Wayne Grudem and Ian Hamilton: The state of prophecy today

A debate between Ian Hamilton (Cambridge Presbyterian Church and formerly a minister in the Church of Scotland) and Wayne Grudem (Phoeniz Seminary, Arizona, formerly at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois) about the role of prophecy in the church today. Chaired by Adrian Reynolds. Recorded at the 2010 EMA. From The Proclamation Trust on Vimeo. From 2010, Phoenix, Arizona.

Ian Hamilton is currently teaching at Cambridge and Wayne Grudem did his doctoral studies there. The aim is to talk about some of the things we know we don’t agree about, but, we think that it’s mature and the time is right as Evangelical Christians who love Christ, who love His word and believe firmly in His word and hold firmly to it; to be able to talk about some of the things we disagree about in a constructive mature way; to gently challenge one another. To think about some of the implications about how these things affect church life. That’s the reason for having these two dear brothers here with us.

I managed to transcribe notes from the first 38 minutes of a 76 minute discussion; the first of its kind (videotaped and publicly posted) between two  Godly men, who are also widely respected theologians, and who both believe in the continuationist position on the gifts of the Spirit, however, Ian Hamilton believes prophecy is not one of those gifts that continued after the New testament canon was closed.

Wayne Grudem:

I have not spoken much about this gift of prophecy question or taught much about it for several years… As I came back to the discussion, I thought it might be helpful to start out with an overview of the whole Bible, Genesis to Revelation.

There is a view that I am going to call cessationsim. A cessationist position that with regard to the gift of prophecy would argue that God doesn’t communicate information directly to us today, apart from the words of the Bible or in addition to the words of the Bible and that’s the viewpoint I’m going to be disagreeing with.

I think what strikes me the most as I look from Genesis to Revelation on this question, is what seems to me the absence of any clear biblical evidence to prove the heart of the cessationist position. I don’t think there’s any passage in scripture, or any combination of passages that should lead us to think that God doesn’t communicate directly with His people throughout all of history, in individual, personal ways that occur, in addition to in and through the written words of scripture. If we look at the whole scope of biblical history, we see that from beginning to end, God had a personal relationship with his people; a relationship in which he communicated directly and personally with them. And, this communication was never limited to the words that He gave all of His people in the book of the covenant, or the writings of the canon of scriptures.  God had a personal relationship and a direct communication with people from the beginning of the Bible and throughout its history.

So, think of his personal relationship and communication with Adam & Eve,  with Cain & Abel, with Enoch, who walked with God (Genesis 5:24), with Noah, with Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob; the narratives of which are filled with discussions of God appearing to them and speaking to them, personally. With Moses, and David, with Solomon, and with many old testament prophets and kings to whom God communicated directly, individually and personally.

And then, in the New Testament, in the person of Jesus, God the Son, communicated individually  and personally with many people while he was on earth. And then the New Testament promises a personal relationship that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will have with each individual believer. Here are some verses:

  • John 14:23 „If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him”. The imagery of making the home of the Father and Son with us, that imagery implies personal fellowship.
  • Revelation 3:20 „If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come into him and eat with him and he with me”. The imagery of eating with one another implies ongoing personal fellowship.
  • Paul in Philippians 3:20 „Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that to you also”. That implies personal communication from God, revealing sin in the lives of individual Philippian Christians.
  • Romans 8:14 „For all who are led by the spirit of God are sons of God”. The present indicative verb for „all who are led”, indicates that this leading is a regular or ongoing process; being led by the spirit of God.
  • Galatians 5:16,18 „But I say, walk by the spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. But, if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law”. Again the verb (in Greek) indicates ongoing activity- being led by the spirit of God.

My point is that from the beginning to the end, the Bible tells us of a God who relates individually and personally to His people. And now, it seems to me that some in the cessationist position are coming and telling us: Contrary to the experience of all of God’s people throughout all the books of the Bible, that God no longer communicates personally and individually with any of his people except through the written words of the canon of Scripture. So it seems to me that a cessationist position asks us to believe

  1. that throughout the Bible, God communicated to His people both through written scripture, as much as they had at any point, and through additional, direct, personal interaction with people.
  2. But then it asks us to believe that God now only communicates through the written words of the canon and no longer with direct, personal fellowship and interaction with people. This is quite strange in light of the fact that the new covenant seems to be better in every way, but how can it be better if we’ve lost that element of personal relationship with God and personal communication with God in addition to the words of the canon. That element that characterized all periods of history that the Bible talks about. Where is anything in the Bible that would lead us to believe that?

