Does history really confirm any kind of statement about purpose in human experience?
Adventists and many other conservative Christians insist that it does. On this premise, Adventists interpret prophecy in the historicist mode, a method currently out of fashion with both the preterists of much of the scholarly world and with most futurists as well.
Can we trust our methods?
One of America's leading historians of religion, responding to questions in a plenary session of the American Academy of Religion, was asked some months ago whether he saw evidence of divine guidance in the history of the church. He denied such evidence and hastened to warn against the danger of reading one's own views into history. His answer reflects a widespread concern among scholars, many of whom endorse the philosophic rationalism of the past two centuries. On the one hand, the historian's warning is certainly an appropriate one, for there is a recurring temptation to read one's own biases into the past. But is this danger so grave that the past must stand speechless?
Whether in Mesopotamia, Egypt, or wherever man discovered the art of writing, he set the dividing point between prehistory and history. This discovery meant data could be accumulated much more efficiently, but raw data is not history. Much of the meaning of information comes from the network of relation ships among facts. It can be tapped only by constructing a philosophy of history to link pieces of information having uneven importance. All philosophies have a subjective element, so in every case history is, to a certain degree, an organizing construct.
This subjective element has troubled historians and religious thinkers for centuries, for it raises the question of whether we are not all largely self-deluded. Philosophers and scientists of the nineteenth century pursued the Holy Grail of absolute truth, unstained by human values and entirely coercive as authority. Today, their successors concede that such a goal is almost certainly unattainable. But curiously, much of the older methodology continues in place as though complete objectivity were still the goal. Recent philosophical studies of how ideas are molded by the process of thinking and its statement in words have dealt heavy blows to nineteenth-century objectivism. 1 Polanyi has persuasively shown that the same perspective even erodes the presumed objectivity of the scientific method. 2 But if we recognize and control excess subjectivity, there is much-to be gained from a thorough search of the past.
Legacy of the Enlightenment
Western thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was swept by the Enlightenment, a movement that spawned a series of thinkers who attempted to reconcile patterns from the Age of Faith (of which Luther and Calvin were late stars) with the increasing body of non-Biblical information coming from expanding scientific studies. Such men as Voltaire, Rousseau, Lessing, and Paine, along with others, concluded that traditional Christianity could not be reconciled with the new discoveries. Being unwilling to dispense wholly with the idea of God, most of them chose to consign Him to an inactive role in current human affairs.
Indeed, the Enlightenment virtually drove the supernatural and the idea of Divine Providence from human affairs. Today, the effect of that continuing legacy drains the past of meaning, reducing modern man to an existential creature of the moment, largely without meaningful heritage or hope for the future. 3 But such a rationalism is foreign to the Scriptures: the Bible writers argue profoundly that the human drama is very directly the workshop of God.
Perhaps nowhere in Scripture is God's activity in human affairs more clearly presented than in apocalyptic prophecy, particularly in Daniel. Here each of the major prophetic sweeps concludes with the triumph of God's plan. In Daniel 2, the stone fills the entire world; in chapter 7, the greatness of the everlasting kingdom is given to the saints; in chapter 12, we see a people serving God and being delivered from the final cataclysm. Similar passages occur in the Revelation, often featuring the joyous shouts of triumph from redeemed saints. In short, the Bible both presumes and overtly claims human experience to be the workshop of both God and man. History indeed speaks of His purposes.
Can we say that history, defined as a secular report of human activities within an environment, tells anything about God's will regarding a specific people—the Seventh-day Adventist movement, for example? The Enlightenment tradition would secularize history, but to the Biblically oriented believer, history speaks of God's work as well as man's. In fact, the entire Biblical perspective reviews man's actions in light of God's purposes.
While these purposes are evident, scattered throughout Scripture, they are high lighted in apocalyptic prophecy. Here we see the drama of God versus Satan reflected over and over again in the struggles of man. We watch the ebb and flow of earthbound events from the heavenly perspective. As with the study of history, it is also true that interpreting these sweeping, universal prophecies runs the hazard of reading immediate events or one's biases into the scriptural passage. Witness the litter of interpretative carcasses along the pathway of past interpretations. 4 We do well to be cautioned by this, but it need not prevent our pursuing a method clearly outlined in Scripture, where the image of Daniel 2 is interpreted by the prophet to apply to then-current Babylon and its successors. In Daniel 8:20, 21 the ram and the goat are specifically said to represent Media-Persia and Greece. In seeking reliable understanding, it is important that our interpretation meet all the criteria demanded by the prophecy without straining to improbabilities, and also that it be faithful to the sequential time placement indicated by its location in the sweep of a prophetic view.
