Is the Gift of Prophecy for Today?

Part 3 (of 4 parts):

"Does the New Testament Teach Two Prophetic Gifts?"

F. David Farnell [ 1 ]
Associate Professor of New Testament
The Master´s Seminary, Sun Valley, California

In the second century, postapostolic Christianity faced a serious challenge from the prophetic crisis known as the "New Prophecy" (nea profhteia) or Montanism. This labeling of Montanism as the "New Prophecy" by its adherents shows why the early church rejected Montanism: it was "new" in that it differed markedly from the early church's understanding of the nature of New Testament prophets and prophecy. As noted, this understanding by the early church came from the standards set by the Old Testament for the evaluation of prophets. Before being checked, Montanism spread rapidly throughout the Greco-Roman world and quickly won many adherents, so that even the church father Tertullian was swept away by its claims. Such a sharp departure from accepted biblical norms of prophecy, especially in its content and manner of expression, caused great alarm. The crisis became so acute that the church struggled for decades to quell the swelling numbers of adherents to Montanism.

Now in the 20th century, Christianity is once again facing a prophetic crisis. Its original impetus occurred in the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, which developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Recently, however, the momentum has come from the Vineyard and the Signs and Wonders movements, which have spread rapidly among churches that have held traditionally to the "cessationist" viewpoint regarding New Testament prophecy. These groups essentially argue that prophets and prophecy are active today as they were in the first-century church.

Defense of this practice of "prophecy" has recently come from the work of Wayne A. Grudem, who is active in a Vineyard-affiliated church and is an associate professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Grudem's arguments have become a primary justification for this form of "prophecy" not only in Vineyard fellowships but also among such groups as the Signs and Wonders movement and the Kansas City Fellowship of prophets. Accolades for his view are coming from within and without the charismatic and Pentecostal movements, while some express hope that this work could be used as a means of fostering dialogue between cessationists and noncessationists.

Since Grudem's work has become a mainstay of defense among charismatic groups and since calls for dialogue and unity between cessationists and noncessationists are being voiced based on his writings, his central thesis and major supporting arguments must be analyzed in order to determine their validity.

Delineation of Grudem's Hypothesis

Grudem offers his own definition of Christian prophecy, one that differs from traditional understanding. He writes, "Prophecy in ordinary New Testament churches was not equal to Scripture in authority, but was simply a very human - and sometimes partially mistaken - report of something the Holy Spirit brought to someone's mind." New Testament prophecy consists of "telling something God has spontaneously brought to mind." In another place he terms New Testament prophecy as "an unreliable human speech act in response to a revelation from the Holy Spirit." He admits that his concept is a "somewhat new definition of the nature of Christian prophecy."

He takes his definition from both cessationists and charismatics. In common with the former he understands prophecy as noncompetitive with the authority of the canonical New Testament because of the close of the canon at the end of the apostolic era. On the other hand he concurs with the charismatic understanding that prophecy preserves "the spontaneous, powerful working of the Holy Spirit, giving 'edification, encouragement, and comfort,' which speaks directly to the needs of the moment and causes people to realize that 'truly God is among you.'" According to Grudem, Old Testament prophets are not comparable to New Testament prophets; instead, Old Testament prophets are to be compared with the New Testament apostles.

Consequently New Testament prophets were "simply reporting in their own words what God would bring to mind, and . . . these prophecies did not have the authority of the words of the Lord."

Much more commonly, prophet and prophecy were used of ordinary Christians who spoke not with absolute divine authority, but simply to report something God had laid on their hearts or brought to their minds. There are many indications in the New Testament that this ordinary gift of prophecy had authority less than that of the Bible, and even less than that of recognized Bible teaching in the early church.

In other words, prophecy depended on revelation from the Holy Spirit, but the prophet could understand it imperfectly, report it inaccurately, or both.

According to Grudem, only New Testament apostles spoke inspired words. Moreover, the words of the New Testament prophets were not inspired as were those of Old Testament prophets. This leaves him with two forms of New Testament prophecy: nonauthoritative "congregational" prophecy and authoritative (i.e., apostolic) prophecy.

The crucial point in Grudem's thesis is that the apostles, not the New Testament prophets, were the true successors of the Old Testament prophets and, like their earlier counterparts, spoke under the authority derived from the plenary verbal inspiration of their words. This apostolic gift is distinguished from the gift of prophecy exercised at Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 12-14), Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:19-21), Tyre (Acts 21:4), Ephesus (19:6), and by others such as Agabus (11:28; 21:10-11). Only the general content of this secondary prophecy can be vouched for, with allowances made for its being partially mistaken.

As a result, the New Testament gift of prophecy was allegedly open to being disobeyed without blame (Acts 21:4), being critically assessed by the whole congregation (1 Cor. 14:29), and being rejected outright as subordinate to Paul's apostolic revelations (vv. 37-38). According to Grudem, "these prophecies did not have the authority of the words of the Lord." Therefore Grudem posits a sharp discontinuity between Old Testament prophets and New Testament prophets. New Testament prophets did not stand in line with their Old Testament counterparts. According to Grudem qualitative differences exist between Old Testament and New Testament prophets and prophecy, especially in their accuracy and authority.

