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.

Interpreting Revelation (Part 1)

The Historicist View of Revelation

The historicist method of interpreting Revelation is usually traced to the writings of Joachim of Fiore, a 13th century monk.  Joachim has been described as the “most original and influential of all medieval apocalyptic authors” (Bernard McGinn, Anti-Christ, (1994), 135).  His commentaries can be described as pre-millennial although Joachim might be better described as looking for a “post Anti-Christ” golden age of the church. He looked for the Anti-Christ to be revealed very soon followed by his overthrow and a new age of the Spirit, in which the Catholic church would rule in its most pure form. Joachim wrote “the Antichrist is already born in Rome…..the Antichrist’s persecutions will begin in a mere four years.”

Despite the fact that Joachim was expecting a real Antichrist in the very near future who would persecute the church for a literal three and a half years, it is possible to credit him with a development of several general “principles” concerning prophetic times that would become the accepted standard among historicist prophetic writers for hundreds of years.

First, Joachim expected prophecy to be fulfilled in history and in very real events. In fact, Joachim may be one of the first thinkers to develop a philosophy of history. Joachim divided history into three ages on the analogy of the Trinity, each consisting of 42 generations of 30 years each, or 1260 total years. The first age ran began with Abraham, the second with the Birth of Christ.  The third age was to begin with an outpouring of the Spirit of God on the church, especially upon a new order of pure monks.   The seven seals of Revelation 6 are interpreted as steps from the primitive church (the first seal, the white horse) to the Saracens (the fourth seal, the pale horse, with Mohammed as the rider). The fifth seal describes the current persecution ending in his own day.

Joachim’s second contribution to prophetic studies was that he understood the 1260 days of the Antichrist’s power mentioned in Daniel and Revelation as 1260 years rather than days. This was an innovation that was almost required by the long delay in the Lord’s return.  The early commentators on prophecy took the 1260 days as a literal 3 and a half year period of Antichrist’s reign.  Joachim is the first to consistently consider a “day” in prophecy to be a “year” for all of the numbers of Daniel and Revelation.  This includes the five months of the locust plague in Revelation 9. Since five months is 150 days, therefore the period described is 150 years long.  The locust are the heretical Catharists,  although Joachim confesses he does not know the origin of the sect.

A third contribution of Joachim was his believe that Babylon of Revelation 17 was the Roman Church rather than Jerusalem. For Joachim, Rome includes all those that are reprobate whether in the church or not.  The fall of Babylon will bring about a pure church and the conversion of the Jews.

Historicism was the only method of interpreting Revelation through the Reformation and was by Luther himself. The only writers who attempted to develop a method other than historicism prior to the early 19th century were Roman Catholic scholars, likely motivated by the Historicist criticism of the pope as the antichrist.

Biblography: The best historicist commentary is that of E. B. Elliott,  Horae Apocalypticae. 4 vols.; London: Seeleys, 1851; Joseph Mede, Clavis Apocalyptica (London:  Rivington, 1833).  Originally written and published in Latin, 1627, English translation by Richard More.