The question of biblical authority these days is being challenged in a variety of ways by questions about biblical canonicity as well as the place of prophecy. Interest in the experiential these days that also includes prophecy sometimes makes it seem that visions and dreams are more important than the study and understanding of God’s Word. I have noticed in a number of instances recently that people are easily more taken up with their own supernatural experience than they are with the truths of the Bible. In the minds of some the experience of the prophetic is somehow superior to what has been given in the Scriptures. It is a subtle form of false teaching because there does seem, at least in the minds of many, a legitimate place for prophetic ministry in these times.
There are two issues in this discussion: one is the matter of the canonicity of the Bible and the other is the relationship that prophecy may have to Scriptures if we assume that in them God has given us all that is needed for “…training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16).
With regard to canonicity, it is important to recognize that the Holy Spirit guided the early church to come to a definite conclusion about which writings should be included and excluded in the Bible. Some may wonder about this because they might consider that the conclusion reached regarding the canon was somewhat subjective. However, this is far from the case. “Canon” means “reed” and refers to a means of measurement. The measuring standard for the Old Testament books of the Bible was the extent to which they came to be accepted and used by the Jewish community. The books of the Old Testament were accepted on the basis of authorship, consistency of content, historical accuracy, and a sense of their divine authority. By this means the canon of the Old Testament was pretty much established by the time of the writing of the last prophet, Malachi. The Septuagint was a Greek translation produced by 72 scholars around 280 b.c. that also included 12 apocryphal books. Their “hidden” contents were never accepted as being divinely inspired by orthodox Jews. They were rejected by the Protestant church and rendered secondary by Vatican II of the Roman Catholic church.
The canonicity of the New Testament is based on several important criteria including: a) widespread acceptance among the early churches, b) a connection to apostolic authorship, c) a sense of divine authority, and d) that they were suitable for public reading in the churches. Paul’s letters passed this test during the 1st half of the 2nd century. Most of the New Testament passed the test of canonicity by the end of the 2nd century. For a variety of reasons it took a little longer to come to conclusions about the books of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, and Jude, as well as Revelation. Though the canon of New Testament Scripture was in general use before the Council of Carthage in 397, it was there and then that the church “closed the book” so to speak on the canonicity of the New Testament.
There are different views as to how the gift of prophecy relates to Scripture. One view is that this gift was limited to use during the apostolic age. At the other extreme is the view that prophetic gifts are as real and authentic today as they were in the time of the apostles, even though it is acknowledged that all prophecy is subject to alignment with the Holy Scriptures. Strong biblical interpretations exist for the legitimacy of each position. One of the best books that I have read recently on this matter consists of a debate between four scholars representing four distinct views. The book, edited by Wayne Grudem, is entitled, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today.
Without going into detail at this point, my own view is that God may use Christians today to speak prophetically to the larger church or a local church in the sense that He has a more immediate word for them based on the larger biblical revelation. Such a word, in my view, would be authoritative rather than predictive. There may be instances in which people are given a more specific (predictive) revelation based on a vision or dream, but I do not think this is normative. Such instances would need to be tested to see if the content aligned with Scripture and the proper exaltation of Christ (1 John 4:1-3). Such prophecies would also need to be tested regarding their predictive accuracy (Deuteronomy 18:21, 22). There are other instances in which prophecy may also be reflected in musical worship in a fashion similar to the nature of the Psalms.
While the idea of prophecy sounds exciting and may be legitimate in some instances, we should exercise great care that it is authentic. We should consider the spiritual authenticity of the “prophet.” We should consider the prophecy’s relationship to God’s revelation in the Scriptures. We should consider the reason or purpose of a prophetic word. (Is it merely an attempt for someone to try and gain spiritual credibility and authority, for example?) This is not to “scoff at prophecies” (1 Thessalonians 5:20). It is only to ensure that we are not let astray by “false prophecies” in these last days (Matthew 24:11, 2 Timothy 4:1 – 5, 1 John 4:1).