Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism

The historicist school of interpretation claims that Revelation depicts history from the first century until the end of time. Martin Luther, who had grave reservations about Revelation as a canonical book, subscribed to historicist ideas in his later years and found resources for an anti-Catholic message in the book. (Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, did not think that Revelation should be in the Canon, and John Calvin ignored it.) In the United States, historicism has lost market share to futurism among lay audiences, and it has lost ground to preterist interpretations among scholars. The historicist claim is bold: Revelation predicts events accurately and specifically right down to concrete dates on the calendar (such as 313, 538, 1565, 1798). Changes in the dating scheme put the historicist paradigm at risk. Historicists have indeed paid a penalty for changing its map of events. C. Marvin Pate writes that “failed attempts to locate the fulfillment of Revelation in the course of circumstances of history has doomed it to continual revision as time passed and, ultimately, to obscurity.” To such observers, historicism is not only in crisis. It is worn-out.

The Sabbath School Quarterly for the first quarter of 2019 does not acknowledge any crisis, and it is unabashed in its claims on behalf of historicism. The following appears in the introduction on the ssnet.org website:

A careful reading of Revelation’s prophecies (like those of Daniel) shows that the historicist method of prophetic interpretation is the correct way to understand the prophecies’ intended fulfillment, because they follow the flow of history, from the prophet’s time to the end of the world. This method illustrates how we should make every effort to derive meaning from the text itself, rather than imposing a predetermined interpretation upon it.

I sense a contradiction in this statement. If the makers of the study guide truly believe that “we should make every effort to derive meaning from the text itself, rather than imposing a predetermined interpretation upon it,” there is no need to affix an -ism to the method. Let the text carry the weight of the interpretation. Do not burden the text with interpretations that it may not be able to carry. The historicist commitment falls short of the assertion made above. Some claims do not rise from the text; they would be implausible apart from the -ism and the “predetermined interpretation.” As I have perused the lessons, I have come away stunned at the audacity of the lesson makers. Claims are made that cannot be derived from the text of Revelation, at least not the way the lessons present it. They are salvaged by “the historicist method of prophetic interpretation.” Since little effort is invested in showing the merit of specifics and dates on exegetical and historical grounds — sometimes next to nothing, sometimes nothing — the reason for the paucity of evidence might be that 1) the lesson makers rely on prior interpretations without pointing us to them; 2) they don’t care; 3) they don’t expect us to care. The latter may be a safe bet. I have a hunch that several groups at my university will be studying other things than Revelation this quarter.

I will now comment on two specifics.

1. Where to Draw the Lines

First, the Quarterly asserts that the seven churches represent definite periods in history, and it proposes a clear-cut timeline:

The spiritual con­ditions in the seven churches coincide with the spiritual conditions of God’s church in different historical periods. The seven messages are intended to provide, from Heaven’s perspective, a panoramic survey of the spiritual state of Christianity from the first century to the end of the world.

As the chart below shows, the time period proposed in 2019 differs somewhat from the hugely influential and long-lasting ideas in Uriah Smith’s historicist scheme. While any change comes with a risk, perhaps we should be surprised that so little has been altered. Matters of note is that Thyatira gets a full 1260 years in Smith’s interpretation; it gets two hundred years less in the 2019 proposal. I was unable to find the dates 1565 and 1740 in Smith’s interpretation. These dates are asserted in the study guide with very little evidence to back them up.

I worry about several things on this chart, but here is just one concern in relation to Thyatira. In John’s text, the report card on this church is mostly good. She is commended for “love, faithfulness, service, and endurance.” Jesus adds that “your last works are greater than the first,” suggesting a trajectory from good to better (Revelation 2:19). Yes, there is “that woman Jezebel,” but she is not the whole story (2:20). This church gets 1260 years in Uriah Smith and more than one thousand years in the Quarterly. If the Thyatira text in Revelation is intended to cover more than one thousand years of history, it wields an exceedingly broad brush. Included in this sweep will be the Great Schism in 1054, the Crusades of 1095, the decimation of the Eastern Church in 1453 under the Ottoman conquest, and the Reformation in its various manifestations, beginning in 1517. Is this what “historicism” does to real history, in a broad, one-size-fits-all sweep? The Quarterly says this about Thyatira:

Tradition replaced the Bible, a human priesthood and sacred relics replaced Christ’s priest­hood, and works were regarded as the means of salvation. Those who did not accept these corrupting influences were persecuted and even killed.

