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RESEARCH: Prophetic Interpretation and Historical Authorities

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Archives / 1951 / October



RESEARCH: Prophetic Interpretation and Historical Authorities

Merwin R. Thurber

Book Editor, Review and Herald


The student of Bible prophecy, though he may be an expert in theology and in interpretation of prophetic symbols, is under the necessity of depending on experts in history in his application of the prophecies. This does not mean that he should be ignorant of the story of mankind. He should be well informed. The reading of history is a must for the prophetic interpreter. But simple reading is not enough. He must develop judgment in evaluating authorities, that he may not be misled by wrong interpretations of history. The Christian view of history is conditioned by three fundamental facts there is a God in heaven who created the universe and who rules and over rules in the affairs of men and nations; there is a divine revelation in the Bible, and there is a divine standard of right and wrong. The acceptance of these premises will lead the careful student to view with suspicion many things he finds on the pages of history books. Suspicion of the right kind is a proper safeguard, but it should not always be directed to others. We may with profit suspect ourselves of not being quite perfect and of occasionally being mistaken.

Because of human weaknesses it is best for the student of prophecy and history to set up for himself certain rules to guide him in selecting evidence and arriving at conclusions. What historians may he quote to prove prophetic fulfillment? What personal biases of authors must he guard against? What constitutes a man a good historical authority?

The following suggestions are not an attempt to cover the subject exhaustively. The reader will doubtless be able to add to the list without difficulty.

Guiding Principles

An authority cited to prove a point in history should be a historian not a prophetic interpreter. This rather self-evident truth is sometimes overlooked. The historian should not be among our "fellow servants the prophets," to borrow a Biblical phrase. The testimony of such writers, valuable as it is, is not to be con fused with historical proof. Hence the student must not rely on Bishop Newton or any writer of Bible commentaries for some historical fact. Less evident, perhaps, is the lack of historical authority behind such a man as Humphrey Prideaux. He should be classed with the prophetic interpreters. Prideaux is an older writer not so familiar to this generation. He was much quoted by our early writers, and not without profit. But he should be used for what he is.

It would seem best that as far as possible the authors cited in our presentations should be authorities in the points to be proved. This is only an extension of the first principle mentioned, but it has different applications. A good illustration of this point is an oft-quoted statement from the North British Review in which Sunday is called "the wild solar holiday of all pagan time." A reading of the article from which this statement is taken reveals that our extract is, like an obiter dictum in a court decision, merely an aside, a chance remark which is not on the subject of the article, and that there is no supporting evidence offered. It is true that the author is appealing for more care ful Sunday observance, and is therefore an advocate of Sunday sacredness. An admission from him that Sunday is a pagan holiday is worth something. The reader of his article cannot help wondering whether he isn't something of a pagan himself, for he philosophizes over the mystic significance of numbers, and makes it plain that he is a believer in evolution. But as evidence, his generalization regarding pagan Sunday is woefully lacking in authority, as any student of history will testify who has attempted to substantiate such a thesis.

Good authorities have maintained over and over that the early Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans knew nothing in their calendars of a seven-day week. It is even a question whether the early Babylonians had a free-running week. R. L. Odom, in his book Sunday in Roman Paganism, has ably demonstrated that the earliest records of a planetary week in the Roman world occur in the first century before Christ. That leaves the "all pagan time" of our extract covering too much territory. It is possible that some statement in the writings of Mrs. E. G. White may lead us to believe that Sunday observance was more widespread than the available records seem to indicate. But if we wish to present such truths to the public, we still are under the necessity of finding the historical proof for them. Mrs. White's own statement in The Great Controversy about the introduction of Sunday observance is entirely in keeping with the facts of history as we understand them today.

As a third principle, the Bible student would do well to insist that all his historical authorities be reasonably free from bias, at least on the points to be proved. Bias is much more common in writers of history than we are wont to imagine. For instance, it seems practically impossible for either a Catholic or a Protestant writer to recount the history of the church and its dealings with the nations without reflecting his religious background. And no non-Christian could write a competent church history. This is not to say that the facts of history may not be descried through the haze of conflicting interpretations, but it should put a student on his guard.

But even with all the problems involved, it will not suffice for the Adventist student to quote some obviously biased historian like Dowling when he wishes to prove something in regard to the Catholic Church. This is not to say the historian is not telling the truth. It is just a problem of finding a good authority to use in controversy. When a Christian debates with a Mohammedan and each points to his own holy book as proof for his contentions, no progress can be made. It is necessary to find common ground.

Interpretation as Well as Facts

It will help our thinking if we remember that history is not merely the recounting of the facts but an interpretation as well. The Bible student also, in combining history and prophecy for interpretative purposes, must interpret history as well as prophecy. Thus it is possible to accept the facts brought to light by the historian while rejecting his interpretation of the facts. For the facts of history studied in the light of divine revelation may, and usually will, support a different interpretation from that put upon them by the average historian. This will explain why it is so often difficult to find in the history books of the world just the statements that will enhance a sound interpretation of prophecy.

A good illustration of this is the position of the Papacy in 538. The 1260 years of papal supremacy are not clearly set forth by all historians. There are a few who give very definite support to our views, but not many. It is necessary, then, for the Bible student to gather the facts as set forth in historical records and interpret history in the light of Bible prophecy. There is nothing inconsistent in this, nor any compromising of intellectual honesty, for the student is frankly acting as an interpreter and not as a historian in this case. His interpretation of history may and should be just as sound and convincing to his hearers or readers as if he were a historian and not a Bible expositor.


Of just what biases should a student beware as he approaches history? Two have already been mentioned the bias of a Catholic endeavoring to put his church in the best possible light in every historical situation, and the bias of a Protestant endeavoring to blame all the disasters of the past on the Catholic Church. One other easily comes to mind the bias of the agnostic Gibbon, who seems to want to blame Christianity for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. As to national prejudices, one could mention the differences that would be apparent in two histories of the first world war one by a German and the other by an American.

Fortunately, there is for the Bible student no insurmountable obstacle in the facts and principles that have been discussed here. With the materials they were able to find in histories of the world our spiritual ancestors were able to build the structure of truth we occupy today. The only deficiency of their descendants may lie in accepting the tower of truth without sufficiently acquainting themselves with the foundations. The writings of historians usually accepted by the world at large may be used by Bible expositors, but they should be used for what they are. Where it is necessary to quote a biased writer for a fact, it is often possible to secure another authority biased in the opposite direction to support the same fact. In the case of the Catholic-Protestant conflict, in which we are obviously parties to the struggle, it is often possible to secure admissions from Catholic writers themselves which substantiate all we need to prove. The damaging admissions of an opponent are always good proofs in an argument. Biased authorities serve another useful purpose in providing clues to the sources. If a student suspects that the historian is misinterpreting the facts, or perhaps misjudging them, he may go to the sources himself. This may involve securing help in translating an unfamiliar language, but the effort may turn out to be eminently worthwhile.



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