Tag Archives: preterism

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.

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).