A Note on Modern Prophecy and Prophets

A Note on Modern Prophecy and Prophets

I was given the title “liberal charismatic” (not as a compliment) because I believe that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are potentially in operation today and that God speaks to people now as much as he has at any time in history. On occasion, this makes for trouble, as people expect me to accept a variety of professed prophets as somehow authoritative due to the office they claim or that is claimed for them. In other word I believe in prophets and prophecy, but I do not consider any particular prophet authoritative as such.

Going further, I very much doubt that I would have considered any ancient prophet authoritative solely on the basis that the individual made such a claim or that the claim was made about them. I doubt that the prophets themselves would expect such obedience to them apart from discernment. Moses is regarded as the greatest of the prophets in Hebrew scripture, and the record shows him making errors and being aware that he had done so. As a Christian believer in the incarnation, I would have to make a partial exception for Jesus, bearing the divine imprint (Hebrews 1:1-4), yet even here, I would suggest that one with discernment would note the message and the life and then be convinced.

It is important here to distinguish inspiration from authority. Isaiah, for example, was an inspired person. This is my belief and the conclusion of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Further, both of those traditions have declared the book that bears his name authoritative. If we had lived in Isaiah’s time, however, while many of us would consider him inspired, we would find that his authority was much less accepted. I’m guessing, in fact, that Isaiah may have said many uninspired things in the course of his life, and many things that should not have been considered authoritative. He may well have said many things that were of divine origins that never made it into his book. If we found a fragment of a scroll the purported to contain sayings of Isaiah, and if these seemed, by the best scholarship available, to date back to Isaiah and to share literary characteristics with things we consider to come from Isaiah, would this fragment automatically have authority in the church? Absolutely not. We have canonized a book, not the theoretical potential output of a person, however inspired it may be. The homilies of St. John Chrysostom are quite inspiring, and perhaps inspired, yet they do not have the authority of scripture.

Many are uncomfortable with the canonization process because however one interprets the process, it is a process in the church that results in the canon. In other words, church authorities are responsible for the collection of materials we regard as authoritative. I think it is necessary that we consider this a Holy Spirit guided process (or even more that the church is a movement guided by the Spirit, to the extent we’ll follow!) or we do not have a good basis for faith. There are those who believe the books have certain identifiable characteristics, and there are certainly some similarities, yet debates about canonicity have resulted from the fact that it’s not quite that smooth and well-defined. (I recommend chapters II [Canon] and III [Authority: Influence and Acceptance] in Edward Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully [Energion Publications, 2011], pp. 17-72, for a detailed exposition of these ideas.)

In my own book When People Speak for God, I make the statement: “The last person, and the decisive person, to hear from God is you” (p. 4). I mean that very seriously, whether we’re dealing with the interpretation of scripture or hearing a word from one who claims to be a prophet, you need to hear, discern, distinguish, and act. I believe that anyone can hear from God. I consider this very scriptural, perhaps as scriptural as anything can be. It is demonstrated repeatedly in the text. We make the people who heard, such as Abraham, Samson’s mother, or Mary, very holy and so separate them. But when they heard from God, they were ordinary people carrying on rather ordinary lives. Anyone may be inspired. Authority results from discernment.

Let me refer you to a  couple of tests for prophets in Deuteronomy. The one we hear most is from Deuteronomy 18:22, which is that if their word is not fulfilled, they are false. (Jonah would have fallen on this test, but that is for further discussion. See Jonah: When God Changes.) But there is another passage, Deuteronomy 13:1-3, which provides another test. There it says that if someone makes this claim, and even provides a sign which comes through, if they then tell you to worship other gods, they must not be obeyed.

As a final point on theory, there are those who consider that if a modern word contradicts the Bible it must be rejected, while if it is in accord with the Bible it is redundant. I would suggest that this presents a false (and possibly dangerous) dichotomy. Throughout the stories in scripture, God worked with and guided people, without ever giving an indication that this would change. In fact, I think the best reading suggests that God speaks a great deal and the limitation is more in the fact that we decide not to listen. When a spiritual movement is young and lively, people listen and generate ideas. Then comes structure. Structure is designed to limit and control this spirit. So the authorities tend to want to shut it down at the source. God is done speaking and he ended with the last book we want to see as authoritative. There is room for freedom, and there is some need for structure, but death follows allowing either of those needs to become absolute. Let there be authority, but let authority by challenged.

I wrote all of that to form the basis for the following. I listen to and apply discernment to any claim, whether the person claims to be a prophet or not. I have generally found in my experience that those who make no claim to speak for God, but just speak what they have learned in their own communion with God speak with much more authority and wisdom than those who make the claim. I think there is a great deal of indiscipline, lack of wisdom, and general confusion in much of the current prophetic movement in Christianity. I will only make specific charges if a person is part of a community of which I am a member, but for myself I work to discern what God is saying. Part of that process is listening myself.

The one way not to be manipulated is to be a student, a learner, a thinker, and to let the Spirit of Truth work. When that is said, don’t be arrogant. I could be wrong. You could be wrong. Being wrong isn’t the end of the world as long as you keep your mind, your hearing, and your discernment active.


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