New Testament Era Prophets—Are They Less Reliable?

More Than a Prophet: How We Lost and Found Again the Real Ellen White, by Graeme S. Bradford, attempts to redefine the ministry of Ellen G. White, ostensibly to make it less vulnerable to the attacks of the critics.  An unintended consequence is that it may make that ministry less authoritative.  Dr. Bradford is a self-proclaimed believer in and advocate of Ellen G. White, and I know of no reason to doubt either his claim or his motivations.  This study will concentrate rather on a key assertion of the book to test its validity.

Some of the book’s major viewpoints appear to stem from a central theological position:  the book redefines prophecy in the New Testament era, claiming that while the classical Old Testament prophets spoke with the authority of God’s revelations behind them, New Testament prophecy is less sure and more likely to reflect the prophet’s own interpretations.  For this reason, it alleges, Scripture instructs the church not to accept at face value the messages of even the acknowledged genuine prophets of that day and beyond, but to weigh their messages, hold onto those that seem good, and discard the others, separating the wheat from the chaff (see pp. 77-84).

In applying these views to the work of Ellen G. White, the book takes issue with key portions of her eschatology and interpretations of Bible prophecy.  It attributes the origin of these positions found in The Great Controversy to the expectations of 19th-century Americans.  As such, it claims, they have little application to today’s global society (see pp. 137-150).

This brief response will address the fundamental difficulty, that of the nature of prophecy in the New Testament era.

The book makes a distinction between Old and New Testament prophets.  It claims that the Old Testament prophets had authority, but that in the New Testament it is the apostle-prophets who have authority.  But is this really so?  Old Testament prophets were messengers, without administrative authority, which resided with the kings and priests.  In the New Testament, prophets again are messengers, without administrative authority, which lay with the apostles and elders.  Prophets gave messages from God, and those messages had moral authority, but it was always up to the leaders to decide whether or not they would act upon the instruction given.  This was true not only of Nathan and David, Elijah and Ahab, but also of Agabus and Paul.

Chapter 9 of More Than a Prophet is called “The Need for Discernment.”  It sets forth the view that, in contrast with the Old Testament prophets who spoke with authority, prophecy is given a “lower status” in the New Testament (p. 79).  It cites what it calls a “broad consensus among respected scholars” for the idea that one must evaluate the messages of New Testament era prophets.  Some of these prophetic messages, it claims, will be accounted worthy, and some are to be discarded as worthless.  The basis for this assertion is credited to two passages of Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21, and 1 Corinthians 14:29.  The first of these reads (NKJV), “Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise prophecies.  Test all things; hold fast what is good.”  Traditionally, Adventists have understood this as highlighting the need to test the prophets, not to distinguish between the good and bad prophecies of the genuine prophets.  Concerning prophecies in the Corinthian church, the second passage reads, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge.”  Despite some translations which render the last part of this verse as “weigh what is said,” the Greek text does not indicate what is to be judged or weighed—the messages or the messengers, i.e., the prophets.  More Than a Prophet understands both of these texts as referring to the messages of the prophets rather than the prophets themselves.  The judging, we are told, consists of evaluating the worth of the messages, separating the wheat from the chaff, and this task is one we should expect to shoulder in dealing with true prophets since New Testament times.

More Than a Prophet cites various scholars in support of these assertions.  Foremost among them, and one to whom several of the others refer, is Wayne Grudem, an evangelical scholar who believes in inerrancy in Scripture and also in the validity of modern Pentecostal prophets whose prophetic messages are often wrong.  In reconciling these positions, he has set forth a view of lesser authority for New Testament era prophets.  In his view, Old Testament prophets were verbally inspired; consequently, their messages were inerrant.  New Testament prophets, on the other hand, he views as having only thought inspiration, leaving them open to the possibility of mixing in material from other sources or supplying their own faulty interpretations.  Thus, in this view, believers must distinguish the true from the false in the prophets’ messages.  More Than a Prophet appears to adopt this basic Scripture interpretation of the two key passages quoted above, even if it does not accept all that Grudem believes on these matters.  This perspective would account for the author’s apparent acceptance of many of the critics’ accusations against Ellen White, especially in his earlier book, Prophets are Human.  If so, to him these things are simply the expected errors of a prophet, which we must “judge” and sort out.

The Greek word translated “judge” in 1 Corinthians 14:29 is diakrino.  It appears 16 times in the New Testament (Matt. 16:3, 21:21, Mark 11:23, Acts 10:20, 11:2, 12, 15:9, Rom. 4:20, 14:23, 1 Cor. 4:7, 6:5, 11:29, 31, 14:29, Jude 9, 22).  The usages convey a variety of meanings, including such things as “to doubt” or “to contend.”  An important meaning is “to judge, discriminate, weigh, evaluate, distinguish,” which we find in 1 Corinthians 14:29.  While this may include sorting the good from the bad, nowhere else does the New Testament use the word in the sense of distinguishing between good and bad ideas.  Rather, when it is used in the sense of making distinctions, these distinctions are between people.  In 1 Corinthians, we see this in 4:7, “For who makes you differ (diakrino) from another?” and in 6:5: “Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you . . . who will be able to judge (diakrino) between his brethren?”  Other such usages of diakrino may be found in Acts 15:9 (“made no distinction between us and them”) and James 2:3, 4 (“shown partiality among yourselves”).  If in 1 Cor. 14:29 diakrino was being used to indicate a distinction between truthful and erroneous ideas, this usage would be unique in the New Testament.  But if it is distinguishing true prophets from false, then this verse harmonizes with other passages of Scripture that use diakrino to refer to distinctions between people and with still other passages that instruct us to make such distinctions regarding prophets, such as Matthew 7:15 (“Beware of false prophets”) and 1 John 4:1-3.

