Is the Gift of Prophecy for Today?

Part 1 (of 4 parts):

The Current Debate about New Testament Prophecy

F. David Farnell [ 1 ]
Associate Professor of New Testament
The Master´s Seminary, Sun Valley, California, USA

Spiritual Gifts as a Center of Controversy

Controversy is no stranger to the Christian church. When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, the first-century church was already embroiled in turmoil over the nature and practice of spiritual gifts. Misconceptions and abuse of the gifts were rampant in the Corinthian church. A three-man delegation (1 Cor. 7:1; 16:17) asked Paul to clarify how gifts such as prophecy, tongues, and knowledge should be exercised (13:8). The outcome of the turbulence in Corinth is unknown, but the second century exhibited the same confusion in the Montanist heresy. The tumult has emerged in the 20th century in and around Pentecostalism, Neopentecostalism, and movements variously labeled "Charismatic," "Vineyard," and "Signs and Wonders."

The gift of tongues (Acts 2:1-13; 1 Cor. 14:2-28) has been the subject of debate for many years. Most recently, however, several books have dealt with the New Testament gift of prophecy. Since the nature and purpose of this gift had not been closely defined by either side of the controversy, this gift has provided a fertile topic as a new phase in the discussion of temporary and permanent spiritual gifts. Questions about the nature of this gift threaten to become, if they have not done so already, a major storm center in New Testament theology and church worship.

Among noncharismatics it has been relatively standard to regard the gift as foundational for the church and temporary in nature. These noncharismatics may be labeled "cessationists." Exemplifying standard cessationist views, Ryrie writes:

"The gift of prophecy included receiving a message directly from God through special revelation, being guided in declaring it to the people, and having it authenticated in some way by God Himself. The content of that message may have included telling the future (which is what we normally think of as prophesying), but it also included revelation from God concerning the present.

This too was a gift limited in its need and use, for it was needed during the writing of the New Testament and its usefulness ceased when the books were completed. God's message then was contained in written form, and no new revelation was given in addition to the written record."

Charismatics, who may be labeled "noncessationists" (i.e., they deny that any of the spiritual gifts ceased after the first century), generally see prophecy as presently active as it was during the first 70 years after the church began. Kirby, a noncessationist, alleges that the cessationist group, especially those from the dispensationalist camp, has caused much harm to the present belief and practice of spiritual gifts. He says, "Early on, I had a hunch that more had been lost to humanistic enlightenment, dispensationalism, liberal or existential theology, and fear of the loony fringe than we had guessed." By erroneously linking the cessationist beliefs of some dispensationalists with those of existentialism, liberalism, and even the "loony fringe," he illustrates the sharp cleavage that exists between the cessationist and noncessationist camps.

Williams expresses a typical noncessationist stance concerning the nature and present application of the gift of prophecy.

In prophecy God speaks. It is as simple, and profound, and startling as that! What happens in the fellowship is that the word may suddenly be spoken by anyone present, and so, variously, a "Thus says the Lord" breaks forth in the fellowship. It is usually in the first person (though not always), such as "I am with you to bless you . . . " and has the directness of an "I-thou" encounter. It comes not in a "heavenly language," but in the native tongue of the person speaking and with his accustomed inflections, cadences and manners. Indeed, the speech may even be coarse and ungrammatical; it may falter as well as flow-such really does not matter. For in prophecy God uses what He finds, and through frail human instruments the Spirit speaks the Word of the Lord . . . .

Many of us also had convinced ourselves that prophecy ended with the New Testament (despite all the New Testament evidence to the contrary), until through the dynamic thrust of the Holy Spirit prophecy comes alive again. Now we wonder how we could have misread the New Testament for so long.

New Controversy Over The Gift Of Prophecy

The recent surge of interest in the prophetic gift has witnessed a crossing of traditional boundaries by some individuals in an apparent attempt to find a mediating position between the two perspectives. Grudem is a prominent example of this tendency. Belonging to the Reformed tradition that is cessationist in background, Grudem has been influenced by the Vineyard movement. He has proposed a compromise between cessationist and noncessationist views.

In this book I am suggesting an understanding of the gift of prophecy which would require a bit of modification in the views of each of these three groups. I am asking that charismatics go on using the gift of prophecy, but that they stop calling it "a word from the Lord"-simply because that label makes it sound exactly like the Bible in authority, and leads to much misunderstanding ...

On the other side, I am asking those in the cessationist camp to give serious thought to the possibility that prophecy in ordinary New Testament churches was not equal to Scripture in authority, but was simply a very human-and sometimes partially mistaken-report of something the Holy Spirit brought to someone's mind. And I am asking that they think again about those arguments for the cessation of certain gifts ...

