The Reformation of Prophecy

Early Modern Interpretations of the Prophet & Old Testament Prophecy

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G. Sujin Pak
Oxford Studies in Historical Theology
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


G. Sujin Pak’s The Reformation of Prophecy: Early Modern Interpretations of the Prophet and Old Testament Prophecy is a chronological and developmental analysis of leading Protestant reformers’ various employments of the prophet and biblical prophecy in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Pak’s work significantly differs from other studies on a similar subject, which concentrate on a single reformer’s position or deal primarily with the Protestant reformers’ prophetic self-awareness or prophetic attributions. The author focuses on the Protestant reformers’ specific “uses” of the prophet and Old Testament prophecy, which became a site of interconfessional polemic and a confessional distinction and source of identity formation (29). The main thesis of the book is that during the early modern era, the prophet and prophecy in the Old Testament were significant “instruments” to promote differing aspects of the reforming work envisioned by leading Lutheran, Swiss Reformed, and Calvinist reformers respectively.

To substantiate the thesis that the prophet and biblical prophecy were “powerful tools” in the hands of the leading Protestant reformers, Pak first situates the reformers’ general views of the prophet and prophecy in the broader history of the biblical interpretation. Pak thoroughly investigates patristic, early medieval, medieval, and late medieval views, including the positions of Ambrosiaster, Gregory the Great, Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, Jacques Lefèvre D'Étaples, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and Joachim of Fiore.

Pak agrees with Jon Balserak’s thesis of two traditions of prophecy in the medieval church, “Tradition 1” for the predictive and supernatural function of prophecy and “Tradition 2” for the interpretive function of prophecy.

However, Pak criticizes Balserak’s stark separation of the two traditions of prophecy, contending that the two functions of prophecy (predictive and interpretive) were both affirmed simultaneously and consistently by the church in history (6). The author nicely situates the Protestant reformers’ views of prophecy within the tradition of the dual affirmation of prophecy as predictive and interpretive, and she convincingly argues that on the eve of the Reformation, the emphasis shifted more to the interpretive function of prophecy. In this part, a question could be raised of why this gradual shift of emphasis (from predictive to interpretive) occurred in late medieval period and why the early Protestant reformers began perceiving the prophet primarily as the interpreter of Scripture, rather than the foreteller of future events.

In chapter 1, Pak successfully demonstrates that the early reformers such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and Matthew Zell employed the interpretive function of prophecy and the prophet as the interpreter of Scripture to promote their reforming vision of the priesthood of all believers.

Focusing on the early reformers’ interpretations of 1 Corinthians 14, Pak contends that to challenge Roman Catholic priestly authority, Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, and Zell cast the priestly duties of all Christians to interpret and proclaim Scripture and to discern true doctrines (41). By studying the lay pamphleteers from 1520 to 1525, Pak traces the history of the lay reception of the early reformers’ definition of prophecy as interpretation and proclamation of Scripture. Pak’s close examination of the lay pamphlets proves the lay embrace and implementation of the early reformers’ use of prophecy and their adaptation of the persona of the prophet in the 16th-century context (51). In this part, an intriguing question would be why the lay pamphlets produced in this period did not refer to 1 Corinthians 14, a crucial text that Pak points out as being employed by the early reformers to promote the vision of the priesthood of all believers.

One of many strengths of Pak’s study is her close attention to the relationship between theology, interpretation of Scripture, and historical context. Pak in chapter 1 explains the early reformers’ use of prophecy and biblical prophet to claim the ultimate authority of Scripture against the Roman Catholic priestly authority. In chapter 2, Pak convincingly argues that in 1524-1525, Luther and Zwingli reframed their earlier views of prophecy and biblical prophet to repudiate the radicals’ appeals to the work of the Holy Spirit above and beyond Scripture.

Pak clearly shows that against the radicals, Luther and Zwingli reinterpreted 1 Corinthians 14 to support the pastoral office of the church and increasingly tightened the parameters of lay participation by emphasizing the necessity of a trained, educated, and ordained clergy. Consequently, the prophet began to be identified no longer with a layperson but with an established male Protestant pastor (90).

Several questions could be addressed here. First, prior to 1524, did Luther not emphasize the necessary study of biblical languages for a proper interpretation of Scripture, which is the main duty of the prophet in his mind? Second, were “Luther’s three new moves” (the explicit terminology of office; the layperson’s passive act of listening; the prophet’s task of maintaining of order) that Pak points out in Luther’s 1532 treatise indeed later additions not found in his earlier works? Third, in his earlier vision prior to 1524, was Luther’s view of the priesthood of all believers incompatible with his position of Protestant clerical authority?

After historically contextualizing the early reformers’ changing views of prophecy in their responses to particular external pressures prior to and after 1524-1525, in chapters 3, 4, and 5, Pak examines differing understandings of prophecy and the prophet’s office in the views of the leading Protestant reformers.

According to Pak, Luther, Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Calvin all shared the common view that the prophet’s duty is for edification, exhortation, and consolation. Despite these “confessional crossovers,” Pak points out that the next generations of the Lutheran, the Swiss Reformed, and the Calvinist received respectively Luther’s distinctive view of the prophet as preacher of Christ, Zwingli’s perception of the prophet as watchman of Christian society, and Calvin’s strong emphasis on interpretation of the law as the prophet’s “ordinary” duty, which furthered growing confessional distinctions among them.

In chapters 6, 7, and 8, Pak discusses the differing views of sacred history, various hermeneutical methods, the perspicuous content of prophecy, and conflicting perceptions of metaphor (sign) in the leading Protestant reformers’ exegesis of the prophetic books in the Old Testament. In these chapters, Pak successfully demonstrates that, without taking seriously the reformers’ differing methods of biblical interpretation that resulted in distinctive exegetical outcomes, a proper historical understanding of the consolidation of Protestant confessional identities cannot be achieved.

By this multi-confessional and multi-generational treatment of prophecy and biblical prophet in the 16th and 17th centuries, Pak’s work would greatly contribute to the scholarship of the Reformation, and her work is an exemplary achievement in the study of early modern interpretation of Scripture. I highly recommend it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Inseo Song is Adjunct Professor of Historical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
April 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

G. Sujin Pak is Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity, Duke Divinity School. She is the author of The Judaizing Calvin (OUP 2009).


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