Viewing the Gift of Prophecy through a Closed Canon
How do we reconcile the well-documented prophetic experiences of the Scottish reformers with such strong affirmation of the biblical canon as the Westminster Confession of Faith sets forth? How do we treat the occasional revelations concerning strangers which came to nineteenth-century English Baptist pastor, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, during his Sunday morning preaching? Can such prophetic ministry coexist with a closed biblical canon? Is there such a thing as prophecy in the post-New Testament era of the church? If so, what is the nature of it, and how would we recognize it? Amos 3:8 sheds some welcome light on the issue:
Surely the LORD does nothing
without revealing his plan
to his servants the prophets.
The lion has roared--
who will not fear?
The Sovereign LORD has spoken--
who can but prophesy?
While this Old Testament prophecy had a particular meaning within the immediate historical context of Amos himself, its ultimate reference can be none other than the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev. 5:5). In keeping with the Hebrew synonymous parallelism in the second half of the verse, "the Sovereign LORD" in the last stanza is to be identified with "the lion" in the preceding stanza. The roaring of the lion depicts the mighty voice of the Lord. As "the Word became flesh," Jesus' entire life, ministry, death and resurrection was a kind of speaking (John 1:14). In this sense, as in every other, "no man ever spoke like this man!" (John 7:46 RSV). The author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews wrote, "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son" (1:2 RSV). There was a finality about the Son's speaking. The entire New Testament is the apostles' authoritative, completed testimony to Jesus Christ. It embodies the "faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). If a man adds to, or subtracts from the apostles' recorded testimony to Christ, he does so to his own eternal peril (Rev. 22:18-19). The prophet Isaiah had envisioned just such a day when he wrote,
Bind up the testimony
and seal up the law
among my disciples (Isaiah 8:16).
Announcing the once for all speaking of the Sovereign LORD, Amos prompted his own immediate rhetorical question which followed: ". . . who can but prophesy?", as though to imply, "Who would dare to consider anything less?" That this is indeed the sense of the question is underscored by the parallel question that follows the announcement of the lion's roaring: "Who will not fear? Not only is there a total absence of contradiction between the prophesying of the Sovereign LORD's servants and the finality of God's authoritative Word, there is an solemn affirmation that if the Lord's servants were to do less than prophesy, it would set them at great contradiction to the LORD's authoritative Word! Christ's finished work (Heb. 10:10), and the apostolic testimony concerning it (1 John 1:1-4; 2 Pet. 1:16-19), surely eliminated further prophetic ministry in the sense of adding to it, or subtracting from it. Yet, in the sense of propagating it, expounding it, and applying it, that finished work and authoritative testimony actually served to proliferate prophesying!
Christ essentially turned prophecy on its head fulfilling the writings of the Old Testament prophets, but setting into motion a mighty army of Good News proclaimers who would bear testimony to Him within the church and to the world at large. "The Lord announced the word, and great was the company of those who proclaimed it" (Psalm 68:11). Every Christian has the testimony within himself (1 John 5:10), and accordingly, has a prophetic ministry to fulfill. "For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10). It is on this basis that the apostle Paul was able to tell the Corinthians believers, "For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged" (1 Cor. 14:31). Peter, on the occasion of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, reminded his Jewish compatriots of Joel's prophecy: "Your sons and daughters will prophesy" (Acts 2:17). Reflecting further on Isaiah 8:16-20, we see that the completion of the New Testament canon was not designed to eliminate prophecy but to serve as a standard to recognize it, or to evaluate what purports to be prophecy.
To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn (Isaiah 8:20).
To be sure, any valid prophecy today must be viewed in terms of reflected light--a reflection of the "Sun of Righteousness" (Malachi 4:2). Prophecy today is partial and incomplete (1 Cor. 13:12) due to the fact that the covenantal reality within us (2 Cor, 3:18) is not yet unmitigated as will be the case when "we shall be like Him" upon our glorious meeting at Christ's return (1 John 3:2). At present, when confession of sin is part of the saints' daily routine, the church is in process of being perfected (Matt. 6:12; 1 John 1:7-9). And while prophesying contributes to the process (1 Cor. 14:4), we can appreciate the mindset which Zechariah indicated would characterize the New Testament prophet.
On that day every prophet will be ashamed of his prophetic vision. He will not put on a prophet's garment to deceive. He will say, 'I am not a prophet. I am a farmer; the land has been my livelihood since my youth' If someone asks him, 'What are these wounds on your body?' he will answer, 'The wounds I was given at the house of my friends.' (Zech. 13:4).
