Last month (November), I was fortunate to be able to attend the nerdstravaganza that is the Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion annual conferences in Boston. Both during and after the conferences, I fielded a number of requests from friends and colleagues asking for recaps of specific sessions or of the overall experience. (Part 1, in case you missed it).
I’ll do my best to summarize the main arguments of each presenter (and to not drown us all in minutae), then add a brief reaction/commentary. Though this will be multi-part, I don’t intend to summarize every session or encounter; just those that I found most intriguing or particularly thought-provoking. I’d welcome interaction or feedback through the comments, or (as seems by far to be the favourite method of my faithful readers despite the lengthy hiatus) private message through the Contact Form or email.
“Earn the Grace of Prophecy: Prophecy, Training, and Preparation.” Presented by Jung Choi, North Carolina Wesleyan College. Session: SBL Religious Experience in Antiquity.
Choi is interested in presenting the comparison and contrast of two texts: De Principiis 3.3 by Origen, and Iamblichus: Theurgia (On the Mysteries of Egypt) chapter 7. Both texts discuss the qualifications of prophets.
Though one source (Origen) is Christian, and the other is not (Iamblichus), in regards to the prophetic, both sources are greatly interested in the fitness of the prophet. The prophet is meant to be in possession of a soul centered in the correct frame, and purified. Both sources speak to a certain “grace” of prophecy, which must be “earned” as part of the prophet’s initiation, and is not simply accorded to the non-sanctified religious adherent.
[For the “uninitiated” (see what I did there?), Origen was an early Church theologian living in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, who is sometimes included with the listing of Church Fathers. Iamblichus lived at roughly the same time, but was a Neoplatonic philosopher and not a Christian…if you’re looking to me to define “Neoplatonic philosophy,” well…here’s the Wiki. Happy reading.]
As Origen says, humans must make an active choice to invite the good spirit in. While prophecy is a gift of the Spirit of God, the vessel (the “prophet”) must nevertheless strive to continually make itself worthy of the reception and activity of such a gift:
“But a man receives the energy, i.e., the working, of a good spirit, when he is stirred and incited to good, and is inspired to heavenly or divine things; as the holy angels and God Himself wrought in the prophets, arousing and exhorting them by their holy suggestions to a better course of life, yet so, indeed, that it remained within the will and judgment of the individual, either to be willing or unwilling to follow the call to divine and heavenly things. And from this manifest distinction, it is seen how the soul is moved by the presence of a better spirit, i.e., if it encounter no perturbation or alienation of mind whatever from the impending inspiration, nor lose the free control of its will; as, for instance, is the case with all, whether prophets or apostles, who ministered to the divine responses without any perturbation of mind.” (Origen)
Likewise, Iamblichus emphasizes the preparation of the individual for divination:
“These things, therefore, are plain to view, namely: the abundance of offerings, the established law of the whole sacred Observance, and such other things as are performed in a manner worthy of a god, prior to the oracular responding, such as the baths of the prophetess, her fasting for three entire days, her abiding in the interior shrine and having there already the light and enjoying it a long time. For these things all make it manifest that there is an invoking of the deity, and that he becomes present as though coming from outside; and not only that the prophetess, before she takes her position in the accustomed place, receives an inspiration of a wonderful character, but likewise in the very spirit that is brought up from the fountain shows forth another divinity more ancient comes to view, separate from the place, who is the cause or the author of the place, of the fountain, and of the whole technic of divining.” (Iamblichus)
Origen makes distinctions which are similar to Ignatius and his discernment of spirits.
The similar timeframe of Origen’s and Iamblichus’ life and death aids the validity of this enlightening comparison. My suspicion is that this comparison could be taken even further to include other statements of prophetic faith from other religions during this time. Choi’s presentation did not focus as much on the most significant contrasts between the two views of the prophetic graces, which may be contained in her other works.
It struck me further that Origen’s language in particular is a possible forbearer to the Ignatius’ view of spirits of consolation and desolation.
As a potential modern application, there appear to be instinctual realizations that one who claims to speak on behalf of God should also be expected to live to a higher standard than the typical. One might compare with James 3:1 where it is advised that teachers (not prophets, but the parallels and overlap are evident) are held to a stricter standard. The experience of purposeful connection with God cannot be pursued flippantly or without preparation. This should encourage us, if one is pursuing the righteousness of Christ, to enter our practice solemnly and with regular times of purification and confession.
It should, I believe, further encourage us in terms of discernment – those who claim to speak on behalf of God should at a minimum betray substantial evidence that their lives conform to practices of meditation upon Scripture and its study, as well as a certain aestheic which does not communicate undue hubris or ego. While we judge not, we do hold to high standards and fearlessly call out charlatans.