False Prophecy as a Test of Us
God tells us in Deuteronomy 13:1-5 that He permits false prophets to test whether we love Him with our whole heart, mind and soul.
We find some excellent observations on the purpose of false prophets based upon the Deuteronomy text in a work by Vincentius Lirinensis aka Vincent of Lerins who died in 445 AD. In the Protestant edition of the Commonitory from 1709, we find some useful footnotes and commentary. Vincent was writing to excoriate those who denied the Trinity, justifying the Catholic Church cursing them to hell based upon Paul calling down an anathema on the enemies of Paul's doctrines. The Protestant purpose in republishing the Commonitory was to suggest that Paul's anathemas belong on the Catholic church for teaching the veneration of relics and suggesting miracles were done using these items.
In that context, Vincent provided a useful exposition of Deuteronomy 13:1-5 that deals with false prophets. Vincent's work is entitled The Commonitory of Vincentius Lirinensis Concerning the Rule of Faith In Opposition to All Heretical Innovations from 434 AD which is contained in The Apologies of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Minutius Felix in Defense of the Christian Religion (W.B. for A. and J. Churchill, 1709) Vol. 2, beginning at page 223. It has a useful Protestant-oriented commentary in footnotes to answer those opinions of Vincent which reflect non-Biblical Catholic doctrines. The chapter of interest on false prophecy is chapter XV (15) at page 274, entitled "Why Very Great Men Are Permitted by God to Introduce Very Strange Doctrine into His Church." A more modern version from 1847, changing the name to Commonitory of Vincent of Lerins (Baltimore: Joseph Robbins, 1847) is at this books.google link. There chapter XV is renumbered as X on page 25. We will quote from each below as we think some wording was softened in the 1847 edition, and thus the 1709 version is more accurate.
This chapter reads in material part:
[Page 26] Let us therefore hear holy Moses and let him teach us why learned men and such as on account of their knowledge are by the Apostle called Prophets are occasionally permitted to put forth new doctrines which the Old Testament in allegorical language is wont to call strange gods for the reason that heretics hold their own opinions in such reverence as the Gentiles used to show their gods. The blessed Moses then writes in Deuteronomy
If there arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams that is one consti thought by his disciples or hearers to teach by some revelation What then And giveth thee a sign or a wonder and the sign or the wonder come to pass whereof he spake unto thee.
[Page 277 - better translation of next part]
Moses most certainly is here giving us an Idea of a very powerful Preacher -- such a gifted Man as may pass among his Flock for one that not only knows all that Man can know but also foreknows such Things as pass all human Understanding exactly --- such a Character as the several Disciples commonly bestow upon their Masters, Valentinus, Donatus, Photinus, Apollinaris and others, and the rest of that Stamp.
[Page 26 - alternate]
Certainly some great teacher is here indicated one of so great knowledge that to his own followers he may seem not only to know such things as are human but even to be able to foreknow things that are above man such an one as the disciples of Valentinus, Donatus, Photinus, Apollinaris and others of the same kind boast them to have been.
What next: "And he shall say to thee 'Let us go
[Page 27] after other gods which thou hast not known and let us serve them.'
What are the strange gods but foreign errors which thou didst not know that is new and unheard of. "And let us serve them" -- that is let us believe them let us follow them.
What at last: "Thou shall not hearken, he says, unto the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams."
[Page 278] But why then, I beseech you, does God permit the Preaching of that which he will not have followed?
[Page 27 - alternate] And wherefore I pray thee is not that by God forbidden to be taught which is by God forbidden to be heard?
Because he saith "the Lord your God proveth you to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul."
Here then you clearly see for what Reason the divine Providence sometimes permits some celebrated Doctors of the Church to preach up strange Doctrines. It is, faith, Moses 'that the Lord your God may prove you.' And a great and powerful Proof without doubt it is when he whom you look upon as a Prophet or a Disciple of Prophets or a Doctor and zealous Stickler for the Truth [Page 279] when I say whom you exceedingly revere and love privily drops his baneful Errors and so slyly mixes them with Truth that whilst you are blinded with the Authority of the Deceiver you cannot presently perceive the Deceit and tis very hard to condemn the Doctrine when you admire the Doctor.
