I recently joined a Zoom “Sabbath School” in which the Adventist Church’s historic interpretation of Rome in end-time prophecy was challenged. It was familiar stuff—but with a fascinating new twist.
First, we were told that the Adventist Church’s position, and of course, that of Ellen White, were merely reflective of nineteenth-century American anti-Catholicism. Many Catholic immigrants were arriving in North America and taking jobs from established citizens, we were reminded. In this telling, Americans, including Adventists, didn’t like the newly-arrived Catholic immigrants, and that dislike fueled our church’s position. In short, sociology, not theology, was the origin of our end-time message about Rome.
Funny, but I had been under the impression that the Protestant Reformation had been built on two major points: justification by faith, and the identification of papal Rome as the antichrist. The Reformers were vitriolic in their denunciations of Rome, and as antichrist, too. Have you ever read Luther on Rome, particularly in his later years? My editors wouldn’t let me repeat the language he used about Rome. This was a common position in European and American Protestantism for centuries.
“Other contemporaries of Luther who shared his belief about the papal antichrist included John Calvin, John Knox, and Thomas Cranmer. Among the later reformers who held this view were the Anabaptist Menno Simons and various Huguenot theologians. Even King James I of England got into the act, writing an exposition of the Book of Revelation that called Rome the seat of the antichrist and Babylon. Many of the foundational creeds of Protestantism, including the Formula of Concord, the Second Scottish Confession, the Westminster Confession, the Savoy Declaration of the Congregational Churches, and the Baptist Confession of 1688, echoed Luther’s belief on this subject.”1
I know that it’s awkward to reference the conspiracy theories that some Adventists advance about Jesuits, but we must admit that the Jesuits of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation were remarkably successful. Their concerted effort turned Protestants away from the identification of Rome as the antichrist described in Scripture—so much so that today, Adventists are almost alone in holding that position. Many Protestants identify Antiochus Epiphanes (who died in164 b.c.) as the fulfillment of these prophecies, or anticipate some antichrist yet to appear, such as a Syrian Jew, as the future fulfillment of the prophecies of Daniel. All theories are good, it seems—except the only one that actually fits the arc of history: Rome. This identification fueled the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.
During the seminar I asked the question that I have repeatedly asked in such settings. Daniel 2, 7, and 8 depict one power arising after ancient Greece, a power that exists until the end of time, when it is destroyed at Christ’s return. This massive world power persecutes God’s people, blasphemes the name of God, attacks the sanctuary in heaven, and thinks to change times and laws.
When I ask repeatedly who can that power be, I get nothing but obfuscation. I am told that my hermeneutics are the problem, but I never get an answer to Who is that power? One participant said the antichrist of Daniel could be a hundred different persons or institutions.
So name one.
Second, the person presenting the seminar advanced some later Ellen White statements about the language Adventists use in referring to Roman Catholics. “We should not go out of our way to make hard thrusts at the Catholics. Among the Catholics there are many who are most conscientious Christians, and who walk in all the light that shines upon them, and God will work in their behalf.”2 And: “There are true Christians in every church, not excepting the Roman Catholic communion.”3 And: “There is need of a much closer study of the Word of God; especially should Daniel and the Revelation have attention as never before in the history of our work. We may have less to say in some lines, in regard to the Roman power and the Papacy.”4
These quotes are evidence, the presenter urged, that in later years Ellen White was changing her attitude toward Rome, and thus contemporary Adventists should do the same.
This is an inaccurate representation of Ellen White’s viewpoint and a deliberate evasion of the real matter. The issue with papal Rome has never been about the integrity or faithfulness of individual Catholics or their personal salvation. Ellen White and decades of Adventist teaching and evangelism have made this point abundantly clear. Individual Roman Catholics may be deeply devoted, faithful followers of Jesus as they currently understand Him—which is a clarion call to Adventist evangelism! The Adventist critique about papal Rome has always and only been about the system—the institution of the papacy. Ellen White’s statements were commonsense counsel for Adventists who may not have been making that important distinction, an acknowledgment that Adventist rhetoric about Rome needed to focus on the errors of the institution and not the integrity of individual believers. Reading her statements otherwise is a gross distortion of her position.
Ironically, the class itself became for me a fulfillment of prophecy—Ellen White’s inspired prediction that Protestants would change their attitude toward Rome.
“Romanism is now regarded by Protestants with far greater favor than in former years. . . . The defenders of popery declare that the church has been maligned; and the Protestant world are inclined to accept the statement. Many urge that it is unjust to judge the church of today by the abominations and absurdities that marked her reign during the centuries of ignorance and darkness. They excuse her horrible cruelty as the result of the barbarism of the times, and plead that the influence of modern civilization has changed her sentiments.”5
Fascinatingly, Ellen White’s warnings were almost verbatim the talking points of the seminar! Adventists have always taught that Protestant America would change its attitude toward Rome; and it has done so, stunningly. This change has been so great, so pervasive, that it has reached even Adventists.
By downplaying our historic teaching about papal Rome in prophecy, this “Sabbath School” was yet another fulfillment of it.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book is Risen: Finding Hope in the Empty Tomb.
2 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 575.
3 Ibid., p. 234.
4 Ibid., p, 577.
5 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1888), p. 563.