I want to take a minute to follow up on a couple of points that have been raised in response to my Strange Fire post. These are issues that interest me, and they have broad epistemological ramifications.
The first issue was raised in the comments to my post, and went this way:
“Your story about Knox ceasing his prayer, did God tell him that? Then it is revelatory! Treat it like the bible. If not, how did he know about the death?”
The issue here for me in stories like this is not the nature of prophecy. My concern is the nature of the world. When someone says, “God told me to tell you . . .” this is a claim to revelation. It is propositional, and God is being appealed to as the guarantor of the contents. The claim is either true or false, and, if false, was a felony in Old Testament Israel, one that carried a severe penalty.
What I am saying is that — quite apart from such propositional revelation from God — the world is a strange place. We can know things independent of the means that a reductionist atheist materialist would recognize. Three examples. How many of us have had the sensation that someone is staring at the back of our head in a crowded room, and so we turn around and our eyes meet those of a person across the room staring?
Or how about this as an entertaining read?
Last example. When Lawrence Anthony, the “elephant whisperer” died, a couple of elephant herds traveled an extensive distance in order to stand around his house and mourn his death. You can read more here. Now I don’t have to think that these elephants had the gift of prophecy — I just have to believe that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Horatio.
In short, the fact that I know something by other-than-normal-means doesn’t make that this knowledge infallible or divinely inspired, any more than my knowledge by normal means. I can know something because I read it in a book, but can still get that knowledge wrong in some respect. The fact that I got the knowledge in a dream means that it is not materialistic — which is not the same thing as being infallible. I might have second sight — but there is no reason why that second sight of mine might not be near-sighted. It might be true, human knowledge, but not inspired, and it might be true, human knowledge acquired by some human capacity that we have not figured out yet. But, as human knowledge, it remains fallible. This is why charismatics who have such experiences (which they may genuinely have) ought not to be too quick to attribute it to the Holy Spirit. Maybe they are just fey.
The other comment is in response to some observations made by my friend Wes Callihan here.
This is a topic that needs to be treated with some care, because it comes up every time I try to make this point. Here is the issue again. If I believe something to be the Word of God, then I am obligated to treat it as the Word of God, so long as I believe that, or so long as I am in possession of those words.
Wes responds that the criteria for inclusion in Scripture were “apostolic authority and catholic acceptance.” This word of prophecy just delivered to your local charismatic congregation doesn’t meet either criterion, and so it need not be stapled into the backs of our Bibles.
On the first criterion, however, if we believe it to be the Word of God (which is why we are even discussing this), it follows God’s authority outranks apostolic authority. Now because this revelation just got here, it may take some time before the big Bible publishers offer to include it in the next printing, but until the church universal accepts it as genuine, and pressures the Bible publishers to include it, the responsibilities of those who are already persuaded is clear, right? They should pray and labor for this universal, catholic acceptance.
In the meantime, what should they do with these words — before the church agrees with them? If they believe them to be words of God, then I will measure how much they believe it by how they treat those words. The issue is what to do with a revelation from God that is believed to be a revelation from God. Or, if it is a revelation delivered to a congregation, what should that congregation do with it?
The prophecies of Philip’s daughters would present us with a real dilemma if we actually had them. I understand that God has given many words to man that were fully inspired, but which He, in His providence, did not preserve. But they are His words, and He may do with them as He pleases. If He caused Philip’s house to burn down, and the prophecy file cabinets with it, He is the Lord. But that is not the question.
The question is what must I do, on my own authority, if I am in possession of those prophecies. The plain answer is that if I believe them to be prophecies of God I must treat them as prophecies of God. Their authority is greater than apostolic authority (in my mind), and perhaps a day will come when the church universal agrees with what I think these are. Until then, at a minimum, I at least must agree with what I think these are. To disagree is actually to reject the prophetic nature of the words themselves.
The problem is compounded when the prophecy is given in our day, in English. Now I am no longer confronted with the obstacle of centuries of cultural differences, or with an alien tongue or thought forms. This will mean that these prophecies will naturally be privileged over the older stuff. And why wouldn’t they?
So, thought experiment. Suppose you hold a 8 x 11 sheet in your hand with a paragraph on it that begins, “Thus saith the Lord . . .” You believe it to be genuine. Now assuming the prophecy itself does not command you to destroy it, do you have the authority to take it upon yourself to destroy it? If you put it in the shredder, would you be sinning?
And if you don’t destroy it, where do you keep it? How do you treat it? There is no middle ground between the words of mere men and the Words of God. There is no such thing as deutero-canonical.