Reading at a snail's pace - Wayne Grudem on prophecy

It's been a busy week and a busy month. I felt that I'd been reading snippets of the same book for an eternity, but Friday night I finally made it the end of Wayne Grudem's The Gift of Prophecy. It was definitely an interesting and thought-provoking read - including all 10 appendices which added an extra 133 pages to the book.

To try to summarize Wayne Grudem's view of prophecy in a single sentence: he believes that the gift of prophecy remains today, but that the words of prophecy do not possess absolute divine authority and that prophecies remain subserviant to Scripture and should also be tested by the hearers. To quote Wayne Grudem on the difference between the advice of friends and the gift of prophecy - "I don't see that it is a qualitatively different thing." (from an interview with Tim Challies).

I've been talking about this subject with a few people for some time now, so by the time that I got the book I was already somewhat familiar with the idea of non-authoritative prophecy. Thus one of the primary questions that I was hoping the book would address was the historical background to this all - if the gift of prophecy remains then where and who utilized it over the last 1800 years. This historical problem was one that the last of the appendices to the book addressed. This historical evidence was introduced by the following words:

The history of the church contains many examples of the gift of prophecy functioning in the way I have described it in this book. It was somewhat of a surprise to me to discover these after this book was first published. This largely happened because people who read my book sent me or called to my attention such material in the writings of Samuel Rutherford, Charles Spurgeon, and others. Such historical evidence happens to be especially significant for Reformed cessationists, since several of these writers were champions of Reformed doctrine in their own day. (p. 347)

The first example given in this section is John Knox and an instance wherein he prophesied fairly specifically the type of death that a particular individual would suffer. From this point he goes on to talk about the Westminster Confession and the sort of meaning that should be applied to the phrase "private spirits in the following section of chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession:

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

To argue that the phrase "private spirits" herein referred to something like his idea of non-authoritative prophecy, Grudem refers to the theology of a number of delegates to the Westminster Assembly. The first of these is Samuel Rutherford and some of his writings are cited, of which I'd like to quote a brief portion (pardon the antiquated English):

There is a revelation of some particular men, who have foretold things to come even since the ceasing of the Canon of the word, as John Husse, Wickeliefe, Luther have foretold things to come, and they certainely fell out, and in our nation of Scotland, M. George Wishart foretold that Cardinall Beaton should not come out alive at the Gates of the Castle of St. Andrewes, but that he should dye a shamefull death, and he was hanged over the window that he look out at, when he saw the man of God burnt, M. Knox prophecied of the hanging of the Lord of Grange, M. Ioh. Davidson uttered prophecies, knowne to many of the kingdome, diverse Holy and mortified preachers in England have done the like. (cited on p. 351)

Other delegates to the Westminster Assembly that Grudem cites are George Gillespie (p. 352) and William Bridge (p. 353), but I'll refrain from echoing his words there to save space. Outside these Westminster delegates further quotations are taken from Richard Baxter and Charles Spurgeon in support of Grudem's thesis. I found the latter to be of particular interest, given the esteem and influence he still holds now more than 100 years after his death. To quote Spurgeon's words:

I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it (cited on p. 357)

This was not just generic conviction of sin that might occur under many a preacher today, but very specific. In one instance, he referred to an instance wherein he prophecied not only that a particular person had their shop open the past Sunday, but also the exact revenue and exact profit which the shopkeeper had made on that day (cited on p. 357). Another example is of an incident in which he interrupted a sermon and, pointing in a particular direction, said "Young man, those gloves you are wearing have not been paid for: you have stolen them from your employer." He follows this up by stating that the individual repented and then confessed to him after the service that this was in fact the case (cited on p. 358).

Thus, it seems that if you look historically, even at some very influential individuals, there is some evidence of the existance of the sort of non-authoritative prophecy that Grudem describes.

Two other questions that I have posed to several individuals include things such as the following:

  • Can one be a prophet and prophesy without explicitly acknowledging or even recognizing their utterings as prophecy?
  • To what extent should prophecy be present in corporate worship? Is it already being practiced many small groups (given that they tend to operate less formally and be open to a greater degree of participation)?

I think that the answer to the first question would be yes, although perhaps this should not be considered an ideal state.

I'm still mildly skeptical of how exactly prophecy can function and whether it should be recognized as prophecy if it is not qualitatively different than advice from a friend. However, if prophecy is viewed as described by Grudem (fallible, subserviant, to be tested, and to be conducted in good order rather than creating chaos) then I think that at the least a church that practices prophecy in this manner should be in no greater a danger of great theological error than a similar church which does not.

One final word to some of my charismatic friends: Do consider Grudem's suggestion to prophets (or those who believe themselves to be such). He advices them to avoid such phrases as "thus says the Lord" or "o my children" at the start of their prophecies and to avoid speaking as if in God's own words to explicitly acknowledge their own fallibility.


To what extent should prophecy be present in corporate worship? Is it already being practiced many small groups (given that they tend to operate less formally and be open to a greater degree of participation)?

Should is a strong word here; it seems like you are saying prophecy is essential to worship.

I don't see how small groups with a greater degree of participation are more likely to have prophecy. God doesn't show favortism.

I don't see how small groups with a greater degree of participation are more likely to have prophecy. God doesn't show favortism.

I think what Dave was suggesting is large groups, out of somewhat of a necessity, tend to operate with greater formality, and less opportunity for a given individual to contribute with prophecy. People also tend to be more shy in larger groups. But I would agree that prophecy can happen just as easily in a large group as compared to small.

