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The Spirit of Prophecy

I was listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Martin Marty[1] the other day. In it, Marty referenced the Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold and H. Richard. They were prophetic voices in the culture, he said. They weren’t much good at the more affective parts of religion like leading worship, he thought, though they did write some prayers; it was their prophetic voice, speaking with power and eloquence for justice and truth, that made them important theologians.

The mention of the Niebuhrs as prophets jarred me. I often hear Adventists speak of prophecy, and often speak of it myself. But I don’t think I ever hear us use the word in that way. When we speak of prophecy, we are generally thinking of something that is finished: the Bible prophecies, as well as those of Ellen White, are already in our hands, and it is up to us only to understand them and watch for and prepare for their fulfillment. That probably accounts for why the word, for the average Adventist, brings to mind prediction and not, as in Marty’s characterization of the Niebuhrs, moral confrontation.

So I wonder if we would be able to apply to ourselves the concept of prophecy as Martin Marty apparently is using it: of Christian voices that say, “What is happening here is wrong, and we Christians oppose it and actively stand against it.” I certainly have seen, in my lifetime, people do such things: Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to mind. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I’m not seeing it happening now, at least with much consequence, in my church or in very many others.

Two stories:

A number of years ago I attended a mildly charismatic worship service. At some point in the service, a young man (possibly a lay pastor) stood and said, “I have a word of prophecy from the Lord.” He said that someone in the service that day—he didn’t know exactly whom—was experiencing a troubled marriage. The Lord was telling him that this person should try to stay with the marriage, because God had the power to heal it. Again, that word “prophecy” startled me. The message was a good one, an encouraging one and a Biblical one. It was sufficiently general that I suspect it applied to dozens of people, not just someone (in which it had some parallels to one’s daily horoscope.) But was it a prophecy?

A few years ago I participated in an ecumenical Good Friday service at an Episcopalian church. As we were sipping hot cider afterwards, the young vicar pointed out to me that we were drinking from earthenware cups. “Our parish board has voted never to allow the use of disposables here, as part of our prophetic voice against pollution and global warming.” I acknowledged that it was a sensible, even moral thing to do, but I wondered (to myself) if it counted as prophetic in the Martyan sense of the word. If so, it was a fairly low-grade prophecy, and nearly as confined in its consequences as the one concerning troubled marriages.

I think my years of understanding prophecy in the Adventist setting make it difficult for me to see it in another way, and I find myself not much closer to that more inclusive, current application of it than I was before. The mainline churches have spoken “prophetically” so often—social action and justice are central concerns there—but the voice seems to me not to carry very far. Perhaps people are listening less attentively to protests than they were in the 60’s and 70’s, so these moral stands end up being more symbolic than anything—not bad, but not world-changing.

The prophecy I heard in the charismatic church was personal, not societal. While we see books of that in the Old Testament, and volumes of it in Ellen White[2], we see in both many loud, nation- and culture-encompassing prophecies[3]. (Though none those, as Jesus correctly pointed out[4], are necessarily appreciated at the time they are given; they gain respect hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years later.)

It seems to me being prophetic should have some action to it: something you’re willing to stand for, to sacrifice for, and in that respect taking the time and effort to wash cups rather than to simply throw them away qualifies—though the prophetic action is rather limited, given that we all drove to the Good Friday service in automobiles, a larger ecological impact.

On the other hand are conservative Christians being prophetic when they speak publicly and shrilly against abortion, or gay marriage? Inasmuch as I find myself unable to see either of those issues in the stark black-and-whiteness that they do, their prophecies makes me uncomfortable.

The prophecy in the charismatic church raised concerns, too. Would I have found it prophetic if the prophet had said something more specific than he did: for example, that God has just told me that someone here is a homosexual, and should immediately stand, publicly repent and turn straight? Or God has told me that someone here has received an inheritance, and God wants you to give the entire sum to this church?

Perhaps we are safest just leaving our understanding of prophecy as it is: as something given by God in the mysterious past, but no longer spoken today, and only needing to be lived and applied. That alone—living what we’ve already been told—would go a long way.

But it probably isn’t going to change the world.


2 Joel 2:12,13, Psalm 51:7, and Ellen White’s Testimonies to the Church

3 Isaiah 58:5-7, and entire books such as Jeremiah and some of the minor prophets that addressed wickedness in Israel, Judah, and surrounding nations; for Ellen White, The Great Controversy is an example.

4 Matthew 5:12

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