Testing Prophets

For the last few weeks I’ve been talking about inspiration, whether that relates to written scripture, or to someone claiming to be speaking for God. Today I’m going to start discussing the tests of a prophet, which might be equated to tests for inspiration, that are used in Christianity. These find their source somewhere in the Bible.

As I discussed in my previous entry, these tests are derived from the community. In other words, they have their source in tradition. Somewhere along the line I will talk more about tradition, how it can be valuable and also how it can be a problem.

The tests I’ll be discussing in my next few entries are:

  • Fulfilled prediction or sign
  • Godliness
  • Access to inside information, or is in God’s councils
  • Divine wisdom
  • Gift of discernment

All of these have been claimed to be good methods of deciding who is a true or false prophet.

Let’s look first at the fulfilled prediction or sign. The basic scripture for this particular test comes from Deuteronomy 18:21-22, which says that if a prophet says that something is going to happen, and then that doesn’t happen, they are a false prophet. Note that this is not stated positively, i.e. that one cannot be certain simply because a prediction comes true that the person making that prediction is a true prophet. We’ll discuss that further in the entry on “Godliness” as a test.

This seems to be the easiest test as well as the most objective. We simply look for some external sign, normally a predicted event, and if that does not occur as predicted by the prophet, then we know the prophet is false. But the Bible does make allowances for predictions that are true, but not from God, and we ourselves know that there is a possibility of a prediction being true simply by chance, or because someone knows certain factors and gets lucky. For example, one can look at opinion polls and predict the result of an election. That doesn’t make that person a prophet.

The book of Jeremiah provides many excellent examples of the use of this test. The primary issue between Jeremiah and other prophets was over the status of Jerusalem and the temple. Many prophets were predicting that the city and temple would be saved. They held a doctrine that based on God’s promises to David, the temple could not be destroyed. Jeremiah predicted that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed and the rulers and many of the people taken into exile. History proved Jeremiah right, even if his behavior during an invasion did sound like treason.

One more specific example was the conflict between Hananiah and Jeremiah in depicted in Jeremiah 28. Jeremiah uses the visual aid of a yoke that he wears to show that those who accept Babylon’s yoke will survive. Hananiah removes the yoke and prophecies that Nebuchadnezzar will be repulsed. Jeremiah then predicts Hananiah’s death as a punishment from God. In the same year Hananiah dies (Jeremiah 28).

A further problem with this test is the vagueness of certain prophecies. People frequently object when I refer to Biblical prophecies being vague. Usually these people have a very precise interpretation in mind. But there are normally other people who are equally convinced of precisely opposite solutions. A good example is the white horse its rider of Revelation 6:2. Interpretations, strongly stated, include the contradictory positions that the rider is Jesus Christ himself, and that he is the antichrist. Some other interpreters see the early Christian church heading out to evangelize. Obviously not all of these can be true, and so the prophecy must be regarded as vague. Revelation has gone through many interpretations that have been proven false by the progress of history. Remaining interpretations put unfulfilled events in the future. Can one then know by the fulfillment/sign test whether John the Revelator was a true or false prophet?

But the situation gets more complicated yet. In the book of Jonah we have the story of a prophet who makes a specific prediction, one that certainly cannot be regarded as vague, and does not admit of an alternate interpretation. Nineveh was to be destroyed in 40 days. Nineveh was not destroyed in 40 days. One cannot assume that the later destruction of Nineveh fulfilled this prophecy, because it did not occur within the 40 days. Failed prediction! Can we say to the Ninevites, “You don’t have to fear Jonah’s prediction (Deuteronomy 18:22)?” That is certainly not the position of the book. From the perspective of our story teller Jonah does, in fact, have a message from God, but nothing happens.

Some will claim that Jonah is a fictional story written to make a different point. I would argue that whether fictional or not, it likely reflects its authors view of predictive prophecy. But we have a better alternative.

Returning to Jeremiah, now to chapter 18, we have the story of Jeremiah in the potter’s house. He watches the clay pots being made, and sees the potter reshape clay into whatever form he likes. This is often used by Christians, following the example of Paul in Romans 9, to indicate God’s absolute sovereignty, apart from our own actions. But Jeremiah’s point is precisely the opposite. He is telling us that God can change his actions based on repentance. Read the entire chapter. When good is predicted, and people turn to evil, God will repent of the good he had planned to do. When evil is predicted, and the people repent, then God will repent of the evil. The entire chapter is very instructive, and basically carries the same message with reference to prophecy as the book of Jonah.

The historical situation in Jeremiah is substantially different from that in Jonah, however. Jeremiah is responding to the doctrine I referred to above, that Jerusalem and the Temple could not be destroyed because of God’s promises to David. Jeremiah is responding to this that God can change his actions according to the decisions and actions of people. In Jeremiah’s case this resulted in his correct prediction that Judah would fall, and would go into exile. He also predicted their return to Judah with significant accuracy. Jeremiah essentially presented a doctrine that, despite Deuteronomy 18, would allow the earlier prophets, those who had brought messages in favor of Jerusalem and the temple, could be true prophets even though their prediction of an eternal throne for David and for Jerusalem’s prosperity were about to fail.

The final difficulty with this test is simply that the results can be too late. Again let me use Jeremiah for an example. He predicts the destruction of Jerusalem. The majority of those who claimed to be prophets in Judah were predicting salvation for Jerusalem. If you were Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, or Zedekiah, who would you believe? Until the events have taken place, you cannot know whose prediction came to pass. I call this the “dead test” for a prophet, because you’re so very often dead, as were many inhabitants of Jerusalem, before you can finish applying the test.

So this test has some value, in that it provides an objective test, but at the same time there are substantial difficulties in application.

In my next entry on this topic I will discuss the second test, Godliness.

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