(Originally posted in April of 2011)
Did all the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, such as tongues and prophecy, cease with the completion of the New Testament? If we take the position that prophecy continues in some form, is such a view compatible with the conviction that God has given us all the authoritative revelation He intended to give (that the canon of Scripture is closed)?
In 2011, Dr. Bruce Compton (Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary) presented a paper on these questions at the Preserving the Truth Conference. What follows is a summary reflecting my understanding of Compton’s analysis. (An updated version of the paper is available here.)1
The two levels of prophecy view
Since Dr. Wayne Grudem’s work has been foundational for many who believe in a continuing gift of prophecy, Compton’s paper focuses on Grudem’s view2 that the NT speaks of two levels of prophecy: apostolic and non-apostolic. Grudem maintains that apostolic prophecy was authoritative and inerrant in the same way that Old Testament prophecy was and that this form of prophecy ceased when the NT Scriptures were completed.
But Grudem holds that a second level of prophecy—also a gift of the Spirit—existed simultaneously in NT times. This second level of prophecy is subject to error and not divinely authoritative. Consequently, it continues among believers to the present day.
Compton’s central question should be ours as well: does Grudem’s exegetical work truly support the idea of two levels of prophecy? Grudem’s case rests primarily on three arguments and three texts.
Grudem’s first argument3 is that the NT refers to two kinds of prophecy and distinguishes between them. His primary text is Ephesians 2:20: “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (NKJV).
Grudem understands “apostles and prophets” here to mean “apostolic prophets,” and bases his conclusion on a grammatical principle known among Greek students as Granville Sharp. Grudem’s conclusion is that only this foundational apostolic prophecy was uniquely inerrant and authoritative and that ordinary prophecy did not possess these qualities.
1 Corinthians 14:29
Grudem’s second argument4 is based on NT instructions to test the messages of prophets. His reasoning is that if prophecies had to be tested, this must mean believers had to sort out what was accurate from what was in error. And since OT prophecy and apostolic prophecy was inerrant, these verses must be referring to a different kind of prophecy, a second level of prophecy.
The primary text involved in this argument is 1 Corinthians 14:29: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge.”
Grudem acknowledges that the NT passages referring to testing prophecy are similar to OT passages aimed at distinguishing true prophets from false ones, but argues that the NT passages are also different in important ways. For example, the context of 1 Corinthians 14 indicates that these were already-approved prophets and that the “judging” refers to the contents of their prophecies. He argues further that diakrino (“judge”) here has the idea of “making distinctions” and not so much to judging the individual.
Grudem also sees support in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21: “Do not despise prophecies. 21 Test all things; hold fast what is good.”
Thirdly, Grudem argues5 that there must be two levels of prophecy because the NT records at least one example of a true prophet prophesying in error. The clearest case of this is the prophecy of Agabus in Acts 21:10-11.
… a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 When he had come to us, he took Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”
In Grudem’s view, Agabus’ prediction does not match what actually occurred in Acts 21:27-35. Rather than the Jews binding Paul and delivering him to the Gentiles, Gentiles bind him and he is taken forcefully by the Romans. Since Agabus was a true prophet, yet fell short of the OT standards for true prophets, his prophecy must have been of a different type.
Grudem argues further that though Agabus’ formula, “Thus says the Holy Spirit,” is very similar to the phrase “Thus says the Lord” in the Greek version of the OT, it is not identical. It is possible that Agabus was attributing the basic content of his prophecy to the Spirit but not claiming the particular words. Apparently, Grudem’s view is that Agabus received a general prophecy but misunderstood—and then misspoke—the particulars.
Problems with Grudem’s view
In Compton’s analysis, Grudem fails to make an adequate exegetical case for two levels of prophecy in the NT.
