What Is Prophecy?

Christian conceptions of prophecy are sometimes a mish-mash of ancient and modern conceptions.

Plato thought prophecy a form of divine madness, somehow analogous to the madness of poetry and love. In the Phaedrus, Socrates says:”The divine madness was subdivided into four kinds, prophetic, initiatory, poetic, erotic, having four gods presiding over them; the first was the inspiration of Apollo, the second that of Dionysus, the third that of the Muses, the fourth that of Aphrodite and Eros.”

Drawing from etymologies of Isidore of Seville, Thomas (ST II-II, q 171, art 1) defines prophecy as knowledge of things that are outside normal human ways of knowing, and as a peculiar form of speech associated with this esoteric knowledge.

Thomas writes that “Prophecy first and chiefly consists in knowledge, because, to wit, prophets know things that are far [procul] removed from man’s knowledge. Wherefore they may be said to take their name from phanos, ‘apparition,’ because things appear to them from afar.”

Citing 1 Corinthians, Thomas observes that prophecy, like other Spiritual gifts, is given to deify. Thus, “prophecy consists secondarily in speech, in so far as the prophets declare for the instruction of others, the things they know through being taught of God.

Since “those things above human ken which are revealed by God cannot be confirmed by human reason,” they have to be confirmed in some other way. Thus, “prophecy is concerned with the working of miracles, as a kind of confirmation of the prophetic utterances.”

In article 3 of the same question, Thomas acknowledges that not all prophecy is about future contingencies. Prophetic knowledge comes from “Divine light,” the light that makes it possible to see and know “all things both Divine and human” in the same way that “a manifestation made by means of a certain light can extend to all those things that are subject to that light: thus the body’s sight extends to all colors.” This implies that “prophetic revelationextends to them all. Thus by the ministry of spirits a prophetic revelation concerning the perfections of God and the angels was made to Isaiah.”

For Thomas, the reality of prophecy is a drastic qualification of reason’s scope. Prophecy is a participation in divine light that encompasses absolutely everything, including things that could never be known to reason, things that are simply beyond human capacity for investigation.

By the time of Bishop Joseph Butler and other early modern apologists, prophecy has come to be seen primarily as history foretold, as purely future-telling, in exact factual detail. Strangely, Butler had naturalized prophecy and miracle.

In the Analogy of Religion, he writes: “God miraculous interpositions may have been all along . . . by general laws of wisdom. Thus, that miraculous powers should be exercised . . . just at such a point all this may have been by general laws. These laws are unknown indeed to us . . . (but no more unknown than the laws which govern many natural events).”

General laws govern even miraculous events, though we cannot know the laws: “that miraculous powers should be exerted at such times, upon such occazions, in such degrees and manners, and with regard to such persons, rather than others; that the affairs of the world being permitted to go on in their natural course so far, should just at such a point, have a new direction given them by miraculous interpositions; that these interpositions sheuld be exactly in such degrees and respects only; all this may have been by general laws. These laws are unknown indeed to us; but no more unknown than the laws from whence it is, that some die. as soon as they are born, and others live to extreme old age, that one man is so superior to another in understanding; with innumerable more things, which, as was before observed, we cannot reduce to any laws or rules at all; though it is taken for granted, they are as much reducible to general ones as gravitation.”

Max Weber contrasts priesthood and prophecy: “For our purposes here, the ‘personal’ call is the decisive element distinguishing the prophet from the priest. First of all, the prophet declares new revelations by charisma, whereas the priest serves to a sacred tradition. It is no accident that almost no prophet has come from the priesthood. As a rule, the Indian teachers of salvation were not Brahmins, nor were the Israelite prophets priests. Zoroaster’s case is exceptional in that there exists a possibility that he might have descended from the priestly nobility. The priest, in clear contrast, dispenses salvational goods by his office. Even in cases in which personal charisma may be attached to a priest, he remains as a member of the priestly enterprise of salvation, which legitimizes his office.”

None of this quite matches the biblical understanding of prophecy, though Thomas gets at some key features.

Prophecy, for starters, was institutionalized. Many of the biblical prophets were also priests (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, perhaps Zechariah), and priests also had methods of divining the future. Schools of “sons of the prophets” existed in the time of Elisha. Against Weber, prophets as much as priests form a tradition.

More substantively, prophecy can be characterized from three perspectives: God’s house, God’s court, God’s Word.

With regard to God’s house, prophets are sacred architects. God discloses to prophets a vision of the tabnit, the pattern of His house and His people. Moses, David, Ezekiel, John all write “blueprints” for the sanctuary. Prophets deliver these instructions to kings who build houses where priests serve.

Since the people of God are His house, prophetic revelation in an extended sense includes any instruction about the construction and maintenance of the “house of Israel” or the temple that is the church. Moses’ sermons in Deuteronomy are prophetic in this sense, as are Paul’s exhortations to the churches. (Apostolic instruction has priestly, royal, and prophetic facets.)

