New Testament Prophecy

Written by David Hill Reviewed By Wayne Grudem

This book is a sober and very helpful contribution to the study of New Testament prophecy. Hill defines a Christian prophet as ‘a Christian who functions within the Church, occasionally or regularly, as a divinely called and divinely inspired speaker who receives intelligible and authoritative revelations or messages which he is impelled to deliver publicly, in oral or written form, to Christian individuals and/or the Christian community’ (pp. 8–9). Although the ambiquities inherent in the words ‘inspired’, ‘authoritative’, and ‘impelled’ are never satisfactorily clarified in the subsequent discussion, the definition is nevertheless accurate enough to enable Hill to give us a broad-ranging and perceptive analysis of the relevant New Testament data.

Hill draws several conclusions which, at least in the opinion of the present reviewer, accurately and correctly assess the relevant New Testament and extra-biblical data and thus further our understanding of Christian prophecy in a very positive way. Among these helpful conclusions are the following: he demonstrates that inter-testamental Judaism was willing to acknowledge the occurrence of continuing divine revelations but generally attributed to them an authority inferior to the ‘words of the Lord’ spoken by Old Testament prophets (pp. 25, 27, 31, 37, 41). He shows that the apostle Paul and the author of Revelation are ‘prophets’, but in the extremely high authority which they exercise with respect to Christian congregations they are more like the great Old Testament prophets than the prophets in many early Christian congregations who apparently did not speak with such divine authority (pp. 93, 114–116, 118, 135–136, 169, 179, 194). Furthermore, Hill rightly distinguishes the New Testament role of ‘teacher’ from that of ‘prophet’: while a ‘teacher’ in the New Testament primarily gives exposition and application of Scripture passages and transmits the tradition concerning Jesus, a ‘prophet’ primarily speaks on the basis of a divine revelation which has come to him in the immediate situation (pp. 104, 106, 108–109, 126, 132). Thus, Hill rightly sees as ‘less than convincing’ E. Ellis’s claim that a mark of New Testament prophets was their engaging in Qumran-style pesher-exegesis: this was the activity of a ‘teacher’, not a ‘prophet’ (pp. 103, 105–106).

Finally, Hill comes to some insightful and probably correct solutions in a number of difficult passages: In 1 Corinthians 14:21–25, prophecy and tongues are ‘signs’ of God’s attitudes of blessing and judgment, respectively (pp. 123–126); in Acts 21:10–11, Agabus was probably ‘trying to cast himself in the role of an Old Testament prophet, but not quite succeeding: for the fact that his word did not strictly come true would have made his prophecy “false” by Old Testament standards’ (pp. 107–108); Ephesians 2:20 should be translated, ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles who are also prophets’ (p. 139). Without much argument, Hill dismisses the view that certain gifts of the Holy Spirit were withdrawn early in the history of the church as ‘foreign to Paul’s thought’ (p. 202).

One of the strengths of the book is Hill’s extensive and constructive interaction with recent scholarly writing on New Testament prophecy. Building on his earlier articles in NTS, he once again demonstrates the embarrassing inadequacy of the evidence which has been adduced by Bultmann, Käsemann, Perrin and others who have so confidently asserted (but never proven) that Christian prophets had a creative role in the formation of the Gospel tradition (pp. 160–174). He also rightly criticizes the more recent arguments proposed by G. F. Hawthorne as ‘imaginative guesses, speculation and unproved assumptions’ (p. 180) and those of M. E. Boring as simply ‘the assertion of inherited pre-suppositions’ (p. 183).

Yet the book is not without weaknesses. The scope of the work is so broad that Hill is unable to engage in much detailed exegesis at all. Exegetical conclusions are generally supported by one or two sentences and a few bibliographic references. Especially in Acts and the Pauline literature more exegetical work would be helpful.

More significantly perhaps, the entire book leaves the reader still somewhat unclear as to what New Testament prophecy really was. The definition of New Testament prophecy given on pp. 8 and 9 (quoted above) is never made more precise in the rest of the book. One wonders if Hill himself has come to a clear set of criteria by which to decide just what is prophecy and what is not: the book of Hebrews probably is a prophecy (p. 146), and so, perhaps, are the speeches of all who are filled with the Spirit and proclaim the gospel in Acts (pp. 96, 98–100); but on the other hand, Q, Matthew, Luke, and John’s Gospel are probably not prophetic compositions, though they contain occasional prophetic characteristics (pp. 151, 153–159).

The solution to this ambiguity could perhaps be found if we tried to distinguish New Testament prophecy not by its function (edification, exhortation, and comfort—all functions which are shared by teaching, preaching, counselling, and ordinary Christian conversion) but by the source of its message (revelation from God, not reflection on Scripture). Then in addition, a further very helpful distinction in kinds of authority could be made between two types of New Testament prophecy: that given by Paul, for instance, or by John in Revelation (prophecy which claimed an absolute divine authority which extended even to the very words in which it was spoken), and another, perhaps more common type of prophecy found in ordinary New Testament congregations (prophecy which was based on a spontaneous revelation to the prophet but which did not claim that divine authority extended even to the details and words in which it was expressed). These two distinctions, it would seem, would effectively distinguish New Testament prophecy both from teaching (the distinction based on source) and from apostolic speech (the distinction based on authority). Hill hints at both of these distinctions, as noted above, but never develops them fully enough to give more than a rather blurry and vague picture of what New Testament prophecy really was.

There are a few other details where Hill’s discussion also seems unpersuasive. He uncritically accepts (pp. 210–212) G. Dautzenberg’s suggestion that diakriseis pneumatōn (‘distinguishing between spirits’) in 1 Corinthians 12:10 refers to the evaluation of prophecies (but see the extensive critique of Dautzenberg in BZ, NF 22:2 (1978), 253–270). He apparently assumes that formal church offices were a rather late development in the church (pp. 186–187, 190), in spite of evidence such as Acts 14:23, 15:2ff., 20:17, Phil. 1:1; Eph. 4:11; 1 Thes. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 5:14 and 1 Pet. 5:1–2 (which to dismiss as late seems, at least in some cases, to be circular reasoning). He sees the Pastoral Epistles as late, non-Pauline writings and thus treats 1 Timothy 1:18 and 4:14 only very briefly (p. 140). At places he so emphasizes the directive or guidance-giving role of prophecy (pp. 109, 126–128, 131) that it sounds as though that was its primary or exclusive function (a conclusion certainly not required by 1 Cor. 14:3). And he makes some puzzling statements about speaking in tongues, claiming that the tongues in Acts 10:46 and 19:6 were intelligible languages (p. 98: he presses the parallel with Acts 2 too far), and stating also that the Corinthians claimed that ‘glossalalia was the sine qua non of authentic prophetic utterance’ (p. 122, with little argument).

It should probably be noticed that Hill in three places refers to the present reviewer’s own doctoral dissertation (pp. 214, 224, 234), and each time he represents it as claiming that the only genuine New Testament prophets are those who have ‘the divinely authoritative messenger-status of the Old Testament prophet’ (p. 234). But this is exactly the opposite of what the dissertation did claim, namely, that the most important difference between Old Testament and New Testament prophets was that ordinary New Testament prophets in churches such as Corinth did not possess the absolute divine authority of the Old Testament prophets.

Yet the strengths of this book far outweigh its deficiencies. It stands as a valuable contribution to the study of New Testament prophecy.

Wayne Grudem

Wayne Grudem is research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary in Phoenix, Arizona.