In the last installment of this series, we considered Wayne Grudem’s argument for a distinction between the canonical-level1 prophecy of the Old Testament and the congregational-level prophecy of the New Testament. The former is fully inspired, infallible, and authoritative. The latter is semi-revelational, fallible, and only relatively authoritative. As we saw, Grudem bases this distinction primarily on two lines of evidence: first, examples of fallible NT prophecy and, second, commands to assess the authenticity of NT prophecy.2
I have five lines of response to Grudem’s arguments by which I will attempt to show that the Scriptures do not support Grudem’s distinction between an infallible OT canonical prophecy and a fallible NT congregational prophecy. In contrast, the data of Scripture seems to place NT prophecy in the same divine and authoritative category as OT prophecy. We’ll consider the first three lines of response below.
The Nature of Old Testament Prophecy
The nature of OT prophecy is highlighted in three key passages.
Here, Yahweh declares to Moses,
See, I have made you as God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you. And Aaron your brother shall speak to Pharaoh to send the children of Israel out of his land.
In this case, Moses is God’s prophet and Aaron is Moses’ prophet. God’s word is relayed through Moses, and then again through Aaron. Notice, however, that Aaron delivers the message to Pharaoh with, to use O. Palmer Robertson’s words, “undiminished authority.”3 In this case, the prophetical words of Aaron are canonical-level revelation.
In this passage, God assures his people that he will raise up another prophet like Moses after Moses passes off the scene. For our purposes, note how this passage depicts the nature of true OT prophecy:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, according to all you desired of the LORD your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him.’
Once again, a prophet as God’s spokesman. What’s more, God does not merely place his words in the prophet’s head but rather in his mouth (v. 18). A prophet does not simply receive revelatory concepts in his mind, but he actually speaks divine revelation. Finally, Moses makes it clear in verse 15 and 19 that the prophet’s words are canonical-level revelation: “You shall listen to him …. It shall come about that whoever will not listen to my words which he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.”
What’s interesting for our purposes is the way in which Peter interprets this text in Acts 3:22-23. According to Peter, this passage finds fulfillment not just in the line of prophets following Moses but primarily in the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ, who functions as a kind of “Second (antitypal) Moses.” Certainly, the text underscores continuity between the revelation of Old Covenant prophecy and the revelation of New Covenant prophecy of Christ.
2 Peter 1:20-21
Peter refers specifically to the “prophecy of Scripture,” which at the time of his writing was primarily OT Scripture. Regarding the nature of that prophetic revelation, Peter writes,
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
Peter stresses the fact that the prophecy of Scripture does not originate with man but with God. Furthermore, Peter argues that the Spirit not only superintends the thoughts of the prophet but the very words, which the prophet utters: “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”
In conclusion, the Bible clearly portrays OT prophecy as inspired revelation in the fullest sense, which is absolutely authoritative. With this point, Dr. Grudem has no quarrel, which leads to our second line of argumentation.4
The Continuity of New Testament Prophecy
The Bible seems to assume an essential continuity between OT and NT prophecy. This is seen, for example, on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Here, Peter and the other apostles are “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and they begin “to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit [gives] them utterance” (2:4). In the context, the word “tongues” refers to foreign languages other than Hebrew (2:8, 11). Then, to put this strange phenomenon in proper perspective, Peter cites an OT prophecy of which their speaking in tongues is a fulfillment. The text is Joel 2:28-32, which Peter cites in verses 17-18 :
‘And it shall come to pass in the last days,’ says God,
‘That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your young men shall see visions,
Your old men shall dream dreams.
And on My menservants and on My maidservants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days;
And they shall prophesy.’
The prophet Joel is pointing forward to “the last days,” when God will do something new and unusual. Prophecy will no longer be limited to a certain class of individuals. God will pour out his Spirit on “all flesh,” that is, on “all [kinds] of mankind.” Men and women, young and old, slave and freeman will all prophesy. Thus, New Covenant prophecy will be much more widely distributed than Old Covenant prophecy.
