Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism


Surely a crisis awaits you, personally, if you imagine you can intellectually transcend this, Phil.

Epistemological limits are baked in.

Of making books there is no end.

“Canst thou by searching find out God?”


No finite mind can fully comprehend the character or the works of the Infinite One. We cannot by searching find out God.

To minds the strongest and most highly cultured, as well as to the weakest and most ignorant, that holy Being must remain clothed in mystery.

But though “clouds and darkness are round about Him: righteousness and judgment are the foundation of His throne.”

We can so far comprehend His dealing with us as to discern boundless mercy united to infinite power. We can understand as much of His purposes as we are capable of comprehending; beyond this we may still trust the hand that is omnipotent, the heart that is full of love.

It is impossible for any human mind to exhaust even one truth or promise of the Bible.

One catches the glory from one point of view, another from another point; yet we can discern only gleamings.

The full radiance is beyond our vision.

As we contemplate the great things of God’s word, we look into a fountain that broadens and deepens beneath our gaze.

Its breadth and depth pass our knowledge.

As we gaze, the vision widens; stretched out before us we behold a boundless, shoreless sea.

(Robert Lindbeck) #23

@Cassie it reminds me of those spectacular timelines that move out from the very mico-sized atom (our understanding/comprehension of God) to the ever increasing size of planets, solar systems and the universe. The more we individually come to understand the more we see there is to learn about God. One aspect of the awe we experience in facing God is the realisation of just how incomprehensible He is to our human minds. The other is that this awsome being wants a personal relationship with us. That in order to have that relationship, He sent His Son, a part of Him, to a world He knew would reject His Son. Why? Because He wants all of us to be with Him, everyone who will accept the invitation.

(Peter Marks) #24



Greetings! I must endorse what Allen Shepherd says.

The book of Revelation uses so much of the symbolism of the book of Daniel. What is more, the four great historical and prophetic outlines given in Daniel 2, 7, 8 & 9, and 10 to 12 are most simply and naturally understood by using the principles of historicism. And there is a reason why many have referred to Daniel 2 as the ABC’s of Bible prophecy.

And it would seem to me that to observe the same time periods and very similar descriptions of the beast powers in the books of Daniel and the Revelation and yet turn away from using the same principles of interpretation for both documents is unwarranted.

Sigve, you are correct! The letters to the seven communities in Rev 2 & 3 seems in many ways to be very different in nature from the rest of the book. Personally, I find it difficult to transition from viewing these letters as notes from Jesus to the angels of the various literal communities of Asia Minor on one hand to viewing them as an extended reference to seven historical periods. The lack of apocalyptic symbolism in these chapters would seem to defeat such a transition. Perhaps we as believers living in these end times can transition to understanding these communities as representing seven periods of church history only to the extent that we understand that such analogies can be made by virtue of the continuous flow of details that appear to jell with history.

I feel that the principles of historicism are least helpful in helping us interpret Rev 2 & 3. My question is - why then use these chapters to overturn these principles. This appears to be the weakness in your argumentation.

Through the years, I have appreciated your rejection of the principles of preterism as enshrined in the Imperial theology so often used to interpret the book of Revelation. And you would likely agree that futurism has little to offer. Yet your musings concerning the so called crisis of historicism leave us in limbo! Please explain!!

(Sigve Tonstad) #25

Peter. Thank you for your comments. I am not advocating wholesale rejection of historicism, and I say so explicitly at the end of my submission. I am advising the most ardent historicists to stop digging a deeper whole than the one we’re in. One of the comments suggests that the dates suggested for the periods of the seven churches are not important (I am making a mountain out of a molehill). I respond that discerning readers who are not historicists, will not be appeased by his answer. If the Spectrum editors let me, I will say a bit more in a future “timeout.” I agree that Daniel is a key background text for Revelation and a key framework for what we call historicism. And yet I will claim that “historicism” has left out the absolutely, overwhelmingly, by-far-the-most-important message of Daniel. I hope to say clearly in a future posting on the text or in a “Timeout” what the left-out part is. To those already critical of my approach, I hope you will hear me out.

(Peter Marks) #26

Sigve! I await your musings on the book of Daniel. As you know, I have a high regard for so much of what you have written. Your take on the “cosmic conflict” theme and its larger dimensions in the book of Revelation has helped me tremendously.

Your classroom presentations on the book of Revelation have much good material in them. Though your very limited commenting on Rev 14 is a little perplexing.

(Steven Siciliano) #27

I recall reading that Martin Luther thought his generation was Laodicea, as did William Miller (until, in retrospect, the years in which Miller worked were later labeled the Philadelphia period by the Adventist pioneers). I have little doubt that throughout the two millennia since Revelation was written many if not most expositors with an apocalyptic frame of mind concluded that they too were living in the Laodicean era.

