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Where Have All the Prophets Gone?

By Peter K Stevenson.

1. Prophetic Preaching as predicting the future.

With so many dramatic things in the news in recent months the significance of the 21st May 2011 might perhaps have passed you by. However, for some Christians, it was a very important date in the prophetic calendar, believing as they did that it was going to usher in the end of the world. Harold Camping, a preacher in California, had calculated, on the basis of various prophetic passages in the Bible, that the end of the world was due at 6pm on the 21st May.

Not surprisingly such apocalyptic news attracted the attention of the media. Thus The Independent on Sunday reported:

‘The end of the world is nigh; 21 May, to be precise. That's the date when Harold Camping, a preacher from Oakland, California, is confidently predicting the Second Coming of the Lord. At about 6pm, he reckons 2 per cent of the world's population will be immediately ‘raptured’ to Heaven; the rest of us will get sent straight to the Other Place.’[1]

When nothing much happened on the 21st May, Camping admitted: “I'm not a genius, and I pray all the time for wisdom”. Explaining that he had miscalculated; it had now ‘dawned’ on him that God would spare humanity “hell on earth for five months” but the apocalypse would still happen on the 21st October 2011. The fact that you are reading this article in Ministry Today indicates that things didn’t work out quite as brother Camping expected…

Whilst Harold Camping’s views are clearly at the extreme end of the spectrum, his foolish predictions are a graphic reminder that for some believers the term ‘prophetic preaching’ still conjures up pictures of Bible scholars poring over the books of Daniel and Revelation, spending lots of time calculating when Christ will return. So one ‘popular’ way in which Christians think about prophetic preaching is in terms of Predicting the future.[2]

While it is true that biblical prophets painted visions of God’s future, surely there is more to prophetic preaching than pointless speculation about the future?

2. Prophetic Preaching as addressing injustices in today’s world

Preachers from a very different theological tradition pattern the theology and practice of prophetic preaching on the work of the biblical prophets, who spoke forth the word of the Lord into particular historical contexts. They see themselves inheriting the mantle of prophets like Amos who announced divine judgement upon rich believers in Israel who were oppressing and exploiting the poor.

Or perhaps they are inspired by a courageous prophet like Jeremiah, entrusted with the unenviable task of demolishing false, nationalistic hopes and declaring an unpopular message that the people of God were bringing God’s judgement down upon their own heads.

One of the clearest exemplars of this approach to prophetic preaching was Baptist preacher and civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Junior. In a recent article, based on his earlier book The Preacher King, Richard Lischer notes that Martin Luther King did not just speak out against racism in the United States. His passion for God’s holiness and righteousness also led him to speak directly about a wide range of issues in the life of his nation. Recalling media debates about the sermons preached by Barak Obama’s pastor in Chicago, Lischer notes that:

“Most of the denunciations the media has unearthed in Jeremiah Wright had an earlier life in King’s sermons, though in King they are almost always delivered with a note of prophetic sadness. In 1967, he sorrowfully indicted America as a racist country founded in a racist compromise. He accused it of genocide against Native Americans. In comments on Vietnam, he said his own country was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world…The title of his last sermon, which, because of his death he never preached, was ‘Why America May Go to Hell.’”[3]

Prophetic preaching in this mould involves speaking forth the Word of the Lord to the world we live in, not simply calling individuals to repentance, but calling whole societies to turn away from the path of self-destruction.

3. Prophetic Preaching as charismatic utterance

Alongside Prophetic preaching understood as predicting the future, and Prophetic preaching viewed as addressing injustices in today’s world, others prefer to talk about Prophetic preaching in charismatic terms, relating it, in some way, to the spiritual gift of prophecy.

It is not possible here to engage in a detailed examination of what the New Testament says about the gift of prophecy and how this may or may not relate to what we know today as preaching. However, it is worth asking what a charismatic approach might add to our thinking about the subject of prophetic preaching. 

