3 Schools of Interpretation
Out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, and even before, there developed three distinct schools of Biblical prophetic interpretation. A close examination as to the origins of these different views shall undoubtedly uncover which position is correct. I hope and pray that this information will help the reader to make a stance for the side of Truth and give strength to take those first steps "out of the midst of Babylon."
Let us take a look at what several well known authors, who lived while the more modern views were becoming prevalent, had to say on the subject.
"There are three methods of interpreting the book of Revelation--the Praeterist, the Futurist and the Historical (or continuous). The Praeterist maintains that the prophecies in Revelation have already been fulfilled-- that they refer chiefly to the triumph of Christianity over Judaism and paganism, signalized in the downfall of Jerusalem and of Rome. Against this view it is urged that if all these prophecies were fulfilled some 1400 years ago (the Western Roman Empire fell A.D. 476), their accomplishment should be so perspicuous as to be universally manifest, which is very far from being the case. The Futurist interpreters refer all the book, except the first three chapters, to events which are yet to come. Against this view it is alleged that it is inconsistent with the repeated declarations of a speedy fulfillment at the beginning and end of the book itself (I.3; xxii.6, 7, 12, 20). Against both these views it is argued that, if either of them is correct, the Christian Church is left without any prophetic guidance in the Scriptures, during the greater part of its existence; while the Jewish church was favored with prophets during the most of its existence. The Historical or Continuous expositors believe the Revelation a progressive history of the church from the first century to the end of time. The advocates of this method of interpretation are the most numerous, and among them are such famous writers as Luther, Sir Isaac Newton, Bengel, Faber, Elliot, Wordsworth, Hengstenburg, Alford, Fausset and Lee. The ablest living expositors of this class consider the seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders and seven vials as all synchronous, or contemporaneous, or parallel, a series of cyclical collective pictures, each presenting the entire course of the world (as connected with the church) down to the end of time; just as the seven churches in the first three chapters represent the universal church, the message to each pointing to the second coming of Christ." Elder Cushing Biggs Hassell, History of the Church of God, pp. 252, 253 (1876)
"So great a hold did the conviction that the Papacy was the Antichrist gain upon the minds of men (who held the historicist view), that Rome at last saw she must bestir herself, and try, by putting forth other systems of interpretation, to counteract the identification of the Papacy with the Antichrist.
"Accordingly, toward the close of the century of the Reformation, two of the most learned (Jesuit) doctors set themselves to the task, each endeavoring by different means to accomplish the same end, namely, that of diverting men's minds from perceiving the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Antichrist in the papal system. The Jesuit Alcazar devoted himself to bring into prominence the preterist method of interpretation,...and thus endeavored to show that the prophecies of Antichrist were fulfilled before the popes ever ruled in Rome, and therefore could not apply to the Papacy.
"On the other hand, the Jesuit Ribera tried to set aside the application of these prophecies to the papal power by bringing out the futurist system, which asserts that these prophecies refer properly, not to the career of the Papacy, but to some future supernatural individual, who is yet to appear, and continue in power for three and a half years. Thus, as Alford says, the Jesuit Ribera, about A.D. 1580, may be regarded as the founder of the futurist system of modern times.
"...It is a matter for deep regret that those who advocate the futurist system at the present day, Protestants as they are for the most part, are really playing into the hands of Rome, and helping to screen the Papacy from detection as the Antichrist." Rev. Joseph Tanner, Daniel and the Revelation, pp. 16, 17.
"Not only did the Reformers proclaim the mighty truth of justification by faith for the liberation of
men's souls, but they nerved thousands to break from the tyranny of the dark ages of the papacy by clearly identifying the antichrist of Bible prophecy. The symbols of Daniel, Paul and John were
applied with tremendous effect. The realization that the incriminating finger of prophecy rested
squarely on Rome aroused the consciousness of Europe. In alarm Rome saw that she must
successfully counteract this identification of antichrist with the papacy or lose the battle. She must
present plausible arguments which would cause men to look outside the medieval period for the
development of antichrist.
