Read the series so far.
Continuationists, those who believe that the miraculous sign gifts, including prophecy, are still available to believers today, define their supposed revelations in different ways. There are two broad categories that could be acknowledged, the first of which claims prophetic messages from the Lord. Such messages would be direct, clear words from God or angels, perhaps in dreams or visions or through audible voices. Such claims have long been common in Pentecostal and charismatic circles and are increasing among non-charismatic evangelicals.
Extremely popular conference speaker and author Beth Moore is well known for her claims of hearing from God. In a DVD she states,
Boy, this is the heart of our study. This is the heart of our study. Listen carefully. What God began to say to me about five years ago, and I’m telling you it sent me on such a trek with Him, that my head is still whirling over it. He began to say to me, “I’m going to tell you something right now, Beth, and boy you write this one down and you say it as often as I give you utterance to say it.”1
Such statements coming from evangelicals are far too common to need much documentation. Moore is claiming a direct word from the Lord that sets the future agenda for her ministry. The source of authority is her own experience.
A popular view of continuing prophecy
From a more doctrinal base we turn to theologian Wayne Grudem, who has had a massive impact on the evangelical world concerning modern prophecies. Grudem has written the definitive book on the subject, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, in which he claims that church age prophecy is different than Old Testament prophecy. While the Old Testament prophet was held to the standard of infallibility when speaking a word from the Lord (Deut 18:20-24), prophecies beginning with Pentecost are fallible and imperfect. He writes,
Prophecy in ordinary New Testament churches was not equal to Scripture in authority, but simply a very human—and sometimes partially mistaken—report of something the Holy Spirit brought to someone’s mind.2
Modern prophecy then is impure and imperfect. By way of example and documentation Grudem quotes the Anglican charismatic leaders Dennis and Rita Bennet who claim,
We are not expected to accept every word spoken through the gifts of utterance…but we are only to accept what is quickened to us by the Holy Spirit and is in agreement with the Bible…one manifestation may be 75% God, but 25% the person’s own thoughts. We must discern between the two.3
One of the most disconcerting aspects of Grudem’s position is his uncertainty as to how we can distinguish between our own thoughts and those supposedly from God. This is such an important and disturbing feature of the conservative continuationist’s system that I will quote Grudem at length.
But how would a person know if what came to mind was a “revelation” from the Holy Spirit? Paul did not write specific instructions; nonetheless, we may suppose that in practice such a decision would include both an objective and subjective element. Objectively, did the revelation conform with what the prophet knew of the Old Testament Scriptures and with apostolic teaching?4
With this quote cessationists partially agree. The Holy Spirit cannot contradict Himself and anything allegedly spoken by the Holy Spirit which is in disagreement with Scripture is naturally spurious. The continuationists, however, are rarely claiming new doctrines that supplement Scripture; they are claiming specific, personal words that guide them in decision making or knowledge of the future.
It should be mentioned in passing that contrary to what is often stated by continuationists, many espousing modern prophecies do in fact add numerous doctrines not found or taught in the Bible such as specific demonic warfare techniques; insights on heaven or hell; “word of faith” authority that releases the power of God; dominion theology; novel views on the atonement, inspiration, and ecclesiology. While more conservative continuationists such as Grudem, Piper, and Mahaney would not be guilty of such theological additions, many others are.
Turning back to Grudem we read of his subjective element of prophecy,
But there was no doubt also a subjective element of personal judgement: did the revelation “seem like” something from the Holy Spirit; did it seem to be similar to other experiences of the Holy Spirit which he had known previously in worship…. Beyond this it is difficult to specify much further, except to say that over time a congregation would probably become more adept at making evaluations of prophecies, and individual prophets would also benefit from those evaluations and become more adept at recognizing a genuine revelation from the Holy Spirit and distinguishing it from their own thoughts.5
The novelty of this view
When we contrast Grudem’s view of prophecy with Scripture we find nothing remotely resembling what Grudem teaches. Nowhere in the Bible is one receiving a message from God left to wonder if God is speaking to him (with the temporary exception of the young boy Samuel). No one had to ask if what they were hearing “seemed like” the Holy Spirit or matched previous subjective experiences that also “seemed like” the Holy Spirit. They knew without question when God was speaking to them.
