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Interpreting 7 Trumpets: Jon Paulien

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“The End of Historicism? Reflections on the Adventist Approach to Biblical Apocalyptic– Part One”


Accepted for publication in Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 12 (Fall, 2004)

Jon Paulien, Ph.D.

Andrews University

            The Seventh-day Adventist Church derives its unique witness to Jesus Christ from a historicist reading of the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Historicism understands these prophecies to portray a relentless march of God-ordained history leading from the prophet’s time up to a critical climax at the end of earth’s history. Footnote The interpretation of biblical apocalyptic was at the center of Adventist theological development in the formative years of the Adventist Church and its theology. Footnote

            There were many reasons for this emphasis on apocalyptic. 1) Daniel and Revelation provided much of the content that makes Adventist theology unique in the Christian world. 2) These apocalyptic books furnished the core of Adventist identity and mission, leading to the conviction that the Advent movement was to play a critical role in preparing the world for the soon return of Jesus. 3) The apocalyptic sense that God was in control of history supplied confidence to go on even when the movement was small and difficulties were large. 4) The sense of an approaching End fostered by the study of Daniel and Revelation supplied the motivation to take the Adventist message to the world in a relatively short period of time. While many Christians, including some Adventists, Footnote disagreed with the conclusions that the Adventist pioneers drew from Daniel and Revelation, few in the early years challenged the historicist pre-suppositions Footnote behind those conclusions, as they were widely held within Protestant scholarship in North America through at least the mid-1800s.

            In the 20th Century, however, the historicist approach to apocalyptic has been increasingly marginalized in the scholarly world. A book that charts that marginalization was written as a doctoral dissertation by Kai Arasola, an Adventist church administrator in Sweden. Footnote Arasola points out that before the time of William Miller (1782-1849), the founder of the movement that spawned the Seventh-day Adventist Church among others, nearly all protestant commentators on apocalyptic utilized the historicist method of interpreting prophecy. In his book Arasola discusses the excesses of Miller’s historicist hermeneutic that caused historicism to be generally discredited among scholars. Within a few years of the Great Disappointment Footnote the “centuries-old, well-established historical method of prophetic exposition lost dominance, and gave way to both dispensationalist futurism and to the more scholarly preterism.” Footnote Extremely well-written and carefully nuanced, the book is not a diatribe against historicism, as some have suggested from its title, it is rather a historical documentation of the process by which historicism became sidelined within the scholarly debate on apocalyptic.

            According to Arasola, historicism as an interpretive method became generally discredited in large part because the followers of Miller shifted, in 1842 and 1843, from a general anticipation of the nearness of the Advent to an attempt to determine the exact time. Footnote With the passing of the time set by the “seventh-month movement” under the leadership of Samuel Snow, the methods of Millerism and Miller himself became the object of ridicule, Footnote a ridicule that continues in some scholarly circles to this day. Footnote

            In conclusion, Arasola soberly suggests that Miller’s heritage is two-fold. “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 parts of the millerite exegesis as their raison d’etre.” Footnote While historicism has been replaced in the popular consciousness by preterism and futurism, it is not, in fact, dead. It lives on in a modified and partly renewed form in the churches that built their faith on Miller’s heritage.

            The purpose of this article is to take a candid look at the current scholarly debate over apocalyptic and its implications for Seventh-day Adventist study of Daniel and Revelation. The particular focus is the degree to which the historicist approach is still appropriate to the biblical apocalypses of Daniel and Revelation. I begin with a brief look at how the process Arasola described is beginning to erode confidence in historicism among the “millions” of Miller’s spiritual descendants. I will then review the current state of the scholarly debate over apocalyptic and how that impacts the Seventh-day Adventist (hereafter SDA) perspective. After suggesting some guidelines for appropriate interpretation of biblical apocalyptic, I will argue that a historicist approach, in spite of the scholarly consensus against it, is in fact the most appropriate approach to certain passages within biblical apocalyptic.

Recent Developments Within the Seventh-day Adventist Church


            Within the last generation, a number of challenges have damaged the SDA consensus that the historicist understandings of Daniel and Revelation offer a solid foundation for Adventist faith. One source of damage, ironically, arises from among those who are most committed to the method. As various interpretations put forth by the SDA pioneers fail to connect with today’s generation, some supporters of historicism have tried to update the relevance of historical apocalyptic to connect various prophecies with recent history or even the current world scene. Footnote An example of the kind of interpretation I have in mind here is where some SDA evangelists have tried to see the fifth trumpet of Revelation as a prophecy of the Gulf War, with the locusts of 9:7-10 corresponding to the Marine helicopters with their gold-tinted windshields! Others, usually on the fringes of the SDA Church, have sought to use apocalyptic as a basis for determining the date of Jesus’ Coming or of other end time events, mistakenly focusing on dates such as 1964, 1987, 1994 and the year 2000. Footnote Even the SDA pioneers were not always attentive to the biblical text in making applications to history. Footnote Awareness of these speculative tendencies has caused many thoughtful SDAs to question the entire validity of historicist interpretation of apocalyptic. Such SDAs have found two other interpretive options increasingly attractive. Footnote

