18 jul. 2012

Historicism, the Best Way to Interpret Prophecy*


William H. Shea

Why do Adventists interpret prophecies differently from others?

Through watching certain protestant television preachers or by reading such books as the “Left Behind” series, some Seventh-day Adventists have been attracted to the headline-driven interpretations of Bible prophecy offered there. Other Adventists are exploring other approaches which also differ from long-standing Adventist interpretations. The differences are not minor but represent widely differing methods of interpreting the prophecies. Which is right? How can we know?

Through the ages several different methods of interpreting Daniel and Revelation have been proposed. The historicist method sees these prophecies as being fulfilled through the course of human history beginning at the time of the prophets who wrote them. Preterism sees Daniel as focusing on the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and it sees the book of Revelation as focusing especially on the reign of the emperor Nero. Thus the preterist school focuses upon the past. In contrast to this, the futurist school places the major emphasis of these two books in the future, yet to be fulfilled. A specially prominent branch of futurism is dispensationalism, which narrows this future fulfillment to the last seven years of earth’s history.

Inherent Conflict. These three methods have conflicted with each other since the time of the Counter Reformation in the 16th century, and more specifically since the 18th and 19th centuries with the resurgence of preterism in the 18th century and the rise of dispensationalism in the early 19th century. No combination of these three methods has ever been successful. A brief flirtation with such an attempt was contemplated in the 1980s under the claim that “interpreters are correct in what they advocate and wrong in what they deny,” but it did not work.

Here are reasons why the methods cannot be combined. Dispensationalism, for example, holds that there is a gap during the Christian dispensation, a prolonged period of time which prophecy says nothing about. Then during the last seven years of earth’s history the prophetic clock starts ticking again, and the great scheme of biblical prophecies meets its fulfillment. Historicists, on the other hand, say that biblical prophecy addresses the entire course of the Christian era.

One might say that these two systems could be blended by accepting what historicists say was fulfilled during the course of the Christian era and what the dispensationalists advocate will be fulfilled at the end of the era. But there is a problem. Both of these schools use the same prophecies but see their fulfillment in different places. Dispensationalism sees a personal, individual Antichrist at the end of time while historicism sees a corporate Antichrist, a church institution, operating through the centuries. These suggested fulfillments are so very different there is no way they can be combined. The same is true with preterism. Preterism says, in effect, that the prophecies in Daniel ended in the 2nd century B.C. and that the prophecies in Revelation were fulfilled before the end of the 1st century A.D. Historicism and futurism claim that much in these prophecies goes beyond those preterist endpoints, so there is no way to combine these systems.

Enter Preterism. For the first 130 years of its existence, the Seventh-day Adventist church belonged solidly in the school of historicist interpreters. This picture began to change in 1980 when some arose to offer alternatives. At the Glacier View Conference in 1983 the church was offered preterism. Few lay members realize that this was the central issue in that conference. Would the Seventh-day Adventist church continue using the historicist method, or would it turn to preterism as the central method by which to interpret apocalyptic prophecy?

At that conference and in subsequent official and unofficial statements the church rejected preterism. One of many reasons it did so is that preterism leads to an entirely different application of the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14. Preterism takes the 2300 days as literal time and applies it to the career of Antiochus Epiphanes, a weak Greek king who ruled in Syria in the second century B.C. (More on Antiochus later.)

Another reason why preterism has had little appeal to Adventists is that it is essentially based upon an unbiblical principle. This is the idea that the book of Daniel is not prophecy; it is really history written as if it were prophecy. The author, according to preterism, was not Daniel but someone who called himself Daniel. He didn’t live in Babylon some 500 years before Christ but in Jerusalem around 165 B.C. Most of what his book records had already happened.

And Futurism. Some other Adventist innovators have turned to futurism, taking prophecies that we have applied to the past and putting their fulfillment into the future. I met with a study group of this persuasion on three occasions in the 1990s. One of their thought leaders told me that he developed the idea as an antidote to the preterism that the church was facing in the 1980s.

