The heart of historicism

What is the central thrust of the historicist approach to biblical prophecy and how may it be effectively utilized, especially in the light of Christ

Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Historicism is a concept of prophetic interpretation. It needs to be defined carefully before we can discuss its validity and boundaries. LeRoy E. Froom provides us one definition of historicism: "the progressive and continuous fulfillment of prophecy, in unbroken sequence, from Daniel's day and the time of John, on down to the second advent and the end of the age."1

Froom's definition implies a certain theological exegesis, which he fails to identify as the guideline for his understanding of what constitutes a fulfillment of prophecy. A truth fulfulfillment should correspond to the intended meaning of the prophet, and thus requires an exegesis of Scripture in its literary and historical context. Even the Cross is not self-explanatory and needs divine interpretation (see 1 Cor. 1:22-25; 15:3; Rom. 3:25, 26).

This leads us to ask for the biblical origin of historicism; that is, for the prophetic revelation that periodizes history in successive epochs which lead up to the establishment of the kingdom of God. That origin, it is universally agreed, is the apocalyptic book of Daniel, whose visions repeatedly proceed from his own time to the end of world history, with a consistent focus on salvation history.

Daniel's covenant focus in prophecy

With increasing emphasis, Daniel affirms that "the God of heaven," who rules world history, is the God of his "fathers" (Dan. 1:1, 2; 2:20-23; 3:28; etc.). Daniel bases his view of history on Israel's redemption history. Chapters 7-12 especially sharpen the focus on Israel, on her sanctuary worship in the "holy city," and on its devastation by Israel's sacrilegious enemy (8:11-13; 9:25-27; 11:44, 45). Michael is sent to Daniel with the message, "Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come" (10:14, NIV). Daniel's prophecies focus on Israel as God's covenant people and on their future experiences. Daniel himself thus provides the theological criterion by which a fulfillment of prophecy must be assessed.

Jesus mentions Daniel by name (Matt. 24:15) and affirms his salvation-historical perspective when He applies Daniel's prophecy of the violent death of the Messiah and of Jerusalem's consequent destruction (Dan. 9:26, 27) to the imminent fall of Jerusalem in His own generation (Matt. 23:36; 24:15; Luke 21:20-22). Jesus continuously stresses the Christocentric focus of the church age in His farewell speech of Matthew 24, when He predicts the coming of false christs and the persecution of His elect (see verses 4, 9,14, 23, 24, 27, 30, 31).

Paul also refers to Daniel's prophecy of an oppressor and deceiver of the covenant people, when he applies Daniel 8 and 11 to a fulfillment during the church age in "the temple of God" (see 2 Thess. 2:4-8). By the expression, "the temple of God," Paul did not mean the material shrine in Jerusalem but rather the institutional church (see 1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:19-21).2

On the basis of these New Testament applications of Daniel's prophecies to the church age, the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia concludes: "Historicism as a method of interpretation is found in the Bible itself, and it provides the key for the interpretation of the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation."3

What then is this hermeneutical "key" that Scripture itself provides? It is a "key" that needs to be carefully defined through a responsible exegesis of Scripture so that all believers can be aware of the biblical norm for interpreting prophecies and of the truthfulness of our historical applications.

Not only Jesus and Paul but also John's writings re-orient Daniel's covenant people theologically to the God-sent Messiah and to His people, and consequently to their persecuting enemies (see 1 John 1, 2; Rev. 12-14). Accordingly, fulfillments of prophecy during the church age must be determined by their Christ-centeredness. That Christological center of prophecy is the "key" the Bible itself provides to unlock the truthfulness of a historical fulfillment. Only fulfillments that pertain to Christ and His new-covenant people will increase our knowledge of Daniel and Revelation (cf. Dan. 12:4).

The New Testament criterion in historicism

How does one assess the truthfulness of the different historicist applications of the past? Those traditions have to be tested on the grounds of their exegetical truthfulness in accordance with the biblical perspective of history. Regarding any "fulfillment" of the predicted apostasy, or of the true remnant people, or of the cosmic signs during the church age, the New Testament insists from start till finish on a Christocentric fulfillment in relation to the new-covenant people of God.4 This theological qualification of a true fulfillment of prophecy should be acknowledged as the primary responsibility of historicism.

