By Cris D. Putnam
While we lean strongly toward the futurist school, we acknowledge that there is merit to the historicist approach. It seems like a mistake to just dismiss centuries of scholarship with a hand wave. However, there are many criticisms. Biblical scholar, G.K. Beale, characterizes historicism in this way,
“Typically this view identifies parts of the Apocalypse as prophecies of the invasions of the Christianized Roman Empire by the Goths and the Muslims. Further, the corruptions of the medieval papacy, the reign of Charlemagne, the Protestant Reformation, and the destruction wrought by Napoleon and Hitler have been seen as predicted by John.”[i]
Another characteristic weakness is that it tends to be myopic by limiting symbols to the expositors own contemporary situation. Accordingly, when one compares historicist commentaries from different eras, they seldom agree with one another. While their speculations on the identity of the Antichrist have run the gamut from Nero through Muhammad to Napoleon, arguably, until very recently, the dominant opinion since the reformation has been the pope, albeit not a single pope rather the office of the papacy.
However, it seems to us that some of this criticism is not valid. We agree that it is a weakness that a historicist commentator will usually believe his own period is the final one. But that is a very real part of the tension, which is inherent for Christians living in the already/not yet paradigm. Though it is also a weakness that historicists seldom agree, the fact that these interpretations are divergent on many details makes the areas where they do converge even more compelling. It is inescapable that they all converge on Rome and the papacy.
An often-heard criticism from historicists is that modern evangelicals who hold a futurist or preterist view have been influenced by the Jesuit Counter Reformation effort to discredit the historicist view of the reformers. We believe there is some truth to this conspiracy because the Romanists have vested interest in protecting the papacy. But a lot of the criticism we have read coming from historicists seems unfair. Truth be told, one could argue that historicism is also a Catholic invention. The dominant Catholic interpretation after Augustine’s City of God in the fifth century was allegorical. It was only after a mystic monk, Joachim of Fiore (1130–1202), introduced a chronological division based on three ages corresponding to the Trinity that the historical interpretation gained traction. So it really is not fair for historicists to charge everyone who disagrees with them as being influenced by Rome. Furthermore, it is a logical fallacy known as the genetic fallacy to deny the truth of a proposition based solely on its origin.[ii] The futurist interpretation is judged unfairly due to a few influential Jesuit advocates.
A Jesuit named Francisco Ribera published a Revelation commentary, In Sacrum Beati Ioannis Apostoli, & Evangelistiae Apocalypsin Commentarij, advocating the futurist view in 1590. Another Jesuit, Laconza, wrote under the name Ben-Ezra teaching the premillennial advent and literal restoration of Israel. As a means of criticism, strict historicists trace this through to John Nelson Darby, the Moody Bible Institute, and the Scofield Reference Bible. In other words, they argue that nineteenth-century dispensationalists fell for a counter-reformation propaganda campaign. They claim that the teachings of the reformers have been suppressed, drowned in a sea of Jesuit propaganda, i.e., futurism. Yet, it seems that even for a Jesuit, the imagery of Revelation 17 is too persuasive to deny. In fact, the Jesuit, Lacunza, actually wrote:
Rome, not idolatrous but Christian, not the head of the Roman empire but the head of Christendom, and centre of unity of the true church of the living God, may very well, without ceasing from this dignity, at some time or other incur the guilt, and before God be held guilty of fornication with the kings of the earth, and amenable to all its consequences. And in this there is not any inconsistency, however much her defenders may shake the head. And this same Rome, in that same state, may receive upon herself the horrible chastisement spoken of in the prophecy.[iii]
We do find it very interesting that even these Jesuits identified papal Rome as the woman who rides the beast. Although acknowledging that Rome certainly has an interest in obfuscating the classic historicist view, we are not under Rome’s spell in holding futurist views. The futurist interpretation is based on sound exegesis and the historical grammatical hermeneutic.
For instance, the reason we do not agree that the papacy is the ultimate realization of 2 Thessalonians’ “man of Sin” is purely exegetical. “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition” (2 Th 2:3). Paul was instructing his first-century readers that the judgment of God had not arrived because “the man” had not yet appeared. The Greek language is much more precise that English and the second declension noun, anthropos (man), is in the singular form. Paul’s teaching would be meaningless if he was referring to an institution lasting hundreds of years that had not yet appeared. For it to be helpful in identifying the day of the Lord he necessarily meant one man. Paul’s readers would have never understood it to mean the institution of the papacy. For them, it was very clearly an individual of whom it says the Lord “shall destroy with the brightness of his coming” (2 Th 2:8). This clearly speaks of one man who is present when Jesus returns. Thus, if one accurately accounts for grammar and context, this is necessarily an individual on the scene when Jesus returns. One should allow Paul’s intent be the guiding factor.
