Historicist interpretations of the Book of Revelation

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Historicism, a method of interpretation in Christian eschatology which associates biblical prophecies with actual historical events and identifies symbolic beings with historical persons or societies, has been applied to the Book of Revelation by many writers. This links it with the Old Testament Israelite people and shows its great theme to declare God's final dealings with those same people in history to the Age-end climax when the systems of prophetic Babylon are overthrown.

One of the most influential rhetorical aspects of the Protestant historicist paradigm was the speculation that the Pope could be the Antichrist. Martin Luther wrote this view, which was not novel, into the Smalcald Articles of 1537. It was then widely popularized in the 16th century, via sermons, drama, books, and broadside publication.[1]


See also: Antichrist

Rather than expecting a single Antichrist to rule the earth during a future Tribulation period, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Protestant reformers saw the Antichrist as a present feature in the world of their time, fulfilled in the papacy.[2]

Some Franciscans had considered the Emperor Frederick II a positive Antichrist who would clean the Church from riches and clergy.[3] The Centuriators of Magdeburg, a group of Lutheran scholars in Magdeburg headed by Matthias Flacius, wrote the 12-volume "Magdeburg Centuries" to discredit the Papacy, and identify the pope as the Antichrist.[4]

Some of the debated features of the Reformation historicist interpretations reached beyond the Book of Revelation. They included the identification of:

Seventh-day Adventists also teach that the Antichrist is the papacy.[5][6][7][8][9]

Seven churches[edit]

The non-separatist Puritan, Thomas Brightman, was the first to propose a historicist interpretation of the Seven Churches of Revelation 2–3.[10] He outlined how the seven Churches represent the seven ages of the Church of Christ.[11] A typical historicist view of the Church of Christ spans several periods of church history, each similar to the original church, as follows:

  1. The age of Ephesus is the apostolic age.
  2. The age of Smyrna is the persecution of the Church through AD 313.
  3. The age of Pergamus is the compromised Church lasting until AD 500.
  4. The age of Thyatira is the rise of the papacy to the Reformation.
  5. The age of Sardis is the age of the Reformation.
  6. The age of Philadelphia is the age of evangelism.
  7. The age of Laodicea represents liberal churches in a "present day" context.

The age of Laodicea is typically identified as occurring in the same time period as the expositor. Examples of this is how Brightman viewed the age of Laodicea as the England of his day. In the Millerite movement, each church represented a dateable period of ecclesiastical history. Thus, William Miller dated the age of Laodicea from 1798–1843, followed by the End of days in 1844.[11]

Seven seals[edit]

See also: Seven seals

The traditional historicist view of the Seven Seals spanned the time period from John of Patmos to Early Christendom. Protestant scholars such as, Campegius Vitringa,[12] Alexander Keith, and Christopher Wordsworth did not limit the timeframe to the 4th century. Some have even viewed the opening of the Seals right into the early modern period.[13]

Seventh-day Adventists view the first six seals as representing events that took place during the Christian era up until 1844.[14] Contemporary-historicists view all of Revelation as it relates to John’s own time (with the allowance of making some guesses as to the future).[15]

Seven trumpets[edit]

See also: Seven trumpets

The classical historicist view of the first four trumpets are identified with the pagan invasions of Western Christendom in the 5th century AD (by the Visigoths, Vandals, Huns and Heruli), while the fifth and sixth trumpets have been identified with the assault on Eastern Christendom by the Saracen armies and Turks during the Middle Ages.[16][page needed][17] The symbolism of Revelation 6:12–13 are said by Adventists to have been fulfilled in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the dark day of May 19, 1780, and the Leonids meteor shower of November 13, 1833.[14]

Vision of Chapter 10[edit]

The classical historicist view of the vision of the angel with the little book, in Revelation 10, represents the Protestant Reformation and the printing of Bibles in the common languages. The Adventists take a unique view applying it to the Millerite movement; the "bitterness" of the book (Rev 10:10) represents the Great Disappointment.[16][page needed]

Two witnesses[edit]

