This is my third post in a response to Sam Waldron’s new book on cessationism called “To be continued?” (see part 1, part 2). The earlier posts dealt with my difficulties with Waldron’s basic premise, and particularly with his assertion that apostleship was a spiritual gift.
Waldron’s next section deals with prophets (over three chapters), and there are shorter sections on toungue-speakers and miracle-workers. I’ll deal with Waldron’s first chapter on Old Testament prophets here, and leave his thoughts on their continuation or cessation until a later time.
Old Testament Prophets
In dealing with the New Testament gift of prophecy, Waldron rightly emphasises that we must start with a proper understanding of prophecy in the Old Testament, and he suspects that most continuationists have a “superficial view of prophecy” (pp 48-9).
In defining Old Testament prophecy he looks to Exodus 4:10-17 and 7:1-2, and “together these passages teach us that a prophet was the mouth of spokesman of God”. He says from Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:15-22 that there were two tests of a prophet. 1) whether “he led the people away from the revelation of the true God that had been given to them by Moses” (ie orthodoxy). 2) “if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken.” Waldron is clear that the latter two must be applied, though he seems to be less sure what we should do with the “signs and wonders” test from Deuteronomy 13. I found this particularly surprising given his insistence that New Testament miraculous gifts were signs affirming apostles, but I guess his difficulty stems from the fact that false prophets could pass this test.
He also acknowledges that Moses “was more than a prophet… because God spoke to him face to face”. It’s an important point – should this make a difference to how easily we look to Moses as a model Old Testament prophet? Is it right that we go to him, to discover what is at the heart of Old Testament prophethood? Waldron does not give us an answer.
Waldron goes on to speak of varieties of Old Testament prophets, the authority of Od Testament prophecy, the canonicty of Old Testmanet prophecy. For my liking he over-emphasises the link between prophecy and canon, and does a dis-service to the writings (Wisdom Literature) and later later historical books (Joshua-Esther) in the process. For example, he says, “there is no evidence that any of the books were written by anyone who was not at least in the broad sense noted earlier a prophet” (pg 56). This really is stretching a point, and is at best an argument from silence. Who wrote the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Job? Who put together the book of Psalms, and who wrote the individudal songs? Who wrote Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs? What evidence is there that these writers were prophets? (Unless anyone who is inspired to write Scripture becomes a de facto prophet by definition.)
Other than this final point, I think almost every evangelical Christian would agree with what has been said. But there is something missing – and it’s quite crucial if we’re going to proceed with our understanding of the New Testament gift of prophecy?
The question that must be answered is: What was the purpose of Old Testament prophecy? I’m sure Waldron would say “to speak God’s words”, but that is not quite good enough. We need to delve deeper.
A better answer is that the prophets were to “reveal God’s will”. This was done most often through words, but occassionally through signs and symbols (eg Isaiah 20:3). But even saying that the prophets “revealed God’s will” is not quite enough. If they just revealed God’s will, then we could read the Old Testament and find out what God wants from us. We can do that, but we can do much more than that. When we read the OT, we not only find out what God wants from us, but we actually find God there. When we hear the prophets, they don’t just reveal God’s will, they reveal God Himself.
This was their grand purpose (and why Jesus can say that all the Scriptures speak of Him – Luke 24:27).
What did the prophets do? Speak God’s word? Yes, but far more than that. They were the way God had chose to reveal Himself. Bear that in mind, and Hebrews 1:1-2 radiates with even more significance:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son
And frankly, that is the most powerful argument that there is for the cessation of the gift of prophecy. We don’t need prophecy now, because God has revealed Himself in a far better way than words of prophecy could ever reveal. I’m surprised Waldron didn’t mention it.
But, remember, I’m not a cessationist, and I do believe that the gift of prophecy is to be active in the church today. Does it sound a contradiction? Soon I will show that there is no contradiction – but that will have to wait for a later post looking at Waldron’s handling of the new testament gift. For now, don’t get caught up with debates about the authority of prophecy or the medium of prophecy. Simply remember this: the prophets’ task was to reveal God to the people.