Does God still raise up prophets?


Prophecy is the most frequently-mentioned charism in the whole Pauline corpus: the role of the prophets is preeminent (eg 1Thess 5:20; 1Cor 11:4f; Rom 12:6; Eph 2:20; 1Tim 1:18). If one includes ‘revelation’ (Gal 2:2), it becomes clear that this spiritual ‘gift’ was bestowed not only for the edification of believers, but also for exposing the hearts of non-believers, leading to repentance and salvation. Although certain individuals are recognised as prophets, the charism of prophecy appears to be available to all (1Cor 14:24f, 30f). In this sense, prophets are not office-holders with unaccountable authority, but believers who share their words from the Lord, and submit their message to the charismatic community to be discerned (1Thess 5:21; 1Cor 12:10; 14:29).

St Paul’s concept of charismata is of spiritual gifts given for a particular instance; not talents ‘on tap’ (or Church leadership is by charismatic function). Paul’s teaching to regulate the use of these gifts as an expression of status (1Cor 12:14-26) or attention-seeking (14:26-33) is as relevant in today’s Church as it was in Corinth in the first century AD: for man to appropriate God’s gifts for his self-aggrandisement loses the character of a claim made by the Lord, leading to the self-appointed leadership of those who are fundamentally undisciplined themselves, and to a Church which becomes an arena for competing religious gifts.

It is questionable whether any legitimate practice of Church leadership can be ‘non-charismatic’: ministerial authority is not manifest through a ranked hierarchy, but resides only within the concrete act of ministry as it occurs, because it is only within this concrete act that the Kyrios announces his lordship and presence. It is noteworthy that Paul never addresses the ‘officers’ of the Corinthian church in relation to their problems, lending credence to the possibility that ‘offices’ were a later development. Paul’s understanding of charismata in 1Corintians 12-14 and Ephesians 4 is of vibrant experience manifest through the Body: the Spirit is not constrained to mediate through a single ‘office’.

Perhaps there developed a ‘law’ in relation to Church governance; an onset of institutionalisation which led to the fusion of the charismata with orders of ministry (cf 1Tim 4:14; 2Tim 1:6). This is supported by the variety of functions in Romans 12:4, and the succeeding context of Ephesians 4:11 (4:12f, 16) where the emphasis is on men exercising functions rather than holding offices. Yet there is nothing in Paul’s ecclesiology which rules out organisation: the spiritual gift is not opposed to office and office must be joined with spiritual gift.

To dip into the pages of the New Testament is to observe that the Apostolic Church was far more charismatic than it has been in any age since. Indeed, the evidence from past experiences (Gal 3:4f) and their importance for ongoing ministry (1Tim 1:18; 4:14) is rather persuasive that charismata were an everyday occurrence, and a wholly expected expression of life in the Spirit. For charismata cessationists, the exercise of spiritual gifts became otiose after the NT canon had been completed. Gifts such as healing constituted a sign of Jesus’ divinity, and these ceased at or near the end of the first century AD.

And St Paul clearly states that prophecy, tongues and knowledge ‘shall cease… vanish away’ (1Cor 13:8-12) because they are ‘in part’; they will be rendered unnecessary when ‘that which is perfect’ comes. Is this a reference to the completed canon of Scripture, as some aver, or to the Parousia? The ‘Scripture’ interpretation is exegetically indefensible, not least because Paul expected to survive until the Parousia (1Thess 4:15f; 1Cor 15:51), and gives no indication that he expected the formation of any New Testament canon after his death. More likely is it that ‘perfection’ means ‘maturity’, meaning that these gifts are necessary until the Church attains its spiritual vocational objectives of love and knowledge. This is lexically possible (noting the ‘child’ of 1Cor 13:11), yet elsewhere Paul refers to ‘maturity’ in eschatological terms (eg Eph 4:13), and the gifts are for the building up of the Church until the Lord’s return (1Cor 1:7). There is no indication of a pre-Parousia Church where knowledge is no longer ‘in part’.

If the eschatological interpretation of 1Corinthians 13:8-12 is correct, there is a wider and enduring purpose of the charismata. Their purpose is apologetic and soteric: they are intrinsic to the economy of redemption and aim at the restoration of God’s creative work. Scripture is both written in history and created in the present by being mediated to us by the Spirit and within the Church: it is ‘living’ (Heb 4:12). It is received through our hearts and in our minds within a network of canonical materials, persons and practices which work together through charismatic formation to introduce the great truths of the gospel. Is preaching itself not prophecy?

The essence of the prophetic ministry was forthtelling God’s present word to his people, and this regularly meant application of revealed truth rather than augmentation of it. As OT prophets preached the law and recalled Israel to face God’s covenant claim on their obedience…so it appears that NT prophets preached the gospel…for conversion, edification and encouragement… By parity of reasoning, therefore, any verbal enforcement of biblical teaching as it applies to one’s present hearers may probably be called prophecy today, for that is what truth is (JI Packer, Keep in step with the Spirit [Leicester: IVP, 1984}).

