Canonical Prophecy vs Congregational Prophecy: Wayne Grudem’s Argument

Reposted from It Is Written. Read the series.

Elsewhere we have argued that the canon of the Old and New Testaments is closed.1 If it can be demonstrated that the revelation of NT prophecy and tongues belongs to the same category as the revelation of Scripture and if we grant the cessation of Scripture revelation, then I think we’re forced to conclude that NT prophecy and tongues have ceased. Continuationists, like Wayne Grudem, concede the force of this argument. Grudem writes, “Now if New Testament congregational prophecy was like Old Testament prophecy and New Testament apostolic words in its authority, then this cessationist objection would be true.”2

It is for this reason that Grudem and other continuationists are forced to argue for a distinction between the revelation of Scripture and that of NT tongues and prophecy. Since Wayne Grudem is a leading exponent for this position, we will examine his basic arguments for a distinction between canonical prophecy and NT congregational prophecy.3 Then we will attempt to offer a biblical refutation, demonstrating that NT congregational prophecy belongs to the same class of revelation as Scripture.

The Continuationist Argument

Grudem defines the prophecy of the OT prophets and NT apostles as “the very words of God” and, therefore, as possessing “absolute divine authority.”4 He then introduces a distinction between this canonical prophecy and “ordinary” congregational prophecy (and tongues).5 The NT gift of ordinary congregational prophecy is “telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind,” which is communicated in the prophet’s own words.6 Accordingly, NT congregational prophecy does not possess absolute authority but only relative authority. The following illustration of Grudem’s distinction between these two levels of revelation should help you to conceptualize His view.

Not all Continuationists are careful in making this distinction.7 Grudem, however, argues that NT gift of prophecy was semi-revelational, potentially fallible, and only relatively authoritative. I will only focus on his three primary arguments, which we can summarize as follows:

The Infallible Prophecy of NT Apostles

In the NT there were people who spoke and wrote God’s very words and had them recorded in Scripture, but we may be surprised to find that Jesus no longer calls them “prophets” but uses a new term, “apostles.” The apostles are the NT counterparts to the OT prophets (see 1 Cor. 2:13; 2 Cor. 13:3; Gal. 1:8-9; 11-12; 1 Thess. 2:13; 4:8, 15; 2 Peter 3:2). According to Grudem, it is the NT apostles and not the NT prophets, who have authority to write the words of New Testament Scripture. In his words,

The apostles, therefore, have authority to write words that are God’s own words, equal in truth status and authority to the words of the Old Testament. They do this in order to write in Scripture the central events of redemptive history—to record and apply to the lives of believers the facts and the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. To disbelieve or disobey and apostles’s authoritative words is to disbelieve or disobey God. The apostles are the New Testament counterpart of the divinely authoritative Old Testament prophets.8

The Fallible Prophecy of NT Prophets

The NT seems to contain examples of fallible prophecy uttered by NT believers or prophets (Acts 21:4, 10-11, cf. 33; 22:29). In particular, Grudem focuses upon certain passages in Acts which, he alleges, provide us with clear examples of fallible prophecy. Allow me to quote his comments on two passages in particular:

In Acts 21:4, we read of the disciples at Tyre: ‘Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.’ This seems to be a reference to prophecy directed towards Paul, but Paul disobeyed it! He never would have done this if this prophecy contained God’s very words and had authority equal to Scripture….

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; cf. 22:29), and the Jews, rather than delivering him voluntarily tried to kill him and he had to be rescued by force (v. 32).9

NT Prophecy Subject to Criticism

Paul tells the Thessalonians, “Do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:20-21). According to Grudem, Paul’s admonition assumes that both he and the Thessalonians saw a distinction between canonical prophecy and NT congregational prophecy. The Thessalonians had “received” and “accepted” the Apostle Paul’s preaching as God’s Word (1 Thess. 2:13; cf. 4:15). But they seemed to have a lesser view of NT prophecy. Apparently, they were even tempted to look down on it. Furthermore, Paul’s injunction to “test” NT prophecy and his command to “hold fast what is good” implies that NT prophecies may contain some things that are good and some things that are not good. According to Grudem, Paul would never tell the Thessalonians to treat Scripture that way. Therefore, the revelation of NT prophecy must be inferior and less authoritative than Scripture-revelation.10

