Prophecy in the Ancient Church

This is the 10th and final Blog in this series which began with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy.   The immediate preceding blog is A Christian View of Prophecy.

This final blog in the series looks at how a few Christian writers from the Post-Apostolic and Patristic periods understood prophecy, especially that found in the Old Testament.  Because the ancients Christians tended to read the Old Testament as typology or a prefiguring of Christ, they actually read much of the Old Testament as prophecy.  They called Moses and King David prophets, and tended to view the importance of both Torah and Psalms as prophecies of Christ.  They got their cue from Jesus Himself who in his Post-Resurrectional appearance interpreted the Jewish Scriptures precisely in this way:   “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself”  (Luke 24:27).    

First, we can consider the view of the Second Century Christian apologist St. Justin the Martyr (d. ca 166AD).

 “One will remark the complexity of the very notion of prophecy in St. Justin’s  view:  it is the eternal Word himself who, through his Spirit and through a human instrument, announces in advance the mystery which he will himself accomplish later in time.  Christ is at once both the supreme Prophet and the reality prophesied: the supreme Prophet as eternal Logos, the reality prophesied as incarnate Logos.  He gives in prophecy a sign that makes it possible for one to recognize him when the prophecy is fulfilled.”  (Bertrand de Margerie, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE HISTORY OF EXEGESIS V 1, p 37)

St. Justin holds to a very sophisticated view of prophecy:  it is God’s Word who speaks to the prophets through the Holy Spirit.   The prophets are thus giving form, though in shadow and foretype, to the Word.  This was done so that when God’s Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ, He (His voice – that of the Good Shepherd) would be recognizable.   Many of the Fathers believed that the Old Testament descriptions of the saints and prophets encountering God were actually encounters with the pre-incarnate Word, namely, the Son of God.  God used this method of revelation to help the people of God recognize the incarnate Word when the fullness of time had come.

“Justin also uses Scripture differently in his two works.  As the APOLOGY is written for pagans, he does not appeal in it to the Scriptures as an authoritative source of truth.  Rather he appeals to them to provide evidence that the Gospel believed in by Christians is not simply the latest claims, but ancient prophecies, written in publicly available books, which have now been fulfilled in Christ.” (John Behr, THE WAY TO NICEA, p 94)

Thus prophecies show that God’s plan of salvation was being revealed throughout the history of the Jews.  Jesus claiming to be God incarnate was thus not unexpected but had been revealed through the prophets.   St. Irenaeus (d. 202AD), a generation after Justin, acknowledges God was revealing his plan through the prophets, yet before its fulfillment a prophecy remains in the shadows, not fully understood until the revelation comes to light when it happens.

“For any prophecy, before it is fulfilled, is nothing but enigmas and ambiguities.  But from the moment that the prediction is fulfilled, it finds its proper interpretation.”  (St. Irenaeus  quoted in BEGINNINGS: ANCIENT CHRISTIAN READINGS OF THE BIBLICAL CREATION NARRATIVES, Peter Bouteneff, p 74)

Two Centuries later, the archbishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD), offered some thoughts on his own understanding of prophecy and inspiration.

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) says: ‘a thinker speculates on the future out of his great wisdom and personal experience.’  And he goes on to say that speculation is one thing and prophesy is another.  The prophet speaks in the Holy Spirit ‘contributing nothing of his own’; whereas the thinker employs his own understanding.  Thus there is a great difference between the Prophet and the thinker, ‘as much difference there is between human wisdom and divine grace.’”  (Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos,  THE ILLNESS AND CURE OF THE SOUL IN THE ORTHODOX TRADITION, p 43)

A contemporary and antagonist of Chrysostom’s, St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444AD) understood Christian prophecy to be one who properly interprets the Old Testament in the light of Christ.

 “Prophecy means for Cyril the divinely given capacity to interpret the Old Testament. Indeed the Christian prophet is one who has received the charism of recognizing the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies in the New.”  (Brevard Childs, THE STRUGGLE TO UNDERSTAND ISAIAH AS CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURE, p 125)

The ancient Christian theologians saw Old Testament prophecy as a foretelling of Christ.  But not all prophecies predicted future events; many prophecies occur in the form of typology, prefiguring, or foreshadowing the coming of Christ.  So the Old Testament as a whole is largely prophecy, even though many of the Old Testament authors were not aware that they were being prophets.  As the author of Hebrews says of the saints of the Old Covenant:   “These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth”  (11:13).   They could not see Christ clearly, He was distant and they were in shadow, but they remained faithful to the hope.   This is the sense of  prophecy held by the ancient Christians.   As St. Peter writes: 

“The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory.  It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”  (1 Peter 1:10-12)

Prophecy, forth telling God’s Word, has to do with Christ, God’s Word become flesh.   Thus the Old Testament, whether Law or history or Psalm, is prophecy.  It all points to Christ, was all written by those inspired by God to be prophets.  The faithful reader of the Old Testament is also a prophet whenever he or she recognizes Christ in the words of the Old Testament.   Thus the Old Testament is inspired by God in order to reveal Christ, and it inspires those who read it in Christ to recognize God’s Word.

An Eye Revealing From Whence I Came

I was driving down this rural road and saw what appeared almost to be an eye, standing out against the woods.  I stopped to take its picture and realized it revealed from whence I came.  A time hole of sorts forever looking back down this traveled road, always allowing the forward moving traveller to see what lies behind – the past.