Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Five-Fold Ministry? Prophets

The four entries in this series are now available as one paper on the Studies page.  I encourage you to head over there to get the full picture.

To get a sense of the role of prophets in the New Testament, a survey of New Testament references to prophets and to prophecy is necessary. Throughout the gospels, the term "prophet" refers most often to the prophets of the Old Testament, and usually to the fulfillment of their prophecies in the person of Jesus. The term is also used of Jesus; in fact, Jesus refers to himself as a prophet (Matt. 13:57, Lk. 4:24, Jn. 4:44) as well as John the Baptist (Lk. 7:26). There is a sense of continuity there: what the prophets are is defined in the Old Testament, and part of what Jesus and John are doing is continuing that prophetic tradition.

In Acts, references to Old Testament prophets and to Jesus as a prophet continue, but others are also referred to as prophets: Agabus, one of several in 11:27, who predicted a severe famine throughout the Roman world, and who also foretold the Apostle Paul's arrest in Jerusalem (21:10); the "prophets and teachers" who appear to have been leaders in the church at Antioch and who were led by God to comission Barnabas and Saul for what became the Apostle Paul's missionary journeys (13:1); Judas and Silas, who brought the news of the Jerusalem council to the Gentile believers (15:32); and the daughters of Philip the evangelist (21:9).

In the epistles, Paul mentions prophecy among the gifts given to the Body (1 Cor. 12:10, 28-29) and gives instructions for the proper use of that gift within the gathered assembly (1 Cor. 14:29), contrasting it positively in that context with the gift of tongues (1 Cor. 14:3-5, 22-24). Along with the apostles, they are called the "foundation" of "God's household" (Eph. 2:20).

We can learn several things from this survey:

  1. There is a continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament with regard to the role of the prophet. New Testament writers refer to Old Testament prophets as well as to contemporary prophets with equal ease and without distinguishing between the two. Just as Old Testament prophets spoke directly for God and yet did not supplant the foundational role of the Law, so New Testament prophets spoke directly for God and yet did not supplant the foundational role of Scripture. This should lead us to the position that New Testament prophets are essentially modeled after Old Testament prophets. Indeed, those living in the first century (especially Jewish believers) probably saw a renewal of an old gift, rather than the establishing of something radically different.
  2. Prophets are not necessarily inspired writers of Scripture, and do not necessarily have authoritative roles such as the original Apostles had. The cessationist viewpoint almost always raises the objection that contemporary prophecy somehow negates the authority of Scripture, essentially identifying the prophetic role as necessary before the finishing of the canon of scripture, but superfluous (and somehow dangerous) afterward. If that were true, we would expect prophets to be the writers of Scripture, since the cessationist position essentially equates the two gifts. But Agabus, Judas, Silas, the daughters of Philip, and unnamed others are not writers of scripture; moreover, they are referred to by writers of scripture without any hint of threat or rivalry. Paul seems to have been able to write his inspired letters without any concern that the prophets (whom he views as foundational to the church) may set up some sort of rival authority.
  3. Apart from a tortured interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:8-10, there is no sense in the New Testament that this gift of prophecy will cease prior to the parousia, the second coming of Jesus. Paul gives instructions regarding the use of the prophetic gift in 1 Cor. 4:29-33, 39 (including the encouragement to "be eager to prophesy") that would ordinarily be considered binding to the present day, were he not referring to a gift that some have regarded as having ceased.
  4. Nothing in the New Testament ever equates prophesying with preaching the gospel. Attempts have been made to equate the two in order to have something of a nonthreatening continuationism. Paul's rules on prophesying in 1 Cor. 14 really don't make sense if one regards the "prophesying" as actually "sermonizing"--except perhaps in a Quaker context, in which no one person would take the lead but people would share as they felt led. However, this idea is far nearer to the Pentecostal model than the cessationist.
  5. There also seems to be little support for the idea of a "personality gift" of being a prophet. On the supposition that the gifts listed in Romans 12:6-8 are functions of different sorts of personality, it has been thought by some that certain tendencies of mind--particularly negative and critical tendencies--amount to a prophetic "personality gift." While it is probable that certain personality types lend themselves to certain spiritual gifts (most evangelists are probably outgoing, for example) and God, in his wisdom, may often marry the two, it does not follow that certain personality types by themselves equate to spiritual gifts, let alone offices.
So what do we have, then? A prophetic ministry that builds on the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, extends throughout the New Testament period and implicitly beyond, is different than preaching or teaching or the writing of authoritative scripture, and is not identified with major, authoritative figures in the church. The link to the Old Testament model is particularly fruitful. By contrast to the priestly and kingly offices, both of which were formal and hereditary, the Old Testament prophets were usually outsiders, people whom God called from all walks of life, often to challenge unworthy examples of the hereditary offices to return to the ways of God. Far from threatening the foundational authority of the Law given by Moses, the prophets are sometimes called God's covenant lawyers, bringing a lawsuit against God's people for neglecting His Law. The Law and the Prophets are not rivals but work hand in hand. And although prophets at times did fortell events in the future, that was not their primary role. They were more "forthtellers" than "foretellers," calling God's people to account in their own contemporary setting--at times, warning of impending judgment if they did not change--more than simply predicting what was to come.

So should there be a office of "prophet" in the church today? While I believe that there are, in fact, contemporary prophets, I do not think that a formal office or title is necessary or desirable. The prophets were always informally related to the structure of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church. To formalize the office would be to restrict God's hand in choosing whom He will to speak truth wherever it needs to be spoken. To take the title formally is both presumptuous and unnecessary. There may, in fact, be many who actually are in the role of prophets without necessarily being recognized as such or even recognizing themselves as such. I'm thinking of writers, people who are not actually in formal church ministry but who write, calling the church back to be what God wants it to be. I don't have any names to suggest; years ago I did, but I'm not so sure now. It may be that we are in a prophetic lull at the moment. But if there are prophets, it is likely that they are controversial and probably rejected by much of the church world. It was always that way.

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