By Lawrence R. Kellie
This page will examine the history and meaning of the three principal methods of Biblical, more specifically prophetic, interpretation–Historicism, Futurism, and Preterism.
The Historicist school of prophetic interpretation results in a progressive and continuous fulfillment of prophecy. This continuous fulfillment starts in Daniel’s time (circa 600 BC), continues through John the Revelator’s time (circa 100 A.D.), on to the Second Coming of Jesus. (Froom, v1, p23)
This school of prophetic interpretation is not novel or new. Biblical scholars throughout the centuries, actually from 2 BC to the present, have ascribed to it. Daniel, John the Revelator, Hippolytus, Joachim, Wyclif, Luther, Knox, Newton, and Wesley (Froom, v1., p2) are examples of the prominent people who believed in and used historicist method of prophetic interpretation.
Another source, Seventh-day Adventist Bible Student’s Source Book (BSSB), lists the Waldenses, Hussites, Wyclif, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon, John Gill, and the martyrs Cranmer, Tyndale, Latimer, and Ridley as proponents of the historicist school of prophetic interpretation. (BSSB, No. 1258, p. 776.)
Shea, on page 25, states that the historicist declares “that the prophecies of Daniel portray an outline of human and ecclesiastical history and the story of the struggle between good and evil down to the end of time” (Shea 25), while BBSB adds that the book of Revelation also presents in symbols the “entire course of history of the church from the close of the first century to the end of time” (BSSB, No. 1257, p. 775).
This manner of prophetic interpretation, as I stated above, was used from approximately 2 B.C. to the present. Yet, you very seldom hear of the Historicist view of prophetic interpretation. What you mostly hear about is Futurism or Preterism. How did they evolve?
Evolution of Futurism and Preterism
Quite simply, the two alternative methods of prophetic interpretation were developed during the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation to oppose the historicist’s interpretation that the Antichrist was the Roman Catholic church.
The virtually unanimous interpretation of the papacy as the Antichrist of prophecy, by all Protestant groups in all lands, led Roman Catholic leaders to attempt to divert the accusing finger and to direct Protestant attention away from the medieval Catholic system. In this they were highly successful. Francisco Ribera and Luis de Alcazar, both 16th-century Spanish Jesuits, rose to meet the challenge by introducing plausible counterinterpretations of prophecy. (The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 4 [4BC], 42.)
These two opposing views, as will be seen below, confused the Protestant prophetic interpretation of Daniel and Revelation. (4BC 42)
Now to look at those two opposing, mutually exclusive views.
Futurism, developed by Francisco Riberia (1537-1591), owes its existence to the Counter Reformation. During the Protestant Reformation, the reformers, using Historicism, concluded that the system, as best represented by the Pope, of the Roman Catholic Church was the Beast of Revelation 13. Shea states:
The futurist interpretation of apocalyptic [prophecies] poses a … problem. It also leaves most of the history of the Christian era unaddressed by God except in general spiritual terms. After this lengthy historical and prophetic vacuum, futurists then see the prophetic voice again taking up a concern for the last seven years of earth’s history. (Shea 57.)
Futurism claims that most of the prophecies of the Apocalypse were fulfilled to ancient Rome. The rest is restricted to a literal Antichrist who will reign for 3½ literal years. Futurism further claims that the Antichrist will be an individual and not a system. This method of prophetic interpretation has a few prophetic events happening early in the Christian dispensation, a large gap of no prophetic interest, and a literal close of 3½ years instead of hundreds of centuries. (You will recognize this scenario as the current Dispensationalist view.)
Besides the short-term results of reducing the pressure being felt by the Papacy, Futurism has had an unexpected long-term result. Historicists believe that the 70-week prophecy and the 2300-day prophecy have a common beginning. Therefore, there are 1810 days (years) remaining after the 70 weeks have ended. By splitting the 70 weeks into two parts (69 weeks and one week), Futurism diverts attention away from the relationship between the 70 weeks and the 2300 days. This separation hides the significant events of 1844. Froom sums up this process: “Accordingly, confusion of the Historical School of interpretation, and its final breakdown, is now definitely under way.” (Froom3:658.)
Synopsis of Futurism
Since the Antichrist is in the future, it could not be the Papacy.
Summary of the Fallacies of Futurism
- Futurism is designed to relieve pressure on Rome.
- Futurism violates the principle of consistent prophetic symbolism.
- Futurism makes prophetic time meaningless.
- Futurism removes application from historical verification.
- Futurism creates an arbitrary gap which is an unjustifiable device.
- Futurism ignores the view of the early church.
- Futurism cannot be correct if Preterism is correct. (Froom2:803-805.)
Preterists are committed to the view that the majority of the prophecies of the book of Daniel have already been fulfilled and therefore no significance for the present day. (Shea 25.)
The Preterist view of prophetic interpretation was developed by Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613), also as part of the Counter Reformation. It was developed to take the heat off the Pope, who was feeling some discomfort from the Reformers’ talk that the Papacy was the Antichrist.
The preterist view of apocalyptic prophecies and their time elements essentially leaves the whole Christian era, with the exception of a very small initial fraction, without any direct historical or prophetic evaluation by God upon the course of that history. (Shea 56.)
Preterism claims that the apocalyptic prophecies, especially those dealing with the Antichrist, were fulfilled before the Papacy ever ruled Rome. Since they were already fulfilled, the prophecies could not apply to the Papacy. The Preterist view ignores the fact that within the Old Testament itself is the foundation of prophetic interpretation and this foundation produces a broader view of God’s interaction with human history.
Synopsis of Preterism
Since the Antichrist had been fulfilled in the past, it could not be the Papacy.
Summary of the Fallacies of Preterism
- Preterism is an expedient designed to shield Rome.
- Preterism violates the principle of consistent symbolism.
- Preterism glorifies the Papacy by ignoring the actualities.
- Preterism denies the elemental principle of Bible prophecy.
- Preterism, like futurism, leaves an explained gap.
- Preterism offers no adequate fulfillments.
- Preterism cannot be correct if Futurism is correct. (Froom2:803-805.)
Froom sums up this entire discussion quite well:
The Preterist finds only the contemporary meaning [at the time of the writer] of the Revelation as applicable to the early church, and the Futurist sees the prophecy as projected into a remote age to come, but the Historicist sees that the Revelation had its function first in counseling and encouraging the early Christians in the vicissitudes through which they were passing, while at the same time extending its prophetic pictures beyond their range of vision to the final victory. Otherwise its portrayal of the Second Advent, the judgment, and the kingdom of God have no meaning for our day. (Froom v.1, p.89.)
And that brings us to one of the purposes of this web site: To provide a place on the web for Historicist Christian writings as opposed to the prevalent futurist (dispensationlist) writings of most Christian authors. Since the Historicist school of prophetic interpretation influences other aspects of Christianity, I feel it is important to provide a place for the Historicist to share the true, time-tested meanings of prophecy and Biblical truths.
Froom, L.R.E. The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers. 4 Vols. Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing House, 1950.
Holbrook, F.B., ed. Symposium on Daniel. Biblical Research Institute, Hagerstown, MY: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1986.
Neufeld, D.F. and J. Neuffer, eds. Seventh-day Adventist Bible Student’s Source Book. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1962.
Nichol, F.D., ed. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary. 7 vols. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1977.
Shea, W.H. Selected Studies on Prophetic Interpretation. Lincoln, NE: College View Printers, 1982.