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Pat Robertson and the Meaning of Prophetic

One of the dividing lines in Christian churches today is over the gifts of the Holy Spirit. While speaking in tongues gets most of the attention, the gift of prophecy is a close second. In terms of its potential to tear a church apart, it comes out ahead of tongues, I think. Currently there seem to be two major approaches. First, there are those who refuse to allow anything like prophecy, seeing safety in simple denial, while on the other hand we have many churches in which just about anyone who claims to speak words from God is at least tolerated.

There is also a strong tendency not to want to say anything in opposition to anyone specific who claims to be a prophet, often under the idea that one should, like David, never speak against God’s anointed. The difficulty here is that one has to question the precise type of anointing and calling of someone who peddles nonsense as the word of God.

Let me clarify quickly what I mean here by prophetic. There is a general popular sense of “prophetic” as a message that predicts the future. On the other hand, there is a religious or spiritual sense of prophetic that deals with correction and challenge to a group of people. A “prophetic voice” might call a community to greater social action, for example. The Biblical prophetic movement combined aspects of both. I would suggest, in fact, that you will find little or no prediction in Biblical prophecy that is intended simply to satisfy curiosity or to provide information about the future as its purpose. Rather, when a prophet speaks of the future he does so to challenge the community or individual to some form of action, or to rebuke or correct.

Both of these aspects are tied together by the affirmation of the prophet that he speaks for God, and by the acceptance of the audience that he does so. Prophets did face rejection, but only rarely was this rejection based on the assumption that the prophet was false. The sense in which I’m using the word “prophetic” prophetic here includes those three elements: challenge or rebuke, prediction or promise, and an affirmation of divine guidance or content.

I would also like to distinguish this from the general sense of a believer hearing from God in prayer or meditation. Now it’s quite easy for what one gets in meditation or communion with God to be presented as an absolute message from God, though I think this is an error. I also believe that style of presentation is usually manipulative. In a committee meeting, after much debate, someone says, “Well, I was praying this moring, asking the Lord to enlighten me, and I distinctly heard God say that we should support this program.” (You can fill in the program as you wish!) Generally, even if one did hear this in prayer–and I believe one can hear such a thing–presenting it in that way is an attempt to claim improper authority for one’s position on an issue. After one has said that, how can anyone else argue without either calling you a liar or going against God?

As I see it, much of what passes for prophetic ministry in the church is nothing like the Biblical prophetic movement. Lines of people waiting for a personal word, a sort of prophecy-on-demand, hardly seems the appropriate style. Many of the messages seem mundane or exceedingly general.

I have previously criticized actions or statements from Pat Robertson on various grounds. In this case, I simply would ask that those who do accept the prophetic gift compare his record and actions to some Biblical principles and see just how they stack up. I was first alerted to this material by Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Because of previous experience with Robertson’s statements, I went to do some checking. Sure enough, last year Pat Robertson the coasts of America will be lashed by storms” (see Preacher: God told him about storms, tsunami). Well, last year was unusually calm. Of course, that prediction is vague enough that those who prefer to do so can try to claim success anyhow. According to the Yahoo! story (see next link), “‘I have a relatively good track record,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I miss.'” This year, he has some more predictions–well, sort of.

After reading all of the above, I received an e-mail from the Elijah List, which presents a transcript of Pat Robertson’s remarks and includes them in their collection of “prophetic words.” Steve Shultz notes the following:

The trickiest part of hearing God’s Voice seems to be this–Sometimes, even among the highest level prophets, it’s difficult to know, the “IF” factor. If what is seen, heard, or perceived is catastrophic, can we, the Church, prevent or lessen it through prayer? Or–is what we are seeing, hearing, or perceiving, something that will be–BECAUSE GOD SAID IT WILL BE?

Now here’s what Pat Robertson says as the specific prediction:

Well, the other thing I felt was that evil men; evil people, are going to try to do evil things to us and to others during the last part of this year. I don’t know whether it’ll be in the fall or September or later on, but it’ll be the second half, somehow, of 2007. There will be some very serious terrorist attacks. The evil people will come after this country.

Now my question is this: Does that sound like any of the Biblical prophets? To me it sounds like guessing, and I’m not going to call it a “prophetic word.” There is a reasonable likelihood of some type of terrorist attack this year, certainly, and anyone who looks at the world situation and our woeful lack of preparation for dealing with any such attack could “predict” that “evil people, are going to try to do evil things to us and others.” The word is, of course, hedged about with conditions and caveats.

I simply find it impossible to see this as a “word from the Lord.” I see no particular reason to regard Pat Robertson as “reliable.” I think one does a disservice to the notion of prophetic ministry by calling Pat Robertson’s work “prophetic.”

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  1. We’re reformed charismatic, and I believe that we still have all the spiritual gifts. So I’m not slamming prophecy of any type. But I don’t believe Robertson’s focus has been the ministry for a long, long time. He’s a politician. I read his bio years ago, and I really do believe that he had God’s glory at heart in the beginning of his ministry. To say that he’s jumped the shark now doesn’t begin to cover it. I don’t know what it is about fame that makes people turn into idiots. Maybe they were idiots all along and they just can’t survive the scrutiny, or maybe there’s a process where fame becomes inverse to wisdom or intelligence. But as a Christian, I just find myself wishing that Robertson would just shut up already. He’s not as bad as the Phelps, obviously, but he’s definitely entered the Oral Roberts zone.

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