Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, early Christianity and contemporary Pentecostalism: A question about continuity and discontinuity

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Abstract

Prophecy plays an integral part in the spirituality and worship of the Pentecostal movement. Although it exists in diverse forms, the essence of charismatic prophecy is that it is understood to contain a word ascribed to God that is relevant to a person or group of people. The presupposition is that their prophecy stands in continuity with the phenomenon found in the Hebrew Bible as well as in the New Testament and the early church. This article provides a critical investigation of this presupposition, posing the question whether there is a demonstrable continuity between these different phenomena which are separated not only in terms of time, but also in terms of function and essence. This should be answered in the light of the hermeneutical approach in Pentecostal theological tradition that the Bible does not merely contain information about God, but intends to introduce the contemporary believer to God. The believer will experience what biblical people experienced in an encounter with God, including various charismatic revelations, such as prophecy. Therefore Pentecostalists do not read the Bible for the purpose of formulating theological doctrines but to order their practice. They expect to hear directly from God, not only when the Holy Spirit explains Scriptures, but by a direct, extrabiblical word, insight, dream or vision that reveals God's will and word for a current situation. The study provides an overview of the framework of the Pentecostal view of prophecy, in order to view the framework itself critically.

Prophecy is defined as a word attributed to the inspiration of the Lord through the Spirit. Pentecostals assume that God still speaks through prophets and prophecy that often contains social and religious criticism against the church or individuals. Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible displays diversity, sometimes as the interpretation of dreams and visions and at other times as insights formed in the mind. It can also be experienced as powerful and emotional in the life of the prophet, leading to actions reminiscent of the behaviour of a drunken or disturbed person. Prophecy is also taken seriously, whether as an answer to a question or as a word ascribed to God's initiative. The individual to whom it was addressed took it seriously and so did the people gathering at the temple or court. Prophetic messages were tested at times because false prophets consistently posed a threat. In cases where prophecy contained words of encouragement, it could be tested on the basis of existing revelation and in cases where it contained prediction, the test was whether it came true or not. Where Moses wished that God's entire people should be prophets, Joel announced that this would happen when God pours the Spirit over people of all age groups and genders and every socio-economic status.

In New Testament times Paul emphasised that prophecy is no longer limited to some gifted individuals, but that the Spirit equips all believers to serve the church. The practice of prophecy as outlined in 1 Corinthians differs from prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, where prophets did not submit their message to the people's judgement to discern whether or not it was acceptable. Jewish prophets spoke their word as authoritative, as the word of YHWH. Prophecy in 1 Corinthians did not require divine authority, but had to encourage and comfort the congregation. The practice in contemporary Pentecostalism still is to judge and discern prophecies before they are accepted. The Bible is used as criterion against which a prophecy is measured. Pentecostals argue that in the Hebrew Bible and early church, prophecy was regarded as a threat to institutional structures. Structures of authority in the church gradually eliminated prophecy. Religious experience was replaced by religious text and emerging authoritarian structures (such as the bishops’ exclusive right to interpret the Bible). Rituals were controlled and performed exclusively by the priest. Within one generation, denominations that became part of or were established in the classical Pentecostal movement became institutionalised and established a professional pastorate because of their cooperation with evangelicals. Prophecy now gained a further important function, namely to critically evaluate the practice of the local congregation and professional leadership from the perspective of charismatic inspiration.

Possible similarities and contact points between the phenomenon of prophecy in the Old and New Testament, the early church and contemporary Pentecostal churches are the following: Revelation, consisting of words, insights, images, dreams or visions, underpins a diversity of numinous experiences. The congregation within its worship service is the context for the practice of this gift of proclaiming God's Word, apart from preaching and teaching. Theoretically, anyone who participates in worship can and may prophesy. Persons of both genders and all age groups are encouraged to be channels of communication through prophecy. The expectation of 1 Corinthians 14:3 can be fulfilled as a result of prophetic practices. True Christian prophecy is a mixed phenomenon that has limited authority. It requires discernment and assessment by the congregation and leadership before it can be accepted and executed. The prophet is not connected to an office in the congregation and can thus afford to be critical of existing practices and teaching. The inspired speech also addresses unbelievers.

Nuances in the definition of prophecy as well as its practice in the church have probably shifted with time. What can be historically determined is that charismata, including prophecy, came under the control of, or were totally blocked by, religious institutions. Contemporary charismatic prophecy is not infallible, faultless or absolute. It has only relative authority. Even when it is considered true and valid it does not mean that people or groups must perform what it suggests, just as Paul had accepted the prophecy that he was to be captured in Jerusalem and still decided to go to the city where he was arrested.

The conclusion is that all modern prophecy must be evaluated in the light of existing orthodox doctrinal norms, which implies the test of the Bible itself. A further conclusion is that the New Testament and early church assumed continuity between their practice of prophecy and that of the Hebrew Bible. This is also the case with the Pentecostal movement, which intends to restore the values and practices of the earliest church.

Keywords: continuity; early church; Hebrew Bible; hermeneutics; New Testament; Pentecostals; prophecy; spiritual gifts

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Profesie in die Hebreeuse Bybel, die vroeë Christendom en eietydse Pinksterkerke: ’n Vraag oor kontinuïteit en diskontinuïteit

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