In 1979, Ken Davis published an article that outline the characteristics of an orthodox Charismatic movement (as opposed to heretical ones), and then proposed that the 16th Century Anabaptists were such a movement. Taking up his work, I see the 4th Century Desert Fathers and Mothers were another such movement. This series explores those characteristics and shows how they were expressed among the Desert Saints.
Orthodox charismatic movements employ the gift of prophecy, but always deny that new revelations have the same level of authority as Scripture. They believe that “the Holy Spirit operates only in accordance with Christ and the Scriptures”. Heretical prophets, however, utter new revelations that supplement, complete or even correct the canonical Scriptures.
While the topic of prophetic authority versus biblical authority is never explicitly addressed by the desert literature, the supremacy of Scripture appears to have been taken for granted. Two emphases in the literature demonstrate this universal assumption. First, the Fathers always had a high view of Scripture. Antony started in the monastic life in response to hearing Scripture read at church (specifically Matthew 19:21 and 6:34). Scripture reading was considered indispensable to progress in the life of virtue and the brothers would often committed large portions of it to memory. However, they were wise enough to recognize that one needed to live according to the Scriptures rather than simply memorize it to impress others. Consider the response of one abba to some visitors who used Scripture in this way:
one of them asked him, saying, “Father, I have committed the Old and New Testaments to memory.” And the old man answered and said, “Thou has filled the air with words.” And the second asked him, saying, “I have written the Old and New Testaments with my own hand.” But he said to him, “And thou hast filled the windows with manuscripts.”
An appropriate humility regarding the interpretation of Scripture was also deemed necessary, for mishandling the text was seen as dangerous.
The second proof of the abbas’ submission of prophecy to Scripture is to examine the way prophecy was used in the desert. It was used to warn sinners of their fate if they did not repent. Abba John of Lycopolis would foretell when some divine judgement would fall on the brothers as well as those who were to blame for it. He also sent his predictions to the Christian emperor to encourage him that he would conqueror his enemies. Another abba warned a man prosecuting a monk that he would not live to return to his home. Thus, as with the other spiritual gifts, prophecy was used to edify others whether by challenging them to turn from their sin or urge them on in the right path, rather than to issue new doctrine.