Historicism, a method of interpretation of Biblical prophecies, associates symbols with historical persons, nations or events. It can result in a view of progressive and continuous fulfillment of prophecy covering the period from Biblical times to the Second Coming. Almost all Protestant Reformers from the Reformation into the 19th century held historicist views. The main primary texts of interest to Christian-historicists include apocalyptic literature, such as the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation. Commentators have also applied historicist methods to ancient Jewish history, to the Roman Empire, to Islam, to the Papacy, to the Modern era, and to the end time.
Historicism was the belief held by the majority of the Protestant Reformers, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and others including John Thomas, John Knox, and Cotton Mather. The Catholic church tried to counter it with Preterism and Futurism during the Counter Reformation. This alternate view served to bolster the Catholic Church's position against attacks by Protestants, and is viewed as a Catholic defense against the Protestant Historicist view which identified the Roman Catholic Church as a persecuting apostasy and the Pope with the Anti-Christ.
Historicists claim that prophetic interpretation reveals the entire course of history of the church from the close of the 1st century to the end of time. Historicist interpretations have been criticized for inconsistencies, conjectures, and speculations. There is no agreement about various outlines of church history. Historicist readings of the Book of Revelation have been revised as new events occur and new figures emerge on the world scene.
One of the most influential aspects of the Protestant historicist paradigm was the speculation that the Pope could be Antichrist. Martin Luther wrote this view, which was not novel, into the Smalcald Articles of 1537. It was then widely popularized in the 16th century, via sermons and drama, books and broadside publication. Jesuit commentators developed alternate approaches that would later become known as preterism and futurism, and applied them to apocalyptic literature; Francisco Ribera developed a form of futurism (1590), and Luis de Alcazar a form of preterism, at the same period.
The historicist approach has been used in attempts to predict the date of the end of the world. An example in post-Reformation Britain is in the works of Charles Wesley, who predicted that the end of the world would occur in 1794, based on his analysis of the Book of Revelation. Adam Clarke, whose commentary was published in 1831, proposed a possible date of 2015 for the end of the papal power.
In 19th-century America, William Miller proposed that the end of the world would occur on October 22, 1844, based on a historicist model used with Daniel 8:14. Miller’s historicist approach to the Book of Daniel spawned a national movement in the United States known as Millerism. After the Great Disappointment some of the Millerites eventually organized the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which continues to maintain a historicist reading of biblical prophecy as essential to its eschatology. Millerites also formed other Adventist bodies, including the one that spawned the Watch Tower movement, better known as Jehovah's Witnesses, who hold to their own unique historicist interpretations of Bible prophecy.
Prophetic commentaries in the early church usually interpreted individual passages rather than entire books. The earliest complete commentary on the Book of Revelation was carried out by Victorinus of Pettau, considered to be one of the earliest historicist commentators, around 300 AD. Edward Bishop Elliott, a proponent of the historicist interpretation, wrote that it was modified and developed by the expositions of Andreas, Primasius (both 6th century), Bede (730 AD), Anspert, Arethas, Haimo of Auxerre, and Berengaudus (all of the 9th century).:Appendix I The 10th-century Catholic bishop Arnulf of Orléans was, according to Elliott, the first to apply the Man of Sin prophecy in 2 Thessalonians 2:3–9 to the papacy.:Appendix I Joachim of Floris gave the same interpretation in 1190,:Appendix I and the archbishop Eberhard II, Archbishop of Salzburg|Eberhard II, in 1240.
Protestant Reformers had a major interest in historicism, with a direct application to their struggle against the Papacy. Prominent leaders and scholars among them, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, John Thomas, John Knox, and Cotton Mather, identified the Roman Papacy as the Antichrist. The Centuriators of Magdeburg, a group of Lutheran scholars in Magdeburg headed by Matthias Flacius, wrote the 12-volume "Magdeburg Centuries" to discredit the papacy and identify the pope as the Antichrist. The fifth round of talks in the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue notes,
In calling the pope the "antichrist," the early Lutherans stood in a tradition that reached back into the eleventh century. Not only dissidents and heretics but even saints had called the bishop of Rome the "antichrist" when they wished to castigate his abuse of power.
