"What is a prophet?" Hugh Nibley asks in his book The World and the Prophets, observing that both Jewish and Christian scholars have always agreed that "Abraham . . . and the prophets are dead." He observes that, with the prophets being thus disposed of, the word prophet has tragically come to mean almost any individual of more than ordinary insight, learning, or rhetorical gifts. Given this situation, Nibley believes that his larger purpose of vindicating the prophets is best undertaken by first getting fair-minded people to agree on a few things that a real prophet is not.
First, a prophet is not a person who attempts to teach others to be prophets. Nibley draws from the ancient Didache, which gives a specific and clear test for distinguishing between a true and a false prophet. If anyone who claimed to be a prophet attempted to teach anything of his skill to another, he was not a true prophet, the saints were advised. Prophecy is a direct gift from God; it cannot be conveyed from one man to another; it cannot be transmitted through any courses of instruction. Peter, for example, had the certain knowledge that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Did he get that knowledge from Jesus, his master and teacher? No, he did not. "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 16:17). Here was Peter taking direct instruction from the mouth of the Lord himself, yet it was not from him but from his Father that Peter got the testimony of Christ. The knowledge of salvation is not transmitted from one man to another horizontally, as it were; it is not passed from one generation to the next as a great earthbound tradition. A testimony, that is, the sure knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world, is received not by horizontal but by vertical descent.
Second, a prophet is not a scholar in the sense that the prophetic gift, the highest form of revelation, coming directly from above, cannot be transmitted through any course of instruction. The scholar and the learned divine must necessarily get their knowledge from the written word, and then trouble begins. The prophet, on the other hand, who may well be illiterate, gets his knowledge by direct intercourse with heaven. The orientation is entirely different. Nibley quotes the the early Christian historian Eusebius, who wrote that the apostles of Christ "neither knew nor made any effort to know about the art of persuasion or skill with words as taught in the schools. The only power they ever made use of was the assurance of the Holy Ghost and the miraculous power of Christ operating through them, by which they preached the kingdom of God throughout the world" (Ecclesiastical History III, 24). "The world will not admit that there can be more than one kind of inspiration, but the saints have always known better," Nibley writes.
Finally, a prophet is not a reformer, but rather a witness. Nibley explains: "Criticism of the world is always implicit in a prophet's message of repentance, but he is not sent for the purpose of criticizing the world. Men know the world is wicked, and the wickedest ones often know it best. To denounce human folly has been the avocation of teachers and philosophers in every age, and their reward, surprisingly enough, has not been death but usually a rather handsome fee. . . . It was not the Sermon on the Mount that drove men to crucify the Lord. It was not for their moral tirades that the prophets of old and the apostles were stoned. . . . What, then, did Christ and the apostles do and say that drove men into paroxysms of rage? They performed tangible miracles such as could not be denied, and they reported what they had seen and heard. That was all. It was as witnesses endowed with power from on high that they earned the hatred of the world. . . . To come down to modern times, why were people so furiously angry with Joseph Smith? It was not for being a reformer or rebuking a naughty world. . . . In what did the modern prophet's deadly offense consist? In the summer of 1833 a much-publicized mass meeting was held in Missouri to protest the admission of Mormon immigrants into Jackson County, and this was the official objection: 'The committee express fears that . . . they will soon have all the offices in the county in their hands; and that the lives and property of other citizens would be insecure, under the administration of men who are so ignorant and superstitious as to believe that they have been the subjects of miraculous and supernatural cures; hold converse with God and his angels, and possess and exercise the gifts of divination and unknown tongues.' Charles Dickens, as is well known, was very favorably impressed by the Mormons he saw both in American and England, but one thing about them he could not tolerate: 'What the Mormons do,' he wrote in 1851, 'seems to be excellent; what they say is mostly nonsense' because 'it exhibits fanaticism in its newest garb,' namely 'seeing visions in the age of railways.' That put them in the same class with the prophets and apostles of old. 'We know Abraham is our father, and Moses is our prophet, but who is this guy?' 'Abraham is dead, and the prophets are deadwho do you think you are?'"
A prophet, then, receives his knowledge directly from God. He does not seek to pass on his gift, rely on the wisdom of scholars, or reform the world. He simply seeks to reveal the word of God to men. As the Apostle Paul wrote: "I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:1112; emphasis added). "Since the restoration of the gospel," Nibley concludes, "such revelation is again available to mankind, provided they heed the words of the prophets and do not regard their own discoveries and conclusions as the end of knowledge."
Adapted from Hugh Nibley, "Prophets and Scholars" and "A Prophet's Reward," in The World and the Prophets (1987).