Applying the Apocalyptic

How do we make sense of apocalyptic literature in light of the many prophetic interpretations being expressed today?

By the staff of Ministry

"WHAT'S GOING ON? Why can't you ministers agree? It's awfully frustrating to laymen like myself when one minister explains a prophecy one way, and another in a completely different way. Isn't there some way you fellows can get together so that we can have a clear idea of what Bible prophecy is teaching?"

We cannot but sympathize with this kind of frustrated explosion, especially in the light of the many prophetic interpretations being expressed from the pulpit and in the religious press today. It's no wonder that many who find it difficult, if not impossible, to wade through Daniel and Revelation are thoroughly confused by the variety of viewpoints currently being circulated.

On the other hand, aren't the prophecies given for a purpose: Aren't they part of the "all Scripture" that "is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living" (2 Tim. 3:16, T.E.V.)?*

It is only to be expected that owing to the wide diversity of theological orientation, background, and approach to the Scriptures, there will be differences in position held in good faith by honest men. Therefore, just because we differ in interpretation from someone else we should not impugn his integrity as a Bible scholar. All honest scholars are striving in their study of prophecy to discover not only what the writer had in mind but what the Holy Spirit is saying to us through him.

Not only was the prophet the "forthteller," God's spokesman to his age, but many of those having this gift received an unnatural and humanly inexplicable ability—that of seeing into and predicting the future. There is no problem in understanding this if we recognize that God's omniscience includes His knowledge of what is going to take place in the future. Evidence that He does is found in such passages as Isaiah 42:9; 46:9, 10; 48:3-6 and Daniel 2:28. It is only divine guidance that can explain how prophets could write about events that would be fulfilled in time periods far removed from their day.

Principles of Interpretation

Among Adventist scholars of prophecy, L. E. Froom looms large as the result of his masterful four-volume set entitled The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers. Most of the historical development of prophetic understanding out lined in this article is based on his work. Froom traces the interpretation of the Bible's two apocalyptic books, Daniel and Revelation, from the pre-Christian period down to our time. 1 He takes the position that the historic mainstream of interpretation revolves around three unique characteristics:

1. Both Daniel and Revelation contain several series of often-parallel out line prophecies that unfold an unbroken sequence of events leading up to the establishment of the eternal kingdom of God.

2. The focus of these outline prophecies is the perennial conflict between the nations and God's people, between the Antichrist and Christ.

3. Each distinct series reveals a repetition and further enlargement of certain parts of a previous series, always focusing on redemptive history, specifically on the final conflict of good and evil.

Referring to these characteristics, Hans K. LaRondelle points out that they "set the stage for some principles of end-time prophetic interpretation," and adds that on the basis of law and order ruling "in the realm of Biblical apocalyptic, Christ being the bright center of all covenant promises," there are certain guiding hermeneutical principles for apocalyptic interpretation. 2 Adapting his suggestions, we arrive at the following list of principles:

1. In and through Jesus Christ both the Old Testament and New Testament apocalyptic are to be viewed as a general spiritual unity.

2. It is important to determine, when the data permits, where each prophetic outline series passes the time of the cross of Christ, since Old Testament terminology and imagery from that point on should receive a Christological interpretation.

3. Old Testament apocalyptic prophecies that have remained unfulfilled, generally because of Israel's failure to meet God's conditions, will, according to the New Testament, find their fulfillment in the faithful remnant people of Jesus Christ.

4. When interpreting the New Testament apocalyptic we must first consider the historical and theological Old Testament context, yet recognize the weight of the wider context of both Testaments.

5. Although the same prophetic symbol may most often carry the same basic meaning, the specific application of each symbol is to be determined by its own immediate context.

6. Since the book of Revelation refers more than 490 times to the Old Testament, we should seek to discover how the redemptive history and message of each book finds its culmination in the Apocalypse.

LaRondelle goes on to suggest a multiplex approach that includes a recognition of the typological structure, the promise-fulfillment idea, and the salvation-historical perspective found in the books of Daniel and Revelation. In viewing Revelation as the advanced unfolding and Christological interpretation of Daniel, he maintains the theological unity of the Old and New Testament apocalyptic that uplifts Christ as the divine and faithful Saviour of Israel. 3

Understanding Daniel

With this framework in mind, we see that the book of Daniel itself clarifies the basic meaning and application of the prophetic symbols introduced. In chapter 2, Daniel plainly identifies the successive deterioration of metals in the great statue as applying to Babylon and the three empires that will follow. These in turn are succeeded by a period of division, and culminate in the establishment of the kingdom of God, which stands forever. In Daniel 7 the succession of empires is described again, with more detail added, especially those that concern the fourth power and the final judgment, at which time Christ's ever lasting kingdom will come into being.