Jesuit scholarship rallied to the Roman cause by providing two plausible alternatives to the
historical interpretation of the Protestants.
1. Luis de Alcazar (1554-1630) of Seville, Spain, devised what became known as the 'preterist' system of prophetic interpretation. This theory proposed that the Revelation deals with events in the Pagan Roman Empire, that antichrist refers to Nero and that the prophecies were
therefore fulfilled long before the time of the medieval church. Alcazar's preterist system has never
made any impact on the conservative, or evangelical wing of the Protestant movement, although in the last one hundred years it has become popular among Protestant rationalists and liberals.
2. A far more successful attack was taken by Francisco Ribera (1537 - 1591) of Salamanca, Spain. He was the founder of the 'futurist' system of prophetic interpretation. Instead of placing antichrist way in the past as did Alcazar, Ribera argues that antichrist would appear way in the future. About 1590 Ribera published a five hundred page commentary on the Apocalypse, denying the Protestant application of antichrist to the church of Rome." M.L. Moser, Jr., An Apologetic of
Premillenialism, pp.26, 27.
"Through the Jesuits Ribera and Bellarmine, Rome put forth her futurist interpretation of prophecy. Ribera was a Jesuit priest of Salamanca. In 1585, he published a commentary on the Apocalypse, denying the application of the prophecies concerning antichrist to the existing Church of Rome." H. Grattan Guinness, Romanism and the Reformation From the Standpoint of Prophecy, p. 268 (1887)
"The futuristic School, founded by the Jesuit Ribera in 1591, looks for Antichrist, Babylon, and a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, at the end of the Christian Dispensation. The Praeterist School, founded by the Jesuit Alcazar in 1614, explains the Revelation by the fall of Jerusalem, or the fall of pagan Rome in 410 AD.." M.L. Moser, Jr., An Apologetic of Premillenialism, p.27 (Quoting G.S. Hitchcock, a Roman Catholic Author).
"We have traced in the last three lectures the antiquity, the practical use, and the systematic development of the historical interpretation of prophecy--the interpretation which regards Papal Rome as the Babylon of the Apocalyppse, and the Roman pontiff as "the man of sin." We have shown that the historical interpretation was the earliest adopted in the Christian Church; that it developed with the course of history; that it sustained the Church through the long central ages of apostasy; that it gave birth to the Reformation... It stood for ages, and is destined to remain till the light of eternity shall break upon the scene. The historic interpretation is no dream of ignorant enthusiasts. It has grown with the growth of generations; it has been built up by the labours of men of many nations and ages. It has been embodied in solemn confessions of the Protestant Church. It forms a leading element in the testimony of martyrs and reformers. Like the prophets of old, these holy men bore a double testimony--a testimony for the truth of God, and a testimony against the apostasy of His professing people...and this was their testimony and nothing less, that Papal Rome is the Babylon of prophecy, drunken with the saints and martyrs; and that its head, the Roman pontiff, is the predicted "man of sin," or antichrist.
To reject this testimony of God's providential witnesses on a matter of such fundamental import, and to prefer to it the counter-doctrine advocated by the apostate, persecuting Church of Rome, is the error and guilt of modern Futurism." H. Grattan Guinness, Romanism and the Reformation From the Standpoint of Prophecy, pp. 297, 298.
"Futurism is literalism, and literalism in the interpretation of symbols is a denial of their symbolic character. It is an abuse and degradation of the prophetic word, and a destruction of its influence. It substitutes the imaginary for the real, the grotesque and monsterous for the sober and reasonable. It quenches the precious light which has guided the saints for ages, and kindles a wild, delusive marshfire in its place. It obscures the wisdom of Divine prophecy; it denies the true character of the days in which we live; and while it asserts the nearness of the advent of Christ in the power and glory of His kingdom, it at the same time destroys the only substantial foundation for the assertion, which is prophetic chronology, and the stage now reached in the fulfillment of the predictions of the apostasy." H. Grattan Guinness, Romanism and the Reformation From the Standpoint of Prophecy, pp. 298, 299. (1887)
"But mark, this is a question of Rome's judgment concerning herself, and the bearing of prophecy on her own history and character. It is here in this judgment that the Futurist claims that Rome was right, and the Reformers in the wrong. And the consequences are most serious, for we are living in an age of revived Papal activity." H. Grattan Guinness, Romanism and the Reformation From the standpoint of Prophecy, p. 256.