But the group applied its methods arbitrarily. In the book of Daniel, for example, they accepted standard interpretations (the four kingdoms and the 70 weeks) for Daniel 2, 7, 8, and 9. But the 1290 and 1335 days of Daniel 12:11, 12 they took as literal time and put them in the future. This makes the use of the year-day principle arbitrary, used in some places and not in others. These interpreters also failed to notice that the first of the time periods in Daniel 12 was the 3 ½ times of verse 7, which comes out of Daniel 7:25. Anyone who accepts the year-day principle in 7:25 should also accept it in 12:7. And accepting the year-day principle in Daniel 12:7 requires accepting it also for 12:11, 12, or one must admit to applying the principle arbitrarily.

The group’s interpretations of the Book of Revelation also had problems. They advocated that the 1260 days of Revelation 12:6 were symbolic and to be interpreted by the year-day principle, but the 3 ½ times of 12:14, in the same chapter, should be taken as literal and still in the future. Yet the two verses contain the same actors (the woman as the church and Satan opposed to her), the same actions (fleeing from persecution), and the same locations (the wilderness to which the woman fled). Therefore, they should be seen as the same prophecy with the same historical fulfillment. Actually, they form a bracket around the central great controversy view in Revelation 12:7-9.

One point in favor of futurists is that they believe in prophecy, and they feel that by taking the futuristic view they make prophecies more real and bring the second coming of Christ closer. This is a noble motive, but the method does not result in the product they wish for. The treatment is worse than the disease.

While preterism and futurism have not been accepted by the church at large, they remain theories that some church members continue to agitate. That returns us to the question of which method of interpreting the apocalyptic prophecies the Adventist church should use.

Which method shall we use?

The interpreter has to choose among these three methods. We intentionally neglect here a fourth school, that of idealism. This school of thought holds that we should not make any historical applications of these prophecies. We should just draw spiritual lessons from the stories they tell. This is wholly unsatisfactory, and we will say no more about it. We will weigh the first three methods against each other from various points of view.

1. Philosophy of history

The writers of the Bible were deeply interested in the way the plans and purposes of God worked out, for good or ill, through the events of history. Thus the Old Testament presents a specialized religious view of the history of mankind from the creation of Adam and Eve to the time of Ezra, or let us say in round figures, from 4000 B.C. to 400 B.C. Prophecy comes along at times to show the way forward from God’s point of view.

Sometimes the people respected the admonitions of the prophets, and sometimes they did not. Sadly, we see the latter point illustrated in the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and the fall of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C. The prophetic voice became especially intense after God permitted the people to have their own king. The prophets came as a counterweight to apostate kings, of which there was no shortage. Thus the Old Testament is, above all, a history book, the history of the Mighty Acts of God.

At the heart of the New Testament are five historical books, the Gospels and the Book of Acts. The first four are the history of the acts of Jesus and the fifth is the history of the earliest spread of Christianity through the Roman empire. But these five historical books cover only a part of the first century of the Christian era. Doesn’t God speak in the Christian era as He spoke to His people in Old Testament times?

The historicist interpreter answers, Yes, God speaks to His people now just as He did back then. We hear His voice nowadays in the apocalyptic literature of Matthew 24, 25 and 2 Thessalonians, and especially in the ultimate apocalypse, the Book of Revelation.

Thus it is no accident that Revelation was the last book of the New Testament to be written and that John wrote it at the end of the first century, around A.D. 96. From this launching point the history of the Christian era was laid out in symbols through the visions of Revelation. Thus what was given in historical writing of the Old Testament addressing that era, was given in prophetic visions to cover the Christian era. This is the view of the historicist interpreter.

How do the other two schools of prophetic interpretation handle this view of history? By denial. Preterism denies that any prophecy in either Daniel or Revelation applies to the Christian era other than in general spiritual principles or indirect analogy. The preterist denies that any of these prophecies extend through the Christian era or that they speak to any portion of that history directly. What do these two books say to us then? The Jews who were persecuted by Antiochus Epiphanes bore up under his persecution and the Christians who were persecuted by Nero bore up under that persecution. Thus we should learn to bear up under whatever burden we may be called upon to bear, especially persecution. But preterists deny that these books speak directly to any historical situation during the last 1900 years. The preterist scheme has no view of history in the Christian era corresponding to the one found in the Old Testament era.

The dispensationalist does the same thing, with one exception. He packs all of this prophecy, Revelation 4-19 for example, into the last seven years of earth’s history. In the dispensationalist’s view, does either Daniel or Revelation address the history of any of the Christian era? No, he holds, the Bible passes over all that history until one gets to sometime still in the future.

