Tag Archives: classical 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.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (14): Ellen White, A Classical Prophet

One thing I have come to realize in recent discussions is that many people who read Ellen White treat her writings as if they were apocalyptic prophecy, and therefore not subject to the Bible’s principles for interpreting classical prophecy. There are visions she describes that remind one of Revelation 4-5 (heavenly journeys), but nothing like Daniel 2 or Jewish visions like 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch. Her work fits the pattern of classical prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea. She addresses her immediate situation with passion and a desire for change on the part of her readers. When she projects into the future, it is never a detailed account of specific things beyond her time, but a natural extension of the world she is living in.

The important implication of this is that her predictions of the future, insofar as they concern human affairs, are conditional upon those affairs. This principle is stated unequivocally in Jeremiah 18:7-10: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.” This is God speaking directly and explaining how He operates (Jer 18:6). When speaking about the interactions among nations and powerful entities, God’s predictions are conditional upon the response of those nations and entities. To take such prophecies as outlining the future with absolute certainty is to take them too far. They may, in fact, be fulfilled in exact detail, but they also may not. God is not always predictable. As Ellen White herself frequently stated, “circumstances alter cases.”

In my research for this series I ran across a statement of Ellen White that shocked me. It was completely counter to the strong emphasis of Great Controversy on the topic. But when you note the date of the statement in light of the prophetic principles we outlined earlier, the statement makes perfect sense. “Then I saw the mother of harlots. . . . She has had her day and it is past, and her daughters, the Protestant sects, were next to come on the stage and act out the same mind that the mother had when she persecuted the saints.” MS 15, 1850. When she speaks of the “mother of harlots” she is clearly alluding to Revelation 17:4-5, which she applied consistently to the papacy. In her view, as of the year 1850, the papacy “has had her day and it is past.” Protestant America would play the role in the end-time that the papacy had played in the Middle Ages.

This statement makes perfect sense in 1850. The population of Catholics in the United States was about 5% in 1840. They were a small, insignificant player on the stage of American politics. But immigration from places like Ireland, Italy and Poland changed that dynamic in the decades that followed. By the year 1890, the proportion of Catholics in the US population had reached 17%. They could no longer be ignored. But in 1850 the papacy appeared to be a spent force, having just gone through the humiliating captivity of 1798. Since the demise of the “mother of harlots” is stated in Revelation 17:16, Ellen White may at that time have placed Revelation 17 in the past as Uriah Smith did. If the end had come in the 1850s, it appears that the papacy would not have played the role in the end-time that Great Controversy portrays for it in the 1880s. Her 1850 prediction is a natural extension of that time and place.

Another surprising statement comes from 1886, a little before the peak of Sunday agitation in Congress. “. . . the Christian world has sanctioned (Satan’s) efforts by adopting this child of the papacy– the Sunday institution. They have nourished it and continue to nourish it, until Protestantism shall give the hand of fellowship to the Roman power. Then there will be a law against the Sabbath of God’s creation. . . .” RH, March 9, 1886. In this statement, the key element is not so much a law requiring Sunday observance, but a law forbidding Sabbath observance. Here she follows the anti-Sabbath option for Revelation 13 that we have mentioned previously. This emphasis would increase in the 1890s and early 1900s as the drive to legislate national observance of Sunday lost steam. When local Sunday laws came to her attention, instead of telling people to resist them, she said use the day for missionary work. Don’t arouse the ire of neighbors and authorities by conspicuously doing manual labor on that day. It is no direct threat to your keeping of the Sabbath.

As you look at all the statements Ellen White makes regarding Sunday laws, the key statements regarding Sunday legislation in Congress are clustered in the year 1888, when that was a live and national issue. As you observe the trend of her statements over seventy years, it fits the pattern of the classical prophet: speaking directly and prophetically to the living issues of her time. As with Scripture, this in no way diminishes the value of such prophecies for today. It simply impacts the way that we read them and apply them today.