Grudem also marshals the text in 1 Corinthians 14:29, where Paul says, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment” (NAS). Obviously, Paul is calling upon the Corinthian believers to carefully evaluate NT prophecy. And in light of this, Grudem remarks,

We cannot imagine that an Old Testament prophet like Isaiah would have said, ‘Listen to what I say and weigh what is said—sort the good from the bad, what you accept from what you should not accept!’ If prophecy had absolute divine authority, it would be a sin to do this. But here Paul commands that it be done, suggesting that New Testament prophecy did not have the authority of God’s very words.11

These are Grudem’s three primary arguments for a distinction between canonical prophecy and NT congregational prophecy. How shall we assess these arguments? Stay tuned for our next installment.

Notes

1 See my articles “The Canon Is Closed: The Cessation of Special Revelation” (June 18, 2018), and “The Necessity of Scripture: Special Revelation Has Ceased” (Aug 1, 2018).

2 Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994), 1039.

3 Grudem did his doctoral dissertation on this subject, and he edited it into popular form in a book entitled, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Crossway, 1988), and then incorporated his argument in his Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994). His monograph was updated in 2000. I will be drawing primarily from his systematic theology and the second edition of his monograph.

4 The Gift of Prophecy, 22-25; 29-33.

5 Ibid., 47-49.

6 Systematic Theology, 1049-1057.

7 As noted in an earlier post, W. R. Jones calls NT prophecy “a supernatural utterance,” which has “no connection with human thought, reasoning, and intellect.” Yet, Jones goes on to say that NT prophecy is “not to take the place of the Written Word of God.” Cited by James Garrett, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical & Evangelical, vol. 2 (Eerdmans, 1995), 215.

8 The Gift of Prophecy, 33; cf. Systematic Theology, 1050.

9 Systematic Theology, 1052; see also The Gift of Prophecy, 75-83.

10 The Gift of Prophecy, 179; Systematic Theology, 1054.

11 Systematic Theology, 1054; cf. The Gift of Prophecy, 54-62. Grudem also refers to Paul’s comments in verses 37 and 38 as proof that the NT prophets were on a lower level of authority than Paul as an apostle (67-68). But, as Richard Gaffin Jr. observes, “Nor does Paul’s peremptory command to the prophets in 1 Corinthians 14:37-38 establish their lower authority—any more than his sharp rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 means that the latter did not teach with full, infallible authority when he properly exercised his apostolic office,” Are Miraculous Gifts For Today? Four Views (Zondervan, 1996), 50.

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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There are 6 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

I think Grudem is reading into Acts 21 a bit--verse 30 makes clear that indeed, the Jews did bind him and hand him over to the Gentiles.  He's quibbling over which place he might have actually had shackles vs. ropes and cloth or human hands to hold him, methinks.  I can't use that as an example of New Testament prophets whose word was not true.  

Plus, if indeed there is "congregational prophecy", what is the import for us?  We may as well said "God is mumbling to me, can't quite make it out, but you should take it real seriously even though it may conflict with Scripture.".  I can't quite reconcile that with a coherent, Biblical, picture of God, nor can I reconcile it with the guidance He gives in His Word for our edification.  Maybe it does glorify God for Him to, in a manner of speaking, do a bit of "scat singing", but it's simply not something I see in His Word.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Josh S's picture

Bert, I think your last paragraph hits on one of the key practical problems for continualists. If "congregational prophecy" is "semi-revelatory, fallible, and relatively authoritative" than it's pretty much useless. How could we ever know the difference between a "prophecy" I received and a random thought that popped into my head?

Josh Stilwell, associate pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Des Moines, Iowa.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I don't know what Dr G's counterarguments are going to be yet, but the burden of proof must fall heavily on any view that sees such a major change in the meaning of "prophecy" going from OT to NT vs. a view that takes prophecy to always be the same thing.

While it's possible to interpret the biblical evidence the way Grudem does, putting "prophecy" in its biblical historical context exposes the view's tenuousness.

josh p's picture

I can’t remember which professor it was (Compton maybe) but DBTS has a couple of helpful articles evaluating Grudem’s position. They also have audio sessions available under the past MACP conferences. 

Bob Gonzales's picture

Andrew K wrote:

Kind of a teaser of a post. Don't care for cliffhanger endings.

Sorry, Andrew. Just a convenient place to break. I just posted the followup on my blog. 

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