So in terms of a general view of the philosophy of history, the historicist view is that God is speaking to people in all times through the Christian era by means of apocalyptic prophecy. This view is the most satisfying and most in harmony with the biblical view of history in the Old Testament. Both preterism and dispensationalism deny this.

2. Philosophy of revelation

Historicism and futurism divide sharply from preterism on their philosophy of revelation as well. Evangelicals and marginal Adventists who flirt with preterism may not fully realize that preterism is based upon an entirely different assumption about prophecy. For preterism, the “prophecies” of Daniel and Revelation are not true prophecies that predict the future. Rather, they are history written up as if it were prophecy. In this view the “prophet” was writing after the events in his “prophecy” had taken place, but he cast his story in a prophetic mold to give it more credence and acceptance.

Thus, as already noted, preterists say that the author of the prophecies of Daniel was not a Jewish exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C. but an unknown Jew living in or near to Jerusalem around 165 B.C., about the time when the Maccabees were casting off the yoke of Antiochus Epiphanes. The only true prophecy in the book—forecasting something that had not yet happened—is Daniel 11:40-45. In this case, preterists say, the “prophet” guessed wrong, because these events did not happen to Antiochus Epiphanes.

Conservative writers who accept the preterist position that Antiochus Epiphanes is central to the prophecies of Daniel skirt this issue without fully addressing it. And there are other questions difficult for preterists to answer. Did God really inspire a Daniel living in Babylon during the 6th century B.C. with a line of prophecy that extended only to the 2nd century B.C. and stop there? Or did God direct this unknown writer in 165 B.C. to use this quasi-prophetic mold for His history?

The latter position is doubly awkward. In this case God not only told this writer to cast the history as prophecy, which is already untrue, but he did it with a pseudonymous author—one writing under a false name. Note that this is not an anonymous author but a pseudonymous author, the only one known in the Bible. There are anonymous books in the Bible, but no other is known to be pseudonymous, with an author who claims to be Daniel in the 6th century when he really wasn’t.

I once participated in joint Lutheran Adventist dialogues held near Geneva, Switzerland. I was involved only in the last of those dialogues, the one that dealt especially with the subject of prophecy.

In contrast to my historicist paper on Daniel, the Lutheran paper adopted a standard preterist view of Antiochus Epiphanes as the book’s central focus. In my paper I raised ten or fifteen objections to that view, all of which the chairman and others in the group responded to quite evenly. Then I mentioned that the preterist interpretation required a pseudonymous author, the only such book in the Bible. At this the writer of the preterist paper and the chairman of the group were really irritated, which ended the discussion of Daniel.

Futurist interpreters are in better shape on this point. They see the prophecies of Daniel as true presentations of divine foreknowledge extending down to the time of Rome. But then they insert the gap until they come to the final seven years of earth’s history. I do not believe that this is what the prophecy ultimately points to, but at least futurists do take this book as containing some true revelations of the future.

3. Method

The historicist method is the simplest and easiest to defend. Even a superficial reading of the prophecy sees a rise and fall of earthly powers, in the case of Daniel, down to the end of time when God will setup his kingdom. Thus merely identifying the historical powers symbolized in Daniel already leads inevitably to the historicist approach that sees this prophecy fulfilled through history.

How do the other methods of interpretation deal with this problem?

Preterist interpreters start in Daniel 11. Because they find there what they consider to be an extensive and detailed prophecy about Antiochus Epiphanes, they hold that he must, therefore, also be involved in the prophecies of Daniel 9, 8 and 7. Thus the method is to read an interpretation of Daniel 11 back into the preceding prophecies. In Daniel 2, however, the preterist can only be general about Seleucid kingdom, without the specific king Antiochus, because the chapter mentions no specific king by name or indicates one by symbol.

So here we meet a clash of methods. Historicist interpreters start in Daniel 2. After identifying the kingdoms there, they go on to chapter 7 where more of the details of those kingdoms are fleshed out and then on into chapter 8, finally ending in chapter 11. This method is logical because the initial prophecies deal only with kingdoms, but Daniel 11 gets more specific, dealing with individual kings.

So which method is preferable—starting in Daniel 2, the most general of the prophecies and ending in Daniel 11, which is the most detailed; or starting in Daniel 11, the most detailed and working back to Daniel 2, the most general? Logic says that one should work from the general to the specific. If we cannot identify the kingdoms in Daniel 2 and 7, then identifying the individual kings in chapter 11 should be an impossible task. In terms of method, the historicist approach is far superior to the preterist.

