When a colleague and I wrote and submitted to Adventist Today the piece entitled “A New Interpretation of the Little Horn of Daniel 7,” we knew that we might be seen (as Zechariah once said of Israel’s enemies) as poking God’s church in the eye. We weren’t exactly sure what shape the response would take—whether anyone would find this an opportunity to re-explore our Adventist use of prophecy, which was central to our reason for writing this—but we anticipated that it could stir up anxiety.

We had decided from the beginning on two things.

First, we were going to publish it anonymously. The main reason we remain unnamed was that we feared the response would would quickly turn ad hominem, thus diverting people from wrestling with the assertions themselves. Whether that choice was the right one is hard to say, though we’re sticking with it for now. Many used our anonymity as an excuse not to shoulder the anxiety of questioning a legacy Adventist teaching—though giving our names would have been an excuse for damning us rather than questioning a legacy Adventist teaching. I doubt we could win either way.

Not Mere Satire

The other thing we decided was that we would not give this essay a label. We would not make it easy to dismiss by calling it satire, for example. The responses to this evoked even higher anxiety than the authors’ anonymity did. Repeatedly in the comments came the plea that someone admit the piece was a parody, a joke, so that it could be set aside as mere playfulness.

But we could not say that, because it was not mere satire. It was intended to help Seventh-day Adventists wrestle with what it means to make prophecy real for today. Yes, there were parts that might merit a smile, such as “times” referring to the New York Times or “The Times, They Are A-Changin’.” (We kept those in, knowing we were risking ridicule; but are they any more ridiculous than inventing a fictitious papal title and making it add up to 666, or a beast that looks like a lamb but roars like a dragon being an American bison?)

But are we, the authors, personally invested in it? That’s a more complex question than it appears.

As we noted in the original article, the captivity of the pope by the French General Berthier in 1798 (what Uriah Smith identified as the end point of the 1260 days) is of so little importance to modern Christians that you cannot convince us any Seventh-day Adventist is personally invested in it. If they know it at all, it is because they regard it as factual because Uriah Smith said so; but as something that affects their lives this interpretation is meaningless. Who can’t see that it is a minor event in history generally in comparison with things like the American Civil War to end slavery, two world wars, the Jewish holocaust, nuclear weapons, climate change, the dramatic rise of China or the threats of terrorist Islam? If the 1260-day prophecy is important to us, why is its most current application back in the time of the French Revolution?

Our interpretation can be understood like raising the terrorist threat level from yellow to orange: it doesn’t mean something will undoubtedly happen, but keep your eyes open.

Yet please understand that in suggesting an updated interpretation we were being neither funny nor dismissive. Our interpretation can be understood like raising the terrorist threat level from yellow to orange: it doesn’t mean something will undoubtedly happen, but keep your eyes open. That is to say, if something significant should take place to end Donald Trump’s career on November 27, 2018, December 31, 2019, April 21, 2020, or July 3, 2020 (all possible endpoints to 1260 days with reference to Donald Trump’s political career) we would take it seriously, and hope others would, too.

In this context it’s important to note, as remarkably few did, that we offered something that you haven’t seen in any other prophetic interpretations in Seventh-day Adventist history: an admission that we might be wrong. If nothing happens on any of these dates, we can see no reason to hold this interpretation. Inasmuch as we have never seen from the official church any humility about prophetic interpretations, we hoped that might be appreciated.

We were intrigued by the assessment of a few that we were just political liberals who searched the prophecies for something by which to pillory Donald Trump. In fact, one of us is a Democrat, the other a Republican. Yet Donald Trump was the character that the description of a bragging leader of a great military might pointed us to. It’s unlikely anyone would have objected to our describing Pope Francis under the little horn symbol, who matches none of its described characteristics; but a number did object to our identifying it as Donald Trump, who matches several of them.

Even if it were satire, we challenge the notion that it would free readers from taking it seriously. When Jonathan Swift wrote his A Modest Proposal suggesting that the impoverished Irish might improve their lot by selling their babies as food for the nobility, he wasn’t just indulging in gruesome comedy. He used cannibalism to highlight the heartlessness of the rich toward the poor, and challenging English government policies that were killing the Irish by the millions. Even satire can say things of earth-changing import.

Historical Interpretations Only

To those of you who believed this piece wasn’t serious, here are a few very serious things that we’ve learned from the writing of and reception to it.

First, we were disappointed by the unwillingness of most to actually evaluate the argument. People wrote that “This is bad exegesis,” or “These people are fools,” or “This is a joke,” or “This doesn’t match what we believe,” or “We don’t know the author,” or “This disagrees with Ellen White” or “Quit attacking our president,” or even “I hate Donald Trump so I like this interpretation.”  

A few discerned that there was more in the piece than meets the eye, that there was a lesson in it that we should take seriously, and for these we were grateful. But few comments mentioned the actual merits of the prophetic application. While we didn’t expect a full hermeneutic in a Facebook comment, we did hope to see something more than that people liked or disliked the outcome, or that it didn’t match Adventist historical interpretations, or merely dismissing it as stupid or funny. We thought that ideas like the Vatican not being the war machine pictured in Daniel 7, and the antiquity and irrelevance of some of our historical interpretations, were worth serious address.

We are suspicious that there is no Adventist hermeneutic for new prophetic interpretation at all, only a devotion to what our founders said. 