Knowing that the end of the ages had already come upon them in the person of Christ (1 Cor. 10:11), that the faith had been "once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3), and that any ongoing prophecy was both incomplete and short-lived (1 Cor. 13:8-12), it must have been tempting for the early Christians to give up prophesying. Accordingly, the apostle Paul encouraged them not to "put out the Spirit's fire" or to "treat prophecies with contempt." His only concern was that they "test everything," "hold on to the good," and avoid every kind of evil" (1 Thess. 5:19-22). Similarly, he instructed Timothy (1 Tim. 1:18; 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6-7).
All prophecy, in the final analysis, is about Jesus Christ. It is essentially forthtelling, as distinct from foretelling. If purported prophecy does not conform to his character (1 John 3:7), his teaching or the teaching of his apostles (1 John 4:6), if it distorts the truth concerning his nature or mission (1 John 2:22; 4:1-3), if it is designed to distract the church's attention away from Christ (1 John 5:19-21; 2 Cor. 11:1-3), if it perverts the Gospel (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 11:4; 1 Cor. 15:1-4), if it indulges in human flattery (Ezek. 12:24; Dan. 11:32; Rom. 16:18), if it denies the reality of God's Triune Being (1 John 2:20-23; 1 Pet. 1:2), if it fosters confusion or disorder in the church (1 Cor. 14:33), if it does not serve to advance the Kingdom of God, then whatever lies behind it cannot be considered the true "spirit of prophecy." If on the other hand the very opposite is true, that it is centered in Christ, that it upholds Christ's character, exalts his person and mission, is true to the Gospel, promotes the good order of His church, magnifies God's grace leaving no room for human boasting, affirms the reality of God's Triune Being, serves to advance the Kingdom, and the character of the one bringing the purported prophecy is well-established and recognized to be honorable, then it can be considered the spoken word of God, i.e., a valid prophecy for the church's edification.
The effect of prophecy is the church's instruction and encouragement (1 Cor. 14:3) and the conviction of unbelievers exposing the secrets of their hearts so that they will fall down and worship God acknowledging the truth of Jesus' name Emmanuel (1 Cor. 14:25). This seems to have been the effect of those extraordinary prophetic moments in the preaching of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. There was an exposure of the motives of the heart resulting in the conviction and conversion of the sinner.
We must never lose sight of the fact that part of the finished work of Christ was "to seal up vision and prophecy" (Daniel 9:24-30; Isaiah 8:16; 2 Peter 2:19). Yet while the New Testament canon embraces Christ and circumscribes the Gospel-"the faith once for all delivered to the saints," it was never intended to embalm Christ! He is the Living and Abiding Word for His church which is the "pillar and foundation of the truth" (2 Tim. 3:15) in every generation. While prophecy is essentially forthtelling, that does not rule out the occasional foretelling or disclosing to the believer what he could not ordinarily know except by God's intervention. On those occasions, which some might call special special providences, God's redemptive purpose is effected, as the Spirit applies the truth of Christ to the life situation of the church in order to encourage the church or to enable the the church to keep a step ahead of those (men or devils) seeking its destruction (John 1:47-51; Mark 2:8; Acts 11:28; 16:9; 18:9-10; 21:10-11; 22:17-21; 1 Tim. 1:18; 4:14). We can expect God to do what is necessary in every generation to defend his people when they pray in the face of their enemies (Acts 4:24-30). Certainly the Scottish Reformers, due to their earnest contending for "the faith once for all delivered," faced just such a time. With their backs to the wall they prayed. John Knox prayed, "O God, give me Scotland or I die!"
It is said that when John Knox prayed, the Queen of England trembled. Of his preaching, it was said, "Others lop off branches, but this man strikes at the root." Our problem in trying to reconcile prophecy with a closed canon is that we do not pray like John Knox prayed nor preach like he preached. God would answer the prayers of his people and would deal with the church's enemies. But He would not act without first revealing his plan to His prophetic servants. This is why Amos 3:8 is such a timeless prophecy informing us of our great Prophet, Priest, and King, and reminding us of what should be the church's prophetic response.
Viewed in this way, prophesying is a gift to the church, something to be earnestly desired, and indeed a duty of the church. It adds nothing to, and subtracts nothing from, the biblical canon. It is simply one of the major ways in which the Holy Spirit applies the completed apostolic testimony to the lives of the saints. It is the Spirit's contextualizing the Word of Christ to the contemporary life situation of the church, lest the church's ministry be reduced to a kind of sterile orthodoxy. It is also to remain conscious of the deceitfulness of the human heart in wanting to encroach upon the foundational ministry of those apostles and prophets who were charged with delivering the faith once and for all to the saints. Concerning this deceitfulness, John Calvin was very greatly concerned in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and with good reason.