Let us consider how the nineteenth-century Adventist movement fits the Biblical specifications of two significant passages. We need to keep in mind that the master key to timing stems from a clear understanding of the 2300-day prophecy, pinpointing the year 1844 as its climax. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this point on the Millerite mind-set. Its effect was to confirm special significance for the Adventist movement as the religious group commissioned by Heaven to proclaim God's final message.
Seventh-day Adventists have long believed the message to the Philadelphian church in Revelation 3 describes the powerful evangelical revival that swept the world in the first half of the nineteenth century. 5 In America this was called the Second Awakening. It was responsible for an almost explosive expansion of churches across the eastern half of North America, and established the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians as the leaders among American denominations. Because of its unique last-time message, the Adventist branch of this sweeping revival is especially identified with the Philadelphian message.
Following as it does the message to Sardis, reminiscent of the Reformation and its later decline into Protestant scholastic and rationalistic doldrums, the Philadelphia message is timed well to fit nineteenth-century events. Although the early Adventist movement was particularly guided by William Miller, a Baptist lay preacher, it was in fact a truly interdenominational, ecumenical movement dedicated to prophetic study and the strong conviction of Jesus' soon return.
The prophetic features of the Philadelphia church strike the reader as starkly plain: (1) Philadelphia follows in sequence after the Reformation period (Rev. 3:1-6); (2) the Philadelphia church has little strength (verse 8); (3) it is the object of scorn from unsympathetic brethren (verse 9); (4) it faces a special hour of trial (verse 10); (5) it holds and cherishes the special promise of Christ's soon return (verse 11); (6) it carries a final note portraying the descent of the New Jerusalem (verse 12).
A historical scan of the early Adventist movement reveals a series of obvious fulfillments that could hardly have been orchestrated to create similarity. Miller's Adventist movement, in fact, arose as one of the major branches of the Second Awakening in America, and similar groups developed independently and simultaneously in other parts of the world. It is uniquely similar to the entire passage cited from Revelation 3.
The Philadelphia church's "little strength" parallels the shoestring, unorganized nature of the Adventists. In addition, they were severely criticized by other denominational groups, and by the early 1840s many Adventists were being expelled from their local congregations. Unquestionably, the disappointment of 1844, both in the spring and again on October 22, constituted a bitter experience indeed, but, paralleling verse 11, the pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist movement held fast to the hope of the soon-coming Advent with its anticipated New Jerusalem. Clearly the Adventist movement moves through history in amazing step and counterstep with Revelation 3:1-12.
An additional set of parallels is evident in the three angels' messages of Revelation 14. Approaching from the historical perspective, we find an early Adventist proclamation of impending judgment, matching the introductory theme of the first angel (see chap. 14:6), followed by an appeal for believers to withdraw from other religious bodies, partly in response to their own rejection by those bodies, but also as a result of the organization of a distinctly Adventist fellowship of churches. When the Sabbath message was accepted as a special identifying sign of God's people, the mark-of-the-beast doctrine came to the forefront. There is no evidence that early Adventists were conscious of how clearly their movement matched these prophecies until the pattern was well in place.
Certain other passages in Revelation come to mind that foretell just such experiences as those through which Seventh-day Adventists have passed. Prophecy even describes the specific con tent of what was preached. Revelation 10 forshadows in uncanny detail the experience of the Millerite Adventists, right down to the great disappointment of 1844 and the renewed commission, " 'You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and tongues and kings'" (verse 11, R.S.V.).* Adventists accept that assignment, fully persuaded that with its completion Jesus will return (see Matt.24:14). Another scriptural passage identifies the familiar Adventist hallmarks "the commandments of God, and . . . the testimony of Jesus" (Rev. 12:17).
In a cursory way, we have set the elements of several Biblical prophecies alongside events in the Adventist experience. The comparison yields an impressive number of ways in which the two synchronize. Such evidence fires the dynamic of Adventism, impelling the church forward into the most remote parts of the world to fulfill the prophetic task. Jesus Christ, the Author of all things and Redeemer of men, is soon to return in majesty to inaugurate His kingdom of glory. Fulfilled past prophecies give urgent voice to the present and assure the certainty of future triumph. History, indeed, offers convincing evidence that the gospel work, espoused by Seventh-day Adventists as their chief concern among all earthly enterprises, is truly the work of God.
* Texts credited to N.I.V. are from The Holy Bible: New Internationa! Version. Copyright © 1978by the New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.