Chapter 8 enlarges the description, specifying the second and third in the series of empires as Medo-Persia and Greece and giving us a description of the fourth power, which seems to point clearly to Rome. More detail is added in chapter 11, along with the clue that after the breakup and division of the Greek Empire there will be a period of contention between powers to the north and the south of Palestine (obviously Syria and Egypt) until such time as the "robbers of thy people" come on the stage of action. During the period of control of the holy land by this power the "prince of the covenant" shall be broken (chap. 11:22). Again, these details point quite clearly to Rome as being the fourth empire involved. Finally, according to chapter 12, Michael stands up at the end of time, and God's people will be delivered as Christ's ever lasting kingdom is established.

The succession of historic prophetic interpreters of Daniel begins with Jaddua, the Jewish high priest about 332 B.C., who is presumed to have understood from his study of Daniel that Persia was about to be overthrown by Greece. Jaddua is said to have fascinated Alexander the Great by showing him this prophecy, thus gaining Alexander's favor shortly before he won the decisive battle at Arbela. 4 The Talmud and Targum, Irenaeus, Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, Wycliffe, Luther, Latimer, Newton, Matthew Henry, Adam Clarke, Alexander Campbell, and Henry Dana Ward are among those authorities that take the position that Daniel's succession of empires included Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

There is less unanimity in regard to the prophetic time periods in Daniel as far as specific applications are concerned, although there is a general recognition of the principle that a day of prophetic time represents a year. This year-day principle was widely accepted by the time of the Reformation. For in stance, Sir Isaac Newton applied the three and one-half times (or three and one-half prophetic years of 360 days each) of Daniel 7 to a 1260-year period, the 2300 days of Daniel 8 as 2300 years, and the 70 weeks of Daniel 9 as a period of 490 years (70 weeks x 7 days = 490 day-years) extending from 457 B.C. to A.D. 34.5 Tillinghast, in 1654, saw that there was a definite connection between the 70 weeks of Daniel 9 and the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14. 6

Granted that the historical weight given these interpretations is not in itself conclusive; it is, nevertheless, impressive. There seems to be a progressive development in understanding and interpreting prophecy that through the centuries has built on the historical mainstream of interpretation. Our position is that the burden of proof rests on those who deviate from this mainstream rather than on those who agree with it.

As is obviously true of the past, there are some prophecies that yet remain to be fulfilled. Differences of opinion and various speculations naturally surround such unfulfilled prophecy. It is the conviction of the writers that prophecy is given not so much that we may be able to predict accurately the future, but rather;to enable us to understand what is happening when the predicted events take place. Nevertheless, there are certain clear and well-attested future events, such as those surrounding the second advent of Christ, that can be and have been understood by the main stream of prophetic scholars and that give us solid and specific "hitching posts" on which to tie our interpretation of what is yet to take place. On these we can give and are to "give the trumpet a certain sound" just as Jesus did in Mat thew 24 and 25 and Luke 21.

The student of prophecy has distinct advantages in understanding the last book in our canon, Revelation. One advantage is that so much of the symbolism and language reflects previous apocalyptic writings, as well as other Bible prophecies. The major disadvantage is that, since it is one of the last Bible books produced, we do not have the guidance of a large body of later inspired interpreters to guide us in our understanding as we do with the book of Daniel.

Contrary to those who might feel that the book of Revelation is a complicated enigma, there is a special blessing pronounced on those who seek to under stand. "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand" (chap. 1:3). We can also be assured that the same Holy Spirit who guided in the production of the book (verse 10) will especially bless us in hearing and understanding "what the Spirit saith unto the churches" (chap. 2:11).

Fortunately, there are internal clues and applications made throughout the book that help clarify its meaning (see, for instance, chaps. 1:20; 7:13-17; 12:9, and 17:7-18).

Although there are a few flashbacks to the beginning of the great controversy between Christ and Satan, such as in chapter 12:7-9, the main thrust of the predictions in the book of Revelation is just that—a revelation or description of what will yet take place in the experience of the church and of the climax of history in earth's final day of judgment.

Many of the messages undoubtedly had local applications as far as the original recipients were concerned, but the majestic sweep and scope of its apocalyptic message obviously reaches far beyond local application. In it we find continuity—extending from John's day to the end of time; comprehensive ness—based on the framework of world events and the great controversy theme mentioned above; and "repetition going back and covering the same general out line seven times, through the line of the seven churches, then the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the two witnesses, the dragon, the beast, and the mystery woman on the scarlet beast: and finally comes the millennium and the New Jerusalem in the new earth forevermore." 7

"Tertullian (c. 240) pioneered the way, with his exposition of the woman of Revelation 12 as the church, the man child as Christ, the dragon as Rome, and the beast of Revelation 13 as the coming Antichrist. Then came Victorinus (c. 304) enunciating what was later to be come the key principle of repetition— that the trumpets, vials, and so on, re peat in time—covering the same period in successive sweeps to the end of the age." 8

There is a striking unanimity of be lief among the Reformation Protestant interpreters, hundreds strong, that "the Papacy is assuredly the predicted Anti christ, variantly called the Little Horn of Daniel 8, the Abomination of Desolation, the Man of Sin, the Beast, Babylon, and the Harlot of Old and New Testament prophecy." 9 It might also be noted in passing that they constantly emphasized the establishment of the kingdom of God at the time of, and as a con sequence of, the second coming of Christ.