There is no indication, however, that the nature of NT prophecy will differ with that of the OT. On the contrary, the equation of prophecy with “visions” and “dreams” (2:17) suggests that NT prophecy is of the same inspired character as OT prophecy.5 It seems probable that Joel’s audience would have interpreted Joel’s promise of future prophecy as a reference to special revelation in the fullest sense. Just as God had authoritatively and infallibly revealed himself to Israel through Moses and the OT prophets, so the day is coming, says Joel, when God would pour out His Spirit again upon the Gentile as well as the Jew, and God’s Spirit would provide His people with fresh redemptive revelation.
This prophecy, claims Peter, was fulfilled at Pentecost. Hence, the “tongues” of Pentecost are the evidence of an outpouring of God’s Spirit that results in new revelation that is on the same level of inspiration and authority as OT prophecy. Moreover, we cannot limit this new canonical-level prophecy to the apostles since the fulfillment of Joel’s promise extends to women as well as to men (2:17-18).
The Inspiration of New Testament Prophecy
If Peter’s message on Pentecost assumes a continuity between prophecy in the Old and New Testaments, several other NT texts solidify that assumption. Space does not permit an extensive survey of NT prophecy. But the three passages below support the thesis that NT prophecy, like its OT counterpart, is fully inspired revelation.
Ephesians 2:20; 3:1-5
Elsewhere we have argued that Ephesians 2:20 supports the cessation of Scripture-quality revelation. In this verse, Paul clearly speaks of the ministry of apostles as the foundational stage of the NT church’s formation: “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.”6
For our purposes, I want to note that Paul refers not only to “apostles” but also to “prophets.” These make up the foundation of the NT church. That the “prophets” in view are NT prophets is clear from the sequence in which the two words occur. When OT prophets are compared to NT apostles, they are listed before the apostles in sequence (2 Pet. 3:2). When the term “prophets” follows apostles, however, then NT prophets are in view (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:28, 29; Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 4:11).
Furthermore, we know these are NT prophets because they, along with the apostles, are recipients of NT revelation. This revelation had not been revealed to the OT prophets in the same degree. Paul highlights this point in the opening verses of chapter three:
For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles — if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets (3:1-5).
It is crucial to note that Paul places NT prophets on a level with the apostles. The Spirit of God reveals to the prophets, as well as to the apostles, “the mystery of Christ.” The Greek word translated “mystery” (μυστήριον) refers to “what can be known only through revelation mediated from God (Mat 13:11)” or “as a supreme redemptive revelation of God through the Gospel of Christ mystery (Rom 16:25; Eph 3:9).”7 The gospel is not absent from the OT. But God has not revealed it then to the same degree he has revealed it now.
Thus, the prophets, along with the apostles, serve as God’s New Covenant spokesmen, and they communicate divinely authoritative revelation to the church (cf. Acts 13:1-4). What is more, the NT prophets belong to the foundational period of the church, which makes it likely that they, along with the apostles, pass off the scene some time after the NT canon is completed.
Sensing the force of this argument, Grudem attempts to view the phrase “apostles and prophets” (2:20; cf. 3:5) as a nominal hendiadys. The term “hendiadys” comes from three Greek words: hen = “one,” dia = “through,” dys = “two.” It refers to a literary device in which two words are used to describe one basic idea. Thus, Grudem interprets the phrase “apostles and prophets” as referring to one class of individuals and translates it, “the apostles who are the prophets.”8
Linguistic studies on the structure of Paul’s statement in the original have rendered Grudem’s interpretation improbable.9 Moreover, other NT passages like 1 Corinthians 12:28-29, Ephesians 4:11, and Revelation 18:20 clearly distinguish NT apostles from NT prophets. The passage in Ephesians 4 is especially relevant since it occurs in the same letter as the reference in 2:20 and 3:5. Therefore, according to the exegetical evidence of Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5, both NT apostles and NT prophets were the recipients and the agents of divinely authoritative revelation.
1 Corinthians 13:2; 14:1-3
In 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul contrasts the NT gift of prophecy with the NT virtue of Christian love. The former is worthless without the latter. In his words, “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Note that Paul portrays NT prophecy as a revelatory gift by which the one who possess the gift comes to understand “all mysteries.” Remember that according to Ephesians 3, the term “mysteries” refers to divine revelation of redemptive truth previously unknown—at least not to the same degree.
