In Acts 21 we read a somewhat startling episode involving a New Testament prophet named Agabus:
While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done” (Acts 21:10-14; ESV)
This is the same Agabus of whom we read earlier in Acts:
Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea (Acts 11:27-29; ESV).
We do not know much about Agabus but there is no question about the accuracy of his prophecy about the famine, since Luke explicitly records its fulfillment. In 1977, however, the great New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce, in a volume known in the USA as Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free and in the UK as Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit raised the possibility that Agabus’ second prophecy, that Paul would be bound by the Jews and handed over to the Gentiles, was not as accurate:
If his words have been precisely recorded, then they did not tally completely with the event: it was the Gentiles who bound Paul, after snatching him from his Jewish assailants. But their main drift was plain enough: Paul’s life would be endangered if he persisted in going on to Jerusalem. His friends therefore begged him to give up any thought of carrying out his plan to visit the city with the delegates of the Gentile churches; these could perfectly well hand over the gifts which they had brought, and their hospitality during their stay in Jerusalem was assured (p. 344).
In 1988 (rev. ed. 2000), The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today Wayne Grudem reached conclusions similar to Bruce’s. He argued that there were “two small mistakes” Agabus’ prophecy (p. 77). He argues,
…Agabus’s introductory phrase, “thus says the Holy Spirit,“ suggests an attempt to speak like the Old Testament prophets who said, “thus says the Lord…” …The events of the narrative itself do not coincide with the kind of accuracy that the Old Testament requires for those who speak God’s words. In fact, by Old Testament standards, Agabus would have been condemned as a false prophet, because in Acts 21:27–35 neither of his predictions are fulfilled.
This appeal to alleged inaccuracies in Agabus’ prophecy is one of the essential pillars to Grudem’s case for Spirit-inspired but fallible prophecy, which, he argues continues into post-apostolic history. Thus, we should expect Christians to receive prophecies, which we are to regard as Spirit-inspired but we are to test them to see whether they are true.
This was part of Grudem’s rather clever attempt to bridge two hitherto antithetical movements: the historic Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura and the modern (post 1800) Pentecostal and Charismatic doctrine of continuing revelation.
Of course, when the Protestants expressed their view of Scripture, by affirming that Scripture alone is the final, sufficient saving revelation of God and special revelation of his moral will for Christians, they did so against the background both of the Romanist claim to continuing revelation through popes and magisterial councils and the claim of some Anabaptists (e.g., Thomas Müntzer) to receive direct revelation from the Spirit. Indeed, Müntzer mocked the Protestants for their doctrine of Sola Scriptura by calling them ministers of the dead letter. Scripture, he proclaimed, is not God’s Word as much as it becomes God’s Word subjectively. Those familiar with the contours of Modern (Liberal) theology will recognize similarities between his view of Scripture and Karl Barth’s (d. 1968).
Thus, on historical grounds, there are prima facie reasons to doubt the success of Grudem’s attempted synthesis. Nevertheless, when Grudem’s book came out, it was remarkable because, unlike other Pentecostals and Charismatics, he seemed to understand traditional Protestant concern to maintain the uniqueness and sufficiency of Scripture.
Still, the question remains. Is there any ground in Scripture for imagining that there is such a thing as Spirit-inspired but fallible prophecy? Does the case of Agabus support the claim that there is such a thing? For two reasons I think not: 1) For theological grounds; 2) hermeneutical grounds.
Is it a sound doctrine of God and of the Holy Spirit to think and say that the Spirit inspires fallible prophecy? Remember, God the Spirit is the third person of the Holy Trinity, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who is consubstantial with the Father and the Son, who with them is immutable (does not change), without parts (simple). Thus, in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 325, 381) the church in all times and places confesses of the Spirit: “who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.”
This is the Holy Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep in creation, who moved mysteriously over the blessed Virgin in the incarnation of God the Son. He raised him from the dead and sovereignly grants new life to all those for whom Christ died. He sanctifies and infallibly preserves them to the end. He glorifies them. The Word of God that he inspires is infallible and inerrant. These are basic Christian truths. How, from these, would we ever come to think that there exists something like Spirit-inspired but fallible prophecy, that Agabus was moved by the Holy Spirit but not like the OT prophets and that we need (with the help of the Spirit) to test prophecies to see if they are true? Something in our doctrine of God and specifically in our doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology) must change in order to facilitate a doctrine of Spirit-inspired but fallible prophecy.
