A few days ago, I ended my post commenting on 1 Thessalonians 5 with the following paragraph:
(Paul) ends the letter with instructions that prophecy not be treated with contempt; that is, allow people to say ‘thus sayeth the Lord’, but to ‘test’ what they say, and to hold on to the good prophecies and forget the others. However, he doesn’t really spell out what kind of test would be appropriate, and this is troubling. How am I supposed to know when someone is really speaking for God, or when they are just a little stirred up about something themselves? For the average believer, it usually boils down to accepting the prophecies they agree with, and neglecting the ones that might actually require them to change their views.
In the Pentecostal / Charismatic churches that I grew up in, ‘prophecy’ went something like this: we’d be worshiping God as a group, sometimes through spiritual songs, sometimes just everyone lifting their hands up towards heaven, praying softly. In either event, the emotional level would be very high – some folks might be crying or so involved in prayer as to seem in a trance. There would be a sudden stillness in the group, as if everyone suddenly expected something to happen. The musicians might even ‘sense’ that they should stop playing.
Then, one of two things would happen; someone would speak in tongues, publicly, meant for all to hear, and we’d all wait for someone to interpret the ‘message’ that had been given, or someone would prophecy directly, in English. These spiritual utterances, if you will, were usually fairly general exhortations that made generous use of known scriptural verses. However, sometimes they would include more local or personal instructions, aimed at the group or an individual within the group. This was my understanding of what the New Testament writers meant when they spoke of prophecy – speaking the mind of God to others. Pentecostal / Charismatic folk feel this kind of practice is what occurred in the 1st century church, as evidenced by 1 Corinthians 14 and other locations in the NT.
My concern has always been – even as a sincere believer – how Christians are to determine what is truly of God, and what comes from the spirit of the prophet. People can get excited, make mistakes, have a particular point of view they see things through, etc. How can we be sure that people are really speaking for God?
If you’ve been reading the comments on my site, you’ve seen that one sincere Christian, Lindsay Harold, feels she has a good system for separating good prophecy from bad. In short, she thinks good prophecies meet three important criteria:
- they cannot contradict the scripture
- they must be rational and sensible
- they cannot contain new revelation
I think this is a fair summary of her main points – you can read her comments for yourself on my previous post. I said that I thought her answers were well presented and seemed to have some good thoughts behind them, but that her answers really only opened up more questions. My reply addressed her main points in the following way:
- Since there are thousands of Christian denominations, all preaching different interpretations of the scripture on Sunday morning, there is no true consensus on what the scripture says; therefore in can be difficult to determine what might contradict the scripture.
- The life of faith is not always rational and sensible. Religious people believe in things that cannot be perceived with the five senses or proven through empirical evidence. In the Bible, God has often asked people to do illogical things. He asked Abraham to kill his son, for example. He asked the leper, Namaan, to bathe in the River Jordan if as a cure for his leprosy.
- Stipulating that prophets could not reveal anything new about God than had already been revealed seemed to render the gift of prophecy useless – it equates prophecy with quoting scripture. In addition, it would seem to suggest that any denomination outside the Catholic church was in error, for all Protestant sects claim in one way or another that they have a new revelation from God that has been ignored by other denominations before them.
Notice I’m not saying she’s wrong – on the surface, I think any believer could agree with what she writes. I’m just saying there are problems that her answers do not address.
Lindsay responded with a lengthy explanation. I admire the fact that her positions are thoughtful – not like that woman I saw on CNN the other day. But I’m still not really persuaded by her arguments. Below is a ‘conversation’ of sorts about prophecy – her comments are in italics.
I believe you misunderstand what prophecy is. Prophecy is proclaiming the word of God.
I was a fervent believer for two decades. I taught the adult Sunday school class in my church, including the letters to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians. I wouldn’t have had the audacity to tell another reflective believer that they misunderstood something in the New Testament; I would have acknowledged that we had a different understanding of God’s word, but I never would have said that they didn’t understand what they read.
This goes back to my original point, which I affirm to be a valid one – American Christianity is highly individualistic in nature. There are nearly as many interpretations of scripture as there are believers; certainly any honest Christian would have to admit that each individual congregation tends to worship God and interpret scripture in a slightly different way.
In the Old Testament, God spoke to His people through prophets who were mouthpieces for God. They told the people what God was saying to them. In many cases, this was new revelation – new information about God’s expectations and commands for the people.
I don’t want to give too much veneration to Old Testament prophets. Let’s first of all assume that the OT is really God’s word – that is was written when it claims it was written, by whom it claims it was written by, etc. – all dubious claims in the light of modern scholarship. But for the sake of argument, lets assume it is what it says it is. There are a lot of ‘prophecies’ that involve murder, genocide, rape, bigamy, and other heinous crimes that would land a man in jail if he followed them. How can we call a man a prophet when he uses his supernatural connections to summon bears out of the woods to kill children – just because they taunted him by calling him ‘old baldy‘?
Lindsay’s post is lengthy – and thank God she differentiates NT from OT prophecy. Since it’s 4am – let me stop here for now and continue this conversation tomorrow or the day after.
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