Alternative Approaches

            Preterism. A number of SDA thinkers, particularly those educated in religion and history, have seen increasing light in the preterist approach to biblical apocalyptic. This approach, the primary one among professional biblical scholars, treats books like Daniel and Revelation as messages to their original time and place, not as divinely-ordained chains of future historical events. According to this approach, believers can benefit from these books, not by seeing where they stand in the course of history, but by applying spiritual principles drawn from the text to later situations.

            This approach should not be automatically treated as an abandonment of faith. It is, in fact, the approach that believing Jews and Christians (including Adventists) take to the bulk of the biblical materials. The letters of Paul, for example, must be understood as the products of a human writer’s intention reflecting a specific purpose and aimed at a particular audience. To read such letters as if they were philosophical treatises with a universal purpose is clearly inappropriate. Footnote Nevertheless, in recognizing God’s purpose in including these letters in the Bible, believers feel free to draw principles from Paul’s letters and apply them to their own time and place as the Word of God. When done with sensitivity to the original context, this is entirely appropriate for Paul’s letters and also for parts of Daniel and Revelation. Footnote

            What preterism as an approach to apocalyptic does is treat all of Daniel and Revelation as if these books were little different than Matthew or Romans. While such an approach is certainly appropriate to the narratives of Daniel and the seven letters of Revelation 2 and 3 (Rev 1:11; 2:1,7,8.11, etc.), I will argue below that preterism alone is not an adequate approach to the symbolic visions of Daniel and Revelation. I will offer evidence in a future article that certain texts in Daniel and Revelation belong to the genre of historical apocalyptic and should, therefore, be interpreted in terms of historical sequence. I believe that to ignore this evidence on philosophical or other grounds is to impose an external system on the exegesis of the text.

            Futurism. A very different alternative to historicism sees apocalyptic as concerned primarily with a short period of time still future from our own day. In my experience this alternative has attracted a larger number of SDAs than the preterist one, particularly those educated in law and various branches of medicine, or those who have not had the opportunity of higher education. While rejecting the dispensational form of futurism popularized by the Left Behind series, such SDA Bible students are seeking end-time understandings in every corner of Daniel and Revelation.

            A major motivation toward a futurist approach is “relevance.” Many SDAs feel that both the preterist and historicist approaches confine interpretation to the dusty past. They are seeking cues in the text that would enable them to speak more directly to current issues in the world than traditional SDA applications or scholarly exegesis appear to do. And it seems clear that many aspects of Daniel and Revelation were intended to portray events that the biblical authors perceived as distant from their time (Dan 8:26; 12:13) or directly concerned with the final events of earth’s history and beyond. (Dan 2:44-45; 7:26-27; 11:40; 12:4; Rev 6:15-17; 7:15-17; 19:11-21; 21:1-22:5). So an examination of Daniel and Revelation without an openness to a future understanding would be an inappropriate limitation on the divine supervision of these books.

            Approaches to Daniel and Revelation that limit the meaning of most of the text to end-time events, however, have consistently proven to claim more than they can deliver. In my experience Adventist forms of futurism tend toward an allegorism of dual or multiple applications that loses touch with the original meaning and context of these apocalyptic works. The futurist applications are of such a nature that they tend to be convincing only to a limited number who share the same presuppositions as the interpreter.


            Another challenge to historicist understandings of Daniel and Revelation arises from a major philosophical shift in Western experience, sometimes called post-modernism. Footnote Beginning with “Generation X” most younger people have had a tendency to reject sweeping solutions to the world’s problems. They question both the religious certainties and the scientific confidence of their elders. The apocalyptic idea that there could be a detailed and orderly sweep to history seems hard to grasp and even more difficult to believe. While post-modernists are more likely to believe in God than their baby boomer elders, they have a hard time imagining that anyone has a detailed hold on what God is actually like. While everyone, to them, has some handle on “truth,” no one has a full grasp of the big picture. The confidence Adventist pioneers had about their place in history seems, therefore, out of step with the times.

            Post-modernism raises some valid concerns about the “modernistic” confidence with which SDA evangelists and teachers have trumpeted questionable interpretations of prophecy in the past. Many have been all to quick to promote personal viewpoints as absolute truth. But while it is healthy to acknowledge that everyone, including SDAs, are ignorant about aspects of the “big picture” there is no reason to deny that a big picture exists. While we may never grasp truth in the absolute sense, the Bible teaches that absolute truth was embodied in Jesus Christ and revealed sufficiently in His Word that we can have a meaningful relationship with Him. I will argue below that one aspect of that revelation is apocalyptic of a historical variety.