How about a comparison between the historicist method and the futurist method? The futurist dispensationalists have inserted a “gap” into the lineup of prophetic symbols. They put a gap of 2,000 years between the feet and toes of the image of Daniel 2, or a gap of 2,000 years between the lower legs and the feet, wherever one wishes to place it. But the image is continuous, not disjointed at the ankle. Thus the history should flow in the same way. The same is true of Daniel 7, where the dispensationalists place a gap of 2,000 years between the fourth beast and the ten horns that grow out of its head. But the horns come out of the head and are in direct continuity with it, so the history of the horns should be in direct continuity with the head. There is no symbolic room for a gap here, or the horns would be free floating above and beyond the head. Nor is there room for a 2,000-year gap between the 69th and 70th week of Daniel 9, or one would have 2,490 years, not 490 years. Thus we must reject the gap that has been inserted into this prophecy as something that does not naturally and normally belong there.

Noting the flow of the outline prophecies of Daniel and the seven segments of the seals and trumpets of Revelation leads naturally and logically to the historicist view of these prophecies, regardless of whether or not we understand all the details.

4. Symbolic time[1]

Should prophetic time in Daniel and Revelation be treated as symbolic, standing for longer periods of historical time, or should we take it as literal and historical time only? This is a clear divide between the historicist school on one hand and the preterist and futurist schools on the other hand. The preterist takes these statements of prophetic time as literal and puts them in the past. The futurist takes them as literal and locates them in the future. The historicist sees them as symbolic and standing for longer periods of historical time which, from our viewpoint today, stretch through both past and future. So the divide here is clear. The question is, Should we see literal time or symbolic time?

The context favors the historicist view, for these statements about time are embedded in symbolic contexts. We see a series of symbolic beasts in Daniel 7, and then the little horn out of the head of the fourth beast persecutes the saints for 3 ½ times. If the beasts are symbolic, which they surely are, the times stated about them should also be symbolic. Preterists and futurists agree that the beasts are symbolic but take the times stated about them as literal. Thus they have violated the symbolic context.

Another evidence that the times are symbolic is that they are stated in symbolic numbers and units. The “evening-mornings” of Daniel 8:14 is not a normal time-keeping unit in the Old Testament; it is constructed from terms referring to the creation days of Genesis 1. Nor would one talk about 2300 of them. If God meant literal time, the 2300 days should have been stated as six years and four months. Thus, in the symbolic context, the symbolic units and the symbolic numbers all together point to these time units as symbolic in nature.

If they are symbolic, how should we interpret them? According to the principle of a day for a year. This is already evident in Daniel 9 where 70 “weeks” (Heb. shabuac, plural shabucim) are referred to. In an effort to escape the symbolic time here, even some translations have resorted to using the word “sevens.” This is linguistically indefensible. The number seven is a different Hebrew word, sheba’. The Hebrew word shabuac is never translated as “seven” anywhere else in the Bible. The Feast of Weeks, not the Feast of Sevens, extended from Passover to Pentecost because of the seven weeks that intervened between those two festivals. The KJV is correct in translating this word as “weeks,” and modem versions that translate “sevens” are in error. The RSV, which inserts the word “years” here (”seventy weeks of years”), has no manuscript support for doing so. The point is that these weeks are symbolic and they necessitate the application of the year for-a-day principle. If the word really is “sevens” then shabucim should be translated as “seventies,” not “sevens.”

The book of Daniel itself teaches the year-day principle. In chapter 8 we have the “evening-mornings” that span the time of the Persian kings and the Greek kings and those who follow them. In chapter 11, which is the interpretation of chapter 8, we have those kings acting in “years” (verses 6, 8, 13). Thus the symbols of the ram and the goat in chapter 8 are interpreted as the kings of those kingdoms in chapter 11, and the “evening-mornings” of chapter 8 are interpreted as the “years” of chapter 11. The text of Daniel itself teaches this principle.

Thus the prophetic narratives of both Daniel 9 and 11 teach the year-day principle and support its use by historicist interpreters. Yet both preterist and futurist interpreters utilize literal historical time when the text itself calls for symbolic time.

