Do We Have a Crisis in Our Prophetic Interpretation?

THERE exists a crisis of prophetic interpretation in the so-called Christian world. The Jerusalem Conference on Bible prophecy (summer, 1971) was a clear proof of this situation. However, one need not go as far as Jerusalem to discover the existence of such crises. There are prophecies and interpretations of them being offered everywhere on newsstands, in bookstores, and in the meetings of rival preachers from various denominations. . .

-Editor, Finland House, at the time this article was written

THERE exists a crisis of prophetic interpretation in the so-called Christian world. The Jerusalem Conference on Bible prophecy (summer, 1971) was a clear proof of this situation. However, one need not go as far as Jerusalem to discover the existence of such crises. There are prophecies and interpretations of them being offered everywhere on newsstands, in bookstores, and in the meetings of rival preachers from various denominations. The state of prophetic preaching at present might well be described with these words from an Old Testament prophet: "Woe unto the foolish prophets, that follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing" (Eze. 13:3).

How is it with us Seventh-day Adventist workers? The Advent Movement is the great prophetic movement of the last days. We were given the task of proclaiming to the world God's last prophetic message before the coming of Christ. Do we proclaim it? Does our prophetic trumpet give a certain sound so that the people can prepare themselves for the battle? Or is the word of the Lord conveyed by Ezekiel applicable even to us: "Thy prophets are like the foxes in the deserts. Ye have not gone up into the gaps, neither made up the hedge for the house of Israel to stand in the battle in the day of the Lord" (verses 4, 5)? Do we, too, have a crisis in prophetic interpretation?

Before we can give an answer to these questions we must review the historical development of our prophetic interpretation, paying particular attention to some of its periods of crisis.

Christian Church Born Amid Crisis

It would be well for us to remember that the Christian church was born amid a deep crisis of prophetic interpretation. The experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and the following new study of the prophetic word have such contacts with later experiences in the Advent Movement that they are worthy of consideration:

"O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken," said Jesus to the disciples who had erred in their prophetic interpretation. "And be ginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:25, 27).

We know that the apostles got over this crisis after the day of Pentecost. They were preaching the timely prophetic message of Christ with power. "To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins" (Acts 10:43). This truth was the core of their prophetic exposition. They had learned it from the Lord Himself. All the New Testament scriptures expounded the prophetic truth of Christ His incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection, ascension, priestly ministry in heaven, and His coming to bring His own to that everlasting kingdom toward which all saints from Abel and Enoch down to the end of time have looked forward in faith.

We are fully aware of the way of destiny that the church has followed ever since the time of the apostles. In fact, the historical development was a fulfillment of the prophetic revelation found in the apostolic scriptures. However, we can pass over seventeen centuries and come to another great crisis in the interpretation of prophecies. On a Wednesday morning, October 23, 1844, the dis appointed believers who had expected Christ's second coming realized they had erred in their interpretation of prophecies. Yet this crisis turned out to be a real turning point. Divine guidance, as we all know, led through it to a clearer understanding of the word of prophecy. Those believers discovered new light about the last phases of the mediatorial ministry of Christ. At the same time they began to understand that in addition to the first and second angels' messages they also had to proclaim the third an gel's message. The remnant of the church of Christ found themselves in the prophecies, and the Spirit of Prophecy guided them in carrying out their great eschatological task.

Unity in Interpretation Is Result of Study

As a result of diligent Bible study, patience, and cooperation in the 1850's the lines of prophetic interpretation, as well as other doctrinal positions, began to be cleared up and settled. Understanding of prophecy is achieved through study of the Bible. However, the Spirit of Prophecy did act as a guiding and balancing factor bringing out the great funda mental principles of the prophetic Word. This guidance prevented us from getting into wrong paths insofar as the principal lines of prophecy were concerned.

