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Spotting real prophecies

If prophecy continues, and someone tells you they have received a word from the Lord, how can you tell if they’re for real, or just full of it?

Previously I gave two rough alternative arguments that spiritual gifts continue. In the comments, Dr P and I had an interesting exchange, with the key question being:

How would you test an alleged prophecy against Scripturee in a matter which is adiaphora?

Now, I think most “prophecies”—the sorts of “words from the Lord” people receive willy-nilly in certain churches—are obviously tosh and can be dismissed out of hand. But that said, here are a few criteria I’d look to if I wasn’t sure:

The alleged prophet

  1. What is the general character of this person? Is he reliable, clear-headed, sober-minded, sensible; does he judge matters by reference to Scripture and evidence? Or is he flighty, muddle-headed, opinionated, silly, wrapped up in himself; is he a busybody, prone to flights of fancy, or judging matters by reference to his own emotions?
  2. Is he a mature believer? Is he theologically competent? Or is he immature or inclined to just throw ideas together in a blender and chug whatever comes out?
  3. Does he have a history of prophetic ability that has proven sound? Or does he have a history of claiming to receive prophecies that turned out to be bogus?

The alleged prophecy

  1. What form does it take? Prophecy in Scripture tends to be given by a visible appearance of the Word of Yahweh (aka Jesus). Is that what this person experienced—or did they just have a strange dream? If they’re hearing voices, it might be better to get them medical help than to accept their spiritual help.
  2. Does it have the ring of truth? Does it seem edifying…or does it seem self-serving? Is it plausible to think God would speak to someone on this matter? Is it important, or trivial? (In general, I tend to assume that God giving someone else a “prophecy” about my personal life is extremely improbable unless they are in some kind of mentoring role where it will actually edify me. After all, if prophecy continues, God can speak to me just as easily as to someone else.)
  3. Does the alleged prophecy line up with anything I have experienced in my own life? Does it come at a time when I am already thinking about the issue at hand despite the person not knowing? Does it coincide with an event which, in isolation, looks random, but in combination with the prophecy appears meaningful? Is there any evidence of providence here (especially in a way I’ve experienced before)?
  4. Can I verify the prophecy? Is it specific enough to falsify; does it make predictions or demonstrate improbable knowledge of something? Or is it vague and subjective? If it is a dream, is it open to interpretation?
  5. Having prayed about it, do I have any sense that the prophecy is something I should act on; or do I have the sense that it’s nonsense?

7 comments

  1. Dr P

    Another great post, but one that still raises some improtant questions. Let’s raise them according to your catgories:

    1. THE ALLEGED PROPHET: General character would not have been a good gauge for Balaam or Caiaphas, both of whom prophesied despite being thoroughgoing scoundrels. Theological competence has a partisan air to it: would you as a nonremonstrant Baptist recognize the gift of prophecy in, say, an EO monk? As for reliability, the benchmark is 100% accuracy; anything else warrants precipitation, and fails to distinguish between prophecy and sage counsel.

    2. THE ALLEGED PROPHECY: Not all prophets saw God enthroned in heaven or hechal, so this criterion could exclude bona fide prophecies. What, btw, constitutes a strange dream, and what differentiates this from some of the visions recorded by the prophets (eg Ezekiel’s creatures)? This criterion smacks of subjectivity for, had major tranquilizers been available at Ezekeil’s time, he probably would have had a court order for forced medication.

    “Ring of truth” and “edifying” are also subjective and harken to the Mormon’s pyrosis, bringing us from psychotropics to proton pump inhibitors. Assuming is really (unintentially, ot coutse) presuming to tell God how He had better address His envelopes if He expects His mailings to be received and read by His creatures. If you aren’t thinking about what God thinks you should be thinking about, perhaps He’d send a prophet as a wake-up call. Elijah was Elisha’s mentor, but not all prophets were necessarily mentors to their hearers; some appeared to be Divine Jackboots. Isaiah’s prediction of the reign of Cyrus and many of the messianic prophecies were not verifiable or falsifiable by the immediate audience, so I’m not sure those criteria are helpful.

    While I can’t argue about praying over difficult matters or having a sense of rightness or wrongness, this also sounds a bit like Jiminy Cricket, as my conscience is fallible and I can perceive amiss. The question is not how I feel, but is this a message from God or no? If yes, I must obey and bring my conscience into conformity therewith; if no, then my feelings are irrelevant. No doubt you will have an interesting and informative riposte.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I don’t think showing counterexamples in Scripture weakens the overall usefulness of these sorts of questions as guides.

    Given that what we’re discussing here is explicitly something that cannot be decided from Scripture, all our tests will by definition be subjective and error-prone. So complaining that they are subjective seems to miss the point.

    Theological competence has a partisan air to it

    So you think Paul’s instructions to Titus about the qualifications for eldership have a partisan air to them? (Titus 1:9)

    As for reliability, the benchmark is 100% accuracy

    The problem is, we need to distinguish between accuracy of prophecy and accuracy of interpretation. A true prophecy can be badly interpreted.

