Authoritative vs Non-authoritative Prophecy

On Wednesday’s podcast we discussed the gifts of the Holy Spirit and what that means for prophecy and speaking in tongues in our day. Since this is a subject which is hotly debated in the Reformed community we thought it might be helpful to go a little deeper with the question of prophecy. This cannot be in any way exhaustive of the debate, but what we hope to accomplish is to illustrate a clear distinction between authoritative revelation and non-authoritative but extraordinary revelation. In other words we want to try and answer the question “Does the possible continuance of the gift of prophetic speaking somehow threaten the commitment to Sola Scriptura?” 

When Hermon Ridderbos writes about pneumatic voices, or people who spoke as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit, he makes a clear distinction between the voices that were authoritative and those that had derivative authority. He makes the case that when it came to what would be recognized as Scripture, only the apostolic witness held authority over the Church. If the authority of scripture was based on anything other than the Apostolic witness, he writes, we replace genuine authority with some form of human authority.

Ultimately for Ridderbos, the New Testament Church would have recognized the difference between the Holy Spirit’s witness through the apostles and the Holy Spirit’s movement in those speaking in the Church (1 Corinthians 14:29).

Now this says nothing of whether these gifts are still active in the Church today. There are other Scriptures that must be examined to come a conclusion on that matter. But it is important to recognize that it’s not the activity of the Holy Spirit alone which carries unequivocated authority for believers. It was true then and it is true for us today.

In fact, no one is able to speak the truth of God apart from the Holy Spirit. In that way we all speak as we are carried along by the Holy Spirit. But that speaking does not carry the same authority as Scripture no matter how supernatural of an occurrence accompanies it.

Vern Poythress, professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, helpfully writes on this subject[1]. Poythress creates a paradigm of two categories of the gift of prophecy, discursive and non-discursive. Discursive is prophecy that would fit into the category of preaching and explaining the word, which is the way John Calvin[2] speaks so often of prophecy. This kind of prophecy is very ordinary.

Then we have what Poythress describes as non-discursive gifts. These are gifts which are more obscure and individual, often between God and the person and are very extraordinary. Neither of these kinds of prophecy have authority in themselves. Instead, Poythress identifies four levels of revelation. The top two are messianic and apostolic, and the bottom two are special and general. Messianic and Apostolic revelation are the categories of authoritative revelation that has connection to the historical ministry and teaching of Christ, while special and general revelation are those we find today in nature and through illumination.


Diagram taken from Poythress article in “The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society”

It’s in these two bottom categories, special and general, that we can still find extraordinary gifts and movements of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues (whether human or angelic languages, we will not discuss at this time) and prophetic revelation. But, as Ridderbos and Poythress would agree, since they are neither apostolic nor messianic they cannot be authoritative or canonical and they will never threaten the authority of Scripture alone.

So when we think of charismatic gifts we should not see the ongoing work of certain gifts as being threatening to the authority of sola scriptura. The authority that Scripture carries is dependent on the apostolic witness as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.


Take Away

The New Testament community would have understood the difference between the prophecy being spoken in the church and apostolic authority. As the apostolic authority developed into cannon the early church recognized a closed set of authoritative scripture. The gifts of prophecy could have continued alongside of the cannon without being a threat to authority and seen as secondary revelation. This could be true today as well. The continuance of prophecy as destructive to the authority of scripture may not be a good argument in support of cessationism.


Questions for Reflection

  1. What kind of role do you see the Holy Spirit playing in preaching? How about in possible extraordinary communication?
  2. What are the possible categories which give scripture authority?
  3. What kind of differences do you see between apostolic teaching and the teaching of the ministers of the world today?


[1] Vern Poythress, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39/1 (1996): 71-101.

[2] Calvin’s Institutes,

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