            As a result of these and other challenges SDAs today are paying less and less attention to the historic Adventist approach to apocalyptic. Liberal, conservative, old and young alike are experimenting with alternative approaches and questioning traditional ones. But this lack of attention is not a neutral matter. It is creating a radical, if unintentional, shift in the core message of the Adventist Church. Prophetic preaching and interpretation is increasingly left to the evangelists, while weekly sermons focus more on social scientific insights and story telling. The result is, in my opinion, a crisis in Adventist identity.

            Biblical interpretation is often subject to pendulum swings. The excesses or mistakes of those who follow one approach may cause the next generation of interpreters to swing to the opposite extreme, albeit for good reason. But balanced biblical interpretation draws its impetus from the biblical text rather than fashion or external assumptions. Historicism has been prone to excesses. It has been applied to texts where it probably doesn’t belong (like the seven churches of Revelation). But I will nevertheless argue that it offers the best way to read many texts in Daniel and Revelation, texts supportive of the historic Adventist identity. Totally abandoning the method would cause us to misinterpret these portions of the biblical message.

            In the next section of this article I will examine some recent trends in apocalyptic scholarship, in general first, and then with particular focus on Adventist concerns and issues. I conclude the section with a proposal for re-invigorating Adventist interpretation of Daniel and Revelation.

Recent Developments in Apocalyptic Scholarship

The Definition and Genre of Apocalyptic

            Over the last three decades apocalyptic scholarship has focused intently on issues of genre and on the definitions of terms like apocalypse and apocalyptic. Footnote The leading figures during this period of study are John J. Collins and his mentor Paul Hanson. Footnote Working with a team of specialists under the auspices of the Society of Biblical Literature, Collins helped shape the definitions that are in working use today. Footnote

            The term “apocalypse” is drawn from the introductory phrase of the Book of Revelation (Rev 1:1) and means “revelation” or “disclosure.” Footnote From the second Christian century onward it became increasingly used as a title or “genre label” Footnote for extra-biblical works of a character similar to Daniel and Revelation in the Bible. As modern scholars took note that a whole collection of similar works existed in ancient Judaism, they applied this later label also to books like Daniel, Ethiopic Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and other works produced before and contemporary with Revelation. Footnote

            Paul Hanson was among the first to distinguish between the terms apocalypse, apocalyptic eschatology, and apocalypticism. Footnote For him as for most others, “apocalypse” designates a literary genre, which has since been given a scholarly definition (see below). Footnote Hanson defines apocalyptic eschatology, on the other hand, as the world view or conceptual framework out of which the apocalyptic writings emerged. Footnote Apocalyptic eschatology was probably an outgrowth of prophetic eschatology. Footnote “Apocalypticism” occurs when a group of people adopt the world view of apocalyptic eschatology, using it to inform their interpretation of Scripture, to govern their lives, and to develop a sense of their place in history. Footnote

            There is a general consensus among the specialists that the genre apocalypse should be defined as follows: Footnote

            “An apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.” Footnote

            As I understand this definition, an apocalyptic work like Daniel or Revelation is revelatory literature, which means it claims to directly communicate information from God to humanity. This is accomplished in the form of a story, a “narrative framework,” rather than poetry or some other form. The revelation is communicated to a human being by “otherworldly beings” such as angels or the 24 elders of Revelation. The revelation discloses “transcendent reality,” that which is beyond the ability of the five senses to apprehend, about the course of history leading up the God’s salvation at the End, and about the heavenly, “supernatural” world. Footnote

            While this definition is general enough to seem a fair description of books like Daniel and Revelation, I find what it does not say extremely interesting. For one thing, it does not insist that pseudonymity is a necessary component of apocalyptic literature. Footnote This is significant for Adventists, whose view of God-ordained prophetic history is dependent on the possibility of predictive prophecy. Footnote

            While not present in the above definition of “apocalypse,” scholars also distinguish between two types of apocalyptic literature, the historical and the mystical. Footnote The historical type, characteristic of Daniel, gives an overview of a large sweep of history, often divided into periods, Footnote and climaxing with a prediction about the end of history and the final judgment. Footnote Historical apocalyptic visions tend to be highly symbolic; the images themselves are not intended to be literally true, but they refer to heavenly and earthly beings and events. Footnote While the prophetic visionary views this symbolic sweep of history, he does not usually play a role in the visionary narrative itself. Footnote

            The mystical type of apocalypse, on the other hand, describes the ascent of the visionary through the heavens, which are often numbered. Footnote This journey through the heavens is usually a sustained and straightforward narrative involving the author or the implied author of the apocalypse. Footnote While symbolism may be used in mystical apocalyptic, there is more of a sense of reality in the description, the visionary ascends into a real place where actions take place that affect the readers’ lives on earth. Footnote

            There is some debate among scholars whether these two types of apocalypses should be viewed as distinct genres. Both types, however, can clearly occur in a single literary work. Footnote Both types, the historical and the heavenly, convey a revealed interpretation of history, whether that history is past, present (heavenly journey) or future. Footnote For SDAs, as we have seen, the historical type of apocalypse has traditionally been of primary interest.