"To resist the use to which Scripture prophecy was put by the reformers is no light or unimportant matter. The system of prophetic interpretation known as Futurism does resist this use. It condemns the interpretation of the reformers. It condemns the views of all these men, and of all the martyrs, and of all the confessors and faithful witnesses of Christ for long centuries. It condemns the Albigenses, the Waldenses, the Wycliffites, the Hussites, the Lollards, the Lutherans, the Calvinists; it condemns them all, and upon a point upon which they are all agreed, an interpretation of Scripture which they embodied in their solemn confessions and sealed with their blood. It condemns the spring of their action, the foundation of the structure they erected. How daring is this act, and how destitute of justification! What an opposition to the pillars of a work most manifestly Divine! For it is no less than this, for Futurism asserts that Luther and all the reformers were wrong in this fundamental point. And whose interpretation of prophecy does it justify and approve? That of the Romanists. Let this be clearly seen. Rome felt the force of these prophecies, and sought to evade it. It had no way but to deny their applicability. It could not deny their existence in Scripture. They were there plainly enough. But it denied that these prophecies referred to the Romish Church and its head. It pushed them aside. It shifted them from the entire field of mediaeval and modern history." H. Grattan Guinness, Romanism and the Reformation from the Standpoint of Prophecy, pp. 251, 252.
Rev. Joseph Tanner, (1898, an English Protestant):
"Accordingly, towards the close of the century of the Reformation, two of her [Rome's] most learned doctors set themselves to the task, each endeavoring by different means to accomplish the same end, namely, that of diverting men's minds from perceiving the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Antichrist in the papal system. The Jesuit Alcazar devoted himself to bring into prominence the Preterist method of interpretation, which we have already briefly noticed, and thus endeavored to show that the prophecies of Antichrist were fulfilled before the popes ever ruled at Rome, and therefore could not apply to the Papacy. On the other hand the Jesuit Ribera tried to set aside the application of these prophecies refer properly not to the career of the Papacy, but to that of some future supernatural individual, who is yet to appear, and to continue in power for three and a half years. Thus, as Alford says, the Jesuit Ribera, about A.D. 1580, may be regarded as the Founder of the Futurist system in modern times." M.L. Moser, Jr., An Apologetic of Premillenialism, p.27
Futurism Comes to the United States
"Edward Irving (1792 - 1834), born in Scotland and a brilliant Presbyterian preacher, became a noted expositor in the British Advent Awakening. At first a historicist in his approach to the prophecies, Irving came to adopt futuristic views." M.L Moser, Jr., An Apologetic of Premillenialism, p. 28.
Unfortunately Irving's divergence from the truth did not end here. Along with his change of position on prophetic interpretation he also incorporated several other fanaticisms into his new theology.
"...He despaired of the church being able to complete her gospel commission by the ordinary means of evangelism and began to believe and preach about the miraculous return of the gifts and power of the early church.
"In 1831 the 'gift of tongues' and other 'prophetic utterances' made their appearance among his followers, first in Scotland among some women and then in London. Irving never detected the imposture and gave credence to these new revelations. Under the influence of these revelations of 'the Holy Ghost' 'by other tongues,' a new aspect was added to the expectation of future antichrist -the rapture of the church before the advent of Christ. The novel origin of this novel theory has embarrassed some of its advocates, and in the face of certain lack of evidence heretofore, the defenders of this novel theory have tried to deny its historical beginning. But the recent discovery in a rare book of Rev. Robert Norton entitled the Restoration of Apostles and Prophets In the Catholic Apostolic Church, published in 1861, establishes the origin of this innovative doctrine beyond all question. Norton was a participant in the Irvingite movement. The idea of a two-stage coming of Christ first came to a Scottish lass, Miss Margaret MacDonald of Port Glasgow, Scotland, while she was in a 'prophetic' trance." M.L. Moser, Jr., An Apologetic of Premillennialism, p.28.(Research was done at Central Baptist College, Conway, AR)
Actually, the trance that Miss MacDonald was under occurred while she was deliriously ill. As pointed out in Arnold Dillimore's book, Forerunner of the Charismatic Movement, Miss MacDonald was a semi-invalid who was prone to be taken away with her feelings, impressions and revelations.
