Historicism and RevelationPMW 2021-041 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

My computer is getting lighter as I remove more of the questions that have been sent to me by readers. Today’s question regarding the Book of Revelation, one of my favorite pastimes!

Reader’s question:

You are committed to the Reformed faith, yet you don’t take the historicist approach to eschatology which was widely held among the Reformers. Why do you not follow the Reformers in this part of their theology.

My response:

Thank you for your inquiry. You are correct that I am committed to Reformed theology. However, I differ from the Reformers in that I take a preterist approach to Revelation rather than an historicist approach. I do so for the following reasons:

First, we should remember that Revelation was not well received among some of the Reformers. Martin Luther, the famed reformer and untiring interpreter of Scripture, originally rejected Revelation as non-canonical, complaining, “My Spirit cannot adapt itself to the book.” In his German translation of the Bible, he complained in the preface to Revelation that the book was “neither apostolic nor prophetic.”Survey of the Book of Revelation

Survey of the Book of Revelation
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Twenty-four careful, down-to-earth lectures provide a basic introduction to and survey of the entire Book of Revelation. Professionally produced lectures of 30-35 minutes length.

See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com

Fellow reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) refused to take a doctrinal proof-text from Revelation. Calvin himself wrote no commentary on it, despite his writing a very thorough series of commentary on almost all of the Bible.

Second, the Reformers were locked in a literal life-and-death struggle with Romanism. Consequently, they tended to view many judgment passages through the lens of their opposition to Rome. They let application override interpretation in some situations.

Such an exposition is known as an “actualizing interpretation.” “Actualizing interpretations take two forms. In one form the imagery of the Apocalypse is juxtaposed with the interpreter’s own circumstances, whether personal or social, so as to allow the images to inform understanding of contemporary persons and events and to serve as a guide for action” (J. Kovacs and C. R. Rowland, Revelation: Apocalypse of Jesus Christ [Oxford: Blackwell, 2004], 9).

For instance, we see this in the original Westminster Confession of Faith (25:6) where the Pope is called the Antichrist and the “man of lawlessness.” This not only gives too much credit to Romanism, but clearly misinterprets Scripture. If the Pope were Antichrist, then the papacy existed in the first century, for John confronts the antichrist in the first century (1Jn 2:18-22). But the Pope cannot be the Antichrist, for John defines the Antichrist as “one who denies the Father and the Son” (1Jn 2:22), as those who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” (2Jn 7). This is clearly not referring to Roman Catholic teaching.

Third, historicist expositions of Revelation from that era, the 1500-1600s are impossible today. If you can find an historicist exposition of Revelation from you will quickly observe that they believed Revelation outlined church history up to their own time, when they believed its final prophecies were coming to fulfillment. Just reading an earlier historicist exposition today refutes it.

Kovacs and Rowland note this problem: “Altogether more contentious and daring is the way certain interpreters saw these figures appearing in their own day. For some this reflects a conviction that the last days have come” (Kovacs, 128; referenced above). M. E. Boring seems to be correct when he notes that “although widely held by Protestant interpreters after the Reformation and into the twentieth century, no critical New Testament scholar today advocates this view” (M. Eugene Boring, Revelation: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching [Louisville: John Knox, 1989], 49).

Fourth, by the very nature of the case historicism suffers from a need of constant revision. The historicist school, also called the “continuous historical,” sees the prophetic drama in Revelation as providing a panorama of Church history from the apostolic era to the return of Christ. Historical continuity is the main focus of this approach which forecasts future history. Historicists deem Revelation an “almanac of church history.” Historicists apply the numerous judgment scenes to various wars, revolutions, and socio-political and religious movements (e.g., the rising of Roman Catholicism, the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, World Wars I and II), as well as important historical /persons (e.g., various Popes, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Mussolini).