Another reason the historicist approach is not as widely known today is that it requires a great deal of study and knowledge of history. Take the massive eschatological study written by Edward Elliott in the nineteenth century called Horae Apocalypticae (“Hour of the Apocalypse”).[iv] At over 2,500 pages split into four volumes with copious footnotes, charts, and illustrations, Spurgeon called it “the standard work on the subject.”[v] Elliot argued Revelation was both the unrolling of a sealed scroll and the continuing drama of salvation history. He saw the first six seals as broken with the empire, decline, and fall of pagan Rome around AD 395. The six trumpets were various attacks by the Goths, Saracens, and Muslims with the Protestant Reformation ensuing at trumpet six. Because Daniel describes the Roman Empire, in terms of legs of iron (Dan 2:33), the split of Rome into Eastern and Western legs is evident in prophecy. He explained the two beasts of Revelation 17 in this way:
At the same time that in the particular symbolizations contained in this subsidiary Part of the Prophecy, viz. those of the ten-horned Beast itself, its chief minister the two-horned Beast, and the Image of the Beast—explained respectively of the Papal Empire, Papal Priesthood, and Papal Councils…[vi]
A major component in Horae Apocalypticae and most historicist readings is that the 1260 days in Revelation 12 are years in which the Church is subjected to persecution by papal Rome. This is an area where nearly all historicists find agreement, but where they disagree is when the 1260 year-long period began. In fact, the death knell of Elliot’s gargantuan work of scholarship was that it set a date which came and went. Unfortunately, Elliot placed the beginning of the 1260 years in AD 606 when the emperor Phocas rubberstamped Pope Boniface III’s claim for the primacy of Rome. We discuss this papal milestone in chapter 9 of Petrus Romanus, “Donation of Constantine and the Road to Hell.” Concerning this, Elliot wrote:
“At the same time that the fall and complete commencement of the period appeared on strong and peculiar historic evidence (especially that of the then risen ten diademed Romano-Gothic Papal horns) to have about synchronized with the epoch of Phocas’ decree A.D. 606; and the corresponding epoch of end with the year I866.”[vii]
Of course, 1866 came and went and the papacy under Pius IX even got bolder by claiming infallibility in 1870. However it is interesting in the same year, Napoleon’s advance led the Italian government to raid the Vatican and take the Papal States from the pope. However, the loss of temporal power was brief as Pius XI signed a pact with the fascist dictator Mussolini on February 11, 1929, restoring papal governing power to Vatican City. Even so, Elliot’s grand historical scheme was undone when 1866 passed with no second advent. This is another characteristic weakness of the historicist approach. It has this track record of failed date-setting.
Another famous failure was when a Baptist preacher, William Miller, predicted the imminent return of Jesus Christ. On the basis of Daniel 8:14, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller became convinced that the twenty-three-hundred-day period started in 457 BC with the decree to rebuild Jerusalem by Artaxerxes I of Persia. Then using the day/year principle favored by historicists he calculated Christ’s return to occur in 1843. It is now famously called the Great Disappointment of 1844. Many folks had sold everything they owned because of this belief. Other groups resorted to rather pitiable lengths to preserve the date. Reaching for straws, they speculated that Miller’s assumption — that the sanctuary to be cleansed was the earth– was the problem and that it represented the sanctuary in heaven.
Accordingly, the October 22, 1844 date was modified to denote when Christ entered the Holy of Holies in the heavenly sanctuary, not the Second Coming. This group became the Seventh-day Adventist Church of today and this modification is called the doctrine of the pre-Advent Divine Investigative Judgment.[viii] Frankly, it seems like an excuse to us. Miller was simply wrong. The lesson to be learned here is that it is perfectly fine and even commendable to be fascinated by prophecy and to study various interpretations, but always follow Paul’s teaching in 2 Thessalonians. The purpose of that letter leads many interpreters to infer that some of the Thessalonians were so sure that the day of the Lord was upon them that they had quit their jobs. Paul admonished them in chapter 3 to remain steadfast maintaining their lives and testimonies. We encourage you to do the same. We want to be upfront that the ideas in this book concerning the Malachy prophecy with dates and times are speculative. We are only pointing out what others have written. It is always wise to be prepared, but we certainly do not recommend selling all of your possessions like the Millerites!
Here is an elaborate chart which was popular prior to 1844 showing many historical events in the Millerite historical framework:
Next week we will examine the historicist views of Jonathan Edwards and a prominent Presbyterian who predicted the year 2012 back in 1876!
[i] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 46.
[iii] Manuel Lacunza, Edward Irving, The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty, Volume 1 (Seeley, 1827) pg. 252.
[v] Charles Spurgeon, Commentating on Commenataries (London: Passmore and Alabaster; 1876) p. 199
[vi] Edward Elliot, Horae Apocalypticae vol 4, (London: Seeley, Burnside, and Seely, 1847), 233
[vii] Edward Elliot, Horae Apocalypticae vol 4, 237..