It was through the fervor of a local preacher, McLeod Cambell, the histerical impressions and feelings of Miss MacDonald, and the desire above all reason of Edward Irving for a return of the gifts that the grass roots of the Charismatic movement began in Scotland. It soon spread like wildfire, and through the close association of John Nelson Darby, Irving's movement came to the United States.
John Nelson Darby:
"Secondly, Darby and almost all the Plymouth Brethren advocated a futurist rather than historicist interpretation of the book of Revelation.... The historicist party, represented by almost all those millenarians discussed earlier in this chapter, judged that much of Daniel was recapitulated in the book of Revelation and the two accounts could be used to interpret each other. They believed that the events described in the Apocalypse were being fulfilled in European history.... The futurists believed that none of the events predicted in Revelation (following the first three introductory chapters) had yet occurred and that they would not occur until the end of this dispensation. Associated with this rejection of the historicists' harmonizing of Daniel and Revelation was the futurists' attack upon the year-day theory, so vital to the dating of the 1,260 years to 1798. At the first Powerscourt conference the announced topic for Wednesday was 'proof if 1260 days' means days or years.
The futurist position did not originate with the Plymouth Brethren. Sixteenth-century Roman Catholic commentators had countered Protestant attacks upon the papacy as the Antichrist by insisting that none of the events relating to Antichrist had yet occurred....As has been true so frequently in the history of religious controversy, futurism did not become a real threat to the historists and an attractive alternative prophetic position until accepted by believers. This occurred when Darby, Newton, and the Plymouth Brethren adopted futurism.
"...Darby introduced into discussion at Powerscourt the ideas of a secret Rapture of the church and of a parenthesis in prophetic fulfillment between the sixty-ninth and seventieth week of Daniel (chapter 9). These two concepts constituted the basic tenets of the system of theology since referred as dispensationalism.... Neither Darby nor Newton seems to have become estranged at this time. Darby held an open mind on both of these subjects as late as 1843. (Benjamin Wills) Newton remembered, years later, opposing both positions. Commenting upon Darby's interpretation of the seventy weeks of Daniel, Newton remarked, 'The secret rapture was bad enough, but this (futurism) was worse.'"Ernest R. Standeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, British and American Millenarianism 1800-1930, pp. 36, 37, 38 (University of Chicago Press - Chicago & London).
The movement for futurism, the secret rapture and the gift of tongues all developed in the 1830's in the Scottish church, pastored by Edward Irving, by a woman named Miss Margaret McDonald. She gave what was believed, at the time, to be an inspired utterance. She spoke of the visible, open and glorious second coming of Christ. But as the utterance continued, she spoke of another coming of Christ -- a secret and special coming in which those that were truly ready would be raptured. It was John Nelson Darby, a Brethren preacher and a diligent writer of the time in England -- who was largely responsible for introducing this new teaching on a large scale. In the 1850's and 1860's, this theory was introduced into the United States, in a large degree when Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, a strong believer in Darby's teachings, incorporated it into the notes of his Scofield Reference Bible which was published in 1909.
It didn't happen all at once, but through time the Papacy's maneuver to avoid detection as the antichrist power has taken hold of the majority of professed Christians today. Stealthfully she has laid her trap and the world has walked right into it. "Never was there a time in the Church's history when she more needed the barriers which prophecy has erected for her protection. And now when they are so sorely needed, they are not to be found. Futurism has crept into the Protestant Church, and broken down these sacred walls..." H. Grattan Guinness, Romanism and the Reformation From the Standpoint of Prophecy, p. 257 (1887)
For more information on the origins of the rapture theory see the booklet One Raptured, the Other Left?.