            Some scholars believe that the historical type of apocalyptic thinking began with Zoroaster, a pagan priest of Persia, but the relevant Persian documents are quite late and may be dependant on Jewish works rather then the other way around. Footnote It is more likely that the “dawn of apocalyptic” can be traced to the prophetic works of the Old Testament, like Isaiah 24-27, 65-66, Daniel, Joel and Zechariah. Footnote When the prophetic spirit ceased among Jews during the Persian period (6th to 4th century BC), Footnote pseudonymity became a way that uninspired writers sought to recapture the spirit of the ancient prophets and write out what those ancient prophets might have written had they been alive to see the apocalyptist’s day. Footnote How the book of Daniel fits into this larger historical picture will be taken up below.

The Apocalyptic World View

            The term “apocalypticism,” as noted earlier, Footnote designates the world view that is characteristic of early Jewish and Christian apocalypses, such as Daniel and Revelation. Footnote The world view of apocalypticism centered on the belief that the present world order is evil and oppressive, and under the control of Satan and his human accomplices. The present world order would shortly be destroyed by God and replaced with a new and perfect order corresponding to Eden. The final events of the old order involve severe conflict between the old order and the people of God, but the final outcome is never in question. Through a mighty act of judgment God condemns the wicked, rewards the righteous and re-creates the universe. Footnote

            The apocalyptic world view, therefore, sees reality from the perspective of God’s overarching control of history, which is divided into a series of segments or eras. It expresses these beliefs in terms of the themes and images of ancient apocalyptic literature. Footnote Although this world view can be expressed through other genres of literature, Footnote its fundamental shape is most clearly discerned in apocalypses.

            While many consider the apocalyptic world view inappropriate for a post-scientific world, many fundamental SDA beliefs are grounded in biblical apocalyptic. In other words, for Adventists the books of Daniel and Revelation are not marginal works, they are foundational to the Adventist world view and its concept of God. Rejecting the apocalyptic world view would inaugurate a fundamental shift in Adventist thinking. The purpose of this article is not to settle whether such a shift would be a good thing, but to examine whether careful biblical scholarship is capable of sustaining the biblical basis for the Adventist world view.

Recent SDA Scholarship on Apocalyptic

            In reaction to the work of Desmond Ford, Footnote an earlier generation of Seventh-day Adventist scholars sought to distinguish the genres of prophetic and apocalyptic eschatology. Footnote “Prophetic” literature was divided into two major types; 1) general prophecy, represented by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and others, and 2) apocalyptic prophecy, represented by Daniel and Revelation. Footnote General prophecy, sometimes called “classical prophecy,” was seen to focus primarily on the prophet’s own time and place, but with glimpses forward to a cosmic “Day of the Lord” culminating in a new heaven and a new earth. Apocalyptic prophecy, on the other hand, was seen to focus on history as a divinely-guided continuum leading up to and including the final events of earth’s history. Footnote William Shea, for example, felt that general prophecy focuses on the short-range view, while apocalyptic prophecy includes the long-range view. Footnote

            It was argued that general prophecy, because of its dual dimension, may at times be susceptible to dual fulfillments or foci where local and contemporary perspectives are mixed with a universal, future perspective. Footnote Apocalyptic prophecy, on the other hand, does not deal so much with the local, contemporary situation as it does with the universal scope of the whole span of human history, including the major saving acts of God within that history. The greater focus of general prophecy is on contemporary events, the greater focus of apocalyptic prophecy is on end-time events. Footnote While general prophecy describes the future in the context of the prophet’s local situation, apocalyptic prophecy portrays a comprehensive historical continuum that is under God’s control and leads in sequence from the prophet’s time to the End.

