A few months back I wrote here, as evidence of the dynamic nature of Adventist theology, of the apparent disappearance from our teachings of Turkey as the country represented by Daniel 11’s King of the North.
It turns out I sent Turkey to the abattoir too soon: someone recently passed me a packet of tracts that included several hundred pages proving that Turkey is still the major figure in the end time conflict, and that seeing it otherwise is a heresy arising from Adventist “new theology”. In holding with Turkey, these pamphleteers are in the solid company of pioneers like Jones, Smith, and Loughborough. They held Turkey to be a major player in the end times, though today’s Turkey followers see it as the organizer (or a symbol) of a general Islamic uprising that will bring on world instability.
The idea struck me as worth some consideration. The greatest potential for conflict in the modern world centers around the oil-rich but religiously-fanaticized Middle East. Yet the waxing of this force hasn’t appeared in our end-time explanations. Why not?
Several years before his death Dr. Samuele Bacchiochi expressed the view that prophecy predicted both Islam and the Papacy. He reached for support back to the reformers, the same ones lionized in the first half of The Great Controversy. In the two legs of the statue of Daniel 2, Luther saw the split between western Christianity and the eastern Constantinople branch of Christianity that was nearly destroyed by the Moslem occupations. The little horn of the fourth beast, that knocked off three other horns was, said Luther, “Mohammad or the Turk who now holds Egypt, Asia, and Greece.... This same little horn will fight the saints and blaspheme Christ—something that we are all experiencing and seeing before our very eyes.”
Bacchiocchi felt that John’s speaking of antichrists in the plural (1 John 2:18, “Now many antichrists have come”) showed that the antichrist was a principle of hostility to God, shown especially in a denial of the incarnation. That left room for more than one figure or group to fulfill the prophecy. Like the antichrist, Islam grew from small beginnings, was arrogant, blasphemous and persecuting, denied Christ’s divinity, and had also changed “times and laws” by moving the day of worship (in Islam’s case, to Friday.) Most disturbing to the traditionalists was Bacchiocchi’s questioning of Daniel 7:25’s 1260-year prophecy that has usually established the papacy as solely responsible for the persecution of believers.
Bacchiocchi wasn’t ready to replace the Papacy with Islam. He saw them working together. In Pope John Paul II’s 2001 visit to Umayyad Mosque in the Syrian capital of Damascus Bacchiocchi discerned a desire to create a partnership between Catholicism and Islam. He wrote, “It is evident that the Catholic estimation of Islam has undergone a fundamental change from the religion of ‘infidels’ to that of believers who worship the same God of Abraham.”
Bacchiocchi quickly learned that Seventh-day Adventists are fond of their traditional enemy, and won’t let anyone mess with it. P. Gerard Damsteegt of the SDA seminary wrote a rebuttal in the journal Adventists Affirm, as did Kevin Paulson at greatcontroversy.org. Bacchiocchi later acknowledged he’d received quantities of “hate mail.” Little has been said about it since Bacchiocchi’s death.
Back when I was in seminary I used LeRoy Froom’s massive work, The Prophetic Faith of our Fathers, for a research paper. This is a monumental piece of scholarship, recognized even outside the Adventist church as the most comprehensive survey ever done of how prophecy has been interpreted through history. Froom, a Seventh-day Adventist scholar, intended to show that historicism is the best method of Biblical interpretation.
But his four-volume recitation of unfulfilled prophetic interpretations had another effect on me. It made me think that prophetic interpretation is less about predictions God wants us to hear, and more about how we Christians apply Scripture to the times we live in. Perhaps prophecy is a Rorschach test that uncovers how we see our place in the world. It helps us make sense of current events, and articulates our expectations, aspirations, and disappointments.
And perhaps, like the inkblots, it reveals more than we understand about ourselves. Someone studying us from the outside might see, for example, how it highlights fault lines within our church.
One of the lines that shows up divides those who hold a dynamic, evolving application of Scriptural teachings, from those who would keep our doctrines set in stone. Can a prophecy apply differently to different times—the Papacy in one generation, Islam or Protestantism in another? Going farther: can we ordain women even if the pioneers didn’t? Could we do away with Union Conferences, even though Ellen White gave support to the reorganization that established them? I’ve recently heard new articulations of the idea that the Adventist Pioneers were the only ones given the truth that established our doctrines, so that any subsequent interpretation (such as the view that The King of the North represents Rome, held by most contemporary Adventist commentators) is by definition wrong, because the pioneers didn’t say it.
Like a lot of eschatology at this level, the route to identifying these prophetic figures as either Islam or the Papacy is a complicated and strained one that stretches the usual contemporary understanding of what kind of information is contained in these ancient documents. Here, the fault line is between quite different views of revelation. Some believe that revelation is word literal and specific—that with enough work you can tease out of scripture time periods, historical figures, and events, both from the past and looking into the future, if necessary even employing code decryption and algebra. Others would say that Scripture is concerned with big spiritual themes like redemption, and that even books like Daniel and Revelation should be read for principles of salvation, not specific events.
Related is the division between the ideologues and the pragmatists. I suspect that some readers of this essay have, for the past ten paragraphs, been saying to themselves, “What a useless argument! One way or another, what difference would it make to my daily walk with the Lord?” They would insist that any effort to identify specific historical figures or predict events leading to the end of the world is simply unimportant. While that may be a defensible point of view, it’s quite out of sync with those who began the church. Loughborough, Jones and the rest read Daniel and Revelation like it was today’s newspaper. They said, as some Adventists still say today, that every truth is important, and if you de-emphasize one, you weaken them all.
No matter our interpretation, if it conveys the message (which is, I think, the essential eschatological message of all of Scripture) that God is in control, then perhaps we don’t have to agree. As for me, I believe that when I meet Jesus, he’ll take me to heaven whether or not I can identify precisely who The King of the North was.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4821