Calvin on Prophets image

Calvin on Prophets

One of the more sticky interpretive issues in charismatic theology is the question of what exactly New Testament prophecy is. We've talked about that here before, and many readers will be familiar with the various proposals out there (spontaneous revelation, preaching, first generation insight into the mystery of salvation in Christ, oracular challenges to the powers, and so on). In my experience, the most nuanced definitions are often also the vaguest ones - which, although perhaps inevitable, is nonetheless unfortunate, especially since it's difficult to "earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy" when you don't know quite what it is. A good example is Anthony Thiselton's definition, which is hugely careful and well-expressed, but has a slightly blunderbuss everything-and-nothing quality to it.

More prescriptive, and at the same time more likely to bother lots of us, is John Calvin’s explanation in his commentary on 1 Corinthians. I think it’s worth thinking through:

I take the term prophecy to mean that unique and outstanding gift of revealing what is the secret will of God, so that the prophet is, so to speak, God’s messenger to men ...

I am certain, in my own mind, that he means by prophets, not those endowed with the gift of foretelling, but those who were blessed with the unique gift of dealing with Scripture, not only by interpreting it, but also by the wisdom they showed in making it meet the needs of the hour. My reason for thinking so is that Paul prefers prophecy to all the other gifts, because it is a greater source of edification, a statement that can hardly be made to apply to the prediction of future events. Again, when he defines the work of the prophet, or at least deals with the main things which he ought to be doing, he says that he devotes himself to consolation, encouragement and teaching. But these activities are quite distinct from predictions. From this verse let us therefore learn that prophets are (1) outstanding interpreters of Scripture; and (2) men endowed with extraordinary wisdom and aptitude for grasping what the immediate need of the Church is, and speaking the right word to meet it. That is why they are, so to speak, messengers who bring news of what God wants.

In a word my view is that the prophets referred to here are those who are skilful and experienced in making known the will of God, by applying prophecies, threats, promises and all the teaching of Scripture to the current needs of the Church. Should anyone be of a different opinion, I am willing to acknowledge that there is room for it, and will not pick a quarrel with him because of it. For it is difficult to make up one’s mind about gifts and offices, of which the Church has been deprived for so long, except for mere traces or shades of them, which are still to be found.

A few quick comments on this remarkable section. One: Calvin regards prophecy as still being around in his day, but only just, and he sees this as a tragic loss. Two: he is not doctrinaire about precisely what it is, but offers a clear exposition of what he thinks it is himself. Three: his summary is that prophecy is “revealing what is the secret will of God”, and that this involves both interpreting Scripture and understanding exactly what the Church needs to hear, with a view to applying the former to the latter. Four: he assumes that the function of the New Testament prophet will occur within the Church. Five: as a pastor and teacher himself, he happily accepts that prophecy, for Paul, is somehow greater than the gifts he himself has.

Well worth considering, methinks.

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