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.”
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. . . .”