Revelation: Our Options for Interpretation

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January 3, 2019

“Are you a preterist, futurist or historicist? Here’s a list of these three ways of interpreting the last book of the Bible. Check the one which is yours, sign it and we’ll get back to you. Or maybe not.”

Although I’ve taught for more than four decades on Adventist campuses, once during the 1969–1970 school year at Andrews University for undergraduates when I was a student at the Seminary, and since 1974 at what we now call Loma Linda University Health, I’ve never been asked such a question and I doubt that I ever will be.

Perhaps this is because I have made it clear, I hope in respectful ways, that it would be a waste of time to make this kind of inquiry of me because I would decline to answer it. I have also swiftly added that I would be more than happy to summarize my views on any issue in my own words in a paper.

Not long ago, I and others were asked to declare our views regarding our denomination’s Twenty-Eight Fundamental Beliefs. I wrote an essay in which I divided them into two clusters. In the first, I put those beliefs which are now worded in ways that are fine with me. In the second cluster, I put those which I would reword if I could and I spelled out the changes I would make if I were given an opportunity.

I presumed that every Seventh-day Adventist, including the General Conference president, would reword at least one thing in the Twenty-Eight and in the same spirit I offered my suggestions. I think things went well enough because I was told that I “passed,” and I am still here.

This is also how I taught my course in “Adventists Belief and Life” this past quarter in which most of the 54 students were Roman Catholics. There were also quite a few Christians of other sorts plus several Buddhists, one or two Muslims, a Zoroastrian, but no Jews. A handful of them were Adventists.

I told them at the outset that I would favorably present our denomination’s Twenty-Eight Fundamentals but then I would indicate how I thought that some of them could be improved and why. I told them that I would sharply distinguish the two so that they would know when I was doing what.

We had a splendid time as evidenced by the desserts they brought for me which I enjoyed even though I do not need the calories. I will long remember with a fond chuckle the Buddhist woman whose study of our Twenty-Eight established that there is an error in one of the ways they are presented someplace on the Internet.

For at least two reasons, I think it important to spell out what one believes in one’s own words. One of these is that the same words can have different shades of meaning to different people. If one lets others set up the questions and answers as a so-called “objective inventory,” one does not have an opportunity to explain what one believes at sufficient length and with adequate nuance to give the inquirer what he or she wants, or justifiably needs, to know. This helps no one.

An example of this is the Swedish representative of British Petroleum who announced to the media that arrangements had been made to help everyone who had suffered loss because of an oil spill on the coast of the United States. He declared that BP would take care of all the “little people” when he meant all the “small businesses.” Despite his impressive Scandinavian dignity, it was difficult for many of the Americans in the crowd of people to hold a straight face and some didn’t even try.

A second consideration is that such lists never present all the options and it is big mistake to allow people to treat them as if they were. When, as a youngster, I took a message to the Post Office, I was asked if I wanted it sent by “regular mail” or “airmail,” and the second was always more expensive. Now I could send the same message at very little cost by telephoning, emailing, texting, faxing, and Internet conferencing as well.

It is very important to understand the point. It is not merely that we now have options that we did not have then. Much more significantly, it is that neither I nor the officer of the Post Office even imagined the options we now have. Not the paucity of our alternatives, but our incapacity to imagine additional possibilities is the problem. It is a big one. When it comes to interpreting Scripture, it is one of the biggest.

Preterism, futurism and historicism respectively say that the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation have already been fulfilled, that they are yet to be fulfilled, or that over many centuries they have been in the process of being fulfilled and that this process will continue until the Second Coming of Jesus. Although other possibilities have been proposed, these three are the primary ones.

These three options have been more or less the dominant ones since the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic [not “Counter”] Reformation. For much of this time, most Protestants were historicists who saw in Roman Catholicism the fulfillment of many of the most dreadful prophecies in Daniel and Revelation. Roman Catholics tended in the main to be preterists, but some were futurists.

Either option—preterism or futurism—delivered Catholicism from the arrows Protestants aimed at it from their reading of these prophecies. It is more than possible that preterism and futurism emerged partly for the polemical purposes of those who propounded them.

The same must be said for historicism. The Protestants weren’t always above reading into Revelation what they wanted it to say. All historicists have not agreed, for nothing but scholarly reasons, on when, where, how, and by whom the prophecies were fulfilled over the centuries and will continue to be fulfilled into the future. Human frailty and faultiness sometimes crept into the interpretations of preterists, futurists and historicists alike.

Official Adventism offers the most credible contemporary expressions of historicism of which I have knowledge. This is partly because we learned early on what a Great Disappointment feels like, when we are too certain that we precisely know how the prophecies have been and will be fulfilled. It is also because during the General Conference presidency of Elder R. R. Fighur, our denomination made huge investments in Biblical and theological scholarship which resulted in Questions on Doctrines, the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, the establishment of Andrews University, and the scholarship of LeRoy Edwin Froom and his colleagues, some of whom were unsung women, which resulted in the Prophetic Faith of our Fathers and Conditionalist Faith of our Fathers.

Whether he or she is conservative, moderate, or liberal, there is a difference between a theologian who is an Adventist and an Adventist who is a theologian. I don’t know how those who have not yet spent many hours in Froom’s massive volumes can be anything more than the first. His books are widely and rightly regarded inside and outside the denomination as quarries filled with rocks which have not yet been polished by informed and insightful interpretation. This is true. But don’t complain about what Froom didn’t do! Learn from what he did!

Preterism, futurism and historicism are not the only options and it is neither accurate nor helpful to act or react as though they were. Contemporary Adventism is blessed to have an amazing number of bright Biblical scholars who are taking fresh looks at Revelation. They aren’t choosing from only three alternatives. They are transcending all three in ways which feed their best features and starve their worst.

I am not one of them; however, I know many of them and I applaud their work. I am not mentioning them by name at this time for fear that I might fail to mention someone who should be. Perhaps spectrummagazine.org will interview a number of them over the next several months.

All of our interpretation of Revelation must allow it to: 1) Say things that were immediately pertinent to those who first heard or read it; 2) Say things that were immediately pertinent to Christians in every subsequent generation; 3) Say things that are immediately pertinent to our own lives here and now; 4) Help us understand our own places and roles in the "Drama of the Ages, and 5) Make Jesus Christ the key to understanding the entire document.

All of our interpretations must allow Revelation immediately and directly to do all five of these things for Christians who do not live in Western Europe, the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. In my view, customary versions of preterism, futurism and historicism all frequently fail in this regard. Too often they wrongly leave the impression that people in other regions cannot immediately apply the last book of the Bible to their own lives but must first filter what it means to them through what it has meant to many of us. This has always been a mistake. It is especially so in our time.

David Larson is Professor of Religion at Loma Linda University Health

Photo by Tim Evans on Unsplash

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