Is that Really God Speaking? Prophecy in the Bible and Today

2017 Fall Convocation Address by Julia M. O’Brien, PhD

Paul H. and Grace L. Stern Chair in Old Testament Studies and Professor of Old Testament / Hebrew Bible

Lancaster Theological Seminary, August 25, 2017

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Thank you, President Lytch, for inviting me to be the fall 2017 convocation speaker. It is at the beginning of academic years that I am most aware of the honor that it is to be part of this community—one that studies together, worships together, and struggles together to respond to what we believe God is calling us as individuals and as a body to be and do.

This belief (or at least the hope) that God is calling—that God is communicating with us and others—is what brings most folks to seminary. Perhaps they have heard God’s voice directly; perhaps they have heard God speaking through the encouragement of others; perhaps they have discerned that the restlessness of their lives is God’s whispering: follow me. 

And yet, if we are honest, most of us also know from our own experience that is difficult to accept as truth everything attributed to God’s voice. I certainly felt this way over the summer, when here in Lancaster, a couple was convicted of “gifting” their teenage daughters as wives to a much older man because the woman insisted that God had told her to do so in a dream.

How to discern whether that is really God speaking is not a new dilemma but one that has faced generations of faithful people. In various times and places in Christian and Jewish history, individuals have claimed to speak for God—to be prophets. But at no time have all these claims been accepted at face value. Communities of faith—as far back as we can trace—have always recognized the need for discernment of the truth of what prophets profess.

While on sabbatical this spring, I conducted research into the ways that Christian and Jewish communities have responded to prophets. I read really, really widely. From the archives of ancient Mesopotamia to modern prophetic movements in Zambia and the Ukraine, from the second century Montanists to the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, from the Protestant reformer John Calvin to the Azusa Street Pentecostal revival, with lots more along the way. I interviewed Baptists and charismatics and Mennonites and Canadian Pentecostals. My question throughout was how claims to divine knowledge have been verified. I plan to publish the full study, but today I want to explore one conclusion I reached and consider its significance for our work together.


In reading what other scholars say about how folks have responded to prophecy, I kept finding a single, consistent story. It is so common that I call it the “grand narrative.” It goes something like this:

Prophets are always at odds with institutions. They challenge institutions, and in turn institutions do whatever they can to “kill the messengers”—literally or metaphorically by imposing rules, a literary canon, and/or the authority of bishops, patriarchy, colonizers, empire, capitalists, or ______ (fill in the blank with your favorite oppressor). 

This “institutionalization killed prophecy” narrative was most famously articulated and spread by the early twentieth-century sociologist Max Weber. Weber argued that religions always begin with charismatic individuals and movements but that as they organize and institutionalize, they place controls on prophecy. A later sociologist, Victor Turner, built on Weber’s framework to claim that religions go through cycles of charisma, routinization, and then further charisma.

It would be difficult to overestimate the popularity of this grand narrative of religions’ “charismatic decline.” I have found it in the work of biblical scholars, church historians of multiple time periods, secular sociologists, and a diverse array of average Christians. Until undertaking this research, didn’t realize how much I shared these assumptions, and how much they were reflected in the sabbatical proposal I submitted to the Trustees last year.

My research changed my mind. While it is true that people in power often seek to control prophecy, it is also true that claims about prophecy can work in many different ways, sometimes on behalf of institutions. Today, I’ll offer a brief window into just a few of the case studies I’m researching and then reflect on why I think challenging the “grand narrative” is important today.

1. My first case study is from the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament. 
The “institutionalization killed prophecy” narrative is widespread in Hebrew Bible studies, where sounds something like this: 

In ancient Israel and Judah, the testimony of prophets did not always agree. Jeremiah and Hananiah disagreed about whether God wanted Judah to fight the Babylonians; and Micaiah ben Imlah disagreed with 400 other prophets about God’s word for a battle. Deuteronomy offered minimal criteria, such as “what the prophet says must come true,” but that wasn’t really helpful, especially in the moment, so that, after the exile, emerging Judaism turned away from prophecy to Torah for its grounding. According to the grand narrative, Judaism replaced prophecy with the Law, reserving prophecy for the glorious future. To cement this shift, the accounts of earlier charismatic prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah were edited to fit a more institutional profile, to make them look like they supported the Law.

As with most narratives, there is some truth in one. It is true that those Judean scribes who returned from the Babylonian exile did cast the law of Moses as a guideline for the community. It is also true that oracles of the prophets were extensively edited after the exile.

