Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (10): From Exegesis to Application—Preterism/Idealism

The above study demonstrates the vital importance of understanding the original context in which apocalyptic visions were given their setting. The divine and human intentions of the text’s language must be respected. Nevertheless, if apocalyptic texts do reflect a predictive element, later readers of those texts are challenged to understand just how those predictions apply to the course of subsequent human history. There are three main approaches to this problem. We will look at each of these briefly.

Preterist scholars tend to limit the value of apocalyptic texts to the original time and place. In their view exegesis of apocalyptic texts helps us gain a better understanding of the world in which the texts came into existence. Books like Daniel and Revelation were written to their time and place and need to be understood within that context. The primary focus is not on prediction of future events, but on analysis of the situation in which and to which the apocalypse was written. Principles drawn from exegesis of the text in its original situation can be applied by believers to later situations (this application of principles in apocalyptic literature is often known as “idealism”).

On the positive side, preterism/idealism is the approach that most believing Christians (including Adventists) take to the bulk of the biblical materials. The letters of Paul, for example, must be understood as the products of a human writer’s intention reflecting a specific purpose and aimed at a particular audience. To read such letters as if they were philosophical treatises with a universal purpose is clearly inappropriate. Nevertheless, in recognizing God’s purpose in including these letters in the Bible, we feel free to draw principles from Paul’s letters and apply them to our own time and place as the Word of God. When done with sensitivity to the original context, this is entirely appropriate for Paul’s letters and also for parts of Daniel and Revelation. Certainly the seven letters of Revelation suggest that they should be addressed from a preterist/idealist perspective (Rev 1:11; 2:1,7,8.11, etc.).

The problem with preterism/idealism comes in when it is imposed on apocalyptic texts that cry out for other approaches. Biblical scholars are human beings. Whether or not the scholar is conscious of the fact, psychological and spiritual motivations may drive a person to reject the plain implications of the biblical text. Some scholars may limit interpretation to preterism because it does not require a belief in inspiration and predictive prophecy. Others may do so because their scientific training inclines them to reject the possibility of the supernatural in any form. Roman Catholic scholars at one point in history turned to radical preterism in order to deflect the pointed historicist interpretations of Dan 7 and Rev 13 made by Luther and other protestants. While preterist interpretation has value in its proper place, Adventists rightly reject placing psychological or scientific limits on how the Word of God should be understood. Preterism/idealism alone is not an adequate approach to apocalyptic prophecy.

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