In the most recent issue of Adventist Today (Fall 2011) Alden Thompson has an article entitled Conditional Prophecy and Last-Day Events. I had mentioned to a friend that he seemed to waste a lot of the article on talking about the Sabbath. My friend who knows Alden and thus I suspect has a bit more insight into his thinking, but is also a bit less critical of what he actually said, suggested that the underlying reason for the Sabbath inclusion in the article was to develop subtly the idea that the Sabbath is not an end time Seal of God and the conditional prophecy was a method of planting those ideas into the reader.
Thus I had to re-read the article to see if I could see those subtle connections as my friend explained it. If there I thought I would be in substantial agreement though likely not with his conditional prophecy position.
Alden Thompson introduces us to his subject after explaining through the process of some rather gratuitous assertions the solid foundation of the Sabbath and that “the New Testament is equally clear pressing the question of how to keep the Sabbath but never quarreling over the fact of the Sabbath.” True enough but what does the “fact” of the sabbath really mean. That the New Testament acknowledges the Sabbath is true but does not in any way seek to endorse it as a continuing obligation, leaving it up to the conscience of people (Rom. 14:5). But when someone says the fact of the sabbath to an Adventist I think they often have a different understanding, the fact to them being the continuing obligation of Seventh day Sabbath keeping as their proof of true commandment keeping. I will come back to that after I cover the next area of Thompson's article where he recounts the conflict of 1888 through Ellen Whites perspective.
The article covers an area of all or nothing thinking which he seems to want to use to develop his concept of conditional prophecy. He recounts this incident from the 1888 Ellen White Materials page 220 I will give the full two paragraphs:
I told them I had been shown that some of our brethren had educated themselves as debaters. The process of this education and the mold received by such an education were not after God's order, neither did they meet the approval of God. In many respects men trained in this kind of school unfitted themselves to become pastors of the sheep and lambs; and in combating an opponent, as in the way of discussions, usually harm is done with but little good results. The combative spirit is raised in both parties, and a defiant, hard spirit becomes habitual when their track is crossed. They become criticizers and do not always handle the Scriptures fairly, but wrest the Scriptures to make their point.
The remark was made, "If our views of Galatians are not correct, then we have not the third angel's message, and our position goes by the board; there is nothing to our faith." I said, "Brethren, here is the very thing I have been telling you. This statement is not true. It is an extravagant, exaggerated statement. If it is made in the discussion of this question I shall feel it my duty to set this matter before all that are assembled, and whether they hear or forbear, tell them the statement is incorrect. The question at issue is not a vital question and should not be treated as such. The wonderful importance and magnitude of this subject has been exaggerated. For this reason--through misconception and perverted ideas-- we see the spirit that prevails at this meeting, which is unchristlike, and which we should never see exhibited among brethren. There has been a spirit of Pharisaism coming in among us which I shall lift my voice against wherever it may be revealed." Full 1888 materials in PDF
The brother who says we don't have the third angel's message is on the side that says the law in Galatians is the Ceremonial law (which by the way is an entirely artificial designation the Jews did not separate the law as moral or ceremonial). The brother was working against the position of Jones and Waggoner that the law in Galatians was the moral law (by which Adventists mean the 10 commandments, again a fictional law division).
Thompson then begins on the Conditional prophecy portion by saying that the Adventists had two pillars which can be found in the simple covenant that Adventists first signed when they formed as a church in 1861. “covenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ [Rev. 14:12] Central to the commandments is the Sabbath;”
So even though Ellen White thought the brother was exaggerating his thinking, that if the law in Galatians was our school master to lead us to Christ and then fade we can't be correct in our statement of the third angel's message which is that last part of the verse in Rev 14:12. Thus the brother's offering is not really all or nothing but the recognition that if our faith is in our understanding of the Seventh day Sabbath observance as our special mission (to preach the third or three angel's message) the position would be in error and faith based on error is not terribly useful. Ellen White is not even able to refute the brother but threatens to, as we continue to read that letter we see she never deals with the issue only criticizes the spirit of those involved. Which by the way is usually a truism when any two or more people get together and argue strongly held views religious or otherwise.
