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Prophets and Trust: A Reply to the Biblical Research Institute

The April newsletter from the Biblical Research Institute at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, features interesting articles. Karel Nowak, director of Religious Liberty and Communication for the denomination’s Euro-Africa Division, reports on recent European attempts to legislate one day a week for rest, probably Sunday. Angel Manuel Rodriguez, director of the BRI, reflects on whether in thinking about ourselves as “the remnant” we Adventists yield to the temptations of exclusivism and triumphalism. Alberto Timm, who serves as rector of the Latin American Adventist Theological Seminary, explores the roles of experience and Scripture in Christian living.
Ekkehardt Mueller, associate director of the BRI, investigates what Scripture says about the universe as God’s creation. He also reviews Armageddon at the Door (Haggarstown, Maryland: Review and Herald, 2008), by Jon Paulien, dean of the School of Religion at Loma Linda University. Another associate director of the BRI, Kwabena Donkor, reviews Challenges to the Remnant (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2008), by Marvin Moore, editor of Signs of the Times magazine. It is worthwhile to compare Donkor’s comments to David Pendelton’s online review of Moore’s book at this site.
I am particularly interested in the editorial by Gerhard Pfandl,also an associate director of the BRI. Titled “Testing the Prophets,” it challenges the suggestion of scholars such as Wayne Gruden in The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians (New York: University Press of America, 1982) that in I Corinthians 14:29 Paul teaches that “we can evaluate the messages [of prophets] and decide what to accept and what to reject.” In the New International Version, which Pfandl quotes, this verse says: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.”
On the basis of the meaning of the word “judge” (Greek diakrino), as it is used here and elsewhere in the New Testament, Pfandl agrees with E. E. Wright in Strange Fire? (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1966) that “The discrimination believers are to make is not just between truth and falsehood in a prophecy [as some people claim], but between true and false prophets. Any error denoted a false prophet.”
If this sentence is representative of his thinking as a whole, it seems to me that Wright might not mean that we should refrain from evaluating what prophets say. His point seems to have been that we should make these judgments but that we should not limit our assessments to this. We should also distinguish between genuine prophets and false ones as such. Perhaps, therefore, Pfandl speaks more for himself than Wright when he suggests that “Once a prophet is recognized as from the Lord, however, fallible human reason should not sit in judgment on the messages God gives. We must seek to understand it and apply it to our lives.”
My view is that it is dangerous to establish that someone is a genuine prophet and from then on accept everything he or she says as true. One reason for this is that genuine prophets sometimes lose their way and we have no way of knowing that this has happened apart from noticing that he or she no longer speaks or acts truthfully.
More generally, when I think about these issues I find it necessary to make a distinction that many don’t and not to make one that many do. The distinction that I do not make is the one between passages that are exegetical, historical, or theological, on the one hand, and those that are devotional, pastoral, or homiletical, on the other. This is because the texts I read do not tell me what passages to read which way.
Let’s consider the poems in Scripture’s prophetic literature, for example. Should I think of them as devotional? Or should I hold that they are theological? Or should I say that some are this and others are that, or that I can draw this line within a single poem as well as between them?
My problem is that these poems don’t help me sort them this way. Neither do the parables of Jesus or the letters of Paul or the apocalyptic visions in Scripture’s last book. And neither do the writings of Ellen White. I can’t think of many that texts that do.
The distinction I do make is the one between absolute and presumptive authority. Absolute authority is that which we must never question, challenge, or disobey. We must always believe what it says without qualification and do what it commands without reservation.
Presumptive authority, on the other hand, is that which deserves the benefit of the doubt. We should accept and obey it unless we have good reasons not to. This is the kind of authority that children give their parents, students give their teachers, and citizens give their leaders. But these authorities do not always get everything exactly right and when they don’t we should not follow.
No human person or production deserves absolute authority. Only God merits it. All authority that passes through human lives is more or less presumptive. The “more or less” is important because some individuals and groups have earned more of our confidence than others. But no human being other than Jesus Christ himself warrants all of our trust.
The irony is that God does not insist on absolute authority, on unthinking belief and unquestioning obedience. Instead, again and again throughout Scripture, people argue with God and God takes their objections seriously. The Master of the universe never tells thoughtful people to sit down and shut up. Why should we let anyone else do this? The answer is straightforward: We shouldn’t.
We usually assert our authority when we are trying to get people to believe or do things that don’t make sense to them. This is appropriate when we are dealing with those who cannot think for themselves because they are too young, old, ill, agitated, or uninformed. Otherwise it is not acceptable. Let’s say it again: Always think for yourself; never think by yourself!
David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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