Tag Archives: apocalyptic prophecy

Classical and Apocalyptic. Prophecy

The way prophecy is fulfilled is impacted by the distinction between classical and apocalyptic prophecy. Apocalyptic prophecy is seen in the visions of Daniel 2 and 7 and in passages like Revelation 12. Biblical apocalyptic is filled with chains of unusual imagery, like multi-layered metal statues, a series of fantastic beasts with features unlike those normally seen in nature, and horns and vultures that speak. Apocalyptic tends to involve a series of historical events running one after another from the prophet’s day until the End. Dual or multiple fulfillments should not be expected, because the prophecy covers the whole span of history from the prophet’s day until the End. Apocalyptic prophecies tend to be unconditional, God sharing the large strokes of history that He foresees will take place, regardless of human response.

In contrast, classical prophecy is seen in books like Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah. There is a strong focus on the immediate situation, and if the end of all things is in view, the End is seen as a natural extension of the prophet’s situation, time and place. So immediate and end-time events are often mixed together. There are strong conditional elements, as the fulfillment of such prophecies is dependent on human response. Since such prophecies combine the immediate situation with a glimpse of the further future, such prophecies can have dual or multiple fulfillments as the centuries roll by and various aspects of the prophecy fit various situations.

In scholarly terms, the distinction between the two types of prophecies can be seen in their genre. They are different types or styles of literature. From that perspective, I have always understood the writings of Ellen White to fit the classical style of prophecy. This is self-evident, for example, in regard to the Testimonies for the Church. There she speaks to her immediate situation, encouraging fidelity to God and to Scripture. Where she speaks of the future, she describes it as a natural extension of the immediate situation (we will see this in part 3), rather than clear predictions of things that don’t exist in her day. For example, she does not foresee nuclear war or power, she doesn’t speak of cell phones, computers, the internet, Islamic terrorism, space travel, World Wars I and II, or the rise of secularism and post-modernism. When she describes police action at the end of time, the police are wearing swords, something more common in her day than today! When she described the Second Coming of Jesus to Joseph Bates (Letter 7, 1847), she saw “the pious slave rise in triumph and victory, and shake off the chains that bound him, while his wicked master was in confusion.” That view was in perfect harmony with a future grounded in her time and place. But slavery was abolished in America in June of 1865. It was abolished in the whole world in 1890 (with a few lingering exceptions). Circumstances alter cases. Prophecy is not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future in every detail. It is given to inspire a faithful response on the part of the reader.

It does not mean God was incapable of sharing the 20th Century or our present and future with her, only that such a revelation was evidently not central to His purpose for her prophetic ministry, encouraging faithfulness to God and careful attention to the Scriptures. And regarding prophecy she herself says, “The promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.” Last-Day Events, 38. A good example of conditional prophecy is perhaps her declaration in 1856 that some with her that day would live to see Jesus come. Obviously, the conditions for that prophecy were never met and we are still here in 2021. Critics have often used that prediction to accuse her of being a false prophet, but the accusation is based instead on an unbiblical understanding of how prophecy works, or, in other words, how God works in the world.

Recently, in response to questions arising out of discussion of these issues, the Biblical Research Institute surprised me by declaring that when Ellen White speaks about end-time events, her comments are to be taken as unconditional, in that they are interpreting apocalyptic prophecies. This is a direction I have not heard in thirty-five years of interactions with the church’s leaders and scholars. Since the document was very brief, it is hard to know on what basis the assertion was made. Ellen White herself did not write in apocalyptic style and she did not give a clear chain of events from her day to the end, as apocalyptic prophets did. So to be fair, I will give those who proposed this approach time to elaborate the biblical and Spirit of Prophecy grounds on which such a claim is made. I encourage readers to withhold judgment on this issue until the church’s scholars can give the topic closer attention. As a scholar, I do not want anyone to take my proposals here as a final word, but I am seeking to expose evidence that will help the church draw the best conclusions possible. In that conversation, I trust that principles drawn from fulfilled prophecy will play a major role in developing the church’s position on unfulfilled prophecies.