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John Piper asks 'What is Prophecy today?': But does he give the right answer?

Yesterday Desiring God posted a short podcast of John Piper talking about his views on prophecy today. In part he’s responding to John Macarthur and the Strange Fire thing by speaking about why he believes prophecy continues in the church today. But he’s also speaking about what he thinks prophecy is, and how his view of prophecy is different from what Macarthur is attacking.

So John Piper spends the 8 minutes of his podcast giving 3 reasons why he thinks prophecy is not authoritative, but rather just speaking something that God brings to mind. (Basically he’s using Wayne Grudem’s definition of prophecy.) Well, as I’m in the middle of writing a series about prophecy, and as the next post in the series is about the problem with thinking of prophecy as (in the words of Grudem) ‘speaking merely human words to report something God brings to mind’, I thought this would be a good place to pause and respond to John Piper’s 3 arguments for his view of prophecy.

So, here’s a summary of Piper’s arguments, followed by my response.

1) 1 Thess 5:19-21Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good.

Pipers’ Argument: These verses aren’t talking about testing a person, but rather, testing words and holding fast to the words that are good. It’s not about choosing between people, but choosing between what they say.

My Response: It’s not the person that’s authoritative, but God’s Word. Therefore it needs to be tested to see if it is God’s Word or not. Piper’s argument here doesn’t actually get to the nature of the words that are tested and found good. No one should be saying that everything that purports to be prophecy should be accepted as unquestionably God’s Word, but that’s very different from talking about prophecy which has been tested and found to be true prophecy being treated as the Word of God. He’s right, these verses are talking about testing words rather than testing a person, but it’s a huge leap from that to saying that prophecy consists merely of ‘human words to report something God brings to mind.’

2) 1 Cor. 11:4-5Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonours his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.

Piper’s Argument: ‘I don’t see how women prophesying in the assembly fits with an infallible, Scripture-level authority, when Paul forbids that kind of authority to be exercised over men by women in the church in 1 Tim. 2:12.’ He can only see this as God bringing something helpful to a woman’s mind in a small-group setting which she could find a culturally appropriate way to share to upbuild people which wouldn’t in any way undermine the authority of the men.

My Response: Now, I’m a good complementarian, but it seems to me that Piper here takes his coplementarianism too far! Scripture explicitly says that a woman may pray or prophesy in church here in 1 Cor. 11. In 1 Tim. 2:12 it forbids teaching or having authority over the mixed assembly (the characteristics of eldership). Prophecy and teaching aren’t the same (which, after all, is one of the points Piper is trying to make by speaking about his view of prophecy). So a Scripture which forbids a woman to teach in the mixed congregation cannot be used to forbid her to prophesy or redefine prophecy. And it would indeed be a redefinition of prophecy, for when the prophetess Huldah prophesied, it wasn’t to find a culturally appropriate way to share something helpful that God had brought to her mind without any semblance of authority. No, when Huldah prophesied it was a case of ‘Thus says the LORD God of Israel’ (2 Kings 22:15-20). When she prophesied, it was authoritative and it was not merely human words. It was the Word of the Lord. But if Piper’s still worried about 1 Tim. 2:12 and authority, then bear this in mind: because it was the authoritative Word of the Lord, it wasn’t Huldah who was exercising authority, but God. In fact, this actually goes in the complete opposite direction to Piper’s argument, for if Huldah were speaking ‘merely human words to report something God brings to mind’, then it would be Huldah herself who was exercising authority through her human words.

From another angle, surely it’s a bit like reading the Bible in church. When the Bible is read, the words that are spoken are authoritative, because it is God’s Word, and yet I’ve never come across a church, no matter how complementarian (in the UK at least, maybe things are different in America) that wouldn’t allow a woman to read the Scriptures in church.

3) 1 Cor. 13:8-12Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part.  But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

Piper’s Argument: These verses are speaking of Christ’s return, so prophecy will continue until then. When Jesus comes back, prophecy will pass away because it isn’t perfect. So, present day prophecy is imperfect and only ‘in part’.

My Response: The Biblical contrast between prophecy ‘in part’ and the perfect which will come (i.e. Jesus) isn’t a contrast between merely human words and Christ’s presence, but a contrast between some partial words about Jesus and His very presence with us. It’s a contrast between the comparatively little that we see and know of Him now, compared to how we will see and know Him at His return. This doesn’t in any way mean that prophecy is wrong or not God speaking, but simply that it doesn’t give us the full, glorious view of Christ that we look forward to on that final day.

Conclusion

None of Piper’s arguments actually tell us about the nature of prophecy, and yet all three of his arguments require a major change in the nature of prophecy from that described in the Old Testament and book of Acts (where it is God speaking) to today (where it is supposed to be merely human words). When did this change take place and why doesn’t Scripture explain it? Those are questions Piper doesn’t address, and yet upon which all three of his arguments rest. So, based on John Piper’s 3 arguments about the nature of prophecy, I can’t agree with him (and Wayne Grudem) in defining prophecy as ‘speaking merely human words to report something God brings to mind.’

I'll say a bit more in the next post 'On the Word of the Lord and words from the Lord' - Part 2...

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