[Page 27 - alternative]
The reason is laid open as clear as the day why occasionally the Divine providence suffers certain teachers of the Churches to preach sundry new doctrines That the Lord your God saith he may tempt you And truly it is a great temptation when he whom thou thinkest a prophet a disciple of the prophets a doctor and a maintainer of truth whom thou holdest in high reverence and love he suddenly bringeth in privily noxious errors which thou art neither able quickly to detect while swayed by the influence of his former rela
[Page 28] tion to thee as a teacher nor canst easily think it right to condemn while hindered by affection for thine old master
Editor's Notes: Miracles Only God Can Do?
The Protestant edition has further important interpretation of Deuteronomy 13. The editor begins his comment by mentioning he believes that there are certain miracles that only God can do. So "signs and wonders" can exist that only can belong to true prophets.
What he claims is interesting conjecture. He says that if an invisible spirit could do something, then it is not a divinely-performed sign and wonder. For example, knowing what happened 1000 miles away, or the levitation of objects is something invisible spirits can do and not just God. Id., at 275. However, after mentioning the same, the editor says at 276 that there would be no temptation if the difference was easily discernable. Hence the false prophet will have signs very difficult to differentiate from true ones:
I cannot suppose that God himself would lend out his own immediate Omnipotence to evil Spirits to enable a false Prophet to work Miracles on purpose to seduce his People into Idolatry but only he would not forcibly interpose to hinder such Spirits from what was within their Sphere or natural Efficiency because he before given his People such severe and express Laws against Worship of strange Gods upon the Account of any Miracles whatever and permitted false Prophets to work Signs and Wonders as Trial only of their Fidelity to him and if the Jews could certainly and at first sight distinguish between the of Demons aud the Effects of pure Omnipotence this had been Temptation nor any proper Trial of their Obedience I therefore that supernatural Effects at least of the first Kind it is extremely difficult if not impossible in some Cases to distinguish these from the Miracles of the second Kind are not in themselves a sufficient Proof of a true Prophet. For should a Man never so many Signs and Wonders to tempt the Jews to Idolatry he was forthwith to be condemned to Death for a fafse Prophet.
Then the editor assemblies the passages in the NT to consider on the question at page 276:
We are told likewise in the Gospel that false Prophets and false Chrits will arise and show great Signs and Wonders insomuch that if it were possiible they should deceive the very Elect and that the Coming of the Man of Sin would be after the working of Satan with all Power and Signs, not with lying Wonders --- Fictitious or Counterfeit Miracles -- as our Translation seems to intimate but true real supernatural Wonders wrought in Confirmation of a Lie. For if they were Tricks and Appearances only how could the Coming of Antichrist be said to be according to the working of Satan with all Power. But as Moses did of old so does Chriist give his Disciples a Rule to go by and to try the Spirits and forearmed them against the powerful Temptation. "See to it than any man deceive you, Matthew 24:4 4. So again Mark 13:23: "See to it behold I have foretold you all things Should therefore a Popish Priest by addessing to an Image e or by the help of a Relik do any real supernatural Signs and Wonders to tempt me to the Worship of Images or Relicks I am to reject him as a false Prophet or Dreamer of Dreams because I have a Command before which faith "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and Him only thou shall serve." But now the Miracles of Canst were as much out of
[Page 277] the Power of created Spirits as we can possibly imagine any things to be yet had they been supernatural Effects of the first Kind only our Saviour coming in the Name of God and doing such a number of Miracles in his Name and for the Confirmation of a Doctrine exactly agreeable to the positive Revelations of God and the best Reason of Mankind our Saviour I say ought to have been received by the Jews for a true Prophet according to Moses who in the 13 and 18the Chapters of Deuteronomy plainly supposes that God would not permit a false Prophet to work Signs and Wonders but in the Case of Idolatry or such Particulars as were evidently against the Light of Nature because then they would have been an invincible Temptation in the way of good Men. So that unless a Prophet shall come in the Name of God and do Miracles in his Name and for the Confirmation of Doctrines every way suitable to the Nature of God and right Reason such Miracles are no Proof of a divine Mission.
The same work discusses Paul's anathema that anyone who preaches another doctrine than Paul should be cursed at page 269.
Vincent embraces Paul's anathemas as follows:
"That chosen Vessel cries out that Doctor of the Gentiles that Trumpet of the Apostles that Herald of the World cries out; he that was caught up into the Third Heaven and was made conscious of things unutterable cries out again and again in all his Epistles 'Whoever preaches a new Doctrine let him be accursed." Id., at 273.
Intestingly, in the Pauline-Protestant edits, Vincent is used to prove that if the Catholics added to Scripture requirements for salvation nowhere present, then they come under the condemnation of Paul. See page 273. So the editor proclaims "Here then we Vincentus fix and set our feet...." Id.