Donald Andrew Henson II

What is Prophecy? Part One

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on June 3, 2012 at 4:21 am
Prophet Micha

Prophet Micha

A few days ago, I ended my post commenting on 1 Thessalonians 5 with the following paragraph:

(Paul) ends the letter with instructions that prophecy not be treated with contempt; that is, allow people to say ‘thus sayeth the Lord’, but to ‘test’ what they say, and to hold on to the good prophecies and forget the others. However, he doesn’t really spell out what kind of test would be appropriate, and this is troubling. How am I supposed to know when someone is really speaking for God, or when they are just a little stirred up about something themselves? For the average believer, it usually boils down to accepting the prophecies they agree with, and neglecting the ones that might actually require them to change their views.

In the Pentecostal / Charismatic churches that I grew up in, ‘prophecy’ went something like this: we’d be worshiping God as a group, sometimes through spiritual songs, sometimes just everyone lifting their hands up towards heaven, praying softly. In either event, the emotional level would be very high – some folks might be crying or so involved in prayer as to seem in a trance. There would be a sudden stillness in the group, as if everyone suddenly expected something to happen. The musicians might even ‘sense’ that they should stop playing.

Then, one of two things would happen; someone would speak in tongues, publicly, meant for all to hear, and we’d all wait for someone to interpret the ‘message’ that had been given, or someone would prophecy directly, in English. These spiritual utterances, if you will, were usually fairly general exhortations that made generous use of known scriptural verses. However, sometimes they would include more local or personal instructions, aimed at the group or an individual within the group. This was my understanding of what the New Testament writers meant when they spoke of prophecy – speaking the mind of God to others. Pentecostal / Charismatic folk feel this kind of practice is what occurred in the 1st century church, as evidenced by 1 Corinthians 14 and other locations in the NT.

My concern has always been – even as a sincere believer – how Christians are to determine what is truly of God, and what comes from the spirit of the prophet. People can get excited, make mistakes, have a particular point of view they see things through, etc. How can we be sure that people are really speaking for God?

If you’ve been reading the comments on my site, you’ve seen that one sincere Christian, Lindsay Harold, feels she has a good system for separating good prophecy from bad. In short, she thinks good prophecies meet three important criteria:

  • they cannot contradict the scripture
  • they must be rational and sensible
  • they cannot contain new revelation

I think this is a fair summary of her main points – you can read her comments for yourself on my previous post. I said that I thought her answers were well presented and seemed to have some good thoughts behind them, but that her answers really only opened up more questions. My reply addressed her main points in the following way:

  1. Since there are thousands of Christian denominations, all preaching different interpretations of the scripture on Sunday morning, there is no true consensus on what the scripture says; therefore in can be difficult to determine what might contradict the scripture.
  2. The life of faith is not always rational and sensible. Religious people believe in things that cannot be perceived with the five senses or proven through empirical evidence. In the Bible, God has often asked people to do illogical things. He asked Abraham to kill his son, for example. He asked the leper, Namaan, to bathe in the River Jordan if as a cure for his leprosy.
  3. Stipulating that prophets could not reveal anything new about God than had already been revealed seemed to render the gift of prophecy useless – it equates prophecy with quoting scripture. In addition, it would seem to suggest that any denomination outside the Catholic church was in error, for all Protestant sects claim in one way or another that they have a new revelation from God that has been ignored by other denominations before them.

Notice I’m not saying she’s wrong – on the surface, I think any believer could agree with what she writes. I’m just saying there are problems that her answers do not address.

Lindsay responded with a lengthy explanation. I admire the fact that her positions are thoughtful – not like that woman I saw on CNN the other day. But I’m still not really persuaded by her arguments. Below is a ‘conversation’ of sorts about prophecy – her comments are in italics.

I believe you misunderstand what prophecy is. Prophecy is proclaiming the word of God.

I was a fervent believer for two decades. I taught the adult Sunday school class in my church, including the letters to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians. I wouldn’t have had the audacity to tell another reflective believer that they misunderstood something in the New Testament; I would have acknowledged that we had a different understanding of God’s word, but I never would have said that they didn’t understand what they read.

