12.4. Historicist Interpretation


The historicist system of interpretation understands the book of Revelation as setting forth the major events of Christian history spanning the time of John until the present.1 “Historicist interpreters generally see Revelation as predicting the major movements of Christian history, most of which have been fulfilled up to the time of the commentator.”2 Rev. 2:1+-Rev. 19:1+, including the seals, trumpets, and bowls as well as the interludes, as prophetic of salvation history, that is, the development of church history within world history.”3 This view has also been called the continuist view.4

The beginning of historicism has been attributed to Joachim of Fiore (12th century) or Nicolas of Lyra (died 1340).

This approach began with Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century. He claimed that a vision had told him the 1,260 days of the Apocalypse prophesied the events of Western history from the time of the apostles until the present. The Franciscans followed Joachim and like him interpreted the book relating to pagan Rome and the papacy (due to corruption in the church). Later the Reformers . . . also favored this method, with the pope as the Antichrist.5

Nicolas of Lyra (teacher of theology at Paris, died 1340) . . . Abandoning the theory of recapitulation, he finds in the course of the book prediction of a continuous series of events from the apostolic age to the final consummation. The seals refer to the period extending into the reign of Domitian; in the later parts are predicted the Arian and other heresies, the spread of Mohammedism, Charlemagne, the Crusades, and other historical details.6

The historicist view has been the interpretive approach of numerous well-known individuals: Albert Barnes, Bengel, Elliott, Martin Luther, Joseph Mede, Isaac Newton, Vitringa, William Whiston, and John Wycliffe.7 See Ice for a summary of historicist interpretation of Revelation Rev. 6:1+-Rev. 19:1+ (that of Albert Barnes).8

One of the problems the historicist view encounters is that the events of the book of Revelation appear to be clustered within a relatively short time period (Rev. Rev. 11:2-3+; Rev. 12:6+, Rev. 12:14+; Rev. 13:5+). In order to apply this period to history from the time of John to that of the interpreter, the 1260 days of the time period are understood as “prophetic days” and interpreted as years

The principal difficulty in the way was to dispose of the predictions which limited the final stage of Antichrist’s career to forty-two months, or twelve hundred sixty days. This was accomplished by what is known as the “year-day” theory, which regards each of the 1260 days as “prophetic days,” that is, as 1260 years, and thus sufficient room was afforded to allow for the protracted history of Roman Catholicism.9

A variation on this approach was to use the 2,300 days of Daniel Dan. 8:14 to arrive at yet a longer period of time.10

One of the primary motives behind the full development of historicism was a desire to interpret the book of Revelation as an anti-Roman Catholic polemic where the Beast was seen as denoting the pope and the papacy. This suited the needs of the enemies of the “Babylonish” papacy, especially during the Reformation. Rev. 13:1+. Thiessen lists Wycliffe, Luther, Joseph Mede, Sir Isaac Newton, William Whiston, Elliott, Vitringa, Bengel, and Barnes as adherents of this approach.”11 Pink sees historicism and its anti-pope focus as being a key contributor to the rise of postmillennialism

The dominant view which has been held by Protestants since the time of the Reformation is that the many predictions relating to the Antichrist describe, instead, the rise, progress, and doom of the papacy. This mistake has led to others, and given rise to the scheme of prophetic interpretation which has prevailed throughout Christendom. When the predictions concerning the Man of Sin were allegorized, consistency required that all associated and collateral predictions should also be allegorized, and especially those which relate to his doom, and the kingdom which is to be established on the overthrow of his power. When the period of his predicted course was made to measure the whole duration of the papal system, it naturally followed that the predictions of the associated events should be applied to the history of Europe from the time that the Bishop of Rome became recognized as the head of the Western Churches. It was, really, this mistake of Luther and his contemporaries in applying to Rome the prophecies concerning the Antichrist which is responsible, we believe, for the whole modern system of post-millennialism.12

Historicism suffers with idealism in the variety of interpretations which arise from its proponents

Elliott, in his Horae Apocalypticae , holds that the trumpets (Rev. Rev. 8:6+-Rev. 9:21+) cover the period from A.D. 395 to A.D. 1453, beginning with the attacks on the Western Roman empire by the Goths and concluding with the fall of the Eastern empire to the Turks. The first trumpet was the invasion of the Goths under Alaric, who sacked Rome; the second was the invasion under Genseric, who conquered North Africa; the third was the raid of the Huns under Attila, who devastated central Europe. The fourth was the collapse of the empire under the conquest of Odoacer. The locusts of the fifth trumpet were the Moslem hordes that poured into the west between the sixth and eighth centuries, and the sixth judgment of the four angels bound at the Euphrates (Rev. Rev. 9:14+) was the growth and spread of the Turkish power.13