“Apostles and prophets”
Grudem’s Granville Sharp argument has some weaknesses.6 Though it is possible to interpret a plural Granville Sharp construction in the sense of “apostolic prophets,” the NT offers no examples of a plural Granville Sharp construction working this way. NT examples suggest that the phrase “apostles and prophets” either denotes two distinct groups (equivalent to the English “apostles and prophets”) or indicates that the first group is a subset of the second (something like “apostles and other prophets”).
On the whole, the NT evidence favors seeing two distinct groups in Ephesians 2:20, both of which form the inerrant and authoritative foundation of the church.
Grudem attempts to insure his view against Ephesians 2:20 problems by saying that even if the passage refers to two groups, he’d argue for a third non-authoritative congregational type of prophet. Compton counters that the context of Ephesians 2:20 refers to the apostles and prophets of churches in general, so what is true of them in Ephesians 2:20 is true of them elsewhere.
My own observation: even if the Ephesians passage means “apostolic prophets,” the statement does not prove that that there were non-apostolic prophets or that, if this category existed, their prophecy was any different in character from that of the apostolic prophets.
“Let the others judge”
The argument from prophet-testing is similarly inconclusive.7 Grudem grants that the non-apostolic prophets would have been tested at some point to determine whether they were true prophets and that the content of their prophecies would be the basis for testing. But if that was the case, how could an approved prophet later utter untrue prophecy? The criteria used to identify him as true initially would be violated. Wouldn’t this require him to be re-classed as a false prophet?
In addition, the verb diakrino in 1 Corinthians 14:29 is more flexible than Grudem suggests. The word can mean something close to “judge” (1 Cor. 4:7, “makes you to differ”; 11:29, “discerning”). And the verb in 1 Thess 5:20-21 (“test all things”) is the same one John uses in 1 John 4:1.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
All of the prophet-testing passages should be taken in the same sense as 1 John 4:11 and in the same sense that the OT prophets were tested.
Bound by the Jews and handed over
Was Agabus’ prediction that Paul would be bound by the Jews and handed over to the Gentiles inaccurate? It is possible to interpret his prophecy in a way that is consistent with what later occurred, and evidence elsewhere in Acts supports such an interpretation.8 The Jews in Jerusalem were certainly the ultimate cause of Paul’s imprisonment. Furthermore, in Acts 24:5-8, the Jewish lawyer Tertullus describes Paul’s case to governor Felix using the phrase, “we [the Jews] arrested him” (Acts 24:5-8). Later, Paul describes his initial arrest to Agrippa and Felix: “some Jews seized me in the temple and tried to put me to death” (Acts 26:21).
Agabus’ introductory phrase, “Thus says the Holy Spirit” is also not so easily dismissed. The formula differs only from “Thus says the Lord” in identifying the Lord as the Holy Spirit. Grudem fails to demonstrate that Agabus only meant that the gist came from God but not the words.
Grudem’s goal has been to safeguard the doctrine of the closed canon and simultaneously allow for ongoing prophecy. To do this, he proposes a view of continuing prophecy that is both subject to error and non-authoritative.
But in Compton’s analysis, Grudem fails to show that any legitimate NT prophecy was subject to error and non-authoritative. What’s more, the idea of non-authoritative prophecy is a problem in itself. When God truly reveals something to a prophet, how can that special revelation be anything less than authoritative? Whenever such a prophet delivers a true prophecy, it must be as binding as everything else God has revealed.
In Compton’s words, “either New Testament prophecy ceased with the writing of the New Testament and the canon is closed or New Testament prophecy continues and the canon is open. There is simply no middle ground.”9
1 The presentation and paper are entitled “A Critique of Wayne Grudem’s Two Levels of Prophecy.” The conference version of the paper referenced in this article is currently available at Religious Affections.
2 Grudem’s primary work on the subject is The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, Revised Ed., Crossway, 2000.
3 Compton, p. 2-4.
4 Compton, p. 5-7.
5 Compton, 8-10.
6 Compton, 3-5.
7 Compton, 6-7.
8 Compton, 9-10.
9 Compton, 11-12.