Last week, I wrote about the mislabelling of social justice ministry as 'prophetic ministry'. I've enjoyed a lively discussion in the comments with Theresa Coleman, an apparent defender of the name. I questioned whether our attempts to exegete Christian ethics can constitute prophecy without mystical confirmation, just as Isaiah and Jeremiah experienced. She wrote:
Inspiration -- from the spirit. Remember your pneumatology? I would not say that each and every revelation from the Spirit is worthy of a Jeremiah or Isaiah, but prophecy is indeed one of the fruits of the Spirit...
In fact, true prophecy is a direct result of the Missio Dei.
If by "fruits of the Spirit" Theresa means the charismata given to the Church post-Pentecost, then I agree that prophecy is a fruit of the Spirit. The New Testament makes it clear that the early Church recognized authentic prophets in its midst. However, I see no basis for discerning a higher order and a lower order of prophecy from Scripture. It is a difference that does not appear in the text. Either prophecy is inspired by God like that of the Old Testament prophets, or it is not inspired at all. To claim such inspiration is necessarily to claim the infallibility of the Bible.
So how may we discern whether prophecy is authentic or not? I propose two criteria, one personal and one communal:
As I mentioned in the previous posts, Jeremiah and Isaiah recorded their mystical encounters whereby they were instructed by God to prophesy in his name. Hosea's prophecy begins with "The Word of the Lord which came to....", as did Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Joel. Habakkuk's described his meeting with God as "The oracle which Habakkuk the prophet saw." Malachi also described his encounter as an 'oracle'. Obadiah experienced a vision. And, of course, the visions of Daniel and Ezekiel were profoundly vivid. None of them say "And the prophet Bob studied the Scriptures and read Sojourners magazine and proclaimed...." No, the prophets of the Bible had mystical experiences through which God spoke to them. So an honest Christian today can only declare his/her teachings prophetic if they result from mystical encounters with God.
I worked with a self-proclaimed prophet once back at JPL. He claimed to have mystical experiences through which God revealed prophecy. That's enough authentication for him, but what about for the rest of the Christian community? How are we to know that a person has truly experienced the gift of prophecy?
It's simple. Deuteronomy 18:21-22:
You may say in your heart, 'How will we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?'
"When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.
If a 'prophet' says "The Tribulation shall come in 1982" or "The world shall be depleted of all oil reserves by 1990" and it does not happen, that person is a false prophet and should be ignored. So let those who call themselves prophets predict the future, and we shall test them according to their words.
Most uses of the term 'prophetic ministry' outside of televangelistic charlatans should be properly called 'social justice ministry'. It is a noble tradition and an essential function of the Church. We should examine the Bible, our experiences, and our traditions and reason out applications of Christian ethics for the world. But to claim that these efforts speak for God himself is presumptuous. Let only those whom God calls to be prophets call themselves prophets.