  3. Dr P

    I beg to differ about the Scriptural counterexamples, as they illustrate just how difficult discerning truth from falsehood can be – especially without urim and thummim or magisterium. Prophets also objectively authenticated their office, which can’t be said of any latter-day putative prophet. Not only can true prophecies be falsely interpretetd and false prophecies be taken for true, but a correct guess can also appear prophetic.

    While St Paul was no partisan, the same can’t be said of churches, councils, and ourselves, which can and do err despite acting like they believe otherwise (eg, quia subscription and closed communion). Doubtless you will agree that we have a tendency to view ourselves, our pet theologians, and our churches as the sword proceeding from the mouth of Christ, often failing to see the charismata of the Holy Ghost upon those bodies and believers who differ with us – hence my question about recognizing an EO monk as a true prophet. I hope I’ve made myself clearer on what I meant by partisan.

    As for the 100% accuracy mark, false prophets in the OT were to meet a sudden and violent end. While tossing such mordern scoundrels from our stteples, certainly those folks should be under excommunication; this might help to prophylax sorting truth from error.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I beg to differ about the Scriptural counterexamples, as they illustrate just how difficult discerning truth from falsehood can be

    “Can” being the operative word. These aren’t exactly normative cases. There’s no reason to throw out sound principles of discernment just because they can be thwarted by unusual cases. Most cases, by definition, are not unusual.

    Prophets also objectively authenticated their office, which can’t be said of any latter-day putative prophet.

    That seems question-begging. Prophets authenticate their office by prophesying.

    I hope I’ve made myself clearer on what I meant by partisan.

    I’m not sure. It seems like you’re taking a rather skeptical position on the confidence we can have in what doctrines Scripture teaches. In any event, an EO monk is going to deny basic gospel truths like sola fide. If prophecy is a gift of the Spirit, there’s no reason to expect an EO monk to be given it.

    certainly those folks should be under excommunication; this might help to prophylax sorting truth from error.

    I couldn’t agree more heartily. Just because we can’t shoot the wolves doesn’t mean we shouldn’t chase them away. A church that won’t protect its congregation isn’t worthy of the name.

  5. Dr P

    How normative is prophesying today, and how do we know? The apostolic age was an unusual age, and mission fields are outside of the normal western Christian experience only…although our rapidly paganizing culture may change that. My reading of the NT suggests prophesying to be normal; what of today? Yes, I am an arch-skeptic about claims of charismata, especially given how common these are in pentecostal and catholic circles. I am not skeptical about what Scripture teaches, but merely differing from you on what those teachings are – as do historic Lutherans and Reformed. Are they skeptical about Scripture too?

    It gets worse for me, for like you I’d call all catholic charismata bogus. Our problem doesn’t disappear by staying on the safe bank of the Tiber, because: Wesleyans believe in the synergystic model of salvation just as the EO’s do; you are a nonremonstrant credobaptist while I am a Lutheran with Calvinistic sympathies (and very much a paedobaptist); remonstrants are on the slippery slope to open theism and works-righteousness; IOW we could hold each other’s churches in suspicion as well. Where do we draw the line, and how do we know?

    Per authentication, Scripture is replete with signs and wonders authenticating prophets’ office; eg rods becoming serpents or bearing almonds, bears butchering thugs, droughts, retrograde sundial shadows, ignis e coelo, etc. Early church history is replete with similar accounts performed by called men (some more credible than others). Just as I should expect putative church officers to display proof of their charismata, I expect putative prophets to show me the same before I recognize them as such. I also recognize that there is no fool-proofing this recognition process, given the years of improvements and inovations used in making the modern fool.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Those all seem like questions that plague the church regardless of whether anyone prophecies or not :)

    bears butchering thugs, droughts

    On the face of it, those aren’t signs or wonders. Those are natural events. The only reason we know they were miraculous is because the prophet said so. Which seems to make your appeal somewhat circular. Furthermore, while some prophets perform miracles, miracle-working is not a requirement of the office.

    Just as I should expect putative church officers to display proof of their charismata, I expect putative prophets to show me the same before I recognize them as such.

    So in your view, the gift of prophecy can never be bestowed in isolation? If you have that gift, you also have to have others?

  7. Dr P

    None of the events I listed were natural as they were called down by the prophets; there is no reason to assume that those bears would just happen to show up where and when they did, not to mention the feat of killing so many thugs. We could use a few more bears like those near where I live ;-). The rods and ignis e coelo, on the other hand, were clearly supernatural.

    I guess I’m not certain as to the mechanics and particulars of gifting, and so can’t really answer your question. There is the Text of Scripture, church history (hardly free from embellishment and revision), our symbols, and modern accounts (some more credible than others), and I’m not sure of what to make of it all. ISTM a Berean approach of healthy skepticism and due diligence/means of grace is the safest approach.

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