This goes back to my original point, which I affirm to be a valid one – American Christianity is highly individualistic in nature. There are nearly as many interpretations of scripture as there are believers; certainly any honest Christian would have to admit that each individual congregation tends to worship God and interpret scripture in a slightly different way.

In the Old Testament, God spoke to His people through prophets who were mouthpieces for God. They told the people what God was saying to them. In many cases, this was new revelation – new information about God’s expectations and commands for the people.

I don’t want to give too much veneration to Old Testament prophets. Let’s first of all assume that the OT is really God’s word – that is was written when it claims it was written, by whom it claims it was written by, etc. – all dubious claims in the light of modern scholarship. But for the sake of argument, lets assume it is what it says it is. There are a lot of ‘prophecies’ that involve murder, genocide, rape, bigamy, and other heinous crimes that would land a man in jail if he followed them. How can we call a man a prophet when he uses his supernatural connections to summon bears out of the woods to kill children – just because they taunted him by calling him ‘old baldy‘?

Lindsay’s post is lengthy – and thank God she differentiates NT from OT prophecy. Since it’s 4am – let me stop here for now and continue this conversation tomorrow or the day after.

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  1. If saying something “new” or “contradictory to scripture” negates “prophecy” then there is no prophecy, there is only reiteration and “witnessing”.

    A “Prophet” said it first then it became “scripture” Much of the NT contradicts the OT, so by that “Test” the NT is false.

  2. I agree – why are there even different words for ‘preaching’ and ‘prophesying’ if they are exactly the same thing? We would be confined to traditional explanations of the scripture, and God couldn’t reveal anything to the individual. This would basically negate the entire Protestant Reformation, as anyone believing something that hadn’t been handed down the first 1500 years of the church would be guilty of advocating something ‘new’.

  3. this is typical christian back pedaling. whenever they hold an idea that is unravelled and un-defendable, they just start ‘redefining’ words. “oh, it doesn’t literally mean ‘prophecy’, it means ‘proclaim’…” Lindsay also mentions good evidence and ‘reasons’ for believing that Jesus is coming back for some people(i assume she means the lucky ones who got the correct interpretation). i hope she’s refering to something besides the bible; otherwise it’s like using the Joker as evidence that Batman is real. it’s also a sign of a weak biblical argument when one begins to oscillate between ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ or ‘OT’ and ‘NT’, or ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’. either it’s the literal, divine work of god , cover to cover, or it isn’t. if a divine being inspired a book, it would be clear, coherent, consistant, impossible to misinterpret or change in translation(a supreme being would not allow it). it’s much more plausible and RATIONAL to admit that it was written BY men, FOR men, to promote a human agenda and the purposes of its human writers.

  4. I would assume the main meaning of prophecy in the Bible is predicting what’s to come. Great emphasis is put on the words of prophets and their ability to foretell what is to come. One of the selling points of the Bible to believers is the claim of knowing the future. The Bible ends with The Book of Revelations. Of course, when you’re editing a book that was written over hundreds of years, maybe even thousands, it’s very easy to make the earlier chapters predict the later chapters. This helps the overall plotting. And at the time, many figures in the Bible justified their existence to their followers by claiming their rule was foretold in the teachings.

    Prophecy becomes a kind of validation. Even simple ones, such as If you do evil today, tomorrow you will suffer. Even if you do evil on ten days and suffer on only one of the following days, that one day becomes more meaningful, and it reinforces belief.

    Science validates itself with experimentation and observation. Religion has no rigid validation system, but it uses things like prophecy and miracles as proofs. Prophecies, but large and small is how religion sells itself to new believers.

  5. I wrote something, nothing eloquent for sure, on how no “God” created any Religion and that people basically make it up to fit their own Idea of what they want and promote it as “God’s Word”

    There is a bit about my personal Beliefs on “God” in there, but nothing meant to be “preachy”

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