Gap Theory

The Jesuit Counter Reformation writers who made their appearance at the close of the Reformation period introduced (Froom says "adroitly introduced") the conflicting Futurist and Preterist schemes of interpretation that began to challenge the uniform application made by Protestants. The Preterist school put most of the symbolic events introduced in Revelation completely in the past, and the Futurist school, "in a burst of speculative literalism," emphasized future fulfillment of such prophecies. This eventually resulted in a gap scheme in interpreting time prophecy that has created a wave of confusion.

In the post-Reformation period the understanding of the parallel character of the seven churches, seven seals, and seven trumpets grew in clarity, but three millennial views vied for acceptance— the Catholic Augustinian position that the millennium began at Christ's first advent, the premillennial view held by the majority of post-Reformation interpreters through the middle of the nineteenth century, and the new Whitbyan postmillennial view, which began to grow in popularity.

Seventh-day Adventist understanding has consistently followed the historical school of prophetic interpretation. This school of thought gradually lost out during the nineteenth century to the rationalistic theologians, who denied that there was any such thing as inspired prophecy. This has resulted in the increasingly complex and variant interpretations that persist today. Froom, how ever, documents what he terms "a singular continuity and persistence of premillennialism." 10 He cites the strong premillennial position taken by the interdenominational prophetic congress in the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City in 1878 and at the second international conference held in Chicago in 1886. Later prophetic conferences around the turn of the century, however, veered sharply away from this emphasis in the direction of futurist dispensationalism.

Seventh-day Adventists, coming out of the Advent Awakening at the turn of the nineteenth century that emphasized the nearness of the second coming of Christ and the beginning of the final judgment in the heavenly sanctuary, have kept to the strong premillennial position that marked our early development and understand the last section of the Apocalypse as fitting into the scheme outlined in the chart on page 8.

The development of the relationship of Christ's ministry in the heavenly sanctuary to the events connected with His second coming demand more thorough development than we can give it in the space allotted in this month's issue. We'll reserve this subject, therefore, for a later article.

We have attempted here to trace the broad scope of prophetic interpretation through its development in what has come to be called the historic school of interpretation and demonstrate that, for the most part, there has been a progressive and developing understanding of the basic expositions and a somewhat general agreement as to the significance of the major outlines of apocalyptic interpretation. The current confusion that admittedly now exists in this field may be alleviated to some extent, at least, by carefully studying and weighing the consensus that marked the works of so many of the great scholars and expositors of past centuries.

The charts associated with this article are an attempt to put in graphic form the historical consensus of prophecy as developed herein. We are aware that many of our readers will not agree with specific applications, but we hope that these will be helpful in understanding the broad sweep and scope of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. We invite you to save this article and these charts for future reference as we develop specific lines of prophecies in issues yet to come.

At first, the Revelation chart in particular may seem to be a confused mixture of history and symbolism, but careful study, based on the hermeneutical principles outlined at the beginning of this article, may help our readers sense the fact that God has revealed a consistent and unified body of truth in the apocalyptic books.

Remember that He wasn't writing only for twentieth-century Western minds, but for people of every age and every culture. The vivid symbols used are universal in their appeal and startling in their challenge to in-depth study. Evidence of this, we believe, is seen in the fact that, even in the Western world, we use symbols such as lions, bears, eagles, and dragons to represent nations, and in the United States our two major political parties are identified by the symbols of the elephant and the donkey.

If the charts developed for this presentation do nothing more than stimulate our readers to renewed interest in and study of the books of Daniel and Revelation we will consider that we have achieved our purpose. In light of current events, is it not time for there to be more thorough study of God's will and plan for this world as revealed in these majestic prophecies?

In studying these books, there may be room for interpretive divergence of opinion on minor details, but it is our conviction that when the historical system of prophetic interpretation is consistently applied the pieces of the prophetic puzzle will fit together in a graphic, harmonious whole that presents a clear, convincing, unified picture of past, present, and future events.

Notes:

1 L. E. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1950).

2 H. K. LaRondelle, "Interpretation of Prophetic and Apocalyptic Eschatology," in Gordon Hyde (ed.), A Symposium on Biblical Hermeneutics.

3 Ibid., p. 246.

4 Froom, op. cit., pp. 167-169.

5 Ibid. vol. 2, pp. 784, 785.

6 Ibid. p. 787

7 Ibid. vol. 1, p. 95.

8 Ibid., p. 460.

9 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 529.

10 Ibid.  vol. 4, p. 1178.


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By the staff of Ministry

November 1976

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