It is surely true that a growing number of Christians worldwide are accepting that God continues to give the gift of prophecy, referred to in 1 Corinthians 12:10.
There are still more than a few believers, however, who deny that He does this. They claim that He stopped giving this gift in the first century, and they use a number of arguments to try to make their case.
AN ARGUMENT THAT IS USED AGAINST PROPHECY TODAY
One of these arguments concerns the supposed scriptural nature of all prophecy, and it goes in this way:
Every genuine prophecy that God has ever given, in both Old Testament and New Testament times, has become part of the Bible, whether explicitly or implicitly. Prophecy is by definition something that was designed to be part of Scripture. However, the Bible is now complete. So there can be no new prophecies today.
I am convinced that this argument is badly mistaken.
It is certainly true that the Bible is now complete and has been for nearly two millennia. There is nothing wrong with that part of the argument.
However, the other key part of the argument is an unwarranted assumption. There is no good reason for thinking that every genuine prophecy was designed to be part of Scripture. And this is what I want to say something about in what follows.
NO PASSAGE TEACHES THAT EVERY PROPHECY WAS DESIGNED TO BE PART OF SCRIPTURE
The first point I need to make is both very important and very simple. It is that there is no passage in Scripture which states or even implies that every prophecy was designed to become part of the Bible.
In the absence of any biblical support for this idea, it seems much more natural to think that there have been genuine prophecies that God never intended to be included in Scripture.
COMPARISON WITH APOSTOLIC TEACHING
Secondly, we need to consider the place of apostolic teaching in the early church.
No one should be in any doubt that only a small part of what the apostles taught has been included in the Bible. Of course, God will have made sure that all the most important apostolic teaching was included. But there was much more, somewhat less valuable, teaching of theirs that the Lord decided not to include.
Why would we imagine that things are any different as regards prophecy? It makes perfect sense to think that out of a great many prophecies in the early church, God chose the most important ones and made them Scripture. It is undeniable that He did this with apostolic teaching, so why would we think that things are any different with regard to prophecy?
1 CORINTHIANS 14:26-31
Thirdly, we need to take account of what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:26-31, where he writes to the church in Corinth:
“26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. . . . 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged . . .”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version.)
As we will see, this passage quite strongly suggests that there would have been far too many genuine prophecies in the first decades of the church, for them all to have got into the New Testament.
A specific question
In order to focus our discussion of this passage, let’s ask, and then use the passage to try to answer, a very specific question:
Of all the genuine, God-given prophecies in the first 30 years after the day of Pentecost referred to in Acts 2:1-41, what proportion became part of Scripture?
We could have chosen a different time-frame for the question we are asking. If we were to choose a period that was longer or shorter than 30 years, the overall conclusion below would not be any different. But to make the question a very precise and concrete one, let’s stick to thinking about the first 30 years after Pentecost.
The most common scholarly viewpoint on the year of the crucifixion, resurrection and giving of the Spirit at Pentecost is 30 AD, and there is no doubt that these events took place within a few years of 30 AD.
Because precision in timing is not important for our purposes, let’s just assume that the Spirit was given, and Christian prophecy began, in 30 AD.
So, as we consider 1 Cor. 14:26-31, the question we are asking is what proportion of genuine prophecies between 30-60 AD became part of the Bible.
The date this passage was written
Next, I need to say a word about when this passage was written.
The scholarly consensus is that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians within a couple of years of 55 AD. And it was certainly written within our time window of 30-60 AD. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it was written in 55 AD.
So we will assume that Paul wrote 1 Cor. 14:26-31 in 55 AD.
The frequency of main gatherings of the Corinthian church
Next, we need to note how Paul says in v. 26, “When you come together.” He seems clearly to be referring to the typical main gatherings of the Corinthian church.
Importantly, it is extremely unlikely that this church would have met less than once a week. Nothing in the NT leads us to believe that any Christian church in the first century met less often than this except perhaps in unusual circumstances. And there is no reason to think that the Corinthians would have been any different in this respect.
So it makes sense to think that the sort of situation Paul envisages in 14:26-31 would have occurred at least once a week.
The number of prophecies per main gathering
Next, we must note that in v. 29 Paul seems to envisage two or three prophets prophesying at a typical main gathering.
