by Ron Corson
Seventh-day Adventists have always seen themselves has a movement predicted by prophecy with special insights to past prophetic utterances and interpretation of both scripture and Ellen White as predicting various scenarios for the near future. For many SDA’s much of their identity is tied up with the premise of accurately fulfilled or being fulfilled prophecy. The premise is false.
Stephen Fosters recent article on Atoday, "The Case Against Secularism-And For Prophecy" posits “While history is a great teacher, it is difficult to quantify how much better it is, if at all, than is a “prophetic prognostication” on the same topic.”
Is “prophetic prognostication” better then history? Does history repeat itself as Karl Marx was alleged to claim? Actually according to a website, Marxist.org, “Marx never believed that “history repeats itself,” but in a famous quote he said: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” [Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Chapter 1]”
In fact history does not repeat itself. Napoleon is not the same as Hitler and Hitler was not the same as Stalin and Pol Pot is different from other mass murders. History can teach us lessons that we can apply to our current conditions or movements, it does not repeat itself, whether in tragedy or in farce. Certainly people will continue to make the same mistakes human nature being what it is, usually because they think they can do it right where the others failed but still history does not repeat itself and when we view history we have to interpret the data and analyze it for the best use we can make of it. History like most information is subject to interpretation.
“Prophetic prognostication” is equally subject to interpretation but unlike history there is no reality of actual experience to help with the interpretation. There is no history involved, no reality observed and no data from the occurrences to help the development of an interpretation. This moves prophetic prognostication into the realm of speculation.
Speculation can be used to problem solve or run scenarios, such as making “what if” statements. The more variables in a scenario the more possible “what if” statements can be envisioned. The answers to those “what if” statements then branch like a tree into multiple possible additional “what if” possibilities of actions and reactions. This fact limits the application of “what if” statements or thought problems (thought experiments) to fairly simple propositions which are often not found in life's open systems (with multitudinous interactions possible). “Prophetic prognostication” is unlikely to even in be in the useful “what if“ category because there are far too many possible factors to be considered.
Adventists have seen the difficulties with “prophetic prognostication” in its application of Biblical predictive prophecy. Most famous in this list of predictions is the end of the world in1844, the so called “Great Disappointment”. Adventists have from their beginning practiced prophetic prognostication on various topics. Most were thought to be fulfillments of some or other Biblical prophecy for example:
— 1755. November 1 The great Lisbon earthquake.
— 1780 May 19. The unexplained dark day over New England
— 1798 The Vatican fell because of the French Revolution, temporarily ending 1260 years of religious and political domination
— 1833 November 12-13. The great Leonid meteor shower
— 1838 Josiah Litch used Revelation 9 to predict the fall of the Ottoman Empire around August of 1840
All of the above taken from teachinghearts.org.
Adventists have been totally inaccurate in their “Prophetic prognostication” and interpretation of fulfillment. Earthquakes still happen, with more or less death and destruction then Lisbon, Forest fires and storms occasionally cause dark days, such as when Mt. St. Helens erupted. The Vatican did not fall in 1798 just because a Pope was captured once again, it had lost significant power for several hundred years before 1798, remember in just the area of religion there was the Reformation! Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517, Henry the VIII of England rebelled against the papacy in before 1540. There have been greater Leonid meteor showers since 1833 and they still come on their regular cycle. The Ottoman Empire did not fall in 1840 though it had been in decline for a hundred years. Nothing of significance even happened to the Ottoman Empire in 1840. Most of these formerly thought of fulfillments are rarely mentioned today in the Western World. The fact is that not only Adventists have failed with “Prophetic prognostication” but numerous other Christians have been completely unsuccessful with their interpretation and application of predictive prophecy from the Bible. Many have tried. All have failed. (See Wikipedia, “Unfulfilled Christian Predictions”)
For Adventists this becomes even a greater problem because many try to use the “prophetic prognostication” of Ellen White as the general Christian community tried to use the Biblical predictive prophecies. Ellen White's predictive prophecies even in her life time also failed. The most famous probably being her statement at the 1856 conference:
"I was shown the company present at the Conference, Said the angel: "Some food for worms, some subjects of the seven last plagues, some will be alive and remain upon the earth to be translated at the coming of Jesus." Ellen G. White, 1 Testimonies, p. 131-132. May 27, 1856
When we look at what the Adventist denomination says itself about Ellen White's fulfilled predictions we see that they cannot really find any to point to with specificity. The book Seventh-day Adventists Believe … A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines (1988) on page 225 writes of Ellen White:
2. "The accuracy of predictions. Ellen White's writings contain a relatively small number of predictions. Some are in the process of being fulfilled, while others still await fulfillment. But those that can be tested have been fulfilled with an amazing accuracy. Two instances that demonstrate her prophetic insights follow.”
“a. The rise of modern spiritualism…”
“b. A close cooperation between Protestants and Roman Catholics…”
Both are actually very questionable, Ellen White wrote about the "mysterious rapping" as a phenomenon caused by Satan, the quote appears to be a reference to the Fox sisters’ spiritualism hoax of her time. In her day, séances were held in the White House! In other words she wrote about the spiritualism, which was already popular. It was more a description than a prediction and in any case has not proved itself true. If you go by those who say they follow or practice spiritualism there would be a decline just as there is a decline in the Theosophists of her day, another brand of spiritualism. But spiritualism is somewhat vague in meaning and could be held to a wide array of interpretations thus it becomes a vague and meaningless prediction, fulfilled by anyone that wants to say it is being fulfilled any time something becomes popular, Transcendental Meditation or the New Age Movement can be force fit, but do not really share the characteristics of the spiritualism Ellen White wrote of.
The second supposedly fulfilled prediction is cooperation between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Again, based upon the current events of her time, there was such animosity between Protestants and Roman Catholics it would be hard to see them come together. As Julie Byrne of the Dept. of Religion, Duke University, reports in "Roman Catholics and Immigration in Nineteenth-Century America", “In 1850 Catholics made up only five percent of the total U.S. population. By 1906, they made up seventeen percent of the total population (14 million out of 82 million people)—and constituted the single largest religious denomination in the country.” When Ellen White saw this kind of immigration it would not take some kind of divine imagination to see that the anti-Catholic hatred and distrust of 19th century America was not going to last. But to be fair we can give her partial fulfillment on this issue as Protestants and Roman Catholics get along more as Christian brothers and sisters despite the rift of the Reformation. That Christians could have been that hateful of other Christians is a scar on Christianity. Still, the two are widely separate on many issues and here again the vague nature of the prediction plays a role, allowing whoever wants to interpret it to see some form of fulfillment.
If we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that the value of “prophetic prognostication” is very close to nil. Vague predictions afford broad leeway for the interpreter to see what they want as a fulfillment. Wide range of possible fulfillment ensures we are left with nothing of value. Worse, when other “prophetic prognostications” are informed by our view of current events speculations run wild. The speculative interpretations are upheld as truth only because of their claim of a prophetic nature.
When such speculation is used to prejudice people against other people or organizations, not because of what they are believed to have done or said but upon what they are anticipated to do following a “prophetic prognostication” then we practice a most offensive type of unreasoning chauvinism. The past performance of such prophetic speculation should instead encourage silence or at least some humility.