What do we mean by “prophetic”?

This is sort of a follow up to this piece on the recent christian new media conference, prompted by a couple of the comments. It concerns the nature of prophecy and what we mean when we speak of something as prophetic.

The subject also came up recently when I was reading Roger Forster’s Prayer: Living in the Breath of God which I will be reviewing fairly soon. So I wanted to lay the foundations for that review first.

A very short summary may be found in my guest post the Big Bible blog, where we were looking at the book of Isaiah. The key point that I tried to make was put well by Jaroslav Pelikan when he said that prophecy was less about foretelling, but telling forth. In other words, the prophetic is rooted in the present but is forward looking. To imagine it simply as a form of fortune-telling is a lazy, simplistic and misleading way of talking of prophecy.

The biblical prophets were writing first and foremost to the world they lived in. As we have just been through Advent and Christmas, many will have heard snippets read from Isaiah (probably chapter 53) and Micah (chapter 5). While these passages certainly are forward looking, it is a disservice to them to remove them from their context and only read them with the benefit of hindsight. Both passages are to be found within a wider picture, and even those form a wider landscape of OT prophecy. This is a rugged and varied landscape. While Micah 5 is largely an expression of hope, this comes after pronouncements of judgment and warnings. Such warnings may be found throughout the OT prophets. As an example, the book of Jonah (which all too often is watered down through familiarity via Sunday school) tells of judgment which is to be pronounced against Nineveh, yet this judgment is not final. That judgment comes with the opportunity for redemption through repentance.

Likewise, John the Baptiser (I hesitate to call him “the Baptist” as it makes him sound like a Spurgeon-esque figure, replete with anachronistic overtones) was a fairly harsh figure, yet he called people to repentance. So we see that judgment should not be equated with damnation. It’s a conflation that happens far too often, particularly when christianity is viewed from the outside and our collective communication skills have failed, allowing the confusion to take place. Adopting Wright’s take on Paul’s view of justification, judgment is an eschatological verdict, but justification is the present verdict in anticipation of the final judgment. But that judgment, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, is in our favour. It is only when the offer of grace is rejected that the judgment becomes one of damnation, a verdict of the second death, or annihilation. But it is not our place to judge, either in favour or against, another.

It seems right that secular prophecy should not be excluded from such a discussion. What do I mean by secular prophecy? It is simply any prophecy where a spiritual element is lacking. It is observation grounded in the present, combined with insight as to the causes of a situation and the probable outcomes, which usually come with some kind of warning. As an example, I would state that one of our most prominent secular prophets is George Monbiot, whose frequent warnings over climate change meet the criteria above. In America, one of the most rigorous of the secular prophets is Nate Silver, whose work with polls, combined with an acute understanding of statistics led him to famously predict the correct result of 49 out of 50 of the US states in the 2008 general election. As a side note, I intend to read his book, The Signal and the Noise, later this year.

The final aspect I wanted to look at is the question of the “prophetic act”. This is slightly different, as it is generally less direct than the others. I want to illustrate by comparing two prophets: Elisha and Jesus.

Even among non-christians, the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (men) is fairly well known. But it is often portrayed simply as a miracle as though this were some kind of proof of Jesus’ divinity. I would contend that such a view rather misses the points (for there is more than one). On top of it being an act of kindness, it was a prophetic action that harked back to the lesser known story of Elisha feeding 100 (men) as told in 2 Kings 4:42-44. If one puts on a post-hoc set of glasses, one might think that Elisha is here foretelling what Jesus would later do. That’s one way of looking at it. The other way is to put yourself in the shoes of those who were in the crowd at the later event. They would be reasonably familiar with the law and the prophets and rather than Elisha’s act foretelling the act of Jesus, it was Jesus’ act that harked back to Elisha’s. In this highly symbolic action, which would not have needed to be explained out loud, Jesus was identifying himself with the ministry of the one of Israel’s great prophets. Seen this way, we remove some of the puzzlement over the disciples’ response when Jesus asked “Who do people say that I am?” and they come back with “John the Baptiser; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” If you will permit me a small liberty, if it walks like a prophet and quacks like a prophet then it might well be a prophet.

Sticking with Jesus’ miracles, many of the acts of healing that we find are not only compassionate acts that alleviate suffering, but that they were on those whose afflictions would have rendered them ritually unclean or cause them to be cast out from society. The act of healing then was a prophetic act that says “[you are clean]” which is brought out more explicit with the vision Peter had of the sheet being brought down containing foods that had been considered ritually unclean and commanded to eat.

Hopefully it should be clear that this way of looking at prophetic acts entails communion and baptism. They are highly symbolic acts which hark back to the most important week in world history.

A modern example of a secular prophetic act was the salt march that Gandhi undertook in 1930. As this is quite long, I’ll let you read up more about it rather than recount the history here.

So can we summarise what we mean when we speak of prophecy or to say that some word, image or action is prophetic? My usage would be thus:

An act of prophecy is the act of telling forth of an insight into the present which has repercussions for the future. Something which is described as prophetic is foremost an act or a statement that is loaded with symbolism which, when understood, is meant a statement of prophecy. Secondarily, a prophetic act or word can be something which harks back to earlier such words or actions, but which is marked out by being highly symbolic, yet not to such an obscure level that it needed to be explained by detailed semiotics. They typically reference things which are commonly known and understood. The primary and secondary meanings here need not be separate acts, but can be entwined in a single act.

What hasn’t been addressed here is determining true prophecy from false, or how to respond to it. I’ll leave that for you.

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3 responses to “What do we mean by “prophetic”?

  1. Indeedy. As a children’s worker I often explained Biblical prophets as being like postmen: they deliver a message from God; or as being like alarm clocks, with messages to wake the people up out of their situation (of course, not everyone appreciates an alarm clock…)
    It’s good, especially after Christmas, to be reminded that they are not a sort of Mystic-Meg-Russell-Grant mash-up (what a thought!)

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