In order to see the world in a true light and everything in its proper shape, in order to contemplate the wide horizon, we must climb out of the pit of self-centeredness and rise to a height. We must see the center of being not in ourselves but in God, where it truly is, and then everything will fall into the right place. – Nikolai Berdyaev
In Adventism, any discussion on the gift of Prophecy—or more specifically what the Bible refers to as the “Spirit of Prophecy”—is bound to revolve almost entirely around Ellen White’s ministry. There is a simple reason for this that goes back to two key texts in the book of Revelation. The first is found in Revelation 14:12 which reads “the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus…” The second is found in Revelation 19:10 in which an angel explains, “…the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (Emphases added)
The dialectic goes something like this. The offspring (or remnant) of the “woman” of Revelation 12 has the testimony of Jesus. The testimony of Jesus, according to 19:10, is the spirit of prophecy. Therefore, the offspring of Revelation 12 has the spirit of prophecy. It’s a simple A = B, B = C, therefore A = C construction. And since we Adventists keep the commandments of God and we have a prophet in our midst (whose books we been conveniently labeled “Spirit of Prophecy”) then there you have it! We are the offspring of Revelation 12 who both keep the law and are in possession of the Spirit of Prophecy as evidenced by the life and ministry of Ellen White.
Now before I continue, allow me to lay the foundation here. I believe Ellen White was a prophet. Therefore, the articles to come will have nothing to do with debating her prophetic legitimacy. I also believe that the ministry of Ellen White was a clear manifestation of the Spirit of Prophecy, and these articles will not attempt to suggest otherwise. Finally, I hold to the mainstream Adventist position on the purpose and application of the writings of Ellen White, and how this relates to our commitment to sola scriptura. This article, and the ones that follow, will not aim to replicate those positions or the reasoning behind them. Plenty of other sources explore that tension in-depth already.
So then, what is this article series on the Gift of Prophecy about? Only one thing: To celebrate the prophetic Spirit as a platform on which Jesus is elevated, not Ellen White and certainly not Adventism. Just Jesus.
In short, I would like to suggest that the Spirit of Prophecy, while manifested in the work of Ellen White, far transcends her own finite ministry. The Gift of Prophecy is also bigger, more panoramic, and cosmic than the short existence of one denominational institution that has existed within the confines of recent history. So, in the next three articles, as I extrapolate on the Gift of Prophecy, I will purposefully give little attention to Ellen White and Adventism as a whole. This is not because I wish to downgrade her contribution but because I wish to downgrade our hyper-elevation of her contribution. Likewise, this is not because I wish to devalue our identity and mission but merely, to remind us that we exist to point people to Him, not us. In short, it’s not her ministry or our identity I contend with but our collective pedestalization of both.
But what exactly does this mean? What objective am I aiming for here? Recall that this entire series on Reimagining Adventism is focused on articulating the “eccentric-ness” of our narrative to a post-church society that no longer assumes or accepts traditional Christian suppositions. Therefore, to more effectively communicate our message, we need to not merely update the buzzwords and illustrations we use but more importantly, dig into its essence and, with the help of the Spirit, mine clearer and more relevant content from it.
There is a straightforward logic to this. As our message grew and spread in a westernized/ Christian society much of it was based on claims that the listeners were already conditioned to accept without much critical thought. Likewise, we, as the disseminators of the message, did not have to deconstruct or critically analyze much of our message because our audience already agreed with a lot of what we had to say. This is why, historically speaking, Adventism has been said to offer mainly five core reformational ideas to the spectrum of protestant thought: the Sabbath and its role in prophecy, the sanctuary/judgment message, the health message, the Gift of Prophecy, and end-time events. Outside of those five core themes, it has been assumed that everything else we have to say is in harmony with a large percentage of historic Christian thought. Going through the effort of rethinking things most people already accept as true would have been a pointless expenditure of time and energy.
However, in contemporary secular society in which historic Christian thought is not assumed to be true, in which the substrates that make up the legacy of Protestantism are discarded and in which God, religion, and eternity have been replaced by the self, humanism, and the embrace of temporality we can no longer afford to continue communicating our faith as though our audience assumed even a small percentage of it. This then calls us to a complete re-exploration of our faith, to a critical analysis of that which we once thought beyond critique and a collective reimagining of how we communicate our message to the world.