"Ellen White's views on Bible prophecy were never petty or constricted," wrote LeRoy E. Froom, our guide in the history of prophetic interpretation. "There was a conspicuous breadth and balance to them, a scope and a largeness of concept, that took in the sweep of the ages and brought out the larger mean ings of prophecy. . . . Ellen White dealt with great rugged principles, not with inconsequentials. Her concern was with primaries, foundational features, pillars, and landmarks of the advent faith. These she enumerated and stressed. And it might also be observed that the silences of Mrs. White were often as significant as her utterances." --Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 4, p. 1139.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of all her fellow workers in the growing Advent Movement. When the question of organization was settled and the work was rapidly expanding, the spiritual life of the church began to be threatened with formalism and cold theoretical legalistic Christianity.

Conference of 1888

At the famous Minneapolis General Conference in 1888 the message of justification by faith was brought forth with new force, and this meeting became a turning point in the doctrinal development of our church. The starting point of this conference was deplorable but most interesting in view of our topic. The preconference Bible Institute was characterized by an intense debate over whether the Huns or the Alemanni comprised one of the ten horns of Daniel 7. It is reported that when Sister White was asked what she thought about the horns, she said, "There are too many horns!" (Froom, Movement of Destiny, p. 245).

The spirit of debate and strife continued even in the following session, and it was one of the main reasons for the indifferent or cold reception that the message of justification by faith as presented by E. J. Waggoner received in spite of the fact that this message was supported by Sister White.

White and Smith Differ in Views

Ten years earlier, in 1878, James White and Uriah Smith had publicly presented differing views of the King of the North, mentioned in Daniel 11. The original view of our pioneers about this power, who comes to his end at the time when Michael stands up to deliver His people from the time of trouble, was that this is the same persecuting power that is presented in Revelation 13, the number of which is 666. This view can be seen clearly in the booklet "A Word to the 'Little Flock/ " published by James White in 1849. Later White gave reasons for this opinion and referred, for in stance, to the parallelism of Daniel's prophetic lines. If the last persecuting power of Daniel 2, 7, and 8, which will be destroyed at the second coming of Christ, is Rome, so must also the last power of Daniel 11 be the same (Froom, Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 4, pp. 1067, 1068).

Uriah Smith, a talented editor who dedicated his life to the Advent cause from his youth, shared this view until the end of the 1860's. This can be seen in the articles that he wrote for the Review. However, in the beginning of the 1870's he had a series of articles published about the book of Daniel, and this commentary on Daniel was later published together with a commentary on the book of Revelation. This series of articles showed that Smith had changed his opinion. He explained now that the King of the North in Daniel 11 was Turkey.

At the time, the so-called Eastern question was one of the major issues in world politics. "All eyes are now turned with interest toward Turkey," Smith wrote in the Review, "and the unanimous opinion of statesmen is, that the Turk is destined soon to be driven from Europe. . . . Time will soon determine this matter; and it may be but a few months" (Review and Herald, March 28, 1871, pp. 116, 117).

However, James White could not accept this kind of interpretation, which was based on the current political situation. As the war between Turkey and Russia was raging in 1877, he remarked in the Review that the situation was generally regarded as a fulfillment of prophecy, but expressed also his worry over the possibility that prophetic interpretations that had been published as certain should not come true.

In the following year James White began to oppose publicly those of Smith's interpretations that he regarded as too courageous. The situation was close to an open crisis. However, Ellen White got involved in the matter at this stage. She had a vision in which it was revealed that her husband would make a mistake should he publicly oppose Smith's views. James White had already published the first part of a series of articles that was designed to refute Smith's interpretation. But he accepted the rebuke, and did not continue the publication of his views. Mrs. White expressed no personal views on the King of the North then, nor did she write about the matter in her later publications.

After the death of James White in 1881, Smith's interpretation of the King of the North was commonly accepted in our denomination until the 1950's.

The commentary that Smith wrote on Daniel and Revelation is in many respects an excellent work, but one may think that it has the weakness of presenting too detailed interpretations that are based mainly on the political issues of the time of writing. In other words, the Bible is interpreted in the light of the day's events, instead of the events of the day being interpreted in the light of the Bible. Views that are based on this work have subsequently led to crises that James White feared. The situation in Turkey was not cleared in a few months, as Smith thought in the 1870's. World War I did give new timeliness to our prophetic message, but there was also confusion in some interpretation at that time. This is well expressed in a quotation from Howard B. Weeks' book, Adventist Evangelism in the Twentieth Century:

Adventist evangelists, including Daniells himself, had stated almost categorically that Bible prophecy called for the Turks to be driven out of Europe, whereupon they were to establish a new capital in Jerusalem.

