Preterism, Historicism and Futurism

5 09 2009

When we try to understand prophecy we immediately run in to the problem of how it should be interpreted. In the first century the Christians interpreted the Apocalypse to be already beginning to be fulfilled. During the middle ages the prophecies of the Apocalypse were understood to be in the process of fulfilment in their day and this interpretation is today called Historicism because those fulfilments are now in our past. Another two methods were developed during the counterreformation to counteract Historicism called Pretersm and Futurism. Both of these attempted to remove the immediacy and relevance of prophecy to those living at that time by interpreting their fulfilments to having taken place way in the past (Preterism) or sometime way in the future (Futurism).   It was basically  a way of saying to people “don’t worry about prophecy – It doesn’t concern you – go back to sleep.” Both of these methods had little acceptance for two hundred years until dispensationalism gained popularity and was combined with futurism to come up with what have been become popular interpretations of prophecy.

In some ways it is easy to understand why the classical Historicist interpretation of prophecy has been abandoned for the futurist/dispensationalist approach. The classical Historicist interpretation leaves the premier apocalyptic book in the Bible with more to say about events before the 1800’s than the period following, leading up to Armageddon and the seven last plagues. For the most part the churches, the seals and the trumpets are only seen to be in the past and we  are left with only a few verses about the mark of the beast and the ten kings that rule for one hour to guide us through the perils of the last days.

Yet the problem is that while promising to be true to the Apocalyptic nature of the Revelation and thereby make prophecy relevant for today,  futurism/dispensationalism spectacularly fails. It has no real explanation for the seven trumpets, the seven seals nor the other narratives in the Revelation, nor many other NT prophecies. It just does not live up to its promise. The fact that its popularity today is mostly driven by fictional novels about the future and that scholarship in this area is not much better says alot about the weaknesses of this approach.  The  sad result is that most people still have no better understanding of the Apocalypse than if it had never been revealed to John or it had been sealed up.

And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand. (Rev 22:10)

Perhaps the most telling characteristic of the futurist/dispensationalist interpretation  is that for most of those who accept it, other than just being interesting, Revelation’s prophecies are largely irrelevant because aside from not being understood they don’t believe they will concern them since they won’t be around to see their fulfilment. It removes the  present-day relevance of prophecy and the urgency expressed in Revelation for us to understand and therefore keep the saying of the book (Rev 1:3).

The underlying difference between historicism and dispensationalism in regard to prophetic interpretation is that while historicism looks for specific literal fulfilment of prophecy, dispensation only looks for spiritual fulfilment during the Christian “dispensation.” In this regard dispensationalism takes more of an allegorical approach to interpreting prophecy for today which is why there is such a great variety of ideas about what things could mean and no consistent, systematic understanding of prophecy today.

The key to understanding the Apocalypse systematically, consistently and its present relevance is to realise that the preterists to some extent and the historicists are correct in that it has been fulfilled in the past in the literal history of specific nations, and it is beginning to be fulfilled again, but  in the very same way as they have been fulfilled in the past. We can identify the current and future fulfilments by understanding the past fulfilments and you will be amazed just as I was by how accurately both the books of Daniel and Revelation have portrayed the events of history not just in the distant past, but in our lifetimes and in the near future. Consider the threefold fulfilment of the Seven Trumpets [here], the Four Horsemen [here], Daniel’s four kingdoms [here] or the sign of Jonah [here] throughout history.

Jewish Era Christian Era Secular Era Final Apocalypse
Four Horsemen Seven Trumpets Four Horsemen Seven Trumpets Four Horsemen Seven Trumpets Four Horsemen Seven Trumpets
605 BC 170 BC 70AD 490 1798 1914 2013? 2017?
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