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The Post-Biblical Era
Even in the time of the apostles, prophecy was subject to misuse and thus inclined to be looked down upon by Christian congregations. We discover this in the many warnings and counsel found in the New Testament writings. For instance, "Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good" (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). It seems there were reasons for the Thessalonians to look down on the gift and treat it with contempt.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:1-3 encourages church members to eagerly desire this gift and endeavours to elevate it. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, Paul seems concerned that some false prophecies are being made declaring that "the day of the Lord had already come." F. F. Bruce makes the comment, "'Neither by spirit,' i.e. by a prophetic utterance made in the power of the Spirit of God or of another spirit. The prophecy might be a false prophecy or it might be a genuine prophecy misunderstood. . . . Prophecy was encouraged in the Thessalonian church (1Thess 5: 19, 20) and no doubt things to come figured largely in such prophecy: possibly the 'word of the Lord' of 1Thess 4:15 was communicated in this form. But discrimination was necessary (1Thess 5:21, 22) and nowhere more so than with prophecies relating to future events."103
John also finds it necessary to warn his people: "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1).
With the close of the Apostolic age, the prophetic gift as exercised by the apostles ended. Those who had been taught by Christ and had passed on the message concerning Christ had died. With that the Scriptures are seen to be complete.
Many biblical references indicate that the gift of prophecy will continue on along with other gifts. They are all needed to build up
a healthy body of believers and to keep the church on course.104 The church at large was sensitive to the work of false prophets and the abuse to which the gift of prophecy was being subjected. The apostles warned that attempts would be made by false teachers and prophets to lead them astray.105 Revelation 2:2 indicates problems existing near the turn of the first century: "I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false." And the church did not always handle it well, "Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols" (Revelation 2:20).
The Prophets Replaced
While the apostles were alive they were the first court of appeal regarding the testing of true and false prophets. But now new tests were needed appropriate to the local situation at times. The Didache, which probably originated at Antioch in Syria at the turn of the century, gave tests which were considered appropriate for the time. "If he abide three days he is a false prophet . . . if he asks for money he is a false prophet . . . (Did 11). "Appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons . . . for unto you they also perform the service of prophets and teachers . . ." (Did 15).106
Witherington comments on prophecy as found in the Didache: "Didache 11:12 urges, 'whoever shall say in the spirit, 'Give me money or something else,' you shall not listen to him; but if he urges you to give on behalf of others you shall not judge him.' What this verse must mean is that indeed some words of prophets, even if spoken in the Spirit, are not truly from God and are not to be heeded or complied with. This, in turn, means that our author is not just saying, 'judge what he does, not what he says.' There is to be a sifting even of what he says. The prophet's words are not to be taken as the Gospel if they do not comport with the 'dogma' of the Gospel. The situation here does not seem to be significantly different from that found in 1 Cor 14, for in neither case is it simply assumed that what the prophet says in pneumatic state is necessarily the very words of God. Again, we are dealing with a different situation from that found in the early church when it treated
prophecy found in Scripture and apparently also the prophetic teaching and utterances of at least the original apostles."107
He goes on to summarise the work of prophets in the early church: "The impression given by both the material in Luke-Acts and the material in the Didache is that prophets have authority in the early church, but not absolute authority. They are seen as inspired but not infallible, and they are held responsible for what they say."108 He then repeats his summary, "In the literature discussed in this chapter, prophecy appeared as a phenomenon including prediction, but expressed in general or generic terms. It had an authority of general content but seldom offered clear specifics, and in any case, the prophet might say more than his inspiration warranted in the excitement of the moment."109
It would seem itinerant prophets and teachers were taking advantage of the local people and the advice was given to look more to local leadership for church guidance. As we move past the apostolic era and the church becomes more organised it seems that the gift of prophecy virtually disappears and prophets are replaced by administrators. It was an over reaction that led to the banning of prophets. Irenaeus who wrote about 185 AD, complained about "wretched men indeed, who in order not to allow false prophets set aside the gift of prophecy from the church. . . ."110
