Abstract:Despite a number of recent proposals, scholars have yet to reach a consensus regarding what the New Testament prophets were actually doing when they prophesied. In this essay, I attempt to make a contribution to New Testament studies by working towards a definition of New Testament prophecy. I proceed in three steps. First, I survey five different views on the nature of New Testament prophecy. Second, I analyze relevant texts from the New Testament to answer the question: what kind of an activity was New Testament prophecy? Third, I evaluate the arguments made for both limited prophetic authority and full prophetic authority. On the basis of the study, I conclude that prophetic activity in the New testament (1) is a human act of intelligible communication that (2) is rooted in spontaneous, divine revelation and (3) is empowered by the Holy Spirit, so that prophecy (4) consists in human speech or writing that can be attributed to the members of the Godhead and (5) that always carries complete divine authority.
Many evangelicals might be surprised to discover that prophecy remains an elusive concept among academics.1 Despite a number of recent proposals, scholars have yet to reach a consensus regarding what the New Testament prophets were actually doing when they were prophesying. I attempt to address this problem by seeking to answer two questions. First, what kind of an activity was NT prophecy? Second, what kind of authority did NT prophecy involve?
1. The Activity of NT Prophecy: Recent Proposals
In the past fifty years, various attempts have been made to define NT prophecy. Of these, five suggestions stand out for their influence or their originality. While much of the work behind these studies is stimulating and judicious, I hope to demonstrate that each of these proposals is ultimately found wanting.
1.1. Prophecy as Inspired Exegesis
Earle E. Ellis has contributed to the discussion of prophecy by hypothesizing that the interpretation of Scripture is a key feature of prophetic activity.2 He argues that there is OT precedent for this view in the work of Daniel and in other instances of OT prophets making use of OT texts. He notes that the evidence from Qumran should caution scholars from distinguishing too sharply between prophetic functions and teaching functions, thus undermining the argument that biblical interpretation belongs to the latter. He suggests that Jesus’s common practice of expositing Scripture in the synagogue reflects his role not only as teacher, but also as prophet. Ellis also understands James to be prophesying at the Jerusalem council, and he thus concludes that the decree of Acts 15 serves as evidence that prophecy involves biblical interpretation.3 Lastly, Ellis contends that the many instances of NT interpretation of the OT are prophetic because (1) NT prophets would have had similar hermeneutical convictions to the teachers at Qumran and (2) introductory formulas like λέγει κύριος (“the Lord says”) functioned to mark prophecy.4
Though carefully argued, Ellis’s proposal falls short of being persuasive. An examination of the verb προφητεύω (“to prophesy”) in the NT reveals no clear references to charismatic exegesis.5 In fact, Ellis does not provide a NT example wherein the exposition of Scripture is explicitly tied to the act of prophecy.6 While Ellis has shown that prophets do interpret the Scriptures, he has not demonstrated that they do so specifically as an expression of their prophetic role. As he himself is aware, many leaders of the early church wore multiple hats. To prove that prophecy can be synonymous with biblical interpretation, he would have to demonstrate that Paul, Barnabas, Peter, James, and others exposited the Scripture as an expression of their prophetic office; needless to say, Ellis does not prove this point.7 Lastly, Aune and others have rightly argued that λέγει κύριος often marks a simple reference to Scripture.8 Thus, it seems unwarranted to call charismatic exegesis (in-and-of itself) prophecy.