Alden Thompson's conclusion to the illustration of history is:
“Let's be clear: whatever we do with conditional prophecy or end-time events does not move a pin from those landmarks, the ones reflected in our name Seventh-day Adventists.”
That would not be the conclusion I would draw from the illustration from Adventist history of this event. But then I don't see the brother as giving an all or nothing position either. He seems quite rational and deserved a bit more rational response then he received. I might accept the conclusion that from our history we accept certain pillars as unmovable because we ignore any reasons to move them. Which strangely enough seems to be Thompson's case, as he continues:
“I hope the long preamble makes it clear that there is no point in going further unless the Adventist landmarks are in place. When they are secure, however, we can begin to nibble on “conditional prophecy” in bite-size chunks.”
He then covers some of the ideas of the “last days” as being a nebulous term that does not fit all that well with the New Testament and contemporary interpretations of Christians. That some see conditional prophecy as things that must be fulfilled in the last days such as the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem etc.
Next he points to the article The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy (I did an Internet search to give you a link to this article but being an important article it appears to not be anywhere on the Internet). Alden writes:
“All Adventists know about the Sunday law. But very few know how the Bible, the Great Disappointment, and Ellen White come together in this remarkable article that takes “conditional prophecy” seriously in exploring God's original plan for Israel.”
His next point is to direct our attention to Ellen White's own all or nothing statement:
The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional. Selected Messages Page 67 from MN 4 1883Notice her position is either the Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped or God failed. No possibility for the messenger being presumptuous or making something up quite apart from anything God ever said or simply wrong interpretations. After all it had been nearly 2000 years since those New Testament last day prophecies. It does seem a little presumptuous in the 19th century to assume they are all talking about her century. This would be a good example of all or nothing thinking. But if one did believe that the promises and threatenings of God are conditional and you have to admit there is an implied “all” in that statement. In fact the implied “all” would make the statement fall in the category of a logical fallacy known as the false generalization (sweeping or hasty generalization).
The whole possibility of the second coming becomes conditional and may never happen. What are the conditions, who knows? A conditional prophecy without the conditions stated somewhere is worthless. Now ancient Israel had loads of prophecies and from the start of the nation state there were conditions set for all the prophecies. (Read Deut. 28) Is it really logical to assume the same conditions for a ancient nation to modern people in so many different nations? If one accepts that all promises and threatenings of God are conditional and the conditions are not stated then whenever anyone makes a prediction that fails to come to pass they can say the conditions of God were not met and most likely after the fact they will name some conditions. In this way people like Harold Camping could continue setting dates for Christ's return and continue to create excuses for the prophetic failures. The so called prophet could never be shown to be wrong, if something comes true it will show them as a prophet if it does not it shows nothing except conditions were not met.
Alden Thompson continues by saying:
“It was the 1844 Disappointment that forced Adventists to come to grips with conditional prophecy—reluctantly.” Going on to say that Ellen White never published her statement about conditional prophecy while she lived, it was in the form of a letter defending herself from certain charges. I would ask should the letter be taken as inspired or the statement as inspired? Did Adventists come to grips with 1844 as a conditional prophecy? Well no it was assumed that the date was correct but the event was wrong and 1844 became integral to the novel SDA only doctrine known as the Investigative Judgment. He then moves on to Jonah, a favorite of Adventists who want to assert all prophecies are conditional. You can read a response to that position in my article Ellen White's Food for worms, Is it Conditional.
He finishes back with the Sabbath:
“Anywhere and everywhere Adventists can preach that the beast of Revelation 13 is coercive and deceptive. Anyone who coerces and deceives is in league with the beast. Today, however the great threat to our Sabbath is not coercive Sunday legislation, but secularization. Almost no one takes sacred time seriously anymore.”
So here at the end I grant my friends observation is probably correct. But all along the way I see numerous problems with the article's positions. But if this is the only way we can get Adventists to leave behind the 19th century theology of Ellen White and realize that so far she has been wrong on most every prediction she made, I guess I will have to say Amen. Though I wish we could be more honest with ourselves. But I am not an all or nothing person so it is not either lie to ourselves about conditional prophecy and Ellen White or continue to accept Ellen White and teach the outdated prophecy scenarios, I think honesty demands more. There is a place for subtleness but even being subtle with incorrect facts is not really a winning formula.