Fallible Prophecy or False Prophets? A Critique of Grudem’s Argument

Reposted from It Is Written. Read the series.

Wayne Grudem’s argument for the continuation of New Testament prophecy and tongues today depends, in part, on a distinction he makes between OT canonical prophecy and NT congregational prophecy. In the case of the former, divine inspiration extends to the prophet’s words. Thus, the utterance is infallible and absolutely authoritative. But in the case of the latter, divine inspiration only extends to the prophet’s mind. Hence, the prophet’s words may or may not accurately capture the revelation imparted to the mind. As a result, NT prophecy is fallible and relatively authoritative.

To support this thesis, Grudem offers two main lines of argumentation: first, he highlights what he believes to be examples of fallible NT prophets. Second, he appeals to NT texts that call for the evaluation of NT prophecy as proof that such prophecy is less than fully inspired and divinely authoritative.1 This article will attempt to demonstrate that Grudem’s arguments are inconclusive and unconvincing.

Fallible NT Prophets?

Grudem’s examples of fallible NT prophets are inconclusive.

1. The NT Prophets in Tyre (Acts 21:4)

Let’s consider Grudem’s appeal to Acts 21:4. The verse, in its larger context, reads as follows:

And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem (Acts 21:1–4, ESV).

The key sentence for Grudem’s thesis comes at the end of verse 4: “And through the Spirit they [i.e., the disciples] were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (emphasis added). According to Grudem, the disciples uttered a prophecy which Paul disobeyed. Since Paul disobeyed this prophecy, he must not have viewed it as absolutely authoritative and equal with Scripture.2

Did Paul disobey canonical (fully inspired) prophecy? Or was this NT prophecy non-canonical (i.e., semi-inspired)? J. A. Alexander offers a third alternative: “This was not a divine command to Paul, but an inference of the disciples from the fact, which was revealed to them, that Paul would there be in great danger.”3 In other words, the phrase “though the Spirit” may simply be shorthand for “because of or in connection with the Spirit’s prophecy.”4 Even Grudem allows for this when he offers the following conjecture:

Suppose that some of the Christians at Tyre had some kind of “revelation” or indication from God about the suffering which Paul would face at Jerusalem. Then it would have been very natural for them to couple their subsequent prophecy (their own report of this revelation) with their own (erroneous) interpretation, and thus warn Paul not to go.5

In other words, Paul recognized the difference between the inspired revelation given by the Holy Spirit and the fallible interpretation placed upon the prophecy by his brethren. Consequently, he rejected their advice. The interchange probably went something like this: the Spirit reveals to the disciples, as He had to Paul and others, that Paul is facing great danger and suffering in Jerusalem. The disciples then infer from this inspired prophecy that Paul should refrain from going to Jerusalem (cf. vv. 10-12).

However, Paul had already received direct revelation from the Spirit and from the Lord Jesus Christ that he should go Jerusalem as Christ’s witness despite the danger of persecution. The reader should note, for example, the account of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. Christ has revealed himself to Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul has been smitten with blindness. Christ calls a disciple named Ananias to take the gospel to Paul and to lay his hands upon Paul’s eyes. Ananias at first objects because he has heard of Paul’s reputation as a persecutor of the church. But notice Christ’s response in verses 15 and 16:

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (ESV).

And in Acts 20:22-23, we may have an instance of the Spirit confirming Christ’s words:

And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me (ESV).

In conclusion, Paul is not defying the prophecy given to the disciples. That prophecy accurately portends what awaits Paul. What Paul respectfully disregards, however, is the human inference the disciples place on the prophecy, namely, that Paul should not go to Jerusalem.

2. The NT Prophet Agabus (Acts 21:10-11)

Not only does the Spirit portend Paul’s sufferings through the prophets in Tyre, but he soon-after seconds that warning with a dramatized revelation from a NT prophet named Agabus. According to Grudem, this prophecy contains “two small mistakes”:

Then in Acts 21:10-11, Agabus prophesied that the Jews at Jerusalem would bind Paul and “deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles,” a prediction that was nearly correct but not quite: the Romans, not the Jews, bound Paul (v. 33; also 22:29), and the Jews, rather than delivering him voluntarily tried to kill him and he had to be rescued by force (v. 32).6

We may offer the following responses to Grudem’s argument: first, it’s possible that when the Jews seized Paul, they bound him, perhaps with his own belt (vv. 27-30)! Second, prophetic predictions need not be interpreted in a hyper-literal fashion—as if every detail must be fulfilled. For example, in Acts 2:16ff “all mankind” did not prophesy, only the handful of disciples at Pentecost. To be more technical, they did not “prophesy” but spoke in tongues. And it’s clear that at that time the sun was not literally darkened nor the moon literally turned to blood!7 Third, Paul himself seemed to view Agabus’ prophecy as fulfilled:

“After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans” (Acts 28:17, ESV).