One charismatic slant on this topic can be found in Michael Eaton’s book The Gift of Prophetic Preaching: A Charismatic Approach[4]. Interestingly, he argues strongly that “perhaps the greatest need of the Church is prophetic expository Bible preaching.” In defining the nature of the prophetic, he refers to God putting his words in the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah and explains that “prophecy is speaking for God with words given by God.”[5]

That particular Reformed charismatic approach is certainly seeking to be open to the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit in the process of preparation and in the act of preaching, but in many ways it is advocating a traditional expository approach to preaching, enlivened by a baptism in the Holy Spirit.

In 1999, a student I was supervising wrote a Master’s dissertation about attitudes to preaching in some of the New Churches which had emerged as a result of charismatic renewal. In preparation for his dissertation, Jonathan Smith sent out questionnaires to church members in a number of churches, and was very successful in that he managed to get replies from 177 people. In addition to those questionnaires, he also got replies from twenty New Church leaders.

Such a small scale study needs to be taken with great caution. It does not prove what all members of New Churches believed about preaching in 1999, and attitudes may well have changed significantly since then. However, some interesting views about the relationship between preaching and prophecy emerged from it.

One question on the questionnaire for church members asked, ‘How would you describe the difference between preaching and prophecy?’ Reflecting on the responses Smith says that “this question provided some of the most theologically controversial replies in the survey. It also proved to be a very difficult one to answer. The most popular answer (33.89%) was that preaching was for teaching and expounding the Word of God, but that prophecy was a direct ‘now’ word of God.” All of this led him to observe that “this implies that preaching is neither directly from God nor for the ‘now’ moment.”[6]

It is interesting to note that some church members, mercifully only 9.6% of them, contrasted prophecy, which comes directly from God, with preaching, which expresses human opinions. Comments included: “Preaching is the speaker’s point of view, prophecy is God’s Word” and “Preaching is someone’s opinion, prophecy is from God”.

Reassuringly, however, the church leaders he interviewed struck a rather different note. All twenty church leaders believed “that preaching should be at times prophetic.” These leaders wanted to affirm the importance of both preaching and prophecy, but they made it clear that for them preaching was theologically more significant than prophecy. Their comments included that “prophecy is to be weighed and tested…whereas preaching is to be received and obeyed (unless it is clearly a misapplication and misunderstanding of Scripture” and “preaching must always take priority over prophecy as we only prophesy in part”.

4. Prophetic Preaching - ways of avoiding confusion

Reflection on popular uses of the phrase ‘prophetic preaching’ unearths a variety of views, and a fair amount of confusion. Hopefully, this article will not add to that muddle, but perhaps offer a modest contribution towards clearing away some of the confusion?

While preparing lectures a few years ago on the book of Amos, I came across a commentary by James Limburg with useful insights into the nature of Old Testament prophecy. His description of the prophetic task caught the eye because it not only spoke about the present and the future, but also referred to the past.

“The prophetic task has been described as concerned with the future (foretelling), addressing the present (forthtelling), and recalling the past (retelling). Telling the story of God’s mighty acts remains an aspect of the tasks of both preaching and teaching. In hearing this story and discovering it as their own story, a people of God can rediscover who they are. They are reminded of what God has done for them and will be motivated to respond in acts of love.”[7]

Borrowing Limburg’s labels of foretelling, forthtelling, and retelling it may be useful to liken preaching to a three-legged stool, held up by those three ‘legs’. If preaching is to be fit for purpose, if preaching is to be ‘prophetic’, then it needs all three ‘legs’ in place, as it were. It will need to hold together in tension these three elements of foretelling, forthtelling, and retelling.

In exploring the extent to which contemporary preaching is genuinely prophetic, it seems appropriate to check the condition of each of those three ‘legs’. To what extent is prophetic preaching today holding together those crucial activities of foretelling, forthtelling, and retelling?

