Deuteronomy 18:22 Test of a Prophet


John Calvin, the Reformer who recognized that prophecy comes attached with tacit conditions.

Very often when confronted by a “debating Evangelical” one of the first things brought up are the supposed “failed” prophecies of Joseph Smith, and the implications of the popular Deuteronomy 18:20-22 prophetic test:

20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.

21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken?

22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.

Several years ago I wrote a brief blog post highlighting the–often unstated–contingent nature of prophecy. You can read it here. This idea is important for interpreting many Biblical and modern prophecies.

My friend Robert Boylan shared with me an essay by Richard Pratt, a Reformed scholar (he shared it in the comments section of the above referenced blog post).

Here is the paper.

Some selected quotations:

The Old Testament abounds with examples of unqualified predictions of events that did not take place. For instance, Jonah announced, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4), but God spared the city (Jonah 3:10). Shemiah told Rehoboam, “You have abandoned me; so, I now abandon you to Shishak” (2 Chr 12:5), but the attack was mollified (2 Chr 12:7-8). Huldah declared to Josiah, “I am bringing disaster on this place and its inhabitants” (2 Kgs 22:16), but the punishment for Jerusalem was later postponed (2 Kgs 22:18-20). Micah said to Hezekiah, “Zion will be plowed like a field” by Sennacherib (Mic 3:12; cf. Jer 26:18), but the invasion fell short of conquering the city (2 Kgs 19:20-35). In each of the examples, the predicted future did not take place. What caused these turns of events? Each text explicitly sights human responses as the grounds for the deviations. The people of Nineveh (Jon 3:6), the leaders of Judah (2 Chr 12:6), Josiah (2 Kgs 22:17) and Hezekiah (Jer 26:19) repented or prayed upon hearing the prophetic word.

These passages indicate that the fulfillment of at least some unqualified predictions were subject to the contingency of human response. Conditions did not have to be stated explicitly to be operative

Pratt cites none other that the Reformer John Calvin on this issue. In “Institutes” 1.17.14 Calvin writes:

Nor does the Sacred History, while it relates that the destruction which had been proclaimed to the Ninevites was remitted (Jonah 3:10), and the life of Hezekiah, after an intimation of death, prolonged, imply that the decrees of God were annulled (Isa. 38:5). Those who think so labour under delusion as to the meaning of threatening, which, though they affirm simply, nevertheless contain in them a tacit condition dependent on the result.

John Calvin recognized that even a prophecy which is “affirm[ed] simply” may still be subject to unstated conditions for their fulfillment.

Pratt continues:

These observations raise an important question. How should we relate the presence of tacit conditions to the well-known Mosaic criterion of false prophets in Deuteronomy 18:22?

“If what a prophet proclaims in the name of Yahweh does not occur or come about, that is a message Yahweh has not spoken. The prophet has spoken presumptuously.”

At first glance, this passage appears to present a straightforward test. Failed predictions mark false prophets. As parsimonious as this interpretation may be, it does not account for the many predictions from canonical (and thus true) prophets that were not realized.

Pratt goes on to discuss Jeremiah 18:7-10, which is also discussed in the FairWiki. This passage clarifies once and for all that anything spoken by the Lord has tacit conditions which must be met. Even if not explicitly stated, these conditions nevertheless exist.

If at some time I say regarding any nation or kingdom that I will uproot, tear down, or destroy, and if that nation about which I spoke repents of its evil, then I may relent from the evil I planned to do to it. And if at some other time I say regarding any nation or kingdom that I will build it up and plant it, and if it does evil in my eyes, not listening to my voice, then I may relent from the good thing which I said I would do for it. (Jer 18:7-10)

Pratt notes:

The universal perspective of Jeremiah 18:1-12 strongly suggests that all unqualified predictions were subject to implicit conditions. Sincere repentance had the potential of effecting every unqualified prophecy of judgment. Flagrant disobedience had the potential of negating every unqualified prophecy of prosperity


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4 comments on “Deuteronomy 18:22 Test of a Prophet

  1. James says:

    I would also like to ask Evangelical critics who wish to wield this passage as a club to beat up Joseph Smith how many false prophets they have murdered, since that is what this “inerrant” passage instructs them to do.

  2. Bob Lloyd says:

    First off, I think it’s hard to prove that there was an actual false prophecy made from the things I’ve read about his prophecies. Second, the Pentecostal and Charismatic wings of Evangelicalism are full of stories of direct predictions made which were unfulfilled in a spectacular manner see Benny Hinn and other televangelists for examples.

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