With this passage in mind, we’re in a position of consider Paul’s teaching in 14:1-3. There, he explains the nature of NT prophecy:
Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men.
You’ll recall that Peter equates tongues with prophecy in Acts 2. In that passage, “tongues” is the gift of prophecy uttered in a foreign language. In this passage (and in chapter 13), however, Paul seems to contrast the two.
How do we explain this? First, we should not view Paul’s distinction between prophecy and tongues as a contrast between rational speech and irrational noise or babbling. The Greek word translated “tongues” simply refers to language (cf. Isa. 28:11-12).10 Genuine language is not a lot of irrational, incoherent noise. True language is always characterized by real words that are structured together in a coherent and rational fashion (cf. 1 Cor. 14:19).11
Second, Paul’s contrast between prophecy and tongues is not a contrast between human speech and angelic speech. Some modern Pentecostals and Charismatics think otherwise. They appeal to 1 Corinthians 13:1 where Paul writes, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” On the basis of this verse, they argue, (1) that angelic language may be contrasted with human language, (2) that angelic language may be spoken by humans, and (3) that angelic language may sound unintelligible and irrational to humans, like “sounding brass or a clanging symbol.”
In response to this interpretation, we should observe, first, that the “sounding brass and clanging symbol” refer to human speech as well as angelic speech that is not accompanied by love. The point is not that human speech is intelligible while angelic speech is unintelligible. The point, rather, is that preaching the gospel—whether in a human tongue or an angelic tongue—makes no sense if we are not living the gospel. Second, Paul’s reference to the “tongues … of angels” may simply be a form of hyperbole—a way of saying, “Though I preaching the gospel with the eloquence of an angel.” Third, even if Paul is alluding to an actual language spoken by angels, he nowhere clearly identifies that angelic language as the tongues being uttered in the Corinthian church. In fact, there are indications in the context of 1 Corinthians 14 that Paul has actual human languages in view. Paul’s illustration in verses 10 and 11 points to a human language rather than an angelic language:
There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me.
Moreover, Paul’s reference to tongues as a “sign to unbelievers” in verses 21 and 22 is based upon Isaiah 28:11-12, and that OT passage is referring to a human language which is foreign and unintelligible to the recipient (cf. Deut. 28:49; Jer. 5:15).
For these reasons, it is best to view the gift of NT tongues neither as irrational babble nor as angelic speech, but rather as prophecy in a foreign language, which corresponds to the tongues spoken on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:8, 11). Paul’s contrast, then, is not between tongues and prophecy per se but between revelation uttered in a language intelligible to the church and revelation uttered in a language that is foreign to the church.12
What I really want to call your attention to is the fact that according to 13:2 and 14:2 both prophecy and tongues reveal “mysteries.” The term “mysteries” is not referring to garbled nonsense.13 That term translates the same Greek word that Paul used in Ephesians 3 to speak of the canonical-level NT special revelation uttered by apostles and prophets. And according to these passages in 1 Corinthians, these “mysteries” are “known” through the gift of prophecy (13:2) and they are “spoken” through the gift of tongues (14:2). Therefore, according to these passages, not only does the special revelation of NT prophecy reach the mind but it is uttered from the mouth as well! The Spirit does not merely provide the thoughts to think, but He gives the very words to say.
I do not believe these passages are compatible with Grudem’s position. Grudem argues that in the case of NT congregational prophecy, revelation only extends to the mind and not necessarily to the mouth.14 But here, the one who speaks in tongues actually “speaks” the mysteries. This is not to deny that prophets may have added their own interpretation to a prophet’s message at a later time. But in that case, we must distinguish their interpretation from the prophecy itself. NT prophecy by its very nature is divinely inspired revelation—nothing more and nothing less.
Revelation 1:3; 22:7, 10; 18-19
The apostle John identifies his writing as NT prophecy (1:3; 22:7, 10). Furthermore, drawing from the covenant language of Deuteronomy 4:2, he claims absolute, canonical authority for this NT prophecy:
I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book (22:18-19).