Of course, I understand that cessationists believe that the canon is closed and I agree with that. But the question is not that of the canon. The question is what about communication, from God to specific individuals that is not part of the canon? If the Bible is the book of the covenant, that stipulates the terms of the relationship between God as king and us as His covenant people. Then, are we to say that the king can never communicate with His people in any additional ways, besides the covenant document? Can he who created speech, and loves His people,  never speak to them  directly and personally? A cessationist view, if I understand it correctly, allows no element for individual, personal guidance from the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, ever. Our guidance is simply to be taken from reading the Bible and using mature wisdom to apply it to our lives. But surely, the vast majority of Christians, throughout history have known and experienced the guidance of the Holy Spirit in making decisions, especially while they are praying and reading the words of scripture, but in other times as well. Apart from the concentrated times of reading scripture and prayer. And, they have known that this guidance includes not only the direction and commands and principles of scripture, but also subjective impressions of God’s will and additional thoughts and specific memories the Lord brings to mind. It seems to me that a position that rules out personal guidance from the Holy Spirit today is so completely different from the whole course of Biblical history and from the New Testament teaching on personal fellowship that we have with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Specifically with regard to the gift of prophecy, we have … and I think it is a sub category of that broader category of personal fellowship and communication from God to believers and so I would look at passages like 1 Thessalonians 5 19-21, and in that passage Paul says, „Do not despise prophecies, but test everything, hold fast to what is good”. And, so I think that he is implying here and in 1 Corinthians 14, when he says, „Let two or three prophets speak and let the others way what is said”, that God can bring things to mind, and when we report something that God has suddenly brought to mind, that Paul would call that the gift of prophecy functioning in the church. But it is always to be tested by Scripture. Paul says, „Do not despise prophecies, but test everything. Hold fast to what is good”. It is to be tested by scripture and by what we know about our lives and the word in general and we may be mistaken by those kinds of things, but of course , sermons can also be mistaken and advice from others can also be mistaken, but they have a useful role in the Christian life.

I think this element of prophecy, as well, is something that the New Testament talks about; views as commonly functioning, in the churches in Rome, in Corinth, Ephesus and Thessaloniki and is something that ought to be appreciated and valued today.

Click below for the rest of the notes…….

Ian Hamilton:

Well, I’m a continuationist. I believe in the continuing, powerful, personal, mighty, supernatural, transforming, quickening work of the Holy Spirit. Like John Owen, I believe that without the Holy Spirit, we may as well burn our Bibles. I believe that the Christian life is a life of intimate fellowship with a triune God, nowhere more wonderfully explicated than volume 2 of John Owen’s collected writings, where Owen, a – cessationist, with 1 or 2 caveats; nonetheless, speaks in terms that almost rapturize the soul in terms of the intimacy of the fellowship that the individual believer has through the Holy Spirit as the bond of spirit with the triune God.

Having said that, in the broader terms, that this discussion is carried on, I would be described as a cessationist. Dr. Grudem’s position is essentially, if I understand it rightly, and unlike him, I have never done this before; so he can correct me as we go along. He understands prophecy to be two-fold. First of all you have apostolic prophecy, which is infallible and foundational to the truth that God has revealed. In addition to infallible, foundational, apostolic prophecy, you have congregational prophecy, which is neither infallible, nor foundational. He seeks to argue that case in a number of ways to which I will come to in a moment. But, as you heard Dr. Grudem say, congregational prophets, at best, can say, „I think, this is the Lord’s will. I’m fairly certain Mary should marry Philip, but I’m not perfectly certain”. So, there is a two tier view of prophecy. Infallible, foundational (Ephesians 2:20)  and congregational, non infallible. He would argue 1 Corinthians 14:29 and other passages.

I have three major problems with that kind of continuationist view of prophecy.