I should make it very clear at the beginning that I am not saying that the charismatic and cessationist views are mostly wrong. Rather, I think they are both mostly right (in the things they count essential), and I think that an adjustment in how they understand the nature of prophecy (especially its authority) has the potential for bringing about a resolution of this issue which would safeguard items that both sides see as crucial.

By calling for a compromise between cessationists and noncessationists regarding the prophetic and other related gifts, Grudem has stirred up a hornets' nest of discussion on the gifts.

Grudem offers his own new definition of Christian prophecy, one that differs markedly from a traditional understanding. "Prophecy in ordinary New Testament churches was not equal to Scripture in authority, but was simply a very human-sometimes partially mistaken-report of something the Holy Spirit brought to someone's mind." In other words prophecy consists of "telling something God has spontaneously brought to mind." He traces his definition to both cessationists and charismatics. In common with the former, he takes prophecy as noncompetitive with the authority of the canonical New Testament because of the close of the canon at the end of the apostolic era, but he concurs with the charismatic understanding that prophecy preserves "the spontaneous, powerful working of the Holy Spirit, giving 'edification, encouragement, and comfort' which speaks directly to the needs of the moment and causes people to realize that 'truly God is among you' (1 Cor. 14:25)." Consequently New Testament prophets were "simply reporting in their own words what God would bring to mind, and . . . these prophecies did not have the authority of the words of the Lord." New Testament prophets at Corinth were sometimes accurate and sometimes not. Depending on the circumstances, the prophet could be "mistaken." Only New Testament apostles spoke inspired words.

The words of New Testament prophets were not inspired as were those of Old Testament prophets. This leaves Grudem with two forms of New Testament prophecy: nonauthoritative "congregational" prophecy and authoritative (i.e., apostolic) prophecy. The crucial point of his thesis is that apostles, not New Testament prophets, were the true successors of the Old Testament prophets and spoke like their earlier counterparts with the authority derived from the inspiration of their words. This kind of gift is distinguished from that exercised at Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 12-14), Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:19-21), Tyre (Acts 21:4), Ephesus (19:6), and elsewhere (e.g., by Agabus, 11:28; 21:10-11). Only the general content of this secondary prophecy can be vouched for, with allowances made for its being partially mistaken.

The Need For A Careful Examination

A correct view of spiritual gifts is vital, especially since the worship and practice of the church are directly affected by how such gifts are understood. This is also important because of the impact of the "Signs and Wonders" and "Vineyard" movement on some people who have been in the cessationist camp. In view of Paul's warnings in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and 2 Corinthians 5:10, it is imperative that Christians develop a biblical understanding of the New Testament prophetic gift. Since this gift has increasingly generated debate within the last decade, the historical and biblical data must be carefully examined in an effort to reach a proper understanding of its nature and duration.

Prophecy in Church History

An attempt at a historical survey of the church's interpretation of the prophetic gift is difficult for several reasons. First, any historical beginning point is relative. Second, the subject of New Testament prophecy has never enjoyed a position of prominence among exegetes until recently. Hill notes,

New Testament prophecy has never been at the center of scholarly research. Normally it has merited little more than the amount of discussion that is appropriate and necessary in commentaries on certain New Testament books, especially 1 Corinthians and Revelation, and an entry, usually quite brief, in various Bible dictionaries. In recent years, however, the subject has been commanding considerable attention, partly as a result of increasing interest in the investigation of the types and forms of New Testament material and partly as a consequence of the revival of prophecy in Pentecostal and "charismatic" communities.

Third, some of what can be gleaned about prophecy from the latter third of the first century into the second century A.D. must be determined by inference rather than direct statement. However, church history does reveal how the early church, especially the postapostolic church, conceived of the nature of New Testament prophecy. This is especially seen in the way in which the early church handled false prophets and the Montanist controversy.

Prophecy in the Latter Half of the First Century

Though Paul sought to halt the abuse of spiritual gifts at Corinth in the middle of the first century, problems still arose regarding prophecy. In the latter third of the first century, the church appeared to be distinctly prophecy-conscious. Since apostles were disappearing, Christians sought for new leadership authority. The Johannine Epistles, which were probably written around the last decade of the first century, attest to widespread prophetic activity in Asia. Accompanying this widespread use of prophecy was a growing wave of false prophecy that increasingly plagued the church ("Many false prophets have gone out into the world," 1 John 4:1). Most likely John was referring here to the secessionist deceivers who were posing a problem for the readers of 1 John. For this reason John warned his readers to "test the spirits" (1 John 4:1-3) in order to determine the true source of any prophetic activity.