These elements are found in the period mentioned. Are these elements what John (or Jesus) had in mind in the vision on Patmos? Is this what we ought to say? Is it enough?

The Quarterly puts the suture line between Thyatira and Sardis at the year 1565, but it does not make the date reverberate with historical significance. Philadelphia gets only eleven years in Smith’s scheme, a proposal that will seem risky in the extreme even to people who may be favorably disposed toward historicism.

2. The “Ten Years”

Believers in Smyrna are told that “the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction” (2:10). To Smyrna is allotted the period from A.D. 100 to A.D. 313, or A.D. 323, if we follow Uriah Smith. Here, for reasons that are not self-evident, the Quarterly commits to a specific event and precise dates:

The “ten days” mentioned in Revelation 2:10 point to the ten years of the Diocletian persecution from A.D. 303 until A.D. 313, when Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan, which granted Christians religious freedom.

The assertion is not tentative; there is no caveat or alternative option. It follows from this that the editors of the Quarterly have decided to make most or all the time elements in Revelation conform to “the Year-Day Principle.” Ten years it will be. But was it ten years? The so-called “Diocletian persecution” was pushed by Galerius, the emperor’s co-regent in the East because he was truly anti-Christian, and the “Christian problem” was most evident in that part of the empire. Historians estimate that perhaps twenty percent of the population were Christians at that time, meaning that they represented a real challenge. In the West, the persecution sputtered, and it petered out already in 305. That year Diocletian did what no emperor (except Nerva, perhaps) had done before him: he resigned, and he made his fellow Augustus, Maxminian, resign with him. Diocletian had at the time been very ill, but he recovered, and he returned to Split on the Adriatic Coast where he took up horticulture.

Persecution continued in the East, and many Christians were killed, but persecution ended in formal terms with Galerius’ Edict of Toleration in 311. By that time Galerius was already dead. The arch-persecutor (Galerius) had admitted failure. Prisoners were released and churches re-opened. We are at this point eight years into the period of persecution, and the worst is over. Then came the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313 with its promise of religious liberty. This is the ten-year mark in the historicist interpretation. And then, in the words of W. H. C. Frend, comes the following piece of bad news. “Within four years (317), the universal freedom of conscience proclaimed at Milan had been abrogated, and the state had become a persecutor once more, only this time in favor of Christian orthodoxy.” Where do we put this in the prophetic scheme?


I will end my reflection with some questions.

1. Non-historicist readers of Revelation think that the historicist “school” is in crisis. Should we acknowledge this and, if we continue along the historicist path, try to win over the doubters? Mere assertions will not suffice.

2. Is the historicist view communally sustainable at a time when there is scant knowledge of actual history in our communities? The cognitive gap — and the cognitive dissonance — cannot be ignored. The literacy level about history is low. Is the strategy to close the gap by assertions or by genuine knowledge?

3. Will the historicist bent of the Quarterly confirm what has long been the problem in our relation to Revelation: we understand it, but we only understand it vicariously? By “vicarious,” I mean that we have a few scholars, some evangelists, and a few pastors who understand the book for us. We cannot on our own reproduce what they tell us is there; we depend on their expertise; we trust them; most of us are in no position to do what is required without such help.

4. Does the text of Revelation invite the kind of interpretation endorsed in the Quarterly, with ten years for “the Diocletian persecution” and more than a thousand years for Thyatira as test cases?

5. Will the 2019 version of historicism carry the day for the next generation of Seventh-day Adventists, in the United States, in Europe, and in the rest of the world?

I plan to return to these questions in another “timeout” later in the series. Before I close, I would like to share something I read in a wonderful book by Robert Markus, entitled The End of Ancient Christianity (1990) and then a thought from Peter Brown’s little book, Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (1995).

