True and False Prophecy

In light of yesterday’s post on climate change and biblical prophecy, I thought I would follow up on the topic with my reflections on the “True and False Prophecy” article in the recently published Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets (781-88).

The article is written by James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College. In it, Brenneman deals honestly and forthrightly with the complexities of the topic, surveying many of the same texts I deal with in my own essay and others as well. Our conclusions are not dissimilar.

It is very difficult to see, in the Hebrew Bible or in contemporary reflection on the topic, how prophecy can be approached in an objective and infallible way. While the Hebrew Bible suggests criteria for both true and false prophecy and records these criteria at work in ancient Israel, the criteria prove inadequate in both concept and practice to resolve the loose ends that prophetic forecasts necessarily create.

The ambiguity of the criteria for discerning true prophecy from false prophecy within the Bible itself honors a biblical pluralism that must be fully embraced. To say this is at once humbling and demanding. It is humbling to know that for every voice in Scripture, for every interpretation of Scripture, there is likely to be its opposite. It is demanding in that biblical pluralism in no way relieves the reader of Scripture from the responsibility of making judgments of and commitments to specific texts as bearing truth claims for a specific historical hour or time, all the while acutely aware of his or her own potential for false prophecy (mistaken application).

Despite this emphasis on pluralism and uncertainty—an emphasis that accurately reflects the situation we are presented with in the text and its interpretation—the author find a kind of interpretive certainty in the implications and outcome of biblical pluralism:

The present ethical task is either to advocate for one reading over the other or to read neither. The mutually exclusive claims of these scenarios [he refers here to Is 2:2-4 and Joel 3:9-17] and the bloody record of history allow no alternative. We today cannot choose to live by both Isaiah’s account of human destiny and Joel’s.

I’m left to wonder from this if greater emphasis on the ambiguity of the prophecy itself would have allowed for a more creative and imaginative discussion of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible. While I agree that there is an inadequacy within the criteria of the Hebrew Bible to resolve  prophetic conflict, I am hesitant to suggest that such conflicts ultimately resolve themselves with a definitive victor and loser. While there is much to commend this article, I would have appreciated if the final challenge were not to choose between texts (even if this is sometimes necessary and inevitable).

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2 thoughts on “True and False Prophecy

  1. Hi Joseph,

    I think Brenneman’s final challenge is appropriate from the point of view of a “Christ against culture” group within a larger ecumene such as Mennonites have historically been. Moreover, we need more Rechabite style movements, not less. For the rest of us, if we are wedded to a “Christ transforms culture” paradigm on the whole, we don’t have to choose. Joel 3 will address us in particular moments (after Pearl Harbor, after 9/11) without taking away from the horizon of hope – and judgment on the way things are – that Isa 2 represents.

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