Second, there is a problem in the way both Bruce and Grudem read this prophecy (and perhaps prophecy in general). Observing this is instructive for how to read prophecy generally. Grudem juxtaposes the OT prophets with Agabus on the ground that the latter was not as precise as OT prophets but OT prophecy is not as precise a Grudem assumes. Consider Jeremiah 31:33–34:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:33–34; ESV)
The promise of the New Covenant in v. 33 is a figure of speech. God does not literally inscribe words on our physical hearts. In the OT the heart is often used synonymously with soul or to speak of our intellective and affective faculties. Second, not everyone in the new covenant “knows the Lord.” Consider Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. They were members of the new covenant church and yet the Holy Spirit put them to death for lying to him. Jude warns about members of the new covenant church who clearly did not know the Lord. Hebrews 6:4 describes members of the new covenant church who had “tasted of the powers of the age to come,” whom Hebrews 10:29 accuses of trampling underfoot the Son of God and of profaning the blood of the covenant and of outraging the Spirit of grace. Clearly the promise that we shall have no need to be taught by our neighbors in the new covenant is not literally true. We know that because of the teaching of the New Testament, which describes the office of pastor and teacher (Eph 4:11).
There is nothing wrong with Jeremiah’s prophecy but there is something wrong with an approach to the interpretation of prophecy which does not recognize the genre of prophetic discourse and its features, e.g., hyperbole. The NT repeatedly says that Jeremiah 31 has been fulfilled in the New Testament. This is one of Paul’s arguments against the Judaizers in 2 Corinthians 3. Hebrews appeals to Jeremiah 31 as a proof against those who would lead the Jewish Christians away from the new covenant and back to the old.
Further, Luke himself records the fulfillment of Agabus’ second prophecy and never hints that there was an error in it. There is no signal that we should distrust Agabus or that there is something like fallible but Spirit-inspired prophecy. Luke writes:
They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the tribune came up and arrested him… (Acts 21:30b-33a; ESV)
The fulfillment follows the prophecy. Agabus said that the Jews would seize Paul and they did. He prophesied that they would hand him over to the Gentiles, and they did. The problem here is not with Agabus’ prophecy nor with Luke’s record but with the hermeneutic (way of interpreting a text) that creates problems where they do actually exist.
Max King, an earlier reviewer of Grudem’s book noted some of these issues:
No doubt one could find plenty of other quibbles beyond chapter 2. Thus, for example, Grudem often illustrates his view of the mixed nature of NT prophecy by appealing to the case of Agabus who, according to Grudem, is recorded as giving a prophecy that proved wrong in two important details (Acts 21:11—see above). But it is frankly implausible that Luke considered Agabus’ prophecy about Paul to be mistaken, not least since he later has Paul himself claim, ‘Though I have done nothing against the people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans’ (Acts 28:17)—a statement which clearly sums up the whole affair in a way that is intended to indicate the overall responsibility of hostile Judaism for Paul’s present plight, if not to indicate the precise historical mechanics of it; and as such it asserts a fulfillment as close to Agabus’ prophecy as even an OT oracle could reasonably be expected to be.1
The prevalence and popularity of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements puts considerable social pressure upon ministers and members of Reformed churches to conform, to find a way to fit it. Many have found Grudem’s position attractive in that regard. Nevertheless, for the biblical, theological, and hermeneutical reasons given and in light of our confession and history, we should not seek to modify the doctrine of Sola Scriptura to make a place for ongoing Spirit-inspired, fallible prophecy or for any sort of continuing, extra-biblical, extra-canonical revelation. The Scriptures are sufficient. In them we have the law and the gospel, i.e., the whole counsel of God. From them we know the Lord’s moral will for our lives. In them we find wisdom. Anything that seeks to add to it or contradict is condemned. Any word that seeks to supplement Scripture is superfluous. Let us read Scripture prayerfully, asking the Holy Spirit to illumine it and to apply it to us. Let us read it the way it is intended to be read, in the way that we confess it.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido
1. Max King, review of Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (1988) in Themelios 16.2 (1991), 34.