I realize Grudem would grant that John’s prophecy was completely inspired, inerrant, and divinely authoritative. In fact, he refers to this as a kind of exception to the rule.15 But I want to suggest that the prophecy we find elsewhere in the NT is the same kind of prophecy uttered and inscripturated by John in the Book of the Revelation. And as John the Apostle makes clear by the closing words the book, such prophecy carries absolute divine authority.
In summary, then, I believe the Biblical evidence supports the view that Old Testament prophecy and New Testament prophecy belong to the same category of divine revelation. They are both special revelation in the fullest sense of the word. But what about Grudem’s examples of so-called “fallible” NT prophecy? And what about the texts that portray NT prophecy as susceptible to evaluation? We’ll take up these questions in our next installment.
1 I’m using “canonical” more loosely to denote Scripture quality revelation that’s not necessarily limited to prophecy that became inscripturated into the canon.
4 In the newer edition of his book on NT prophecy, Grudem distinguishes between “established, primary prophets” and “secondary” prophets. Both received revelations from God, but only prophecy from the “established” prophets made it into the canon. Additionally, Grudem distinguishes “women as prophets” as a third group. Nevertheless, he does not, on that basis, argue that the revelation these three groups of prophetic agents received and uttered actually differed in nature. See The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, revised edition (Crossway, 2000), 274-76.
5 The Old Testament often places “dreams” and “visions” in the category of canonical revelation (cf. Num. 12:6; 24:3, 4; 2 Sam. 7:17; 2 Chron. 32:32; Prov. 29:18; Isa. 1:1; Jer. 23; Oba. 1:1; Nah. 1:1).
6 See my article, “The Necessity of Scripture: Special Revelation Has Ceased.”
7 Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament in Bible Works 4.0 (Copyright 1999), en loc.
8 The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 45-49; see also his “Appendix 6: The Interpretation of Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5,” 329-46.
9 See D. B. Wallace, “The Semantic Range of the Article-Noun-KAI-Noun Plural Construction in the New Testament,” Grace Theological Journal 4 (1983), 59-84; R. Fowler White, “Gaffin and Grudem on Eph 2:20: In Defense of Gaffin’s Cessationist Exegesis,” Westminster Theological Journal 54 (Fall 1992), 304-21.
10 Walter Bauer, William Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2nd edition (University of Chicago Press, 1979), 162.
11 When I was a new believer, a friend invited me to a Pentecostal Bible study where the subject of tongues was discussed. At the end of the study, the leader of the group asked us all to stand and pray for the Spirit. Everyone except me lifted their hands and began praying. Soon the woman standing next to me began dancing around and repeating over and over the phrase, “Babble … babble … babble.” That literally happened! But I don’t very much that’s what Paul had in view when speaking of “tongues.”
12 Some have cited verses 14 and 15 as proof that “tongues” is a non-intelligible utterance: “for if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.” They argue that since one’s understanding remains “unfruitful” when uttering a tongue, then it must refer to something distinct from a human language since even the one speaking cannot understand it. In verse 4, however, Paul seems to imply that the speaker could understand it: “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself.” Consequently, we may interpret the phrase “my understanding is unfruitful” as shorthand for, “My understanding of the divine revelation does not produce fruit in the hearers when it is uttered in a foreign language” (cf. Matt. 13:22; 2 Pet. 1:8).
13 Charles Hodge comments, “The meaning obviously is, that although not understood, yet what he utters contains divine truth. The difficultly was in the language used, not in the absence of meaning, or in the fact that inarticulate sounds were employed.” A Commentary on I and II Corinthians (1857; reprint, Banner of Truth, 1988), 280.
14 See the explanation and diagram of Grudem’s view in my post, “Canonical Prophecy vs. Congregational Prophecy: Wayne Grudem’s Argument.”
15 “Of course, the words prophet and prophecy were sometimes used of the apostles in contexts that emphasized the external spiritual influence (from the Holy Spirit) under which they spoke (so Rev. 1:3; 22:7; and Eph. 2:20; 3:5), but this was not the ordinary terminology used for the apostles, nor did the terms prophet and prophecy in themselves imply divine authority for their speech or writing.” Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994), 1051.
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 Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.