Today I read a post by coworker Frank Turk in which he discusses Mark Driscoll's new position as head of a "Prophet Board".
So let's discuss a little hidden secret among a lot of intellectual Christians: the topic of prophesy is a bit scary and creepy to us. What do we do with prophecy? The Bible is very clear that God revealed Himself at times, very directly, to people like Moses and Samuel and David and the Prophets. It is very clear that first century Apostles had "prophetic" gifts--the abilities to speak in tongues, to see some of future events (hence, Revelation being written by John), miraculous healings, casting out of demons, and the like.
It is a serious question by serious people--and often an issue for atheists and agnostics, as well. "The Bible", they say, "is full of God directly talking to people. Why wouldn't He do that now and remove everyone's doubts? Just show up on Oprah and be done with it? Or why don't you see people doing miracles today as often as they did then?"
Now there are three ways to go with this--two of which are, I think, wrong.
The first way that some Christians go with this is, like Driscoll, the Pentecostal way. They do not deny that prophetic gifts are in abundance today. Every week at the local Pentecostal service, they say, you can hear the language of angels being spoken. You can witness mystical healings at the hands of the Benny Hinns of the world. And so on and so forth. Now my stance on modern usage of apostolic gifts has always been one of skepticism without denial. I do not think that these have the same 'feel' as their proclaimed Scriptural counterparts, but I am not God so I'm not here to judge or condemn their legitimacy or lack thereof. For now, suffice it to say that I am skeptical that so-called latter-day prophets are prophetic at all, or modern apostlic gifts are truly that. At the very least, my experience with Christianity (and the experience of many whom I trust) has not been in that way.
The second way that some Christians go about it is to gloss over the Scriptural statements. They want to change prophesy to merely being about 'revealing truth', such that any modern intellectual sermon is essentially a prophesy. Or they want to downgrade demonic possession into a known medical condition (as though that somehow makes Jesus' work less miraculous!). This too, it seems to me, is wrong. The Bible is pretty darn clear about the inspiration of God to His people, sometimes verbally, and sometimes in such physical presence that His people had to avoid looking at His face lest they die. That doesn't seem to me to be the same thing as a well-prepared sermon "prophecy".
My approach (which of course I think is the right one, or I wouldn't be writing it here; but which is almost certainly wrong in numerous fundamental ways, simply due to the fact that I am the one writing it!) is to assume that the Bible actually meant what it said when it said that God revealed Himself in the Old Testament. He actually did those miracles. He actually spoke through those prophets in a miraculous way which is beyond how He typically speaks to us today.
So the question often asked by Christian and non-Christian alike is: if God was so active then, why is He not more active now?
To which I reply: who said He was highly active then?
I think we sometimes fall into the mistake of forgetting just how much time passes between each of these Old Testament events. By my rough calculations, the Old Testament only shows God being directly involved with Israel about once every 17 years or so on average. And generally the gaps are much, much longer. He says one thing to Abraham, then comes back decades later to say another. He is heavily involved for a few decades in inspiring five different prophets (Jonah, Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah)...then takes a break from prophetic revelations for about a century or so. Between Malachi and John the Baptist, God does not speak to Israel through prophecy for over 450 years. Between Solomon and Jonah, some 200 years. Between Abraham and Moses, about 400 years.
And in those instances, very rarely is He actually directly speaking and inspiring. A more detailed analysis is needed, but roughly speaking the Old Testament shows God actually actively speaking to or inspiring prophecy among His people for a couple of days every second or third decade on average.
That is not exactly a huge amount of interaction! The general rule seems to be that most of the time God works from the shadows, rather than from the spotlight. He prefers to work through people's hearts, not their ears. As Deuteronomy 30:11-15 says, the desires of God are already present in every man's heart, and he does not need a prophet to go up into heaven to reveal it to us.
So what do I think of prophetic gifts? I think they are very real. I think they could happen today, just as they happened historically. But I also think that this is not the way God normally works through people--that is in fact what is meant by the word miraculous! It is a miracle when God reveals Himself in this type of way...because it is not typical.