I didn't intend should be be interpreted in a particularly strong fashion here. "Not at all" is a possible answer. (This of course would need to be balanced by 1 Thessalonians 5:19 - 5:21 and if you think that Grudem is correct in his understanding of what prophecy is.)

Often participation in the form of speaking in the larger Sunday corporate worship setting is limited to a few individuals, whereas with more participation I think that prophecy as described by Grudem would be more likely to show itself. One of the things that Grudem spends a fair bit of time talking about is good order, and that even those given a revelation that in spoken form would be considered prophecy can chose when/if to speak this. I think that small groups would be a more likely outlet in which those possessing this gift would display it, (particularly if the larger corporate worship gatherings do not offer an outlet for it).

How is authoritative prophecy defined (as opposed to non-authoritative)? What's the difference?

Authoritative prophecy Grudem only sees coming from the Apostles and Old Testament Prophets.

Non-authoritative prophecy comes from other sources and serves only an advisory role. He uses Acts 21:4,5 to argue that it can be disregarded.

If you want to get a more thorough idea of Grudem's view feel free to borrow the book.

Authoritative prophecy Grudem only sees coming from the Apostles and Old Testament Prophets.

What makes the OT prophets' and NT apostles' prophecy authoritative? Weren't they in their time just one of many prophets and apostles claiming authority from God? Just as there are many today? What makes them different?

My memory of this whole issue of canonicity is a little rough, but lets see what I can recall:

As to the Old Testament, there are a number of criteria (some of which could also apply to contemporary prophecy): the test of time (and verified predictions) and the general consensus of the church. However, one criteria one can apply to the Old Testament are Jesus' words (or lack thereof) regarding the composition of the canon whose books had been generally agreed upon for several hundred years. You can also consider the citations from the Old Testament in the New Testament and in Jesus' teaching.

As to the New Testament, some of the same criteria apply. Since you seem to agree with me that there was a particular group of 1st century Apostles called by Jesus. One criteria for the New Testament canon seems to be authorship by an Apostle or someone closely associated with these who had also seen Jesus post-resurrection. You also have the consensus of the church.

(One of the appendices to Grudem's book talks about the canon of scripture if you're interested. There are also some more extensive treatments of the issue available, of which I happen to have a book by Yaroslav Pelikan which I've not yet read)

You can also consider the citations from the Old Testament in the New Testament and in Jesus' teaching.

Perhaps this is slightly off-topic, but I'm reminded of the fact that Paul, in some of his letters, made some secular quotes that people would be familiar with (songs, plays, etc.). (Rev. Stam does this in his sermons, too.)

But an even bigger issue, is the book of Jude, which includes a quotation from the Book of Enoch. Some have argued that Jude should not have been included in the canon because the Book of Enoch is deuterocanonical, while others have argued that Jude's use of the Book of Enoch as a source gives it credibility. Indeed, there are some Bibles which exclude Jude, and others which include both Jude and Enoch.

Even further off-topic, the Book of Enoch provides an interesting explanation on the origins of the Nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6:4

Sorry for going off on a tangent, but one thought leads to another.

From what I recall here the argument relates to the style of citation, and that only certain ways of citing something confer upon that source recognition of divine inspiration.

That is interesting. And perhaps suggests that the decision of attribution of authority to prophecy (or whatever else) is not always black and white? And that authoritative prophecy can and does extend beyond scripture?

In 1 Kings we hear about the school of the prophets that Elijah was sheltering from Jezebel. That adds a different wrinkle to the gift . . .perhaps. The Puritans looked at preaching as prophesying (e.g. William Perkins The Art of Prophesying).

As to the small group type that Grudem is talking about fits what we want in small groups and in Christian fellowship: admonishing with all wisdom, the word dwelling in us richly, restore a brother gently, leading them to repentance.

The role of prophecy was a desirable part of the early church's worship. Current practice and beliefs regarding it make it less than desirable. The Apostle Paul dealt with a great problem in Corinth: so many gifted people. That is why he said everything should be done decently and in order, to make room for the gifts to operate in an edifying manner. This might have had implications for how preaching was done in the early church. Perhaps the sermon was quite short in synagogue style, mainly a commentary on a short scripture or reading. The rest would have been time for all the gifts to be expressed. One problem, if this view is correct, is the identification of the gifted ones. If someone said, "I have the gift of prophecy" how would they have identified that? If it's Grudem's view, anything they would have said would deserve a response "Oh, that's nice." That was never to be said of OT prophecy. Prophecy was never "Thus said the brother, take it or leave it." To scorn prophecy was to disobey the Lord. To listen to false prophets was to disobey the Lord.

The wise counsel that I alluded to above can only happen when revealed wisdom (Scripture) is incorporated into the heart, life and character. What then comes out of the mouth is contextualized wisdom for the edification of others. What prophecy seems to be intended to do is provide authoritative revealed wisdom. For the Acts instance of disobeyed prophecy it looks like Agabus told what would happen (true) but then made an application (don't go, which seems to be his interpretation of the message.) The interpretation of prophecy was always to be tested. Paul affirmed the truth of it and disagreed as to its interpretation.

My two cents. I'll borrow the book when you're done and give you my take on it.

Thanks for opening the discussion

The role of prophecy was a desirable part of the early church's worship. Current practice and beliefs regarding it make it less than desirable.

Often, yes. But don't discount the huge diversity in the church at large. Prophecy is being practiced in many churches, and not just Pentecostal and Neo-Pentacostal...