In my previous entry on this topic I listed several proposed method of testing prophets, specifically how does one respond when someone claims to speak for God? This assumes, of course, that one believes anyone can speak for God in any way.
The second test I listed as “godliness,” but this is just a shorthand name for the test as proposed in Deuteronomy 13:1-5. I will leave you to read the passage, but what it proposes is that a person could arise who claimed to be a prophet, and who could actually produce a sign, or make a prediction that would be accurate, and yet that person would advice the Israelites to worship gods other than YHWH. Despite the fulfillment of the prediction, that person should be regarded as a false prophet.
This is essentially a version of what I proposed as the fundamental source of what a person regards as scripture in my entry Community and Inspiration. It may annoy people who believe they have the very best scriptures in their religion to think that the major reason one accepts a particular scripture is the community in which one grew up. (Note that I do not claim this is universal–just very common.) What you expect a scripture to accomplish for you comes from your background. So the essential question, especially for written scripture, is how good the community is at finding and identifying scripture.
In our Deuteronomy passage this is formalized into a test. If the prophet is leading you astray from your existing faith, then that prophet is not a true prophet. This argues for coherence in a community’s scripture, normally a fairly obvious need, and it provides some sort of rudder for where the stream of revelation goes for a particular group.
Again, this test is not complete. Some of the postive aspects include:
- It does not require you to wait for the fulfillment. You can know immediately if someone is off track.
- It helps keep the community spiritual tradition unifed.
- Under many circumstances it provides a clear answer.
- It acknowledges the possibility of true predictions from someone who is not speaking for God.
But on the negative side:
- It does not provide any objective answer; the community simply identifies the prophet with what it already accepts
- It is inherently conservative; a prophet bringing new light will often appear to be challenging the fundamentls of the community
- It tends to put spiritual revelation in the hand of theologians.
We’ll continue looking at these tests for inspiration in my next entry.
For some further information on my own understanding of spiritual gifts and prophecy, see Identifying Your Gifts and Service which includes related Participatory Study Series pamphlets such as Spiritual Gifts: Prophecy. See also What is the Word of God?.