See also: Two witnesses

The classical historicist view takes a number of different perspectives, including that the two witnesses are symbolic of two insular Christian movements, such as the Waldenses, or that the Reformers are meant, or the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is usually taught that Revelation 11 corresponds to the events of the French Revolution.[16][page needed]

Beasts of Revelation[edit]

The historicist views of Revelation 12–13 concern prophecies about the forces of evil viewed to have occurred in the middle ages. The first beast of Revelation 13 (from the sea) is considered to be the pagan Rome and the Papacy or more exclusively the latter.[18]

In 1798, the French General Louis Berthier exiled the Pope and took away all his authority, which was restored in 1813, destroyed again in 1870 and later restored in 1929. Adventists have taken this as fulfillment of the prophecy that the Beast of Revelation would receive a deadly wound but that the wound would be healed. They have attributed the wounding and resurgence in Revelation 13:3 to the papacy, referring to General Louis Berthier's capture of Pope Pius VI in 1798 and the pope's subsequent death in 1799.

Adventists view the second beast (from the earth) symbolizes the United States of America. The "image of the beast" represents Protestant churches who form an alliance with the Papacy, and the "mark of the beast" refers to a future universal Sunday law.[19] Both Adventists and classical historicists view the Great whore of Babylon, in Revelation 17–18, as Roman Catholicism.[20][page needed]

Number of the Beast[edit]

Passional Christi und Antichristi, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from Luther's 1521 Passionary of the Christ and Antichrist. The Pope is signing and selling indulgences.
Main article: Number of the Beast

Adventists have interpreted the number of the beast, 666, as corresponding to the title Vicarius Filii Dei of the Pope. In 1866, Uriah Smith was the first to propose the interpretation to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.[21] In The United States in the Light of Prophecy, he wrote:

The pope wears upon his pontifical crown in jeweled letters, this title: "Vicarius Filii Dei," "Viceregent of the Son of God;" [sic] the numerical value of which title is just six hundred and sixty-six. The most plausible supposition we have ever seen on this point is that here we find the number in question. It is the number of the beast, the papacy; it is the number of his name, for he adopts it as his distinctive title; it is the number of a man, for he who bears it is the "man of sin."[22]

Prominent Adventist scholar J. N. Andrews also adopted this view.[23] Uriah Smith maintained his interpretation in the various editions of Thoughts on Daniel and the Revelation, which was influential in the church.[24]

Various documents from the Vatican contain wording such as "Adorandi Dei Filii Vicarius, et Procurator quibus numen aeternum summam Ecclesiae sanctae dedit",[25] which translates to "As the worshipful Son of God's Vicar and Caretaker, to whom the eternal divine will has given the highest rank of the holy Church".

Adventists have taught that the number 666 is calculated by using gematria.

5 1 100 0 0 1 5 0 0 1 50 1 1 500 0 1 666

Samuele Bacchiocchi, an Adventist scholar, and only Adventist to be awarded a gold medal by Pope Paul VI for the distinction of summa cum laude (Latin for "with highest praise"),[26] has documented the pope using such a title:[27][28]

We noted that contrary to some Catholic sources who deny the use of Vicarius Filii Dei as a papal title, we have found this title to have been used in official Catholic documents to support the ecclesiastical authority and temporal sovereignty of the pope. Thus the charge that Adventists fabricated the title to support their prophetic interpretation of 666, is unfair and untrue.[29]


Notable and influential commentaries by Protestant scholars having historicist views of the Book of Revelation were:


  1. ^ Tinsley, Barbara Sher (1 January 1992). History and Polemics in the French Reformation: Florimond de Raemond, Defender of the Church. Susquehanna University Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-945636-29-8. 
  2. ^ Froom 1948, pp. 244–45: "The reformers were unanimous in its acceptance. And it was this interpretation of prophecy that lent emphasis to their reformatory action. It led them to protest against Rome with extraordinary strength and undaunted courage. ... This was the rallying point and the battle cry that made the Reformation unconquerable."
  3. ^ Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches. p. 196. 
  4. ^ Burgess; Gross (eds.), Building Unity .
  5. ^ 666 Truth .
  6. ^ Bacchiocchi, Samuele (6 July 2002), "Islam and The Papacy in Prophecy", Endtime Issues (Berrien Springs, MI: Biblical perspectives) (86) .
  7. ^ Paulien, Jon; Bacchiocchi, Samuele (17 October 2002), "September 11 and God's Mysterious Mercy", End time issues (Berrien Springs, MI: Biblical perspectives) (90) .
  8. ^ "Reformed", Eschatology, Mountain Retreat .
  9. ^ "Antichrist Today", Present truth XVII (2) .
  10. ^ Brightman, Thomas (1644), A Revelation of the Apocalypse, The Works, London, pp. 40f .
  11. ^ a b Moyise, Steve, ed. (2001). Studies in the book of Revelation. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-567-08814-7. 
  12. ^ Eijnatten 2003, pp. 84–5.
  13. ^ Tyso, Joseph (1881). "Table". In Cook, Frederick Charles. An Exposition of the Books of Daniel and the Revelation. p. 583. 
  14. ^ a b Seventh-day Adventists Believe (2nd ed.). Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; Pacific Press. 2005. pp. 378–80. 
  15. ^ Newport 2000, p. 16.
  16. ^ a b c Nichol 1980.
  17. ^ Froom, Leroy Edwin (1954), The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers IV, pp. 1124–26 .
  18. ^ Lee, FN (2000), John's Revelation Unveiled, pp. 169ff .
  19. ^ Seventh-day Adventists Believe (2nd ed), pp. 190–97, 382
  20. ^ Seventh-day Adventists believe (2nd ed).
  21. ^ Nichol 1980, p. 223.
  22. ^ Uriah Smith, The United States in the Light of Prophecy. Battle Creek, Michigan: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association (1884), 4th edition, p.224.
  23. ^ The Three Angels of Revelation XIV. 6-12, p.109. 1877 reprint. Cited from Adventist Bible Commentary
  24. ^ Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 223
  25. ^ Decree of Paul VI elevating the Prefecture Apostolic of Bafia, Cameroon, to a Diocese: Acta Apostolicae Sedis, Commentarium Officiale, vol. LX (1968), n. 6, pp. 317-319. Libreria Editrice Vaticana. ISBN 88-209-6068-0, ISBN 978-88-209-6068-1.
  26. ^ http://www.adventistarchives.org/docs/AAR/AAR19751027-V80-43__C.pdf#view=fit
  27. ^ http://www.biblicalperspectives.com/endtimeissues/et_145.htm
  28. ^ http://www.biblicalperspectives.com/endtimeissues/et_146.htm
  29. ^ slide 116
  30. ^ Mede, Joseph (1627). Clavis Apocalyptica (DIGITAL). Cooper, Robert Bransby, transl. ENG, UK. Retrieved Apr 4, 2006. 
  31. ^ Eijnatten 2003, p. 84.
  32. ^ Daubuz, Charles (1842). Lancaster, Peter; Habershon, Matthew, eds. A Symbolical Dictionary. J. Nisbet & Co. p. vii. 
  33. ^ Keith, Alexander (1832). The Signs of the Times as denoted by Fulfilment of Historical Predictions, Traced down from the Babylonish Captivity to the Present Time (DIGITAL) I (2nd ed.). Edinburgh: William Whyte & Co. Retrieved Apr 16, 2007. 
  34. ^ Elliott, Edward Bishop (1847). Horae Apocalypticae or a Commentary on the Apoc., including also an Examination of Dan (DIGITAL) I. London: Seeley, Burnside, & Seeley. Retrieved May 19, 2009. 
  35. ^ Elliott, Edward Bishop (1848). Vindiciae Horariae: Twelve letters to the Rev. Dr. Keith, in reply to his strictures on the "Horae apocalypticae" (DIGITAL). London: Seeleys. p. 296. Retrieved Sep 5, 2007. 
  36. ^ Wordsworth, Christopher (1849). Lectures on the Apocalypse (DIGITAL). Hulsean Lectures 1848 on the Apocalypse. London: Francis & John Rivington. Retrieved Aug 17, 2007.