With regard to the court of God, prophets receive revelation in unique ways and have unique privileges. They are members of the divine council, and as such are privy to the deliberations of God’s court (1 Kings 22; Isaiah 6; Jeremiah 23). They receive the decrees of God and deliver them to the people. They have the privilege of the floor. They can say “Lord, may your will not be done,” and so sway the Lord’s deliberations.

Finally, with regard to God’s word: Prophets receive and speak the word of the Lord, and so prophetic words have the same destructive and creative power as the Lord’s own word (Jeremiah 1). A prophet declares something to be over, and it is over. He makes something new happen by speaking. Prophetic speech is performative. “I now pronounce you man and wife” is a prophetic declaration; so are “Here I stand” and “When in the course of human events. . . .”

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  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    The Scriptures do not support what Thomas Aquinas says about prophecy and miracles. We know from them that certain prophets performed miracles, but not most of them. If I am not mistaken, none of the books which are attributed to a prophet record a prophet performing a miracle–although there are instances in which a prophet is involved with a miracle, such as the sign of the shadow given to King Hezekiah and Jonah’s deliverance. As far as we know, not even John the Baptist performed a miracle.

    Regarding the statement: “Prophecy, for starters, was institutionalized.”: Yes, though, as far as we know, not by a law from God, such as those laws which established and maintained the priesthood. As far as we can tell from the Scriptures, most prophets were not priests. We know for certain that Amos was neither a priest not a member of the “sons of the prophets”, because he said so (Amos 7:14-15). We know that the priesthood started with Moses and perdured beyond the birth of Christ. We have no record of anything like the “sons of the prophets” before the time of Samuel (I Samuel 10:10), and no mention of anything like them after the time of Amos. We have no record of a particular prophet existing from the death of Malachi to the birth of John the Baptist–approximately 400 years.

    I disagree with the notion that “prophetic revelation in an extended sense includes any instruction about the construction and maintenance of the ‘house of Israel’ or the temple that is the church”, because I think that this sense is too extended. It would include biblical teaching beyond the sermons of Moses and the exhortations of Paul–including sermons, lectures, and commentaries on both of these. With the extended sense, it sounds to me as if every lecture on one of Paul’s exhortations should be considered to be prophetic.

    I also disagree with the statement “Prophetic speech is performative”. There are passages of the prophets which are not performative–for example, passages which describe God, which describe the Israelites, and which recount history. Note that not all performative speech is prophetic. Luther’s statement “Here I stand” should be considered descriptive, and neither performative nor prophetic. The authors of the American Declaration of Independence did not “receive and speak the word of the Lord”. The Declaration is both descriptive and performative, but not prophetic.

    Can not people who are not prophets “sway the Lord’s deliberations” through prayer? Did not ancient Israelites who were not prophets do this?

    Lastly: We Christians must do away with the common notion that all prophecy is predictive of the future. Anyone who reads through the Old Testament can see that this is far from the truth. I propose this definition of prophecy: Speech delivered on behalf of God. This certainly does not mean that all who presume to speak for God are prophets or prophetic. It does mean that God at times speaks through certain people, and that when He does so what those people say is prophetic, whatever they are speaking about.

  • BryantIII

    Dear Peter,

    I think that there is a difference between viewpoints or worldviews regarding prophecy. The Greco-Roman view of prophecy centered around the Oracle of Delphi or the Sybilline Oracles. They involved primarily a prophetess (sometimes a male seer or prophet), ecstatic utterances, ambiguity in responses, etc. The sacrifices made before certain events where the determining or the recognizing of an omen is also a form of prophecy. The Judeo-Christian view would be primarily a prophet (sometimes a prophetess, Deborah or Huldah, Seven Daughters of Philip), clear speech or utterances, no ambiguity for the most part (certain of the writing prophets and Revelation would be exceptions) in the prophesies and very specific. The Hermetic and Monastic movements bought into the dualism of the material world being evil and the spiritual world being good (Gnosticism?). This led also to the acceptance of “mystics,” i.e. individuals who claimed to have a special knowledge or word from God (Gnosticism?; or, the lingering effects of Montanism?). Finally, Hebrews 1:1-2 clearly indicates that God in the last days through His Son. When one considers that the Apocalypse was a revelation from Christ and about Christ.
    Furthermore, it seems that most prophecy was more commentary on the Law of Moses and the people’s lack of following that same Law. In the NT, the emphasis is on the believer following in the way of Christ. Thus, the NT had both Present admonitions and exhortation; and Future warning.

  • kirby elena

    I received visions for several years while using an over the counter dissociative medicine, Christ came to me in the form of Sunlight and it was made clear he and the Sun are the same consciousness and he is the ancient Sun God worshipped by many ancient cultures, who incarnated on Earth to put an end to brutal human and animal sacrifice to planetary consciousnesses such as Saturn and the moon and to put a stop to other barbaric tribal practices such as cannibalism. I interacted with the Father God as well and the two of them were unbelievably, kind, compassionate, and understanding to me. There was also a third presence there many times who seemed to be female and could have been Venus, the Holy Spirit, Mother Mary or one of those figures of divinity. I wrote about my experiences in a free ebook called “Messages from the Sun God, Jesus Christ http://www.mediafire.com/file/i207ouca7apw57r/Messagesfr.pdf