Prophecy Within the Bounds of Scripture

Introduction: Shortcomings prophetic movements in history
Richard Lovelace acknowledges that while it is difficult to frame strong biblical arguments for limiting prophetic utterance to the apostolic period, nevertheless it cannot be denied that various revival groups which exercised the gift of prophecy such as the Montanists (2nd century), the Zwikau prophets (16th century) and the Great Awakening (18th century) often ended up “treating the Scripture as an addendum which was more or less unnecessary once a Christian obtained direct access to the mind of God through the Spirit…People who begin by being open to extrabiblical revelation will give Satan an opportunity to wean them gradually from Scripture and establish himself as the ultimate authority.” These ‘prophets’ became incorrigible and fell into error. Failed prophecy brought despair, leaders abandoned carefully planning. Indiscreet zeal led followers to act without prudence or discretion and to do unseemly things that discredit both revival and Christianity.

The common denominator of all of these aberrations is a reliance on subjective experience divorced from the objective control of reason and the written Word of God. The neglect of rationality is a prime example of the central error of all enthusiasm [excessive zeal for spiritual experience] according to Ronald Knox, the idea that grace destroys nature rather than perfecting it. Christians who block out their minds in the process of attuning themselves to the Spirit are trying to replace an essential human attribute by the gift of the Spirit which is meant to transform that faculty, not to replace it. To relinquish the guiding and superintending function of the intellect in our experience seems pious at first, but in the end this course dehumanizes us by turning us into either dependent robots waiting to be programmed by the Spirit’s guidance or whimsical enthusiasts blown about by our hunches and emotions. God has provided us with the ability to gather information and to make rational decisions in the light of this information in conformity with his revealed will in Scripture. Any method of guidance which habitually detours around reason is crippling and dehumanizing. It will lead to indecision, hesitation to act where the imperatives of action are plain to reason informed by Scripture, and inability to plan properly and to maintain or adapt plans when made.

If the direction of our lives is reduced to a function of reason alone, however, there is something wanting, something which does not harmonize well with Paul’s description of Christians as those “who are led by the Spirit of God” (Rom. 8:14). The Christian is then reduced to a closed and isolated rational computer, making decisions without any conscious sense of the Spirit’s leading and approval, which does not agree either with Scripture or with common Christian experience. Edwards is aware of this and moves as far as he can to balance his stress on reason with an emphasis on the illumination of the Spirit.

There is a more excellent way in which the Spirit leads the sons of God, that natural men cannot have; and that is, by inclining them to do the will of God, and go in the shining path of truth and Christian holiness, from a holy, heavenly disposition, which the Spirit of God gives them, and which inclines and leads them to those things that are excellent and agreeable to God’s mind, whereby they “are transformed by the renewing of their minds, and prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God,” Rom. 12: 2…The Spirit of God enlightens them with respect to their duty, by making their eye single and pure, whereby the whole body is full of light. The sanctifying influence of the Spirit of God rectifies the taste of the soul, whereby it savours those things that are of God, and naturally relishes and delights in those things that are holy and agreeable to God’s mind; and, like one of a distinguishing taste, it chooses those things that are good and wholesome, and rejects those that are evil. The sanctified ear tries words, and the sanctified heart tries actions, as the mouth tastes meat. And thus the Spirit of God leads and guides the meek in his way, agreeable to his promises; he enables them to understand the commands and counsels of his word, and rightly to apply them. [Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion in New England, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol.1 (Hendrickson reprint, 2000), p. 405.]