To begin, Markus says that the foremost characteristic of Christianity from the second century onwards was not increasing worldliness but increasing other-worldliness. This is most explicit in the monastic movement, one strand of which had a profound influence on Augustine (354-430). The allure of the city and the pull of the desert competed for the upper hand among devout believers, and the desert won. Again, the problem was not worldliness but withdrawal from the world. Markus calls it an “ascetic invasion.” When the dust settled, otherworldliness won even as the monastic movement rejoined the city. Alasdair MacIntyre, quoted by Robert Markus, calls the transformation an “epistemological excision” in which the secular world all but disappears.

In this world of great paradox, society was massively “Christianized,” with Augustine as one of the most influential voices. Augustine was an ascetic, too, but he was not as intensely ascetic as contemporaries like Pelagius and Jerome. Markus attributes to Augustine the promotion of “Christian mediocrity,” a tempered spiritual state that sought a realistic equilibrium between body and spirit, city and desert, aspiration and achievement. Throughout, Markus seeks to do justice to the complexity of history. Eastern Christianity differs from the West. North Africa differs from Italy. Italy differs from Gaul (France). Northern Gaul differs from the more developed south. The complexity is irreducible and not easily captured by an -ism. And yet there is a trend, and it is this: “the elimination…from Christian discourse of a whole sphere which we may call ‘secular.’”

Peter Brown is the world’s foremost expert on this period, now renamed Late Antiquity, a period extending well into what historians used to call the Middle Ages. What Markus calls the embrace of “Christian mediocrity” in Augustine is still a more austere version of the Christian life than had been the case in prior times. Augustine raises the bar for what it means to be a Christian. But what if the project fails? What, indeed, if “Christianization” is doomed to be an ambiguous notion in the best of times? For this possibility, Augustine has a Plan B. “A myth of the ‘decline of the Church’ began to circulate, especially in Latin ascetic circles.” Brown continues,

The notion, of course, had always lain to hand, and was used by Christian preachers, such as Origen and Chrysostom, in order to rebuke their congregations for having degenerated from the high standard of an earlier age. But the notion of ‘the decline of the Church’ became, now, a major explanatory device for the entire present state of Christianity.

The historicist view of history resembles Augustine’s Plan B. Once upon a time, in the first century, the Church was truly Christian. Then decline set in. To Brown and Markus, however, the world is becoming more Christian all along, although the contest continues over what it means to be Christian. (Does a Christian attend the games at the Circus? Does he or she watch NFL games on TV?) Markus calls the excision of the secular world in the Christianity of Late Antiquity a crisis, and he finds telling words for it:

Such a crisis occurs when established traditions have become sterile and are seen to lead intellectually to a dead end; when the use of hitherto accepted ways of thought “begins to have the effect of disclosing new inadequacies, hitherto unrecognized incoherences, and new problems for the solution of which there seem to be insufficient or no resources within the established fabric of belief.” Such a crisis is resolved by the adoption of a “new and conceptually enriched scheme” which can simultaneously deal with the sterility and incoherence produced by its predecessor, account for the previous difficulty in doing so, and carry out these tasks “in a way which exhibits some fundamental continuity of the new conceptual and theoretical structures with the shared beliefs in terms of which the tradition of enquiry had been defined up to that point.” (Items in quotation marks are from MacIntyre.)

I apologize for this lengthy timeout, but I mean to be constructive. Is historicism in crisis, as scholars doubtful of its merits believe? Is there, as I have suggested in the foregoing, a discrepancy between the text of Revelation and some historicist interpretations, another discrepancy between historicism and actual history, and yet another discrepancy between historicism and the audience — you and me? I told my sister the other day that historicism in its current form (the Quarterly) describes history the way I describe the Alps from an airplane on a cloudy day, my plane flying not only high above the ground but also high above the clouds. Perhaps Markus’ view of the crisis at The End of Ancient Christianity could be a template for the next step? He spots the crisis, and his proposed remedy is not rejection but adjustment and renewal.

