What is Prophecy? image

What is Prophecy?

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What is prophecy? You’d think the answer was obvious, given the amount many of us talk about it, but it’s really not. Is it predicting the future, or applying God’s timeless will to present situations? Is it spontaneously given, or carefully prepared? Is it predominantly about personal direction, theological exposition or social critique? Does everybody have the gift, or not? Is it positional or possessional? Was it supposed to have ceased in the first generation, or not? Should it come with a “thus saith the Lord”, like Old Testament prophecy, or a cautious “I feel God might be saying”, like contemporary prophecy? Is there a difference between OT prophets and NT prophets? Or between NT prophets and prophets today?

Many, of course, will define prophecy as they have (or have not) seen it working in their own experience. Cessationists will say it died out with the apostles. Cautious continuationists will link it to expository preaching. Socially and politically engaged interpreters will link it to the call for justice in the land. Charismatics will think of it as a mixture of revelation and direction for individuals and churches. And so on. Few, if any, of these are able to cope with the breadth of biblical material on what prophecy is, and few who exercise the gift with regularity have attempted a fully-orbed biblical synthesis, with books on the subject tending much more to the popular and practical end of the spectrum (or, if they are more theological, they are written by theologians and exegetes rather than practitioners). Hmmm.

For my money, this paragraph from Anthony Thiselton’s massive commentary on 1 Corinthians is about as helpful, thought-provoking and nuanced a definition as you’re likely to find:

... prophecy, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, combines pastoral insight into the needs of persons, communities, and situations with the ability to address these with a God-given utterance or longer discourse (whether unprompted or prepared with judgment, decision and rational reflection) leading to challenge or comfort, judgment, or consolation, but ultimately building up the addressees ... While the speaker believes that such utterances or discourses come from the Holy Spirit, mistakes can be made, and since believers, including ministers or prophets, remain humanly fallible, claims to prophecy must be weighed and tested. It would go beyond the limits of exegesis to assume that the gift of prophecy belongs any more permanently to some specific individual as an “office” than the gifts of faith or kinds of healings. The epistle remains silent on this matter. Equally, it offers no evidence that prophecy ceases before the return of Christ at the eschaton (see on 13:10). Finally, as J. Panagopoulos insists, prophecy is not to be isolated from tradition, from its OT background, and from the function of announcing and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing links it with “trivial” messages to individuals.

So: that’s Thiselton’s view. Any thoughts?

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