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PROBLEMS WITH HISTORICISM

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  Leave a comment
Desert wandering

When we approach the Book of Revelation, we must do so with fear and trembling. It has conquered many a strong scholar. Some have likened Revelation to a black hole: It is so dense that light cannot escape from it. This is strange in that it is actually called a “revelation,” i.e., unveiling, opening. Because of the confusion it generates, scholars recognize for main schools of interpretation. I am offering a short series on these approaches.

Among the leading schools of interpretation regarding Revelation, historicism holds that John covers either, all of history or at least all of history from the first-century founding of Christianity until the return of Christ. This view has been quite popular in Christian exegesis, though it is virtually faded away today. I will list its apparent strengths, then focus on its devastating

Historicism’s strengths

Historicism has several seeming strengths that have attracted adherents over the years.

(1) The very concept has a certain contextual plausibility: Revelation 1–3 clearly opens with events in John’s day and Revelation 21–22, wherein we find the new creation, seems to deal with history’s last days. This suggests that chapters 4–20 should cover the time in between. In fact, early in John’s record at 1:19 we learn that he must write the things “which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall take place after these things.”


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(2) Its interest in chronological succession seems to fit well with Rev’s several series of events (first trumpet, second trumpet, third trumpet, etc.) and statements about things occurring “after” this or that (7:1; 9:12; 15:5; 18:1; 19:1; etc.).

(3) When adopted, it apparently offers a divinely-revealed guide to or a pre-interpretation of history. Christianity’s strong commitment to history as the arena of God’s sovereign providence and redemptive love fits well with this approach.

(4) It also suggests the contemporary relevance of Rev’s prophecies to our own day, since it is mapping the flow of history until the end — which obviously has not occurred yet.

Historicism’s weaknesses

Despite these appealing strengths, several debilitating weaknesses undermine the system. These explain why “the majority of modern scholarly exegesis no longer sustains such an application” (J. Court). Among these weaknesses I would list the following.

(1) Its most glaring deficiency lies in the fact that John writes Revelation to a first-century Church under siege. Yet in this view he is writing to them mostly about distantly future, detailed events of which they could have absolutely no understanding. And this despite John’s stated concern for his contemporary audience under duress (1:9) as they fear what they are “about to suffer” (2:10), as well as his promise of a special blessing to them if they heed the things within (1:3) so that they might be “overcomers” (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21).

(2) Historically, most historicists have assumed that they are living at the conclusion of history and are about to witness Rev’s finale. For instance, this view is quite prominent in the Middle Ages when millennialism began to flourish once again and historicism is employed to show that “the millennium was about to dawn” (D. A. Carson). To take but one example, Josephus Mede (1586–1639) notes in his commentary: “While I write news is brought of a Prince from the North (meaning Gustavus Adophus) gaining victories over the Emperor in defence of the German afflicted Protestants.”

A comment on recurring problems in eschatological debate in general would apply to historicism in particular: historian F. Roy Coad well states that “almost invariably interpretation has been vitiated by the reluctance or incapacity of commentators to visualise their own age as other than the end time.” Thus, B. D. Ehrman scornfully observes that most Revelation interpreters “have been concerned to show that the beast has finally arisen in their own day. Rarely are the interpretations put forth as conjectures, of course, but almost always with the confidence of those who have the inside scoop” (cp. J. Kovacs and C. Rowland; J. B. Payne).

(3) As a consequence of the preceding problem, the historicist interpretation is in a constant state of flux because it “was under the necessity of revising its result with the progress of events” (H. B. Swete). As history grows longer, older varieties of this interpretive school experience a great number of failed expectations exposing the system to great embarrassment. This problem can be easily demonstrated by simply picking up an historicist commentary over 100 years old.

J. M. Court wonders how this view long remained “strangely attractive in spite of the recurrent anguish and disappointment it causes.” F. Bleek agrees: “There was a natural proneness among interpreters of different times and different parties to find precisely their own times and their own struggles in the book, and their adversaries and persecutors depicted in the hostile powers that appear in it.”

(4) A. S. Brady highlights the underlying reason for both of the preceding problems: “Revelation was at the mercy of an almost complete subjectivism, for the symbols could be made to represent just whatever feature of notoriety the expositor desired to extract from the records of the Church’s history.” Thus, historicism can easily lead to flimsy interpretations.


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For instance, in O. Collins’ recent commentary we find the following dates presented as prophetic fulfillments of Revelation: The first seal’s white horse “was remarkably and uniquely fulfilled in the era extending from A.D. 98–180.” The second seal’s red horse speaks of “the accession of the Emperor Commodus in A.D. 180 until the death of Carinus in A.D. 284)” which events “strikingly fulfill the prophetic imagery of this second seal.” “The black horse [fourth seal] era produced a particularly remarkable illustration of the conditions dramatized by the symbols of the third seal. . . . When the deflation of the choenix in the period of Alexander Severus [A.D. 222–235] is factored in, [it] accurately represents the prices then stipulated” in this seal. “The period from A.D. 248 to about A.D. 270, beginning with the rule of the Emperor Philip and ending with the Emperor Aurelianus, is aptly characterized by the rider, ‘Death.’” The fifth seal prophesies “Diocletian in A.D. 303 announced his determination to eliminate Christians and Christianity from the Empire.”

Later O. Collins explains that the two witnesses are “evangelical believers who fled from the persecution of the Roman church into remote regions high in the mountains of southern Europe and Asia Minor.” He presents a table of the “seven kings” of Revelation 17:10 which represent phases of Rome’s government:

1. Kings. 753–ca. 509 BC
2. Consuls, ca 509–ca. 498 BC
3. Dictators, ca. 498–451 BC
4. Decemvirs, 451–443 BC
5. Military Tribunes, 443–31 BC
6. Emperors, 31 BC–AD 96

And of course, the “the seventh head, [is] still ‘not yet come’ (17:10). Collins holds that “the fifth and sixth trumpet prophecies forecast the Muslim conquests . . . concluding the period with the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in A.D. 1453.” The first bowl with its sores “symbolize conditions which developed in the Roman earth during the 15th-17th centuries and eventually erupted in the 18th century French Revolution.” The “fifth bowl prophecy was dramatically fulfilled in the circumstances which resulted from the French Revolution and culminated in 1866-70 with the Vatican’s loss of temporal power.” The “seventh bowl is poured out ‘upon the air’ . . . . This would appear to suggest a rather universal locale and perhaps aerial warfare” which leads him to state: “two world wars fulfill the universal dimension of this prophecy.”

Further evidence of historicism’s subjectivism serves as its own refutation. According to A. Pieters, Elliott explains the silence in Revelation 10:4 as representing the seventy years between Constantine’s victory to the death of Theodosius in 395 — a view which probably arouses little interest in John’s original audience.

A. Barnes interprets the command for John not to write down what the seven thunders utter (10:4): they represent “papal anathemas” against the Protestants and in them “there was nothing that was worthy of record.” During the Reformation, Protestants use it in applying Revelation against the Roman Catholic Church, and Rome returns the favor, applying it to Protestants. As a consequence, H. Thorndike aptly notes that “the imputation of Antichrist is a saddle for all horses.”

(5) As a result of its subjectivism, historicists demonstrate an almost complete lack of agreement with one another. Wherever two or three historicists are gathered together, chaos is in the midst.

(6) Historicism generally deals with Rev’s prophecies as occurring in a linear fashion, despite strong evidence of its employing recapitulation. It tends to hold John’s “after” statements as asserting chronological succession in historical

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 100 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

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