Friday, November 10, 2006

Defining Prophetic Ministry

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:

Mystical Authentication
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.

Experiential Authentication
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.

25 comments:

John Meunier said...

Deuteronomy 13 warns, however, that mere occurrence is not enough to sanction a prophet.

Of course, Deuteronomy 13 also tells us to stone to death false prophets who lead us away from God. Does this apply to those who teach the worship of material things, cosmetic surgery, and our own selfish impulses.

Interpreting when something has happened is also difficult. I recall some Christians declaring that 9/11 was the fulfillment of prophecies they had been speaking about God's wrath on America for its tolerance of gays and abortion.

They said God would punish the United States. And, lo, something terrible happened to the country. Were they true prophets then?

Although I have no doubt that those who are more literal in their Biblical exegesis than I am will dismiss his formulation, I find Walter Brueggemann's discussion of prophetic ministry helpful:

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. Thus I suggest that prophetic ministry has to do not primarily with addressing specific public crises but with addressing, in season and out of season, the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient, of having our alternative vocation co-opted and domesticated. ... That point is particularly important to ad hoc liberals who run from issue to issue without discerning the enduring domestication of vision in all of them.

John said...

Thus I suggest that prophetic ministry has to do not primarily with addressing specific public crises but with addressing, in season and out of season, the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient, of having our alternative vocation co-opted and domesticated

Brueggemann is wrong. What makes ministry prophetic is not what is said, but who says it: a human being or God himself. To suggest that we can simply declare ourselves prophets and go about speaking for God himself flatly contradicts the experiences of the OT prophets.

You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you! I mean, if I saying that I was an emperor just because some moisened bint lobbed a scimitar at me they'd put me away.

Of course, Deuteronomy 13 also tells us to stone to death false prophets who lead us away from God. Does this apply to those who teach the worship of material things, cosmetic surgery, and our own selfish impulses.

What, then, is your interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy?

Interpreting when something has happened is also difficult. I recall some Christians declaring that 9/11 was the fulfillment of prophecies they had been speaking about God's wrath on America for its tolerance of gays and abortion.

They said God would punish the United States. And, lo, something terrible happened to the country. Were they true prophets then?


If they specifically predicted the events of the 9/11 attack and not just that something bad would happen, then yes, they are prophets.

Andy B. said...

"To suggest that we can simply declare ourselves prophets and go about speaking for God himself flatly contradicts the experiences of the OT prophets."

John, I'm not clear how you distinguish someone doing this today from someone doing it in the Ancient Near East. Didn't Biblical prophets mostly go about speaking for God? And didn't many around them doubt their authenticity?

John said...

That's true, they did. So anyone who claims to be a modern-day prophet must necessarily claim to have had mystical experiencies providing personal validation of his/her claims in order to comply with the depiction of prophecy in the OT. If the person does not claim such experiences, s/he is not a prophet.

larry said...

John

I had meant to comment on your oringinal post on this topic, and somehow it didn't go through, so I'll just throw my thoughts up here.

I think there can be a legitimate use of the phrase "prophetic minsitry" today in the sense of calling the church and culture to be faithful to the social justice concerns and principles of many of the OT prophets. Where it crosses the line, in my book at least, is when they use that banner to express views on theology and human behavior that contradict scripture. One point of the OT prophetic minsitry was God calling His people back to obedience of His laws.

Of course, I also think is a seperate prophetic ministry that comes as a result of that particular spiritual gift being at work in the life of a modern believer, to which I would apply your standards.

Thanks for the thoughtful posts.

John Meunier said...

John,

I'm not sure at all how to interpret the passage that tells us to stone false prophets. Literalism seems off the table though. If I historicize this injunction, then there is no reason not to historicize the meaning of prophecy.

Have we had a prophet since Biblical times who would pass the tests to which you point?

Do you expect the end times to happen as Revelation prophesies? Complete with horsemen and multi-headed beasts?

Your critique of Brueggemann is one I'm sure many people share. Social justice, however, does not describe what Brueggemann is talking about. Social justice is too small a category for Brueggemann's conception of what he calls prophetic ministry.

To a degree, we are debating over the correct use of words - which I do not dimiss. Proper names for things is important.

Of course, I can't be upset about someone who quote Monty Python.

John said...

I'm not sure at all how to interpret the passage that tells us to stone false prophets. Literalism seems off the table though. If I historicize this injunction, then there is no reason not to historicize the meaning of prophecy.

Literalism may fall of the table in terms of punishment, but I don't see how it falls off as an explanation of God's inspiration of the prophets. Or do you think that Isaiah and Jeremiah lied about their mystical experiences? Were they real or fabricated?

Have we had a prophet since Biblical times who would pass the tests to which you point?

None that come to mind.

Do you expect the end times to happen as Revelation prophesies? Complete with horsemen and multi-headed beasts?

Yes.

Your critique of Brueggemann is one I'm sure many people share. Social justice, however, does not describe what Brueggemann is talking about. Social justice is too small a category for Brueggemann's conception of what he calls prophetic ministry.