For Packer, prophecy is the preaching of Bible truth with application, and while many may demur at the correlation, it is to be observed that there is no scholarly agreement on the duration of NT prophecy. Today, many Pentecostal/Evangelical ‘Charismatics’ opt for a via media, distinguishing infallible biblical prophecy from congregational prophecy. The former provided foundational doctrinal revelation which became Scripture and ceased with the apostolic circle; the latter serves to edify the Church or individuals, and is very much alive in many churches today as a kind of speaking human words to report something God brings to mind.

It is as though prophecy today consists of a claim to divine insight or revelation, which is potentially fallible in its human reception or interpretation. It is more a ‘revelation’ related to the specific needs of the moment. Paul tells us that prophets (and therefore prophetic utterances) may have relative authorities, noting that he subordinates Corinthian prophecy to his own (1Cor 14:37f). He appears to be fully aware of the shortcomings of congregational ‘lesser’ prophecy (1Thess 5:19f).

If St Paul considered deeds of service (Rom 12:6-8; 1Cor 12:28) as charismata, then it would be impossible to deny that such relational, community, ethical charisms have a continuing function today. It is possible, however, to perceive these as ‘fruit of the spirit’, and the ‘gifts’ as the more obvious extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit which were bestowed upon the Early Church at (and for) its foundation. While these charismatic functions may have developed into catholic ‘offices’ (apostles, prophets, teachers [1Cor 12:28], pastors and evangelists [Eph 4:11]), Timothy’s charism (1Tim 4:14) resides ‘within’ him; it is not an ‘office’ per se. Perhaps the distinction between function and office is a false one, not least because the latter emerges from the former, and all ministry was and is charismatic in the sense of being Christ-given and Spirit-empowered.

The Church is an eschatological people blessed by an out-poured Spirit, and the gifts are evidence of His indwelling. They are a soteriological necessity for the making of a new creation (2Cor 5:17 cf Ps 51:10), and also a sign of a cosmic renewal – the first instalment (2Cor 1:22 cf Eph 1:14) of the long-promised eschatological new creation, and a guarantee of what is to come (Rom 8:23). Since the variety of gifts, the multiplicity of members, the headship of Christ, the primacy of love, and the goal of maturity have not changed for today’s Church, we may safely conclude that the charismata are are as necessary today as they were at the Church’s foundation.

But the modern tendency to limit prophecy to the more spectacular ‘looming earthquake’ or ‘imminent revival’ manifestations is clearly erroneous, and so also is the inclination toward the opposite extreme of denying the spectacular and focusing on private ‘God told me’ words of knowledge. The entire functioning of the Christian could legitimately be perceived as charismatic. As Hans Küng observes:

Charisma and diakonia are correlative concepts. Diakonia is rooted in charisma, since every diakonai in the Church presupposes the call of God. Charisma leads to diakonia, since every charisma in the Church only finds fulfilment in service. Where there is real charisma, there will be responsible service for the edification and benefit of the community (The Church [New York: ET, 1967, p394])

If, therefore, the charismata have their origin in God through Christ in the Spirit; are subject to the law of love, and share the same goal of edification of the community, then they are the means of ministry. The diversity of charismata permits all to take part in that ministry, as a single, organic body. This special ministry is as Spirit-endowed as common service.

The Apostle Paul challenged quite forcefully those who wished to ‘quench the Spirit’, admonishing believers not to repress or prohibit the operation of the charismata in the Church (1Thess 5:19-22). But the Church must have a mechanism by which Scripture may be distinguished from the prophetic words of man – no matter how lofty, trusted and exalted the leader may be. If a prophecy is given as a direct quotation from the Lord, with little room to apply Paul’s injunction to test the spirits, to weigh what is said, it becomes manipulative, if not arrogant and dishonest. Such words from professing prophets have served to malign the Pentecostal/Evangelical ‘Charismatic’ movement generally, especially when accompanied by divine claims of miraculous but medically-uncorroborated healing.

The Holy Spirit works sovereignly, and the lesson of the New Testament is that He also gives discernible direction and guidance. It follows that the Church pastors, leaders and teachers of today are as much in need of the immediate charismata of wisdom, direction and heavenly knowledge as ever they were. Since there is no academic doctrinal or epistemological agreement on when or whether prophecy, tongues or healing ceased, the only claim that can be made with confidence is that our prototypical gifts gradually became marginalised. Perhaps the insights of both the Charismatic and cessationist viewpoints may be combined in the recognition that the gift allowing some of God’s people to do extraordinary works for God at their will has disappeared, but that God may still use human agents to do wondrous works in extraordinary circumstances, and this includes proclamations which might just be prophetic.