Some Weaknesses of Grudem's Hypothesis

This newly proposed theory has multiple weaknesses. These show that Grudem's view contrasts with that of the New Testament concerning prophecy.

Continuity Of Old Testament And New Testament Prophecy

One of Grudem's fundamental assumptions is the positing of a sharp discontinuity between Old and New Testament prophets. His case for an unauthoritative "congregational" prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and elsewhere in the New Testament rests on assuming a discontinuity between Old and New Testament prophecy. This premise of a strong discontinuity is fallacious for several reasons. Though these have been delineated in the two previous articles in this series, they are now applied directly to Grudem's hypothesis.

Standards for evaluating prophets in the postapostolic church of the second century. The postapostolic early church judged New Testament prophets on the basis of the standards set forth for prophets in the Old Testament. New Testament prophets who prophesied falsely were considered false prophets on the basis of Old Testament standards of evaluation. Thus Grudem's assertion that New Testament prophets could be mistaken is not valid. Prophets in both eras who were wrong or inaccurate were shown to be false prophets by their false prophesying. As shown in the first article of this series, early postapostolic Christians utilized Old Testament standards to judge later prophets. This may be seen, for example, by Anonymous's or Epiphanius's handling of the Montanist controversy. The criteria set forth in the Old Testament for prophets was used to condemn the excesses of Montanus and his followers for their false or "mistaken" prophecies.

Grudem also acknowledges that the Didache contains statements contradictory to his hypothesis. Didache 11 is directly contrary to his view that the authority of New Testament "congregational" prophecy does not extend to the words spoken by the prophets. Grudem admits that according to Didache 11.7, postapostolic church prophets "were speaking with a divine authority that extended to their actual words." In 11.7, the Didache notes that "you must neither make trial of nor pass judgment on any prophet who speaks forth in the spirit. For every (other) sin will be forgiven, but this sin will not be forgiven" (cf. Matt. 12:31). Here the thrust of the passage emphasizes that the authority of the New Testament prophet extended to the words of the prophecy uttered.

Grudem tries to counter this manifest contradiction to his hypothesis by stating that Didache 11.7 "almost directly contradicts Paul's instructions in 1 Corinthians 14:29" regarding the evaluation of prophets. Because of this, he hastily dismisses the data on New Testament prophets and prophecy supplied by the Didache in this verse and throughout the entire work. However, Grudem has erroneously interpreted 11.7. The way in which the Didache refers to a prophet as one "who speaks forth in the Spirit" (lalounta en pneumati, 11.7) indicates that a prophet was not to be tested while he was giving the prophecy. After setting forth the prophecy, a prophet's behavior and accuracy (i.e., the prophetic content) could be used as legitimate means of testing and determining the genuineness of the prophet (cf. Didache 11.8-12). Furthermore, according to Didache 11.11, while prophets may not be judged during their act of prophesying, their genuineness was to be judged by the community. In continuity with Paul's insistence that prophets and their prophecy be tested (1 Cor. 14:29) and John's instruction to test a prophet and his prophecy (1 John 4:1-3), the Didache asserts that prophets and their prophecies were to be tested. Though a surface reading of the Didache may give the impression that it rejects the testing of a prophet, an examination of the context of 11.8-12 makes it clear that this was not the case. The issue in testing seems to be the time of the testing rather than if a prophet was to be tested. Means of evaluating a true prophet are given in 11.8: "Not everyone who speaks forth in the Spirit is a prophet, but only if he has the kind of behavior which the Lord approves. From his behavior, then, will the false prophet and the true prophet be known." Prophets were to be judged on the basis of lack of greed for gain, consistency in doctrine and practice, and demonstration of knowing the ways of God. Therefore this verse does not contradict 1 Corinthians 14:29 but stands in direct contradiction to Grudem's view. The Didache cannot be so easily dismissed.

An additional approach of Grudem is to dismiss the Didache completely as written by someone "who was out of touch with mainstream apostolic activity and teaching." Dismissing this evidence is convenient for his hypothesis. However, several arguments reveal his conclusion to be hasty. Although Eusebius places the Didache among the noncanonical books, some in the early church, such as Clement of Alexandria, appear to have understood it as Scripture. Athanasius said that while the work was not in the canon, it enjoyed a prominent position among books "appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us." Therefore, although the book admittedly is noncanonical, these citations indicate that it enjoyed high regard in the early church.

Some patristic scholars have argued for an early date for the Didache. Audet dates it around A.D. 60. Even if one does not agree with him, the Didache still reflects an early date. After an extensive discussion, Kraft concludes that the Didache evidences a great deal of Hellenistic Jewish material from early (i.e., first-century and early second-century) forms of Christianity. In light of this, beyond the fact that the Didache is not canonical, there is no substantial reason for rejecting its testimony in such a wholesale fashion as Grudem does. If the Didache is allowed to speak for itself, it stands in contradiction to his hypothesis. Contrary to Grudem's assertions, the Didache provides an important and early indication of how the postapostolic early church regarded New Testament prophets and prophecy. The Didache substantiates the fact that New Testament prophets were considered fully authoritative in their prophetic pronouncements, even to the very words of the prophecy.