Grudem’s view is essentially the same teaching that Dallas Willard exerts in Hearing God: “How can you be sure God is speaking to you? The answer is that we learn by experience.”6 Therefore subjective experience becomes the test of authority concerning revelation from God. This is a far cry from what we find in Scripture.
The second half of Grudem’s quote moves into the realm of the incredible. After 2,000 years of church history, the best this world-class theologian can offer is that “over time a congregation would probably become more adept at making evaluations of prophecies…” This is a statement of speculation and hope that at some point the church will begin to figure out when a word of revelation is actually coming from the Holy Spirit and when it is the imagination of the speaker.
Let’s put Grudem’s hypothesis to a test. Sister Sally stands up in church and says the Holy Spirit has just revealed to her that an earthquake will flatten much of the city sometime within the next eight weeks. The congregation needs to add earthquake insurance to their properties, pack all their belongings, leave their jobs behind and head to the countryside. What is to be done? Given Grudem’s theory, the congregation knows that at best this prophecy is impure and most likely contains elements that are not from God. The people are then left to evaluate the validity of the revelation just received based on their own experience or other purely subjective means.
In the Bible, if a true prophet of God warned of an impending earthquake there would be no doubt as to what to do, but Grudem’s New Testament prophet is unreliable. I have to ask, of what value is such a prophecy? It has no authority or certainty, and may actually lead to bad and even disastrous decisions. These modern prophecies do not have the ring of “thus says the Lord.”
When the different views on modern revelation and prophecies collide, continuationists attempt to pacify cessationists by assuring them that their messages from the Lord are not on par with Scripture. Grudem quotes George Mallone saying,
Prophecy today, although it may be helpful and on occasion overwhelmingly specific, is not in the category of the revelation given to us in the Holy Scripture…. A person may hear the voice of the Lord and be compelled to speak, but there is no assurance that it is pollutant-free. There will be a mixture of flesh and spirit.7
Since almost no one within Christianity (save the cults) is claiming revelation that is equivalent to the Bible, we are left with a dilemma. Is it possible for God to speak in a non-authoritative way? Is it possible for Him to speak something less than His inspired word? The continuationists seem to have invented a novel type of divine revelation; one that contradicts Scripture and defies reason.
The purity of communication from God
In the Bible, as well as logically, either God is speaking or He is not. There is no such thing as partially inspired revelation or the true words from the Lord polluted by the misunderstanding or imagination of the prophet. This is not to say that all of God’s divine words are found in Scripture. John is careful to inform us that Jesus did many things, and certainly said many things, that are not recorded in his Gospel (John 20:30), or the other New Testament books for that matter. Yet all that Jesus said were the words of God. He never expressed an impure or untruthful thought. He spoke with authority.
Undoubtedly the Spirit also spoke through various men and women in biblical times whose words were not recorded in the Bible. The point, however, is that, while the Holy Spirit has not included every prophecy that He spoke through humans in Scripture, everything that He inspired people to say carries with it the infallible authority of the Word of God. Nothing that He said through people is less than God’s word. A polluted or partial revelation from the Holy Spirit has never been uttered.
This means that modern prophecies, words of knowledge, and other claims to hearing the voice of the Lord, if they are truly from the Holy Spirit, must be equal to the Scriptures in both inspiration and authority. God cannot speak with other than purity and inerrancy. Modern claims of the Lord speaking but with a “mixture of flesh and spirit” simply are not possible and are never attested to in Scripture. Those who are claiming divine revelation today must wrestle with the fact that what they are supposedly hearing must carry the same authority of the divinely inspired authors of Scripture.
Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.