“The Pope is the Anti-Christ.” At least that is what the average historicist believes. And when we say “Pope”, we are mainly referring to the Papacy in general. This line of thinking, as you might guess, was high in popularity during the Reformation and for centuries afterward. It is now being replaced, in large part, by Futurism, another branch of prophetic interpretation (which, generally, does not hold to the whole Papacy = Anti-Christ thing).
Hello, today we are continuing the series on prophetic perspective. When last we were on the topic, we looked at the Preterist perspective. Here again is a brief rundown on the four major perspectives:
- Preterist: Most, if not all, of New Testament prophecy has already happened.
- Historicist: New Testament prophecies have been unfolding throughout Christian history.
- Futurist: Most prophecies have yet to be fulfilled.
- Idealist: The New Testament prophecies are not predictive in nature but important symbols to be understood.
Let’s jump into historicism and see how this interpretation views Scripture:
Historicism Eschatology, defined:
Historicism: the method of eschatological (relating to the “Last Days”) interpretation within Christianity that views most of Biblical Prophecy (i.e Matthew 24, Daniel, and Revelation) as describing historical events that have been progressively unfolding over the last 24 centuries. They see symbolic biblical prophecies (such as: The Beast, The Whore, The False Prophet) as describing actual historical people, events, or societies.
So, for example, Here are a few interpretations that have taken symbolic images and tied them with specific historical events or people:
- The Anti-Christ: the Papacy or future Pope
- The Whore: The Papal Catholic Church
- Smoke Rising From The Abyss, Invasion of Locusts: The rise and spread of Islam
This school of prophetic interpretation (which held a progressive and continuous fulfillment of prophecy) united all Protestants throughout the Reformation into the 19th century. Since that time a Futurist, Adventist approach has held dominance.
Historicism Eschatology, Through the Years:
Historicism has always had its adherents through the centuries. But to be fair, each generation has taken it’s current place in history and looked backward through time to find its markers of fulfilled prophecy. So, for example, Victorinus of Pettau, who lived circa 300 AD, wrote a complete commentary on Revelation. But to say that he identified the Pope as Anti-Christ would be a bit silly since the Roman Catholic Church had not been constituted. Furthermore, the “Smoke from the Abyss” would little have been identified with Islam since Islam would not come on the scene for another 400 years.
That being said, each generation tweaked the idea and had it’s adherents. But by far, Historicism took off during the Reformation. For a brief overview, here is Wikipedia.com:
Protestant Reformers had a major interest in historicism, with a direct application to their struggle against the Papacy. Prominent leaders and scholars among them, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, John Thomas, John Knox, and Cotton Mather, identified the Roman Papacy as the Antichrist. The Centuriators of Magdeburg, a group of Lutheran scholars in Magdeburg headed by Matthias Flacius, wrote the 12-volume “Magdeburg Centuries” to discredit the papacy and identify the pope as the Antichrist.
William Tyndale, an English Protestant reformer, held that while the Roman Catholic realms of that age were the empire of Antichrist, any religious organization that distorted the doctrine of the Old and New Testaments also showed the work of Antichrist. In his treatise The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, he expressly rejected the established Church teaching that looked to the future for an Antichrist to rise up, and he taught that Antichrist is a present spiritual force that will be with us until the end of the age under different religious disguises from time to time. Tyndale’s translation of 2 Thessalonians, chapter 2, concerning the “man of lawlessness” reflected his understanding, but was significantly amended by later revisers, including the King James Bible committee, which followed the Vulgate more closely.
Rather than expecting a single Antichrist to rule the earth during a future Tribulation period, Luther, John Calvin and other Protestant reformers saw the Antichrist as a present feature in the world of their time, fulfilled in the papacy. Debated features of the Reformation historicist interpretations were the identification of; the Antichrist (1 and 2 John); the Beasts of Revelation 13; the Man of Sin (or Man of Lawlessness) in 2 Thessalonians 2; the “Little horn” of Daniel 7 and 8, and the Whore of Babylon (Revelation 17).
