A Few Thoughts on the Methods of Prophetic Interpretation
In my last posting on the prophecies of Daniel, the post on Daniel 9 to be specific, many of you may have noticed that the interpretation presented differed somewhat, especially in regard to the 70th week, from what you are accustomed to seeing. That is because what I presented was the classic Historicist interpretation of the prophecy. As I have noted before, I use the classic Historicist approach to interpreting the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation.
Historicism is the most ancient of all the schools of prophetic interpretation. It was used by the Jews long before the Christian era to interpret the book of Daniel. It was used by the early Christian churches to interpret both Daniel and Revelation. Once the dominate method of prophetic interpretation, it has in recent decades been overshadowed by two other (newer) systems of prophetic interpretation. But of the various schools of prophetic interpretation out there Historicism alone has truly stood the test of time.
Historicism, as its name implies, looks at the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation as tracing the entire course of world history in an unbroken line from the prophets own day to and in some cases beyond the second coming. For example, there are four major prophetic sequences in Daniel, each succeeding prophecy repeating, expanding and elaborating on the previous one. Each prophetic sequence is rooted in history, (tracing the whole course of world history) and yet focused on the time of the end. The first of these is in Daniel 2 - which is the simplest of them all - and it serves as the foundation/template upon which all the other prophecies of Daniel are built. The prophetic sequences of Revelation follow this same pattern of repeat and enlarge.
However you should know that there are two other primary schools of interpretation out there in competition with the historicist approach.
The first of these is the Preterits approach. It is essentially a denial of predictive prophecy, and was initially developed by pagans early in the Christian era in an effort of undermine Christianity. Christians were using the prophecies, especially that of Daniel 9, with such effect that the pagan world felt that it had to come up with an answer, and that answer was a preterits interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel. However at the time it had little impact on the Christian world, but has in recent decades had a revival in popularity, especially in liberal Christian circles. Those who use this approach believe that most of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation have already been fulfilled in the past and more than that, that the prophecies were actually written after the fact. To them the prophecies are merely history written as if it was yet to happen. Preterits generally don’t believe that Daniel was written by Daniel but by some unknown second century author some 400 years after Daniel’s day; and also that all the prophecies of Revelation were written after the fact and met their fulfillment in the 1st century, either in the destruction of Jerusalem or in the persecutions under Nero.
The second competing approach to prophetic interpretation is called the Futurist method. This method takes the opposite approach from the Preterits. Instead of placing all the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation safely in the distant past, they shove large chunks of it to a nice conveniently distant future. Those who advocate this view usually interpret prophecy on the basis of the latest headline. -It is a very speculative approach to prophetic interpretation, yet this is without question the most popular approach to prophetic interpretation today.
The Protestant Reformers all used the historicist method of interpreting prophecy. And they used the historicist method because that is the method that had been used since before the beginning of Christianity. And using this method of interpretation they clearly identified the Roman church as being Babylon, the beast of Revelation 13, and the little horn of Daniel 7 - in short, to the Protestant Reformers, the Papacy was the antichrist of Scripture.
Rome, in its defense convened a special council in 1545 beginning what has become known as the Counter Reformation. This council took place in northern Italy in the city of Trent, and is now known as the Council of Trent.
One of the Counter Reformation tactics they adapted was a decision to reinterpret the prophecies about the little horn and the beast, etc. In the course of time two Spanish Jesuits rose to the challenge, Louis de Alcasar (1554-1613) of Seville and Franciso Rivera (1537-1591) of Salamanca. Their strategy was, (in a nutshell), one of reapplication and diversion, yet they went in opposite directions. Alcasar decided to apply the Bible's antichrist prophecies to the ancient past; essentially resurrecting the old pagan Preterits approach, while Ribera applied them to the distant future. By reapplying these prophecies to the past and to the future instead of to the present, these two Jesuit scholars sought to divert the prophetic finger away from the Vatican.
Initially both of these approaches to prophecy went over like lead balloons in the Protestant world. However modified versions of these schools of prophetic interpretation reemerged in the late 19th century and for many years were held mainly among the more extreme fringe groups of Protestantism before exploding across the Protestant world in the 1970’s, and now there is a whole generation that for the most part has known nothing but the futurist version of prophecy. Many have no idea what a historicist interpretation is or that there even ever was such a thing. .
But Historicism is what Protestants used to teach, and that is what I present in these postings on the book of Daniel, and is what I will also use when I get around to posting on the prophecies of Revelaton. In essence, historicism teaches straight forward, chronological progression by saying that the major prophecies of Daniel and Revelation find fulfillment throughout Christian history while pointing toward the climatic, visible second coming of Jesus.