William Tyndale, an English Protestant reformer, held that while the Roman Catholic realms of that age were the empire of Antichrist, any religious organization that distorted the doctrine of the Old and New Testaments also showed the work of Antichrist. In his treatise The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, he expressly rejected the established Church teaching that looked to the future for an Antichrist to rise up, and he taught that Antichrist is a present spiritual force that will be with us until the end of the age under different religious disguises from time to time. Tyndale's translation of 2 Thessalonians, chapter 2, concerning the "man of lawlessness" reflected his understanding, but was significantly amended by later revisers, including the King James Bible committee, which followed the Vulgate more closely.
Rather than expecting a single Antichrist to rule the earth during a future Tribulation period, Luther, John Calvin and other Protestant reformers saw the Antichrist as a present feature in the world of their time, fulfilled in the papacy. Debated features of the Reformation historicist interpretations were the identification of; the Antichrist (1 and 2 John); the Beasts of Revelation 13; the Man of Sin (or Man of Lawlessness) in 2 Thessalonians 2; the "Little horn" of Daniel 7 and 8, and the Whore of Babylon (Revelation 17).
Isaac Newton's religious views on the historicist approach are in the work published in 1733, after his death, Observations upon the Prophesies of the Book of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John. It took a stance toward the papacy similar to that of the early Protestant reformers. He avoided predictions based on prophetic literature, taking the view that prophesy when it has been shown to be fulfilled will be proof that God's providence has been imminently active in the world. This work regarded much prophesy as already fulfilled in the first millennium of the Christian era.
The 19th century was a significant watershed in the history of prophetic thought. While the historicist paradigm, together with its pre- or postmillennialism, the day-year principle, and the view of the papal Antichrist, was dominant in English Protestant scholarship during much of the period from the Reformation to the middle of the 19th century (and continues to find expression in some groups today), it now was not the only one. Arising in Great Britain and Scotland, William Kelly and other Plymouth Brethren became the leading exponents of dispensationalist premillennial eschatology. By 1826, literalist interpretation of prophecy took hold and dispensationalism saw the light of day. The dispensationalist interpretation differed from the historicist model of interpreting Daniel and Revelation in picking up the Catholic theory that there was a gap in prophetic fulfillment of prophecy proposed by Futurism, but dispensationalism claim it was an anti-Catholic position.
Visions of Daniel
Traditional Protestant historicism interprets the four kingdoms in the Book of Daniel as Neo-Babylon, Medo-Persia (c. 550–330 BC), Greece under Alexander the Great, and the Roman Empire. Additionally, historicists view the "little horn" in Daniel 7:8 and Daniel 8:9 as the Papacy.
Adam Clarke, writing in 1825, offered an alternative 1260-year period from 755 AD to 2015, based upon the Pope's elevation from being a subject of the Byzantine Empire to becoming the independent head of the Papal States by means of the Donation of Pepin.
Prophecy of Seventy Weeks
The vision of the 70 weeks is interpreted as dealing with the Jewish nation from about the middle of the 5th century BCE until not long after the death of Jesus in the 1st century CE and so is not concerned with current or future history. Historicists consider Antiochus Epiphanies irrelevant to the fulfillment of the prophecy.
The historicist view on the prophecy of seventy weeks, in Daniel 9, stretches from 457 BCE to 34 CE, and that the final "week" of the prophecy refers to the events of Jesus Christ's ministry. This was the view taught by Martin Luther and John Calvin This interpretation of Daniel chapter 9 presents the 490 years as an uninterrupted period. Like others before them they equate the beginning of the 70 weeks "from the time the word goes out to rebuild and restore Jerusalem," of Daniel 9:25 with the decree by Artaxerxes I in 458/7 BCE which provided money for rebuilding the temple and Jerusalem and allowed for restoration of a Jewish administration. It ends 3½ years after the crucifixion. The appearance of "Messiah the Prince" at the end of the 69 weeks (483 years) is aligned with Jesus' baptism in 27 CE, in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar. The 'cutting off' of the "anointed one" refers to the crucifixion 3½ years after the end of the 483 years, bringing "atonement for iniquity" and "everlasting righteousness". Jesus is said to 'confirm' the "covenant" between God and mankind by his death on the cross in the Spring (about passover time) of 31 CE "in the midst of" the last seven years. At the moment of his death the 4 inch (10 cm) thick curtain between the Holy and Most Holy Places in the Temple ripped from top to bottom marking the end of the Temple's sacrificial system. The last week ends 3½ years after the crucifixion (i.e., in 34 CE) when the gospel was redirected from only the Jews to all Gentile nations. Jehovah's Witnesses have a similar interpretation, but place the period from 455 BCE to 29 CE, with the final "week" being fulfilled by 36 CE.
