Tag Archives: historicism

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.

Four Ways to Approach Revelation (Rev 5)

There are four major ways that people have approached the book of Revelation. The approach you decide on determines to a large degree the results you find from studying Revelation. (1) The book of Revelation was written to seven churches located in the Roman province of Asia (Rev 1:4– Asia Minor). So one way to approach Revelation is like any other book in the New Testament, as a writing addressing real people in real places 2000 years ago (Rev 22:16). And this should be the foundation of any study of the Bible. The better we understand what it meant to the original readers, the better we can understand God’s purpose in inspiring the book. But when scholars limit the meaning of Revelation to the historical conditions of the Asian churches at the end of the First Century, when they see it as in no way predictive of the future, that approach is called Preterism. Preterism, in that sense, is too limited an approach to Revelation, it doesn’t take the book’s prophetic focus on the author’s future sufficiently into account.
(2) At the other extreme, Futurism rightly notes that Revelation addresses the Second Coming of Christ and similar events at the close of history (Rev 1:7). Futurists attempt to read nearly the entire book of Revelation (usually chapters 4-22) as speaking directly to the end of time and to no other time in history. But we have already seen how Revelation explicitly addresses the original situation of the churches of Asia. So an approach that limits Revelation to the events of the far future is no more adequate than Preterism is.
(3) A third way to read the book is suggested in Revelation 1:3, where a blessing is offered on all who hear and understand the words of the prophecy. Everyone who reads or hears this book is intended to benefit from it. The book is not just for the original situation or the end of the world. There is value for every person and every age. But some people have taken this idea a bit further and have come up with an idea called Idealism. In its extreme form Revelation is not really written to the first century or the end of time at all. It is simply a symbolic way of describing broad, general principles for Christians to live by. But such a reading in isolation is not an adequate response to the full realities of Revelation.
(4) Seventh-day Adventists believe that the approach that best fits the evidence of Revelation is the historicist approach. It embraces the positive insights of the first three approaches but is not limited to any of them. Historicism, rightly understood, allows each text to locate itself in time, it does not limit the meaning of the text in an arbitrary way, as other approaches do. It recognizes Revelation as an apocalyptic prophecy like Daniel (compare Rev 1:1 with Dan 2:28, 45), speaking to the entire course of history from the time of the prophet (95 A.D.) to the Second Coming of Christ and beyond. If the book of Revelation begins with John’s day (Rev 1:9-11) and ends with the End (Rev 19:11-21), it is reasonable to assume that it is also concerned with the historical developments in between. What has marginalized this text-based approach among scholars today is historicism’s long history of failed predictions and speculative exegesis. Seventh-day Adventists are instead called to approach Revelation’s history on the basis of a high and Christ-centered standard (TM 112-119).

Applying the Lessons of the Prologue (Prologue 1:8)

For Seventh-day Adventists, the Prologue of Revelation brings out two things that might seem in tension with each other: a) the centrality of Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation, and b) the value added of a Seventh-day Adventist, historicist (apocalyptic sequences of history) reading of Revelation. What value does the unique SDA approach offer in today’s world? How do you keep a balance between articulating the historical details of the SDA reading of Revelation and uplifting Jesus Christ as the center of all hope?

What is the value of an SDA approach to Revelation today? Among other things, I would suggest the following. 1) The SDA view answers the three great philosophical questions of human existence. These are, in principle: Who am I? Where did I come from? and Where am I going? Who am I? A being made in the image of a loving, gracious and self-sacrificing God who prizes freedom so much that He has even given us power to create little people like ourselves. Where did I come from? I am not here as a result of random chance, but I am the result of a loving, creative purpose. That means that my life has meaning and purpose even when it is not appreciated by those around. It means that my life has infinite value in the eyes of the most important Person in the universe. Where am I going? Life in this universe will not end with a bang or a whimper. It will not end in primeval silence. It will end in an eternity of meaning, purpose and ever-deepening relationships.

2) The SDA approach to Revelation helps us see the hand of God in history. In our daily experience, it is often difficult to know what God wants us to do and just where God is leading in the major events around us. Apocalyptic prophecies like Daniel 2 and Revelation 12 affirm the giant principles upon which God bases His interaction with this world and the universe. As we see prophecy’s interpretation of the past, we have a clearer picture of what God is doing today and what He is likely to do in the future.

3) The SDA approach to Revelation gives us confidence in the midst of chaos that God is still in control of history. Events in the world seem increasingly out of control, but apocalyptic prophecy assures us that this is nothing out of the ordinary and God is well able to manage today’s governmental chaos just as he managed the many “beasts” of the past.

4) The SDA approach to Revelation gives us confidence that since God has been active in creation and throughout history, the hope that we have for the future is also real. Things will not always be as they are now. God is still working toward the ultimate fulfillment of His purpose and ours. We may not know just when the climax of history will occur, but we know that the outcome is assured and God’s faithful people, both living and dead, will participate in that outcome.

Why Adventists Prefer the “Historicist Method” (Prologue 1:3)

In this blog series on the big picture of the Book of Revelation, I am indebted to the SDA concept of inspiration, the historicist method of prophetic interpretation, the unique organizational structure of Revelation, and a Christ-centered approach to interpretation.

The historicist method, in my view, is supported by the broad structure of Revelation itself. The book begins with the seven churches (Rev. 1:9 – 3:22), which primarily concern the situation of John’s day. The seals and the trumpets, on the other hand, each cover from the time of John to the End (4:1 – 11:18). The last half of the book (11:19 – 22:5), on the other hand, focuses almost exclusively on the last days of earth’s history and beyond.

This method is also supported by the allusion to Daniel 2 in the very first verse of the book. Let’s take a closer look at that verse.

Generally, the best way to approach Scripture is to take everything at face value, unless it is clear that a symbol is intended. In Rev. the opposite approach is indicated in the first verse. There it tells us that the entire vision was “signified” (Rev. 1:1, KJV, Greek: esêmanen) by either God or Jesus. So in Rev. the best way to approach the text is to treat everything as a symbol, unless it is clear that a literal meaning is intended (for example, “Jesus Christ” in Rev. 1:1 should be taken literally).

This insight takes even clearer shape when the reader discovers an allusion to Daniel 2 in the first verse of the book. The only other place in the Bible that combines “signified” with the unusual expression “what must take place” (Rev. 1:1, RSV, NIV, Greek: a dei genesthai) is Daniel 2 (LXX: combine verses 28 and 45). Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great image was the place where God “signified” (2:45) to him “what must take place” (2:28) in the last days. What was to be “in the last days” in Daniel is now “soon” in Revelation.

At the very opening of the book of Revelation, therefore, one finds a powerful allusion to Daniel 2. This allusion ties the two books together, like companion volumes. While Revelation alludes to many of the prophets, there is a special bond between it and the book of Daniel. So we should expect at least some of the symbolism of the Rev. to point to sequences of history in John’s future. Apocalyptic sequences run from the prophet’s time until the End. Not all of Daniel is historical apocalyptic, but much of it is, and that is the case also with Revelation.