My question is this. Assuming historicism is a valid way to go about interpreting the book, what controls might there be for using the historicist method such that we can have confidence about what any particular symbol or event in the book may represent in real history? In other words, what prevents a given expositor from reading into the symbols any application that suits his or her own times and biases?


That is a inadvertent description of precisely what we need, I think, Sigve. :slight_smile:

Phil’s instincts are right to reach for an exponentially broader hermeneutic, I believe.

But it is an Adventist conceit to continually imagine a hill upon which we are, or can be, king, having lined up all the pins to crack the theological lock.

Again, not a bad instinct, I think, as long as one understands that Incarnation, not intellectual mastery is the Omega Point. The Deeper Whole.

Jesus asked the man by the pool of Bethesda, “Wilt thou be made whole?”

The man answered that he had no man to help him, whereupon Jesus bypassed the pool altogether, and the man was made whole.

There is no Intellectual Gate to the Kingdom.

But we continually separate our soteriology and our eschatology, splitting our hearts from our minds, and ultimately splitting our church.

These disparate things must be embodied in order to harmonize, or even exist as more than mere concepts.

Eve was not a thing apart from Adam. Contingency and determinancy are forever wedded. One flesh.

The Advent impulse to progress to wholeness is a very good one, I think.

I believe this historic groundswell of Spirit will come to fruition, regardless of the fate of the trademarked Seventh-day Adventist corporation.

The earth brings forth fruit of herself.

I look forward to that.

Interesting that Daniel (like SDAs) realized that he must embody his message, and Daniel was “fairer and fatter” because of that realization.

Daniel achieved a Deeper Whole.


This is the core message. Thanks, Tom, for always focusing on Christ and as you call it, “The Christ Event.”

(Elmer Cupino) #30

As I was seated in our sabbath school lesson this morning I was wondering of other conceivable interpretations to this week’s study of Revelation one of which is to understand it in terms of stages and progression of a relationship and not just to trumpet that our church is "the " only true church. When someone enters into a new relationship, the fantasies involved in its initiation fuels the early stages and as fantasies give way to reality, the quality of the relationship undergoes dramatic changes. Some who are unable to accept reality eventually terminate the relationship as evidenced by the fact that most divorces occur after seven years of marriage. To use this week’s Revelation to support church’s doctrines that we are “the” true church would be delusional at best and counterproductive and could promote complacency, a characteristic of the Laodician church.

The lesson to be learned instead is to solidify the quality of our relationship with God instead of proselytizing.

(Steve Mga) #31

Jesus is quoted as saying, “IF you love Me……”
Love comes first.
“…keep My commandments.”
Without Love it is just a WORKS relationship. A constant Fear that what
is done might not be good enough. That one might NOT be loved back
When the Anxiety becomes too great, separation and/or divorce is in the

(Thomas J Zwemer) #32

One should read the Three Angels Messages in the context of the three worthies of Daniel. The command was to worship the image. it continued When the trumps sounded. thus the test is worship the Beast rather than than the Lamb. The when may be included as to a day but the when is far less important than The Who. It is note worthy to observe that God. Finished creation at Sun down and Christ finished redemption at sundown.
None the less God in Christ is worthy of worship 24/7. The problem the SDA Church sees itself is the autocratic Investigative nature of leadership. Far more beast like than Lamb like.


I think jt is right that we study the book of Revelation perhaps in its original language Greek , paying greater attention not only to the style of writing which would include several literary devices and so on, but to the intent of the writer. I do believe that Jesus Himself would have communicated to John the intended meaning of all aspects of Revelation, if He wanted to, but perhaps He saw it best not to relate the meaning of all that John saw. As much as I am in agreement with the fact that Jesus should be the very center of all that we say or do, we should strive for accuracy even in biblical exegesis. I believe study of The Revelation , like the study of Daniel or any other prophetic portion of Scripture can be understood, if we try to derive the meaning from the body of text under consideration itself, rather than imposing external meanings to the same. If the meaning of some portion within Revelation is to be understood with the aid of other Scriptures within the Bible, then let that method be utilised.
I for one will re- read Revelation from beginning to end, asking God to help me to understand what He has communicated, and in so doing point others to Jesus Christ- the True Lamb who takes away the sin of the world,

(Scott M Esh) #34

Christ himself said that there was a blessing for those who read Revelation. If we uneducated masses are too stupid to understand the book, then salvation is only for the theologically gifted. Hence, God is not fair, and the take then on this idea is that most of us will be lost due to lack of intelligence. Dangerous ground indeed.

