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Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism


Three events in the twentieth century demonstrate the vulnerabilities of historicism as the key to Bible prophecy and the lens through which to determine what is important in history. The three events I have in mind are the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, and the atrocities committed when the former Yugoslavia was breaking up. I had an opportunity to witness one after-effect of the latter in faraway Australia eight years ago. While in Melbourne, I learned that Adventist congregations with membership from the former Yugoslavia had split during the war. Seventh-day Adventists regarding themselves as Serbs could no longer worship alongside fellow believers who regarded themselves as Croats despite sharing the same language. The impact of the ruthless nationalism of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia spilled over into the church nationally and internationally. Church members also took sides; church structures buckled under the pressure.

This was the decade when the highest echelons of the Orthodox Church in Bosnia praised Radovan Karadzic and Radtko Mladic, leaders of the Serb faction during the break-up of Bosnia, as luminous examples of what it means “to follow the hard road of Christ.” Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic later faced charges of war crimes and genocide before the International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague. The genocide in Rwanda claimed more lives than the war in the former Yugoslavia, but Rwanda is important because it was regarded as the most “Christianized” country on the African continent and Seventh-day Adventists, also a sizeable group in the country, participated in the genocide.

And yet it is the Holocaust that will be our lesson book. It towers above all other atrocities in the twentieth century. It is also best described and analyzed, and it is from post-Holocaust reflections I will attempt to draw some lessons under the heading, “Storm Clouds over Historicism.”

Useful background reading for my reflection will be Jacques Doukhan (ed.), Thinking in the Shadow of Hell: the Impact of the Holocaust on Theology and Jewish-Christian Relations (2002); Daniel Heinz (ed.), Freikirchen und Juden im ‘Dritten Reich’ (2012); and Johannes Hartlapp, Siebenten-Tags-Adventisten im Nationalsozialismus (2008).

Before we begin, let us read again one of the texts for this week’s Lesson Study, the text showing that the “one hundred and forty-four thousand” are constituted as Israel

And I heard the number

   of those who were sealed,

one hundred forty-four thousand,

   sealed from every tribe

of the people of Israel (Revelation 7:4)

In this reflection, I rely mostly on Professor Hartlapp’s magisterial book. It is a masterpiece of investigative footwork, describing in painstaking detail the situation and response of Seventh-day Adventists to Hitler’s Nazi regime. Dr. Hartlapp is Professor of Church History at Friedensau Adventist University just an hour’s drive from Berlin. I will focus on some excerpts from Hartlapp’s conclusions. For translations, I am indebted to Dennis Meier, the President of the Hansa Conference in the North German Union. The opinions expressed in the following are my own; they are not the views of my friends Dennis or Johannes.

Why make these horrendous events a moment of truth for historicism? Why not say — merely — that they are examples of human failings without the need to incriminate the historicist approach to Bible prophecy? My answer will be that these events are those things, too — examples of human failings — but are also a corrective to historicism as the means by which to know what is important in times of crisis.

The first set of Hartlapp’s conclusions are largely descriptive. They have in common the conviction that the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Germany on important points fell in line with the national mood. As he puts it, “The Christian conscience capitulated to the Zeitgeist” (p 597).

The fall of the Seventh-day Adventist Church was bigger because its aspirations were so high: we were “the Remnant Church,” a bulwark of faith in times of apostasy. Failure hit at the home base — and the evil that occasioned the failure was not the garden variety kind. Against such evidence, says Hartlapp, “The claim to exclusivity had been refuted by life” (p 597).

A second question that needs to be asked is why Adventists in Germany were willing to sacrifice an essential like Sabbath observance, the “seal of the overcomers,” on the altar of “total war” (p 602).

Was the failure limited to individuals only, or was it systemic? Did the Church fail as church? Hartlapp gives a pointed answer.

It would be wrong to attribute the failure of German Adventists during the Nazi era to deficient decision-making of individuals. The church faced fundamental questions to which it had hitherto been oblivious or negligent. The caving in to the Zeitgeist, on closer inspection, turns out to be a consequence of the fact that some of the so-called fundamentals had lost their fundamental weight. Therefore, an analysis of that behavior may bring insights that are of interest for the church as a whole (p. 600).

I take the statement above as an invitation to reflect broadly — this way: Our church in Germany faced a crisis to which it responded by silence, acquiescence, and denial. The problem was church-wide. Fundamental faith commitments were put to the test and found wanting. There was an unrecognized weak spot in the church’s armor. The theology of a self-described prophetic, end-time movement was inadequate. It is at this point that historicist priorities come up for review.

First, says Hartlapp, there was an overriding concern for the preservation of the church and the church organization. This is a noble thing, but is it wise in a state of emergency? Is it good enough when all bets are off, when fellow human beings wear the yellow star, when synagogues are burned and razed to the ground, and when trains loaded with Jews begin heading east?

