If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deut 13:1-5).
When Christians confront intellectual challenges to their faith, one stock response is to say that God is testing their faith. Indeed, that’s a Christian cliché in some circles.
People who are struggling with intellectual doubts can resent that appeal. It seems like you can explain away anything by invoking that principle. Isn’t that a dodge? After all, one can imagine a cult using that line to squelch rising doubts about their prophet. Yes, he seems to be a hypocrite; yes, he seems to be contradicting himself; yes, he seems to mispredicting the future–but that’s a test of faith. God is testing your faith.
So I agree that this appeal can be overused. To say, in the face of every intellectual challenge, that God is testing our faith, take it too far. The appeal needs to be more qualified.
That said, this appeal does have its basis in a Scriptural principle. Deut 13:1-5 is a classic case in point. God is, indeed, testing their faith. And the test takes the form of an intellectual challenge. There is some corroborative evidence for the prophet’s claims. His claim seems to receive supernatural confirmation.
And when you think about it, this is more impressive, more formidable, than objections from modern science. For instance, modern theories of cosmic or biological origins involve very long, tenuous chains of inference, with interpolations and extrapolations connecting all the missing links, with many sheer postulates and freely-adjustable variables. There are many steps along the way where the inference could go awry.
By contrast, the supporting evidence envisioned in Deut 13:1-5 is very direct and rationally compelling. This confronts the believer with a stronger dilemma than stock objections to Scripture. For, to some extent, this piggybacks on Scriptural assumptions and Scriptural criteria.
Now, a “skeptic” might say that Deut 13:1-5 is, itself, an exercise in special pleading. A preemptive escape clause. He might say this was written to head off a prophetic counter-challenge to the prophets of Yahweh, or something like that.
To that I’d say to things:
i) Deut 13:1-5 honestly acknowledges the limitations of formal criteria to verify or falsify prophecy. Formal criteria can be very useful. That can eliminate some candidates. But formal criteria can only take you so far. There will always be some things we just know to be the case, even if we can’t prove it. Some things we have to know without recourse to a formal demonstration.
ii) Deut 13:1-5 isn’t a technicality that immunizes the faith by definition. For this hypothetical situation grants the possibility that a false prophet might really be able to predict the future or work a genuine miracle. He isn’t just apparently able to pull this off. Deut 13:1-5 doesn’t say, “Who are you going to believe–Moses or your lying eyes?” The passage doesn’t deny the evidence.
Rather, it concedes the phenomenon, but places that in a larger interpretive framework. And there’s nothing ad hoc about that framework. Since this type of false prophecy is admittedly supernatural, there’s nothing ad hoc about explaining it by noting that in back of the false prophet is God, who is manipulating the false prophet for his own ends.