A second point of concern to be taken seriously is the possible misuse of earlier historicist traditions when these are appealed to as the final interpreter of prophecies. If we profess the sola Scriptura principle that the Bible interprets itself, how can we at the same time claim that "history" as such "is the true and final interpreter"?5

Israel's prophets, Jesus, and His apostles all relate their promises and warnings to God's covenant people or to their enemies. In short, Bible prophecy is fundamentally different from secular soothsaying in its focus on salvation history: past, present, and future. The visions of both Daniel and John reveal this broader theological perspective that connects all predictive prophecies in one coherent framework of Messianic redemption as its biblical criterion for fulfillment (see Dan. 2:44, 45; 7:27; 12:1-3; Rev. 5). John's Apocalypse sums up the proclamation of the risen Christ: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End" (Rev. 22:13). This sovereign title of the risen Lord proclaims that Christ is the meaning for human history, being the "Alpha" of Genesis till the "Omega" of Revelation.6

The salvation-historical perspective

Our trust in the proper exegetical foundation of "historicist" interpretations of Scripture cannot be taken for granted. To give account for our prophetic interpretations is a biblical mandate to accept individual responsibility for their truthfulness (see 1 Peter 3:15). Paul places all Spirit manifestations in the church under the need for testing on their truthfulness: "Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good" (1 Thess. 5:20, 21, NIV).

Of critical importance for establishing a truthful fulfillment of prophecy in history is the crossing over of the old-covenant people of God to the new-covenant people of Christ Jesus. This cross point, marked by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the "fullness of time" (Mark 1:15; Gal. 4:4), has crucial hermeneutical significance in determining a true fulfillment. That is to say, the beginning of the Messianic age trans forms the biblical definition of the Israel of God into a Messianic Israel, and consequently also the definition of her antagonists, as the book of Acts testifies (see the application of "Israel" and her enemies of Psalm 2 in Acts 4:23-28; 13:32, 40, 46-48).

On the Day of Pentecost, Peter proclaims that Joel's prophecy of the fullness of the Spirit of God has been fulfilled in the Christ-believing Jews at Jerusalem (Joel 2:28-32). Here Peter publicly introduces the new paradigm of a Christocentric fulfillment of the end-time prophecies. Filled with the Spirit of God, he declares that now the "last days" have begun (Acts 2:17), because the risen Messiah has been enthroned in heaven as the Lord of Israel (Acts 2:33, 36). Later he adds that these days will last until Jesus shall return in glory to accomplish the "universal restoration" (Acts 3:21, NRSV; apokatastasis panton was the Jewish expression for the Messianic "Jubilee Year" for the restoration of all Israel; Acts 1:6 has its verbal form7).

If salvation history is the focus of apocalyptic prophecies, we must test and purify historicism by the biblical perspective of covenant history. We need to define historical "fulfillment" in accordance with the cosmic controversy theme in Daniel and Revelation. The New Testament hands us the Christological norm by which we are to test every historical application of prophecy. Applying this Christ-centered norm engenders credibility to our public proclamations of the divine intentions of prophecy.

If we are disinterested or uninformed by the biblical covenant history, we cannot assess the truthfulness of past historicist claims. It is our duty as Christian interpreters to reexamine our method of prophetic interpretation and application, and to define a conscious and consistent Christocentric hermeneutic.

Historicism needs the disciplined reflection of exegetical and systematic theologians for its own theological and exegetical credibility. Bible truth is not established by a majority view of pious interpreters but by a truthful, contextual exegesis of Scripture. This calls for a cooperation of all theological disciplines of the church so that all seekers after truth may experience a progressive understanding of prophecy, based on the gospel principles of the New Testament.