The Spirit of Prophecy is no different. Gone are the days where a few verses on how you could prove a prophet true coupled with a list of historical evidences on how Ellen White ticks all the boxes is even remotely appropriate. When speaking of Ellen White’s prophetic gift, we must first communicate in clarity and relevant frames what the objective of prophecy is to begin with. In other words, the journey begins at the level of “telos” (ultimate object or aim). And the thing that I find troubling is the incredible amounts of energy most Adventists place in defending the prophetic ministry of Ellen White without even knowing what “prophecy” is and is intended for. This question must be revisited first, for in a Christianized world one could get away with approaching prophecy as a series of “secrets” and “mysteries” about future events that God “unveils” to his prophets so that we can pontificate on the geo-political maneuvers to come. But in a secular age, this approach holds little appeal. “Come, listen to how the Bible reveals ancient secrets about the future” or “America in Prophecy!” assumes the listener cares about what the Bible has to say about anything. But worst of all, it assumes people are craving the unmasking of divinely revealed secrets regarding future events—from the perspective of a conservative Christian denomination mind you—which is obvious by the preacher on the brochure sporting a stuffy suit and airbrushed smile. In a Christian context where the Bible and its author (God) are trusted to provide answers and guidance, yes, such an approach is viable. In a post-church generation where trust in both is virtually non-existent, and where the pursuit of immanence has replaced the pursuit of transcendence, such an approach is laughable. Even in the era of re-enchantment now underway, in which the cynical straightjacket of postmodernism and the skeptical boundaries of modernism are being tossed aside in a collective return to myth and sublimity, Christianity and its claims—so often used to fuel injustice and oppression—remain a no-go zone.
With all this said, I propose we need a different approach. First, we must develop relevant clarity on the telos of the prophetic gift—that is, why does it exist and why should I care? Second, we must unravel existential utility for the prophetic gift as in—what practical difference does this make in my life? This is an immanent rather than a transcendent approach. Third, we must explore this utility in terms of its social impact—what I refer to as its applicatory power. Revisiting the prophetic gift in terms of its telos, utility, and applicatory power can help us relay the foundation for exploring both the canonical visions and the work of Ellen White with greater relevance for the contemporary age. I will begin with telos in this present article, and transition to the other points in future installments.
The Telos of the Prophetic Gift
What is the point of prophecy? What objective does it serve? Biblically speaking, what is its raison d’etre, its reason for being? The simplest way to answer this question is to go to the beginning of the story, to the first prophetic utterance in all of Scripture, and decipher its significance there.
The first prophecy in all of Scripture is found in Genesis 3:15. Here, God is speaking to the serpent (metaphorically the Satan [the adversary]) after the fall of man. This fall, although unbeknownst to Adam and Eve, is to have catastrophic consequences in human history. From his divine vantage point, God already knows what is to come. The suffering, malevolence, and injustice that is about to be unleashed on the earth. The empires that will be formed, wars that will be fought, and the people who will be exploited in the name of power. And it is with full awareness of the chaos that is about to emerge that God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
While this first prophecy does not contain a lot in terms of detail, a few things are clear. The serpent will be defeated by one of Eve’s offspring. A man will come, born of a human mother, and he will defeat the serpent. He will bring an end to the regime of selfishness by crushing the head of the enemy. He will be the end of empire and injustice, the end of selfishness and oppression. However, in doing so he will suffer a fatal blow. This means that his conquest will be, above all things, a sacrifice. He will die in the process of liberation. But the death itself will secure the redemption of humanity and birth a complete restoration to the Edenic state. This offspring is to come and in him, all hope for humanity is laid.
Of course, today we can look back and say that this is Jesus. But Adam and Eve didn’t know Jesus—not like you and I do. They were not aware of all the details of the plan of redemption. All they knew is that sin broke Eden, and the sacrificial offspring would restore it.
Despite its simplicity, this first prophetic utterance provides us with the clearest telos for the purpose and objective of prophecy in all of scripture. First, the vision conveys protest. There is a resistance to the way of evil. The enmity between the woman and the serpent is a divinely ordained state of spiritual revolt against the power and influence of sin. While its tentacles are to spread through the earth and dominate human history, it will not do so unresisted. In every age and generation, there will be those who resist and oppose its acetous corruption. Second, the vision points to Jesus and serves as a platform for him, his conquest, and his victory. He is, quite obviously, the point of the entire thing. Third, the vision highlights the enemy’s character by exposing his venomous nature, and yet, in so doing, it elevates the self-sacrificing love of God. The serpent’s bite is but a mere side note en route to the sacrificial narrative of the offspring to come. In short, the work of evil is so utterly eclipsed by God’s love that it becomes, in itself, a platform on which the glory of Jesus is amplified.
