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God himself claims that private revelation will be cryptic

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3 minutes to read Numbers 12 makes clear that the quality and character of prophetic gifts will not be like the perspicuous public revelation of scripture.

There is a common Reformed objection to the continuation of the gift of prophecy. This goes something like so:

When God reveals truth, he does so clearly and without ambiguity. His prophecies are not vague and open to multiple interpretations, like those of a fortune-teller. Such unclear prophecies, in fact, are the sign of a charlatan.

A similar objection, most pithily stated by John Owen, is that, “If private revelations agree with Scripture, they are unnecessary and if they disagree they are false.”

These may seem like quite unrelated objections, but they trade on the same presupposition that the gift of prophecy is of a single kind modeled in the plenary verbal inspiration of the Bible.

In other words, all revelation is of the same quality and character — the exemplar of which is the public revelation of scripture.

This presupposition has a prima facie logic to it; if God is of a single quality and character, then it seems to follow that his word must be also. Therefore, it follows that any private revelation should share the quality and character of public revelation.

The trouble is, scripture explicitly denies this:

If there be a prophet among you, I Yahweh will in a vision unto him make myself known; in a dream I speak unto him. 7 Not so my servant Moses; in all my house, he is faithful: 8 mouth to mouth I speak with him, and manifestly, and not in riddles; and the form of Yahweh he beholdeth. (Numbers 12:6–8)

Three facts are plain in this passage:

  1. The revelation given to Moses — i.e., the public revelation of scripture — is of a unique quality and character compared to that received by all other prophets;
  2. The revelation received by all other prophets has the quality and character of dreams and riddles (we all know, if we reflect for a moment, that dreams are riddles);
  3. The revelation received by Moses has the quality and character of plain verbal speech.

We can easily infer a couple of other points from this:

  1. Firstly, the reason for the distinction in quality is that public revelation has a different purpose and audience, and requires greater clarity. The prophecy given to Moses, in fact, establishes the quality and character of scripture itself — the Bible begins with the books of Moses, and these set the pattern for the rest of the books which follow.
  2. Secondly, by the same token, this means that the quality and character of scripture is not normative for private revelations. In fact, the opposite is true. We should expect the gift of prophecy to manifest with a dream-like, riddlish nature, because God says that is how he works. This doesn’t mean that all private revelations will be head-scratchers like those given to Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar; compare the dream given to Herod’s wife, for instance. Yet to complain that private revelations are false on the basis of their dark nature or uncertain interpretation is to contradict God himself.

Needless to say, none of this offers any presumption that some claimed private prophecy is true, of course. Nor even that such continues. But it does give us a proper biblical framework for understanding the nature of private revelation compared to scripture, and makes clear the fallacy involved in rejecting the gift of prophecy because of its inferior quality and character.

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