’s Pentecost sermon in which he says to the Jews “you” crucified Jesus, since of course it was really the Romans. (Acts 2:36). The two instances are not quite parallel. Certainly it was Roman soldiers who drove the nails, but it was in response to the vox populi despite Pilate’s inclination to release Jesus:

And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” (Mark 15:14).

 

Still, now it’s Patton who is defending the prophet by comparing prophecy with teaching. So maybe this is progress.

Prophecy in the Grudem understanding

Wayne Grudem has been the go-to guy on the view of prophecy that Storms advances, ever since the publication of The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today in 1989, an expansion of his earlier 1982 PhD dissertation The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians. Patton asks whether anyone has espoused this view prior to Grudem. It is true that novelty is not particulary a recommendation in theology, but in the history of the church the apostolic teaching has frequently had to be rediscovered, and the charge of innovation has not been wanting. That Paul himself had to instruct the church not to despise prophecy (1 Thes. 5:20), does suggest Grudem is on solid ground. At any rate, the appendices of Grudem’s book, at least the revised edition (2000) contain examples of similar understanding from at least as far back as the Puritan era.

The Scriptures are there to be examined, however, and I think that Grudem does little more than present what is there to be read. I don’t know how many studies have been done by those taking prophecy seriously as something to be practiced today. Many if not most studies previous to his had been safely tucked away in Cessationism.

Ultimately, it is the Scriptures that must be the guide in this matter, not tradition. I am pretty sure that if one’s committment is to Cessationism, the statements of Scripture need not prove an insurmountable obstacle. However, I am all the more certain that to one passionate for Biblical truth–as Patton has always shown himself to be–shorn of Cessationist presuppositions, as he seems more and more to be–the Bible will ultimately speak for itself. And if those of us who support non-Canonical prophecy for today are correct, the full thaw will come in time.

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2 responses to “I feel like ice is slowly melting

  1. Marv,
    Thanks for this post. I’ve been glad you’ve been posting over at Parchment and Pen. I hope you’re right about Michael. I took him to be a bit more aggressive against prophecy than expected but these may be gasps of a fading cessationism.
    Just a quick point about the objection regarding Grudem as being the innovator of this view of prophecy. I think it’s important to make a distinction between the experience that Grudem draws attention to and the articulation of that experience. It seems a bit irrelevant whether anyone prior to Grudem articulated and systematized the doctrine of NT prophecy as he did. There were historical forces and paradigms that may have made such articulation very unlikely. For example, there were prophetic experiences among the Reformed theologians of the 17th century but these were filtered through the “ordinary/extraordinary” theological paradigm that made it difficult for anyone to see NT prophecy as something to be pursued since it was of an “extraordinary” nature.

    • I think you are right about the historical paradigm situation. Seems to me there is a often a confluence of influences that helps facilitate a theological shift. In the sixteenth century, it was the time for soteriology. I think aspects of pneumatology are being sorted out in these days. If they take us back to the Scriptures and to apostolic doctrine, this is reformation–this is what we all should want.

      I don’t know if my hunch is really right about Michael. I have this sneaking suspicion that if he reads my little post, he might also say “I hope he’s right.”

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