Or, in view of “you can all prophesy one by one” in v. 31, Paul may mean that two or three prophets should prophesy before the others weigh the prophecies (v. 29), and then another two or three should prophesy, and so on. In this case, there would have been many more than two or three prophecies per typical main gathering.
The number of prophecies among the Corinthians in main gatherings in 55 AD
So, taking into account the above points, how many genuine prophecies do we think there might have been in the main gatherings of the Corinthian church in the year Paul wrote this letter, i.e., 55 AD?
There are admittedly some big uncertainties here. We aren’t sure how often the church gathered together. We don’t know how many prophecies were spoken out at a typical gathering. And we don’t know how many of the prophecies that were spoken out would have been genuine, although Paul certainly seems to imply that many of them would have been.
Fortunately, for our purposes we don’t need to be at all precise. We just need to give a very approximate figure that can allow for a lot of doubt.
If we were to say that there were two genuine prophecies per week, and one main gathering per week, that would work out at about 100 in the year. I suspect that the real number was probably higher than that. But let’s stick with a conservative ballpark figure of 100 genuine prophecies at main gatherings of the Corinthian church in 55 AD.
Other prophecies among the Corinthians in 55 AD
We also need to bear in mind that at Corinth there were probably numerous prophecies that God gave to individuals or smaller groups of Christians, other than at the main gatherings. To suppose that He would have chosen to use this gift only at the main gatherings of the church is completely unwarranted.
As another conservative guess, let’s say there were 50 genuine prophecies in 55 AD in Corinth, outside the main gatherings of the church.
Total prophecies in Corinth in 55 AD
So our guess for the total number of genuine prophecies in the Corinthian church in 55 AD is 150. And I suspect this is on the low side. The impression that Paul gives in this passage is that God was doing a lot of speaking to the Corinthians through the gift of prophecy at this time.
I need to stress that this number of 150 doesn’t need to be at all accurate. The key point I am trying to make is that, from what Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:26-31, it is likely that the number of prophecies in Corinth in 55 AD would have been as high as three figures, and that it is very unlikely that it would have been in the low two figures.
In view of what Paul says in this passage, it would be very strange if there were only, say, 10 or 20 genuine prophecies in the Corinthian church that year. That seems much too low.
The number of prophecies in the whole Christian church in 55 AD
Next, let’s consider how many genuine prophecies there would have been in the whole Christian church in 55 AD.
To do this, we need to estimate what percentage of all Christians that existed at that time were in the church in Corinth.
I admit that there are huge uncertainties here. And I don’t intend to try to research this. But, given all the areas in the Middle East and Europe that we know there were churches at this time, and inferences that we can make about parts of Africa and Asia, I think the Corinthians would probably have comprised less than 1 per cent of the entire church. I will make a very rough guess that 0.5 per cent of all Christians were in the church in Corinth.
Again, I need to stress that my guess doesn’t have to be at all accurate. But let’s say that this was the correct figure.
So, if there were 150 prophecies in Corinth in 55 AD, and if other churches were prophesying at the same rate, that would make a total of 30,000 prophecies this year.
It is true that there may be a suggestion in 1 Corinthians that gifts of the Spirit such as prophecy were unusually common in the church in Corinth. Nevertheless, this is far from sure. And there is no reason to think that things were very different in any other churches at that time. Various passages outside 1 Corinthians make it clear that prophecy was widely practised in the early decades of the church (Acts 2:16-18; 11:27-28; 13:1-2; 15:32; 19:6; 21:9; 21:10-11; Eph. 2:20; 4:11). And Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians itself suggests that the same sort of spiritual gifts were used in churches generally (1 Cor. 12:4-31).
Anyway, let’s be conservative and say that in 55 AD there were 10,000 genuine prophecies in the whole church. Again, I suspect that the real number would have been higher.
The number of prophecies in the whole Christian church between 30-60 AD
Now let’s move on to consider the whole church between 30-60 AD. How many genuine prophecies would there have been during this time?
The first point to make here is that there is no reason for thinking that God was any more willing to give the gift of prophecy in 55 AD than He was in any of the other years between 30-60 AD.
On the other hand, the church was obviously growing in size in this period, so in 55 AD it would have been well above the average size for 30-60 AD. And it seems likely that the more Christians there were overall, the more prophecy there would have been. So we can’t just multiply our 10,000 by 30.
Again, I admit that I am guessing here, but again too we don’t need to be at all accurate. I think a conservative figure for the average yearly number of prophecies in the whole church between 30-60 AD might be 2,500. I have to say that I would be surprised if it was as low as this. But let’s stay conservative and stick with this figure.