1.2. Prophecy as Pastoral Preaching
David Hill has argued that NT prophecy should fundamentally be understood as pastoral preaching.9 Hill begins by explaining that a functional approach to the question is most likely to bear fruit.10 He therefore focuses on the activities of those he identifies as NT prophets in order to determine their essential function.11 First, he looks at the book of Revelation and concludes that paraenesis is basic to John’s understanding of prophetic activity.12 Second, Hill argues that, in the book of Acts, prophetic ministry always involves pastoral encouragement.13 Third, Hill reads 1 Corinthians 14:3 to equate prophecy and exhortation.14 On this basis, Hill explores the use of παρακαλέω (“to exhort”) and παρακλήσις (“encouragement”) in Paul’s letters and posits that these have a special connection with prophecy.15 Lastly, Hill cites the book of Hebrews itself as an example of prophecy because it is called “the word of exhortation” (τοῦ λόγου τῆς παρακλήσεως, Heb 13:22).16 These sorts of arguments lead Hill to conclude that “as pastoral preachers the New Testament prophets teach and give instruction on what the Christian way requires of individual believers and of the community as a whole.”17
As others have noted, Hill’s definition of prophecy is not without problems. First of all, much of his case is built upon what Moo calls “argument by association.”18 That is to say, Hill assumes that the mention of phenomena associated with the prophets or with prophetic activity (like the Holy Spirit for example) also implies the presence of prophecy; the conclusion however does not necessarily follow.19 Second, his definition does not account for all the data.20 In fact, several prophetic activities in the NT call his definition into question. To provide just two examples, it is hard to see how Agabus’s famine prediction (Acts 11:28) or his foretelling of what would befall Paul (Acts 21:11) could be thought of as pastoral preaching.21 Lastly, Hill’s argumentation seems circular at a few points. So for instance, Hill cites Acts 13:17–41 as part of his argument for characterizing prophecy as exhortatory preaching. He notes that nothing about the form of the homily suggests a prophetic character and yet, based solely on “the presence of the exhortation to repentance and obedience,” he says that “we can discern the utterance of a prophetic spirit.” This is hardly convincing in my estimation.22 These shortcomings make it unlikely that Hill is correct to define prophecy as exhortatory preaching.
1.3. Prophecy as Exposition of the Kerygma
A third approach to the problem is espoused by Thomas W. Gillespie.23 He believes that prophecy (at least in Paul) must be understood as the inspired exposition of the ethical and theological implications of the kerygma.24 Gillespie argues that Paul sets the gospel itself as the criterion for judging prophecy, which then implies that prophecy must itself be gospel proclamation.25 He reads 1 Corinthians 12:1–3 as teaching that the gospel-confession “Jesus is Lord” is what marks all true prophecy.26 Additionally, Gillespie believes that in both Romans 1:2 and 3:21, Paul closely associates OT prophecy with gospel proclamation.27 Lastly, Gillespie relies on 1 Corinthians 14:3 to further his case, as he states that edification (οἰκοδομή), exhortation (παρακλήσις), and comfort (παραμυθία) name “the action of the Spirit that is grounded materially in the gospel and mediated through its proclamation.”28
Though Gillespie’s case is appealing, it too faces difficulties. To begin with, Gillespie defines prophecy in a way that would imply that Paul was at odds with other OT and NT writers. After all, both the OT and the NT recount prophetic activities which would be difficult to describe as gospel proclamation.29 Second, Gillespie’s argument from Paul’s references to the OT prophets in Romans 1:2 and 3:21 is unconvincing because in both texts, Paul likely speaks of the OT canon as a whole.30 Lastly, the premise that the kerygma is the criterion by which one identifies true prophecy does not logically necessitate the conclusion that prophecy is itself kerygmatic proclamation. A criterion may limit a concept without necessarily defining that concept. So for instance, the author of the Didache distinguished between true and false prophets by claiming that the former never received payment. However, it would be a mistake to conclude on the basis of this criterion that prophetic ministry is to be equated with unpaid ministry. Unfortunately, Gillespie’s construal of prophecy is the result of this kind of misstep.31 These points lead me to reject Gillespie’s definition of prophecy despite its initial appeal.