According to Alan Johnson, Joachim of Floris (d. 1202) popularized this view, though traces of it are found earlier in the Ante-Nicene fathers (Johnson, “Revelation” in EBC, 12:409). As noted above, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, and the Reformers greatly employed it against the Roman Catholic Church.Keys to Book of Revelation 2

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(DVDs by Ken Gentry)

Provides the necessary keys for opening Revelation to a deeper and clearer understanding.

See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com

The weaknesses, though, are manifold. The position almost always assumes that present interpreters live at the conclusion to history so that all in Revelation leads up to their time just before the end. For instance Mede noted in his commentary: “While I write news is brought of a Prince from the North (meaning Gustavus Adolphus) gaining victories over the Emperor in defence of the German afflicted Protestants.”

Commenting on recurring problems in eschatological debate in general, Brethren historian F. Roy Coad well states: “Almost invariably interpretation has been vitiated by the reluctance or incapacity of commentators to visualise their own age as other than the end time” (F. Roy Coad, Prophetic Developments: A Christian Brethren Research Fellowship Occasional Paper [Pinner, England: 1966], 10).

As a consequence, beliefs are in a constant state of revision, especially for Revelation commentators in this school. Consequently, as history has grown longer, older varieties of this interpretive school have experienced a great number of failed expectations. This view long remained “strangely attractive in spite of the recurrent anguish and disappointment it causes” (John Court, Myth and History in the Book of Revelation [Atlanta: John Knox, 1979], 7).

Thus, this approach is continually in revision as it proposes more and more constructions based on the supposed prophetic allusions to historic events. For instance, this view was prominent in the Middle Ages when millennialism began to flourish once again. The system was used to show that “the millennium was about to dawn” (Carson, Moo, Morris, Introduction to the New Testament, [Zondervan] 482).

Furthermore, its relevance is confined to the Western world, with the progress of history traced only in a western direction (apparently where book sales are most profitable!).

In addition, it tends to lose its relevance for its original persecuted audience.

Its major problem, though, is that harmony among its proponents is almost wholly lacking due to its subjectivity.

OLIVET IN CONTEXT: A Commentary on Matthew 21–25
I am currently researching a commentary on Matthew 21–25, the literary context of the Olivet Discourse from Matthew’s perspective. My research will demonstrate that Matthew’s presentation demands that the Olivet Discourse refer to AD 70 (Matt. 24:3–35) as an event that anticipates the Final Judgment at the Second Advent (Matt. 24:36–25:46). This will explode the myth that Jesus was a Jewish sage focusing only on Israel. The commentary will be about 250 pages in length.

If you would like to support me in my research, I invite you to consider giving a tax-deductible contribution to my research and writing ministry: GoodBirth Ministries. Your help is much appreciated!

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  1. Bob Allen October 7, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    Ken – I came out of Dispensationalism 40 years ago. I find today that many young Christians are ignorant of “Dispensationalism” but hold to the certain tenets such as rapture, Israel/Church difference. After reading “Revelation and the 1st Century” and “Navigating the Book of Revelation” I contacted an old friend to enter a dialogue. Her first response was “I remember studying Dispensationalism many years ago, I don’t believe that stuff” but holds to all it teaches. Advise on how to go forward?

  2. Kenneth Gentry October 12, 2015 at 11:19 am

    Move slowly, lovingly, and knowledgably. You will want to choose a few key issues that you see as problematic and indicative of a dispensational perspective and carefully show her the weaknesses in the position.

  3. Fred V. Squillante May 6, 2020 at 11:45 am

    Hello Dr. Gentry,

    When you say Revelation was not well received among some of the Reformers, you are correct. It was also not well received among some of the early church historians. I have written about Dionysius and his refutation of Nepos, as described by Eusebius (Church Histories; 7.25.1-2). Now, I understand him to be Dionysius the Aeropagate mentioned by the apostle Paul (Acts 17:34), so please correct me if I am wrong, as that appears to have been a rather common name back then and people and dates tend to be murky.

