Ps. Weiers Coetser.
In the previous post of this series of blogs relating to Brian Neumann’s book, The White Elephant in Seventh-day Adventism 1 I raised some concerns about the particular standard that the author sets by which all who claim to be prophets should be tested. I suggested that it would be worth developing a more complete picture (or a theology) of the function of prophets in Scripture.
Brian Neumann himself points in this direction but then narrows the focus to:
- the prophet’s consistency with Biblical truth,
- the visionary experience of the prophet, and
- the accuracy of a prophet’s predictions.
Brian’s discussion of these “criteria” is clear and is supported with excellent material from Scripture and from early Adventist church history.
My objection is that these “tests” are too reductionistic and fail to capture a holistic biblical view of how prophets function and how they establish their authority.
Here I outline a few broad characteristics of prophetic function that I feel are deserving of further investigation.
- Prophets are almost always disruptors in a religious or socio-political system which has become stuck or lost its way. They are perceived to be anti-establishment. Their messages frequently contradict what the religious and political powers of the day peddle to their complacent followers.
- Prophets are often challenged with regard to their authority. Because they threaten the established religious sensibilities of their time, one could even say that they are “unbiblical.” The religious establishment in the Old Testament was keen to preach the biblical traditions of God’s blessing, exclusivity and prosperity. Prophets, on the other hand, came with threats of future instability and condemnation of unjust practices. Imagine being a devout Israelite and hearing your prophet say that a foreign, idol worshiping ruler has now become God’s servant! In the long-run the value and consistency and biblical base of the prophetic message might become clear, but one should expect that a prophet will ruffle some feathers and be seen as a danger, rather than a blessing to the community.
- Prophets frequently used unorthodox methods of communication. Both Hosea and Isaiah produced children and gave them “horrendous” names. When Ezekiel’s wife died, he was refused permission to mourn her death. They employed a variety of actions and symbols to get their message across. What eventually gave them authority was their sheer spirit and determination to convey a message from God.
- Prophets were often flawed individuals who suffered from depression and bouts of frustration. Being human, their style and messages also changed over time.
- The majority of prophetic messages were not primarily concerned with predicting the future, but were more focused on practical issues of religious and societal change.
- While visionary experiences feature in some prophecies, this is not the only mode by which prophets receive messages from God.
Marks of the prophetic gift are therefore:
- Complete, authentic, and passionate engagement with the realities of the day.
- A constant desire to see the designs of God realized in practical terms in society and within the religious community.
- Regular calls for reform, deeper engagement, and staying focused on God’s desire for the community; and
- A strong sense of justice.
How would one evaluate the claims of a prophet?
My personal opinion is that one should look at the overall picture of a prophet’s ministry and impact. The following are broad suggestions:
- Is there internal consistency and authentic selfless desire to do God’s bidding?
- Is the cumulative result of a prophet’s work over time edifying to the community in which the work is manifested?
- The disruptive nature of the prophetic gift means that there will be times of tension between prophet and community. Following the principles laid out by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, the eventual result of the prophetic gift needs to be a symbiotic relationship that energises and builds both prophet and community.
- Like all people, prophets are human with personal flaws. Is the general direction of their life a movement towards grace, and Christian maturity. Perhaps a comparison with the fruits of the Spirit would be relevant as opposed to the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:18-26).
Note: There are other important questions that also need to be explored in connection with the work of prophets. In my pastoral experience I’ve come to realise that most Seventh-day Adventists style their ideas of what prophets should do after the apocalyptic prophets and prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. There is therefore a strong emphasis on visions and predictions of the future.
I think this is only a small part of the picture. Most prophets function on a more mundane level in a particular time and place, casting vision for how things will be when God’s kingdom is realised. Should we perhaps take a leaf out of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), that does not group Daniel into the prophets (nevi’im), but groups the book with a section of scripture known as the writings (ketuvim)?
More importantly, one needs to ask: How universally applicable are prophetic manifestations? Is it not better to evaluate the work of a prophet within a specific time and a place with regard to a specific community? Do we set ourselves up for problems when we try to universalize the import of a prophetic ministry for all times and for all people?
Weiers, are you suggesting that a prophet is only of significance within a specific time and place? If this were true Ellen G. White would hold no relevance for us today. Neither would any of the Biblical prophets!
Perhaps as I progress with Brian Neumann’s book, he will deal with elements that form this broader vision of prophecy.
For now, at the end of Chapter One, my critical feeling is that I want to resist an attempt to reduce the tests of a prophet to three or four (somewhat arbitrary) criteria. I would be a little more circumspect about setting up a series of tests for a prophet. If this vision of the prophetic gift, presented in broad outline here, is taken into account, we should judge prophets in a similar way to how we judge ourselves — the Biblical principle of “Do to others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31).
The authority and impact of a prophet is often a negotiation between a community and the prophet. And one would hope the relationship results in a maturing and thriving community of faith.
Weiers, are you sure about this last sentence where you claim that the authority and impact of a prophet is the result of negotiation between a prophet and the community where he lives? I thought a prophet is best depicted as a “lone voice” in the wilderness calling the community to repentance regardless of their own feelings and opinions. The prophet is only interested in proclaiming the will and messages of God!
But I am ready to continue reading the book. The standards (tests) that Brian propose are relevant, if only because Adventists have often used these same arguments to defend the prophetic work of Ellen G. White.
Weiers, do I detect some ambiguity here? Earlier you took issue with the “reductionistic nature” of the “tests”, but here you say that they “are relevant”. And, the reason for their relevance: “because Adventists have often used them in the past.”
I am inquisitive to see what his conclusions are going to be and how he will get there. If Brian successfully argues that we have misapplied these standards, it could be reason for the Seventh-day Adventist church to think of new, more up to date approaches to establish and affirm the authority of Ellen White.
Possible further reading to develop a strong biblical theology of prophets: Walter Brueggeman, The Prophetic Imagination.
I probably could not describe the work of biblical prophets more succinctly and movingly than Michael Card does with his song, “The Prophet.”
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