And yet, there are shortcomings in the narrative as well. The first is in the assumption that the earliest layers of the documents portray prophets as against institutions. If we accept the scholarly reconstruction of the stages of prophetic literature (known as redaction criticism), then we see a different picture: in the earliest streams of the tradition, Israelite prophets look like the religious professionals from elsewhere in the ancient Near East who counselled kings about the will and activities of the gods. Think of Samuel and Nathan who advised David. It was the editors who cast the prophets in opposition to kings and priests: redaction seems to have amplified rather than softened the anti-institutional dimensions of earlier traditions.

The second shortcoming of the narrative is in assuming that the editors changed the Prophets to make them fit a much older Torah. Actually, over the past fifty years or so, biblical scholars have increasingly recognized that both Torah and Prophets were edited after the exile to explain why Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians. 
This partnership of Torah and Prophets is summarized nicely in the postexilic book of Zechariah:

Zech 7:11 [The ancestors] refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the LORD of hosts. Just as, when I called, they would not hear, so, when they called, I would not hear, says the LORD of hosts, and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and a pleasant land was made desolate.

In the theology of the postexilic era, the Law and the Prophets worked together to explain the fall of Israel and Judah as just punishment for the people’s failure to follow the guidelines set forth by Moses on Mt. Sinai. (9:12)

But it would be wrong to assume that all these postexilic theologians thought that prophecy had ended. Documents written after the exile continue to mention prophets. The postexilic book of Nehemiah mentions contemporary prophets:

Neh 6:12 Then I perceived and saw that God had not sent [the prophet Shemaiah] at all, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.

Nehemiah never denies that Shemaiah or Noadiah are prophets, but he does claim to have “discerned” that Shemaiah was only prophesying for money. So Nehemiah simply ignored him.

 In the following decades, the first century Jewish historian Josephus calls various of his contemporaries prophets, and both Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls claim that the Pharisees consulted prophecies. In the first through fourth centuries of Judaism, dozens of rabbis and sages claimed to receive privileged divine communication—directly, as well as in visions and dreams. Clearly, not everyone thought prophecy had ended or that Law and prophecy were in any kind of tension.

2. My second case study comes from early Christianity.
Here, the grand narrative of original prophecy choked by institutions sounds like this:

Like the ancient prophets, Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit, performed miracles, and spoke the truth to power. On the day of Pentecost, the infilling of the Holy Spirit and the ensuing gift of prophecy were extended to the whole church, so that the church too became prophetic. In the second and third centuries, however, as the church developed rules, hierarchies, and an authoritative biblical canon, it silenced women and charismatics, most notoriously the second century prophetic movement known as Montanism.

As in the case of ancient Israel, this grand narrative is just too “grand,” too little nuanced. While it is true that the books of Luke and Acts celebrate the ongoing gift of prophecy, it is also true that other gospels--especially Matthew and Mark—express concern about false prophets. 1 Thessalonians, written much earlier than Luke, supports prophecy but also insists that it must be tested:

1 Thess 5:19-22 Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil.

Similarly, 1 and 2 John provide a clear criterion for distinguishing between true and false prophecy: true prophecy must conform to the church’s testimony about Jesus:

1 John 4:2: Every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.

The apostle Paul, also writing earlier than Luke, values prophecy but also insists that it is imperfect and temporary, since there is no complete knowledge of the divine in this life. 1 Corinthians 13 is usually treated as a celebration of love, but it is also a polemic against exalted prophetic claims:

1 Cor. 13:8-12  Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

That is, long before the institutionalization of the church, there were already concerns about false prophecy and already a set of confessional guidelines for true prophecy. Paul was reigning in exalted prophetic claims long before there were bishops.

And when the church actually got bishops, they weren’t necessarily opposed to prophecy as an on-going phenomenon. Take the second century bishop Irenaeus, for example. Irenaeus opposes those like the Montanists who where pronouncing a New Prophecy:

Wretched men indeed! [ the Montanists] who wish to be pseudo-prophets, forsooth, but who set aside the gift of prophecy from the Church; acting like those who, on account of such as come in hypocrisy, hold themselves aloof from the communion of the brethren. (Against Heresies 3.11.9)

but he also boasts of prophecy in the church:

In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God. (5.6.1)

That is, Irenaeus wasn’t against prophecy as such but against particular prophets who prophesy outside of the body. Of course, we can give Irenaeus’ position a pro-institutional spin, but it is clear that he isn’t denying that prophecy can continue.

3. Let me offer one final case, that of Pentecostalism.

The 1906 Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles is usually cited as the birth of modern Pentecostalism, when in response to the preaching of William Seymour multitudes began speaking in tongues, experiencing healing, and prophesying, attesting to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Clearly early Pentecostals celebrated the gifts of the spirit. But it is important to know that almost from the beginning they also recognized the need to discern true from false prophecy, to recognize “false manifestations.” Between 1922 and 1941 five prominent Pentecostal publishing houses distributed nine unique treatments on the discernment of spiritual gifts.