Then Brueggemann should be more humble about what he's doing. It would be great if we were all prophets, but it is up to God alone to determine who are his prophets. I'm not saying that we shouldn't prophesy. I'm saying that without God's direct aid, we can't prophesy. It is beyond our natural ability.

To a degree, we are debating over the correct use of words - which I do not dimiss. Proper names for things is important.

It is indeed. This isn't a petty dispute over semantics. When a Christian goes on a political rant and calls it prophecy, s/he is necessarily devaluing real prophecy and the divine inspiration of the Bible.

Oloryn said...

How are we to know that a person has truly experienced the gift of prophecy?

It's simple.


I'd suggest there is also a second test:

Isaiah 8:20:

To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.

If the purported prophecy does not line up with scripture, it is also to be rejected, even if it includes a prediction that does come true.

BruceA said...

I think a person can speak prophetically without necessarily being a prophet.

Paul, listing spiritual gifts in Ephesians 4, says that "some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and some teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry." It seems clear that these are roles or offices some people are called to, to serve the body of Christ. I've learned a lot from people who weren't teachers; clearly teaching is not limited to those who hold that office. Many people who are not evangelists are able to share their faith with others; clearly evangelism is not limited to those who hold that office. Why, then, should prophetic speaking be limited to those who hold that office?

This may require a further definition of prophetic ministry, as opposed to prophecy itself.

Oloryn said...

This may require a further definition of prophetic ministry, as opposed to prophecy itself.

I'm not sure that that changes the issue that much. You still face deciding whether the definition of prophetic ministry includes only direct, mystical inspiration by God, or whether Billy Joe-Bob reading his Bible, deciding some aspect of society doesn't line up, and speaking out about it constitutes "prophetic Ministry". Postulating on whether the gift might be exercised through those who don't have the office of Prophet doesn't really change that.

BruceA said...

When I've heard the term "prophetic ministry," it usually means something grounded in the writings of the prophets (or the words of the prophets who didn't write their own books). The prophets had a distinct focus that is different from the other parts of the Bible. "Speaking truth to power" is a good description of the role of Nathan in 2 Samuel 12. If Christian leaders today were to speak out against the sins of political authorities, they are following in the same prophetic tradition. That doesn't make them prophets, but I think it might be accurate to describe their actions as prophetic.

Oloryn said...

"Speaking truth to power" is a good description of the role of Nathan in 2 Samuel 12.

But is it, perhaps, only a partial description? 2 Sam 12 doesn't start out "Nathan saw this, consulted the Torah, saw that it was wrong, and set out to correct David." It starts out "Then the Lord sent Nathan to David". "Speaking Truth to Power" by itself isn't the prime qualifier for prophetic utterance. Being sent by God is. Leaving that out of the definition dilutes the meaning of prophetic ministry.

Lorna said...

good discussion.

a couple of thoughts from over here. Prophesy - as I understand it - is a gift of the spirit not a fruit. The fruit is what comes as a result of walking with God - love, joy, peace, patience and self control etc.

"or whether Billy Joe-Bob reading his Bible, deciding some aspect of society doesn't line up, and speaking out about it constitutes "prophetic Ministry"." ... this I feel misses the point - it's not about what we decide - it's about what God reveals to us.

a prophesy is never 100% from God of course - or rather the way it is given - because it becomes tainted by the vessel.

Prophetic ministry - IMHO - is linked to other grace gifts, in particular the gift of encouragement and discernment and ofcourse we need wisdom of whether to share the word or simply pray it through.

The five fold ministry has not ended - therefore there must still be prophets among us. Do we recognise them? As far as I'm concerned we don't label people as Isaiahs Jeres etc ... but people are called by God to call us to repentence and that, primarily, was the role of the OT prophets.

I believe we are all to desire prophesy and that gift is primarily to build up the body of Christ the church on the foundation of Jesus. .. why? so that we can go about our disciple making business. In love of course. We are not in the doom and gloom business - we spread GOOD NEWS

:)

Oloryn said...

"or whether Billy Joe-Bob reading his Bible, deciding some aspect of society doesn't line up, and speaking out about it constitutes "prophetic Ministry"." ... this I feel misses the point - it's not about what we decide - it's about what God reveals to us.

I think this is my point. Defining prophetic ministry only in terms of scripture-influenced "Speaking Truth to Power" does make it about what we decide.

John said...

Lorna wrote:

a prophesy is never 100% from God of course - or rather the way it is given - because it becomes tainted by the vessel.

The Bible is tainted? Since when?

BruceA said...

"Speaking Truth to Power" by itself isn't the prime qualifier for prophetic utterance. Being sent by God is.

Obviously, a true prophet is one who has been sent by God. I didn't think that part was under dispute.

Oloryn said...

Obviously, a true prophet is one who has been sent by God. I didn't think that part was under dispute.

As far as I can tell, that's what's been under dispute from the beginning of the thread. Or at least whether a clear indication of being sent by God is required before slapping the label 'prophetic ministry' on an activity.

John said...