  1. Exegetically, I think Wayne is wrong. He is wrong in his exegesis of Ephesians 2:20; 3:5 and 4:11. I think he’s wrong in the way he explicates 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 and we’ll come back to that later. I think, exegetically, his arguments, really without conviction and without substance,
  2. Theologically I have great problems with the continuationist view because I don’t think it provides a biblical rationale for understanding biblical history, which Wayne surveyed very helpfully for us, and I don’t think I had a qualm about anything he said. In biblical history, you cannot miss the fact that the mighty, extraordinary acts of God occur at significant epochs of the church and then disappear. They appear tied by and large to epochal advancements of revelation and the authenticating of that revelation with the ambassadors that Gd uses to make known prophetically, His revelation. And, I don’t think continuationists have any theological rationale for explaining why are these mighty gaps in biblical history. Why, for example, does the New Testament self-consciously describe signs and wonders as the signs of an apostle? In 2 Corinthians 12, Hebrews 2, 3 and 4 ? It seems to me that these mighty acts of God were tied to periods of revelatory, redemptive advancement and that has been completed in Christ. In Jesus Christ, we look for nothing more. God has spoken, His final, His last and His best word in His Son Jesus Christ. I say that, not to lock the Spirit up within scripture. God forbid; the Spirit is sovereign and when Wayne was speaking of God’s personal engagement with the believer, I believe that passionately. I don’t know a cessationist that doesn’t. Maybe he’s come across some and maybe they’re out there, but, it is certainly not the cessationsim I understand; which is passionate about the personal, intimate, individual covenantal working of the Holy Spirit. Benjamin Warfield described Jean Calvin an essential cessationist, described his great contribution to the church as being the theologian of the Holy Spirit. You could say the same, more magisterially perhaps of John Owen in volumes 2, 3 and 4 in particular. So, theologically I have problems because it seems to suggest that beyond the finality  of God’s revelation in Christ, there’s more that we need to know; that the scriptures are not sufficient. Whereas 2 Timothy 3:16,17 says, although speaking of the Old Testament, but surely, …….. of the new covenant scripture too, Paul says, „All scripture is God breathed” and profitable.But the man or woman of God may be made fully equipped or equipped for full work in the service of God.
  3. Pastorally, I just find the view that Wayne espouses, pastorally … let me choose my words carefully. At best, they could cause tremendous confusion in a church. A prophet stands up and says, „I’m fairly certain,” and those are the 2 words that Wayne uses in his doctoral thesis. „I’m fairly certain God is saying, x sister is to marry Philip”. I think I would want to stand and say, „Are you sure it’s Philip? Maybe it’s John. Are you sure it’s Mary, maybe it’s Margaret.” Fairly certain never seems to describe the prophetic utterances both of the old covenant scriptures and the new covenant scriptures, when prophets spoke, they said, „Thus saith the Lord,” and if we have men or women standing up in congregations saying that they think they might have a word from the Lord, that is binding the conscience of individual Christians   beyond that which the infallible Holy Scriptures would suggest to us and give to us.

So, for exegetical reasons, most of all, but secondly for theological reasons and for pastoral reasons, I have great problems with the continuationist view of prophecy.

Wayne Grudem : 

Maybe we should just focus on them one at a time, starting with Pastoral. I think I’ve believed that God can bring things to mind, that we report to others and that sometimes that is helpful in the ministry of the church and the functioning of the church. I have believed that since 1968. I have, never in 42 years, heard someone stand up and say, „Person A should marry person B”. In fact, I was in a church one time when the Pastor made a rule: No prophecies about romantic involvement. Facilitator here asks, „On what Basis?” Grudem answers, „I think because he had seen this abused in some home fellowship groups. I think that discerning what is from God is a situation in which we take into account all that we know about scripture, all that we know about ourselves, about our lives and then, whether this seems to be consistent with that and with what we know; I would counsel people, because this does not have the authority of God’s word, I would counsel people never to make huge life decisions based on prophecy alone.

However, I think there are times when God can bring into mind something that a person would say to me; that would confirm something I had been thinking about, giving additional help and direction so I would evaluate the person and the circumstance in which something is being said. But, I don’t want to say that this ever comes with the force of Scripture or stands alone; it stands in the complex of all of life.

I would put this idea of God bringing things to mind in the same category of advice as counsel from a Godly person.

Ian Hamilton:

Can I submit one point? Why then would you want to call someone a prophet? And what force or authority does a modern day prophet have in the church, if they’re only giving advice, which is no doubt based on biblical principles. What authority then does a prophet have in a congregation?

Wayne Grudem:

I’ll give you an example and the person involved has given me permission to share this publicly. A former student from Trinity Int. Univ. went back to Nairobi, Kenya and was Pastor of a large Evangelical, Baptist Church in Nairobi. After he had been in Nairobi a long time, he came back to Trinity to study for a period and he saw me working across campus and he said, „Wayne, can I go to church with you?” We happened to be going to a church then that believed in the gift of prophecy at that time. We came and sat at the back of the church and after the church service he said, „I’d like to meet your pastor”. The pastor at the same time had seen me at the back with a guest and was looking for us. We came and stood at the front of the church and I introduced them and the pastor said, „I am going out on a limb here, but I think you should take more leadership in your church”. Well he just met him 30 seconds ago. But this strong, African leader stood there stunned with tears coming down his cheeks. Why? Because God had been working in his heart previously, giving him conviction that he should exercise more leadership in his church because just before he left Nairobi, someone in his church had told him that he should be assuming more leadership and taking authority that God had given him and then someone from outside the church had come and visited a respected evangelical leader and said, Mutava I think you should be taking more leadership in your church. This then functioned as a powerful confirmation that what he had been wondering about was reinforced and I think it was from the Lord. Isn’t that useful?