The acute identity crisis of historicism in 1844

We can benefit from the way William Miller (1782-1849) defined one of his basic "rules" of interpreting apocalyptic symbols in a purely rationalistic way: "How to know when a word is used figuratively/' asks Miller. "If it makes good sense as it stands, and does no violence to the simple laws of nature, then it must be under stood literally; if not, figuratively."8

Using the concordance-style approach, Miller listed all possible meanings of a phrase, such as the "sanctuary," and then chose one he found in the New Testament: a spiritual application of the sanctuary to the "church." Thus he concluded for Daniel 8:14, "Then shall the sanctuary be cleansed or justified/ means the true sanctuary which God has built of lively stones to his own acceptance, through Christ, of which the temple of Jerusalem was but a type . . . ; [quoted Phil. 3:20, 21]. We see by these texts.. . that the spiritual sanctuary will not be cleansed until Christ's second coming; and then all Israel shall be raised, judged, and justified in his sight."9

Miller interpreted the sanctuary "cleansing" of Daniel 8 as God's work of cleansing or "justifying" His "spiritual sanctuary," the true believers in Christ, by a visible execution of God's judgment and a literal resurrection of all believers. Miller united Daniel 8 then with the first angel's message of Revelation 14 that announced: "the hour of His judgment has come" (Rev. 14:7). Miller did not consider the New Testament application to the new covenant temple in heaven (Heb. 8:1, 2; Rev. 15:5-8), because it needed no "cleansing" in his thinking. Miller saw the church in need of a cleansing from false worship, which Daniel had described in Daniel 7:25 and 8:11-13. He concluded: "Therefore, when this last abomination of desolation shall be taken away, then shall the sanctuary be cleansed." 10 With this understanding of a "worship" cleansing Miller expressed accurately the concern of Daniel's judgment vision, in which true and false worshipers shall be separated for eternity (7:26, 27; 12:1-3).

Regarding the "fulfillment" of the specific time period in Daniel 8, Miller stressed that the "2,300-day" prophecy covered the entire spectrum of Daniel's "vision," which he reckoned from 457 B.C. till "about the year A.D. 1843." He assumed that the period of the "2,300-days" ended with the Second Coming. Delimiting the Second Coming to a fixed year brought the excitement to prepare for the imminent advent of Christ, but ended with their great disillusionment. When Miller's logical deductions and date-settings failed both in 1843 and in 1844, an acute crisis in historicist interpretation occurred.

The Millerite movement exploded in various factions. In the aftermath, conflicting approaches to typology and to the prophetic time periods gave rise to different apocalyptic movements that renewed the imminency expectations, such as the "Watchtower Society" (since 1931 known as Jehovah's Witnesses), Seventh-day Adventism, and Dispensationalism, and These religious movements identify themselves by contrasting claims of prophetic interpretation and by new date-settings for expected fulfillments of prophecy. 11

One of the perceived weaknesses of historicism is the "inability of its advocates to agree upon the specific fulfillments of the prophecies."12 This assessment oversimplifies the problem by overlooking some common agreements of historicists since the early church in their understanding of imperial and papal Rome as fulfillment of Daniel's visions (in chapters 2 and 7). 13 The critique remains valid, however, in regard to some sensational, private interpretations that attach prophetic significance to cur rent political events.

Such popular claims elevate current events as the guiding norm for prophetic interpretation. In spite of speculative interpretations, the new apocalyptic movements expressed their sincere longing for restoring the Christian hope and the simple Christian life of the apostolic church. Unfortunately, such imminency expectations of Christ's advent were based on some problematic calculations of Daniel's prophetic time periods.

The creation of Adventist historicism

Seventh-day Adventism claims to continue Miller's historicist approach. But how did Adventist pioneers improve the Millerite historicism by their new understanding of the "great controversy" theme of Scripture? What was the better understanding of "fulfillment" of Daniel (8) and Revelation (14) that gave them such absolute certainty that its dogmatic exegesis also was elevated to the mark of identity of the remnant of prophecy? Does not the book of Revelation provide its own identity hallmark of the remnant church of Jesus?14

The Adventist pioneers believed in an enlightened understanding of prophecy after Miller's misinterpretation. Nevertheless they retained Miller's final date, October 22, 1844, on the assumption of the truthfulness of the "year/day" symbolism and the connections of Daniel 8 and 9. They changed, however, the promised "cleansing of the sanctuary" (Dan. 8) from God's apocalyptic cleansing act of the church (W. Miller) to Christ's ongoing cleansing process in the heavenly sanctuary since 1844 to His final judgment ministry.

