Theme: Testing the Prophets
Leading Question: To what extent should we simply “believe” the prophets? Or should we also invoke our critical and analytical powers to test them as well?
When one is reading or hearing “inspired” passages, the devotional mind tends to lay aside the critical, the skeptical, the analytical, and just revel in God’s message. But beside that devotional approach, Scripture clearly points to another mode, that of testing and weighing the inspired messages. The book of Acts pronounces a special commendation on the noble Bereans because they “examined the scripture every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:10, NRSV). In other words, they weren’t simply shouting amens; they were thoughtfully reflecting on Scripture to discern the truth.
A similar admonition is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 where Paul urges the believers to “test everything, hold fast to what is good.” In short, we can expect an inevitable tussle between our devotional nature and our critical nature as we seek to be faithful to God. There comes a point, however, where one simply accepts the inspired word as God’s message. One can still ask all possible questions about the meaning of the inspired word, but its authority remains clear and untouched by our questions.
For the Bible, this acceptance of the Word involves the process of canonization. Once a writing has been accepted as canonical, then one explores the meaning of the inspired text, but does not question its status.
A similar process involves the writings of Ellen White. Once one recognizes her as a messenger, then one does not have to question every single statement. The challenge is that with the Bible as well as with the writings of Ellen White, the impulse of devout people is to apply to themselves everything that the messenger has said. To be selective in applying inspired writings, the only sensible and coherent approach, somehow feels almost wicked, even if we know it to be the right course of action.
This lesson addresses the question of “testing” the prophets. Here Adventists have used four tests, all with roots in Scripture. But in one important instance, the adult study guide introduces an important qualification of one of the “tests,” namely, the one that states that the prophet’s words must come to pass. The principle of conditionality is introduced, a helpful corrective to more traditional approaches to the topic. The four tests are noted below. They are best used in a cumulative sense:
1. Agreement with the Bible (Isaiah 8:20). Most modern translations remodel the original language of Isaiah 8:20 beyond recognition. In the KJV it reads: “To the law and the testimony: if they speak not according to this word it is because there is no light in them.” Regardless of the wording of the text, the point is thoroughly clear and logical: Any later voice must be tested by the voices that have gone before. In this connection, is it important to speak of an underlying harmony or a spiritual unity – Ellen White’s words – rather than an absolute unity. Clearly, some of the Old Testament laws would no longer apply. Still, the later voices must be judged by the former ones.
2. Fulfilled Prophecy (Jer 28:9). In the past, Adventists have simply cited Jeremiah 28:9, the reference about the prophet’s words coming to pass, as the essence of this test. But the official study guide points us to two additional passages that are important:
A. Jeremiah 18:6-10. If a nation turns from evil to good or from good to evil, Jeremiah says that the Lord will “change” his mind.
B. Jonah 3-4. Probably the most famous of all conditional biblical prophecies is Jonah’s prediction about the fall of Ninevah. Because the people repented, the Lord changed his mind and did not destroy them. Jonah was angry, but admitted that he suspected all along that God would relent and not destroy a repentant city.
3. Confessing Jesus (1 John 4:1). This test only becomes effective in the New Testament era. Does a messenger claiming to speak for God confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh? This is a crucial matter in the light of the incarnation.
4. Fruit-bearing (Mat 7:20). What are the results, the fruit of the prophet’s work? If the fruit is positive, this adds to the cumulative test and points toward divine credentials.
For Discussion: How does one take seriously the messages of a prophet without over-applying them in places where they were never intended to apply? The reverse question is also crucial: How does one address the human impulse to ignore the prophetic counsel that cuts across our habits and impulses?