The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics adds: "Disappearance of the prophetic office. The churches were now put on the defensive and they soon sought to co-operate in the maintenance of their apostolic heritage. Joint action in councils was the most effective means at hand. This brought the bishops together and greatly increased their prestige and power. . . . Prophecy was thus placed under the restraint of written records, and it was considered more important to interpret the old prophecies than to utter new ones. All the unstable, intermittent spiritual gifts shared the fate of the prophetic. . . . There were sporadic efforts to reinstate prophecy as a special function in the life of the church, but it had served its day. . . . Its most important and essential element was absorbed by the teachers and preachers, and the office practically disappeared."111
Teachers and theologians came to the fore to preserve the faith and develop uniform interpretations of the Scriptures and creeds. Ecclesiastical authority developed to safeguard the church against schism. Spiritual gifts became identified with office. Ministers and priests became distinct from laity in order to recognise spiritual
endowments. Priest-bishops came in to perpetuate apostolic authority. Traditions of faith and worship took over from the sporadic forms of worship. As this took place many argued that now the canon was complete there was no longer any need for the gift of prophecy. This was in part fuelled by reactions against the prophets found among the Gnostics and Montanists.
In addition, Alister Stewart-Sykes in his recent book From Prophecy to Preaching demonstrates that preaching took over from prophecy in the early centuries of the Christian era and was, in part, a cause for the decline and eventual demise of prophecy in worship services. "Herein lies one of the origins of Christian preaching: for when prophecy was delivered it was necessary that the prophecy be judged, interpreted and expounded . . . as Scripture came to replace the living voice . . . with the eventual result that Scripture comes to dominate prophecy to such an extent that the prophetic voice disappears altogether. . . . This phenomenon has been termed 'scholasticisation' a term intended to describe the process whereby the process by which the loose organisation of communication of the word of God in the earliest households through prophecy, and through reactions to prophecy which in themselves are prophetic, is replaced by systematic communication through the reading and interpretation of Scripture. . . ."112
That the gift of prophecy continued on in Christianity during the Reformation and Post-Reformation era is recognised by A G Daniells: "Just what measure of spiritual illumination they received, it is impossible for us to know and declare. From our knowledge of the limitations and blindness of the minds of men at the present time, we cannot conceive how those leaders could see, and understand, and do as perfectly as they did without special guidance by the Holy Spirit. Perversion, darkness, and corruption were universal and supreme. Many of the spiritual leaders of the period sincerely believed that the Lord made Himself known to them in visions and spoke to them in dreams."113
Seventh-day Adventists believe they still live in the age of the Spirit. We
believe that the gifts that came into being at Pentecost are to be with the
church until Jesus returns. We believe the prophetic gift has been manifested in
the life and work of Ellen White. We will now begin to apply what we have seen,
from the Bible, to her life and ministry.
103 F. F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol 45, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, General Editor David A. Bubbard, (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982). pp. 163-164. [back]
104 Acts 2:17-21, Ephesians 4:11-14; 1 Corinthians 12-14. [back]
105 Peter had warned the church to be wary "But there were false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them. . ." 2 Peter 2:1-2. Paul had also warned the elders of Miletus to be watchful because ". . . after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from you own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!" Acts 20:29-31. [back]
106 These points are gleaned from J. B. Lightfoot, Translator, The Apostolic Father, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1974). [back]
107 Witherington, p. 345. [back]
108 Ibid., p. 347. [back]
109 Ibid., p. 350. [back]
110 Cited in C. Hill Prophecy Past and Present, p. 234-235. [back]
111 Cyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Edit Hastings. Vol. 10 (Edinburgh, NY: T and T. Clark, n.d.), pp. 383-384. [back]
112 Alister Stewart-Sykes, pp. 270-271. [back]
113 A. G. Daniells, The Abiding Gift of Prophecy, (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1936), p. 221. [back]