            General prophecies, which are written to affect human response, tend to be conditional

 upon the reactions of peoples and nations. Footnote On the other hand, apocalyptic prophecies, particularly those of Daniel and Revelation, tend to be unconditional, reflecting God’s foreknowledge of His ultimate victory and the establishment of His eternal kingdom. Footnote Apocalyptic prophecy portrays the inevitability of God’s sovereign purpose. No matter what the evil powers do, God will accomplish His purpose in history. Footnote The above distinctions are summarized in the box below:

Characteristics of General and Apocalyptic Prophecy

Apocalyptic Prophecy

Series of Historical Events

Long-range View

Single Fulfillment

End-Time Focus

Whole Span of History


            I believe that insights from both general and SDA scholarship can be combined in a useful way. When dealing with Daniel and Revelation, therefore, it is vital to determine the genre of a given passage before deciding how that passage should be interpreted. SDAs have had a tendency to see historical sequences in nearly every part of Daniel and Revelation, even in the epistolary Footnote and narrative Footnote portions at times. I believe that Adventist interpreters need to pay much closer attention to the genre of a given text before making judgments regarding how to interpret the passage. A historicist approach is appropriate wherever the genre of a passage is clearly historical apocalyptic. Other genres call for other approaches. When the genre has been determined, the appropriate approach can be taken.

            While the distinction between general prophecy and apocalyptic is helpful, apocalyptic as a genre is not limited to the historical variety, as the Adventist discussion seems to assume. Footnote It may be more helpful to think of a prophetic continuum Footnote with general prophecy and historical apocalyptic at the two ends (characterized in the above box), and a variety of apocalyptic expressions in between including mystical apocalyptic and types that focus on personal eschatology or include elements of both historical and mystical apocalyptic. Footnote

The Distinctiveness of Biblical Apocalyptic

            While there is much common ground in the above developments, Adventists tend to differ from most scholarship on apocalyptic on account of their view of predictive prophecy. Biblical scholarship today generally approaches the books of Daniel and Revelation with the assumption that they are similar in character to the non-biblical apocalypses. Footnote Adventists, on the other hand, see a distinction between canonical and non-canonical apocalyptic. For them, canonical apocalyptic (mainly Daniel and Revelation) is inspired, non-canonical apocalyptic is not. For Adventists Daniel and Revelation offer windows into the mind of God and His ability to “know the end from the beginning” and announce ahead of time “what is yet to come” (Isa 46:10; John 16:13). While acknowledging the existence of pseudo-authorship and ex eventu prophecy in non-biblical apocalyptic, Footnote Adventists have understood the inspired apocalyptic of the Bible to be substantively different.

            In light of this, the date of Daniel becomes a crucial issue of interpretation for Adventists. The book of Daniel’s stated setting is in the courts of Babylon and Persia in the 6th Century BC. During that period of history the gift of prophecy was exhibited in the work of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and perhaps others. Thus Daniel would be counted among the inspired works of Scripture written around that time. On the other hand, few scholars of Daniel would question that chapter 11 includes a remarkably accurate portrayal of certain events in the fourth, third and second centuries before Christ. Footnote Most scholars would argue that a second-century BC date makes the most sense of that reality.

            If one places Daniel in the second century BC, it would clearly speak to a time when people believed that the prophetic spirit had been silenced (Ps 74:9; 1 Macc 4:44-46; 14:41, cf. mAboth 1:1). Footnote Without the gift of prophecy it would be impossible for anyone to write history in advance. Having said this, however, the historical time periods of ex eventu prophecy reflected the conviction that a true prophet such as Enoch, Moses, or Ezra would be capable of outlining history in advance. Footnote So if Daniel was actually written in the sixth century, it stands as a remarkable evidence of predictive prophecy. Footnote Since evidence for a sixth-century date for Daniel has been given elsewhere, that issue will not be taken up here. Footnote

A New Approach to Apocalyptic Genre

Revisiting the Genre of Daniel

            While Daniel and Revelation are often thought of as quintessential apocalyptic books, Footnote neither is a consistent example of the genre definition offered above. Daniel has a number of characteristics that do not fit the definition of apocalypse cited above. With the exception of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream/vision in 2:31-45, the first six chapters of Daniel are of a largely narrative character. While a “narrative framework” is a defining characteristic of apocalyptic, the stories of Daniel 1-6 have few of the other characteristics of apocalyptic. Within the larger genre of narrative, these stories instead fall into a category often called “court tales,” which is fairly rare in the extant literature of the ancient world. Footnote

            Furthermore, at significant points in the book (Dan 2:20-23; 9:4-19), prayers occur. The first of these is in poetry, the second in prose! Other elements of Daniel are also written in verse, prominent among these is the heavenly judgment scene of Dan 7:9-10, 13-14. Footnote There are aspects of the book that also fit very well into the Old Testament wisdom tradition. Footnote Even the visions of Daniel don’t always precisely fit the definition of apocalyptic. The closest fit is in chapters 11 and 12, which are clearly historical apocalyptic. Footnote Questions have been raised, on the other hand, whether the visions of Daniel 7 and 8 truly fit the genre. Footnote

            It is probably not helpful, therefore, to state that Daniel as a whole is historical apocalyptic without a certain amount of qualification. With careful attention to markers in the text, however, it is not difficult to determine what parts of the book do exhibit the historical brand of apocalyptic. In a future article I will argue from the text that the visions of Daniel 2 and 7, for example, are rightly understood in terms of historical apocalyptic.

