Church Fathers on False Prophets, Part 2 — What Holly Thinks

Jesus as the Good Shepherd fresco from the mid-third century A.D.

This is Part 2 of a four-part series on what the early church fathers had to say about testing false prophets. See Part 1.

Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas was written about 150 A.D. by a Christian named Hermas — though we don’t know more about him. This writing — presented as an allegory — calls on Christians to repent of their sins and to live righteously.

A large part of the work contains commandments and parables delivered by “the angel of repentance” — in the form of a shepherd — to Hermas. Among other things, the angel teaches Hermas how to tell the difference between true prophets and false prophets.

The angel tells Hermas that the way to tell if prophets are true or false is by looking at their lives. A true prophet is humble, unworldly, and tells people what God wants him to say. A false prophet is prideful, prophesies for money, and tells people what they want to hear.

The conversation starts off with Hermas asking the angel how someone can know a true prophet from a false one. Here’s how it goes.

“How then, Sir,” say I, “shall a man know who of them is a prophet, and who a false prophet?”

“Hear,” saith he, “concerning both the prophets; and, as I shall tell thee, so shalt thou test the prophet and the false prophet. By his life test the man that hath the divine Spirit.

In the first place, he that hath the [divine] Spirit, which is from above, is gentle and tranquil and humble-minded, and abstaineth from all wickedness and vain desire of this present world, and holdeth himself inferior to all men, and giveth no answer to any man when enquired of, nor speaketh in solitude (for neither doth the Holy Spirit speak when a man wisheth Him to speak); but the man speaketh then when God wisheth him to speak.

When then the man who hath the divine Spirit cometh into an assembly of righteous men, who have faith in a divine Spirit, and intercession is made to God by the gathering of those men, then the angel of the prophetic spirit, who is attached to him, filleth the man, and the man, being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaketh to the multitude, according as the Lord willeth.

In this way then the Spirit of the deity shall be manifest. This then is the greatness of the power as touching the Spirit of the deity of the Lord.

“Hear now,” saith he [the angel], “concerning the earthly and vain spirit, which hath no power but is foolish.

In the first place, that man who seemeth to have a spirit exalteth himself, and desireth to have a chief place, and straight-way he is impudent and shameless and talkative and conversant in many luxuries and in many other deceits and receiveth money for his prophesying, and if he receiveth not, he prophesieth not. Now can a divine Spirit receive money and prophesy? It is not possible for a prophet of God to do this, but the spirit of such prophets is earthly.

In the next place, it never approacheth an assembly of righteous men; but avoideth them, and cleaveth to the doubtful-minded and empty, and prophesieth to them in corners, and deceiveth them, speaking all things in emptiness to gratify their desires; for they too are empty whom it answereth. For the empty vessel placed together with the empty is not broken, but they agree one with the other.

But when he comes into an assembly full of righteous men who have a Spirit of deity, and intercession is made from them, that man is emptied, and the earthly spirit fleeth from him in fear, and that man is struck dumb and is altogether broken in pieces, being unable to utter a word.

For, if you pack wine or oil into a closet, and place an empty vessel among them, and again desire to unpack the closet, the vessel which you place there empty, empty in like manner you will find it. Thus also the empty prophets, whenever they come unto the spirits of righteous men, are found just such as they came.

I have given thee the life of both kinds of prophets. Therefore test, by his life and his works, the man who says that he is moved by the Spirit. (The Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11)

— Holly Pivec