4a. Forthtelling

A first glance at prophetic preaching may suggest that it is the forthtelling ‘leg’ which appears to be carrying most of the weight? For example, both the prophetic ministry of Martin Luther King, and the focus on preaching as ‘charismatic prophetic utterance’, can be seen as forms of forthtelling. Both these approaches share the aim of speaking God’s Word directly into the present moment. Both focus on now, with one approach speaking forth that now word from God to the whole of society, while the other perspective tends to address that now word to the spiritual life of individual believers.

Richard Lischer’s article on Martin Luther King argues that:

“the prophetic function for which King is most famous for is the envisioning of an alternative reality. The prophet is a seer, one who sees things others cannot quite make out. Moreover, the prophet sees in priestly fashion on behalf of others who wouldn’t mind seeing, but whose eyes are dimmed by the cataracts of hopelessness or hate.”[8]

Such an “envisioning of an alternative reality” is also what Walter Brueggemann has in mind when he writes about prophetic ministry, for he claims that “the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”[9]

So, for Brueggemann, the role of prophetic ministry is to subvert[10], undermine, or dismantle the royal, imperial worldview which maintains an unjust status quo which reinforces the power of the religious and political elite. However, this is not just protesting in blind rage about the ills of society, because prophetic ministry not only dismantles unjust worldviews, but it also seeks to energise the development of an alternative community. So Brueggemann’s kind of forthtelling does not mean random acts of prophetic protest, but a way of life, and a pattern of ministry, which embodies and communicates a vision of a different kind of world.

Hence Brueggemann explains that:

“prophetic ministry does not consist of spectacular acts of social crusading or of abrasive measures of indignation. Rather, prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice.”[11]

Setting the theological task within the overall context of mission, Andrew Kirk defines theology helpfully as “a reflective, intellectual process carried out by the community of faith whose concern is with God and his relationship to the entire universe. This process…has two fundamental tasks: to make sense of the whole of life by reference to God, and to be an agent of the transformation of the whole of life so that it may reflect God’s intentions.”[12]

Prophetic preaching as forthtelling is concerned with God and his relationship to the entire universe. It seeks to make sense of the whole of life, and not just my individual spiritual life, by reference to God and it seeks the transformation of the whole of life to reflect God’s good and loving intentions.

Such an expansive theology is a world removed from the theology I received from the church I joined after becoming a Christian in 1971. For that church, there was a rigid separation between the sacred and the secular, and it was clear that the church’s priority was to nourish my individual spiritual life. Prophetic preaching as forthtelling has a much larger, and a much more biblical agenda.

4b. Foretelling

Turning to check up on the condition of the foretelling ‘leg’ of prophetic preaching raises some concerns because it looks rather wobbly, damaged by a bit of dry rot, and perhaps in danger of falling out altogether?

Some so-called ‘prophetic preachers’, understanding prophetic preaching as foretelling, continue to predict the future and calculate the date of the parousia in spite of all the biblical warnings that of “that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”[13]

With the latest speculation of so-called Christian prophets such as Harold Camping ringing in our ears, it is easy to understand why Carl E Braaten sadly observed that:

“to a large extent the mainline churches, both Protestant and Catholic, permitted the sects to claim the subject of eschatology as their speciality. Their literalistic preaching from the Bible about the end of the world has tended to inoculate the mainline bodies of Christianity against the virus of eschatology.”[14]

In reaction to reckless speculation about the second coming, many Christian preachers appear to veer to the other extreme and avoid preaching about the future, which is a decision which can have sad pastoral implications. So, for example, a senior hospital chaplain regularly tells theological students that Christian patients in hospital regularly tell him that they have never heard their minister preach a sermon on death. His observation is that a lack of preaching and teaching about death in the churches makes it more difficult for patients and their families to come to terms with the experience of death and dying.

For many reasons it is important to reclaim prophetic preaching as foretelling, proclaiming the living hope which arises from the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, because that living hope is essential if we are to live as that alternative community which Brueggemann and the biblical prophets want us to be.

