There are many Christians that don’t know there are really three major “prophetic schools” of interpretation now in conflict; preterism, historicism, and futurism. Each of these schools view the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation differently. This Prophetic Perspectives series will simplify and clarify the issues.
One of the most well respected Bible Commentators in the history of Christianity was England’s well beloved, E.B. Elliott. In 1862, the 5th edition of his classic four volume Horae Apocalypticae - A Commentary on the Apocalypse, was published in London. The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, in his Comments on the Commentaries, considered Elliott’s work “the standard.”
Volume 4 contains a well written, thorough, and extremely valuable overview of every major apocalyptic commentator in the history of Christianity, from the days of John to the mid 1800’s, called History of Apocalyptic Interpretation. As a result of his vast research and tremendous historical perspective, E.B. Elliott clearly reveals the three major contending schools of prophetic interpretation.
“For, in conclusion, the readers of this Historic Sketch will see that there are but three grand Schemes of Apocalyptic Interpretation that can be considered as standing up face to face against each other... The 1st is that of the preterists; respecting the subject of prophecy, except in its two or three last chapters [of Revelation], to the catastrophes of the Jewish nation and old Roman Empire ... which Scheme, originally propounded, as we saw, by the Jesuit Alcasar, and then adopted by Grotius ... by Professor Moses Stuart in the United States of America, and by disciples in the German School in England ...”
“The 2nd is the futurist Scheme; making the whole of the Apocalyptic Prophecy, (excepting perhaps the primary Vision and Letters to the Seven Churches,) to relate to things now future, viz. the things concerning Christ’s second Advent: a Scheme first set forth, [as] we saw, by the Jesuit [Francisco] Ribera, at the end of the 16th century; and which in its main principle has been urged alike by Dr. S.R. Maitland, Mr. Burgh, the Oxford Tractator on Antichrist, and others, in our own times and era, not without considerable success ...”
“The 3rd is what we may call emphatically the Protestant continuous Historic Scheme of Interpretation; that which regards the Apocalypse as a prefiguration in detail of the chief events affecting the Church and Christendom, whether secular or ecclesiastical, from St. John’s time to the consummation: - a Scheme which, in regard of its particular application of the symbols of Babylon and the Beast to Papal Rome and Popedom, was early embraced, as we saw, by the Waldenses, Wickliffites, and Hussites; then adopted with fuller light by the chief [Protestant] reformers, German, Swiss, French and English, of the 16th century; and transmitted downwards uninterruptedly, even to the present time.”
It is the last of which [the Protestant historicist School] which I embrace for my own part with a full and ever strengthening conviction of its truth.” Horae, Vol. 4, pps. 562, 563.
Thus E.B. Elliott identifies:
1) The preterist School which sees most of the prophecies being fulfilled in the past in the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and the pagan Roman Empire
2) The futurist School which sees most of the prophecies in Revelation - from chapter 4 onward - as applying to events yet future
3) The historicist School which sees the book of Revelation as largely predictive of actual events to occur throughout the history of Christianity from the time of John until the return of Jesus Christ.
The historicist School contained the viewpoint of almost all Protestant Reformers from the Reformation into the 19th century. E.B. Elliott also shows clearly through historical research that both the preterist and futurist schools were definitely put forth by Jesuit scholars in their earnest attempts to divert the unanimous Protestant application of Daniel’s “little horn” prophecy and Revelation’s “beast” prediction to the rise and work of Papal Rome.
The chart illustrates the three schools of prophetic interpretation regarding antichrist. Francisco Ribera (1537-1591), a Jesuit priest and doctor of theology puts the antichrist into a future 3.5 literal years while Jesuit Luis De Alcazar's (1554-1613) preterism identifies the antichrist as Nero. Both of them put antichrist outside of the Middle Ages and the Protestant reformation period identified by Protestant historicists as antichrist's reign of 1260 prophetic years.
Highlights of Historicism
In Volume 4 of his massive Horae Apocalpticae (literally - Hours with the Apocalypse), in an incredibly valuable section called, History of Apocalyptic Interpretation, E.B. Elliott traces the teachings of every major Christian author who wrote significant commentaries on the book of Revelation from the time of John down to the 1800’s - including Victorinus (1st century), Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus (3rd century), Origen, Methodius, Lactantius, Eusebius (4th century), Athanasius, Hilary, Jerome, Chrysostom, Augustine, Tichonius, Bede (8th century), Ambrose, Haymo, Andreas, Anselm (12th century), Joachim Abbas (12th century), Jean Pierre d’Olive, Martin Luther (16th century), Bullinger, Bale, John Foxe, Brightman (17th century), Pareus, Franisco Ribera, Alcasar, Mede, Jurieu, Dr. Cressener, Bossuet, Vitringa (18th century), Daubuz, Sir Isaac Newton (18th century), Lacunza, and Gulloway (19th century). His overview is truly enlightening and worth the price of the 4 Volume set.