The judging process of the faithful dead was now added to Christ's redemptive ministry for the living (Hebrews 8; 9), and was conceived as Christ's enlarged ministry in heaven. There remained an "open door," and "forgiveness of sins was offered to men through the intercession of Christ in the most holy" (Ellen G. White15). This exegetical construct of a two-phase ministry of Christ became the new theological norm for Adventist historicism, a pillar or land mark doctrine that provided an ecclesiological identity, the concept of "present truth" and "fulfillment" in their prophetic interpretations.

Ellen G. White further paralleled the "cleansing" of Christ's ministry to a new responsibility and task of the church: "While the investigative judgment is going forward in heaven, while the sins of penitent believers are being removed from the sanctuary, there is to be a special work of purification, of putting away of sin, among God's people upon earth. This work is more clearly presented in the mes sages of Revelation 14."16

Her coordinating of the heavenly "cleansing" and the church's cleansing of its worship of God expressed her view that Daniel 8 and Revelation 14 were closely related. The developing Adventist understanding of the sanctuary's cleansing aroused a new imminency expectation. Israel's ritual "cleansing" of the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16) was used to add urgency to the judgment ministry of Christ. It foreshadowed the final blotting out of sin from the universe.

The required searching of heart by Israel once a year, in preparation for the final act of removing all their sins from the camp through the "scape goat" (Lev. 16:20-22) was seen as a prophetic type to be applied with peculiar force to the final generation. It implied to them that God was preparing a ritually and morally cleansed people with His "cleansing" of the heavenly sanctuary.

For that reason Adventists restored the creation Sabbath in their worship of God, and integrated the immutability of God's covenant law in their historicist interpretation of prophecy (of Dan. 7:25). They felt called by God to complete the Protestant Reformation. LeRoy Froom explains this Adventist sense of mission: "Then these down trodden truths that have such vital relationship to the judgment hour and its immutable standard, the law of God, will again be lifted up under the banner of last-day reformation and restoration. Then, according to the prophetic promise, at the time of the cleansing of the sanctuary its provisions will be vindicated and restored to their rightful place."17

The Adventist struggle for the priority of the gospel

The priority of apocalyptic interpretations in the Adventist self-understanding never intended to over rule or obscure the "everlasting gospel." Ellen White tried to keep the apocalyptic teachings united with the gospel preaching, warning against the threat of a Christless historicism: "Ministers should present the sure word of prophecy as the foundation of the faith of Seventh-day Adventists. The prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation should be carefully studied, and in connection with them the words, 'Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world."18

However, the sad fact remains that the "formative" years of Adventism (1844-1888) did embody a neglect of the centrality of the gospel of justifying grace when it came to proclaiming this end-time witness. Doctrinal beliefs about the law of God, a pre-Advent "investigative judgment," and the appeal to leave apostate Christianity as the end-time "Babylon" became the dominant truths through which people tended to identify the "remnant" church, while the gospel tended to suffer neglect.

The Advent movement was absolutely convinced it was a "movement of destiny," raised up to fulfill the prophecies of Revelation 12:17 and 14:6-12. Yet it was not united on fundamental Christian beliefs, such as the Holy Trinity, the deity of Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, and even on "righteousness by faith" as the way of salvation. By its deliberate isolation from historic Christianity, Adventism developed its own doctrinal belief system inde pendent from the historic Christian creeds. Adventist indifference to the Protestant Reformation Confessions led periodically to a crisis about what is Christian in Adventism, especially in regard to the affirmation of the basic Protestant axioms sola fide, sola gratia, and sola Scriptura.19

In 1888 a revival of the apostolic gospel was initiated at the Minneapolis General Conference session by two young editors, A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner. Conservative leaders questioned, however, whether this new gospel emphasis was a legitimate part of the "third angel's message" of Revelation 14, and perceived it as a threat to the distinctive beliefs of Adventism: the law and prophetic interpretation.20