In a recent book, Thomas Long tells the story of a Chaplains’ Advisory Council at Princeton University where the Methodist Chaplain described the many forms of social action that the students were involved in. At the end, however, it was the Jewish Chaplain who commented that “if you don’t have some vision of what God is going to do to repair the whole creation, you can’t get up every day and work in a soup kitchen. It finally beats you down.”[15]

A vision of what God is going to do to repair the whole of creation is essential, and one of the resources which can help preachers think about this foretelling dimension of prophetic preaching can be found in Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope. For Wright, the biblical hope of life after life after death inspires us to build for the kingdom now, because we know that nothing we do in the Lord will be in vain. God’s new creation will be continuous with this world, so that “all we do in faith, hope and love in the present, in obedience to the ascended Lord and in the power of the Spirit, will be harvested, enhanced and transformed at his appearing.”[16]

So even if this foretelling ‘leg’ of prophetic preaching is a bit unstable, but there are biblical and theological resources to help strengthen it.

4c. Retelling

If the forthtelling ‘leg’ is rather wobbly, it is even more worrying to discover that, in some places, the retelling ‘leg’, appears to be missing. If that is the case, then it is a serious matter of concern, because there is a time when the preacher needs to be a teacher.

Living in an age of widespread biblical illiteracy, both in society and sadly also within the church, there is a need to re-tell the old, old story, so that God’s people can remember and discover who they truly are. That means that preaching cannot simply be lots of entertaining stories, but must be one of the ways in which the faith of the church is proclaimed and taught.

Looking back over significant homiletical developments during the last 30 years, Thomas Long argues that preaching the good news involves more than simply telling evocative stories. He argues that:

“preaching today is going to need to learn to speak in multiple voices, some of them more direct, commanding, and urgent than narrative. The power in Christian preaching comes not only from narration but also from declaration (Christ has been raised from the dead!), explanation (If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied), invitation (Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord), confession (By the grace of God, I am what I am), and even accusation (O death, where is your victory?).”[17]

If prophetic preaching also involves retelling the old, old story which shapes the Christian community, then there may be value in re-visiting the idea of the preacher as a practical theologian, or community theologian. If the preacher, as an interpretative guide, seeks to help people live authentically Christian lives during changing and challenging times, that will involve taking time to retell and teach the whole counsel of God, so that God’s people can be reminded of the kind of contrast society God wants them to be.

It may not be glamorous, but prophetic preaching needs to contain this teaching dimension, this work of retelling the gospel. This may suggest that it is worth revisiting those series of sermons on the Ten Commandments or the key doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed. If preaching is to be balanced then it needs to have this third ‘leg’ supporting the work of prophetic preaching which involves teaching people what lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

5. Where have all the prophets gone?

From across the pond, Marvin McMickle[18] claims that many preachers have sold out the God of biblical justice for a lesser god, and in so doing have blunted or silenced the prophetic voice of the American pulpit. He claims that there are a number of factors which have contributed to the demise of prophetic preaching in churches of his own African-American tradition, including:

1. an overzealous preoccupation with the place of praise in some churches and services of worship (which has resulted in pastors' downplaying or ignoring the pain and suffering of our world);

2. a false and narrow view of patriotism (that has sometimes equated unqualified praise of country with love of country);

3. a focus in preaching on personal enrichment themes or a prosperity gospel to the exclusion or detriment of the gospel's broader social justice claims. [19]

My suspicion is that the same sorts of factors may have contributed to an unbalanced practice of prophetic preaching in the UK as well. However, maybe there’s a deeper problem. Perhaps the truth is that most of us are reluctant to get involved in truly prophetic preaching, because if we did we might have to change the way we live – for it is likely that costly change will be needed if our lives are to become truly prophetic; living, visible, walking symbols of God’s new world that is coming.

Bibliography

Walter Brueggemann, The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).

Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination: Second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 20012).

Michael Eaton, The Gift of Prophetic Preaching: A Charismatic Approach (Chicester: New Wine Press, 2008),

James Limburg, Hosea – Micah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988).

Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Word that Moved America (Oxford: OUP, 1995)

Richard Lischer ‘Anointed with Fire: The Structure of Prophecy in the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr’ in Timothy George, James Earl Massey and Robert Smith, Jr., (eds.), Our Sufficiency is of God: Essays on Preaching in Honor of Gardner C. Taylor (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2010), pp 229-240.

Thomas G. Long, Preaching from Memory to Hope (Louisville: WJKP, 2009).

Marvin McMickle Where have all the prophets gone? Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching in America (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2006).

Jonathan Paul Smith, ‘Where is the Word of the Lord? An Analysis of preaching in New Churches within the UK’ (Unpublished MTh dissertation: Spurgeon's College, 1999).

Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach (Louisville: WJKP, 2010)

William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002). See chapter 10 ‘The Pastor as Prophet: Truth Telling in the Name of Jesus.’

[1] The Independent on Sunday 27th March 2011.

[2] In the early 70s, the pastor who baptised me preached many sermons based on Daniel and Revelation. At that time, some dispensationalist preachers were arguing that when the 10th nation joined the EEC, this would represent the 10th horn of the beast described in Daniel chapter 7, and that this event would set in motion a sequence of events leading to the second coming. To a young enthusiastic Christian, it sounded exciting stuff, just as it was 15 years later for one of my young church members in the summer of 1988, who came clutching a booklet containing 88 reasons proving that the rapture was due in September 1988.

[3] Richard Lischer ‘Anointed with Fire: The Structure of Prophecy in the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr’ in Timothy George, James Earl Massey and Robert Smith, Jr., (eds.), Our Sufficiency is of God: Essays on Preaching in Honor of Gardner C. Taylor (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2010), p 235.

[4] Michael Eaton, The Gift of Prophetic Preaching: A Charismatic Approach (Chicester: New Wine Press, 2008), p27.

[5] Eaton, The Gift of Prophetic Preaching, p28.

[6] Jonathan Paul Smith, ‘Where is the Word of the Lord? An Analysis of preaching in New Churches within the UK’ (Unpublished MTh dissertation: Spurgeon's College, 1999), p16.

[7] James Limburg, Hosea – Micah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), p93.

[8] Richard Lischer ‘Anointed with Fire: The Structure of Prophecy in the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr’ in Timothy George, James Earl Massey and Robert Smith, Jr., (eds.), Our Sufficiency is of God: Essays on Preaching in Honor of Gardner C. Taylor (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2010), p 239.

[9] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination: Second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 20012), p3.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 20012). See e.g. chapter 10 ‘Preaching a Sub-Version.’

[11] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination: Second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 20012), p116f.

[12] Andrew J. Kirk, The Mission of Theology and Theology as Mission (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1997), p8.

[13] Mark 13:32.

[14] Carl E. Braaten, ‘The Kingdom of God and Life Everlasting’ in Peter Hodgson and Robert King (eds.), Christian Theology: An Introduction to its Tradition and Tasks (London: SPCK, 1983), p274.

[15] Thomas G. Long, Preaching from Memory to Hope, (Louisville: WJKP, 2009), p124.

[16] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: SPCK, 2007) p157.

[17] Thomas G. Long, Preaching from Memory to Hope (Louisville: WJKP, 2009), p18.

[18] Marvin McMickle Where have all the prophets gone? Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching in America (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2006).

[19] Marvin McMickle Where have all the prophets gone? Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching in America (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2006), cited by Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach, (Louisville: WJKP, 2010), p1.

Peter K Stevenson

Director of Training, Spurgeon's College, London

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You are reading Where Have All the Prophets Gone? by Peter K Stevenson, part of Issue 56 of Ministry Today, published in November 2012.

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