1.4. Prophecy as Interpretation of Inspired Thoughts
Terrence Callan describes prophetic activity by saying, “Prophecy was the result of inspiration in the form of an inner, divine ‘voice,’ comparable to one’s ordinary thoughts and differing from them mainly in being sent by God rather than arising in the usual way. The prophet then interprets these inner promptings, chiefly by expressing them in speech.”32 Wayne Grudem explains NT prophecy similarly. He argues that 1 Corinthians 13:9 implies that the prophet had to interpret the revelations he received, and that he in fact did so with great difficulty.33 Thus, with respect to Acts 21:10–11, Grudem says “Agabus had a ‘revelation’ from the Holy Spirit concerning what would happen to Paul in Jerusalem, and gave a prophecy which included his own interpretation of this revelation (and therefore some mistakes in the exact details).”34 Reports by charismatics of their own experiences of prophecy reveal similar ideas regarding prophetic activity.35
The view that prophecy refers to interpreted divine revelation is intriguing but speculative. While Callan and Grudem are right to tie prophecy and revelation together, the NT itself does not disclose the “psychological” relationship between the two. Furthermore, the few glimpses we have into the inner-workings of prophecy (like Acts 21:11 and Rev 2–3) run counter to their suggestion that prophecy involves the fallible human interpretation of divine revelation. In addition, Grudem’s proposal regarding 1 Corinthians 13:9–12 is problematic because, if it is correct, then Paul indicts his own prophetic ministry: in these verses, Paul uses first-person plural verbs (γινώσκομεν: “we know”; προφητεύομεν: “we prophesy”; βλέπομεν: “we see”) and a first-person singular verb (γινώσκω: “I know”). Significantly, 2 Peter 1:20–21 explicitly states that “no prophecy of Scripture ever came about by someone’s own interpretation; for no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”36 For these reasons, I have little confidence that prophecy should be defined as the human interpretation of divinely inspired thoughts.37
1.5. Prophecy as Mediation
Perhaps the most provocative proposal comes from Clint Tibbs, who defines prophecy as “the gift of becoming a medium through whom spirits can speak the mother tongue of the spectators.”38 Tibbs regrets that 1 Corinthians has been read through 4th century Trinitarian lenses;39 as a result, interpreters blind themselves to the “spiritism” which characterizes Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12–14.40 According to Tibbs, anarthrous occurrences of πνεῦμα must mean “a spirit” rather than “the Spirit.”41 Even when “spirit” is accompanied by the article in fact, no reference to “the Holy Spirit” is intended;42 instead, Paul must be speaking of “the spirit world” because “in the NT, the world of good spirits was frequently denoted as a corporate plurality.”43 Tibbs also points to 1 Corinthians 14:12 and 32 for corroboration, arguing that πνεύματα cannot be understood as anything but “spirits.”44 Further evidence comes from first-century figures like Plutrach, Josephus, Philo, and Pseudo-Philo, who all testify to spirits speaking through human mediums.45 Tibbs concludes therefore that prophecy is the work of various holy spirits who possess mediums in order to proclaim Christ.
Tibbs refers to his own work as a “maverick interpretation.”46 It most certainly is maverick, but it is also untenable. His grammatical arguments fail because anarthrous nouns are regularly definite, especially when they occur in prepositional phrases or when they are modified by a genitive noun.47 He provides little-to-no evidence for his claim that τὸ πνεῦμα should be read as a collective noun referring to the spirit world.48 Despite his best efforts, Tibbs cannot account for the fact that Paul speaks of “the same Spirit” and “one and the same Spirit” in 1 Corinthians 12:4–11.49 He does not take into account the OT testimony to the unique Spirit of God.50 He simply assumes that Paul would conceive of prophecy similarly to Plutarch, Josephus, Philo and Pseudo-Philo, when in fact, Paul demonstrates vast differences from the four on the topic of prophecy.51 Lastly, Tibbs flounders to explain how the early church fell upon the idea of “the Holy Spirit” if in fact “a unique, uncreated Holy Spirit … is neither a tenable prospect for πνεῦμα in the NT nor indigenous to the NT period.”52 For all these reasons, Tibbs’s treatment of prophecy has little to commend it in my estimation.
2. The Activity of NT Prophecy: Analysis of Biblical Evidence
As I have shown, several attempts have recently been made to define NT prophecy. However, my survey of these proposals suggests that a truly satisfying definition has yet to be formulated. Thus, there remains a need to revisit the NT afresh in order to answer the question, “what kind of an activity was NT prophecy?”
In order to maintain a proper focus on prophetic activity, I have considered two kinds of NT texts: those which refer to prophecy explicitly and those which do so implicitly. On the one hand, texts in which either the verb προφήτευω or the noun προφήτεια occur are obviously crucial to exploring the meaning of prophecy in the NT. On the other hand, some passages without the words προφήτευω or προφήτεια may still involve prophetic activity. In order to determine when this is the case, I have employed two criteria: (1) the text must refer to an activity performed by a person designated a “prophet” (προφήτης or προφῆτις), and (2) the activity reported must share significant similarities with the kinds of activities referred to by the verb προφήτευω or the noun προφήτεια. The first condition provides an objective, lexical basis for narrowing the scope of potentially relevant passages. However, since prophets presumably engaged in prophetic as well as non-prophetic activity, the first condition is not sufficient by itself to ensure that a passage involves prophecy. Therefore, the second condition must be added. By using these two criteria, I hope to include implicit references to prophecy while also guarding the study from the taint of false positives.53
2.1. Prophetic Activity in the Synoptics and Acts
The synoptic writers refer to prophetic activity several times in their works.54 Each of them indicate that prophecy involves a miraculous element.55 The events after Christ’s trial testify to this point, as Jesus was asked to demonstrate his prophetic abilities by identifying his assailants without the normal means of doing so.56 Matthew 7:22 associates prophecy with casting out demons and performing miracles, while Acts 2:17–18 links it with the reception of dreams and visions. In addition, Luke highlights the involvement of the Spirit of God in the act of prophesying.57 Thus, the gospel writers seem to agree that prophecy is supernatural.