A final example must suffice with reference to the postapostolic church fathers. Grudem cites Ignatius's Epistle to the Philadelphians 7.1-2. In 7.1 Ignatius wrote, "I cried out while I was with you, I spoke with a great voice, - with God's own voice, 'Give heed to the bishop, and to the presbytery and deacons.'" In 7.2, "the Spirit was preaching, and saying this, 'Do nothing without the bishop, keep your flesh as the temple of God, love unity, flee from divisions, be imitators of Jesus Christ, as was he also of his Father.'" Grudem presents this as an example supporting his contention for New Testament "congregational" prophecy having a content of a general kind (versus "apostolic" prophecy which extended to the very words): "The Holy Spirit was saying 'approximately this' or 'something like this.'"

Several arguments militate against Grudem's contention that Ignatius's prophecy supports Grudem's hypothesis. First, Ignatius claimed that he spoke with God's voice. This assertion would hardly support Grudem's contention that New Testament prophets could be mistaken, especially when Ignatius equated his prophecy with "God's own voice." This clearly intimates that New Testament "congregational" prophecy was considered totally authoritative in the postapostolic early church. Second, Ignatius claimed to have supernatural knowledge of the divisions in the Philadelphian community of believers. This information did not come "from any human being" but from the Holy Spirit (7.2). He rested the accuracy and authority of his prophecies on the miraculous source of his information. For Ignatius, the Holy Spirit served as the guarantor of the accuracy of his prophesying. Third, Grudem's assertion that the prophecy of 7.2 is a "summary" of 7.1, which supports his contention for prophecy of "general content," is doubtful. The prophecy of 7.2 supplies too much precise information for Grudem's argument to be valid that 7.2 summarizes 7.1. Ignatius seems to have given a separate prophecy in 7.2, which added additional explicit prophetic content to that of 7.1. Fourth, Ignatius introduced his prophecy in 7.2 by the phrase to pneuma ... legon tade, the same phrase used in both the Old and New Testaments to introduce exact ("word-for-word") prophetic content (Ezek. 6:1; 7:2; 11:17; Amos 1:3, 9, 13; 2:4; Acts 21:10-11; Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14, etc.). This phrase signals a conscious attempt by Ignatius to imitate biblical prophets who were considered inspired in the very words they utilized in prophecy. In light of this, it is more likely that Ignatius considered his prophecy to be "word-for-word" inspired and fully authoritative rather than only "generally" inspired in content.

In summary, when the data from the postapostolic church fathers are viewed closely, support for Grudem's contention melts away. Instead, the data support the contention for fully authoritative and accurate prophecy as maintained by the central thrusts of this series.

New Testament prophecy founded on Old Testament prophecy. The discussion of the quotation of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:17-21 has shown that New Testament prophecy is founded on and has a significant continuity with Old Testament prophetic phenomenon and experience. Indeed, Peter linked this beginning of New Testament prophecy with the prophetic phenomena of the Old Testament. The verse establishes a fundamental continuity between Old and New Testament prophecy. This fundamental continuity contradicts Grudem's hypothesis that posits a substantial difference between Old Testament and New Testament prophets and prophecy.

Similarity of vocabulary and phraseology for Old Testament and New Testament prophets. It has been shown that the New Testament vocabulary and phraseology referring to both prophets and prophecy serve as a strong indication that the New Testament did not conceptualize any significant differences in prophetic expression between Old and New Testament prophets. Since the vocabulary and phraseology are the same, this would also indicate that the New Testament authors conceived of the existence of a fundamental continuity between these two eras of prophecy.

Importantly, the New Testament vocabulary is also uniform in referring to various New Testament prophets. Grudem's proposed identification of two forms of prophecy rests on differentiating prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12-14 from prophecy in Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5, the latter being "apostolic" prophecy and the former being "congregational" prophecy. An inherent weakness in this distinction is reflected in a close scrutiny of technical terms used in both sections. The same "clusters" of revelational-type words occur in 1 Corinthians 12-14 as occur in the context of Ephesians 2-3. For example profhthj; and profteuw are used in both (1 Cor. 12:28; 13:9; 14:1-6, 24, 31-32, 37, 39; Eph. 2:20; 3:5). So are oikodomh and oikodomew (1 Cor. 14:3-5, 12, 17, 26; Eph. 2:20-21), musthrion (1 Cor. 13:2; 14:2; Eph. 3:3-4, 9), apokalupsij and apokaluptw (1 Cor. 14:6, 26, 30; Eph. 3:3, 5), kruptw and its cognates (1 Cor. 14:25; Eph. 3:9), apostoloj (1 Cor. 12:28-29; Eph. 2:20; 3:5), and sofia (1 Cor. 12:8; Eph. 3:10). Grouping such technical terminology in a single context signals a reference to direct divine communication to an authoritative prophet. The presence of this type of communication in Ephesians 2-3 is not in doubt, and no significant basis exists for questioning a reference to it in 1 Corinthians 12-14. So the case for contrasting "congregational" prophecy with "apostolic" prophecy falters at another point.

In light of the evidence, Grudem's premise of a sharp discontinuity between Old and New Testament prophecy is doubtful.

