What is Prophecy?

Guest Post by Theologian Dr Rob Knowles in response to a question about prophecy, what it is and how it functions, and the roll of Scripture within it…

1. I have spent many years in the thinking of Anthony Thiselton, and so am very interested by his views, not least on prophecy (note the spelling here!). 

2. The best place to look for Thiselton’s views on this subject, which I regard as authoritative, is in his large commentary on 1 Corinthians: see, Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to The Corinthians (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000). A good place to start is p. 829, which I quote in my book, Relating Faith.

3. In my email response to you, I cite the relevant pages in my book, Relating Faith, where I write on this subject.  These pages are: pp. 118 – 126, and pp. 138 – 142.

4. Broadly speaking, my view is that prophecy is either an anointing of the Spirit or a gift of the Spirit, depending on which form of prophecy is in view.

5. I believe that the biblical prophets had a unique anointing that nobody else has had since the closing of the canon. Michael Heiser, an Old Testament scholar, points out that all the biblical prophets had been visited by the second person of the Trinity personally, in the flesh, so to speak.

6. The canon of Scripture is slightly disputed in that 1 Enoch is part of the Ethiopian canon. It is interesting that 1 Enoch correctly predicts the ambiguity surrounding its future reception!

7. Beyond disputes about the extent of the canon (there is no canonical statement about the limits of the canon!), I am a cessationist when it comes to the anointing of the biblical prophets.

8. I am not a cessationist when it comes to the gifts of the Spirit, since such a view seems absurd given Paul’s and Peter’s view of the church as a body that grows out of each part doing its work and administering God’s grace in its various forms. 

9. To distinguish between more and less “spectacular” gifts in this respect seems arbitrary, since each part of a body remains important. To say that any gift has ceased is to say that a part of the body has become unnecessary, which is precisely what Paul warns against. 

10. To distinguish between the inaugural and the continuative has some validity: the Scriptures constitute a once-for-all inaugural revelation; but the Holy Spirit relates the Scriptures to us ever-freshly in a continuing manner. However, when it comes to the gifts of the Spirit, the inaugural vs. continuative distinction becomes invalid as stated above, and it is better to speak in terms of anointing (inaugural) vs. gifts (continuative).

11. Prophecy as a gift of the Holy Spirit is misunderstood. Thiselton writes:

Prophetic speech may include applied theological teaching, encouragement, and exhortation to build the church, not merely (if at all) ad hoc cries of an expressive, diagnostic, or tactical nature, delivered as ‘spontaneous’ mini-messages. The latter debase and trivialize the great tradition of the term in the biblical writings as something altogether more serious, sustained, and reflective

(First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 829 – see above).

From these comments we can see that the gift of prophecy today includes applied theological teaching, encouragement, and exhortation to build the church – teaching, encouragement, and exhortation that is serious, sustained, and reflective. Conversely, prophecy is not primarily “ad hoc cries of an expressive, diagnostic, or tactical nature, delivered as ‘spontaneous’ mini-messages”, which are less serious, less sustained, and unreflective. 

12. In my large book on hermeneutics, I write:

Thiselton, combining appeals to Heidegger and to Gadamer, thus argues that a properly re-historicized approach to tradition is neither iconoclastic nor traditionalistic (for tradition can both transmit and distort truth) but is, rather, “tradition-modifying” or “tradition-refining”. Thus, to use J. Grondin’s language, we may conclude that Thiselton brings ‘prophet (prophetes)’ and ‘hermeneus’ (interpreter) together in opposition to the iconoclast, to the traditionalist, and – we might add (drawing on Grondin and in line with Thiselton’s attacks against authoritarian appeals to the Holy Spirit – see Chapters 3 and 7) – to ‘mantike (soothsaying)’. (Knowles, Anthony C. Thiselton and the Grammar of Hermeneutics, p. 249).

Here I tie Thiselton’s view of tradition-modification to prophecy. If, say, the Bible is our standard, then our church tradition is not as true as Scripture, and so needs ongoing reformation. Thiselton writes:

There is force and truth in the well-known dictum of Calvinist theology that the Church that has been reformed always stands in the need of reformation: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. Sometimes it is the prophetic insight of an individual thinker and man of faith that spearheads the necessary corrective.

That is: the gift of prophecy is ongoing because the church always needs further reformation, or more and more conformity to biblical standards. The prophet (prophetes) with the gift of prophecy thus interprets the church as ‘hermeneus’ (interpreter), calling it back to its intended biblical shape (if the church has gone astray), and calling it forwards to an ever-more biblical shape (if the church is lagging behind in its ongoing sanctification towards biblical standards).

13. Such prophetic interpretation of the church is ongoing because of the ecclesia reformata semper reformanda principle, but this is astute, incisive, biblical criticism of the church, taking the form of “teaching, encouragement, and exhortation that is serious, sustained, and reflective”. It is not the “ad hoc cries of an expressive, diagnostic, or tactical nature, delivered as ‘spontaneous’ mini-messages”, which are less serious, less sustained, and unreflective” – and which are more akin to ‘mantike (soothsaying)’, the trance-utterances of occultists and shamans.

14. Genuine ongoing prophecy is not as authoritative as Scripture, but derives its authority solely in calling us back to Scriptural standards, and onwards towards Scriptural standards. To the extent that it does this, it is authoritative, but is always itself provisional, and subject to correction from Scripture.

15. In this sense, anybody who calls the church back to its biblical shape is acting “prophetically”. The degree of authority lies in the content of what is said, and in its appropriateness and timeliness, and not in some mystical quality possessed by the speaker or writer. Thus, Kierkegaard is generally held to have been a real prophet in that he said very true and timely things that the church definitely needed to put right by any objective biblical assessment. Yet, he also made errors, which can be exposed by Scripture.

16. I would soften any overly anti-charismatic sentiments in relation to words of knowledge and words of wisdom. Whilst I am very critical of charismatics in Relating Faith, Paul does say: “To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:8). These need not be simply “ad hoc cries of an expressive, diagnostic, or tactical nature, delivered as ‘spontaneous’ mini-messages, which are less serious, less sustained, and unreflective”. Rather, they can be very pertinent, often as prophetic interpretations of individuals rather than of the corporate body of the church. Again, though, their authority or lack of authority depends solely on their accuracy, appropriateness, and timeliness in calling a person or church back to the Bible or onwards towards the biblical. 

17. Prophecy as a noun is spelt with a “c”!!

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