I would be pessimistic about the prospect for change if not for the fact that the historicists in my neck of the theological woods are fond of the message to the church at Laodicea. This church says of itself that “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (3:17). Let a discussion about the future of historicism begin by reading that text aloud.

Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9355

Sigve, has anyone published (perhaps as a doctoral thesis) an analysis of Reformation Historicism as compared to Uriah Smith’s historicism? I would be interested to see a full list of the differences. Perhaps we would be remiss to conflate those two different views when we assess the merits and faults of historicism.


I have a great deal of respect for the diplomatic skills with which Sigve deals with the historicist method. Actually it is a type of the allegorical method used by interpreters of established texts. The irony displayed in the last sentence lets the dove hid in the box fly away.


Doctor Tonstad,

While I appreciate your articulate attempt to clarify the book of Revelation,
many of us with graduate degrees, physicians, dentists, lawyers, accountants, MBAs, who have little or no theological background,
find the entire book of Revelation obscure, opaque, murky muddy and misty.

QUESTION : Since the majority of Christians in the two millennia post Revelation, have been “blue collar”, unlettered, illiterate, what did God have in mind in having John write the book, if even modern day professionals, find it puzzling, perplexing and problematic ??

I am of the opinion of agreeing with Martin Luther and others who think it should have been better left out of the canon of Scripture.

It is indecipherable except to those who have access to Ivy League libraries
allowing an exegesis of historical periods in the last two millennia that somehow tie in to symbols used in Revelation.

The average Joe / Jane can read the Gospels,with clarity, but get mired down and mystified by the muddle and maze of Revelation.


The bottom line of Revelation is the victory of the Lamb. Associated is the trials and final rescue of those who trust the Lamb and worship Him as Redeemer and King of Kings. Written in the days of the Caesars it’s symbolism is from the Old Testament and non canonical writings., Trying to make the beasts walk on four feet is impossible and certainly without merit.
Most important is that the Three Angels are telling us that the Gospel is the great and final confountation. If the Sabbath is the setting so be it. but it is not the major point of the contest.Certainly it is a real potential of timing. But the issue now and from the bringing until the end the issue is has been and will be Who,alone is worthy of worship.

the formation of compliance committees is more beast like than Lamb like.


Here is one suggestion: Kai Arasola, «The End of Historicism», 1990. A former teacher at Newbold College, whose lectures I had the opportunity to attend.


As I said somewhere else before, I never met two people who held the same, consistent interpretation of the Revelation mysteries in its details.
Better leaving it alone and reading the Gospels and other books that can be comprehended.


Perhaps the messages to the seven churches is not about time at all. Perhaps the seven churches represent seven states of mind rather than seven time periods.
If a modern day John were to write messages to the seven churches in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, New Orleans and Silver Springs. People in other locations who read the messages would know about those cities, their characteristics, what they were “famous” for. In so doing they would understand the context of the message and how it applied to each church.
In our effort to make sense, and to some extent take comfort from the messages, we apply them to periods of time. In essence we are saying “We are not like that, that period has past.” In the case of the modern church, we only have to guard against lukewarmness to be safe. My contention is that the seven states of mind can exist at any time. We need to be mindful at all times that we do not fall into one mindset while avoiding another.
Is the Book of Revelation a book of chapters which follows one after another to give a linear view of the future, or is it a book of short stories, that are not sequential but are all on the same theme, giving a different perspective of the events. Each story not quite give the complete picture but overlapping sufficiently so that you can see the whole story by stiching the individual pieces together.


You sure about that? The average SDA Joe reads The Great Controversy and uses Revelation as proof that it’s all from the Bible. That actually goes for the Gospels as well.


Historicism is said to be in crises because dates that are merely good guesses on the application of the seven churches in history are different from Uriah Smith’s. The author has deceptively made a mountain out of a molehill. These dates have never been particularly important. Historicism does not pretend in every instance to supply dates that cannot be questioned. The author does not attack the strong points of Historicism (2300 days, 1260 days, 538-1798, etc.) These dates are of vital importance and are supported by powerful evidence that no other critical approaches can touch. The author lacks basic intellectual fairness.