Grammatically Related Weaknesses

Misuse of Sharp's rule. In the second article in this series, it was shown that Ephesians 2:20 indicates that apostles and New Testament prophets constituted the foundation of the church. As such, both apostles and New Testament prophets were involved in the important reception of revelation regarding such doctrines as Gentile inclusion in the composition of the church (Eph. 3:5-9). In contrast to this, Grudem interprets Ephesians 2:20 to mean "the apostles who are also prophets" solely constituted the doctrinal foundation of the church, thereby excluding New Testament prophets from such a foundational role. Grudem's most significant argument for equating "apostles" with "prophets" in Ephesians 2:20 stems from an application of a grammatical rule dealing with two nouns connected by the Greek word "kai" ("and") and governed by only one article. His argument is seriously flawed.

Regarding Ephesians 2:20 he writes,

The absence of the second article in "touj de poimenaj kai didaskalouj" that the writer views the apostles and prophets as a single group, and that we cannot immediately be sure whether that group has one or two components. But the grammatical structure clearly allows for the possibility that one group with one component is meant, for there are several instances in the New Testament where one definite article governs two or more nouns joined by "kai" and it is clear that one group with only one component (or one person) is implied. In Ephesians 4:11 it is noteworthy: "edwken touj men apostolouj, touj de profhtaj, touj de euaggelistaj, touj de poimenaj kai didaskalouj". The pastors and teachers are the same people but two different functions are named.

At this point Grudem lists "most of the clear examples of this type of construction from the Pauline corpus, along with some scattered examples from elsewhere in the New Testament." His list includes examples of the same person described with two or more titles (Rom. 16:7; Eph. 4:11; 6:21; Phil. 2:25; Col. 1:2; 4:7; Phile. 1; Heb. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:25; 2 Pet. 3:18), phrases in which God is named with a similar form (Rom. 15:6; 2 Cor. 1:3; 11:31; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:3; 5:20; Phil. 4:20; Col. 1:3; 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:3; 3:11 [twice]; 1 Tim. 6:15; Titus 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1, 11), nonpersonal objects occasionally referred to in this way (1 Thess. 3:7; Titus 2:13), and participles and infinitives in this type of construction (1 Cor. 11:29; Gal. 1:7; 1 Thess. 5:12). Grudem concludes,

This does not imply that Eph. 2:20 must mean "the apostles who are also prophets," for there are many other examples which could be listed where one group with two distinct components is named (cf. Acts 13:50). Nevertheless, it must be noted that I was unable to find in the Pauline corpus even one clear example analogous to Acts 13:50 or 15:2, where two distinct people or classes of people (as opposed to things) are joined by kai and only one article is used. This may be more or less significant, depending in part on one's view of the authorship of Ephesians. But it should not be overlooked that when Paul wants to distinguish two people or groups he does not hesitate to use a second article (1 Cor. 3:8; 8:6; etc.; cf. Eph. 3:10). And I have listed above over twenty Pauline examples where clearly one person or group is implied by this type of construction.

So Eph. 2:20 views "the apostles and prophets" as one group. Grammatically, that group could have two components, but such an interpretation would not be exactly in accord with Pauline usage. If the author had meant to speak of a two-component group he certainly did not make this meaning very clear to his readers (as he could have done by adding another twn before profhtwn). On the other hand, the large number of New Testament parallels shows that "the apostles who are also prophets" would have easily been understood by the readers if other factors in the context allowed for or favored this interpretation.

From this he concludes that Ephesians 2:20 is speaking of apostle-prophets who are distinguished from those who are simply prophets described in other passages such as 1 Corinthians 12-14. apostle-prophets, he says, were limited to the first-century church, but the other kind continues to the present day.

Though the case for this interpretation of Ephesians 2:20 may appear impressive, it is problematic for a number of reasons. Basically it rests on a fundamental error and a commonly misunderstood application of Sharp's rule. The rule is as follows:

When the copulative kai connects nouns of the same case [viz. nouns (either substantive or adjective, or participles) of personal description, respecting office, dignity, affinity, or connection, and attributes, properties, or qualities, good or ill] if the article o, or any of its cases, precedes the first of the said nouns or participles, and is not repeated before the second noun or participle, the latter always relates to the same person that is expressed or described by the first noun or participle: i.e., it denotes a further description of the first named person.

Though challenged repeatedly, no one has succeeded in overturning or refuting it insofar as the New Testament is concerned.

Yet four lesser known stipulations of Sharp's rule are often overlooked. These must be met if the two nouns in the construction are to be viewed as referring to the same person. They are these: (a) both nouns must be personal; (b) both nouns must be common nouns, that is, not proper names; (c) both nouns must be in the same case; and (d) both nouns must be singular. Sharp did not clearly delineate these stipulations in conjunction with his first rule, so most grammars are ambiguous in these areas.

Many exegetes, including Grudem, reflect no awareness of these qualifications and hence apply Sharp's rule without proper refinements. For instance, though the fourth stipulation about the rule's limitation to singular nouns only was not clearly stated in the first rule, a perusal of Sharp's monograph reveals that he insisted that the rule applies absolutely to the singular only. The limitation may be inferred by an argument from silence in his statement of the rule: "the latter always relates to the same person . . . i.e., it denotes a further description of the first-named person." Later in the monograph he offers this clarification: "There is no exception or instance of the like mode of expression that I know of, which necessarily requires [that] a construction be different from what is laid down, except that the nouns be proper names, or in the plural number, in which there are numerous exceptions." Again at another point he states that impersonal constructions are within the purview of the second, third, fifth, and sixth rules, but not the first or fourth.