When John's Apocalypse was written, false prophets and false teaching had reached alarming proportions in some areas. In John's messages to the seven churches, the church at Pergamum is singled out (Rev. 2:12-17) as undergoing an assault from the "teaching of Balaam" and the Nicolaitan heresy. The mention of the teaching activity of the prophet Balaam in connection with the Nicolaitan heresy in verses 14-15 gives credence to the view that the novel emphases of the movement were supported by prophetic utterances.

The church at Thyatira was troubled by a woman named Jezebel "who calls herself a prophetess" (Rev. 2:20). The problem at Thyatira was an unhealthy tolerance of her false prophetic activity. Jezebel incited Christians to practice immorality and to sanction the eating of meat previously consecrated to idols. John's commendation of others in Thyatira who had not known "the deep things" of Satan (2:24) may indicate prophetic activity whose source was satanic. The revelations received by this false group were counterparts to the revelations from God received by Christian prophets that enabled them to know the "deep things" of God as in 1 Corinthians 2:10. The situation at Thyatira was the opposite of that at Ephesus, for the Ephesian congregation was commended for its zeal in rejecting false apostles (Rev. 2:2).

As a result of false prophetic activity, opposing ideologies had arisen, all supporting their doctrinal positions with claims to prophetic primacy. John, in Revelation, may have found himself as only one of many competing voices of prophetic authority. Therefore the warning in Revelation 22:18-19 may be seen as an attempt to settle this prophetic authority crisis. "I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in the book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book."

Prophecy in the Second Century

In the second century A.D. the tendency toward false prophecy evidenced in the New Testament had increased. As Friedrich notes, "False prophets caused the early church a good deal of trouble." The result was that the apparently large number of false prophets were not only undermining the authority of true prophets, but also were bringing the whole phenomenon of prophetism under suspicion, perhaps aiding in its decline and eventual disappearance.

The problem of false prophecy is indicated in such works as the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas. They reveal how the early church handled the evaluation of Christian prophets. Though some have attempted to date the Didache around the middle of the first century, it seems most appropriate to locate it between A.D. 70 and 110. In chapters 11-13 the Didache lays down rules for dealing with prophets. Prophets were to be received if their teaching conformed to sound doctrine, but if a prophet remained for more than three days or asked for money, he was to be considered a false prophet. Consistency of doctrine and practice also constituted the mark of a true prophet, for if he did not practice what he preached, then he was to be considered a false prophet.

Similar to Paul's insistence that prophets be examined (1 Cor. 14:29) and John's instruction to test a prophet and his prophecy (1 John 4:1-3), the Didache asserted that prophets were to be tested. A surface reading of the Didache may give the impression that it rejected the testing of a prophet. However, the context of 11.8-12 makes it clear that a prophet was to be tested. The issue in testing seems to be, however, the time of the testing rather than whether a prophet was to be tested. The test for a true prophet is given in 11.8: "Not everyone who speaks forth in the Spirit is a prophet, but only if he has the kind of behavior which the Lord approves. From his behavior, then, will the false prophet and the true prophet be known." A prophet was to be judged on the basis of lack of greed for gain, consistency in doctrine and practice, and demonstration of knowing the ways of God.

Several specific examples of proper behavior expected of a prophet are detailed in the Didache in 11.9-12. If a prophet ordered a meal in the spirit, well and good; but if he ate the meal, then he was a false prophet. If he taught the truth, but did not obey it, he was a false prophet. If he asked for money in the spirit, he was not to be listened to unless he asked on behalf of others. Aune summarizes these stipulations by noting that "in short, a Christian prophet must exhibit exemplary behavior." The Didache, in 11.11-12, demonstrated that the prophets could be certified by the communities they served. However, the certification process was not formalized but "consisted of the reputation which the prophet had built up over an undetermined period of time. Prophets who settled in the community were undoubtedly those who had been certified by the community." While prophets were to be examined, that examination need not be continued after an individual had been approved by the community as a genuine prophet. Such rules and regulations may also indicate that the community that produced the Didache was also being troubled by the problem of false prophets. Apparently some so-called prophets were seeking illegitimately to gain materially from various Christian communities. Thus, as Friedrich notes, the Didache was concerned that "false prophets are abroad and these undermine the authority and repute of true prophets." Unlike false teachers, false prophets were particularly difficult to handle, since they often appealed to divine authority for their pronouncements. The Didache presents basic criteria for evaluating whether a prophet is true or false. His behavior, teaching, and prophetic protocol were to be examined.

Another important work that touches on the practice of prophecy is the Shepherd of Hermas (ca. A.D. 95-115). The Shepherd presents itself as prophetic. It was probably written in Rome (e.g., 1.1, 3; 5.1; 22.2), but its authorship is uncertain. The document consists of a series of divine revelations imparted to a person named Hermas by an old woman and then by an angel in the form of a shepherd. It is from this latter figure that the name of the work is derived.