In Paul’s mind, his own countrymen had delivered him into the hands of the Romans, just as Agabus had predicted. Finally, as one commentator has pointed out, “It is common to speak of the responsible party or parties as performing an act even though he or they may not have been the immediate agent(s).”8 For instance, in Acts 2:23 Peter says that the Jews crucified Christ whereas the Romans actually did it.

In summary, Grudem’s examples of so-called fallible prophets cannot withstand close scrutiny.

Fallible NT Prophecy?

But what about the examples of Paul directing the NT church to evaluate NT prophecy? For instance, Paul tells the Corinthians, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (1 Cor 14:29, ESV). He says to the believers in Thessalonica, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:19–21, ESV).

1. Dividing the Truth from Error?

According to Grudem, these exhortations assume that genuine NT prophecy might contain a mixture of truth and error. As he puts it, “Paul had in mind the kind of evaluation whereby each person would ‘weigh what is said’ in his own mind, accepting some of the prophecy as good and helpful and rejecting some of it as erroneous or misleading.”9

2. Deciding Who Gets to Speak?

In response, O. Palmer Robertson suggests, the Greek word translated “weigh” (διακρίνω) may simply refer to the process of discriminating whose turn it was to speak (cf. vv. 27-29a).10 There are good reasons, however, for interpreting Paul’s exhortation as a command to evaluate the prophet and his message. To begin with, most lexicons assign the meaning of careful evaluation to the word as it is used in this passage.11 Thus, when Paul refers to weighing or passing judgment, he’s not telling them to decide whose turn it is to speak; he’s exhorting them to evaluate the prophet who is speaking.

3. Distinguishing Prophecy from Interpretation?

It might be argued that Paul was not commanding them to evaluate the prophecy itself but rather the interpretation that accompanied the prophecy (cf. Acts 21:4, 12). But the overall context suggests that Paul had the prophet and the prophecy in view as the object of their evaluation. The whole chapter is mainly about prophecy; the verse itself identifies the speakers as prophets; and there is no clear reference to interpretations being added to the message.

4. Discerning the Truth Prophet from the False

The best reading of Paul’s exhortations to evaluate NT prophecy understands them as calling for discerning the true prophet from the false prophet. Three lines of argument support this approach.

(1) The Meaning of διακρίνω

Paul uses a cognate form of the verb διακρίνω in 1 Corinthians 12:10, where he refers to individuals who have been endowed with the gift of “the discerning [διακρίσεις] of spirits” (NKJV). Most commentators agree that the gift in view is the ability to distinguish a false prophet from a true prophet (see ESV).12 This interpretation finds a parallel in 1 John 4:1, where the Apostle John exhorts believers,“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1, ESV).

In other words, the process of evaluating prophecy is not a process of sifting out some true words from among false words but rather a process of determining whether the prophet’s claim to be a genuine reliable spokesman for God is valid or invalid. It would be analogous to the process of distinguishing counterfeit currency from genuine currency. The object is not to determine whether portions of the currency are genuine. The point is to determine whether the whole currency is the real thing or whether the whole currency is counterfeit. The evaluation has an all-or-nothing objective. I believe that’s how we should understand Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 14:29 and 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21.

(2) The Analogy of Evaluating OT Prophets and NT Apostles

This is precisely the way the people of Israel were to assess OT prophets and prophecy. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:20-22 are key passages in this regard. Let’s read these two passages and note their bearing upon the NT injunctions to evaluate prophecy:

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, “Let us go after other gods,” which you have not known, “and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deut 13:1-5, ESV).

But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, “How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?”— when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him (Deut 18:20–22, ESV).

Most OT scholars find at least three major criteria for validating a genuine prophet of Yahweh given in the Old Testament. First of all, was the prophet an agent of miraculous signs and wonders? God’s performing mighty and miraculous acts through Moses certainly had the effect of validating Moses’ as God’s spokesman (Exod. 4:1-9; 7:3; 10:1-2). This was also true of Christ who was the Greater Moses (John 2:11, 23; 3:2; 6:2, 26; 9:16; 11:47; 12:37; 20:30). But as Deuteronomy 13 makes clear, the ability to perform “signs or wonders” was not to be the chief criterion in judging a prophet (vv. 1-2). Indeed, God sometimes granted false prophets the ability to perform signs and wonders as a test to see whether His people would adhere to the truth (v. 3; Matt. 24:24).