Middleton, whose early study on the Greek article is still highly respected, was the first Greek grammarian to accept the validity of Sharp's rule. He notes many exceptions to Sharp's rule when plural nouns are involved.

What reason can be alleged, why the practice in Plural Attributives should differ from that in Singular ones? The circumstances are evidently dissimilar. A single individual may stand in various relations and act in divers capacities. . . . But this does not happen in the same degree with respect to Plurals. Though one individual may act, and frequently does act, in several capacities, it is not likely that a multitude of individuals should all of them act in the same several capacities.

On the basis of an extensive analysis of plural nouns in comparable constructions in the New Testament, Wallace affirms that plural nouns are an exception to Sharp's rule. He has cited many passages where the members of the construction cannot be equated with each other and they thus constitute clear exceptions (e.g., Matt. 3:7; 17:1; 27:56; Acts 17:12). His conclusion is, "Granville Sharp applied his rule only to singular, non-proper, personal nouns of the same case." Wallace has cataloged the abuse of Sharp's rule by several grammatical works considered standards in the field of New Testament grammar. Regarding this abuse he notes,

"But what about the abuse of the rule? Almost without exception, those who seem to be acquainted with Sharp's rule and agree with its validity misunderstand and abuse it. Virtually no one is exempt from this charge-grammarians, commentators, theologians alike are guilty. Typically, the rule is usually perceived to extend to plural and impersonal constructions-in spite of the fact that the evidence of the New Testament with reference to plural and impersonal nouns is contrary to this supposition.

Moreover, he cites several well-known grammarians to illustrate his point.

Although most commentaries consider the two terms ["pastors" and "teachers"] to refer to one group, we must emphatically insist that such a view has no grammatical basis, even though the writers who maintain this view almost unanimously rest their case on the supposed semantics of the article-noun-kai-construction. Yet, as we have seen, there are no other examples in the New Testament of this construction with nouns in the plural, either clearly tagged or ambiguous, which allow for such a possibility. One would, therefore, be on rather shaky ground to insist on such a nuance here [Eph. 4:11]-especially if the main weapon in his arsenal is syntax!

Wallace affirms the validity of the rule for plural adjectives or participles, but indicates he has found no clear instances of the rule's applicability to plural nouns in the New Testament Koine Greek, papyri, or Hellenistic or classical Greek.

This refined application of Sharp's rule removes Grudem's major foundation for equating apostles and prophets, since the rule is not applicable to Ephesians 2:20. In this verse Paul designated two separate groups, apostles and New Testament prophets, without equating one to the other. Since the passage labels prophecy as a foundational gift, the conclusion is that New Testament prophecy has ceased along with the gift of apostleship.

Invalid cross-references. Furthermore the cross-references Grudem cites to support an equation of apostles and prophets are invalid, because each of the examples is semantically unparallel. Not one is a clear example of an application of Sharp's rule to plural nouns, as Grudem's position on Ephesians 2:20 requires. Many of the cross-references are singular nouns governed by a single article, to which Sharp's rule does apply, so long as the nouns are personal and not proper nouns. These are a different grammatical entity from the plural-noun construction in Ephesians 2:20 and do not support his view of this verse. Sharp's rule is applicable to a few plural adjectives (e.g., Rom. 16:7; Col. 1:2), but the same principle does not apply to plural-noun constructions. This difference also holds between plural participles (e.g., Gal. 1:7; 1 Thess. 5:12) and plural nouns. Grudem's use of impersonal nouns as a grammatical parallel is also inaccurate (e.g., 1 Thess. 3:7) because Sharp's rule requires personal nouns. Space forbids an exhaustive citation of all the alleged parallels, but each of them is nonparallel for one of these reasons.

Thus none of the cross-references cited supports identification of prophets with apostles in Ephesians 2:20, since none of Grudem's cross-references presents an analogous construction. It is wrong, therefore, for him to base his view on this verse.

Disregard for Ephesians 4:11. Another weakness in Grudem's reasoning regarding the equation of apostles and prophets in Ephesians 2:20 lies in his use of Ephesians 4:11 for support. Two aspects of Ephesians 4:11 militate against his conclusion. First, he argues, "When Paul wants to distinguish two people or groups he does not hesitate to use a second article." On this basis, he concludes that the single article with apostle and prophets in 2:20 dictates that Paul intended to equate the two. Yet in Ephesians 4:11-a verse that he uses in another way as a supporting grammatical analogy - Paul used two articles, one with "apostles" and one with "prophets": ("edwken touj men apostolouj, touj de profhtaj", "on one hand he gave apostles and on the other, prophets") which clearly delineates New Testament prophets as a group separate from the apostles. It is cogent reasoning that since Paul thus distinguishes between apostles and prophets in 4:11, he must have intended the same distinction in 2:20. This belies Grudem's interpretation. Second, as already noted, the grammatical analogy that Grudem cites in Ephesians 4:11-that is, the identification of "pastors" and "teachers"-provides no support for his theory, because the plural nouns forbid the pressing of Sharp's rule here too.

