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Gene Green: As For Prophecies, They Will Come to and End

Gene L. Green, “‘As For Prophecies, They Will Come to and End’: 2 Peter, Paul and Plutarch on ‘The Obsolescence of Oracles,’” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 82 (2001), pages 107-122.

Any Pentecostal/charismatic that has encountered a cessationist—those who believe the “supernatural” gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased—has heard 1 Cor 13:8-10 quoted. “But whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues; they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (KJV). As Pentecostal/charismatics, we disagree with how cessationists interpret this passage. But why did Paul write this? Was there some kind of “cessationism” in his day?

Professor Gene Green has been teaching at Wheaton since 1996.

Dr. Gene Green has written this essay to begin the exploration of the religious environment in which Paul wrote about this subject, something he says few have done. Dr. Green argues that 2 Peter and 1 Cor 12-14 were written as a response to a growing climate of skepticism concerning the validity of prophetic speech and other forms of divine communication. He begins by briefly describing what the Greeks and Romans believed about prophecies and other forms of divination, then he looks at ancient skepticism regarding divination. Included in this overview is an introduction to the Stoic and Epicurean debate about divination and the apostle Paul’s encounter with them in Acts 17. Green also points out a number of parallels between Paul and the non-Christian Greek Plutarch regarding the subject of divination.

Green writes that it appears that Paul gave admonitions in 1 Thess 5 because some in the church were attempting to prohibit manifestations of the Spirit. This is just one evidence that there indeed was a type of “cessationism” gaining ground even in the lifetime of the first apostles. Unknown to modern readers, the oracle of Delphi was geographically near Corinth. Therefore the debate among the Greeks regarding the cessation or continuance of the oracles and divination at Delphi has bearing upon Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.

Green writes, “A time of full knowledge is coming but until then the validity of partial revelations should be upheld. The apostle is far from embracing notions of prophetic decline but rather anticipates that day when revelation will be full and complete, a time when any form of divine inspiration will no longer be necessary” (p. 120). Paul and his Christian contemporaries were affirming the reality of divine revelation and pointing to the only true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the source of genuine revelation.

… any silence that the glossolalists [tongue-speakers] in the church are to observe is to be self-imposed and does not come about due to the decline of the charismata.

The church is not to take the initiative in hindering any form of divine speech, but should rather encourage it: “be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14.39). Suppression of divine speech within the congregation was not the proper way of handling the concerns that some in the congregation would have had concerning such manifestations. The church was, however, called upon to deal with charlatanry. Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to “test everything” and to “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5.21; cf. 2 Thess. 2.2, 15; 1 Cor. 14.29; 12.3, 10; cf. 1 Jn 4.1-3). So important was this value that the gifts of the Spirit known as the “discerning of spirits” functioned as a means of verifying the validity of prophetic utterances. the charge against prophetic charlatans was well known, as we have seen, and Paul will have none of it in the church. His way of dealing with this issue, however, was not to suppress the use of the gift but rather by instituting a means of verification (some parenthetical statements not included, p. 121).

Green argues that 1 Cor 14 and 1 Thess 5 show that the church is to do nothing to hinder genuine divine speech, but rather encourage it. Dealing with prophetic charlatans was to be done by instituting verification, not by suppressing the use of the gifts.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Pneuma Review, Summer 2002

About the Author: Raul L. Mock is one of the founders and directors of the Pneuma Foundation and editor of The Pneuma Review. Raul has been part of an Evangelical publishing ministry since 1996, working with Information Services and Supply Chain Management for more than two decades. He and his wife, Erin, have a daughter and twin boys and live in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. LinkedIn

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