The Book of Revelation is called a “revelation,” despite its seeming to be an obfuscation to most modern readers. It seems that wherever there are five commentaries on Revelation, you will find six views of this mysterious book, such is our perplexity when approaching this magnificent work.
As I noted in my previous article, approaches to Revelation have generally sorted into four basic schools of thought. In this article I will consider the view known as “Historicism.” Historicism is the “all history” view. Let us get started.
The historicist school is sometimes called “continuous-historical” or “ecclesiastical-historical,” or more technically the weltgeschichtlich (world history) or kirchengeschichtlich (church history) approach. This view promotes a continuous fulfillment of the prophetic drama in Rev, so that we see in it a panorama of Church history from the apostolic era and the foundation of Christianity to the return of Christ at the conclusion of history.
As O. E. Collins expresses it: “This approach sees the Revelation as a forecast of the progress and destiny of the church in its conflict with Rome and the Roman Antichrist power forecast in Daniel seven. Its prophecies pertain to events from the time of the New Testament church to the end-time consummation. . . . It focuses on the course of church history depicting the victory of Christ over the Antichrist, the redemption of His bride, the Church, the ultimate destruction of evil, and the establishment of Christ’s everlasting rule at His second coming.”
Historical continuity is the main focus of this approach. Thus, historicists deem Revelation as something of a divinely-written almanac or compendium of church history which provides a prophetic outline of certain key elements in that history. They apply the numerous judgment scenes to various wars, revolutions, and socio-political and religious movements (e.g., Arianism, the rising of Roman Catholicism, the rise of Islam, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, etc.), as well as important historical persons (e.g., various Popes, Muhammed, Charlemagne, Holy roman Emperor Henry IV, Saladin, Wycliffe, Luther, Napoleon, Hitler, etc.).
Most scholars see Joachim of Floris (ca. 1130– 1202), a Roman Catholic monk and mystic, as popularizing this view (e.g., A. F. Johnson; G. E. Ladd ; G. R. Osborne 18). Of Joachim, David deSilva notes that he “brought this reading to new prominence.” We find hints of this approach, however, much earlier in the Ante-Nicene fathers. Not long after Joachim, Nicolas of Lyra (d. 1340) seems to generate the most “systematic and comprehensive application of the idea” (I. T. Beckwith 329).
Eventually, historicism exercises a strong influence among the Reformers and their heirs who vigorously employ it against the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, advocates of historicism include “the majority of Protestant interpreters up into the 19th century” (C. M. Pate). Noteworthy adherents to this view include Martin Luther (1522), Thomas Brightman (1607), Joseph Mede (1627), William Whiston (1706), Sir Isaac Newton (1732), E. H. Elliott (1851), Ernst Willhelm Hengstenberg (1851), Albert Barnes (1851), and Henry Alford (1861). For a thorough list of historicist commentaries, see O. Collins 2007.
We are witnessing a precipitous decline in advocacy of historicism. G. Desrosiers speaks of it as “on the brink of completely disappearing.” For example, Zondervan does not even include it as an option in its Four Views on the Book of Revelation (1999). Historicists are so scarce today that in his rather complete listing of historicist commentaries O. Collins has to leap from E. P. Cachemaille’s commentary in 1931 to Francis Nigel Lee’s in 2000.
M. E. Boring seems to be correct when he notes that “although widely held by Protestant interpreters after the Reformation and into the twentieth century, no critical New Testament scholar today advocates this view.” Consequently, “there are few [historicists] today” (C. M. Pate). Two recent commentaries, however, do support the position: Francis Nigel Lee’s John’s Revelation Unveiled and Oral E. Collins’ The Final Prophecy of Jesus (2007).
Oddly enough, we may often find traces of historicism mixed with futurism in the dispensational approach to Rev. Though dispensationalism strongly advocates futurism (see below), many dispensationalists view the seven churches from an historicist perspective as representing seven stages of church history (C. C. Ryrie; J. F. Walvoord; Popular Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy; New Scofield Reference Bible).
We may say of historicism what Miracle Max says of Westley in “The Princess Bride”: “It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” Join me in my next article and I will explain the circumstances of its demise.