Mandate 11, one of the more complex sections of the Shepherd, deals almost entirely with the problem of distinguishing true from false prophets. Mandate 11 is unique within the Shepherd, especially since Christian prophets are never mentioned elsewhere in the work. It is a long speech to Hermas by the Shepherd (the angel who functions as revealer) with a few questions interjected by Hermas himself. In 11.1-6, the primary characteristic of the false prophet is that he provided oracular responses to Christians who questioned him on the basis of improper motives, such as greed and lust. Furthermore a false prophet told what people wanted to hear. In contrast, the Spirit of God speaks spontaneously and not in response to inquiries, and cannot be manipulated by man. Aune notes, "For Hermas, the ability to provide oracular responses to inquirers implies control by the prophet over the supernatural power which inspires him (xi. 5); since the Spirit of God is not subject to such human control, it is not he but an evil spirit who speaks through the prophet."

In Mandate 11.7-17, the prophet's behavior is the appropriate basis for judging whether he is true or false. While the true prophet is meek, gentle, and humble, and abstains from all wickedness and evil inclinations, has no interest in possessions or money, and gives no answers when he is consulted, the false prophet exalts himself and wishes to have preeminence; is impudent, impertinent, and talkative; lives in luxury; and takes payment for prophesying. Interestingly a person whose ministry and proclamation centered on wealth or monetary concerns and who claimed to have the prophetic gift was considered a false prophet by the early church and shunned by the Christian community.

The third section, 11.18-21, strongly emphasizes the Spirit which comes from above. Here the Holy Spirit of prophecy is seen as more powerful than the false spirit which comes from below. False prophets infringe on prophetic protocol in three ways: they provide oracular responses to inquiries from clients, they do this privately, and they do it for monetary gain.

In the time of the apostolic fathers there began to be a strong emphasis on heeding apostolic doctrine contained in the New Testament rather than heeding prophetic voices. For instance Ignatius (ca. A.D. 113) and Polycarp (ca. A.D. 155) both stressed attention to doctrinal truth through the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

The Montanist Heresy

In the latter half of the second century the heresy known as Montanism presented a crisis regarding the prophetic gift. This movement began in Phrygia, and by the time it was checked in the church, it had spread to all corners of the Greco-Roman world. The heresy became so acute that even Tertullian was swept away by it. Eusebius, who quoted an unknown opponent of Montanism called "Anonymous," related this account of its origins:

In Phrygian Mysia there is said to be a village called Ardabau. There they say that a recent convert called Montanus, when Gratus was proconsul in Asia, in the unbounded lust of his soul for leadership gave access to himself to the adversary, became obsessed and suddenly fell into frenzy and convulsions. He began to be ecstatic and to speak and to talk strangely, prophesying contrary to the custom which belongs to the tradition and succession of the church from the beginning. Of those who at that time heard these . . . utterances some were vexed, thinking that he was possessed by a devil and by a spirit of error, and was disturbing the populace; they rebuked him, and forbade him to speak, remembering the distinction made by the Lord, and his warning to keep watchful guard against the coming false prophets. . . . But by some art, or rather by such an evil scheme of artifice, the devil wrought destruction for the disobedient, and receiving unworthy honors from them stimulated and inflamed their understanding which was already dead to true faith; so that he raised up two more women [who] spoke madly and improperly and strangely.

Participants of this movement called themselves "the new prophesy". It was named after Montanus (A.D. 170), who became a convert to Christianity and lived in Asia Minor. Montanus had been a priest in one of the old Asiatic cults known as Cybele. Claiming the prophetic gift, he was joined by two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, who also prophesied in an ecstatic state. While prophecy as such was not the problem, the sharp departure from accepted biblical norms of prophecy, in content and manner of expression, caused alarm in the church. Montanus and his two prophetesses were characterized by their belief that the trio had received revelations while in an ecstatic state and by their adopting a more rigorous lifestyle than the church demanded.

Neither Montanus nor his immediate followers wrote any treatises, or if they did, none have survived. Fortunately a number of Montanist oracles have survived in quotations made by early writers. To many in the early church, Montanus's prophecies seemed to convey nothing of any religious or intellectual value. Also his prophesying seemed to partake of the same irrational, ecstatic prophetic style that was a part of his previous life as a priest of Cybele. For instance Montanus prophesied, "Behold, man is like a lyre, and I flit about like a plectron; man sleeps, and I awaken him; behold, it is the Lord who changes the hearts of men and gives men a heart." Priscilla prophesied similarly, noting that "purification produces harmony . . . and they see visions, and when they turn their faces downward they also hear salutary voices, as clear as they are secret." Montanus asserted that Zion or Jerusalem would come down from heaven to either the village of Pepuza or Tymion in Phrygia, and Priscilla's prophesying confirmed this: "Having assumed the form of a woman . . . Christ came to me in a bright robe and put wisdom in me, and revealed to me that his place is holy, and that it is here that Jerusalem will descend from heaven."

