Christian prophecy and canon in the second century: a response to B. B. Warfield

This was originally published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40/4 (December, 1997): 609-626. TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE, CLICK HERE.

Here is a summary of our conclusion:

Many of today’s cessationists rely on Warfield’s decision to tie the end of prophecy to the completion of the canon (with or without the help of 1 Cor 13:8–10) and then predict or just assume that the data of the second century will bear them out.

We show that the cessationist cannot depend on the second-century fathers for support nor for agreement with the proposal that prophecy and canon cannot coexist. The many Catholic voices of that period agree on several propositions, many of which are directly traceable to Paul.

  1. Prophecy may coexist with a closed set of apostolic traditions (“canon” would be too strong a word at this point in history) because (1) true prophecy shall not produce new doctrines; (2) true prophecy shall confirm and uphold apostolic teaching as interpreted by at least some segment of the Church; (3) true prophecy may yield a timely and local application of apostolic truth, such as convicting people of sin, directing particular gifts to the poor, revealing to a martyr the details of his impending death, and reminding a church to obey its leaders.
  2. Prophecy is a sign of God’s presence with the Church in fulfillment of the predictions of the HB, Jesus, and the apostles. In one sense the cessationists are correct in viewing prophecy and other miracles as signs to confirm apostolic doctrine, but these signs continued to confirm that teaching against its rivals long after the apostles were dead: (1) Therefore the Church, not Israel, is the true people of God. (2) Therefore the orthodox, not the errorists such as the Marcionites or the gnostics, are following the true faith. (3) Therefore the orthodox with their continuing experience of prophecy (some say until the return of Christ) are following the true faith, not the Montanists with their experience of the gift ending with Maximilla.
  3. True prophecy may not be suppressed. Some say that this is the irremissible sin.
  4. Prophecy comes about at the moving of God. He decides who will prophesy and when. God normally moves prophets while in the company of the Church. He has endowed particular men and women to be prophets.
  5. Prophets speak normally and naturally after they realize that they have been prompted to give a message from God.
  6. Prophecy is unlike the soothsaying of pagan prophets, who must be consulted with money, take a haughty attitude, and spew out false teaching.
  7. False prophecy, such as practiced by pagans or Christian errorists, often involves going into a trance or frenzied ecstasy. Either they are feigning this state or are being moved by an evil spirit.

These testimonies come from every quarter of the second century, from the widest geographical distribution (Gaul, Rome, Asia Minor, Africa, Syria), and from the majority of the writers. They appear in books written not only by clerics but also by the layman Hermas. Until such time as we have credible evidence against their eyewitness accounts we should give their trustworthiness the benefit of the doubt.

The gift of prophecy did not suddenly cease at some point near the end of the apostolic era. Rather, it continued in the churches throughout the following century and into the next. During that period the Church enjoyed all the components of the emerging Christian canon and fresh specific guidance from the Spirit. The fading of the latter was first remarked on in the middle of the third century.

Other Links:

“1 Corinthians 13: When and how will ‘the perfect’ come?”

“Is there prophecy today? John Piper, along with John MacArthur, John Wesley, John Calvin, and John/Joan Q. Christian”

“Two of my essays included in a new collection!”

“Christian prophecy and canon in the second century: a response to B. B. Warfield,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica

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