5. Outline prophecies

The texts of Daniel 2, 7, 8 and 11 can all be called outline prophecies, because they give an outline of history that extends from the time of the prophet to the time of the end. The first two of these present a four-kingdom outline, represented by metals in Daniel 2 and by wild beasts in chapter 7. The natural progression of these four kingdoms is Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. Unfortunately for preterist interpreters, who don’t believe in predictive prophecy, this sequence goes one kingdom too far. They would like to have it end in the Greek empire with Antiochus Epiphanes, not in the Roman. In order to accomplish this they have lengthened the first part of the outline to Babylon, Media, Persia and Greece, holding that the symbolism represents Media and Persia as two independent kingdoms.

This division of Media from Persia is denied by the text of Daniel itself. In Daniel 5:28 Belshazzar is told that his kingdom is to be divided and given to the Medes and the Persians, showing that these kingdoms were simultaneous, contemporary and related. History demonstrates this through the Nabonidus Chronicle, which shows that an army of Medes (under Cyrus’s oders) conquered Babylon without a battle while Cyrus the Persian was defeating Nabonidus at the city of Opis on the Tigris River.

The Book of Daniel bears out the same point by citing the “law of the Medes and the Persians” which could not be changed to deliver Daniel from the lions’ den (Dan 6:12, 15). Prophecy carries this point on by showing the dual symbolism of the bear in chapter 7 (one side of the bear was higher than the other) and the dual symbolism of the ram in chapter 8 (one horn was higher than the other). In 8:20, Gabriel interpreted these animals as the Medes and the Persians combined. Thus the text of Daniel does not allow for separating these two kingdoms, which means that preterists have the wrong line-up of the kingdoms. Even Porphyry, the pagan philosopher who started the preterist interpretation 1700 years ago, recognized this difficulty. He tried to solve it by listing the kingdoms as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece I, and Greece II. Modern interpreters of this school have to deny the outline established by the founder of their method, and they have to deny the direct evidence of the text of Daniel itself.

Dispensational futurists face a different sort of problem along this line: the seven-fold sequences in the seals and trumpets in Revelation. The sixth seal obviously is the Second Coming of Christ when the wicked call for the rocks and the mountains to fall on them. The question then is, where does the sequence of the seven seals start? It starts with the rider on the white horse going forth to conquer. This fits best with the early church of the first and second centuries as they went forth with the pure gospel to win the known world for Christ. If this is put into the future, into the last seven years of earth’s history, we have the last church doing the same thing the first church did. But the first church was represented by a conquering rider on a white horse, so at the very least we should have a conquering rider on a white horse for the last church, but, as we have seen, we don’t. Instead we have people calling for rocks and mountains to fall on them.

Here is another problem that futurists face. In the sequence of the trumpets is found a time period of five months in the fifth trumpet (Rev 9:5, 10). Since the use of the year-day principle is valid for the time periods of apocalyptic prophecy in Daniel and Revelation, these five months should span a period of 150 historical years, and 150 years cannot be compressed into the last seven years.

Just as the four-kingdom outline spans the ages from the prophet’s time to the end of time, in the same way we should interpret the seven-fold sequence of the seals and trumpets as spanning the Christian era from the time of John to the end. Futurists thus face the problem of utilizing the full outline of the nations in Daniel but shortening the seven-fold sequence in Revelation. The historicist interpreter has the best of both of these worlds by utilizing the whole sequence of the kingdoms in Daniel and the whole sequences of the seals and trumpets in Revelation.

6. Central focus

What element is central to the interpretation of these three schools of prophetic interpretation? For the preterist, in Daniel the focus is Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd century B.C. But Antiochus was only a minor king who ruled but for a decade, 11 years to be exact. During that time he was not the most powerful ruler on the scene of action, either. During his second campaign into Egypt he was confronted, not by the Roman army defending Egypt, but by a Roman ambassador.

When the ambassador drew a line in the sand and challenged Antiochus to cross it under pain of the wrath of Rome, Antiochus froze with fear. He ordered his troops to head back to Antioch, and he never returned to Egypt. Why did he do this? Because he did not want the full might and power of Rome to come down upon him. His father, Antiochus Ill, had already lost a major battle with Rome and had had portions of his kingdom cut off. He had also been required to pay a heavy indemnity.