            While assessing the genre of whole apocalyptic books is a most interesting pursuit, therefore, it may not be as helpful to the interpretation of Daniel as a more nuanced approach. Daniel clearly exhibits a mixed genre, with elements of narrative, poetry and prayers sprinkled among the apocalyptic visions. Whether one wishes to describe these elements as “genres,” “sub-genres” or “forms,” careful attention to needs to be given on a text by text basis before it can be determined that a given passage should or should not be interpreted as historical apocalyptic. Footnote

            The importance of careful attention to genre is powerfully argued by Lucas, in his recent commentary on Daniel. Footnote Lucas points out that all readers have some sense of the different genres of literature that exist in their culture. Because of this, readers approach a given text with certain expectations based on the kind of literature they perceive it to be. If an author wishes to connect with an implied audience that author needs to adopt a genre that will communicate to readers within that audience’s culture. Not to do so would be to risk great misunderstanding. Footnote

            Later readers who wish to understand a text, therefore, need to identify the place any given text has within the generic options available to the original audience. While the original audience will make such identifications unconsciously, the later interpreter will need to carefully observe the text under review, noting literary markers that indicate genre within the culture and world view of the original audience. There is great potential for misunderstanding, of course, when later generations read a text. To treat a court tale or a classical prophecy as if it were historical apocalyptic would be to draw false conclusions. On the other hand, to treat historical apocalyptic as if it were something else would also lead to inappropriate and misleading acts of interpretation.

            Seventh-day Adventist interpreters have had the tendency to treat most or all of Daniel and Revelation as historical apocalyptic, without specific attention to the textual markers that would indicate such interpretation. As a result texts like the seven letters of Revelation 2 and 3 or the “seven times” of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream were interpreted in a historicist fashion even though there was no specific textual evidence for doing so. Footnote This approach was plausible when Daniel and Revelation were thought of as completely apocalyptic. But a more nuanced approach is now called for by the evidence.

             When it comes to Daniel, the interpreter must decide whether the genre of a given passage is narrative (court tales), poetry, prayer, or apocalyptic. If the passage is apocalyptic it needs to be determined whether the evidence of the passage points to mystical or historical apocalyptic. Footnote In a forthcoming article I will argue that the visions and explanations of Daniel 2 and 7 exhibit the marks of historical apocalyptic. I believe that most scholars would agree with me in that designation. As we have seen, the primary point of difference between Adventist understanding of Daniel and the scholarly majority has to do with the date of the book, whether the visions are predictive or interpretations of history after the fact.

Revisiting the Genre of Revelation

            A problem that previous Adventist discussions have not adequately addressed is the relationship of Revelation to the larger genre of apocalyptic prophecy. It has been largely assumed that Revelation is of the same character as Daniel (which Adventists generally treat as an apocalyptic prophecy). Footnote Its visions, therefore, are usually interpreted as unconditional prophetic portrayals of the sequence of both Christian and general history from the time of Jesus to the end of the world. Footnote This assumption, as we have seen, has not been found compelling by specialists in the field.

            Rather than exhibiting a consistent use of historical apocalyptic, as many Adventists assume, Revelation seems to smoothly blend characteristics of general prophecy, Footnote mystical apocalyptic Footnote and historical apocalyptic, Footnote not to mention the genres of epistle, Footnote and perhaps even narrative. Footnote Like general prophecy, it is written to a specific time and place and the audience is local and contemporary (Rev 1:1-4, 10-11, 2:1 - 3:22). Footnote Its message was intended to be understood by the original audience (Rev 1:3). Footnote It describes its author as a prophet and his work as a prophecy (1:3,10-11; 10:8-11; 19:10; 22:6-10, 16, 18-19). It is not, therefore, simply a replay of the visions of Daniel. Footnote

            At the same time, much of the language and style of Revelation is clearly apocalyptic. Unlike classical prophecy, Revelation exhibits a radical and complete break between the old order and the new, just like Second Temple apocalyptic. Footnote Like mystical apocalyptic, Revelation includes reports of the writers forays into heavenly places (Rev 4-5; 7:9-17; 12:1-4; 14:1-5; 19:1-10). Like historical apocalyptic, there are clear traces of historical sequence in Revelation (Rev 12:1-17 and 17:10). Footnote So the genre of Revelation as a whole seems mixed.

