Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Prophetic, but Not Inspired: The Difference Between Prophecy and Inspiration

As the argument over the use of the miraculous sign gifts continues, I want to quibble a bit with my cessationist allies. Often in the conversation over whether or not "prophecy" is still a continuing gift, cessationists will talk as if a prophecy should be "added to the canon." I think that this is a careless way to talk about the gift of prophecy because there is a difference between prophecy and inspired Scripture. They have many similarities, but they are not the same thing.

As a caveat, I confess that I do not know how God inspired the apostles and prophets to write Scripture. I do know that prophecy came in various forms: audible voices, dreams, visions, and apparently even in song. The act of writing inspired Scripture, however, remains a mystery. Nevertheless, it is important to note that both are direct revelations from God, regardless of the means in which they are delivered.

As far as similarities go, both prophecy and Scripture are divine revelation, and they are both 100% correct and binding. This may make them appear to be analogous on the surface, but it doesn't. Prophecy could be far more limited in scope than inspiration, and it was often not universally binding. Scripture, however, is always universally binding when applied correctly.

Here is what I mean. Nathan was a prophet who spoke prophetically to King David. His most famous prophecy involves his confrontation of King David after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. By revelation of God, Nathan uncovers David's sin, and lets David know that though he will not die, God is going to punish him. This story is both prophetic and inspired. It is inspired because it is written down; it is prophetic because it was direct revelation from God.

However, Nathan's prophecy to David does not apply to the reader in the same way it applied to David any more than Jonah's prophecy to Nineveh directly applies to Russia or the United States. As the inspired canon, these prophecies fit into the great whole to teach us lessons about God's sovereignty and forgiveness and severity, but we cannot go about telling cities that God will overthrow them in forty days or that God will deal with adulterers in the specific ways outlined to David.

We know, for instance, that there are prophecies that were not inspired. I can say that all prophecy is given by direct revelation of God, but not all prophecy is inspired. (You might say it this way: Not every teacher can pastor, but every pastor must teach.) I'm using the word "inspired" technically, meaning the infallible word of God written down and applicable to all people. One example is found in 1 Samuel chapter 10. There, King Saul prophesies with a group of travelling prophets. We know that he prophesied, and we know that there was a travelling band of prophets. We do not, however, know the content of their prophecies. We know that they were revelation from God, and that they were applicable and binding on someone, but they were not inspired for the world.

I only write this in an attempt at caution, lest the cessationist wind up overstating his case. Prophecy is not necessarily inspired canon, and it should not be considered as such. Prophecy was and is binding on those for whom it was meant, and so it is serious business. After all, false prophecy was a capital offense.

I do not believe that the prophetic ministry has continued from the days of the apostles. The apostles and prophets never uttered an 'iffy' prophecy, and they never wondered whether their word came from the Lord. They never prophesied with the caveat of "sometimes I'm wrong." No modern day 'prophet' has the chutzpah to prophecy like that, and the reason is because whatever it is he is doing, it isn't what the apostles and prophets of old were doing. If it were, he would not be confused or shy about it. He could say, on pain of death, "Thus saith the LORD!"

There, my small point is over. I'm sure that this minor addition to the conversation will inevitably lead to an end to the entire imbroglio.

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