Oddly, the Turks remained in Europe and were, in fact, driven out of Jerusalem. This event, on December 10, 1917, momentarily brought an end to Moslem rule in that city and stimulated widespread expectation that the Jews would be its new inhabitants again in seeming contradiction of Adventist belief that the Jews would never return to Palestine. . . .

This question was still actively under discussion in 1919, as seen in this statement leaving to the future its ultimate resolution:

"We have long looked forward to the time when Turkey, driven out of Europe, should make Jerusalem her headquarters. Many have supposed that 'this present war was to bring the fulfillment of this prediction; but now we see Jerusalem, not in the hands of the Turks, but in the hands of the English, with no immediate prospect of its being returned to Turkish control. Shall we therefore cast aside this prophecy, for those whose fulfillment we have looked so long? Only the future can disclose how events will turn" (p. 104).

Weeks also tells in his book how our evangelists were much calmer in their predictions of the future during World War II. This calmness was due to the fact that many remembered the embarrassing experiences that some of our evangelists had during World War I. Francis D. Nichol, the editor of the Review, wrote in 1939:

There were those during the great World War. . . who fell before the temptation to pose as possessors of great foresight and understanding as to the details of the destiny that God had in store for the nations. . . . Nor did it aid our cause in the eyes of those in the world who had heard these predictions and whose memories were long enough to note that the predictions rather generally did not come true. --Ibid., p. 185.

In 1952 there was an international Bible conference in Takoma Park, Maryland. The basic truths of our faith were thoroughly examined. The message of righteousness by faith was powerfully voiced, and this conference also meant a more completely unanimous return to the basic areas of emphasis that Ellen G. White once upheld. The central theme of prophetic revelation of the Bible, the great controversy between Christ and Satan, was brought to its proper place. A. V. Olson, one of the vice-presidents of the General Conference at the time of this Bible conference, wrote these words of warning:

We must ever bear in mind that God has raised up the Advent movement for the express purpose of proclaiming a prophetic message to the world. We are here at this late hour to expound the prophecies of the Old and New Testaments. We are here to give voice to the messages of the prophets messages of vital concern to every soul on earth.

While we are thus stressing the importance of giving prophecy a large place in our preaching, it may not be out of place to sound a note of warning against the danger of yielding to the temptation of indulging in fanciful, private interpretations or personal predictions. Consciously or unconsciously many of us may have erred on this point.

Years ago I overheard one of our ministers, who had frequently written articles for the newspapers of his city on the Turkish question, say to a group of workers, "I will never write another article on this subject for the public press, because every time I tell what the Turk is going to do he makes a fool of me by doing something entirely different." By his erroneous interpretations and his unwarranted predictions, this good brother had created embarrassment both for himself and for the church. --Our Firm Foundation, book 2, p. 547.

The above has indicated that our denomination, as well as the Christian church as a whole, has at different stages of the history of prophetic interpretation experienced crises of various intensities. This may be an uncomfortable fact to be realized, because it shows our human limitations. However, we had better consider also what Olson wrote about correcting mistaken interpretations of prophecies:

Although we must hold firmly to all the light that God has revealed to us and always be ready to accept new revelations from Him, we must not conclude that we shall never have to abandon any views that we may have held regarding some prophetic passage. The entrance of new light may reveal that we have held views that were not in harmony with the teachings of the Scriptures. If so, we must be willing to surrender these views. Error, though hoary with age, is error still and should be rejected. This thought is clearly stated in the following lines from the inspired pen:

"Some have feared that if in even a single point they acknowledge themselves in error, other minds would be led to doubt the whole theory of truth. Therefore they have felt that investigation should not be permitted; that it would tend to dissension and disunion. But if such is to be the result of investigation, the sooner it comes the better. If there are those whose faith in God's word will not stand the test of an investigation of the Scriptures, the sooner they are revealed the better; for then the way will be opened to show them their error. We cannot hold that a proposition once taken, an idea once advocated, is not, under any circumstances, to be relinquished. There is but one who is infallible He who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life." --Ibid., p. 552.