This would mean that there were 75,000 genuine, God-given prophecies between 30-60 AD. And personally, I would be surprised if it was as few as this.
Extremely implausible that all prophecies became part of the Bible
Clearly, this conclusion is an enormous problem for those who say that all genuine prophecies have become part of the Bible.
Even if we allow – as we should do – for a lot of repetition in the prophecies God gave, it is extremely implausible that all the prophecies between 30-60 AD are explicitly or implicitly in the NT somewhere. The vast majority of the NT is clearly not prophecy. It includes much teaching about Jesus’ life, the history of the early church, reasoned theological arguments and the apocalyptic book of Revelation. It is true that Revelation is described as a prophecy (Rev. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18-19), but it is just one prophecy.
I do think that more than a few prophecies given to Christian prophets have strongly influenced the NT, and I think these may well number in the hundreds rather than in the tens. Furthermore, some specific Christian prophecies are explicitly referred to (Acts 11:27-28; 13:1-2; 21:10-11). But surely the vast majority of prophecies between 30-60 AD have not become part of Scripture. And then there are the decades immediately following 60 AD as well, in which all Bible-believing Christians agree that the gift of prophecy continued to be used at least to some extent.
Even if someone were to disagree with my figure of 75,000 and believes that it should be a lot lower, the revised figure, plus prophecies after 60 AD, would still surely be high enough to rule out the idea that all prophecies made it into the NT.
Summing up, then, it is very difficult to take what Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:26-31 seriously and also conclude that every prophecy is by definition something designed to be included in the Bible. To do this, we would have to assume that the situation Paul describes in this passage was very different from the normal state of affairs in the early decades of the church. But nothing in 1 Corinthians, or in any other part of the NT, suggests that this was the case.
Finally, let’s consider this issue from another angle.
In Acts 13:1-2 Luke tells us about something that happened in the church in Syrian Antioch:
“1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’”
We are told here how the Holy Spirit gave this church a prophecy, singling out Barnabas and Paul for the mission that is commonly known as Paul’s first missionary journey.
Here is my question to those who say that all prophecies were designed to become part of the NT:
The Bible clearly contains few, if any, other Christian prophecies that are similar to this one. So if every prophecy becomes part of the Bible, this must mean that God gave no, or almost no, other prophecies of this sort in the early decades of the church. But why do you think He would have chosen to not to give prophecies like this?
There seems to be no reason whatsoever why we should think that He didn’t give many prophecies of this sort. In fact, I suspect that in the first few decades after Pentecost, God gave the early church hundreds or thousands of prophecies like this, where He directed specific believers to do certain tasks. We can very easily imagine that He would have wanted to do this. And there is absolutely no good reason for thinking that He wouldn’t have wanted to.
If God did give many prophecies of this sort, as I am sure He did, then clearly it was never His plan for all prophecies to become part of the Bible.
We have seen, then, that the idea that every genuine prophecy was designed to become part of the Bible has no real foundations.
First, no passage in Scripture leads us to think that this was the case.
Second, as regards what is contained in the New Testament, there is no good reason for thinking that prophecy in the early church was any different from apostolic teaching. We know that most apostolic teaching is not recorded in the NT, so it is very natural to think that the same is true of prophecy.
Third, what Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:26-31 strongly suggests that there were far too many prophecies in the early church for them all to have become part of the NT.
Fourth, it seems very reasonable to think that in the early church the Lord gave many prophecies similar to the one recorded in Acts 13:1-2.
The idea that every genuine Christian prophecy was designed to become part of the Bible is therefore one that should be abandoned.
This idea just seems to be an assumption that has come out of nowhere.
The upshot of this conclusion is that it is a big mistake to appeal to the supposed scriptural nature of all prophecy as a reason why God doesn’t give this gift today.
I noted above that it is very reasonable to think that in the early church God gave many prophecies similar to the one recorded in Acts 13:1-2, where He singles out Barnabas and Paul for a task. It is just as reasonable to think that He often wants to do the same today. And I am sure that He often does give prophecies like this, that refer to specific tasks for individual Christians and individual churches. Prophecies of this sort in no way threaten the supremacy of the Bible, and we should all be seeking this gift from the Lord.
See also my longer article on the gift of prophecy:
And see also: