Three Stages of Prophecy and Word


It is too bad, sometimes, that Evangelical Christians, especially, tend to give so little time to the Intertestamental Period and to the the time of the Apostolic Fathers. We can learn a lot from them. So why are these periods commonly ignored? I suppose it is the tied to the views:

  • The Sufficiency of Scripture
  • Scripture Interprets Scripture

Both of these beliefs are true to a point, but they share a common genesis of being a reaction to Christian traditions that placed the history of the Church (or a church) on par in terms of authority, and necessity for interpretation. Of course, if Scripture and Church History are equal in authority, but then Church History is necessary to interpret Scripture, then in practice, Scripture is secondary at best. Church History becomes the “canon” or standard to which belief and practice must be held accountable, not Scripture.

To me then, the Sufficiency of Scripture and the concept that Scripture interprets Scripture are valuable correctives, and thumb rules, but less than absolute doctrines. Knowing the context in which Scripture came to be is helpful to its value and understanding. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of canonicity. Consider the case of Prophecy in the Post-exilic times, as well as in the early Church.

role-of-prophets

The figure above shows a process that happened twice– one at the end of the Old Testament and one at the end of the New Testament.

In the Old Testament, pre-exilic, the word of the Lord came from prophets. They were one of three types: cult prophets (tied to the temple), court prophets (serving the government), and free prophets (ministering primarily to the people). The written word appeared to have little impact in the religious life of the people. One might call this the “Age of the Prophets.” But with the Exile, we enter a transition period. The loss of the temple and of Jewish governance meant that only the Free Prophets were left (Ezekiel may have been a priest, but he acted as a prophet without a temple. Daniel may have served as a court prophet, but for a pagan king.) It is commonly thought that during this time of exile (or certainly soon after) was the development of the synagogue, a place of religious gathering for worship and training, led by a teacher or rabbi. With the return from exile, there is a passionate desire, spurred on by Ezra, to collect and share the written words of Moses and the prophets. In this, despite the return of the temple, there is a gradual increase in the value of rabbis and scribes. There is also a bit of a power shift with the formation of the Great Council, or Sanhedrin, that includes as its members “Teachers of the Law.”

Malachi and the Chronicles were written somewhere in the vicinity of 400 BC. By this time, we seem to be leaving the transition period. According to the Babylonian Talmud Sotah 48b, when Malachi died, “the Holy Spirit departed from Israel”…. meaning that there was no more prophetic witness. This view appears to support II Baruch 85:3  “But now, the righteous have been assembled, and the prophets are sleeping. Also we have left our land, and Zion has been taken away from us, and we have nothing now apart from YAHWEH the Mighty One and HIS Torah.” This describes Jewish believers who see their connection to God primarily through the Torah.  I Maccabees 9:23-27 also confirms a time when Jews saw prophets as having disappeared. Josephus, further, expressed the belief that the canonization of Scripture has an inverse relationship with prophecy. (see David G. Dunbar’s article “The Biblical Canon” in “Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon” (1986))

This does not mean that prophecy fully died out after Malachi. According to David Aune (“Prophecy in Early Christianity and in the Ancient Mediterranean World” (1983)), prophecy did continue to an extent during the Intertestamental Period. However, the term”Prophet” (nabi) became tied to the classical or former prophets on one hand, and the future eschatological prophets (predicted by Joel, Malachi and others). Essentially, the Jews in the Intertestamental period appeared to separate between authoritative Prophecy, and present prophecy… the latter being valued to some extent, but not really esteemed or thought authoritative. An example of this is Caiaphas, serving as High Priest that year, making a prophecy in John 11:51.

So this history suggests three stages (as in the figure above).

  • Stage 1.  The Age of the Prophets prior to the exile where the primary communication from God is oral, and the written word is not available or at least not disseminated.
  • Stage 2. The Transitional Period. The prophetic role is in decline and the role of written Scripture is increasing in value, along with the value of teachers and scribes.
  • Stage 3. The Age of the Written Word. The prophetic role is seen to cease… or at least the role as an authoritative source of divine communication. The written word (Torah) is esteemed and promulgated, along with the words of the classical prophets. Prophecy is seen to continue in a limited and declining form, but not seen as authoritative, while work is underway to determine what of the written word is valuable, and what is canon. Jewish scholars gradually came to the conclusion that prophetic words or writing from the  first two stages would be open to being considered canonical.

The Second such cycle is seen in the First Century AD.

Stage 1 is simple enough. John the Baptist and Jesus act as prophets, along with the apostles and prophets of the 1st century church. During most of this time, the written word (of the new era) was not central. The early church had revelations from God and as eye witnesses, that were transmitted orally. According to the Didache, prophets existed in the primitive church primarily as ones who traveled from church to church, sharing God’s message. The primary message would normally be the words of a witness to the truth, rather than a dispenser of new revelation, but could contain both. Again according to the Didache, a prophet could also choose to settle down and serve in a single church. Along with prophets, “apostles” would also have a prophetic role. The difference appeared to be that apostles reached out to non-believers, to form up communities of faith, while prophets appeared to minister primarily to churches and believers.