These writers also concur that prophecy was an act of communication. Matthew (13:14, 15:7) and Mark (7:6) refer to Isaiah’s speech as prophecy. In Matthew 26:68 and Luke 22:64, Christ’s abusers imply that prophecy involves communication when they ask him to prophesy by identifying who hit him. In Luke 1:67, Zechariah prophesies by announcing the meaning and significance of his son’s birth. If Judas and Silas are prophesying in Acts 15, they do so with “many words.”58 Furthermore, there is some evidence that the Holy Spirit is ultimately responsible for the words of prophetic communication. So for example, provided that Acts 13:2 refers to prophecy,59 Luke says that “when they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul….” And again, in Acts 21:11, Agabus introduces his prophecy with the formula, “The Holy Spirit says this” (τάδε λέγει τὸ πνευμα τὸ ἅγιον). 60 And though the Holy Spirit is not explicitly credited with the prophetic words in both Luke 1:67 and Acts 11:28, he is depicted as closely involved in both prophecies. Lastly, Luke intimates that prophecy could be delivered spontaneously. So for instance, Zechariah’s prophetic speech in Luke 1:67 was clearly unprepared and unrehearsed. The prophecies in Acts 19:6 were delivered suddenly, through a dramatic work of the Spirit. And while we cannot be sure, it is certainly possible that Agabus prophesied spontaneously in Acts 11:28 and 21:10–11.61
This overview provides enough information to make three broad statements regarding prophecy according to the synoptic writers. First, prophecy is miraculous and could be spontaneous. Second, prophecy is an act of communication. Third, prophecy involves the work of the Holy Spirit, which may extend to the actual words spoken by the prophet.
2.2. Prophetic Activity in Pauline Literature
Paul provides much information regarding prophetic activity. To begin with, he clearly views prophecy as an act of communication. The apostle makes this explicit when he says in 1 Corinthians 14:3, “The one who prophesies speaks to men.” Several other Pauline texts serve as further evidence: (1) as seen in 1 Corinthians 14:1–6, Paul prized prophecy above tongues because the former was intelligible while the latter was not; (2) according to 1 Corinthians 14:20–25, unbelievers who enter the assembly may comprehend prophecies, but they may see tongues as evidence of insanity; 62 (3) in 1 Corinthians 14:31, prophecy results in learning and in encouragement; (4) prophecy can be “weighed” by “others” (1 Cor 14:29), which probably implies a judgment based on content; and (5) the prophecies received previously by Timothy could be recalled and were about him (1 Tim 1:18–19).63 Prophecy according to Paul therefore undoubtedly referred to the communication of intelligible content.
Like the Synoptic writers, Paul also ascribes prophecy to the power of the Holy Spirit. Prophecy is among the χαρίσματα (“gifts”), which are distributed by “one and the same Spirit.” It is included among the πνευματικά (“spiritual gifts”; cf. 1 Cor 14:1), indicating a close connection with the Spirit. Furthermore, Paul’s instructions in 1 Thessalonians 5:19–20 seem to link quenching the Spirit with despising prophecy.64 Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12:7–11 that prophecy is one manifestation of the Spirit’s power for the common good. This link between prophecy and the Holy Spirit need not imply a “possession trance,”65 or a state of ecstasy;66 prophets still had full control of their faculties, which is why Paul expects them to maintain order when the church gathers together (1 Cor 14:29–33).