            The early scholarly consensus was that the book of Revelation as a whole was primarily apocalyptic. Footnote But that early consensus has needed qualification. The similarity between portions of Revelation and other apocalyptic writings does not negate the prophetic character of the book. Footnote Not only so, some scholars feel the difference between prophetic and apocalyptic genre is not always clear cut. Footnote The apocalyptic War Scroll found at Qumran, for example, is saturated with Old Testament prophetic language. Footnote On the other hand, the prophetic books of the Old Testament, even the “classical” ones, contain many features common to apocalyptic, such as the eschatological upheavals preceding the End (Joel 2:30-31; Isa 24:3), Footnote and the inbreaking of the End-time itself (Amos 8:8-9; 9:5-6). Footnote So to completely distinguish between prophetic and apocalyptic books is extremely difficult if not impossible. Footnote

            It is perhaps safest to say that the Apocalypse is a unique literary work, one that utilizes the expressions of apocalyptic literature, but also reflects the conviction that the spirit of prophecy had been revived (Rev 19:10). Footnote George Eldon Ladd, therefore, proposed a hybrid categorization. Footnote In between prophetic literature and apocalyptic literature Footnote Ladd places a new category which he calls “prophetic-apocalyptic.” Here he would place literature such as Revelation. Footnote

            Some would go a step further than Ladd. They would argue that while there are elements of Revelation that hark back to both OT prophecy and Jewish apocalyptic, the entire book is portrayed as a letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev 22:16). Footnote Ulrich B. Müller points out that although there is a definite tension in character between the seven letters and the apocalyptic portions of Revelation, Footnote the fundamental prophetic content is the same. Footnote The apocalyptic war is not only played out in heaven, it is also played out in the everyday life of the churches. While the epistolary character of the seven letters is clear, categorizing the whole book of Revelation as an “epistle” does not seem to make sense. Footnote Ladd’s designation “Prophetic-Apocalyptic” or the Adventist phrase “Apocalyptic Prophecy” seem more appropriate designations for the genre of Revelation as a whole.

Adventists and the Genre Debate

            What is clear from the scholarly debate is that the genre of Revelation as a whole is a mixed one whose character cannot be determined with exactness. Footnote The appropriateness of historicist method for Revelation, therefore, is much less obvious than is the case with the visions of Daniel. Most Seventh-day Adventists have not yet felt the force of this difficulty. Having inherited the historicist approach from Protestant forebears in the middle of the 19th Century, Footnote Adventist interpreters have assumed that approach to be the correct one for Revelation, but have never demonstrated it from the text. Footnote

            It should be evident for our purpose that there are significant differences in the conclusions of scholarly research with regard to Daniel and Revelation. While, for example, the visions and explanations of Daniel are generally understood to bear the marks of historical apocalyptic, as most Adventists have thought, there is disagreement regarding the time of the visions and the genuineness of the book’s stated historical context.

            Unlike Daniel, there is little dispute over the date of Revelation. Nearly all scholars would agree that the book was written somewhere within a 30-year span. Footnote But also in contrast with Daniel, it is far less obvious whether any given passage of Revelation should be interpreted as historical apocalyptic. But if a historicist approach to Revelation is to have any validity, it must be demonstrated from the text, not assumed from long tradition.

            While the focus of scholarship until now has been on classifying Revelation as a whole, there is increasing interest in the genre of its parts. Footnote I sense that precision regarding the genre of Revelation as a whole has not made a huge difference in the interpretation of the book’s parts. Footnote I therefore agree with J. Ramsey Michaels that for Revelation it will be more useful to pay attention to the genre of the parts than of the whole. Footnote One could say that Michaels and I are thinking of “genre” more in the expanded German sense of Gattung, which can be used for smaller literary units within a work as well as for the work as a whole. Footnote One would call work in the smaller literary units an analysis of “forms,” but this might result in confusion with the methods of Form Criticism as applied to the gospels. Footnote So for now I will speak of the respective genres of the various parts of Daniel and Revelation.

            If Adventists wish to revive the historicist approach to Revelation, therefore, they will need to pursue a thorough-going examination of the genre of Revelation’s visionary passages on a case by case basis. Footnote One way to do this is to demonstrate that portions of Revelation fit the genre of historical apocalyptic better than other options. I attempt such an evaluation of Revelation 12 in a future article. If there is historical apocalyptic in the Book of Revelation, it will be discerned in the genre of the particular text, as is the case with Daniel.

Historical Apocalyptic in Revelation

            Unlike the case with Daniel, few scholars argue that the Book of Revelation is pseudonymous. Footnote Most understand that John is the name of the actual author, and that his prophecies are genuine attempts to outline future events. Footnote My question is, what is the nature of that outline? Is it the more general and immediate perspective of a classical prophet, or does it project a historical sequence like the apocalyptic visions of Daniel? While the time frame of John’s understanding is certainly short (Rev 1:1, 3; 22:10), the latter option needs to be considered possible. Why?

