There are three leading systems of prophetic interpretation current in the religious world. Each of these systems has many eminent advocates, and each group, of course, thinks its own system to be the only correct one. These three systems as chronologically developed may be listed as follows:
1. The Critical System, also called the preterist system, or the system of Porphyry. This is so named because Porphyry was a Neoplatonist who lived from about 233 to 304 A.D., and who, the Encyclopedia Britannica (nth edition) tells us, "is well known as a violent opponent of Christianity and defender of paganism." The modern critics do not hesitate to be classed with Porphyry in his theories about Daniel and his prophecies, for they repeatedly and openly declare that Porphyry was right in saying that Daniel's visions were only history in the guise of prophecy.
2. The Protestant System, also called the historical system. This is the view that the visions of Daniel, for example, have been genuine revelations of future history; that the fourth empire of Daniel 2 and 7 must be Rome in both its pagan and papal aspects; and that the New Testament endorsement of the prophet Daniel—such as the repeated references to his book by Christ, Paul, and John the revelator—must be given due consideration in any interpretation which we seek to place on his visions.
3. The Futurist System, or the Catholic system, and sometimes called the gap or postponement theory. It is linked with Catholicism because it was first—so far as modern times are concerned—suggested by the distinguished Jesuit scholar Ribera, about 1585 A.D., and later was eagerly adopted by E. B. Pusey, J. H. Newman, and others of the Tractarian or High Church party in England. Someone has well remarked that this futurist system of prophetic interpretation tends to remove the brand which the Holy Spirit has placed upon the Papacy in the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation. C. H. H. Wright explains that in England the modern vogue of this theory among Protestants is due to the "Plymouth Brethren," while in America it has been spread by means of the Scofield Bible and through the many Bible Institutes and Fundamentalist journals.
This system denies that the papal church is the persecuting power spoken of in Daniel's visions, or that it is the identical power mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12, or that it is the leopard beast of Revelation 12, or other symbols in similar prophecies. All these symbols which the Protestant system would apply to the papal power, the futurists apply to an individual or personal antichrist who is yet to come. Some of them go so far as to say that there are absolutely no prophecies in either the Old Testament or the New which deal with events during the Christian dispensation. They break off at the death of Christ all the great lines of prophecy which run down to the cross, including the famous seventy weeks of Daniel 9:24-27, and postpone all the remainders of these lines over to the end of the present dispensation, thus making all the major part of the book of Revelation apply only to the still distant future—or the impending future, if one believes that the second coming is near at hand. This residue of the prophecies is all crowded into the brief period of time just before the one-thousand-year span, which is usually termed the millennium, and the brief period thereafter. But if there are no prophetic waymarks during the Christian dispensation, it would surely seem most difficult to tell whether we are nearing the second coming of Christ or not.
In attempting to evaluate the merits of such widely conflicting views, it may be well to get back to first principles, and to look at some of the fundamental assumptions at the foundation of these three systems; for such basic assumptions may enlighten us regarding what to expect from these systems of interpretation themselves.
1. Preterism Denies Prediction
It is not difficult to recognize in the critical or preterist system an assumption that God does not speak to one generation and reveal through predictive prophecy any far-distant events for the instruction and warning of those who are to live at these later times. The critics profess to believe that God did give messages through the prophets for their contemporaries. Thus there might be "inspired" instructions for the Jews who were going through the persecutions under Antiochus Epiphanes, but no message for the future generations two thousand years later.
But this is sheer deism. For unless we say that the human race is to continue on interminably into the future in its present welter of sin and suffering, we must face the implied fact that a catastrophic end of the age of some sort is impending; and of this catastrophic change or terminus of the present order of human events the prophecies seem to be full and unambiguous. Hence it is unreasonable for any to say that God did speak to the contemporary peoples of the times of the Maccabees, but He has no prophetic message for us today. Moreover, if a message were given now regarding the times immediately ahead, it would not be believed, unless accredited with amazing signs and wonders. A prophetic message which has come down to us from remote antiquity is authenticated by the very best possible credentials, if its earlier portions are attested by many historic fulfillments all along the line. We can thus acquire confidence in the small part which still remains unfulfilled.
2. Historical View Is Sound
The Protestant or historical system assumes that Daniel's visions were given by God, not so much for the people of Daniel's times, but chiefly for the people living at the time of the end. 1 Peter 1:10-12; Dan. 8:17, 26; 12:9. But it also assumes that the symbolism of the visions was designed for us to understand, when studied in the light of the best grammatico-literary analysis, bearing in mind that they are to be understood according to their obvious intent, as a particular type of poetical figure, transcendent and world embracing generally, but with keys to the symbolism already provided somewhere in the Bible by God Himself. Mystical and allegorical interpretations are quite out of place. Nor will it ever do for us to complain that they do not fit the historical events to which we have applied them. When we discover their true meaning and apply them correctly, we shall have no occasion to apologize for any supposed lack of appropriateness or completeness. And the application must hold not for a few points only, but for all the points involved.