It has long been noted that Antiochus does not fit the comparative-to-superlative sequence in Daniel 8. Persia was to be very great, Greece was to be exceedingly great, and the little horn was to be so great it would reach up to heaven to threaten God’s Prince there. The natural sequence here is Persia to Greece to Rome, not Persia to Greece to Antiochus Epiphanes. Nor do the time periods of Daniel 7 and 8 fit the history of Antiochus, not the 1260 days (from the 3 ½  times) nor the 2300 days, regardless of whether they are taken as the full 2300 literal days or 1150 days. (Some interpreters suggest splitting 2300 in half according to the fact that there were two sacrifices in the temple every day.)

Daniel 8:9 says that the little horn power would be great toward the east, the south and the glorious land, i.e., Judea. Antiochus had some success in the east and south, but when he came to the throne, Judea already belonged to his kingdom. He was the one responsible for losing it, by stirring up the Maccabean revolt.

In sum, Rome fits the symbolic characteristics of the little horn in Daniel 7 and 8 very much better than does Antiochus Epiphanes.

What about dispensationalism’s central focus? As we have said, it is localized almost exclusively on the seven last years of earth’s history, to the neglect of the rest of the Christian era. To get there, dispensationalists must insert a gap during the Christian era and ignore all its history. The question then is, how valid is this gap? The gap is inserted, first of all, between the 69th and 70th weeks of the prophecy of Daniel 9. Is there justifiable reason for inserting this 2,000-year gap in that position?

The 70 weeks of Daniel 9:24-27, according to dispensationalists, are developed from the 70 years of the Babylonian exile mentioned in Daniel 9:1, 2. But historically there is no gap in those 70 years, or the Babylonian exile would have lasted longer than 70 years. In like manner, there is no justification for inserting the gap between the 69th and 70th week, or the time period would have to last more than the 70 weeks or 490 years. Thus this interpretation is not that of the 70 weeks, it is an interpretation of 2,490 years (490+2,000), and that is not what the prophecy is talking about.

We can also see this by adding up the sum of the parts to make the whole. Daniel 9:25, 26 lists 7 weeks plus 62 weeks plus 1 week to make up the total of 70 weeks, and there is no room for any more weeks beyond the total of 70. Just as the seven years of Joseph’s famine followed directly after the seven years of plenty, both prophetically and historically, so there is no room for any gap here. Daniel 9:27 tells of cutting off the sacrifices and offerings in the midst of the final week. Christ accomplished this on the cross; it has not been reserved for the final seven years of earth’s history. Emptied of meaning by the death of Christ, those offerings physically ceased when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70.

In this way preterism’s central focus of Daniel upon Antiochus Epiphanes is denied by the history of his own times. The gap necessary for the dispensationalist interpretation is denied by its weak exegetical basis. But the historicist method focuses upon all of the mighty acts of God from the time of the prophet to the end of time. That is the most sound biblical focus. We stand in continuity with the saints of all the ages.

7. History of interpretation

It is worthwhile seeing where these alternative interpretations have come from, what their pedigree is. Preterism began with Porphyry in the 3rd century A.D. He was not a Christian, but a Neo-Platonist philosopher who attacked Christianity. He wrote various books against Christianity, all of which have been lost. Only his attack upon Daniel appears to have bothered the early church fathers; Christian authors preserved his writings on this point to some extent by repeating his arguments in order to refute them. Thus we know that he was the first one to hold that Daniel was history written up as prophecy and the first to say that the prophecies of Daniel focused upon Antiochus Epiphanes as their central figure.

This idea, and the later futurism, became useful tools in the Catholic Counter Reformation. At that time (around 1563 to 1600) Catholic interpreters went in both directions to parry the thrust of the Reformers’ prophetic interpretations. The Spanish Jesuit Alcazar developed preterism while cardinals Bellarmine and Ribera developed futurism.

Protestantism did not follow these paths until the 18th and 19th centuries. An English deist named Collins published a commentary on Daniel in 1737 in which he took up the preterist view of Daniel. His commentary gives credit to Porphyry for this view. Dispensationalist futurism came along in the 1820s, developed by John Darby. For that reason it is sometimes called Darbyism. Liberal academic Protestantism has followed in the steps of Collins by accepting preterism, while much of conservative Evangelical Protestantism has embraced dispensationalism, especially as fostered by the Scofield Reference Bible and, in America, by Dallas Theological Seminary.