So here, at the very start we see three simple focal points of prophecy: it protests injustice, it celebrates Jesus, and it uplifts his selfless sacrifice in the battle between good and evil.
These three themes repeat over and over again in scripture. The visions of the minor prophets constantly protest the social injustices of Israel and surrounding nations. The visions of Daniel find their center in the “son of man”—a term which Jesus repeatedly uses to refer to himself throughout the gospels. The visions of John likewise begin with this simple declaration: “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Revelation 1:1)
The only addition to this is that prophecy announces future events. In Genesis, the future event announced is the coming of a messiah and the defeat of the serpent. Likewise, Jesus tells his disciples that he has revealed what is to come so that when it takes place, their faith in him would be affirmed. (John 16:4) A similar point is made in the Old Testament regarding the unveiling of future events as a kind of evidence of Yahweh’s supremacy over false gods. (Isaiah 41: 21-29) And of course, Revelation 1:1 itself is introduced not merely as the “revelation of Jesus” but as God showing “His servants what must soon come to pass.” Therefore, it is clear that the prophetic narrative involves foretelling future events. John the Baptist, for example, is referred to as the greatest of all prophets. He protested injustice (particularly that perpetrated by the Herodian dynasty) and elevated Jesus and proclaimed his soon-to-be arrival. Therefore, the primary purpose of prophecy never gets away from what we see in Genesis 3. Prophecy always protests injustice, uplifts Jesus, centralizes his sacrifice, and unveils the future.
The tragedy of modern-day Adventism is we have taken that singular portion and made it the whole—the prime telos. And we have taken the rest of the elements and made them mere add-ons, at best. As a result our prophecy seminars rarely uplift Jesus and his sacrifice and virtually never protest the evils and injustices of our societies. The only time we engage in anything remotely close to protesting evil is when we go on long, drawn-out diatribes against culture condemning only those superficial things we feel threaten our Eurocentric piety. And this is far from what we see the prophets doing in scripture whose main concern is the dehumanization, mistreatment, and oppression of the vulnerable and voiceless.
Likewise, our prophetic approach today seems to place an imbalanced focus on the work of evil. It is not that the impact of injustice should be ignored in the name of hypersensitive sensibilities. There is deep existential virtue and utility in being able to speak of evil, of parsing the injustices and abuses of the age and resisting them. The contemporary push toward this version of Adventism or Christianity in which all semblance of the uncomfortable is discarded in the name of superficial enthusiasm, of “Jesus loves you” nothing more, and of hyper-romanticized visions of God are nothing more than reactionary tragedies. We must, through our study of Scripture, learn to contend with the dark side of the story. Our resilience is fortified by contemplating such themes and should never be discarded. But beyond this existential approach, the traditional Adventist focus seems to dally more in the realm of bathing in the evil, of immersing ourselves in its toxicity as though exposing the work of Satan is there for our amusement. Come, let us spend hours and hours discussing secret societies and nefarious agendas in the name of Bible prophecy! Such an approach betrays the notion that in biblical prophecy, the work of evil is always comparatively minuscule compared to the work of good. The serpent’s bite, therefore, emerges not as a theme for us to wallow in, but as a platform on which to celebrate the selfless heart of God. Evil is a mere socle on which the pillar of grace shines forth. And yet, we seem to have flipped the script and made the side note of a serpent’s bite the central theme, and the thrill of future predictions the ultimate object of prophecy. This approach is not only unhealthy and deeply flawed, it goes contrary to God’s own ideological primacies. We have taken his central themes and made them sidebars, and the sidebar themes we have brought into the center.
With this inverted approach to prophecy, it is impossible for us to appreciate the prophetic Spirit in both scripture and the writings of Ellen White. If we are to develop a relevant approach to the Spirit of Prophecy then, we must begin by identifying what philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev referred to as “the center of being”. This center, Berdyaev reserves for God and not us. And likewise, the true telos of prophecy is not Adventism, or Ellen White, or Satan, or geopolitical predictions, or anything in the realm of the “us”. Far above this, the Spirit of Prophecy is a protest of injustice and a platform for the love-centered sacrifice and conquest of Jesus over the work of evil. We must restore this prophetic balance by decentralizing the work of evil that we have made so central and returning the theatrical foreshadowing of future events to their intended place—as an aspect of the visions and not its prime focal point. In doing so, we will then have the necessary foundation to construct a more meaningful approach to Daniel and Revelation, the work and legacy of Ellen White, and everything else the Spirit of Prophecy has yet in store for his people.