Interpreting Revelation – Historicism


For most of church history, the book of Revelation was read as a prophecy which was being fulfilled at the present time. In fact, Historicism was the only method of interpreting Revelation through the Reformation, including Luther himself. The only writers who attempted to develop a method other than historicism prior to the early nineteenth century were Roman Catholic scholars, likely motivated by the Historicist criticism of the pope as the antichrist.

Joachim of Fiore's Dragon

In Historicism, the symbols of Revelation are interpreted as predicting the course of church history from the time of Jesus through the Second Coming.  An common example of this is taking the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 as symbols of various eras in church history.  For example, the first church, Ephesus, is usually taken as the post apostolic era, ending with the Nicene council in 325.  The last church, Laodicea, is “lukewarm” and faces harsh judgment.  This becomes a symbol of the “present church” which needs to recommit itself to the gospel in the light of the soon return of Jesus, who is standing at the door (Rev 3:20).  The seven seals, trumpets and bowls are interpreted in detail as references to specific historic events leading up to the time of the writer.  Usually the writer declares that the fifth or sixth bowl has been poured out and the time is nearly at hand.

The most serious problem for the historicist position is that none of the historical identifications could be proven, most would be considered obscure and anachronistic in the light of the 21st century.  The numbers of days found in Revelation were taken as years, so that 1260 days became 1260 years, allowing the interpreter to calculate the approximate time of the end.  The rise of Islam was frightening to the Christian West, so it was easy to identify them with the hoards of demons rising from the Abyss, but other details were more obscure.  The “beast” and antichrist is almost always the Roman Church which suppressed the truth.  The Waldensians and Albigensians (the Cathars) were often associated with the two witnesses because they were seen as anti-papal.

Two of the more influential 19th century historicists were Bishop Thomas Newton (1704-1782, Dissertation on the Prophecies) was influenced by Joseph Mede, as was George Stanley Faber’s 1260 Years. Both followed Joseph Mede closely in identifying the various seals, trumpets and bowls as various historical events. Most early 19th century prophecy texts, even those produced by pre-millennialists followed this method with an ever varying degree of creativity. (Many early dispensationalists were historicist with respect to Revelation, including Darby himself! That the seven churches of Revelation are epochs of church history appears in dispensationalist writings even in the mid-20th century.)

By the early nineteenth century, historicism was running out of new ideas. The combination of several spectacular failures in predicting the return of Jesus and the rise of rationalism doomed historicism to a footnote in modern discussions of interpretive methods.  While the method gave the book an evangelistic edge, it was too often used to condemn one’s enemy (religious or political) as the anti-christ.  But this evangelistic benefit is meaningless if the book of Revelation is not a prediction of minute details of the present era.

There were two reactions to the historicist position among some Protestant writers – preterism (Revelation is all past) and futurism (Revelation is all future). Because both of these reactionary movements had precursors in Catholic theology, many Protestants who began to view Revelation as either entirely past or entirely future were viewed as giving aid and comfort to the “Papists” and were accused of not holding firmly to reformation truth.  Nevertheless, historicism remains on the fringes of biblical studies and preterism and futurism have become standard ways of reading Revelation.