Some scholars have spoken of an apotelesmatic accomplishment of the prophecy, by which is meant that a partial or preliminary fulfillment may take place in one age, then long afterward a much more complete fulfillment. For instance, Christ's prophecy in the "little apocalypse" of Matthew 24 seems to apply initially to the destruction of Jerusalem under Titus, while its full and final accomplishment will be seen in the destruction of the nations of the world at the second coming. In fact, many prophecies in the Old Testament seem to have been partly accomplished in events which took place near the times of the prophets, but will be completely fulfilled on a vaster scale and with more minute accuracy in the events associated with the end of the age.
This is because the prophecies deal withi the general principles of God's management of world events, so that whenever similar conditions prevail, we might speak of the Prophecy as applying. Thus we might speak of a sort of double fulfillment according to the laws of analogy; for whenever a similar set of conditions occurs, the prophecy would seem to apply. The work of the little horn of Daniel 8 might be said to have been partly and very imperfectly fulfilled in the way in which Antiochus Epiphanes interfered with the sanctuary service of the Jews. Yet in many important particulars the work of Epiphanes does not accurately fit the prophecy, for a much. more complete and accurate fulfillment has taken place in the way in which the Papacy has oppressed God's people and has blasphemously perverted the provisions of God for His people.
And yet however we may think we see the work of Epiphanes in these and other predictions of Daniel, it is a sufficient answer to say that in the New Testament, the apostle Paul (2 Thess. 2:3, 4), John in the book of Revelation, and even Christ Himself, all take up these very same prophecies of Daniel and treat them as not having seen their accomplishment in New Testament times, but as applying to events still distant. Thus if we wish to speak of a double application of the prophecy, we must bear in mind that it is the final or the apotelesmatic meaning, which is the true meaning after all, when the prophecy is fulfilled on the largest scale and with the most complete and detailed accuracy.
3. Futurist View Condones Antichrist
It is not so easy to analyze the underlying assumptions of the futurist system. And of course a complete study of it is beyond the scope of the present discussion. This view is held by Roman Catholics, and also by the Anglicans of England and elsewhere, who boast of being Catholics but differ from the Romanists in denying the headship of St. Peter. They can thus avoid the conclusion that the Roman system is the great antichrist of Daniel and the Revelation, as well as the "man of sin" spoken of by Paul. But it is, not so easy to see why so many evangelical Protestants hold to the futurist system.
In the early, centuries of the Christian Era, many of the church fathers pointed out that a devastating antichrist was still to come_ They even prayed that the Roman Empire might be prolonged, for they were assured that when Imperial Rome should cease, the succeeding antichrist would be even worse, since Paul had spoken of a power which was then restraining or holding back the appearing of the still worse antichrist. 2 Thess. 2:6, 7. This way of looking for a future antichrist might almost be regarded as a habit which a compromising church acquired, and which has persisted down to our day, despite history's witness that the antichrist long ago appeared.
But perhaps the real raison d'etre for the futurist view in our day is to be found in the fact that a logical and consistent application of the historical system seems to lead inevitably to the conclusion that a reform message on the Sabbath and the observance of the commandments of God must go to the world just before the second coming of Christ (Rev. 14:6-12) ; and that a judgment work must be regarded as going on in heaven just previous to the second advent (Dan. 8:14; 7:9-11, 22). Both of these doctrines, with others involved in the historic system, are rejected by futurists on other grounds; and the doctrine of a future antichrist has been worked out in great detail in a way that seems to its advocates to be self-consistent and conclusive.
Because of the wide vogue of Modernism and the profound apathy toward all predictive prophecy thus resulting, the futurists and the Adventists (with their historical application) seem to be about the only people still maintaining any genuine interest in the visions of Daniel and the Revelation. The historical system interprets the symbols of these two books as meaning, for instance, kingdoms instead of individual kings, and great systems of false religion (like Romanism and apostate Protestantism) instead of literal men or supermen, as alleged by the futurists. The futurists boast of their "literal" application of the prophecies. With them, "Babylon" must mean the literal city on the banks of the Euphrates; "Jerusalem" and "Israel" must always mean exactly what they meant two or three thousand years ago ; "the man of sin" (2 Thess. 2:3) cannot mean a false system of religion with the devil behind it, but must mean a literal man or superman, who is yet to appear and to do the things spoken of by Paul. Such is the fundamental fallacy of futurism, matching the basic error of preterism.