Church Fathers on False Prophets, Part 4 — What Holly Thinks

This is Part 4 of a four-part series on what the early church fathers had to say about testing false prophets. See Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt (296 A.D. to 373 A.D.)

Athanasius was an influential church leader and theologian of the fourth century. He gave most of his life to opposing a heresy known as “Arianism” — which denied that Jesus was God. Because of his firm stand for Christ’s deity, he was forced into exile five times — a total of 20 years.

The following excerpt is from a letter Athanasius wrote to the bishops in his province while he was in hiding. He explains how false prophets, like the Arians, promote their heretical teachings by misquoting Scripture. The Christians who know Scripture well aren’t deceived by them, but “simple” Christians who don’t have a sufficient knowledge of Scripture are. He urges the bishops to pray for “the gift of discerning spirits” so they can tell apart true prophets from false prophets.

Here’s what he said.

Thus each of these heresies, in respect of the peculiar impiety of its invention, has nothing in common with the Scriptures. And their advocates are aware of this, that the Scriptures are very much, or rather altogether, opposed to the doctrines of every one of them; but for the sake of deceiving the more simple sort (such as are those of whom it is written in the Proverbs, ‘The simple believeth every word,’ they pretend like their ‘father the devil’ to study and to quote the language of Scripture, in order that they may appear by their words to have a right belief, and so may persuade their wretched followers to believe what is contrary to the Scriptures. Assuredly in every one of these heresies the devil has thus disguised himself, and has suggested to them words full of craftiness. The Lord spake concerning them, that ‘there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, so that they shall deceive many.’ Accordingly the devil has come, speaking by each and saying, ‘I am Christ, and the truth is with me;’ and he has made them, one and all, to be liars like himself. And strange it is, that while all heresies are at variance with one another concerning the mischievous inventions which each has framed, they are united together only by the common purpose of lying. For they have one and the same father that has sown in them all the seeds, of falsehood. Wherefore the faithful Christian and true disciple of the Gospel, having grace to discern spiritual things, and having built the house of his faith upon a rock, stands continually firm and secure from their deceits. But the simple person, as I said before, that is not thoroughly grounded in knowledge, such an one, considering only the words that are spoken and not perceiving their meaning, is immediately drawn away by their wiles. Wherefore it is good and needful for us to pray that we may receive the gift of discerning spirits, so that every one may know, according to the precept of John, whom he ought to reject, and whom to receive as friends and of the same faith. (To the Bishops of Egypt, Chapter 1, Section, 4)

— Holly Pivec