In several texts, Paul also ties prophecy to divine revelation (ἀποκάλυψις). For example, 1 Corinthians 14:29–30 says, “Now let two or three prophets speak and let the others distinguish. If [something] is revealed to another while he is sitting, let the first be silent.”67 This text also suggests that the revelation is spontaneous: it is not the direct result of preparation or study.68 The connection between prophecy and revelation is also indicated in 1 Corinthians 14:6, where an abab pattern links revelation with prophecy and knowledge with teaching.69 And despite being hyperbolic, 1 Corinthians 13:2 also suggests that prophecy involves receiving revelation. However, given the dominant characterization of prophecy as communication, it seems safe to conclude that revelation by itself is not prophetic: prophecy always involves the communication of said revelation.
On the basis of this overview, I suggest that the activity of prophesying according to Paul (1) involved the communication of intelligible content, (2) was empowered by the Holy Spirit, and (3) was done in conjunction with the spontaneous reception of divine revelation. Paul, therefore, presents prophetic activity similarly to the Synoptic writers.
2.3. Prophetic Activity in Johannine Literature
The beloved apostle is a unique source of information on the nature of NT prophecy.70 In fact, John has bequeathed to the church its only sure and lengthy example of prophecy from the NT period: the book of Revelation.71 Given its significance for the topic at hand, I will begin my study of John’s writings with his Apocalypse.
Let us begin with the obvious: according to John, prophecy originates in divine revelation. The opening of the book makes this crystal clear: “The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him in order to show his servants the things which necessarily will come to pass soon.” This verse establishes that the entire work, which John calls a prophecy (see Rev 1:3, 22:7, 22:10, 22:18–19), is based on divine revelation.72 Like Paul, John indicates that God is the ultimate source of the revelation (Rev 1:1). Uniquely however, John tells the recipients of the letter that Christ mediated the revelation to the church. Thus, both God (presumably the Father) and the risen Lord act in revealing these mysteries to John.73 In addition, John also hints at the involvement of the Spirit in the revelation; for he says in 1:10, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day and I heard a loud voice behind me like a trumpet.”74 Revelation 1:10–20 also implies that the revelation came spontaneously: John did not come to the disclosure little by little, but it came to him suddenly and unexpectedly. John therefore agrees with other NT writers that prophecy includes a spontaneous element (i.e. the ἀποκάλυψις), but he uniquely emphasizes the Trinitarian character of the prophetic act.
To state a second self-evident observation: the book of Revelation as a whole demonstrates that prophecy is an act of communication. According to Revelation 1:3, prophecy consists of words which can be read, heard, or written down.75 John’s statements in 22:7 and 22:10 have a similar import. Revelation 10:11 implies that prophecy has communicable content because John is to prophesy “concerning many peoples and nations and tongues and kings.”76 Prophecy in John however is not just any communication; it is sacred communication. In 22:18–19, John sternly warns the recipients of the book not to treat the words of this prophecy with contempt or with apathy.77 John demands that this book be revered because he is not Revelation’s ultimate author; John’s prophecy is simultaneously his message (Rev 1:4), “the word of God” (Rev 1:2), “the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:2; cf. 19:10), and “what the Holy Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:11, et al.). This tells us two things: (1) prophecy is Trinitarian at heart, and (2) prophecy embraces the actual words used by a prophet.78
Up until this point, John’s testimony has closely resembled what we’ve seen in other NT writings. The beloved apostle does however make two idiosyncratic statements regarding NT prophecy. First, he seems to call the universal church’s testimony to Christ prophecy. He does this in Revelation 11:3–13, where the church is depicted as two witnesses prophesying for the duration between Christ’s resurrection and his return.79 In all likelihood, this text should not be understood to refer to the spiritual gift of prophecy.80 After all, John speaks of the prophets as though they were a distinct group within the church (Rev 11:18, 16:6, 18:20, 18:24, 22:9),81 while Paul explicitly asserts that the gift of prophecy is not given to all Christians (Rom 12:3–8; 1 Cor 12:27–31). Thus, in Revelation 11:3, John is probably using the language of prophecy in a figurative or expanded sense in order to describe the church’s role as Christ’s spirit-empowered witness in the world.82 The second example of John’s unique testimony is found in John 11:51. Here he records the curious case of Caiaphas, who unwittingly “prophesied” regarding Christ’s substitutionary death. I have not found any other cases of inadvertent prophecy in the canon. This seems to be another example of analogical language; John uses the word “prophecy” to claim that, through divine providence, Caiaphas spoke better than he knew.83
In sum, John confirms much of what we have already seen while adding his own nuance to our study of prophetic activity. First, he affirms that prophecy originates in spontaneous revelation. Second, he agrees that it is an act of communication. Third, he posits the Trinity to be ultimately behind the prophetic act. Lastly, he credits God with responsibility for the very words of the prophecy.84
2.4. Prophetic Activity in the Rest of the NT
Of the remaining NT materials, only 1 Peter 1:10, 2 Peter 1:20–21, and Jude 14–15 directly describe or report prophetic activity. Though none of these verses focus specifically on NT prophecy, they may still provide information relevant to the topic at hand. For this reason, I will deal with each text briefly.