The author does not touch on the strengths of Historicism. And it has many strengths.

The most important are the historical visions of Daniel. The dream of the image is historical form start to finish, and is the simplest to interpret. It is God giving us a clue.

Revelation should be studied knowing the use John makes of the OT. The OT clues help with the interpretation, and as Robin notes above, since she has not made and in depth study, the book is confusing when read without careful reference to the OT where all kinds of clues are given.

SDA’s take those clues seriously, and so have a much better grasp fo he book than others, at least that is my opinion, and I have read the other’s views. As Marcus above says:

I agree with him.


Even historicists have never agreed with each other. And very clearly those scholars are not historians. Those using historicism rarely have a meaningful historical date for beginning or ending something

On the plus side, neither of the other main methods Preterism and Futurism have much to credit their views either. Though futurism has the advantage of always hoping it will be right in the future.

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  1. Will the historicist bent of the Quarterly confirm what has long been the problem in our relation to Revelation: we understand it, but we only understand it vicariously? By “vicarious,” I mean that we have a few scholars, some evangelists, and a few pastors who understand the book for us. We cannot on our own reproduce what they tell us is there; we depend on their expertise; we trust them; most of us are in no position to do what is required without such help.


I doubt that prophecy which requires such extensive efforts to ‘create’ an understanding is at the essential core of salvation. And while not suggesting others abandon their study of it, I find the competing interpretations that are produced to often be on equally tenuous grounds.

I generally relate to those prophecies that are complex and somewhat obscure (from our perspective) as though they are future assurances. That is, I apply Jesus’ words regarding his revealing of a betrayer: “Now I tell you before it come, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am he.” (John13:19 KJV) While we may not be able to succinctly understand or unequivocally explain the prophecy now, at some future time, Jesus will make it clear and it will be an assurance of His character.

Chapters 20, 21, and 22 are much less complex to interpret and contain statements that are similarly expressed elsewhere in the scriptures that help with their meaning and importance. These chapters bring closure to The Great Controversy theme that is threaded throughout the Bible.

Think of the Bible without the shout of Hallelujah that Revelation ends it with. Not that Jude is a bad book, but it does not compare with the color and exaltation of Revelation. The Bible would be flatter without it.

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By the time Futurists can see fulfillment, it will be too late for everyone else. Not that useful.

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After searching for a long time I finally was able to access Kai Arasola’s dissertation on the Scribd document subscription service.

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Such a crisis is resolved by the adoption of a “new and conceptually enriched scheme” which can simultaneously deal with the sterility and incoherence produced by its predecessor, account for the previous difficulty in doing so, and carry out these tasks “in a way which exhibits some fundamental continuity of the new conceptual and theoretical structures with the shared beliefs in terms of which the tradition of enquiry had been defined up to that point.”

This quote (if I understand it correctly) reminds me of the crisis in late first-century Judaism, following the destruction of the Second Temple. There were a number of attempts at reviving Judaism, which had been all but decimated by the events of 70 A.D. Of these, two viable alternatives eventually emerged: Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Both sought to address the religious vacuum created by the loss of the Second Temple. The Fourth Gospel, in particular, offers a ‘new and conceptually enriched scheme’ which provides for both continuity (with Judaism’s past) and renewal (through the person of Jesus Christ, who is presented as the New Temple). For me, the Gospel’s author provides us with a blueprint for moving a religious or theological tradition past its losses and failures in a way that honors the previous conceptual scheme but also totally transforms it. Is there a way to do this with our historicist past?

I was the one who originally scanned it several years ago and put it on Scribd. Others have replicated the file.