Though Montanus's teaching gained many adherents, the early church rejected the Montanists as false prophets. This label of Montanism as the "new prophesy" by its adherents shows why the early church rejected Montanism. It was "new" in that it differed notably from the early church's understanding of the nature of New Testament prophets and prophecy. The criteria used to condemn Montanism show how the prophetic gift was viewed by the early church.

Aune has identified the most important sources in early Christian literature that dealt with the problem of fraudulent prophecy: Matthew 7:15-23; 1 John 4:1-3; Didache 11; Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11; and Acts of Thomas 79. From these he concludes,

"Two basic types of charges, often combined, were used to discredit prophets regarded as a threat: they were deceivers or they were possessed by evil spirits. The charge that false prophets were mediums through which evil spirits spoke accounted for the fact that both true and false prophets claimed inspiration for their utterances. Prophets who were illegitimate were shown to be such through their behavior, their teaching, and their prophetic protocol."

In the case of Eusebius's witness Anonymous, the Montanists were charged with prophesying in an irrational ecstatic state that was "contrary to the custom related to the tradition and succession of the church from the beginning." In describing the prophetic state of Priscilla and Maximilla, he said that they "spoke in a frenzied manner, unsuitably and abnormally." Anonymous appealed to the example of the Old Testament prophets, whose state of ecstasy did not resemble that of the Montanists' excesses. While true prophets were rational, the Montanists, by their irrational state, demonstrated that they were false prophets. Thus the early church used Old Testament prophets and prophecy as a model for New Testament prophets and prophecy. If New Testament prophets did not conform to the pattern of Old Testament prophets, they were to be rejected as false. Here the understanding of a direct continuity between Old Testament and New Testament prophets is seen in the early church.

Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165), the eminent Greek apologist of the second century, also advocated a direct continuity between Old Testament and New Testament prophets. In Dialogue with Trypho 82 he wrote that the prophetic gift of the Old Testament had been transferred to the church. By this statement one may infer that Justin Martyr viewed the New Testament prophetic gift as a direct continuation of the gift as it was practiced in the Old Testament. The same gift of prophecy seen in the Old Testament was transferred to the church with the advent of Messiah.

Scripture also played an important role in the early church's debate with and condemnation of the Montanists. Montanists identified themselves with Jesus' prophecy in Matthew 23:34, which they used as a basis for identifying their prophets and explaining the hostility of the early church toward them. Anonymous cited Matthew 7:15 to argue that Jesus had warned the early church that false prophets (in this case the Montanists) would seek to pervert the church. He also used Matthew 23:34 as a weapon against the Montanists' association of themselves with this verse.

Since then they [the Montanists] called us [Anonymous and other opponents of Montanism] murderers of the prophets because we did not receive their chattering prophets for they say that these are those whom the Lord promised to send to the people, let them answer us before God. Is there anyone, good people, of those whose talking began with Montanus and the women, who was persecuted by Jews or killed by the wicked? Not one. Or was there any one of them who was taken and crucified for the name? No, there was not. Or was any one of the women ever scourged in the synagogues of the Jews or stoned? Never anywhere.

Anonymous argued that Matthew 23:34 could not be applied by the Montanists to themselves, for their claims did not fit the precise details of Scripture (1 John 4:1-3). On the basis of their wrong prophetic application of the Scriptures to themselves, Anonymous rejected the Montanists' prophetic claims. False prophets understand and utilize Scripture improperly. Such violations showed that they were false prophets, that is, they were deceivers or were possessed by evil spirits.

Epiphanius, using oral and written sources, advanced criteria similar to those used by Anonymous. He argued that genuine prophets, unlike the Montanists, were in full possession of their understanding and in agreement with the Scriptures. He examined the prophecies of Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel as proof that biblical prophets were always in control of their faculties of reason and understanding. In direct contrast Montanus's assertion that "Behold, man is like a lyre, and I flit about like a plectron; man sleeps, and I awaken him" exhibits "the words of one who is mentally deranged, and who is not in possession of his understanding, but demonstrates a character different from the Holy Spirit who spoke in the prophets." Again the Old Testament prophets were a basis for understanding what constituted genuine New Testament prophets. If a self-acclaimed prophet did not conform to the Old Testament standards of a prophet, he was to be rejected. Here again the early church saw a direct continuity between Old Testament and New Testament prophets.

