Noted Australian Adventist scholar, Desmond Ford, some years ago claimed that "the historicism that proclaimed dates such as AD 538, 1798 and 1844 as biblical is now dead among most Adventist scholars (Spectrum, January 1998). As evidence, he cites the title of the book, The End of Historicism, by another Adventist scholar, Kai Arasola of Finland.
Dr. Arasola currently teaches at the church's Middle East college in Beirut. He submitted his doctoral dissertation on the prophetic interpretation of William Miller to the University of Uppsala in 1989. It was published by the university a year later.
Historicism is a method of interpreting apocalyptic prophecies that understands the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation as being fulfilled throughout history, hence the name "historicism." Other methods used to interpret apocalyptic prophecies are futurism, which sees most of these prophecies being fulfilled in the future; and preterism, which sees them fulfilled in the past.
Historicism is the oldest school of prophetic interpretation. It can be traced back to some of the church Fathers, for instance, Irenaeus, Hippolytus and Jerome. It was taught by Joachim of Floris in the twelfth century and became the standard method of interpretation until the Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century.
During the Counter-Reformation, Roman Catholic scholars propagated preterism and futurism to deflect charges by the Reformers that the pope is the antichrist. Soon after the Counter-Reformation, preterism gained a strong foothold among Protestants. Then, during the nineteenth century, futurism began to replace historicism as the dominant method of interpreting Daniel and Revelation among conservative Protestant Christians.
What Arasola really says
The title of Arasola's book The End of Historicism sounds ominous, but it is not as bad as it sounds. What Arasola says in his dissertation is that historicism reached its peak with the Millerite movement, and then declined. Today, it is primarily Seventh-day Adventist scholars who still use the historical method of prophetic interpretation.
Arasola says, "Very few, outside of former Millerites, dared to keep on using the continuous historical hermeneutic as it was charged with Millerism's infamous failure. This is the reason for the title The End of Historicism. However, one should not get the impression that historicism is dead. There were people who remained faithful to the old hermeneutic, and the denominations that grew out of Millerism now have millions of adherents. The change that took place simply means that within a few decades from Miller, historicism was no more than standard Protestant method in the universities, theological seminaries or in the churches" (pages 1, 2, italics added).
After describing the characteristics of historicism, and evaluating Miller's view of prophecy and history, Arasola concludes, "Millerism had come to an end. With it historicism gradually ceased to be the only popular method of interpretation. It was largely replaced by futurism and preterism. Yet one must acknowledge that in fact historicism did not die with Miller. It still lives in a modified and partly renewed form within the groups that have some roots in Millerism.
"The fact that some of these groups are growing rapidly shows that the method still has vitality. Miller's heritage is twofold. On the one hand he contributed to the end of a dominant system of exegesis, on the other he is regarded as a spiritual father by millions of Christians who have taken some part of the Millerite exegesis as their raison d'etre. Whether he would be happy to be so regarded is another matter? (pages 171-2, italics added).
Arasola's conclusion is correct. Conservative Christians today have, by and large, accepted futurism. Liberal Christians, conditioned by the historical-critical method, espouse a modified form of preterism.
In the light of these facts, it is disturbing to see Arasola's book misused. It is not very helpful to quote a dissertation to support a view that neither the dissertation nor its author share. Nor is it correct to say that historicism is now dead among most Adventist scholars. A recent Bible Conference in Jerusalem (June 1998) was attended by more than 200 Adventist Bible scholars from around the world, most of whom, if not all, still accept and use historicism.
The fact that Seventh-day Adventists today are the only major denomination that still holds to the historical interpretation of prophecy should not disturb us. It is the method used in the book of Daniel and, until the 19th century, it was the major method of interpretation among Protestant scholars. While most churches today have abandoned it, God, through the Spirit of Prophecy, has confirmed this method in the remnant church.
Gerhard Pfandl writes from Silver Spring, Maryland, where he works as Associate Director in the Biblical Research Institute in the General Conference.