So, from the start of the Reformation (1517 AD) to the mid-nineteenth century, Historicism held sway. With its strong anti Roman Catholic themes, it made the perfect theology to counter the might and weight of the Catholic Church. But on about the mid-eighteen hundreds, things changed. Dispensationalism began to take hold, and with it, the Futurist perspective. Since that time, the theology has wained in popularity and has largely been replaced. But that is not to say that there are not strong supporters of it today. It just does not hold the sway it did a couple hundred years ago.
The Proof Text:
One of the main passages that Historicists like to use as an overlay for subsequent prophetic interpretation is the Daniel 2 passage. To review it, just click on the toggle bar below:
”Daniel“Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.
“This was the dream, and now we will interpret it to the king. Your Majesty, you are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; in your hands he has placed all mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds in the sky. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all. You are that head of gold.
“After you, another kingdom will arise, inferior to yours. Next, a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule over the whole earth. Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron—for iron breaks and smashes everything—and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others. Just as you saw that the feet and toes were partly of baked clay and partly of iron, so this will be a divided kingdom; yet it will have some of the strength of iron in it, even as you saw iron mixed with clay. As the toes were partly iron and partly clay, so this kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. And just as you saw the iron mixed with baked clay, so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay.
“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.
In this passage, we see a large statue, with these features:
- The head: made of gold
- Chest and arms: made of silver
- Belly and thighs: made of bronze
- Legs: made of iron
- Feet: made of iron and clay
Lastly, we see a rock not hewn of human hands that smashes the statue and then grows to cover the earth. The Historicist interprets this to mean:
- The head: Babylonian empire
- Chest and arms: Medo-Persian Empire
- Belly and thighs: Greek Empire
- Legs: Roman Empire
- Feet: Papal Rome
- The Rock: The True Church and Second Coming of Christ
The Problems with Historicism:
Here is the problem as I see it. Historicism is an hypothesis that can never be falsified. Here is a quote from historicism.com to prove the point:
It is not a system that must stand or fall by its ability to withstand criticism. It is a method of interpretation that allows its adherents to continually re-evaluate their opinions as they grow in their understanding of both history, and the Bible.
If you have the ability to continually revise your hypothesis as each generation rehandles the historic evidence, how will ever know if the school of thought is right or wrong? My thought is, you cannot. While this may give a degree of satisfaction to couch prophetic fulfillment in the long stretch of history, there is no concrete way of knowing if you are correct or not. And since people have been applying this method for over 20 centuries, these historic interpretations have undergone considerable revisions.
Historicism is an interesting proposal. It is intriguing to think about history being completely foretold in advance, at least in broad strokes. I squirm uncomfortably at the notion of a future Pope or the Papal system being the Anti-Christ. To me, this is wrong headed and not useful. Catholics, after all, are our siblings. And while the Papal system 400 years ago was a far cry from being an accurate reflection of Christ, the Roman Catholic Church has taken great strides to listening to and doing a fair bit of Reforming themselves.
Now it should be noted that Historicism is by no means monolithic. So even within the movement there are those that see the False Prophet, the Whore, etc as pointing to Islam. And while that solves the problem of not pointing finger at Catholicism, it may just trade one problem for another. To me, this school of thought is wide open to human interpretation.
If the First Advent of Christ gives us any idea of prophetic interpretation it is this: we will not know prophecy has been fulfilled until it has been fulfilled. And while Historicism may have merit, I am afraid we will not know it until the Second Coming. At which point will will look back and it will be quite clear to us.
That being said, it does not dismiss Historicism as a valid prophetic perspective. After all, Jewish scholars from the earliest prophets on were playing a largely historicist game as prophecy was being unfolded through time. While I am uncomfortable with the accordion like nature of this perspective, expanding or contracting over history as each scholar sees fit; this may yet be the proper perspective. After all, prophecy is not given to make us intellectually satisfied, it is given to provide us comfort for now and prove God’s sovereignty once the event has occurred.