This is still true in Pentecostalism today. When I interviewed the pastor of a massive congregation that calls itself “continuationist” rather than charismatic, he explained that his church celebrates prophecy and holds annual retreats in which individuals receive private prophecies, but he also insisted that a true prophecy must confirm what the Spirit has told others in the body and meet the scriptural standard of building up the body. “Prophecy has power,” he claimed, “but we do not govern by prophetic utterance.”

Similarly, the pastor of an African American Baptist church explained to me that while Baptists don’t identify as Pentecostal, the discernment of claims to prophecy is a major issue in his congregation due to what he called the “bleeding” between denominations. His criteria for true prophecy were clear: a prediction must come true; the prophet must be a trustworthy person; and “if it’s new, it’s not true.” The Spirit will not give a word that goes against Scripture and has not been shared with others.

The adherence to Scripture as a norm is also reflected in many responses to a new prophetic movement: the New Apostolic Reformation. Sometimes identified as the Third Wave of Pentecostalism, the NAR has announced the return of the offices of Apostles and Prophets. Since 1999, the Apostolic Council of Prophetic Elders has gathered to announce prophecies for the coming year. The year 2017, they predict, will be a breakthrough year, with a Fourth Wave of the Holy Spirit coming. POTUS Shield is a group of such apostles and prophets who have gathered around President Donald Trump. These decrees of the Lord that they have received are quite specific, indicating what God intends to do in the White House, the Supreme Court, and the state of Israel.

In 2001, the General Presbytery of the Assemblies of God, an historic Pentecostal denomination, issued an official statement that directly challenges many of the NAR’s claims. While affirming that the gift of prophecy may be widely shared among peoples of the Spirit, the statement insists that “the New Testament does not make provisions for establishing the prophet in a hierarchical governing structure of the church; in fact, the content of prophecy itself should always be tested by and responsible to the superior authority of Scripture.”

Even for Pentecostals, it seems, calling for discernment is not the same as denying the gifts of the spirit. 


In selecting my few examples for today, I had to leave out a lot, including modern secular challenges to the phenomenon of prophecy. When I’ve told non-religious people about my sabbatical project, they’ve looked at me in complete disbelief and asked, “you’re studying people who think God talks to them? You mean like Jim Jones? Isn’t that a sign of mental illness?” 

Ah, to discuss those responses we’d need another lecture—or two. For today, I wanted to underscore that even those who have historically believed in divine communication nonetheless have always recognized the need to weigh the truth of any given claim. 

My research has led me to the conclusion that raising questions about prophetic claims aren’t always simple power plays on the behalf of institutions and their leaders. They can also be acts of faith and justice, as we take up our responsibility not simply to accept every claim to divine communication.

This seems important for liberal Christian traditions to recognize when they make their own claims about God’s voice. Take, for example, the United Church of Christ “Still Speaking Campaign,” first launched in 2004. The enduring logo of the campaign is the comma, taken from the Gracie Allen quote: never place a period where God has placed a comma. The comma continues in the new logo launched at this summer’s General Synod, to accompany its message of “A Just World for All.” Clearly for the UCC, “God is Still Speaking” is understood as a way to challenge traditional religious views and traditional understandings of the Bible, as seen in an ad from the Stillspeaking 2.0 campaign in 2015: “The Bible is like GPS. A brilliant guide. All-knowing. Occasionally wrong.”

I share the social justice stance of the UCC, but my study of prophecy convinces me that the UCC needs to say a lot more than “God is Still Speaking.” Generations of Christians have said the same thing, but they have made very different claims about what God is saying and how what God is saying today relates to past testimonies to what God has said. This catchy marketing slogan doesn’t let us off the hook for bringing our claims about God’s will into a process of discernment.

Discernment. That is what the faithful life is about, I think. Certainly it is what seminary is about. Here, we not only tell our own stories of faith but also listen to other stories of faith and seek God’s truth in them all.

Just like faithful people of the past, we always make our discernment in a particular time and place, based on the best knowledge of our era but aware of its limitations. This is why we must also bring our stories into conversation with all that we believe about God, the world, and other people. For me that includes modern psychology and modern understandings of human sexuality, in addition to our religious convictions.

My research has confirmed by conviction in the on-going importance in the importance of a broad seminary education. We need church history and theology and pastoral theology and biblical studies; we need deeper understanding of the origins of our own beliefs about sexuality and psychology and the natural world. And we need opportunities such as our integrative courses to weave the threads of our learning together into something beautiful and strong and useful.

It is not work for the faint of heart. But I believe and I pray that God is in this work, not only in God’s speaking but also in God’s training us to listen. To discern. To respond. In faith and in love.

Do not quench the Spirit, says our tradition, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil.

Perhaps that advice remains helpful, even today.