E.B. Elliott defines historicism as “that view which regards the prophecy [of Revelation] as a prefiguration of the great events that were to happen in the church, and the world connected with it, from St. John’s time to the consummation; including specially the establishment of Popedom, and reign of Papal Rome, as in some way or other the fulfilment of the types of the Apocalyptic Beast and Babylon” (Horae, Vol. 4, p. 564).
Although there were differences of opinion, the following teachings reflect the continuous historicist approach to interpreting God’s Word:
The 7 Churches (Revelation 2, 3):
These reflect successive phases of Christianity from the time of John to the consummation.
The 7 Seals (Revelation 5, 6):
These also reflect successive phases of Christianity from the time of John to the return of Jesus Christ. For instance Ambrose, Bishop of Havilburg, wrote in approximately 1145 AD, “The white horse typifies the earliest state of the church, white with the luster of miraculous gifts: the rider Christ, with the bow of evangelical doctrine ... The red horse is the next state of the church, red with the blood of martyrdom; from Stephen the proto-martyr to the martyrs under Diocletian ... The black horse depicts the Church’s third state, blackened after Constantine’s time with heresies ... The pale horse signified the Church’s fourth state, coloured with the hue of hypocrisy ... This state he makes to have commenced from the beginning of the fifth century ...” (Horae, Vol. 3, p. 383). This historicist view of the Seals was “the usual” view of most expositors down through the ages (p. 348).
The 7 Trumpets (Revelation 8, 9):
Daubuz, Mede, and Jurieu, along with almost all Reformation Protestants, saw Trumpets 1-6 as depicting “the desolations and fall, first of the Western empire, then the Eastern” (p. 514). Mr. Gulloway’s (1802) “Brief Commentaries...”, in harmony with other Protestants, viewed “the first four [trumpets] depicting that of the Gothic invasions of the West; the 5th and 6th, or two first woe- trumpets, those of the Saracens and Turks in the East” (p. 544). Mr. Bicheno (1793) also saw the “5th and 6th trumpets ... like most other Protestant interpreters, of the Saracens and Turks” (p. 546). (For more information about applying the 5th and 6th trumpets to Islam, read the article, The Army of Locusts, on this web site under Islam in Prophecy).
The Two Witnesses (Revelation 11):
Tichonius (4th century) saw “the sackcloth-robed witnesses as either the two Testaments, or the light-giving Church fed by the oil of those two Testaments” (p. 332). Most Protestants saw the two witnesses as faithful Christians throughout the Dark Ages who opposed the Papal Supremacy, while Mr. Gulloway also interprets them “to symbolize the Old and New Testaments” (ibid. p. 544), as did martyrologist John Foxe (p. 470). Sir Isaac Newton wrote of “the bitter times of the [Papal] Beast’s 1260 years, and the Witnesses’ prophesying in sackcloth” (ibid. p. 520). Vitringa (18th century) discerned “the Witnesses prophesying in sackcloth ... “ with a bold “antipapal testimony from Peter Valdes to the Reformation” (p. 509).
The Child-bearing Woman (Revelation 12):
In harmony with many others, John Foxe interpreted “the Woman travailing” as “God’s true Church” (p. 464). After the birth and ascension of Christ to the throne of God (Revelation 12:2-5), the Dragon turned its wrath upon the Church of Jesus Christ, which having fled into “the wilderness,” was nourished during the 1260 days [years] of Papal apostasy and persecution.
The Leopard like Beast (Revelation 13):
Dr. Cressener’s (1690) “Demonstration of the First Principles of the Protestant Application of the Apocalypse ... well answers to its title. Its one grand subject is the Apocalyptic Beast of Apoc. XIII and XVII ... And in a series of connected propositions he incontrovertibly establishes, against Alcasar and Bellarmine, that the Apocalyptic Babylon is not Rome Pagan ... nor Rome paganized at the end of the world, as Ribera and Malvenda would have it to be; but Rome Papal, as existing from the 6th century” (p. 500). “Vitringa” also, in harmony with the vast majority of Protestant scholars, “interprets it of Papal Rome” (p. 511). “In Apoc. XII and XIII. Sir Isaac Newton generally agrees with Mede ... Apoc. XIII [is] the Latin Papal Empire...” (p. 519).
Thus it is clear from the facts of history that Protestant scholars and others have for centuries understood the great prophecies of the book of Revelation not as applying solely to the first century (the preterist view), nor to some imaginary future time period after a supposed secret Rapture (the futurist view), but as being successively fulfilled throughout the history of Christianity.
Jesus Christ said in Revelation 13:9, “If any man have an ear, let him hear.”
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