It is proving to be an interesting year when it comes to sorting out a possible confluence between Reformed theology and charismatic practice. Over the past few years, as more and more people have embraced the principles of Reformed theology, many have also accepted that the ongoing miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit remain operative today. However, few have attempted to actually put such doctrine into practice. As the year began I predicted this would soon change, and it seems this is proving true. Most recently, Matt Chandler led his church through an examination of the spiritual gifts as a means of encouraging the congregation to fully practice the full range of gifts.
As we consider that possible confluence between two streams of theology that to this point have remained largely separate, a key issue that must be clarified is the relationship of Scripture and prophecy. As Protestants we are convinced that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, sufficient Word of God. We rightly proclaim the doctrine of Scripture alone (sola scriptura) which assures us that the Bible is our sole authoritative rule for faith and practice. When we introduce prophecy, we must grapple with how to practice it in such a way that it harmonizes with all we believe about the Bible, including sola scriptura. In that vein, this is a question I’ve been eager to find an answer to: What does prophecy offer that Scripture does not?
Matt Chandler focused one of his sermons on prophecy and defined the gift as “Spirit-prompted, spontaneous, intelligible messages orally delivered to a person or community intended for edification and encouragement.” Then, in a number of ways and through a number of anecdotes he indicated what prophecy offers that Scripture does not: prophecy personalizes Scripture. Here’s what he says: “We receive from the Lord a word that doesn’t contradict the Scriptures, doesn’t stand in contrast to the sufficiency of the Scriptures, but it personalizes the Scriptures.” Thus, the prophet speaks on behalf of God to make one or more general biblical truths specific to an individual or community.
That begs an example, and Chandler actually provides several. Most notably, he tells of the days when he was fighting cancer and was in the very worst moments of his illness. He was lying on the bathroom floor and suddenly there flashed through his mind a prophecy a friend had shared with him some time prior: “I will circumcise you, and through that I will make you the father of many sons.” Here is what that did for Chandler: “On the bathroom floor that afternoon, the God of creation bent down and kissed my forehead in the darkest night of my life. … I knew Bible verses for all of that, but I felt seen and loved that day.”
Chandler knew the promises of Scripture as promises from God to his people, but what encouraged and consoled him that day—what made him felt seen and loved by God in his deepest despair—was a word of prophecy. Why? Because the prophet had delivered a personalized word from the Lord to Matt Chandler. He knew the general words of Scripture but craved something more specific and more personal.
As I consider this, I have a number of questions and concerns.
First, Chandler says prophecy personalizes Scripture, but it is not clear what Scriptures this prophet personalized. What is the relationship of this prophecy to the Bible? Was there a specific verse in the background that it personalized (Romans 8:28, perhaps)? Or was this prophecy personalizing general themes in Scripture? It’s clear that this is a personal message, but not at all clear how it relates to existing biblical revelation (and, thus, how it harmonizes with Chandler’s statement of prophecy’s purpose).
Second, it is not clear why this prophecy was more encouraging than the Bible verses Chandler already knew. What does “I will circumcise you, and through that I will make you the father of many sons” offer that “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” does not? What was it about the first as opposed to the second that came as a kiss from God and made him feel seen and loved? How and why does a possibly fallible prophecy take on a more important role in that moment than clear divine revelation? What benefit is there in receiving a message that is a) vague, b) needing interpretation and c) potentially wrong when we have much better promises that we know are inerrant and infallible?
Third, what Chandler lays out seems to downplay the deeply personal nature of Scripture. I am concerned that his examples of prophecy tacitly teach that the Bible is broad and general in contrast to prophecy which is pointed and specific. We readily admit the Bible is different from every other book in that it is inerrant, infallible, and sufficient. But there is more to the uniqueness of the Bible than that. It is also personal: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12). Add to this Jeremiah 23:29, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Psalm 119, and so many other passages and we must conclude that Scripture is not general communication from God to humanity, but deeply personal communication because it is empowered by the illuminating and applying ministry of the Holy Spirit. Is it the external ministry of prophecy that personalizes Scripture, or is it the internal ministry of the Spirit?
Here’s the question I’ve been asking: What does prophecy offer that Scripture does not? It personalizes the Scriptures, Chandler says. But at the end of it all, I am unconvinced by his answer and examples. I still don’t see how prophecy personalizes the Bible or how it offers anything that is of more value than what we’ve already got.