Prestige Of New Testament Prophets

Another weakness in Grudem's hypothesis is his failure to recognize the high degree of prestige enjoyed by New Testament prophets in the Christian community. As already shown from a correct understanding of Ephesians 2:20, New Testament prophets, in association with the apostles, held the honorable status of helping lay the foundation of the church. Their ranking in the list of gifted persons in 1 Corinthians 12:28 (cf. 14:1) places them second only to the apostles in usefulness to the body of Christ. As Geisler notes, "This exalted position Paul gives to the gift of prophecy is further indication that it [New Testament prophecy] is neither fallible nor inferior to the gift of prophecy in the Old Testament."

New Testament prophets, along with the apostles, were recipients of special revelation regarding the mystery of the inclusion of Jews and Gentiles in the one universal body of Christ. The presence of Gentiles in such a relationship was unrevealed before the New Testament era (Eph 3:5), but came to apostles and New Testament prophets as inspired utterances and writings such as the canonical Book of Ephesians. Reception and propagation of such revelation constituted the foundation of the church universal throughout the present age. New Testament prophets were vehicles for these revelations and held a high profile among early Christians for this reason.

In light of this, Grudem's words do not match the high status of prophets upheld in the New Testament: "Prophecy in ordinary New Testament churches was not equal to Scripture in authority, but was simply a very human-and sometimes partially mistaken-report of something that the Holy Spirit brought to someone's mind." Such a relegation of prophecy to a lesser status raises the question of how the early church could have guarded itself against hopeless doctrinal confusion. If prophets were at times used to convey inspired revelations and at other times were nonauthoritative and mistaken, who could distinguish their authoritative and accurate messages from the other kind?

The Need for Constant Evaluation of New Testament Prophecy

Grudem uses the call for evaluation of prophetic utterances in 1 Corinthians 14:29-31 as an argument for the existence of nonauthoritative congregational prophecy. He maintains that Old Testament prophets were never challenged in this way because of the high regard in which they were held. For him, this signals a great difference between Old Testament and New Testament prophets; that is, New Testament prophets were not so prestigious. After an Old Testament prophet was evaluated and accepted as a true prophet of God, his words were never questioned, but each prophecy of a New Testament prophet, Grudem argues, had to be evaluated. Herein lies a contrast, causing Grudem to conclude that the New Testament gift operated at a lower level of authority.

However, several arguments render Grudem's hypothesis tenuous. First, the needed critical evaluation resulted from a changed status of believers under the New Covenant. In accord with Joel 2:28-32 and Acts 2:17-21, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all believers. This does not mean that all Christians would be prophets, a possibility Paul negated in 1 Corinthians 12:29, "all are not prophets, are they?" It did, however, create the potential, according to Joel and Acts, that the gift of prophecy would be much more widely disseminated than to a limited group of prophets like those who spoke for the Lord in the theocratic community under the Old Covenant. As noted in the second article of this series, this expanded sphere of prophetic activity increased the need for care in discerning true prophecies from false prophecies.

This is the need Paul tried to meet in 1 Corinthians 14:29-31. The larger the group of prophets, the more potential there was for abuse of prophecy by those who were not New Testament prophets. This danger became a reality in the latter part of the first century and beyond, as evidenced by John's warning: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1; cf. 2 Pet. 2:1-22; Jude 4, 11-16).

Second, Grudem's picture of Old Testament prophecy and its prestige is highly idealized and rather unrealistic. His idealized picture is obtained substantially from historical hindsight rather than from an examination of the actual state of affairs existing at the time of the Old Testament prophets. A brief review reveals four relevant features of Old Testament prophecy: (1) The Israelites frequently disobeyed Old Testament prophets (such as Samuel, Elisha, and Jeremiah, to name only a few), even when their proclamations were authoritative as the very words of the Lord (e.g., 1 Sam. 13:8-14; Jer. 36:1-32), and put the prophets to flight, threatening to kill them (e.g., 1 Kings 19:1-3). Amos's preaching in Bethel aroused such opposition that he had to flee from Bethel for his life (Amos 7:10-17). (2) Some prophets enjoyed greater status and prestige than others who were less famous (e.g., an unknown prophet in 1 Kings 20:35-43; cf. also 19:10). (3) The people threatened and otherwise strongly opposed some prophets like Jeremiah because of their status as prophets of the Lord. Jeremiah could hardly have been said to have enjoyed much of an authoritative status in Israel at such times, because his hearers disobeyed him, despised him, rejected him, beat him, and imprisoned him because of his prophetic ministry (e.g., Jer. 11:18-23; 12:6; 18:18; 20:1-3; 26:1-24; 37:11-38:28). (4) According to Jewish tradition, some prophets like Isaiah were tortured and assassinated rather than given great honor (cf. 1 Kings 18:13).

Third, Jesus' words in Matthew 23:37 that Israel consistently despised, rejected, and killed her prophets hardly conveys the impression of great respect afforded the Old Testament prophets by their contemporaries. Nor does it suggest that their message was never questioned or rejected (cf. Heb. 11:33-40).

Old Testament prophets became revered only by later generations of Jewish people. They had little such prominence during their lifetime. Only as later generations reflected on their idolatrous past and disobedience to the prophets did the prophets gain a place of great esteem in the eyes of the people (cf. Ezra 9:1-11). This elite group of Old Testament spokesmen for the Lord experienced the anointing and influence of the Holy Spirit in a way that was not appreciated by their immediate listeners.