But beyond the textual study, we were hoping that more people would show they were familiar with a larger Adventist prophetic hermeneutic, a process for either interpreting or evaluating interpretations of Bible prophecy beyond “This is isn’t what we have always taught.” But here we came up largely empty.

We are suspicious that there is no Adventist hermeneutic for new prophetic interpretation at all, only a devotion to what our founders said. There has been but one unique interpretation of Daniel and Revelation that has survived into current Adventist history, and that is Uriah Smith’s, at least in part because it was authorized by Ellen White. We have ceded all prophetic interpretation to that duo, departing from them only when forced to and only in minor details.

It seems to us now that we Adventists do not know how to wrestle with prophecy any longer: we can only repeat what we have been told about it. Now, even benign changes, such as Dr. Stefanovic’s toning down attacks on Catholicism, are held to be “errors,” and cause whole books to be withdrawn from the press and rewritten. A church-employed friend of mine has had to promise he will not publish a unique interpretation of the seven trumpets of Revelation, a confusing and seldom-referenced prophecy, only because it doesn’t agree with Uriah Smith. We are millstoned with a set of prophetic interpretations that are largely meaningless.

The End of Present Prophecy

We weren’t surprised by the fortissimo defenses of Donald Trump. Like some General Conference leaders who have borrowed and full-throatedly supported headship theology against women’s ordination, many of Donald Trump’s Adventist supporters have been quite ready to believe the evangelical interpretation that he is the Cyrus of Bible prophecy: a not-very-good man put in place by God and doing God’s will for our time.

The ferocity of Trump’s defenders, and the frequent objections by others to bringing up politics at all, made us realize a second thing about Adventist prophetic interpretation: our church will probably never again be able to apply any prophecy to any current situation. With the exception of our blaming Roman Catholicism, encouraged by White and Smith, our interpreters must of necessity leave all current political situations unremarked.

Our time as unique and dynamic interpreters of prophecy is over. We have for at least a century been stuck with irrelevant or theoretical events, events that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago, or that may happen in the future. We seem to have found nothing in prophecy addressing two world wars and the holocaust. To the recent rise of militant Islam we saw no applicable prophecies. As the center of the world economy moved to the far east, we have had nothing prophetic to say. And to the election of one of the most controversial political figures ever to lead the United States of America, we must be prophetically mute.

As things of consequence happen from now on, we will be unable to identify them in prophecy. Political situations, especially, are now too dangerous for us to even examine in the light of prophecy, without tearing the church apart. This will be true irrespective of the figure’s activities or political loyalties: should a modern political figure be shown to be doing something described in prophecy, it would be best we not mention it.

That is to say, our much vaunted prophetic interest is useless to address the present world. As anxious as we Adventists are about the future, as much as we brag about our interest in historical prophecy, we risk conflict and schism if we point out something in current political life that matches prophecy.

An Indispensable Enemy

Finally, we are impressed by Seventh-day Adventists’ uncompromising devotion to Roman Catholicism. Fear of that church and its leaders is rooted in our past and extends into our future, and it is one of the few prophecies (others being Matthew 24:37 and Daniel 12:4, safe because of their generality) that we can get away with applying in current time.

Roman Catholicism is, it appears, our alter ego. Without imaginary Roman Catholics heckling us from the sidelines, we hardly know who we are. Our stories about its nearly-supernatural power and reach give us purpose and meaning in a way that the simple facts of the Gospel seem unable to.

We return obsessively back to Roman Catholicism, though that denomination threatens us not at all—indeed, is hardly aware of our existence. We play the part of the abused child of this parent of Christianity, and we live in permanent crisis over it, neither getting past it nor wanting to.

We return obsessively back to Roman Catholicism, though that denomination threatens us not at all—indeed, is hardly aware of our existence. Yet we fear and hate Roman Catholicism, and we cannot turn away from it and get on with our work. We play the part of the abused child of this parent of Christianity, and we live in permanent crisis over it, neither getting past it nor wanting to. The authors wonder if this is why we have, as time has passed, begun to resemble our enemy more and more in organization and attitude, just as abused children can turn into abusing adults.

An Unusable Tool

We wish our theologians would wrestle with how to apply the prophecies we claim to love in a real present, rather than just to an imagined past or theoretical future. But we are not optimistic. There are many skilled Adventist exegetes, some of whom have studied prophetic passages. Yet few touch these legacy positions, much less find in the prophetic passages new, dynamic interpretations for today. We are all constrained by the tightly-laced corset of Adventist history. We have now nothing but others’ interpretations to offer, from which no one with an authoritative voice will be allowed to stray. Prophecy is to us Seventh-day Adventists an old rusty tool, a tool that we proudly display in our museum, but we are no longer capable of using.

Dear Adventist Today readers: I’m inserting this note to tell you that we are right now conducting our end-of-year fundraiser. Adventist Today is largely a volunteer organization, but if we’re going to continue to provide you with stimulating news—often news you get nowhere else—and fascinating commentary by some of the best writers in the denomination, we do need some financial support. If you want to see us continue to do the journalism that you’ve been accustomed to from Adventist Today, would you follow this link and give us a gift now? — Loren Seibold, Executive Editor, Adventist Today website and magazine.

To comment, click here.