Stage 2 is also quite easy to see. The initial motivation seems to be tied to the impending deaths of Peter and Paul during the 60s (AD). According to church tradition, disciples of Peter asked John Mark to collect the words of Peter and write them down, based on the concern that Peter is old and may die soon. Likewise, Luke’s writing of the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles appears to be tied in some manner to the incarceration of Paul in Rome. Moving into the 2nd century, this trend only continues. Some still focused on oral revelation. Papias was known for seeking out the stories and sayings of Jesus, and of the Twelve. But even there, he took those sayings and wrote them down. (Sadly, we only have short snippets of his writings extant today.) Prophets, such as the daughters of Philip, continued through the first century and into the second, but their role declined as the written word increased.

Stage 3 seems to begin with the 2nd century. That which was considered authoritative appeared to be limited to the words of Jesus, the words of the Twelve, and those directly associated with the Twelve (the first two stages). While the development of the canon of the New Testament is often described as being a response to Marcionism, it is pretty clear from the writings of the early church fathers, with some exceptions such as Clement of Alexandria whose referencing was quite eclectic, that there was strong general agreement as far as most of the writings of canon. The disagreements, arguably, were not that critical. The Gospels, Acts, I Peter, and the 13 letters of Paul were pretty universally accepted. This makes up the vast majority of the volume of the New Testament.

The Muratorian Canon, was a late 2nd century attempt at establishing the canon of New Testament. In it, the Shepherd of Hermas was considered valuable, but not to be read publically (suggesting it not being canonical— much like with the Jews where the Tanakh, or canon of the Old Testament, was described as Mikra… that which is to be read in public). The basis was, in part, because it was too recent– seen to be written after the end of such authoritative revelation.

The 2nd and 3rd centuries sees the continual decline and eventual disappearance of prophets and apostles as formal offices. There are a few possible reasons for this. Both groups, were outside of the accountability of churches. This led to suspicions of laziness and greed. The Didache, again, adds considerable caution regarding the two roles. Prophets, especially, were prone to the temptation to say what would make the hearers happy (much like court prophets in the Old Testament commonly did). Frankly, however, with the greater confidence in, and availability of, recognized authoritative Scripture, the prophetic role (at least the aspect of giving new revelation) was seen as not all that necessary, as compared to contextualizing, interpreting, and teaching God’s word in Scripture. Even the Montanist movement, a schismatic group from the 2nd century that placed great emphasis on “new prophetic revelation,” appeared neither to write down their new prophecies, nor to place them as authoritative alongside the words of Christ and the Twelve.

So what does this history do for us as Evangelicals? I believe it helps us question two extremes regarding prophecy. Consider the figure below:

role-of-prophets-2

At one extreme is the Cessationist Viewpoint that new prophecies are invalid… they have ceased. On the figure above, it would show as the lower left hand corner of the blue area. New prophecy is invalid and so has no discernible (positive) purpose.

The other side is a Charismatic view of the continuity of gifts including prophecy. This view is sometimes argued based on the idea that God does not change. On the figure above, the extreme in this view would be seen as the upper right corner of the blue area. If prophecy today is not only valid… but authoritative (as some would hold), it is necessary.

Both extremes share some common problems.

  • Both appear to limit God inappropriately. One says that God will not do what he never promised He won’t do. The other says that God must continue doing what He once did. Scripture does not support either view, and neither does the history of the Intertestamental period and the Antenicene history of the church.
  • Both don’t take the transition from prophecy to written word accurately. One argues that there is a clear demarcation between oral and written word (a gross oversimplification). One argues that there is not much of a demarcation at all with prophecy standing alongside the written word (despite clear evidences of a general and steady transition for both the Old and New Testaments).
  • Both minimize the dynamic role of God in the church. One sees God’s revelation only given through illumination of Scripture. The other sees God’s role bound by God’s past role. Again, it is deeply concerning to find people who are so quick to say what God cannot do, or what He must do.

These are, of course, extremes… but extremes happen. One can look at church history to see many who have decided that God has reopened authoritative prophecy (Mohammad, Bah’u’llah, Joseph Smith, among others) and the chaos it does in matters of faith and in undermining God’s canonical revelation. On the other hand, if God chooses to speak, it is wise that we don’t plug our ears.

A look at the history of the Jews and the early church suggests a middle position. Prophecy has occurred, and it can occur, as God in His dynamic nature to interact with His people chooses. But the importance of such prophecies are not great. They are to be challenged by canon, not be a challenge to canon.

History also gives us more than adequate warning to be skeptical of prophets. In the Old Testament, the New Testament, and in early church history, prophets often lack the accountability structures to challenge and verify both word and conduct.

This is still true today. Living in the Philippines, I hear the most outrageous and nonsensical prophecies bandied about as if they were indeed the “Word of the Lord.” Most, if not all, are simply the words of human beings who are seeking to be taken seriously and valued by self-declaring a divine stamp of approval. What to do with these? Be quite skeptical… but be open to the (perhaps slim) possibility that some have truth to them. We are called upon to be discerning… so we should practice discernment… starting with doubt. Rejecting all new prophecy as fake may lead someone to miss something.

On the other hand, if some new prophecy is valid, but still relatively unimportant, the safer position when in doubt is to reject.

And as always, prophecy both in the Old Testament, and in the New, was most commonly the contextualization or application of God’s previous revelation to a new setting. Personally, I would rather that this (most common actually) use of the term not continue. While it is a good use of the term, the term “prophet” has a lot of historical baggage attached to it… leading to confusion (much like I don’t recommend missionaries using the term “apostle” even though the term would be quite historically accurate).

 

 

 

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