Skip to content

The Impossible Possibility

How did God communicate to his prophets? What are the biblical tests of a true prophet? What is conditional prophecy? Are prophets fallible? Why do we believe that Ellen G. White’s visions and prophet dreams were from God? These are the key questions of this week’s Sabbath School lesson. As diverse as they are, they all focus on one crucial issue: How can we distinguish true prophets and/or prophecies from false/fake ones?

Ever since Sabbatarian Adventists regarded Ellen White as a recipient of the gift of prophecy, they have offered several criteria by which to test her (or any) prophetic claim. Among them, the unusual physical phenomena accompanying her visions have been mentioned frequently. However, they do not constitute a normative test for the authenticity of a prophet or the authority of his/her message. It is not the supernatural character of his/her visionary experience, but the divine origin of his/her message, that constitutes the hallmark of a true prophet (compare Jer. 23:16–32).

Commonly, the following four criteria are listed in Adventist literature, together with their corresponding “proof texts.” They are also named and discussed in this week’s lesson:

  1. Agreement with the Bible (Isa. 8:20)
  2. Fulfilled Prophecy (Jer. 28:9)
  3. Confessing Jesus, the God-man (1 John 4:1, 2)
  4. The Orchard (or Fruit) Test (Matt. 7:20)

As simple as these criteria sound and as biblical as indeed they are, just as difficult is their proper application. (Still, there seems to be no better way to test those who claim to speak authoritatively in the name of God.)

  1. How do you establish the agreement, or lack of it, with “the law and the prophets” (Isa. 8:20)—or the Christian Bible, for that matter? True, prophetic messages will and must be “in accordance with the faith” (Rom. 12:6), which rules out any obvious disagreements with the basic Judeo-Christian beliefs. However, there may be more subtle ways of disagreeing with the received faith. In addition, prophets sometimes change their own views (1 Chron. 17:1ff ) or seem to contradict earlier ones (compare Deut. 23:2 to Isa. 56:3-5; and 2 Kings 10:30 to Hosea 1:4). Although God does not change, our human understanding does. This leaves room for genuine growth while upholding Paul’s criterion of the “analogy of faith.”
  2. If fulfilled predictions were a sine qua non of true prophecies, quite a number of the biblical prophets would face serious problems. Not only Jonah’s specific announcement of the fall of Nineveh but also many of the kingdom and restoration promises of the Old Testament did not find fulfillment as expected. A conditional element in them helps explain their apparent “failure” (Jer. 18:6–10). At the same time, it shows the difficulty of using the fulfillment (or lack of it) of a prediction as a clear and unambiguous test of its validity. (It has often been stated that the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation are an exception to this rule of conditionality; still, it needs to be argued convincingly. Although the outcome of history is certain, the course of history may be less determined.)
  3. Most Christians will agree with the following statement: “Every true prophet will point people to Jesus, the God-man, who is the Savior and example of all humanity.” For John, this implied a clear confession of the full humanity of Christ and the rejection of the Docetist view that denied that Christ had truly “come in the flesh.” The very reality of salvation depended on it. In an extended sense, this test “includes everything the Bible teaches about Jesus.” Does this rule out a somewhat deficient Christology or does it leave room for Christological developments? The fact is that Seventh-day Adventist teachings on Christ’s nature (sinful, sinless, human, and divine) and pre-incarnation role in heaven underwent some significant developments—Ellen White’s own views included.
  4. Perhaps the best known of all the tests of a prophet is Jesus’ saying: “By their fruits ye shall know them.” As in nature, the growth of fruits takes time. In some cases, it may simply be too early to tell what kind of fruits the message and ministry of a prophet will bear when his preaching calls for the attention of and acceptance by its listeners. As in the parable of the weeds and the wheat, the full revelation of the true character of something may have to wait for a later day of judgment (Matt. 13:24–30). Besides, prophets are human and therefore not free from character weaknesses, mistaken judgments, factual errors, and even outright sins.

Inasmuch as none of these tests is sufficient in and by itself, one needs to apply all four simultaneously. But who has the right and qualification to do so? Who may apply these criteria and decide if they have been met adequately or not? This is the controversial issue behind many discussions about Ellen White. As long as everyone agrees that she meets the qualifications of a genuine prophet, everything is fine. Actually, it seems quite reasonable to argue that she meets all of these criteria sufficiently in order to qualify as a genuine prophet. But does this imply that all her views and teachings were therefore valid and correct?

This question—and even more so the answers to it–tends to stir up emotions among Adventists. While we principally admit that there were faults, flaws, and inconsistencies in Ellen White’s life and teaching, we rarely concede where she erred specifically. And while we often quote Paul’s well-known statement: “Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:20, 21, NKJV), we usually do not explain how to apply this apostolic counsel to her writings practically. Instead, we argue that to judge a prophetic message is to put oneself above the word of God, that fallible human beings must not criticize a prophet and his/her message, and that the proper response to it is faith and submission. This means that after applying the four criteria to a prophet, whatever he or she says will/should be accepted uncritically (or rejected totally). As a result, any specific admission of an error in Ellen White’s writings is regarded by many as inappropriate rationalist criticism of the prophetess and a lack of true faith in God and his revealed word.

However, Paul does not merely call for a general test of the character and teaching of would-be prophets, but rather for an evaluation of their message itself. He expects believers to be able to distinguish between true and false prophets and prophecies by a personal and Spirit-guided evaluation of their preaching and teaching. He does not concede this right hesitatingly, but rather presents it as a Christian duty. The focus and force of Paul’s five-fold counsel becomes quite clear when we read it in its immediate context and note its literary structure (v. 19–22):

Quench not the Spirit

Despise not prophesyings

Prove all things [TNIV: test them all]

Hold fast that which is good

Abstain from all appearance of evil (KJV) [TNIV: reject whatever is harmful]

Apparently, Paul reckons with the possibility that prophetic utterances may, at times, be less than useful and even wrong (compare 2 Sam. 7:3; 1 Kings 13:11–22). This does not cause him to reject those who expressed these views as false prophets. Rather, he calls upon the church to listen very carefully to the prophets and to critically evaluate their revelations in the light of what they know to be useful, good, and true (Rom. 12:1, 6). The same counsel is given by the apostle to the church in Corinth: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Cor. 14:29 TNIV). Or, as the NIRV renders this verse: “Others should decide if what is being said is true.” What applies to the preaching and teaching of New Testament prophets and even apostles (Acts 17:11), certainly applies no less to modern-day visionaries.

Can we test the prophets? We must if we want to be faithful to Scripture. Should we test all prophecies? Indeed, if we don’t want to be “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14 TNIV). Will Ellen White’s writings survive this kind of screening? Much—in fact, most—of what she wrote has borne the test of time and of Holy Scripture. (Some has not.) Many of those who have tested her have all the more come to appreciate her ministry and calling. I, for one, have been truly blessed by her writings. They have exerted a positive influence on my life, my faith, and my theology. What has impressed me most, however, is not the flawlessness of her life or teaching but the lasting positive impact she had as a fallible and erring human being who became a powerful and Spirit-filled instrument in the hands of God.

Rolf J. Poehler is professor of systematic theology and coordinator for the Master of Theological Studies program at Friedensau Adventist University in Germany. He can be reached via e-mail at:

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.