Fourth, the New Testament standard for evaluating prophets is comparable to relevant guidelines in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 13 and 18 set forth the policy that a prophet was to be judged by his prophesyings. Prophets were considered to be false on the basis of false prophesying. In the second century A.D., these same Old Testament principles and guidelines were used by Epiphanius and Anonymous to refute the Montanist heresy. Therefore these Old Testament standards for evaluating prophecies were applied to prophets as a basis for judging true from false prophets before, during, and after the New Testament era. As Saucy notes regarding the Pauline stipulation to evaluate prophecies, "This principle does not appear to be different than in the Old Testament and therefore does not seem persuasive of two levels of prophetic activity." The New Testament furnishes no indication that New Testament-era Jews, particularly those who became apostles in the early church, considered the requirements for prophets in the Old Testament to have been abrogated or essentially modified in the New Testament.

Identification Of Evaluators

Another weakness in Grudem's theory regarding New Testament prophecy is his method of handling 1 Corinthians 14:29, which reads, "And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment." A critical issue in this statement concerns the identity of those "passing judgment" or "discerning" the validity of alleged prophetic pronouncements. Grudem raises a psychological point.

If we understand oi alloi to be restricted to a special group of prophets, we have much difficulty picturing what the rest of the congregation would do during the prophecy and judging. Would they sit during the prophecy waiting for the prophecy to end and be judged before knowing whether to believe any part of it? . . . Especially hard to believe is the idea that the teachers, administrators and other church leaders without special gifts of prophecy would sit passively awaiting the verdict of an elite group.

Aside from the fact that this argumentation is nonexegetical in nature, it is weak in that reason and logic, to which he appeals, can also dictate that not everyone in the congregation would be in a position to evaluate prophecy, especially in a public setting. Admittedly 1 John 4:1-3 urges a testing of spirits in a general sense by all Christians because of false prophecy and teaching, but Paul clearly indicated in 1 Corinthians 12:10 (regarding the "distinguishing of spirits") that not everyone possessed that special ability. That gift was dispensed to a limited number according to the sovereign will of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:11; cf. v. 18). It is conspicuous that those possessing special ability in discerning were better equipped to pass judgment on congregational prophecies than the ones who did not possess the gift. This differentiation in evaluative capabilities within the congregation raises a loud contextual objection to the view that all members of the congregation in 1 Corinthians 14:29 were supposed to evaluate the prophets.

The most natural and grammatical antecedent of oi alloi in 14:29 is profhtai in the first half of the verse. Paul's use of alloj rather than eteroj indicates his intention to designate the same category of persons as those just referred to. Referring "the others" to other prophets is further confirmed by the use of allwj immediately afterward in verse 30, where it is an evident reference to "another" prophet. This repetition of the same adjective, "other" or "another," shows that Paul still had prophets in mind when he used oi alloi in verse 29. In this statement, then, where interpretation is tedious, the contextual probabilities rest on the side of identifying those who evaluate prophetic utterances of others as being the prophets who apparently possessed the gift of discerning of spirits along with their prophetic gift.

Those prophets were to pass judgment on what other prophets said to ascertain whether their utterances came from the Holy Spirit or not. Just as interpretation was needed in conjunction with the exercise of tongues (1 Cor. 12:10c), discernment was needed to accompany prophecy (v. 10b). Inspired spokesmen were in the best position to judge spontaneously whether a new utterance agreed with Paul's teaching (cf. Gal. 1:8-9; 2 Thess. 2:1-3) and generally accepted beliefs of the Christian community (1 Cor. 12:1-3).

As noted in the second article in this series, the context of 1 Corinthians 12:3 also sheds light on the need for evaluating prophets addressed in 14:29. Apparently false prophets had preached that Jesus was accursed (12:3) even though they professed to be true prophets. In the face of such starkly erroneous prophesying, Paul warned them to evaluate each prophecy carefully to ensure that a genuine prophet had spoken. Some recognized voice was needed to declare whether the Holy Spirit was the source of that statement or that the person voicing a declaration was a false prophet.

Thus 1 Corinthians 14:29 does not necessarily mean that established prophets had to be verified continually. Yet this passage does set down the general principle that any potential prophet needed to be scrutinized by other prophets. This principle invalidates Grudem's conclusion that a genuine prophet's message contained a mixture of truth and error. The guideline established merely enforces the need for careful analysis of any prophet who claimed to speak by the Spirit of God to determine the source of his message. Once his source was identified as God, further examination was most likely unnecessary. The Holy Spirit served as the guarantor of the accuracy of the true prophet. Moreover, according to 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, even false prophets had potential to feign a true prophecy, so Paul encouraged a continued vigil. The regular ministry of prophets was to ensure the genuineness of prophets and prophecies as a safeguard against doctrinal heresies.

In summary, judging a prophecy does not imply that the gift could result in errant pronouncements. The responsibility of New Testament prophets to weigh the prophecies of others does not imply that true prophets were capable of giving false prophecies, but that false prophets could disguise their falsity by occasional true utterances.

The Interruption Of Prophecies

Closely associated with the evaluation of prophecies is Grudem's contention that because a New Testament prophet's prophesying could be interrupted, the prophecy was nonauthoritative or fallible, that is, not from God (1 Cor. 14:30-32). According to Grudem, such an interruption would mean that the remainder of the prophecy could be lost. This interruption and supposed loss of the prophecy signals that the prophetic content was less authoritative; otherwise Paul would have shown "more concern for the preservation of these words and their proclamation to the church."

