Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Professor as Prophet

I wish to perform, with great fear and trembling, a little theological meditation on 1 Corinthians 14. I want to suggest that there is a tremendous need for prophesy in the church, and that it is the task of seminary professors to be prophets, and to train others to be prophets, so that they can prophesy for the edification of the church.

In 1 Corinthians, we are told to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.” Paul sets “prophecy” across from “glossolalia,” or speaking in a tongue. Tongues, as a spiritual exercise, edify the believer--vertically. Prophecy, however, edifies other believers--horizontally. Prophesy “strengthens, encourages, and comforts” believers.

Tongues have to be interpreted, Paul says, in order to be edifying for the church. I would suggest that prophesy is already an interpretation; a hermeneutical act that enables “strengthening, encouragement, and comfort.” But what then is prophecy an interpretation of? It’s an interpretation of God’s reality, or the reality of redemption, in short, an interpretation (an explanation which enables understanding and appropriation) of the Gospel.

Paul says that the church needs people who bring “revelation,” “knowledge,” and “prophecy,” and “words of instruction.” These things enable clarity, as if distinguishing between notes on a pipe or harp, so that one can tell what tune is being played). When I played the piano as a child, I may have known what I was playing, but it’s possible that passersby had no clue! The performance was only good—and meaningful—for me. You don’t need to look far to see that the evangelical church needs prophetic clarification. Evangelical Christians are more apt to turn to Oprah Winfrey or Dr. Phil than to Scripture, much less than to the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon. Witness the overnight success of The Secret.

Paul says, “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you’re saying?” I think by implication, we can say that “prophecy is the speaking of intelligible words for the edification of the church: for strengthening, encouraging, and comforting of believers.” Prophesying is like interpretation and translating: It is enabling others to understand the “strange new world of the Bible” (Barth), to understand and communicate the “Gospel,” and to understand and communicate, insofar as we have grace to do so, the reality and presence of God among us.

Prophesy brings conceptual clarity to spiritual practices. We can pray in a tongue with our spirit, but our minds are at rest. It’s better to pray with your spirit and with understanding, Paul says. We can sing with our spirit, but it’s better to sing with your spirit and with understanding. Remember the apostle's command to Timothy that he pay attention to his life and to his doctrine; they are intimately interconnected. Spirituality is never divorced from theology. Theology is never divorced from spirituality.

Now less we get to big for our britches here, given this significant role of prophesy and the urgent need for prophesy in our churches, we need to remember what Paul says just a chapter back: If I have the gift of prophesy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,” but have not love I am nothing. …where there are prophecies, they will cease…where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; that is, we interpret, we are hermeneutical and subjective beings, trying our best to attain clarity and to appropriate knowledge for mutual, spiritual edification. But prophesy is temporary, transient, and incomplete. There is a higher and more eternal task: love. You don’t have to be a prophet, or even a professor, for that matter, to do that.


Liam said...

In staying with your Vanhoozerian influence, I think you should rename this post as "The Professor as Dramaturge."

andy tooley said...


hey, that last comment was me. i had a bit of trouble creating an account, go figure.

Kyle A. Roberts said...

Point well-taken. I had considered going in that direction with this post, but thought for simplicity's sake I could say what I wanted to simply on the basis of Paul's text. Vanhoozer's "dramaturge" model does open up lots of interesting implications and constructive possibilities, however.

Kyle A. Roberts said...


You go by Liam to protect your blogging identity?

Good to hear from you. How did you find my blog? You're one of the few! :)

I'm about to post a fresh one, so hopefully you can contribute to that one as well.