First Peter 1:10–11 provides a fascinating glimpse into OT prophecy. Peter notes that the Holy Spirit was directly involved in revealing a message to the prophet, even as the prophecy’s most intriguing details remained obscure. He also claims that prophecy had cognitive content, as it concerned “the grace which was for you” (περὶ εἰς ὑμας χάριτος) and “the sufferings of Christ and glories which come after these things” (τὰ εἰς Χριστὸν παθήματα καὶ τὰς μετὰ ταυτα δόξας). A complementary picture emerges from 2 Peter 1:20–21. Peter explicitly denounces the notion that prophecies are the result of human will or interpretation. Instead, the Holy Spirit controls the prophetic activity so that those prophesying “spoke from God.” Jude meanwhile provides less information regarding prophecy. Nevertheless, we can deduce from Jude 14 that it involved supernatural communication, as he believes words spoken hundreds of years before were being fulfilled in his present day.85 Thus, Peter and Jude describe prophecy in a similar manner as the other NT writers.
2.5. Summary of Findings
Thus far, my study has shown that the NT writers understood prophetic activity similarly. In fact, enough unity exists to posit a working definition for NT prophecy. NT prophecy can be defined as (1) a miraculous act of intelligible communication, (2) rooted in spontaneous, divine revelation and (3) empowered by the Holy Spirit, so that (4) the prophetic words spoken (or written) could be attributed to any and all members of the Godhead. However, in order to round out this definition, there is one more key issue that must be examined.
3. The Authority of NT Prophecy
Scholars do not only debate the nature of prophetic activity; they also disagree with respect to the extent of prophetic authority. On the one hand, some propose that NT prophecy was a mixed phenomenon that carried different degrees of authority.86 On the other hand, several scholars contend that NT prophecy was always entirely authoritative.87 If my analysis of prophetic activity is accurate, the NT data would seem to support the latter position. But before a conclusion can be reached, it will be necessary to examine the arguments made on both sides.88
3.1. NT Prophecy with Limited Authority
Proponents of the limited authority view regularly put forward the following arguments to make their case. First, they claim that prophecy throughout biblical times has always functioned with different levels of authority.89 Some who make this argument claim that the OT texts themselves reflect different levels of authority;90 others disagree, asserting that the canonical OT writers always prophesied with divine authority.91 Nevertheless, these scholars all argue that OT prophecy was not always authoritative and that NT prophecy should be understood similarly. Unfortunately, little evidence has been mounted to demonstrate the existence of non-authoritative OT prophets. The OT passages put forward as proof of non-authoritative prophecy are inconclusive at best (e.g. Num 11:24–30, 12:6; 1 Sam 10:5–13, 18:10–11, 19:20–23; 1 Chr 25:1–7). Since none of these verses actually mention downgraded authority, appeals to such texts are not compelling.92 Additionally, no biblical author acknowledges the existence of genuine OT prophecies that lacked authority.93 Thus, I suggest that more evidence would be required for this argument gain traction.