- Great Tribulation
Some historicists believe that the Tribulation refers to the centuries of persecution endured by the Church and point to the following in the rest of the New Testament which shows the "tribulation", that almost every reference applies to what true Christians go through, rather than what they escape from.
(John 16:33) - Jesus Christ said to His followers, "In the world you shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
(2Thessalonians 1:4) - Paul wrote of the many "persecutions and tribulations" which "the churches of God" were enduring in the 1st century (Christians were thrown to the lions in the coliseum, eaten by wild dogs, burned at the stake and lit up as torches in Nero's garden).
(Revelation 7:14) - God's final people "came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." They did not escape it, but endured through it, being purified.
This gives clear biblical evidence that Christians have always gone through "tribulation" and will endure tribulations until the end.
This view is also called Classical Posttribulationism, an original theory of the Post-tribulation rapture view which holds the position that the church has always been in the tribulation because, during its entire existence, it has always suffered persecution and trouble. They believe that the tribulation is not a literal future event.
Historicists have also applied the Tribulation to the period known as "persecution of the saints" as related to Daniel 7 and Revelation 13.
- Martin Luther (1483–1546)
- Thomas Brightman (1562–1607)
- Alexander Forbes (1564–1617)
- Joseph Mede (1586–1639)
- Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704)
- Isaac Newton (1642–1727)
- Campegius Vitringa (1659–1722)
- Robert Fleming (1660–1716)
- Matthew Henry (1662–1714)
- John Gill (1697–1771)
- Friedrich Adolph Lampe (c. 1670–1729)
- Charles Daubuz, M.A. (1673–1717)
- Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687–1752)
- Bishop T. Newton (1704–82)
- Thomas Scott (1747–1821)
- George Stanley Faber (1773–1854)
- William Cuninghame of Lainshaw (19th century)
- William Miller (1782–1849)
- Alexander Keith (1791–1880)
- Edward Bishop Elliott (1793–1875)
- Albert Barnes (1798–1870)
- Christopher Wordsworth (1807–85)
- James Aitken Wylie (1808–90)
- T.R. Birks (1810–83)
- Henry Grattan Guinness (1835–1910)
- Basil Atkinson (1895–1971)
- Ian Paisley (b. 1926)
- Francis Nigel Lee (1934–2011)
- Apocalyptic literature
- Biblical criticism
- Historical criticism
- New historicism
- Great Apostasy
- Great Disappointment
- Shepherd's Rod
- Summary of Christian eschatological differences
- Elliott, Edward Bishop (1862). Horae Apocalypticae. Vol. IV (5th ed.). London: Seely, Jackson and Halliday. pp. 562–563.
- Farrar 1882.
- Froom 1954, p. 509.
- Stuart 1845, p. 464.
- Newport 2000, p. 74.
- Seventh-day Adventist Bible Student's Source Book, No. 1257, p. 775
- Pate, C Marvin; Hays, J Daniel; Duvall, J Scott (2009). Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. ISBN 978-0-310-57104-9.
- Tinsley, Barbara Sher (1 January 1992). History and Polemics in the French Reformation: Florimond de Raemond, Defender of the Church. Susquehanna University Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-945636-29-8.
- Newport 2000, pp. 21–2.
- Shipton, Warren A; Belete, Ebenezer A (19 September 2011). Visions of Turmoil and Eternal Rest. Author House. pp. 22–3. ISBN 978-1-4567-8160-6.