Second, there was the question of whether the prophet’s predictions about future events came true? This seems to be the major criterion in the second passage where Moses says in verse 22, “when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him” (cf. Num. 16:29; 1 Kings 22:23-28; 2 Kings 1:10, 12; Isa. 44:26; Jer. 28:8-9).

The third and most important criterion was whether the prophet’s message conformed to already-established canonical revelation. Note especially the point of focus in Deuteronomy 13 is whether the prophet is speaking any message to draw God’s people away from Yahweh and His revealed will, verse 5, “to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk.” In the words of Isaiah 8:20, if he did not speak in conformity with “the law and the testimony,” there is no light in him. This was the most crucial test for distinguishing a true prophet from a false prophet.

This was the very test to which the Jews in Berea subjected the apostle Paul when he came preaching the gospel in their synagogue. We’re told in Acts 17:11, “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” They were trying to discern whether Paul were a true spokesman for God or not. And Paul did not object to this kind of scrutiny. In fact, he tells the Galatians, “if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (1:8).

The point I’m driving at is this: there seems to be a parallel between the commands to evaluate Old Testament prophecy and the commands to evaluate New Testament prophecy. In both cases, the objective is not merely to sift the good words from the bad words in any given message. This cannot be the case in those OT passages since in both instances God demands the false prophet be put to death (Deut. 13:5; 18:20).

While the NT passages do not demand the death sentence for false prophets, they do demand the church refuse to allow false prophets to become members and to excommunicate them if they are members (Rom. 16:17-18; Gal. 1:8, 9; 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 3:5; Titus 3:10; 2 John 1:10). Thus, the man who claimed to be a prophetic agent of New Covenant revelation had better be telling the truth. If his words did not conform to the earlier revelation of the Old Testament and the inspired witness of the chosen Apostles, he would not only be censured for speaking falsehood, but he would likely have been put out of the church as a false prophet.

Conclusion

We conclude that Grudem’s arguments for two levels of prophecy do not have the support of Scripture. Paul’s commands to evaluate NT prophecy do not distinguish New Testament prophecy from Old Testament prophecy. On the contrary, they serve to highlight the continuity between both institutions. Both OT prophecy and NT prophecy—if true—are to be viewed in their entirety as the inspired, infallible, authoritative word of God. Anything less, does not deserve to be called “prophecy” at all, at least in the biblical sense of that term.

Notes

1 For a summary of Grudem’s argument, see “Canonical Prophecy vs Congregational Prophecy: Wayne Grudem’s Argument.”

2 The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, revised ed. (Crossway, 2000), 75.

3 A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (reprint, Banner of Truth, 1984), 260.

4 The Greek preposition διά with the genitive may indicate cause (Rom. 12:1) or attendant circumstances (Acts 14:22).

5 The Gift of Prophecy, 76.

6 Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994), 1032. Cf. The Gift of Prophecy, 77-83.

7 The prophecy of Isaiah may furnish us with an OT example. Isaiah 45:13 prophecies that Cyrus would decree not only the rebuilding of the temple, but also the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem. In the unfolding of history, it was actually Artaxerxes I who gave the specific decree regarding the city (Neh. 2:1-8; cf. Dan. 9:25). This fact does not invalidate Isaiah’s prophecy since it was Cyrus’ decree that provided the favorable context for Artaxerxes’ later decree. In any case, we have an example of inspired prophecy with a “loose” but infallible fulfillment.

8 Robert Thomas, “Prophesy Rediscovered? A Review of The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today,” Bibliotheca Sacra 149:593 (1992), 91.

9 The Gift of Prophecy, 57. Cf. Ibid., 54-62; Systematic Theology, 1054-55;

10 The Final Word (Banner of Truth, 1993), 101.

11 Joseph Henry Thayer, The New Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Hendrickson Publishers, 1979, 1981), 138; Walter Bauer, William Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2nd edition (University of Chicago Press, 1979), 185; Louw & Nida, Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd edition (United Bible Societies, 1989), 1:364 [30.109].

12 Charles Hodge, for example, writes, “It was therefore of importance to have a class of men with the gift of discernment, who could determine whether a man was really inspired, or spoke only from the impulse of his own mind, or from the dictation of some evil spirit.” 1 & 2 Corinthians (reprint, Banner of Truth, 1988), 248.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

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This sums up my view pretty much exactly. With a definition and dynamic for "prophecy" and "prophets" already well established in the OT, the burden of proof falls on any interpreter who tries to see a different kind of prophecy in the NT, and the continuationist views fail to do that.

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