This has led to endless speculation that is totally without biblical support. Identifications have included monks and friars as “locusts,” Muhammad as the “fallen star,” Alaric the Goth as the first trumpet, Elizabeth I as the first bowl, Martin Luther as the angel of Sardis, Adolf Hitler as the red horse.14

The key problem for historicism is the need to constrain the events of the book of Revelation into the historic mold brought to the text by the interpreter. Since different interpreters give priority and attention to different historical events or geographical regions, the results predictably vary. Moreover, when the chain of events of the book mismatch those of the historic period, there is the need to leave literal interpretation for the flexibility of spiritual interpretation. Thus, an inconsistent interpretive approach results.15 John Hendrik de Vries decries the historical method of interpretation: “It turns exegesis into an artful play of ingenuity.”16

Historicism is not very popular today. This is partly because of its consistent failure to account for the actual events of history to our own time.17 The variation in results obtained by proponents has also been so great that it tends to invalidate the approach.18 Osborne lists a number of weaknesses of the system, including: (1) an identification only with Western Church history; (2) the inherent speculation involved in the parallels with world history;19 (3) the fact that it must be reworked with each new period of world history.20

The historicist position, . . . suffers from the inability of interpreters of this school to establish a specific verifiable criterion of judgment whereby positive identification for the fulfillment of specific prophecies can be proved to be historically fulfilled by specific events in world history, in historical instances of fulfillment to which most of the interpreters of this school could agree. The method requires the student of Revelation to go outside the Bible and seek for the fulfillment of predictions in the past events of world history, and to one not well taught in history the method is impossible to carry out, leaving the book of Revelation largely closed to the ordinary reader.21

The historical interpreters differ so much among themselves that we may well ask, Which one of them are we to believe? It is this very diversity which has caused so many earnest students to put the Apocalypse aside in despair.22

Modern advocates of historicism include the Seventh-Day Adventists and the followers of the late David Koresh of Waco, Texas.23


1 One of the problems with this approach is that as Jesus delays in His coming, the “present” is constantly changing requiring a re-analysis of the “fit” between the events given by John and the span of history.

2 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 46.

3 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 19.

4 Mal Couch, Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications), 258.

5 Osborne, Revelation, 18.

6 Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 329.

7 “This [view] was held by Martin Luther, Isaac Newton, Elliott, and others.”—Mal Couch, “Interpreting the Book of Revelation,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 47. “This method of interpreting the book of Revelation achieved considerable stature in the Reformation because of its identification of the pope and the papacy with the beasts of Revelation Rev. 13:1+. Thiessen lists Wycliffe, Luther, Joseph Mede, Sir Isaac Newton, William Whiston, Elliott, Vitringa, Bengel, and Barnes as adherents of this approach.”—John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1966), 18.

8 Thomas Ice, “What Is Preterism?,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 19.

9 Arthur Walkington Pink, The Antichrist (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1999, 1923), s.v. “intro.”

10 “This spiritualistic approach is built upon the day/year theory, whereby 1260 days (literally 3 1/2 years) mentioned in Daniel and Revelation cover the time (1260 years) of the domination of Antichrist over the church. Another variation is to apply the day/year theory to the 2,300 days of Daniel Dan. 8:14. Thus, the historicist attempts to figure out when Antichrist came to power (i.e., the Roman Church and the papacy) by adding 1,260 or 2,300 years to arrive at the time of the second coming and the defeat of Antichrist.”—Ice, “What Is Preterism?,” 18.

11 Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 18.

12 Pink, The Antichrist, s.v. “intro.”

13 Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1957), 138.

14 Edward Hindson, Revelation: Unlocking the Future (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2002), 14.

15 “The historicist is constantly confronted with the dilemma of a far-fetched spiritualization in order to maintain the chain of historical events, or else if he makes the events literal in accordance with the language of the text he is compelled to acknowledge that no comparable events in history have happened.”—Tenney, Interpreting Revelation, 138.

16 Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 19-20.

17 “The deterrent to a strictly dated interpretation of Revelation is the failure of all such schemes that have hitherto been proposed. No matter how the figures and intervals in it have been pressed and twisted to yield results, no clear parallel to the current era has yet been devised.”—Tenney, Interpreting Revelation, 135.

18 “Proponents of this view living at different periods of church history cannot agree with one another, since they limit the meaning of the symbols only to specific historical referents contemporary with their own times.”—Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 46.

19 Preterism suffers from this same weakness, although in a more restricted historic time-frame.

20 Osborne, Revelation, 19.

21 Jerome Smith, The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), Rev. 4:1.

22 E. W. Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1984, 1935), Rev. 8:7.

23 “Those who followed events surrounding David Koresh in Waco, Texas, may be interested to know that he, along with [Seventh-Day] Adventists, are among the few historicists of contemporary times. This view was popular from the time of the Reformation to the beginning of the twentieth century, and has diminished since.”—Ice, “What Is Preterism?,” 18.