- Ribera, Francisco, In Sacrum Beati Ioannis Apostoli & Evangelistiae Apocalypsin Commentari [Commentary on the Apocalypse of Saint John Apostle & Evangelist] (in Latin)
- de Alcazar, Luis, Investigation of the Hidden Sense of the Apocalypse.
- Boyd; Eddy (2002), Across the spectrum: understanding issues in evangelical theology.
- Youngblood, Ronald F; Bruce, FF; Harrison, RK, eds. (1995-08-15). New illustrated Bible dictionary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. pp. 1140–41. ISBN 978-0-8407-2071-9.
- Clarke, "Daniel 7 verse 25 in Context", Commentary on the Bible, Sacred texts.
- Newport 2000, p. 22.
- Holbrook 1983.
- Reed, David A., Jehovah's Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse, Baker Book House, 1986, pages 21-26
- Desrosiers (2000), An introduction to Revelation, p. 32,
One of the very first commentators on Revelation, Victorinus of Pettau (c. 300), was a proponent of this method..
- Rusconi (1996), Opere di Gioacchino da Fiore. Strumenti [Works of Gioacchino of Fiore. Instruments] (in Italian), p. 12,
His reading was historicist in the sense that he held that the images and symbols of the book could be tied to specific historical events.
- Froom 1950, pp. 541–42.
- The AntiChrist and The Protestant Reformation
- See Building Unity, edited by Burgess and Gross
- Tyndale, William, Parable of the Wicked Mammon, c. 1526, (facsimile copy of later printing, no ISBN number, Benediction Classics, 2008)at pages 4-5
- "Tyndale's Doctrine of Antichrist and His Translation of 2 Thessalonians 2", R. Davis, New Matthew Bible Project. (A shorter version of this article was also published in the Tyndale Society Journal No. 36, Spring 2009, under the title Tyndale, the Church, and the Doctrine of Antichrist)
- Froom 1948, pp. 244–45: "The reformers were unanimous in its acceptance. And it was this interpretation of prophecy that lent emphasis to their reformatory action. It led them to protest against Rome with extraordinary strength and undaunted courage. ... This was the rallying point and the battle cry that made the Reformation unconquerable."
- Newton, Isaac (1733), Observations upon the Prophesies of the Book of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John, London: J Darby and T Browne
- Newport 2000, pp. 14–15.
- McClune (1979), "An Exposition of the Book of Isaiah (Foreword)", Central Bible Quarterly, 22 (4): 28.
- Stitzinger (2002), "The Rapture in Twenty Centuries of Biblical Interpretation", Master's Seminary Journal, 13 (2): 168.
- McDowell, Sean, ed. (2009). Apologetics study Bible for students: hard questions, straight answers. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers. p. 899. ISBN 978-1-58640-493-2.
- Luther, Martin, ″Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Trinity; Matthew 24:15-28″, Church Postil, 1525
- Calvin, John, ″Lecture Fifty-Second", Commentary on Daniel, Volume
- Daniel 9:25
- Ezra 7:15-26 "With this money be sure to buy ... offerings, and sacrifice them on the altar of the temple of your God in Jerusalem ... then do whatever seems best with the rest of the silver and gold ... anything else needed for the temple of your God that you are responsible to supply ... appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God."
- Daniel 9:24
- Daniel 9:27
- Matthew 27:51
- Mark 15:38
- Luke 23:45
- Insight on the Scriptures. 2. Watch Tower Society. pp. 899–901.
- E.W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament (reprint; McDill AFB, FL, 1973), pp. 803-930
- J.N. Andrews, The Commandment to Restore and to Rebuild Jerusalem (Battle Creek, MI 1865)
- E.B. Pusey, Daniel the Prophet, 2nd ed. (New York 1885), pp. 184-269
- J. Raska, Zur Berechnung der Siebzig Wochen Daniels, Theologisch-Praktische Quartal-schrift 54 (1904), pp. 13-27
- J. Hontheim, Das Todesjahr Christi und die Danielische Wochenprophetie, Katholik 34 (1906): 12-36, 96-128, 176-88, 254-81
- Boutflower, In and Around the Book of Daniel, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, 1963), pp. 168-211
- Smith, Uriah (1878). The Prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation. p. 828.