Seventh-day Adventists have been affected by these trends recently. What was offered to the denomination at the Glacier View Conference in 1980 was essentially preterism. As a reaction to that, some have gone to the other extreme by adopting futurism. Through its representatives at the Glacier View Conference the denomination rejected preterism. Today only a very small minority of members on the fringes of the church advocate futurism, and there has not been any strong movement toward either of these alternate views. In its published materials the denomination remains strongly committed to the historicist interpretation of apocalyptic prophecies.

From the Reformation to the mid-19th century, the main Protestant method of interpretation was historicism. In the Lutheran theologian’s paper I mentioned earlier, he started with Martin Luther’s views on prophecy. It was obvious, even to him, that Luther was a historicist. Then he went on to describe the present Lutheran view, which for him was preterism. The glaring omission in his paper was that he did not tell how his church moved from one position to the other.

The most massive survey of interpretation on this point appears in the four volumes of L. E. Froom’s The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (Washington, D. C.: Review and Herald, 1946). In the first major chart of volume III (pp. 44-45, 252), Froom lists 78 historicist interpreters from Colonial America through the Revolution, from 1600 to 1825. For the Old World he lists 103 historicist interpreters from 1760 to 1860 (pp. 270-271, 743-44). Who, then, are the heirs of the Reformation in terms of prophetic interpretation? It is clear that Seventh-day Adventist historicist interpreters of apocalyptic prophecy fill that bill most directly.

8. Summary

We have reviewed and contrasted three major schools of prophetic interpretation here. The historicist interpretation comes closest to reflecting the biblical philosophy of history, for the preterist view is foreshortened and the dispensationalist view deletes prophetic attention from most of the Christian era. Both the historicist view and the futurist view take a higher view of revelation and insiration than do the interpreters of the preterist school. The historicist and futurist method of studying Daniel from beginning to end is surely superior to the preterist method of studying it from the end back to the beginning. The preterist view also encounters difficulties trying to divert the major four-kingdom outline away from its natural pattern of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. The futurist view encounters difficulties in transplanting the sevenfold segments of the seals and trumpets down to the end of time. These outlines lead logically to the historicist outline of prophecy, which sees these kingdoms and sevenfold patterns extending from the time of the writer to the end of time.

A major difference among these three schools of thought is the way in which they use or do not use prophetic time. Preterist and futurist schools use only literal and historical time for certain key passages, while historicist interpreters take these chronological elements as symbolically standing for longer periods of actual historical time. Internal evidence in Daniel 9 and 11 supports the use of symbolic time over literal.

When it comes to the major focal points of these views, one cannot maintain that Antiochus Epiphanes fits the characteristics of the little horn in Daniel when the features of his reign are compared closely with the specifications of this prophecy. Nor is there any legitimate reason for holding that there is a gap in the prophecy of Daniel 9, or in any of the other prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. It is the historicist view that gives the best, fairest and most equal attention to all of the periods of prophecy as they apply to the Christian era.

In terms of heritage, the historicist method has the highest pedigree. Preterism started with a non-Christian philosopher who attacked Christianity. His views were taken up by one branch of the Counter Reformation. Finally, an English deist popularized this view to the modem Protestant church. Dispensational futurism was not introduced into the thinking of the church until the early 19th century. In contrast, historicism has been the main method of prophetic interpretation since interest in prophecy revived in the Protestant Reformation. It remained the main method of that stream of interpreters until the mid-19th century.

Who, then, are the heirs of the Reformation? Seventh-day Adventist historicist interpreters are the heirs of the historicist interpretation over those four centuries and down to the present. The reason why this has been the most common method of interpretation over that period of time is that it stems most directly from Scripture itself. Today, with the coming of our Lord so near, let us not listen to those who invite us to abandon it.


William H. Shea (M.D., Loma Linda University; Ph.D., University of Michigan)
He is retired associate director for the Bible Research Institute and author of several books of his specialty, Old Testament.


*Published in the Journal Adventist Affirm 17/1 (2003), 22-34. A publication Affirming Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs.

[1]I have dealt with this subject extensively in volume 1 of the Daniel and Revelation series entitled Selected Studies of Prophetic Interpre­tation (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Research Institute). Readers interested in more details may consult that work. Here I will only touch upon the highlights.

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