However, because a prophecy could be interrupted does not in any way imply that the prophesying of the New Testament prophet was inferior or that some of the content of the prophecy could be lost. The thrust of verses 30-32 is that if a revelation is from God, the prophet will remain in conscious control of his mind and will. In other words a prophecy which is truly from God is evidenced by an orderly and rational manner of presentation. Geisler stresses the need to consider the cultural and religious environment at Corinth in evaluating these verses.

The fact that prophets could be interrupted does not imply that their message was not from God. Rather, it reveals that "the spirits of prophets are subject to control of prophets" (1 Corinthians 14:32). Ecstatic utterances were common among pagans, such as the Corinthians once were. In these occult prophecies the one giving the utterances was overpowered by the spirit giving the utterances. By contrast, Paul is saying that if a revelation is truly from God, then the prophet will remain in conscious control of his mind and will. In short, if it is really of God, it can wait.

The Shepherd of Hermas also reflects this same principle that the genuine prophet remains in rational control while supernatural power inspires him during the prophetic utterance. However, in dealing with the Montanists, Anonymous dismissed their prophesyings as irrationally ecstatic based on his understanding of Old Testament prophets who remained rational even in the prophetic state. Hence interruption of New Testament prophets does not imply some inferior form of "congregational" prophecy as maintained by Grudem. Orderly procedures (and possibility of interruption) functioned as a guard against irrationally ecstatic prophets (i.e., false prophets).

Apostolic Authority Versus New Testament Prophetic Pronouncements

Grudem also contends that in 1 Corinthians 14:37-38 Paul rated the authority of Christian prophets below his own authority. Grudem uses this to support his view that New Testament prophetic authority was inferior to that of the apostles and hence inferior to Old Testament prophets also. According to this view Paul's claim of authority in this passage means that New Testament "congregational" prophecy had less authority than "apostolic" prophecy. This understanding of Paul's words is not probable for important reasons. First, in 1 Corinthians 14:37-38 Paul was more likely asserting that if a Christian prophet is truly from God, his prophecies will concur with apostolic truth (cf. Gal. 1:8-9). False prophets and teachers constantly challenged apostolic authority and doctrine (e.g., Gal. 2:4-5; 2 Tim. 2:18; cf. Jude 3). In light of his own apostolic office, Paul's comparison between the Corinthian claims of authority and his own is best understood to teach that true prophets and their prophecies would be consistent with apostolic truth and would recognize Paul's words and commandments as coming directly from the Lord Jesus Christ. Any alleged prophet opposing apostolic standards and elevating himself to the role of God's only spokesman (1 Cor. 14:36) was to be recognized as false and his authority rejected (v. 38).

Second, apostolic authority must be distinguished from prophetic authority. Saucy's point is pertinent.

Rather than seeing the differences in the authority of prophecy, it seems that the solution lies in the personal authority of an apostle of Jesus Christ. Both Paul's prophecy and true prophecies in the church were words inspired by the Spirit of God. Paul, however, in distinction from prophets of the church, carried personal authority as the commissioned representative of Christ.

This personal authority as an apostle does not mean that Paul's prophecies were any more authoritative than those of an anonymous Christian prophet. When an apostle prophesied and an anonymous Christian prophet utilized his or her gift, both were equally authoritative and infallible because the Source of both apostolic prophecy and Christian prophets was the Holy Spirit.


In light of the substantial negation of the major premises of Grudem's hypothesis, his assertions regarding two forms of New Testament prophecy cannot stand. Close examination of his hypothesis reveals critical weaknesses and also outright contradictions of the biblical data. Hence this major justification of the practice of "congregational" prophecy among such charismatic groups as the Vineyard and Sign and Wonders movements evaporates. The idea of a bifurcation of the prophetic gift into two distinct forms has no support either from the biblical data or from the church's handling of the Montanist controversy in the second century. Such a hypothesis is also invalid for promoting dialogue between cessationist and noncessationist camps, because it does not provide valid grounds for the justification of the present practice of prophecy among noncessationist groups. Grudem's hypothesis also should be viewed with alarm. Since prophecy has the assumption of revelational authority from the Holy Spirit, the idea of "mistaken" prophecy has the potential of doing untold harm to the church.

The fourth and final article in this series will deal with the question of the cessation of the prophetic gift. Various reasons will be delineated to demonstrate that miraculous gifts like New Testament prophecy are no longer in operation in the worship and practice of the church.

[ 1 ] The author, Dr. F. David Farnell, B.A., Christian Heritage College, M.Div., Th.M., Talbot School of Theology, Ph.D., Dallas Theological Seminary, went to The Master's Seminary in 1997 from Southeastern Bible College, in Birmingham, Alabama, where he chaired the Department of Pastoral Theology and Biblical Studies from 1991-1994. In addition, he served as Academic Dean at Southeastern from 1994-1997. During this time in Alabama, he also concurrently pastored Brook Highland Community Church.

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Copyright (C) 1993 by F. David Farnell. All Rights Reserved.
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Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (January-March 1993): 62-88
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