The Problem with Prophets… a Missiological Look


Prophet Elijah, Russian Orthodox icon from fir...

The Prophet Elijah  Image via Wikipedia

The term prophet is used in different ways by different people. Technically, a prophet is simply someone who gives the message of God… outside of the local church hierarchy. But it is commonly used by people as someone who “gives new and authoritative revelation to the people.” While I don’t care for this definition (neither do I like the present use of the term “apostle” that has to do more with 3rd century than first century usage) but we have to accept the reality that a word means how it is used by the people.  Humpty Dumpty said (according to Lewis Carroll)  “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” But for shared conversation, we have to agree on meaning on some level.

Self-described prophets cause problems in missions. Here is why.  A prophecy is supposed to be the revelation (message) of God. So is the Bible.

Which one takes the place of supremacy? When I was in the military, documents there have a section on supercession. That is, where there is conflict in military documents or regulations, which one is to be followed. Most Christians would say that the Bible is the standard by which prophecies must be judged (there seems adequate Biblical support for this both in the Old and New Testament). But consider what happens in practice.

A message has several components. Among these are:

-Content-

-Source Context-

-Recipient Context-

-Feedback (clarification, interpretation)-

-Transmission (medium)-

Suppose the content of the message in the Bible is radically different from the message of a self-described prophet?

For both, the recipient context is the same (the culture of the hearer) for a given situation. However, the source context is radically different. For the “prophet,” the context is local and contemporary. For the Bible, the  context is distant both in locale/culture and in time.

Likewise, the transmission is radically different. The transmission is short for the “prophet”. It might be as short as from mouth of one to the ear of another. For the Bible, the transmission is through many centuries of copyists. Further, the feedback is greatly different. The “prophet” can provide immediate and authoritative feedback/clarification/interpretation of his own “prophecies”.  The Bible was written millenia ago so clarification and interpretation is through others living today, and no reputable Biblical scholar would describe his own interpretation as absolutely authoritative.

What is the result? In practice, to accept a “prophet” as being authoritative today means to replace the Bible’s authority with that of this “prophet”. When content differs, it can argue that we don’t understand the source context of the Bible. Or one can argue that the transmission of the Bible was flawed. Or one can argue that interpretation of the Bible is in error. On the other hand, since the “prophet” lives in the now, and can provide his own interpretation, he provides his closed loop of authority and reliability.

Of course, one might argue that the advantages that the prophet today has over the Bible should make one question why we rely on the Bible.

Ultimately, it boils down to ultimate authority and reliability. From an authority, standpoint, the Bible is not authoritative because it claims to be the Word of God. Many books make similar claims, and many prophets (of many flavors) claim to serve as God’s voice. I would argue, that it rests on the resurrection of Christ. Jesus made very bold claims about his own authority, and even his divinity (I think even those who would argue about divinity would agree that many of his statements would be so interpreted by the listeners at that time). He was then crucified… arguably an appropriate divine judgment for one who was guilty of false prophecy and blasphemy. However, the resurrection demonstrates that he wasn’t under divine judgment, but in fact had divine approval. So we take Jesus’ message seriously as having divine authority. That would include the Hebrew Bible (that Jesus declared as authoritative), his words in the Gospels, and the words of his immediate followers (in the New Testament). More subjectively, the Holy Bible has been found reliable by millions over 2000 years. Not a bad track record.

The authority and reliability of self-styled prophets is often lacking… often circular at best. I am thinking of one here in Asia. He makes a lot of generally vague open-ended cries of judgment on people unless they repent. When something bad happens that can be loosely linked to one of his statements… it is used to suggest authority and reliability. When even these vague statements cannot be linked to any calamity, it is not seen as questioning authority and reliability, but evidence that the potential victims repented.

Is this a problem in missions?  You bet! Consider some history. If one goes back to the founding prophet of Islam, one sees the same problem. The Bible/Injil is revered, but is not used as an authoritative text. That is because the content of the Bible disagrees on many points with the two authoritative documents of Islam. Mormonism has a similar situation. Its prophets created their own three authoritative texts to add to the Bible. However, these three are placed  over the Bible in authority… once again because of clashing content. Islamic and Mormon scholars study and use the Bible, but for interfaith dialogue and apologetics, not for seeking an authoritative message from God (Allah/Elohim).

Of course, the Quran and Book of Mormon (and more) have aged considerably and are now also prime targets themselves. But “new prophets” are today a great challenge on the mission field. In the Philippines many of these self-styled prophets have arisen. A common theme for many of them here, strangely, is the focus on the New Israel or the New Jerusalem. Perhaps, since the Philippines is described as the only “Christian” nation in Asia (ignoring Georgia, Armenia, Cyprus, and Timor L’este as well large regions in Indonesia, India, Myanmar, and South Korea)  the idea of the Philippines either being the New Israel, or being the site of the New Jerusalem, is oddly alluring. A similar belief swept through Great Britain and the US in the past… but its appeal appears to be on the decline.

Is this a big problem or a harmless novelty? In some cases, it is clearly a problem. One of these prophets has set himself up as the new Christ. Another has done the opposite… lowered Christ to his own level. Others have very strange beliefs but time will tell whether they are damaging, harmless, or even helpful in God’s mission. When I arrived in the Philippines, Christian churches were sharing a “prophecy” given by an American “prophet” that spoke as to how the Philippines would be a great nation of Christians spreading His Word throughout the world (I have long since forgotten the wording). Is this prophecy? motivational affirmations? shameless pandering? I don’t know.

Are there prophets today? Sure, there are people that give God’s message to the people. Are there people who give new and authoritative revelations from God to the people today. I have my doubts. And even if there are… I think doubt is a very good thing. A healthy reliance on the Bible and a healthy skepticism of self-described prophets is needed both at home and in the mission field.

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