Edwards does not deal directly with the gift of prophecy, but what he might say about it can be deduced pretty clearly from what he says about the Spirit’s direction in preaching:

The gracious and most excellent assistance of the Spirit of God in praying and preaching, is not by immediately suggesting words to the apprehension, which may be with a cold, dead heart; but by warming the heart, and filling it with a great sense of things to be spoken, and with holy affections, that these may suggest words. Thus indeed the Spirit of God may be said, indirectly and mediately, to suggest words to us, and indite our petitions for us, and to teach the preacher what to say; he fills the heart, and that fills the mouth…. But since there is no immediate suggesting of words from the Spirit of God to be expected or desired, they who neglect and despise study and premeditation, in order to a preparation for the pulpit… are guilty of presumption.[Ibid. p. 405]

Much of what in glossolalic circles is assumed to be prophecy (words addressed to the body as first-person utterances from God himself) might better be explained in terms of the process Edwards described. Such an understanding would preserve the integrity and supreme authority of Scripture and guard it from being undercut by an ever-increasing volume of new revelations. Most of these prophecies have a timbre which differs from the ring of unalloyed truth in Scripture and which argues for something less than biblical inspiration in their creation. A steady diet of demi-inspired prophetic counsels weakens the palate (and perhaps the appetite) for the Word of God, unless such counsels are distinctly subordinated to Scripture. [Emphasis added]

There is one way of handling prophetic gifts which can be very dangerous and in fact destructive of the ordinary Christian’s relationship with the Holy Spirit. This is the power structure sometimes found in glossolalic groups, where an almost infallible authority comes to rest on certain individuals who are assumed to have the gift of prophecy…

In the wrong hands, this practice can be absolutely destructive of a Christian’s conscience and personal relationship with God. And it is almost always in the wrong hands. Many young converts today are extremely open to this sort of counsel because they are both eager for sanctification and ignorant of the resources of grace through which it can be effected. Glossolalic leaders may consider it a valid strategy to take advantage of this willingness and thus create a host of shock troops for the advancement of the kingdom. But the end of this procedure will be exhaustion, disillusionment and desertion of the troops…

In order to guard against this error, believers should maintain a lively awareness both of their own fallibility and that of all other Christians, especially those in authority. If prophetic gifts and the guidance of the Spirit are acknowledged, they should never be institutionalized. Christians should remain open to the Spirit’s direction coming from any part of the body of Christ and should always seek to confirm any course they adopt by reason, Scripture and the underlying witness of the Spirit in their hearts [Emphasis added] …

[However], Limiting these phenomena to the apostolic age solves some practical problems in the church, but it creates many others…The Reformers’ stress on objectivity has often degenerated into a positive neglect of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and of dependence on him. This in turn has only led to enthusiastic overreactions. We are not likely to arrive at a mean between deadness and fanaticism unless we give to the Holy Spirit exactly that place which the Scripture gives him as the architect of the kingdom of God.

There is a dimension of openness to the Holy Spirit which allows him to sovereign right to intervene and override the rational guidance system, to go beyond the written revelation if he chooses, which must be preserved, or else we will fail to do justice both to Scripture and to our common experience. The normal conduct of our ministries must be under the careful control of the sanctified reason reflecting on the Word. But often in the background of our minds there is an awareness of the One called alongside us, of his approval or displeasure with the course we are taking, and of our need to depend on him for the checking and quickening of our decisions.

Even when we are intelligently pursuing the will of God with the aid of scripture and illumined reason, we should be open to a witness of the Spirit halting and redirecting us, just as the apostolic missionaries were when they were trying to go into Bithynia but “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (Acts 16:7)

There is a good deal of spiritual pathology that can be generated from a belief in contemporary prophetic gifts, unless this is carefully guarded by an awareness of some of the dangers we have discussed and the emulation of Edwards’s deliberately antisensational approach to the ministry of the Spirit. Much that passes for prophecy needs to be recognized as part of the normal and unspectacular working of the Spirit, and not inflated into something miraculous and infallible. Many prophecies should be recognized as manufactured by the flesh and the imagination, and discarded with some effort to correct their source by counselling. Others should probably be rejected as demonic counterfeits. Prophecies that seek to spell out the future should be noted and filed in a special compartment of the mind that combines memory with suspended judgment; then from time to time they can be brought out and examined to check their plausibility. But perhaps a very few prophecies, those bearing the ring of truth, should not be ruled out of court before they have been carefully tested. Scripture is more generous here than our efforts at safeness and systematic consistency: “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:19-22). [Source: Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life (IVCF, 1979), pp. 265-270]