As a second argument, some have suggested that the NT counterparts for the authoritative OT prophets were the apostles rather than the prophets.94 On the one hand, Grudem appeals to Luke 11:49 and 2 Peter 3:2 in order to argue this point.95 On the other hand, Carson describes the NT prophets as being afforded less respect than NT apostles; this is taken to mean that the former enjoyed less authority than the latter.96 The problem with this line of argumentation is similar to the last: greater evidence is needed to warrant such a conclusion. The burden of proof weighs heavily as the very choice of the term προφήτης strongly suggests that NT prophets were the counterparts of the OT prophets. Luke 11:49 may not even be referring to OT prophets (the use of the future tense suggests a reference to NT prophets; see also Matt 23:34–36) and 2 Peter 3:2 does not actually speak to the relationship between OT prophets, NT prophets, and the apostles. In addition, even if the apostles were presented as counterparts to the OT prophets, that would not require the conclusion that NT prophets did not prophecy with divine authority. The positive statement that apostolic ministry corresponded with OT prophetic ministry need not imply the negative statement that NT prophetic ministry did not.97 As for Carson’s suggestion that NT prophets were not afforded respect, Paul himself had to defend his authority on numerous occasions (1 Cor 4:1–5; 9; 2 Cor 10–12; Gal 1–2). Thus, even if Carson is correct in his reconstruction of the setting behind 1 Thessalonians 5:20, it would not prove his point.98
Third, several proponents of the limited authority view find support in texts that teach the church to test prophecies.99 According to their reading, these verses (especially 1 Corinthians 14:29) instruct the congregation to discern which parts of each prophecy were true and which parts were false. However, 1 Corinthians 14:29 probably refers to making distinctions between prophecies rather than within prophecies.100 This type of instruction would be expected given the dangers of false prophets.101 And in light of the repeated warnings regarding this threat, it is telling that the apostles never provide explicit indications that true prophets may be dangerous as well.102 Moreover, when the Bereans sifted the apostles’ message in Acts 17:11, their authority was not thereby called into question.103 In fact, Paul himself admits that his proclamations needed to be consistent with the gospel if they were to be received (Gal 1:8–9).104 On analogy then, the testing of prophecies does not necessarily imply the existence of non-authoritative prophets.
Fourth, Grudem argues that the silencing of prophets in 1 Corinthians 14:30 would be deeply troubling if they spoke God’s actual words. He believes it more likely that Paul’s willingness to lose these prophecies evinces their limited authority. As Grudem says, “If prophets had been thought to speak the very words of God, we should have expected Paul to show more concern for the preservation of these words and their proclamation.”105 But if this argument holds, it would prove too much because the vast majority of Jesus’s words have not been kept either. Furthermore, it seems undeniable that the apostles made decisions as to which of Christ’s discourses to relay and which ones to omit. Thus, one cannot argue that Paul’s instruction necessarily implies a low view of NT prophecy. Instead, the instruction in 14:30 reflects Paul’s desire that no prophet dominate the congregation and that the church remain sensitive to the stirring of the Spirit.106
Fifth, several scholars believe that the prophecy of Agabus in Acts 21:11 confirms the limited view. They claim that the prophet was wrong to predict that Paul would be bound by the Jews and handed over to the Gentiles; according to their reading, the apostle was in fact bound by Romans who rescued him from the Jews. It is argued that such inaccuracy must exemplify fallible NT prophecy.107 Several problems plague this line of argumentation. First of all, the prophet explicitly claims that he spoke the words of the Holy Spirit (τάδε λέγει τὸ πνεῦμα). If Agabus prophesied falsely, it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Holy Spirit was also culpable.108 Second, Luke seems to portray Agabus in light of the OT prophets by reporting the sign act that he performed. If this is true, it is highly unlikely that Luke thought of his prophecies as being inaccurate. Third, as Robertson points out, there is no guarantee that Paul was not in fact bound by the Jews and handed over to the Romans.109 Paul’s words in Acts 28:17 may echo Agabus’s prediction, indicating that the apostle was satisfied with the prophet’s accuracy.110 Finally, as many have noted, this interpretation is in danger of resulting in a kind of pedantry that would also call into question canonical prophecies. As Gentry warns, “if [Grudem’s] argument were valid, then much of predictive prophecy from the Old Testament could be discounted (and has been discounted by liberal theologies) on this basis.”111
The final argument put forward for the limited authority of NT prophecy involves Acts 21:4. Some see Paul’s response in this verse as a deliberate repudiation of a prophetic word.112 At this point, Luke reports that some disciples told Paul “through the Spirit” (διὰ τοῦ πνεύματος) not to proceed to Jerusalem. Paul however decides not to heed their warning, which suggests to some that NT prophecy is not always authoritative.113 This is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of this view. However, it is not altogether clear that this verse refers to prophecy at all. The speakers are identified as disciples, not prophets. The phrase “through the Spirit” is used only four times in Acts, making it difficult to claim a technical function for the construction.114 Furthermore, Acts 21:11–14 seems to report a similar situation, thereby illuminating the circumstances of 21:4.115 In Acts 21:11, Agabus predicts the suffering that will befall Paul in Jerusalem. In response to the Holy Spirit’s words, the disciples plead with Paul to remain. And when they see his resolve to proceed, they submit to God’s purpose saying “Let the will of the Lord be done.” It is likely that a similar scenario was playing out in Acts 21:4. Perhaps a prophet among the disciples prophesied that suffering awaited Paul. Because of their love for him, the disciples responded to this divine disclosure by imploring him to avoid the road to Jerusalem. If this reading is faithful to Luke’s intention, then these verses do not in fact report Paul disobeying a prophetic word. At the very least, Acts 21:4 cannot be said to provide a clear example of prophecy with limited authority.