            The historical time periods of ex eventu prophecy (in Jewish apocalyptic) reflected the conviction that a genuine prophet such as Enoch, Moses, or Ezra would be capable of outlining history in advance. Footnote In other words, the literary strategy of ex eventu prophecy would have no credibility with its audience unless that audience believed in the general concept of sequential predictive prophecy. Note the language of D. S. Russell:

            “The predictive element in prophecy had a fascination for the apocalyptists and it is to this aspect of the prophetic message that they devote so much of their interest and ingenuity. . . . The predictive element in prophecy is not simply accidental, as Charles would have us believe. It belongs to the very nature of prophecy itself.” Footnote

            Since John, the author of Revelation, believed that the prophetic spirit had returned (Rev 1:3; 19:9-10; 22:6-10), Footnote he would have every reason to believe that the cosmic Christ could reveal to him the general outline of events between his day and the consummation. The return of genuine prophets would signal the return of predictive prophecy. Footnote If the Book of Revelation is genuine, not ex eventu, prophecy, it needs to be addressed differently than non-canonical apocalyptic. Footnote

            The question to examine then becomes: In his outline of future events (Rev 1:1) did John the Revelator understand any of his visions to be in the genre of historical apocalyptic? Footnote Did he see himself in the heritage of Daniel and the apocalyptic writers as a portrayer of historical sequence? And if he did, what passages in Revelation need to be interpreted along the lines of historical apocalyptic?


            Since the concept of predictive prophecy is grounded in the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, it should not surprise anyone that the vast majority of Biblical interpreters throughout Christian history believed in predictive prophecy and felt that Daniel and Revelation in some way offered an outline of Christian history leading to the end of the world. Footnote Most Adventists, like them, see no indication in the text of Daniel and Revelation that the events symbolized in the visions were to be confined to the distant past or the far future. They understand Daniel to address the entire course of history from his time until the end. They understand that the Book of Revelation speaks to the entire Christian era from the cross to the second coming of Christ.

            If portions of Daniel and Revelation bear the character of historical apocalyptic, they were intended to portray the chain of events leading from the visionary’s time to the end of all things. Whatever time frame Daniel had in mind for this chain of events (assuming a sixth century perspective), it involved a sequence of kingdoms in control of God’s people before the end. While Daniel’s personal time frame was short at first, the visions suggest that Daniel experienced a stressful lengthening of that time perspective through the visions (7:28; 8:27; 9:24-27; 12:11-13).

            In applying a historicist approach to Revelation, on the other hand, it is not necessary to claim that John himself, or any of the other writers of the New Testament, foresaw the enormous length of the Christian era, the time between the first and second advents of Jesus. If the Parousia had occurred in the first century, no one would have been troubled on account of any statement in the New Testament. The finality of the Christ event is such that looking beyond the first century was not conceivable, even for the apostles.

            But regardless of the John’s own perception of time, the question here is whether or not John saw the future in terms of a sequence of events or purely in the immediate terms typical of the OT Day of the Lord prophecies. Time has continued far past John’s expectation. If John’s Apocalypse is a genuine revelation the question becomes whether or not God used the immediate intention of a human writer, who thought he was close to the End, to say anything substantive about the events that lay beyond his time.

            Given the immediate perspective of Revelation, historicism must draw meaning from an extended significance (sensus plenior?) that unfolds only with the passage of time. A valid historicism will build on the natural meaning of John’s intention, but come to see a deeper divine purpose through the confirmation of history and/or later revelation. Footnote There is an analogy for this in the NT itself. The NT writers viewed the OT with the wisdom of time passed and saw God’s hand in those texts in ways the human authors of those texts did not fully perceive. Should we not be prepared for a similar expansion of meaning from our own perspective of time passed? The passage of more than 1900 years means that Revelation’s attempts at periodization have been stretched far beyond John’s recognition. I would argue that such a “divine reading” is valid if based on exegesis and proper attention to genre, but invalid if it loses touch with text and context.

            As Paul has said, “We see through a glass darkly” and “we prophesy in part” (1 Cor 13:9, 12). Only from the perspective of the Parousia will history speak with perfect clarity. Any rebirth of historicist interpretation among scholars of faith, therefore, will need to avoid the minute details and “newspaper” exegesis of previous interpretation, while taking seriously the plain meaning of the symbols in their original context. Footnote

            In a follow-up article I intend to examine two of Daniel’s visions, in chapters 2 and 7, to lay out the kinds of markers in the text that indicate the presence of historical apocalyptic. I will then attempt to outline a strategy for detecting similar passages in the Book of Revelation, using chapter 12 as a test case. I believe the evidence will show that historicist interpretation should not be a priori excluded from the study of Revelation on account of the excesses of the past. As Arasola concluded in his seminal work, declarations of the “end of historicism” may prove to have been premature. Footnote

Jon Paulien

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