However, if we take 1 Corinthians 14:29 as applying to the messages that the prophets bear (as More Than a Prophet does), we will face the difficulty of finding no other use of diakrino in the New Testament to distinguish between true and false messages or ideas.  But other usages of diakrino in the New Testament may be instructive here.

In Matthew 16:2, 3, Jesus says: “‘When it is evening you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red”; and in the morning, “It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.” Hypocrites! You know how to discern [diakrino] the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times.’”  Were those people distinguishing true signs from false, accepting some and rejecting others?  No.  They were discerning, or perceiving, the meaning of the signs.

Another usage is found in 1 Corinthians 11, just three chapters earlier than the reference More Than a Prophet cites.  Speaking of the Lord’s Supper, verse 29 reads, “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning [diakrino] the Lord’s body.”  In the communion service, are we to try to distinguish between the good and the bad in the elements?  No, we are to perceive the meaning of these symbols for us.

Three chapters later, if Paul was using the same word regarding the messages of the true prophets, isn’t it likely that he used the word in the same sense?  If so, he was calling on the Corinthian believers to consider the prophetic messages carefully to find the meaning of what they say and discern their application to the believers.  This understanding is consistent with Paul’s use of the term diakrino in 11:29 and consistent with a unified understanding of prophets and prophecy in Scripture, not making a radical difference between God’s gift of prophecy in the Old Testament and the New.

Further, either one of the interpretations we have suggested here is consistent with Paul’s view of the purpose for the gift of prophecy in the church.  In Ephesians 4:8-15, Paul outlined the spiritual gifts and told us, among other things, what they are for.  We should notice a couple of key portions:  “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ.”

According to Paul, the gift of prophecy, as well as the other spiritual gifts, is to bring us to unity of the faith and keep us from being tossed around by false teaching.  To do this, it must help us to distinguish truth from error in the “winds of doctrine” that whirl around us.  But if we take it upon ourselves to try to distinguish truth from supposed error in the messages of the true prophets, how can those messages ever reprove us of our errors?  Where the prophets disagree with us, we will be inclined (as some today are doing) to say that on this point, the prophet was wrong.  Such an approach stands Paul’s view of prophecy’s purpose on its head.  Instead of bringing unity, it lays the groundwork for disunity in the church, setting us on the path back to the times of the judges when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Such a view also runs contrary to Ellen G. White’s own description of what her gift was for.  She wrote, “I recommend to you, dear reader, the Word of God as the rule of your faith and practice. By that Word we are to be judged. God has, in that Word, promised to give visions in the ‘last days’; not for a new rule of faith, but for the comfort of His people, and to correct those who err from Bible truth” (Early Writings, p. 78, bold emphasis added).  This was written early in her prophetic ministry.  Late in that ministry she wrote, “The Lord has given me much light that I want the people to have; for there is instruction that the Lord has given me for His people. It is light that they should have, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little. This is now to come before the people, because it has been given to correct specious errors and to specify what is truth. The Lord has revealed many things pointing out the truth, thus saying, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it.’”—Letter 127, 1910 (Selected Messages, book 3, p. 32, emphasis added).

Ellen White wrote of people who tried to distinguish the true from the false in her testimonies:  “Many times in my experience I have been called upon to meet the attitude of a certain class, who acknowledged that the testimonies were from God, but took the position that this matter and that matter were Sister White’s opinion and judgment. This suits those who do not love reproof and correction, and who, if their ideas are crossed, have occasion to explain the difference between the human and the divine.

“If the preconceived opinions or particular ideas of some are crossed in being reproved by testimonies, they have a burden at once to make plain their position to discriminate between the testimonies, defining what is Sister White’s human judgment, and what is the word of the Lord. Everything that sustains their cherished ideas is divine, and the testimonies to correct their errors are human—Sister White’s opinions. They make of none effect the counsel of God by their tradition.”—Manuscript 16, 1889.  (Selected Messages, book 3, p. 68) 

The foregoing is not arguing for inerrancy in Mrs. White’s writings, but only for treating the inspiration of New Testament era prophets as an expression of the same divine action as in the Old Testament.  Just as Mrs. White rejected the idea of “differences in degrees” of inspiration in Scripture (see Selected Messages, book 1, p. 23), so we should reject the same viewpoint in regard to the prophets.  In a famous statement written to Mr. and Mrs. Garmire, Mrs. White warned that “Satan is . . . constantly pressing in the spurious—to lead away from the truth. The very last deception of Satan will be to make of none effect the testimony of the Spirit of God. ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’ (Proverbs 29:18). Satan will work ingeniously, in different ways and through different agencies, to unsettle the confidence of God’s remnant people in the true testimony.”—Letter 12, 1890 (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 48). 

While there are items in More Than a Prophet with which we can agree, and others not mentioned here with which we would take issue, this question of the nature of prophecy in New Testament times and beyond seems fundamental to the thesis of the book.  The conclusions that spring from it have raised concerns with the White Estate staff members.  The Foreword to the widely-distributed first printing of More Than a Prophet implied a favorable response to the book by the White Estate, and many inquiries have come to the White Estate regarding the contents of the book.  This brief analysis will serve to show some areas of concern and to outline an approach that we believe to be more consistent with the Bible and the testimony of Ellen G. White herself.

William Fagal, Associate Director

Ellen G. White Estate