In 1 Corinthians 14:21 St Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11-12, with its acknowledgement that unintelligible speaking in tongues has the disadvantage that it does not instruct those who already believe, but only calls to 'strangers'. He wants to encourage the Corinthians to 'prophesy' instead. The question at issue here is whether there can be any place for prophecy in the Old Testament sense when the promised Messiah has come and all prophecy is fulfilled in him; and with it the cognate question whether the gift of prophecy given to certain individuals in Old Testament times is given in the same way in the Christian era. Paul seems to have meant something like 'preaching the Gospel' when he spoke of prophecy to the Corinthians. But he implied for Christian readers after him some continuity of the prophetic tradition into the new Christian dispensation. That implication was taken up in the patristic period and the Middle Ages by a series of authors anxious to demonstrate the working out of God's providential plan in history.
A foundation text here is the Genesis account of the six days of creation. These could be interpreted to refer to the six ages of the world, with the consummation of all things in eternity forming the seventh day of rest. This theme was taken up by Augustine, and it helped to give rise to a lively debate about the beginnings and endings of these 'days', and the periods of history to which they referred. It encouraged early historians of the Christian era, such as Eusebius (c.260-c.340) in his Chronicle, Orosius, a contemporary of Augustine, in his History against the Pagans, Gregory of Tours in the sixth century, and numerous medieval chroniclers after them, to begin at the beginning of God's work in the world and to see recent history as a direct continuation and unfolding of that work.
Another pattern of interpretation of history as prophecy unfolding was introduced on the basis of Daniel 7. Three beasts rise from the sea, a lion, a bear and a leopard with four heads. A fourth beast comes and eats the other three. It has ten horns, but an eleventh horn, with the eyes of a man and a boasting mouth, rises up among them and begins to destroy, and so on. Out of this were fashioned identifications with four world monarchies rising and falling in the course of history, with the eleventh horn of the beast seen as Antichrist/Christians were, of course, the first to use the term Antichrist (1 John 4:3), but the idea he represents is nascent in Old Testament prophecies and in Jewish Apocalypses. Out of this text in Daniel a schema of interpretation of history in four ages was thus devised, with, alongside it, another, also attested to in Daniel (4:1-25). A great tree falls, but it is not uprooted. It is a fallen king. Seven 'times' or ages will pass while it lies there. These are the seven ages of the world which Augustine had found in the six days of creation and God's day of rest at the end.
Yet a third prophetic division of history became popular from the twelfth century. Rupert of Deutz wrote a biblical commentary, On the Holy Spirit and his Works, at the beginning of the century, in which he works his way through Scripture in order, pointing to the seven days of creation as the age and work of God the Father; the seven ages of the world from the Fall to Christ's passion as the age and work of the Son; the seven gifts of the Spirit at work in the period from the Incarnation to the last Judgement during the age of the Holy Spirit. This schema of three status or ages reappears with fresh interpretations in the work of Joachim of Fiore at the end of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth. In Joachim's scheme, the age of the Father covers the period during which mankind lived under the Law, that is, the Old Testament era; then began the age of the Son, lived under grace, to last as Joachim thought for forty-two generations, each of about thirty years. The third age, of the Holy Spirit, was then to begin, in which there would be spiritual life and contemplation. Joachim prophesied that this would start about 1260. His was seen by the ecclesiastical authorities as a dangerous doctrine, because it put great influence into the hands of the spiritual Franciscans and others who were leading movements in the Church which were seen by some to be threatening to the status quo. Moreover, it brought prophecy into the present day and encouraged speculation about the end of the world and the last world Emperor which also had political repercussions. Joachim had an enormous and lasting influence, and did a good deal to begin the habit of identifying the Pope with Antichrist which was to last into the Reformation and beyond.
All these periodizations of history had, then, a prophetic content, and they proved remarkably durable historiographically. Jean Bodin in his Method of History as late as 1566 thought himself to be taking a bold step in abandoning the four-monarchy system; the debate about the place of prophecy and miracle in the interpretation of history continued into the nineteenth century.
Particular motifs were important in their own right in this connection. The image of Babylon as archetype of an evil regime could be applied equally readily to the Roman imperium and to the Church by the enemies of state or Church establishment. The Old Testament prophets were immensely rich in images with considerable potential for interpretation in such political ways.
A logicians' paradox, a version of the 'Cretan liar' paradox, provided an amusing but not unserious theme in the later Middle Ages. Amos says 'I am not a prophet' (Amos 7:14). Yet unless he is a prophet, he cannot prophesy that truthfully. The issue raised was of some interpretative significance because it made it necessary to ask whether the prophets prophesy under inspiration in everything they say in the Old Testament, or whether a prophet may be a prophet at certain times and not others. This was prompted in part by Gregory the Great's widely used account of prophets and prophecy in his Homilies on Ezekiel. That had raised the related question whether a prophet always knows the meaning of what he is saying if he is a true prophet. In the thirteenth century, Hugh of St Cher, a Dominican in Paris, pressed the view that prophecy must involve knowledge. He cites Job 13:1: 'My eye has seen all this and my ear has heard and I have understood.' Hugh thought that God first put the message into the prophet's mind, then told him what it meant, before the prophet delivered it. But there are problems. Jonah's prophecy was unfulfilled. Here there seems to be a prophet who was not given understanding of what he was saying. That is what Gregory the Great believed, arguing that sometimes even true prophets speak without the Spirit's prompting and cannot tell the difference between their own ideas and those put into their minds by God. Then again there is the case of Amos' saying propheta non sum, 'I am not a prophet' (7:14). This is more than a paradox; it is a challenge to the principle that the prophet is simply the Lord's mouthpiece. All these difficulties have to do with the theory of prophetic inspiration, on the basis of which Christian exegesis understood Old Testament prophecy to be the Word of God.
A further set of issues came into play in the fourteenth century, although they were by no means new. Aristotle's discussion of conditional futurity in the De Interpretatione had given rise to a considerable literature among Christian scholars, because of its bearing on the theology of predestination. It was also relevant to prophecy. A prophet could only truly prophesy if the future was determined. The issue of the tenses used in Scripture also has a bearing here. Augustine had discussed the problem that since God is eternal no tense of the verb used in Scripture can be strictly limited as to the time to which it refers. The same matter was taken up by Anselm of Canterbury and others. It is still current in the fourteenth century, when Wyclif looks at Matthew 9:9-10, 'I say to you that he is a prophet and more than a prophet.' Wyclif explains that Moses prophesied about the past when he wrote (as it was then believed he did) the account in Genesis of the creation of the world. Elizabeth prophesied about the present when Mary the mother of Jesus came to her (Luke 1:39-56). Prophecies about the future in Scripture are legion. The tense is not important. In such a manner one might get over the difficulty about conditional futurity, by suggesting that there is no such thing as futurity, of past or present, with God. William of Ockham's view, which was widely adopted in the fourteenth century, was that it is essential to distinguish between the verbal difference of tense and a real difference of time referred to, which he said could apply in Scripture; but Wyclif could not find that satisfactory.
Wyclif also addressed the problem whether God is the author of a lie in those prophets whose prophecies have not been fulfilled. He is sure that the prophets were fully shown all those things which have to do with the Christian faith. He is also certain that Scripture is wholly true in everything it says. He explains the unfulfilled prophecies as using language in a figurative way, or as warnings or threats. He concedes that prophecies can have no certitude if they are conditional expressions about the future. But if Christ himself is to be seen as the propheta maximus, it must be possible for prophecy to see the future truly and perfectly, and for this prophet at least to understand fully what he foretells.
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