You’re welcome. :slightly_smiling_face:



Requisite to understanding that there is a “crisis of historicism” is a recognition of other, more fundamental, crises with respect to how we have interpreted the biblical text:

  1. Certain Seventh-day Adventists have promoted the crackpot notion that the meaning of the biblical text is plain, that a “plain reading” is all that is required to understand the biblical text’s meaning, and that we don’t need to know hermeneutics in order to interpret the biblical text. The demonstrable difficulty in interpreting Daniel 11 and Revelation refutes this notion. And as hermeneutics is gradually learned, if ever learned, a realization will begin to dawn that no part of the biblical text, indeed nothing, is plain.
  2. The notion that a dumb barely-literate farmer can understand the meaning of the biblical text as well as a learned scholar was urged by Martin Luther as a polemic and by Ellen White as an exhortation. Polemics and exhortations are fine, but the dawning realization for many Seventh-day Adventists that they are not smart and that there is so much about the biblical text that they do not understand has been traumatic.
  3. Ellen White understandably did not emphasize the manifestations of distance that impede our understanding of the biblical text, so as to not discourage the barely-literate farmers for whom she wrote and for whom reading the Bible from cover to cover was a major intellectual achievement. Consequently, a crisis has unfolded in Seventh-day Adventism as the realization has dawned that there are many heretofore-unnoticed manifestations of distance that impede our understanding of the biblical text.
  4. Historically, Seventh-day Adventist theology has not been based on hermeneutics. Consequently, a crisis has resulted from the dawning realization of our administrators, pastors, evangelists, and even most of our biblical scholars that nothing they have written or said is undergirded by an understanding of hermeneutics. Imagine the despair of grizzled veterans in our faith community upon being told that there is a necessary body of knowledge they need to learn in order to accurately interpret the biblical text.
  5. The little nuggets Seventh-day Adventists thought they knew about hermeneutics, offered by the Reformers, have been mostly wrong. Sensus literalis and the “single meaning” principle have been refuted by semiotics, given that signifiers do not point to things (res in Latin) as Augustine proposed but to concepts of things, as recognized by de Saussure. Consequently, signifieds pointed to by signifiers are in themselves signifiers. Claritas Scriptura is little more than a polemic. I think Sola Scriptura can still be defended, but it has been mercilessly assaulted by science. The Reformers’ emphasis on the power of grammatical knowledge has been severely undercut by linguistics, which instills a realization that we often exaggerate the capability of words to function as determinants of meaning.
  6. The recognition of Heidegger and Gadamer that we read into the text our own biases and presuppositions has caused a crisis not only in Seventh-day Adventism but in Christendom in general.
  7. The reality that knowledge is of a historical character, that the biblical text is historically conditioned, has plunged our faith community, ironically ignorant of all of this, into a crisis that is sensed but not cognitively understood. The “crisis of historicism” that is most problematic is not what this fine essay speaks of but of what Ernst Troeltsch spoke of as he observed the carnage of World War I.
  8. Even something as simple as confronting Seventh-day Adventism’s belief in the Great Apostasy Myth, that between the NT church and the Reformation the church went bust, has been traumatic. Who has been a greater exponent of the Trinity, Ellen White or Athanasius? There is much we can learn from what was taught during the Dark Ages. To be told that you need to study history (and the classics, too) can be traumatizing.

I could go on and on. Maybe this singular thought might spark in the minds of readers of this quarter’s Sabbath School Lessons: Maybe I should learn hermeneutics.

Just one thought about historicism, as that term is used with respect to interpreting Revelation. One question that is never asked in Seventh-day Adventism concerns the biblical author’s historiographical approach to representing the past. There are many different historiographical approaches one can adopt in representing the past. As you think about that question, consider that there are also different approaches one can take in depicting (I guess I cannot use the word “representing”) the future. Requisite to understanding Revelation is an understanding of historiography. And this question is more fundamental and more important than the debate between historicism, preterism, futurism, and idealism.


As if.

As if.

Learn hermeneutics.

Understand Revelation.

Understand historiography.

As if human brains are capable of such end goals.

Didn’t we learn better back in Genesis 3?

One might expect, with all the hundreds of books you have read, you would just explain Revelation to us, Phil.

But it can’t be done, isn’t meant to be done.

The Bible isn’t a vehicle for making our intellects Sovereign.

It is an instrument for breaking us, grinding us to powder.

We’ll find that out soon enough.