    Nevertheless, it was before or during the late second or early third century. Dionysius was a champion of the faith, but Eusebius, quoting him, says this about the apocalypse, “Some before us have set aside and rejected the book altogether.” Then he lists how as follows. They: criticized it chapter by chapter; pronounced it without sense or argument; maintained that the title was fraudulent; said that it was not the work of John; said that it was not a revelation because it was covered thickly and densely by a veil of obscurity; affirmed that none of the apostles, saints, nor anyone in the church was the author; and finally, said that it was the work of Cerinthus, the heretic.

    The point that I was making was that from the beginning, once removed from the inspired writers, there was little understanding of the apocalypse. Going back to Papias and Polycarp, who were contemporaries of and supposedly knew some of the apostles, and especially Irenaeus, who appears to be the genesis of much of what dispensationalists and other futurists still say today (your comment about the original Westminster Confession of Faith claiming the Pope as the Antichrist and the man of lawlessness is straight out of Irenaeus, although he wasn’t talking about the Pope), there have been nearly 2000 years of layer upon layer of dogma and a seemingly unshakable negative view about eschatology. Furthermore, “newspaper exegesis,” what you refer to as actualizing interpretation, is still the name of the game today, as it appears to have been since the first century.

    The preterist view is, in my opinion, the correct view. And while postmillennialism is a positive and victorious view, indeed, an eschatology of victory (Kik), that victory is not being carried out. Asia Minor into Europe, once evangelized by Paul, is now Muslim. Constantinople, once the Christian capital and the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, is now known as Istanbul, Turkey. Europe, the birthplace of the Reformation, is spiritually dead and apathetic. America, founded on Judeo Christian values and principles, is now – I don’t know what it is anymore; it seems to be caught in actualizing interpretation.

  4. William O. October 17, 2020 at 3:03 pm

    Hi Dr Gentry! How can I get the permissions to translate this article into Sapnish and share it online???

  5. Kenneth Gentry October 19, 2020 at 8:13 am

    Yes, you may do so. God bless!

  6. William Ochoa October 19, 2020 at 5:40 pm

    Thank you very much!

  7. Robert Johnston December 14, 2020 at 10:13 am

    Did either Praeterism or Futurism exist in any form before the 16th century? I sometimes think that Americans did not fully understand the sufferings of Europeans in the 20th century re the 7th vial until 9/11 brought it home to them.

  8. Kenneth Gentry December 14, 2020 at 10:23 am

    Yes, Eusebius had an extensive exposition of Matthew 24 whereby he applied it to AD 70, even citing Josephus as evidence. There were many others as well, as I point out in my book Before Jerusalem Fell.

    Any application of Revelation in modern times breaches the time constraints of the judgment scenes (except for the one that occurs after 1000 years). The vials are applicable to the sufferings surrounding the judgment of the temple and the Jews in AD 70. The vials do not refer to European suffering in the 20th century. Nor do they refer to the much earlier Black Plague that devastated about 1/3 of Europe.

    Postmillennialism teaches that “it ain’t over til it’s over.” That is, nothing in the definition of the “postmillennial hope” says that by the year 2021 we will see the gospel overwhelming the world. We believe this will happen, but we do not how long it will take and therefore when it will be complete. But we have seen progress from the time of Nero’s persecution of the Christians, and the later Roman persecutions. That we are able to discuss this freely with our printed Bibles at hand while we attend church is evidence some progress has been made.

  9. David Morsillo May 22, 2021 at 12:18 am

    Thank you Dr Gentry for bringing some clarity and understanding to the different views on eschatology. I am hoping that you may also soon discuss “historic pre-millenialism” and how that may differ from this historicism.

  10. Joshua K. Stevens May 24, 2021 at 2:49 pm

    Thank you for this.

    “Fourth, by the very nature of the case historicism suffers from a need of constant revision.”

    It seems that this view suffers from a similar weakness to the way our dispensational friends approach Revelation. They continually adjust their interpretations based on current events.

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