Epiphanius presented another important argument the early church used against Montanism: Prophecies of true prophets must be fulfilled exactly. Maximilla had predicted that "after me there will no longer be a prophet, but the end." Priscilla predicted that the New Jerusalem would descend from heaven into Pepuza in Phrygia. However, since the end did not come after Maximilla's death nor did the New Jerusalem descend, Epiphanius concluded that these prophets were false. In the early church any error in a prophecy indicated that a false prophet was prophesying.

The perceived abuse of this "new prophecy" by Montanists led to the gradual discrediting and disappearance of prophecy from the beginning of the third century. Hill confirms this by noting that "the repudiation of Montanism marks the effective end of prophecy in the Church." Although Montanus was orthodox in some teachings, his (and his followers') deviation from apostolic doctrine, their inaccurate and false prophesying, lack of conformity to Old Testament standards of prophecy, and the great excesses of this movement resulted in growing resistance to anyone who claimed to possess the prophetic gift.

In summary the early postapostolic church judged the genuineness of New Testament prophets by Old Testament prophetic standards. Prophets in the New Testament era who were ecstatic, made wrong applications of Scripture, or prophesied falsely were considered false prophets because such actions violated Old Testament stipulations regarding what characterized a genuine prophet of God (Deut. 13:1-5; 18:20-22). This idea is reinforced by the belief among some in the early church that the Old Testament prophetic gift had been transferred to the church in light of the coming of Messiah (cf. Acts 2:17-21 and Joel 2:28-30). The early church affirmed the idea of a direct continuity between Old Testament and New Testament prophets and prophetic standards. Montanism's "newness" as prophecy centered in its sharp departure from norms of prophecy seen in the Old Testament. Becoming alarmed by such a departure, the early church fought against and repudiated it.

One of the first references to the early church's view on the cessation of the prophetic gift is in the Muratorian Fragment, which scholars date around A.D. 170. This work contains the oldest existing list of the canonically recognized books of the New Testament. It refers to both apostles and prophets, stating explicitly that the number of prophets "is complete" and thereby indicating an end to prophetic expression. Heine notes the following regarding the list:

"It should be noted that the Muratorian canon, which is to be dated at approximately this same time [as the Montanist Controversy] and located at Rome, rejected the Shepherd of Hermas for the same reason that Hippolytus advanced against the Montanist prophecy: it is a recent writing, and prophecy ceased with the apostles. There was, then, at Rome, in the late second and early third century a different attitude toward the possibility of contemporary prophecy than we have seen exhibited in the documents coming from the Montanist controversy a little earlier in Asia."

From the demise of Montanism until the turn of the present century, prophetic phenomena were never a part of a major movement in Christianity. Instead, focus began to shift to apostolic doctrine and study of the Scriptures as the source of Christian doctrine and knowledge. By the time of Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 347-407) the prophetic gift was considered a past phenomenon. Chysostom stated the following concerning the subject of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:1-2 specifically, and chapters 12-14 in general: "This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity has produced us again another question; namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more?" Here is a clear statement by a leader of the church in the fourth century that miraculous gifts, like prophecy and tongues, had ceased. Because Chrysostom was well traveled and would most likely known the general status of the church, he signaled a widespread absence of such gifts in his day.

Prophecy in the Reformation and PostReformation Periods

During the Reformation there was an emphasis on returning the knowledge and interpretation of the Scriptures into the hands of the common people. There was also a growing interest in charismatic gifts. Yet it must be stressed that the Reformers themselves viewed "miraculous" spiritual gifts, such as prophecy, tongues, and miracles, as belonging to the apostolic or precanonical age, not to their own generation. With minor exceptions, such as some (though certainly not most) of the Anabaptists, the gifts of prophecy and tongues were not exhibited during the Reformation.

In the post-Reformation period, interest in spiritual gifts gradually increased. In isolated occurrences various groups and individuals claimed to possess spiritual gifts. For instance the Quakers, a group founded in England in the 17th century by George Fox (1624-1691), claimed an "inner light" that could be received by everyone. Quakers would sit in silence in their services until God had revealed Himself to someone directly through a form of prophesying. During the persecution of the French Huguenots in the early 1700s in southeastern France, ecstatic experiences including prophesying and tongues-speaking broke out; those involved became known as the Cevenal Prophets. Edward Irving, a dynamic London preacher of the 1830s predicted the immediate return of Christ and a restoration of the extraordinary offices and gifts of the Apostolic Age. As a result of these predictions, he was ousted from the Church of Scotland and formed the Catholic Apostolic Church. Shakers and Mormons also have claimed to possess the New Testament prophetic gift.