Ellen White responded forcefully that their new focus on the apostolic gospel was a "precious message to His people" which the Lord had sent "in His great mercy." 21 She recognized that the law and the gospel were finally presented in their true biblical relationship, "binding up the two in a perfect whole."22 She explained: "It presented justification through faith in the Surety; it invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God. Many had lost sight of Jesus, ... It is the third angel's message, which is to be proclaimed with a loud voice, and attended with the outpouring of His Spirit in a large measure."23

She went so far as to declare that this new "uplifting" of Jesus and His merits gave the denomination its predicted "loud cry" message that would bring with it the outpouring of the Spirit of God, as portrayed in Revelation 18:1.24 Her counsel became: "Of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world." 25

The biblical connection of the apostolic gospel and apocalyptic interpretations remains the critical issue for Adventist historicism. Is the gospel allowed to have a transforming influence on our apocalyptic interpretations? If the gospel priority is overlooked in prophetic interpretation, the pitfall of literalism can hardly be avoided. Literalism, recognizable by its ethnic and geographic Middle East applications of prophecy, immediately usurps the primary place of Christ as the decisive norm for prophetic interpretation. This modern hermerieutical threat calls for renewed vigilance by each generation to safeguard the priority of the everlasting gospel in apocalyptic interpretations (see Rev. 12:17; 14:12; 20:4).

The task of honest examination of Adventist historicism through a sound exegesis of Scripture has only begun. The core issue remains a definition of the New Testament principles of Scripture interpretation that apply equally to fulfilled and unfulfilled prophecies. Such a testing of our traditional assumptions and applications can lead to a more biblical and credible proclamation that will stir the hearts again. Some leading Adventist theologians have begun to reaffirm the motivating principle of Protestantism: ecdesia reformata semper reformanda, meaning "a reform which is never completed once-and-for-all, but which is renewed and reapplied from generation to generation in the light of Scripture."26

1 L. E. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers [-PFJ (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn , 1950), 1:22, 23.

2 See H. LaRondelie, Light for the Last Days (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2000), chapters 1 and 2: also G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), ch. 8.

3 Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1996), 698.

4 See H. LaRondelie, The Israel of God in Prophecy (Berrien Spnngs, Mich.. Andrews University Press, 2001), chapters 5-7.

5 See Froom in 2 (1948):795.

6 See E. G. White in Review and Herald 8, 1897; quoted in Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (1957 ed.), 7:434.

7 See Robert B. Sloan, The Favorable Year of the Lord. A Study of Jubilary Theology in the Gospel of Luke (Austin, Tex.: Schola Press, 1977).

8 In P. G. Damsteegt, Foundations of SDA Message and Mission (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977), 299.

9 W. Miller, Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ about the Year 1843 (Boston. B. Mussey, 1840), 41, 42.

10 Ibid., 55 (italics added).

11 For Seventh-day Adventism, see George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), 55-58.

12 S. Gregg, Revelation: Four Views (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 36.

13 See Froom, 1:458-464, 897-899; 2:529-532; 3:255-259.

14 For a study on the prophetic hallmark of the remnant in Revelation, see LaRondelie, Light for the Last Days (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2000), 177-187.

15 Ellen. G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub Assn., 1911), 429, 430.

16 Ibid., 425.

17 Froom, 4:1155.

18 White, Gospel Workers (Washington. D.C.. Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 148 [1915].

19 See the analysis by G. R. Knight, A Search for Identity, chapter 5. Also L. L. Vance, Seventh-day Adventism in Crisis (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), chapter 4.

20 See N. E Pease, "The Truth as It Is in Jesus: The 1888 General Conference Sessions, Minneapolis, Minn.," Adventist Heritage 10 (1):3-10.

21 White, Testimonies to Ministers (Nampa, Idaho' Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 91

22 Ibid., 94.

23 Ibid., 92.

24 See Knight, 109.

25 White, Gospel Workers, 156 (italics added).

26 A. C. Thiselton, as quoted in N. R. Gulley, Systematic Theology. Prolegomena (Berrien Springs, Mich : Andrews University Press, 2003), 657; also F. Guy, Thinking Theologically (Berrien Springs,
Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1999), 126, 150; and especially R. J. Poehler, Continuity and Change in Adventist Teaching (P. Lang 2000), Reihe A, Band 3, 111-123.



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Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

September 2005

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