Questions & Answers

Historicism and Reformed Theology

Dr. Gentry:

You are committed to the Reformed faith, yet you don't take the historicist approach to eschatology which was widely held among the Reformers. Why do you not follow the Reformers in this part of their theology. G.K., Minneapolis, Minn.

Dr. Gentry's response:

Thank you for your inquiry. You are correct that I am committed to Reformed theology. However, I differ from the Reformers in that I take a preterist approach to Revelation rather than an historicist approach. I do so for the following reasons:

  • First, we should remember that Revelation was not well received among some of the Reformers. Martin Luther, the famed reformer and untiring interpreter of Scripture, originally rejected Revelation as non-canonical, complaining, "My Spirit cannot adapt itself to the book." In his German translation of the Bible, he complained in the preface to Revelation that the book was "neither apostolic nor prophetic."

    Fellow reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) refused to take a doctrinal proof-text from Revelation. Calvin himself wrote no commentary on it, despite his writing a very thorough series of commentary on almost all of the Bible.

  • Second, the Reformers were locked in a literal life-and-death struggle with Romanism. Consequently, they tended to view many judgment passages through the lens of their opposition to Rome. They let application override interpretation in some situations.

    Such an exposition is known as an "actualizing interpretation." "Actualizing interpretations take two forms. In one form the imagery of the Apocalypse is juxtaposed with the interpreter's own circumstances, whether personal or social, so as to allow the images to inform understanding of contemporary persons and events and to serve as a guide for action" (J. Kovacs and C. R. Rowland, "Revelation: Apocalypse of Jesus Christ" [Oxford: Blackwell, 2004], 9).

    For instance, we see this in the original Westminster Confession of Faith (25:6) where the Pope is called the Antichrist and the "man of lawlessness." This not only gives too much credit to Romanism, but clearly misinterprets Scripture. If the Pope were Antichrist, then the papacy existed in the first century, for John confronts the antichrist in the first century (1Jn 2:18-22). But the Pope cannot be the Antichrist, for John defines the Antichrist as "one who denies the Father and the Son" (1Jn 2:22), as those who "do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh" (2Jn 7). This is clearly not referring to Roman Catholic teaching.

  • Third, historicist expositions of Revelation from that era, the 1500-1600s are impossible today. If you can find an historicist exposition of Revelation from you will quickly observe that they believed Revelation outlined church history up to their own time, when they believed its final prophecies were coming to fulfillment. Just reading an earlier historicist exposition today refutes it.

    Kovacs and Rowland note this problem: "Altogether more contentious and daring is the way certain interpreters saw these figures appearing in their own day. For some this reflects a conviction that the last days have come" (Kovacs, 128; referenced above). 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" (M. Eugene Boring, "Revelation: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching" [Louisville: John Knox, 1989], 49).

  • Fourth, by the very nature of the case historicism suffers from a need of constant revision. The historicist school, also called the "continuous historical," sees the prophetic drama in Revelation as providing a panorama of Church history from the apostolic era to the return of Christ. Historical continuity is the main focus of this approach which forecasts future history. Historicists deem Revelation an "almanac of church history." Historicists apply the numerous judgment scenes to various wars, revolutions, and socio-political and religious movements (e.g., the rising of Roman Catholicism, the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, World Wars I and II), as well as important historical /persons (e.g., various Popes, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Mussolini).

    According to Alan Johnson, Joachim of Floris (d. 1202) popularized this view, though traces of it are found earlier in the Ante-Nicene fathers (Johnson, "Revelation" in EBC, 12:409). As noted above, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, and the Reformers greatly employed it against the Roman Catholic Church.

    The weaknesses, though, are manifold. The position almost always assumes that present interpreters live at the conclusion to history so that all in Revelation leads up to their time just before the end. For instance Mede noted in his commentary: "While I write news is brought of a Prince from the North (meaning Gustavus Adolphus) gaining victories over the Emperor in defence of the German afflicted Protestants."

    Commenting on recurring problems in eschatological debate in general, Brethren historian F. Roy Coad well states: "Almost invariably interpretation has been vitiated by the reluctance or incapacity of commentators to visualise their own age as other than the end time" (F. Roy Coad, "Prophetic Developments: A Christian Brethren Research Fellowship Occasional Paper" [Pinner, England: 1966], 10).

    As a consequence, beliefs are in a constant state of revision, especially for Revelation commentators in this school. Consequently, as history has grown longer, older varieties of this interpretive school have experienced a great number of failed expectations. This view long remained "strangely attractive in spite of the recurrent anguish and disappointment it causes" (John Court, "Myth and History in the Book of Revelation" [Atlanta: John Knox, 1979], 7).

    Thus, this approach is continually in revision as it proposes more and more constructions based on the supposed prophetic allusions to historic events. For instance, this view was prominent in the Middle Ages when millennialism began to flourish once again. The system was used to show that "the millennium was about to dawn" (Carson, Moo, Morris, "Introduction to the New Testament," [Zondervan] 482).

  • Furthermore, its relevance is confined to the Western world, with the progress of history traced only in a western direction (apparently where book sales are most profitable!).

    In addition, it tends to lose its relevance for its original persecuted audience.

    Its major problem, though, is that harmony among its proponents is almost wholly lacking due to its subjectivity.