Modern Antecedents to the Present Focus on Prophecy

By the end of the 19th century, scholarly interest began to focus on early Christian prophecy. The year 1883 saw a significant turn in research on this phenomenon with publication of Harnack's German translation of Hatch's The Organization of the Early Christian Church. The importance of this was not just in making these lectures available to German scholarship but also in Harnack's own remarks prefaced to the work. Harnack drew out more clearly the implications of Hatch's work, focusing on the prophetic gift.

Even more influential than Harnack's work was the text of the Didache published in 1883, making that year a watershed in modern research on the early church's life and organizational structure. Though portions of the text had been known previously, a complete copy of the Didache was discovered in 1873 by Philotheos Bryennios, metropolitan of Nicodemia. With the publication of the Didache, an unprecedented interest in early Christian prophecy began. Harnack, influenced by Hatch's work and the discovery of the complete text of the Didache, published a text with prolegomena in the series Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur. In the prolegomena, Harnack explored the early church's organizational structure, discerning several levels of hierarchy. Harnack's work, however, was derived almost solely from the Didache.

After Harnack's work other studies on primitive church organization and leadership appeared. Sohm, basing his studies on Harnack's previous ideas, asserted that church authority was charismatic in nature and that any form of law was incompatible with the essential nature of the church. His thesis received harsh criticism from Harnack and more recently from Käsemann for too many generalized and hasty conclusions in relation to the evidence.

In 1921 Bultmann, in his famous work "The History of the Synoptic Tradition", set forth the thesis, based on prophetic and apocalyptic sayings in the New Testament, that the early Christian community used prophecy as a means of reading back into the life of Jesus words that were uttered long after His ascension. More recently Jeremias, echoing this same idea, noted, "Early Christian prophets addressed congregations in words of encouragement, admonition, censure and promise, using the name of Christ in the first person. Prophetic sayings of this kind found their way into the tradition about Jesus and became fused with the words that he had spoken during his lifetime." Such a hypothesis of radical creativity has been challenged recently by Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson.

In 1927 Fascher did a classic study on the word προφητης from a history-of-religions perspective. Many scholars consider it highly valuable, and it forms the basis of much work done etymologically on the subject of prophecy. Fascher's work consisted of a linguistic and a historical investigation of the Greek term προφητης however, only a small section was devoted to New Testament and early Christian prophecy. In 1929 Streeter produced a valuable work on the primitive church that included an analysis of the information in the Didache regarding the prophetic gift. In 1940 Meyer examined the phenomenon of prophecy in Palestine at the beginning of the Christian era. The main thrust of Meyer's work was applied to Jesus as a prophet and not to prophecy in the early church.

The next round of scholarly work specializing in the New Testament prophetic gift received its impetus in 1947 from Guy's afore-mentioned "New Testament Prophecy: Its Origin and Significance". Guy's treatise provided a basis for subsequent work, culminating in even more prolific activity during the 1970s with Crone's "Early Christian Prophecy"; David Hill's "New Testament Prophecy" (1979); and in the 1980s with David Aune's "Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World". Perhaps the most recent scholarly impetus to the discussion of prophetic gifts is that of Grudem, whose writings are doing much to stimulate both scholarly and practical questions.

Also certain church movements in the early 1900s began focusing attention on the exercise of miraculous gifts like prophecy. Contemporary local-church emphasis on its practice may be traced to the foundation of the Pentecostal denominations. Three individuals stand as prominent leaders in the foundation of the modern Pentecostal movement. Richard G. Spurling, a licensed minister and pastor of a Baptist church in Cokercreek, Tennessee, became dissatisfied with the established churches and formed his own group in 1886. Spurling and Homer Tomlinson, a bishop and general overseer of a Church of God in Queens Village, New York, were instrumental in developing the Church of God denomination.

Another prominent individual in the establishment of the Pentecostal movement was Charles F. Parham (1873-1929), now called "the father of the modern Pentecostal movement." Parham established Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas in 1900. He also developed the Pentecostal viewpoint on what is termed "the baptism of the Holy Ghost." Eventually Parham's influence spread to California (the Azusa Street Mission), from which the Pentecostal movement and its theology spread rapidly, not only in the United States but also throughout the world. Piepkorn reports that by the later 1970s the Assemblies of God movement had become a major denomination, with approximately 1,300,000 members, and the total number of Pentecostal denominations now reaches more than 130.

At first Pentecostal doctrine was confined mostly to the Pentecostal churches. However, in more recent times what is now known as the Neopentecostal or charismatic movement has swept across traditional denominational boundaries into mainline denominations such as Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic churches. The main distinction between the terms "Pentecostal" and "charismatic" is not necessarily theological. While the term "Pentecostal" most often refers to a denominational movement, "charismatic" is a broader term designating those of any denomination who define and accept what they claim to be special works of the Holy Spirit today.