- O. Gerhardt, Die messianische Weissagung Daniel 9:24-27, NKZ 38 (1927): 561-87
- Smith, Uriah, Daniel and Revelation, pp. 437–49.
- Barnes, Albert, Notes on the New Testament, Matthew 24:21
- Benware, Paul N, "13: The Posttribulation Rapture View", Understanding End Times Prophecy: A Comprehensive Approach, Chicago, IL, US: Moody, p. 240.
- Rugh, Greg, Eschatology – Different Rapture Views, Bible BB.
- Glabach, Wilfried E (2007). Reclaiming the book of Revelation: a suggestion of new readings in the local Church. New York: P Lang. p. 11. ISBN 978-1-4331-0054-3.
- Girdlestone, Henry AB (1847). Notes on the Apocalypse: an enquiry into the mystery of the seven stars and seven lamp branches of the Apocalypse (digital). London: William Edward Painter. p. 4. Retrieved Oct 3, 2006.
- Cook, Frederick Charles, ed. (1881). The holy Bible, authorized version, with comm: a revision of the tr. by bishops and other clergy of the Anglican Church (digital). IV. London: John Murray. pp. 582–3. Retrieved Feb 21, 2007.
- The Prophecies of Daniel & the Apocalypse, 1733.
- Henry, Matthew, Commentary on the Whole Bible, 6. Acts to Revelation, Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell
- Gill, John, Commentary of the Whole Bible.
- Henry, Matthew; Scott, Thomas (1838). Jenks, William, ed. The comprehensive commentary on the Holy Bible: containing the text according to the authorized version (Digital). 6. Boston: Fessenden & Co. p. 155. Retrieved Jan 8, 2008.
- Moyise, Steve, ed. (2001). Studies in the book of Revelation. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-567-08814-7.
- Froom 1946, pp. 744–5.
- "Revelation", Notes on the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1884–85.
- The Seventh Vial, Open library.
- Birks, Thomas Rawson (1843), First Elements of Sacred Prophecy, London: WE Painter.
- Guinness, Henry Grattan (1905), History Unveiling Prophecy, Or, Time as an Interpreter.
- Lee 2000.
- Lee, Francis Nigel (2000), John's Historicistic Epistles.
- Lee, Francis Nigel (2001), Biblical Predictions not Preterist but Historicist (2nd ed.).
- Eijnatten, Joris van (2003), Liberty and concord in the United Provinces: religious toleration and the public in the eighteenth-century Netherlands, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 978-90-04-12843-9.
- Froom, Le Roy Edwin (1946), Part I, Colonial and Early National American Exposition. Part II, Old World Nineteenth Century Advent Awakening, The Prophetic Faith of our Fathers: The Historical Development of Prophetic Interpretation, 3, The Review and Herald Publishing Association.
- Froom, Le Roy Edwin (1950), Early Church Exposition, Subsequent Deflections, and Medieval Revival, The Prophetic Faith of our Fathers: The Historical Development of Prophetic Interpretation, 1, The Review and Herald Publishing Association.
- Holbrook, Frank B. (1983), What Prophecy Means to This Church, Adventist Ministry.
- Lee, Francis Nigel, The Non-Preterist Historicalism of John Calvin and the Westminster Standards.
- Newport, Kenneth GC (2000), Apocalypse and millennium: studies in biblical eisegesis (1 ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-77334-8.
- Nichol, Francis D (1980), Bible commentary, SDA.
- Brug, John, A Scriptural and Historical Survey of the Doctrine of the Antichrist (PDF), WLS essays (a Confessional Lutheran perspective).
- McCarter, Parnell; Lee, Francis Nigel, Historicism Research Foundation, Queensland Presbyterian Theological College.
- Paulien, Jon, "The End of Historicism? Reflections on the Adventist Approach to Biblical Apocalyptic (Part 1)" (PDF), Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, part 2 (supportive).