Exactly. If we can just declare ourselves prophets without God's explicit and specific permission, then the Bible isn't the Word of God -- it's just a bunch of guys talking about social justice ministry and such.

Either we can, of our own volition, speak with the same authority that the OT prophets did, or not. There are serious theological implications of taking either position.

BruceA said...

Let me see if I understand you correctly, then. You seem to be saying that God does not speak to people today, especially not when we are reading the Bible. If someone doesn't begin a statement with the formula, "The word of the Lord came to me," we can presume that God didn't speak to that person.

Is that what you are claiming? That anyone who doesn't follow the formula cannot have heard from God?

Because that's what I thought the issue was: How can we tell who really is speaking for God. I just don't think that any test we could invent could give us an infallible answer.

John Meunier said...

Delayed response.

John wrote:

Or do you think that Isaiah and Jeremiah lied about their mystical experiences? Were they real or fabricated?

I don't doubt that these two prophets experienced God's call to their prophetic mission.

But I don't see how their mystical experiences bar others who pray and listen for God's voice from encountering it in the reading of scripture, the practice of prayer or fasting, or the discernment of the will of living God.

To say all prophetic inspiration must come in only one way denies God's freedom to act in history in new ways.

If I say God is calling me to ministry, am I wrong if there is no burning bush or angel bearing a hot coal? If Jesus does not blind me on the roadside should I say that he has never spoken to me?

If the charge is that these folks labeled "Joe-Bob" who are making "political rants" are lying about the source of the words they speak, then I would ask who are any of us to judge the truth of such accusations? Only God knows to whom he speaks.

Oloryn said...

Because that's what I thought the issue was: How can we tell who really is speaking for God?

To my understanding of the thread, that's a side issue. The original issue is whether slapping the label 'prophetic ministry' on an activity that boils down to merely preaching politically-oriented sermons (and John has been much kinder in describing this that I would have been) is appropriate (John and I think it's not), and that those who think it's appropriate seem to be defining 'prophetic ministry' in terms that emphasize the outward effects of prophetic utterance (e.g. "Speaking Truth to Power") and minimize or neglect the necessity of a distinct and definite Divine call to speak, and that use of that kind of definition gives license for arrogating an inappropriate level of authority to what is merely one person's (or one group's) opinion about how Biblical principles apply to 'social justice'(puff, puff, puff).

It's not about formulas, it's about recognizing that the term 'prophetic ministry' implies a level of authority that's only appropriate when there has been a distinct Divine call to speak. It's not about saying that this doesn't happen today, but that to too easily apply the term to what we're doing today cheapens it.

John, have I stated your issue correctly, or am I overstating it?

Oloryn said...

But I don't see how their mystical experiences bar others who pray and listen for God's voice from encountering it in the reading of scripture, the practice of prayer or fasting, or the discernment of the will of living God.

I don't think John and I are saying that they do bar those things. I think we are saying 'prophetic ministry' is something above and beyond the ordinary course of the Christian walk. Why does it have to be valid to apply the label 'prophetic ministry' to such ordinary parts of the Christian life for them to be valid?

If I say God is calling me to ministry, am I wrong if there is no burning bush or angel bearing a hot coal?

No. Are you saying that unless it is valid to apply the label 'prophetic ministry' to your ministry, it isn't valid?

John said...

Ditto what Oloryn said. There is a difference between the ordinary call into ministry -- even the ordained ministry -- and his call to author a book of the Bible. There is no Biblical support for the idea that the prophetic authors simply prayerfully searched the Scriptures, analyzed their societies in the light of God's teachings, and then wrote about it (necessarily a highly fallible effort, as there is such widespread disagreement among faithful Christians who engage in the activity). There is, however, strong Biblical support that the authors received their texts from God in mystical experiences (necessarily infallible).

John Meunier said...

I guess we should have started from the beginning. We are divided by incompatiable assumptions about the infallibility of the Bible.

I appreciate the call to be careful in our use of "prophetic" when describing our ministries. We, of course, must always be wary of our ability to claim more authority than we, in fact, have.

But I suspect we will not persuade each other about the "dangers" you fear. Perhaps I am too lax. Perhaps others are too legalistic.

May God have mercy on my errors and hold me up in my faithfulness.

the reverend mommy said...

John,

I do believe we are on the same page. I agree with most of all you said. But if the test of a prophet is to produce prophecy inspired by God (Words breathed by God) and a searing experience of God's presence (my view of a mystical experience, for a later time) of a quality to form another book of the Bible, then (by the last test) who was the last prophet? Are they even possible anymore, since the Canon is closed?

I have heard prophetic preaching, I have seen prophectic ministry. It is not self serving or even particulary attention seeking in and of itself. It's all Word, Deed and Sign. And it's usually so deeply countercultural that most people have trouble accepting it.

Personally, I think Mother Teresa's ministry was prophetic, as was Clarence Jordan's.

Also, are we equating "Prophecy" with "Prophetic Ministry?" To me, these denote two different things.

And Lorna, thanks, it's a gift and not a fruit.