Perhaps the most recent emphasis on the practice of miraculous gifts like New Testament prophecy is in the Vineyard and the Signs and Wonders movements, which have developed in the 1980s. Those associated with this trend affirm the continuation of all miraculous gifts mentioned in the New Testament but then reject the label of "Pentecostal" or "charismatic." Mallone, a proponent of the Vineyard movement, notes:

"Our backgrounds, both Dispensational and Reformed, taught us to believe that the overt gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased with the apostles. To pass our theological exams we all adopted the party line. After varying lengths of time in pastoral ministry, however, each of us came to the same basic conclusions: (1) the cessation of particular gifts was not taught in Scripture; (2) the church was desperately weak and anemic because of the lack of these gifts; and (3) what we were seeing in our own experience suggested that these gifts were available for the church today."

This movement arose from areas of the church traditionally holding a cessationist view regarding spiritual gifts.

The rise of the Vineyard movement can be traced to C. Peter Wagner, professor of missions at Fuller Theological Seminary, and John Wimber, pastor of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, California, from whose church the movement derived its name. Wagner admits that originally he was strongly influenced by dispensationalism and by Benjamin Warfield's theology, causing him to hold a cessationist view on gifts. He notes, "My background is that of a Scofield Bible dispensationalist evangelical. I was taught that gifts of the Spirit were not in operation in our age; they went out with the apostolic church." Eventually, however, Wagner's study of church-growth principles led him to interest in charismatic practices and "forced him to recognize Pentecostalism as a driving force in much of the growth of the third world."

Formerly a musician, John Wimber converted to Christianity in 1962 and eventually entered full-time ministry. He became dissatisfied with his understanding of spiritual gifts. "I had always avoided Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians ... Also, my judgment of their ministries was colored by a presupposition that charismatic gifts like tongues, prophecy, and healing were not for today (as a dispensationalist, I believed the charismatic gifts ceased at the end of the first century)." Influenced by his wife's joining the charismatic movement, Wimber eventually started the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, California. Though this movement does not label itself as Pentecostal or charismatic, it is similar in belief and practice to those movements. While Wimber's Vineyard church is noted for its emphasis on healing, other charismatic activities are practiced in its worship.

In less than 10 years Wimber's church in Anaheim has grown from a home Bible study of 17 people to a church of over 6,000. Many similar "Vineyard" churches have been formed around the United States and overseas, producing a small denomination. According to Wagner, this Signs and Wonders movement has become so pervasive that he calls it the "third wave" of the Holy Spirit's power in the 20th century. He says the first wave was that of the Pentecostals in the early part of the century, the second wave was the charismatic movement in the midcentury, and the third wave, beginning in 1980, is "a gradual opening of straight line evangelical churches to the supernatural ministry of the Holy Spirit without the participants becoming either Pentecostals or charismatics."


Blurring of distinctions between cessationist and noncessationist camps has caused concern among cessationists. Sarles wrote, "For the first time in American religious history a noncharismatic segment of conservative evangelicalism has adopted a charismatic view of signs and wonders without accepting the charismatic label. This astounding turn of events has created both confusion of categories and a sense of consternation among noncharismatic evangelicals who are not part of the 'Signs and Wonders movement.'"

The current practice of the prophetic gift has been emphasized especially by the Vineyard and Signs and Wonders movements. Grudem's hypothesis has also directly contributed to the present turmoil regarding the nature and function of prophecy. His assertions about the prophetic gift are now being used as a primary justification of the current practice of prophecy in these church movements. In light of this growing trend, it is necessary to examine the nature and duration of the New Testament prophetic gift in order to deal with this growing confusion about distinctions between the cessationist and noncessationist groups.

The second article in this series will discuss the relationship of New Testament prophecy to Old Testament prophecy. Failure to understand this relationship properly results in a misunderstanding of the nature and function of New Testament prophecy. The third article will focus on Grudem's hypothesis, and the fourth article will address the issue of the cessation of New Testament prophecy.

[ 1 ] The author, Dr. F. David Farnell, B.A., Christian Heritage College, M.Div., Th.M., Talbot School of Theology, Ph.D., Dallas Theological Seminary, went to The Master's Seminary in 1997 from Southeastern Bible College, in Birmingham, Alabama, where he chaired the Department of Pastoral Theology and Biblical Studies from 1991-1994. In addition, he served as Academic Dean at Southeastern from 1994-1997. During this time in Alabama, he also concurrently pastored Brook Highland Community Church.

part two

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Copyright (C) 1992 by F. David Farnell. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.
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Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1992
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