(Scott M Esh) #35

You can read the book of Revelation for the rest of your life and never remotely come to the truth. The reason this is true is that in the very first verse of Revelation, God told us that He wrote it in symbols. Look up the word “signified” and you will see that that is true. If you don’t decode the symbols, you will not know what was said. Revelation was not written so we could try to guess the truth. Christ also stated that we are not to add or subtract a single word of Revelation, so our job is to precisely decode the symbols and see what God is saying. If we leave out the book of Revelation from the canon, I.e. our study, no one will have the necessary knowledge needed to end the great controversy.


What exactly is that knowledge?

(Harry Elliott) #37

Are they really strong points? The way the historicists seem to play the game is:

  1. Find a date that you want to be one end of a historical period. (Say 1798, the year that one of Napoleon’s subordinates captured a sick pope who died while in custody.)

  2. Calculate the other terminus by simple arithmetic. If there’s no evidence that the result (say 538) had any historical distinction, use it anyway.

William Miller preached that the Papacy was “established” in 538 (wrong) and abolished in 1798 (wrong). His audiences got out their slate I-Pads, confirmed that the time between the two dates was 1260 years and were convinced that he was onto something big.

Then he got them really excited when he showed them 15 Bible proofs that Jesus would return in 1843. (Don’t ask.)

I think that the problem was/is that it’s game with no rules and no referees.:wink:

(Scott M Esh) #38

ARevelation 1:1 tells us that there are two reasons why the book of Revelation was written. First, to show God’s people what is going to happen in the future, and second to reveal more about Jesus Christ.

Revelation is the only book that tells us about the United States role in the great controversy. Almost all of Revelation 13 has important information on what events bring about the end of the world, who does it, when they do it, and the results of the conspiracy. Revelation 20 gives us details about the White throne judgment that is found virtually no where else in the Bible. Revelation chapters 1-3 tell us information about what is going to happens to the church down through the ages found nowhere else in the Bible. You may be able to figure out how to have a relationship with Christ without Revelation, but you will be completely clueless on how to protect that relationship because you will have a very difficult time figuring out what is going to happen next. Hopelessness could be a very real factor without knowing what is going to happen next. But, you say the end of the world could still happen without Revelation. O.k. Then let’s be honest, if we don’t need Revelation, then we don’t need Daniel either. Take Daniel and Revelation away and the purpose of the Day of Atonement’s function becomes unclear. This renders your salvation experience incomplete and the great controversy cannot be ended in God’s favor.

In short, get rid of Revelation and virtually all the pillars that founded and make Adventism function go away. The investigative judgment, overcoming sin, the three angel’s messages, the 144,000, the white throne judgment, all gone.

So if you believe that Revelation is not needed, in reality you are saying that Adventism s not needed, and that we believe what all the other denominations believe.

Goodbye Revelation, goodbye Adventism.

(Harry Elliott) #39

Mmm. Did God say that He wrote it, or did He tell John to write it?
…Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book,(Rev 1:11)

I take that to mean that John was the stenographer, and didn’t necessarly understand what he was witnessing. IOW, he didn’t cleverly write in symbolic language, like we’ve been taught. He wrote in normal language descriptions of symbols that he saw. Adventist tradition rejects that, to the peril of our understanding.

For instance, in Rev 20, he obediently tells us that he saw the dragon

  1. Bound in a pit
  2. So that he could not deceive the nations

Yet The Great Controversy teaches us that

  1. He roamed the earth freely and
  2. There were no nations there to deceive.

Do you really think that that’s necessary knowledge or is it error? (Remember, Ellen White acknowledged that she did not claim infallibility.)


I don’t mind people applying historicism to Revelation 2-3 so much. What I do mind is the lesson basically just throwing its hands up at some of the dates. “We don’t know exactly when Sardis is, but it’s about 1565-1740. Carry on.”

What other time prophecy works this way? “From the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem” had people digging through hoary Achaemenid records to find the exact start date!

Again, I don’t mind people applying the churches to historical eras. I really don’t. But if you’re going to do it, do it right. What happened in 1565 or 1740? The lesson doesn’t say, and as it stands with these dates, Sardis the dead church is…much of the Protestant Reformation? That has to be a little confusing for most readers.


I think my biggest problem is that we default to historicism, to the exclusion of everything else. Every. Single. Time.

Look at Ephesus. They’re all fired up about rooting out sin, but they’ve lost their love. That sounds like legalism to me. Pergamos compromises too much. Thyatira is struggling but trying hard to improve. Sardis flat out doesn’t care anymore. And on and on.

And despite all their screwups (and the ensuing admonitions), there’s still a promise to those who overcome at each church. Just once, it’d be nice to review the churches from that perspective. Does your own personal experience resemble [Church X]? Here’s what God has to say to you.

Our traditional study doesn’t make time for such an obvious practical application that’s right there, and I think that’s what really bothers me.