Despite the popularity of the position, the evidence in favor of NT prophecy with limited authority is slim. At the end of the day, the case rests too heavily on arguments from silence, on an over-reading of texts, and on a selective use of data. But can a better defense be mounted for the full authority of NT prophecy? I believe this question can be answered in the affirmative.
3.2. NT Prophecy with Full Authority
There are at least four reasons to believe that NT prophecy should be viewed as fully authoritative. First, the book of Revelation stands as an argument for authoritative NT prophecy. Revelation should not be treated as a “special case.”116 It is significant that John, though an apostle, did not appeal to his apostolic office to assert the authority of his words; instead, he emphasized their prophetic character.117 The best explanation for this is that the NT church understood genuine prophecy to be entirely authoritative. Furthermore, as Aune and others have noted, the distance between John and the rest of the NT on the matter of prophecy has been greatly exaggerated.118 The book of Revelation functions to exhort, encourage, and comfort saints under persecution, which is precisely what we would expect given Paul’s description of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:3.119 The fact that some churches were slow to accept Revelation into the canon may suggest that it too was tested, which would be consistent with Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14:29 and 1 Thessalonians 5:20–21.120 Also, since other NT prophets spoke the words of the Spirit (Acts 13:1–2, 21:10–11), we cannot assume that this was unique to John. I thus conclude that Revelation is representative of NT prophecy, which should therefore be understood as authoritative.
Second, some scholars argue that Peter’s announcement of the fulfillment of Joel 2:28–29 strongly suggests the divine authority of NT prophecy.121 They rightly point out the unlikelihood that Joel had in mind the kind of prophecy described by Grudem and others. Ironically in fact, Grudem himself makes this point when he says, “The distinguishing characteristic of a true [OT] prophet was said to be this: he did not speak his own words or ‘words of his own heart,’ but words which God had sent him to deliver.”122 If this is true (and I believe it is), could it really be the case that Joel was predicting that God’s people would be provided with prophets who would at times misinterpret divine revelation? It is more likely that the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy involved authoritative NT prophets.
Third, in addition to the book of Revelation, the other examples of NT prophecy recorded in the Scriptures also attest to divine authority. Agabus’s prediction of the famine in Acts 11:28 is said to have come to pass in the days of Claudius. The words of the Holy Spirit for Barnabas and Saul are relayed by prophets in Acts 13:1–2. Agabus is recorded as speaking the words of the Holy Spirit in Acts 21:11. Since the NT does not present these as special cases, it seems best to view them as representative of NT prophecy.123
Lastly, the foundational role assigned to the NT prophets in Ephesians 2:20 suggests prophecy with divine authority.124 Ephesians 2:19–20 says, “Therefore then, you are no longer strangers and aliens but you are fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God, because you have been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” It seems unlikely that the prophets would be afforded such a crucial ministry in the life of the church if their prophecies could be mixed with error.125
3.3. Refining the Definition
It seems then that we can add one more nuance to our definition of NT prophecy. NT prophecy can be defined as (1) a miraculous act of intelligible communication, (2) rooted in spontaneous, divine revelation and (3) empowered by the Holy Spirit, which (4) results in words that can be attributed to any and all members of the Godhead and which therefore (5) must be received by those who hear or read them as absolutely binding and true.
In this study, I have attempted to define NT prophecy by answering two fundamental questions: (1) what kind of an activity was it? and (2) what kind of authority did it involve? After interacting with recent scholarship and exploring the data afresh, I believe I have arrived at a definition that better captures what prophetic activity consisted of during NT times. If my proposal is correct, then NT prophecy should be understood to refer to the authoritative disclosure of God’s words. This in turn has ramifications for other discussions related to the matter of prophecy.126