Ian Hamilton:

It may be useful and like you I had heard stories like that, dramatic stories, not only within Christianity and Evangelicals but also within Reformed evangelicals. In the highlands of Scotland there’s a group called „The fathers of Rothshire”, men who are steeped in Reformed orthodoxy and yet, who would make the charismatic movement today seem „limp” in the way they understood the working of the Holy Spirit. But, my concern is to ask, I suppose the more basic question (which) is: In my reading of the New Testament, prophecy belongs to the foundation of the church and the prophets that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 2:20 are the New Testament prophets with the apostles lay the foundations of the church. Now, you take it differently. You translate it that the apostles who are also prophets and we can come to whether that’s a reasonable or acceptable translation.But, when the New Testament speaks of prophecy and my understanding (is) it speaks univocally. Prophecy is God revealing HImself and His great salvation Prophecy with the apostolic testimony is embedded in the foundation of the church. Jesus Christ is the great prophet of the christian church. All believers are prophets and we all have access to the prophetic witness of the apostolic testimony; but Jesus Christ rules the church as prophet, priest and king. And that’s where it seems to me we ought to start and be clear in our terminology. Does God continue to speak revelatory beyond the finished work of Christ, in His ascended glory? Are we to expect words of knowledge and revelations of particular circumstances and situations beyond that which God has, by His Spirit inscripturated for us in His word? My conviction reading the New Testament is that prophecy is not a continuing gift and I believe in pastors giving prayerful advice; I believe in the work of the Spirit, transcending all my little categories. But if someone says, „I have a prophetic word from the Lord”, he is saying, „Thus saith the Lord” and that to me is binding my conscience beyond what Holy Scripture teaches.

Wayne Grudem:

But that’s not what I hold about prophecy. What if someone says, „I think the Lord brought to mind that we should reconsider our plan to go on a mission trip this summer?” Are you comfortable with that language?

Ian Hamilton:

No problem at all. My question would be why do you call that prophecy?

Wayne Grudem:

Okay Ian, then I think you and I are very close in terms of how to work out practically in ordinary church life and if we would not call it prophecy would you be okay with saying „God brought to mind”?

Ian Hamilton: 

I don’t know. It might be. The big issue is not what God may occasionally be pleased to do in the life of his child; He’s the sovereign Lord. The issue is: Is the individual christian believer bound in any sense to take life decisions on the basis of what a prophet says rather than be guided and shaped by the principles of the infallible word of God. Am I right in thinking that you believe and you teach that the revelation (you use the word revelation) …

Wayne Grudem:

I do, because the New Testament…. because I think in the NT 1 Corinthians 14:30 if a revelation is made by another prophet then let the first be silent, and that’s made in the context of prophecy. I do use the word revelation, but it doesn’t result in canonical scripture and doesn’t come with the force of  canonical scripture but, is simply God bringing things to mind. In the same way in Philippians 3 if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that to you.

Ian Hamilton:

I think when you tie revelation to ongoing, continuing prophecy, I think there we have a problem because, really, it’s binding the conscience. Surely.

Wayne Grudem:

And I don’t think it is. I never teach that it is. I teach that we test it. Weigh it. Evaluate it. But, it still can be useful in bringing to mind things that are in someone’s heart. That can be very useful in Pastoral ministry, I think.

Ian Hamilton:

Would it be helpful to go on to 1 Corinthians 14:29, where most English translations, I think, paraphrase the Greek rather than translate the Greek?

Wayne Grudem:

„Let two or three prophets speak and let the others weigh what is said”, and „what is said” is not expressed explicitly in the Greek. It’s just „let the others weigh or evaluate”.

Ian Hamilton:

…evaluate or discriminate. But I think your point is that in non foundational, congregational prophecy there will be an admixture of the true and the false and therefore you have to weigh the content of the prophecy. There are two points I would make:

  1. I’m not persuaded that’s what Paul is saying. I think 1 Corinthians 6:5 and in 4:7 does not mean to judge whether something has within itself truth or falsity. It’s judging between people. And I think in the New Testament, it most often refers to discriminating among people and it seems to me more likely Paul is saying, either the others are prophets or the congregation to judge in this very fertile congregation at Corinth where error and truth was being mixed up all the time. Where false prophets, super apostles were coming in, that Paul is saying, „You need to learn to judge between men who are true prophets and who are false prophets. And I think that stands very well with 1 John 4:1 „test the spirits” with our own , with the Lord Jesus Christ’s warning to the church. Matthew 7, the false prophets, men in sheep’s clothing.
  2.  But even if it did mean-not discriminate among men, but discriminate the content of what they’re saying, would that not simply be at peace with Deuteronomy 13, 18 and the whole concern that the people of God because of satanic activity, were always being infected with surreptitious, false teachers who needed to be exposed.

Wayne Grudem:

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