Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (12): From Exegesis to Application—Historicism

The historicist method understands the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation to meet their fulfillments in historical time through a sequence of events running from the prophet’s time down to the establishment of God’s kingdom at the end of the world. This appears to be the way that the ancients interpreted these prophecies. The historicist method was fairly standard throughout the Protestant world from the time of the Reformation through the first half of the 19th Century. This method was taken over by the Adventist pioneers and has continued to be the standard approach ever since, even though it has become increasingly rejected by biblical scholarship outside the denomination.

On the negative side, historicist interpretation has often been plagued by a number of faults. There is a tendency to pay much more attention to history and to the newspapers than to the exegesis of the biblical text. For example, see Uriah Smith on the trumpets (475-517). In the course of 42 pages of interpretation there is but one single exegetical statement. Verses are printed according to the King James Version followed by pages of historical detail without a single reference back to the text or its background in the Old Testament. Sixty-two percent of the text is in quotation marks, being culled from earlier non-Adventist historicist writers. This leads to the suspicion the Brother Smith himself never did any serious work in the text. In addition, the desire to locate just where we are in the course of history has often led historicists to unhealthy attempts at date-setting and manipulation of the text in service of theological agendas. And the use of history, there has been a huge difference of opinion as to just what events in history are a fulfillment of just what symbolism. It is problems such as these, along with critical bias against the concept of predictive prophecy, that caused the general demise of historicism, to the point where in scholarly discussions today, the possibility never even comes up.

Given the difficulties with historicism why bother with it any more? What difference does it make? Why would it be worth the trouble to defend in a world that is mainly concerned with the “now?” Well, for one thing, historicism remains the primary approach that is used in Adventist evangelism. The way our fundamental beliefs are presented to the public is intertwined with a historicist approach to Daniel and Revelation. To abandon the method out of convenience is to call into question the entire basis upon which millions have chosen to align themselves with the Adventist movement. For this reason alone, it would be unwise to relinquish the approach casually. If it must be put to rest, let it only be on the basis of overwhelming and compelling biblical evidence.

A second reason to hang on to historicism, if it is intellectually credible to do so, is that it provides a solid basis for confidence in the future work of God. Just as the historical reality that Jesus was raised from the dead gives us confidence that we too will one day be raised from the dead, so the recognition of prophetic fulfillments in the past offers confidence that the last events of this earth’s history will also occur according to the plan of God. To move to a totally futurist approach in search of greater clarity regarding unfulfilled events is to abandon the basis for confidence that unfulfilled prophecy will in fact occur, as it has in the past.

A third reason to seek support for a continued use of historicist method is that it is also central to the whole concept of Adventist self-understanding and identity. Adventists are not particularly kinder than other Christians, they are not more Christ-centered or gospel-oriented than other Christians, they are not less prone to sexual or physical abuse, nor are they less subject to addictions in the broadest sense of the term. The Adventist claim to a unique, end-time role in God’s plan for the close of earth’s history is grounded in careful attention to the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. To abandon these, and/or to abandon the method that brought us where we are, is, to a large degree, to abandon our self-understanding and identity. Few movements have ever survived the loss of core identity.

One thought on “Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (12): From Exegesis to Application—Historicism

  1. Andrew Ellis

    There are 2 things that have been overlooked. 1; The 2300 year prophecy is also symbolic in nature. The principles of the events during the 2300 year period are to be repeated during the final events, in quick succession.( 7 Trumpet Plagues). And, 2; Revelation must interpret Daniel for a very good reason. Daniel was hated by the Jews, because their interpretation of Daniel did not happen as they expected. So Christ gave to John the true understanding of Daniel’s prophecies. shalom.


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