There is often a deep difference between Christians who believe in the gift of prophecy being used in the Church today, and those who believe that the gift of prophecy ended with the closing of the canon. I have always tended towards the continuationist position: believing that the gift of prophecy can and should be used in the present-day Church. I see such descriptions as those given in 1 Corinthians 12-13 as giving a strong indication that the gift of prophecy is something that continues today. Others, however, believe that since the word of God is complete (since the closing of the canon, meaning nothing can be added to the revealed word of God, the Bible) then the gift of prophecy is now redundant.
I was recently enlightened on this matter through a sermon at church given by Richard Turnbull, and he gave a very good account of the misunderstanding that can occur about prophecy, and through this misunderstanding we can perhaps see why the two camps are opposed rather than united. It is my hope that through sharing a little of what Richard preached and a little of my own reflections we can somehow be drawn together on this usually divisive issue of whether or not the gift of prophecy is for the Church today.
Cessationism or Continuationism?
When talking about the spiritual gifts Christians are roughly divided into two camps:
- Cessationsists believe that the spiritual gifts, such as those outlined in 1 Corinthians 12, ceased after the days of the Early Church. They argue that the Bible teaches that those gifts were present in the days when there was no revealed canon of Scripture, yet would say that such gifts were not meant to continue after the canon of Scripture became clear.
- Continuationists hold that the spiritual gifts, including prophecy, remain part of the ministry of the Church, and that such gifts should be used in mission and the edification of the saints.
As far as our discussion goes, however, we will focus only on the gift of prophecy. Here we can see the cessationist argument much more clearly: if we believe that Scripture cannot be added to or taken away from then we can see that to be able to make a prophetic utterance and declare “thus saith the LORD” would run counter to the assertion that the Bible alone is the authoritative revealed word of God. This then brings us to the 3 types of prophecy, which in my mind clears up the muddled opposition between cessationist and continuationist positions.
The 3 Types of Prophecy
The existence of the prophetic gift is, to a well-versed Christian, impossible to deny. The question is whether that gift continues today, and if it does, what that means. Here it is good to break down the various types of prophetic gift.
- The Prophets – The first type of prophecy is that which the Old Testament prophets practised. The prophets of old, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Joel et al, gave prophecies which were 100% infallible. We can add to such a list the prophets of the New Testament, John (in the Book of Revelation), John the Baptist and, although surpassing them all still a prophet, Jesus Christ. The prophecies and word of these infallible prophets are now part of the canon of Scripture. This form of prophetic gift has most definitely ceased. If it hasn’t, then we must advocate that the Bible is not the sole revealed authoritative word of God – such a position is anathema.
- The Speaking of the Word – the sec0nd type of prophecy is by far the most necessary and valuable: the speaking of God’s revealed word into the hearts of men, women and children. Here there is great overlap with teaching and preaching, but nevertheless it can be described as prophecy because sometimes a word from a preacher will enter a man’s heart with such powerful force that it is clearly God working through the preaching of His word by faithful servants. Even many cessationists would say that this form of prophecy is alive in the Church today.
- Exhortation and encouragement – sometimes a believer may receive a strong prompting to share a Bible verse or say an encouraging or exhorting word to another person. This is situational prophecy. The word given is not 100% infallible but needs to be tested against God’s revealed word in Scripture, yet it can be a Spirit-driven prompting to encourage, exhort or provide for a fellow saint or for someone who is not yet a believer. It is a “word in due season” which neither adds nor takes away from God’s word yet is a using of the gift of prophecy.
If we then look at these three types of prophetic gift we can see that many who claim to be prophets today are, in fact, engaging in the first type – and are thus clearly false prophets for their attempts to claim equality with God’s revealed word. Many continuationists would concur that such false prophecy has no place in today’s Church. We can also see that the second type is generally accepted by cessationists. So we are left with only the third category in which cessationists and continuationists differ, and it is a matter which it is not necessarily one which should divide churches but rather one in which we can easily live side-by-side in unity despite a minor difference of opinion on this matter.