Is There a Crisis?

It is time to return to our main question: Do we have a crisis in our prophetic interpretation? I think that this question can be answered both positively and negatively. As a denomination we are unanimously proclaiming the three an gels' messages according to the basic lines of prophetic interpretation that we can most clearly see in the pages of The Great Controversy. To a large extent we are also unanimous in details of interpretation even though our Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary may present two or three differing interpretations on some prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Whatever the situation is, I cannot see any reason to speak of a crisis. This does not mean that we should not strive toward greater unity in our preaching of these subjects.

However, I am afraid that we live in the midst of a crisis in prophetic interpretation in another sense. It may be that we are not proclaiming our prophetic message with that power and certainty that we should, because of neglected study of prophecies.

Mrs. White writes:

There is need of a much closer study of the word of God; especially should Daniel and the Revelation have attention as never before in the history of our work. We may have less to say in some lines, in regard to the Roman power and the papacy; but we should call attention to what the prophets and apostles have written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God. --Testimonies to Ministers, p. 112.

The crisis in our prophetic interpretation lies in the fact that we have fallen asleep at our post of being watchmen. God has called us to proclaim a prophetic message for this very time, but we are often in need of being taught ourselves. Often we read or listen with confused thoughts the interpretations of other denominations interpretations that are more or less mistaken.

I do not believe that I am competent to say too much about this matter, and what I have said is also directed as a criticism over my own lukewarmness. However, I want to present a few solemn appeals for us as workers from the pen of the Lord's messenger. She writes:

While the Protestant world is, by her attitude, making concessions to Rome, we should arouse to comprehend the situation, and view the contest before us in its true bearings. While men have slept, Satan has been stealthily sowing the tares. Let the watchmen now lift up their voice like a trumpet, and give the message which is present truth for this time. Let them know where we are in prophetic history, that the spirit of true Protestant ism may awaken all the world to a sense of the value of the privileges of religious liberty so long enjoyed. . . .

We have lost much time in inaction, because we have not realized the time in which we are living. This we deplore, and would humble our souls be fore God, pleading with Him for pardon for sleeping at our post of duty, and allowing the enemy to gain the advantage over us. --Review and Herald, Jan. 1, 1889, pp. 1,2.

In the year of her death Mrs. White wrote:

The prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation should be carefully studied, and in connection with them the words, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." --Evangelism, p. 196.

At another time she wrote:

Let not the solemn scenes which prophecy has revealed be left untouched. If our people were half awake, if they realized the nearness of the events portrayed in the Revelation, a reformation would be wrought in our churches, and many more would believe the message. . . . Advance new principles, and crowd in the clear-cut truth.. . . Let Daniel speak, let the Revelation speak, and tell what is truth. But whatever phase of the subject is presented, uplift Jesus as the center of all hope, "the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright and morning Star." --Testimonies to Ministers, p. 118.

In this crisis of our prophetic interpretation we have to find the same experience that the disciples had on the road to Emmaus. We have to find Christ personally--Christ, of whom all the prophets bore witness. We have to sup with Him. This is the secret of power for the Laodicean church, for God's remnant. That will kindle fire within us, so that it can be said of us as was said of these disciples who had come over their crisis of prophetic interpretation:

The night is dark, but the Sun of Righteousness is shining upon them. Their hearts leap for joy. They seem to be in a new world. Christ is a living Saviour. . . . They carry the greatest message ever given to the world, a message of glad tidings upon which the hopes of the human family for time and for eternity depend. --The Desire of Ages, p. 801.

Advertisement - RevivalandReformation 300x250

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
-Editor, Finland House, at the time this article was written

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - Southern Adv Univ 180x150 - Animated

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - NAD Stewardship (160x600)