Not personal interests, but ‘The Work’ was at the top of the list. Therefore, wherever possible, they fought for the preservation of any institution that was in danger of being confiscated. The continuation of an orderly organization, including all entities and institutions, seemed to be the top priority. That times were dangerous was recognized. With reference to the Old Testament text, preachers time and again inculcated their congregations: “While we go with them into the Valley of Dura, we will not bow down to their statue.” With that attitude many leaders turned a blind eye on those who didn’t want to go into the Valley of Dura in the first place. The way into the Valley of Dura, however, changed the church so drastically that most of them failed to realize that they were brought in line and abused by the regime, much like the rest of the population (p. 598).

Hartlapp’s imagery is spine-tingling. Going into the Valley of Dura, yes, but not going to bow down! And then, after going down to the Valley of Dura, there was no turning back, only a steep climb toward regaining one’s integrity.

Second, Seventh-day Adventists had a broad-brush picture of the world and of history, but it lacked the means to decipher the present.

Since the church as a result of the 19th century second awakening movement was orientated towards the future, the state was constituted only as a necessary evil to maintain and secure the normal course of life. Generally, the term ‘state’ meant ‘the sinful world,’ and the world as such was not taken seriously. It somehow decorated the apocalyptic scenario, but nothing more. Adventist reflections on political ethics are nowhere to be found (603-4).

In this other-worldly orientation, the world was mere decoration: the world was not taken seriously. Precisely this is the blind spot of historicism: it knows what the historicist understanding has selected as important, but it does not know history. It does not take the world seriously, and it does not take history seriously either. In important respects, historicism can be a cop-out, a way that passes for knowing without doing the hard work of really knowing something. The test in this case was the racist, nationalist, demagogic, Jew-hating program of Hitler, but the prophetic radar had been set at an angle that did not pick it up. It spotted beasts on the screen in Rome and a few other places, but it had no alarm bells for the Beast in Nuremberg or Berlin.

Karl Popper’s (1902-94) criticism of historicist approaches is pertinent.* His historicism does not refer to Bible prophecy but to ideologies that imagine themselves capable of naming the forces that guide history and therefore can predict direction and outcome. “Historicists” of this kind include Plato (427-347 BCE), G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), and Karl Marx (1818-83). Popper writes that these philosophical approaches to history fail the test of morality: they are guilty of dissociating moral action in the present from the outcome that is predicted and sought. “So we can be sure,” Popper writes,

that whatever we do will lead to the same result; that even fascism must, in the end, lead to that commonwealth; so that the final outcome does not depend upon our moral decision, and that there is no need to worry over our responsibilities. If we are told that we can be certain, on scientific grounds, that “the last will be the first and the first last,” what else is this but the substitution of historical prophecy for conscience?

A person who knows the outcome and is certain what the outcome will be risks the pitfall of dogmatism at one end, and fatalism at the other. For the dogmatic stance, knowledge of the goal of history endows the person committed to that goal with the mandate of implementing it: dogmatism and triumphalism tend to go hand in hand. At the fatalist end, complacency prevails. Values matter less than the end that is sought. The end justifies the means even if the means is to do nothing.

This leads to the third point, the event-centered selectivity of historicism. Hartlapp’s conclusion agonizes over this, and we should join him. We should not dismiss the debacle of the German Adventist experience. We should stand with them in solidarity and — in solidarity — admitting that their blind spot is ours, too. Selective event-centeredness plays tricks on people when the event that needs to be addressed and confronted is not on historicism’s list of evils.

Behind this lurks a notion of history that is exemplified by selection, as demonstrated in the interpretation of prophecies. If possible, all biblical statements had to submit to a hermeneutic characterized by a rationalistic epistemology. Texts like Dan 12,4 undoubtedly point to a rationale of inner connections between various prophetic statements. At the same time, however, the visual language of the prophets signals different levels of interpretation. Anyone sticking to a rigid rational scheme loses the experiential dimension prophetic imagery in all its variety has in store. The traditional Adventist prophetic interpretation, in which only the Papacy and America occupied an active political place in world history, is one reason why the danger of National Socialism was not recognized, or, if ever, too late, by most German Adventists (p. 606).

While Adventists kept talking about the Papacy or America — while we keep talking about the Papacy and America — other menaces sneak upon us, and they are not detected because we do not find them in the historicist scheme. I mean no offense to historicism when I say that historicism has yet to mention the Holocaust or Nazi ideology as evils that ought to be included in its exposé.

We are not talking about things merely for the record. I have left out the pain experienced in the German church as it tried to pick up again and move on after the war. In this, there has been little help from the World Church. I wonder what Adventist tour leaders say on their Reformation Tours in Germany. In Wittenberg, do they point out the sculpture of the pig high up on one corner of the Mother Church of the Reformation? Do they mention that the human beings suckling underneath the sow are Jews? Do they draw attention to the man lifting the tail of the pig to inspect its rear end, that he is a Jewish rabbi? And then, in these days of theological accountability, do they explain that Martin Luther used this image on his own church to show that the Jews were worshiping the Devil’s excrement? It is not only the historicism of Adventists that is weighed and found wanting. A critical piece of Reformation theology has also been left out.

When the Biblical Research Institute and the General Conference brought more than three hundred Adventist Bible scholars and religion teachers to Jerusalem in 2012, the topic was anthropology. I have been told that our world leader made no mention of the Holocaust in his opening address. The attendees were treated to a grand tour of the Holy Land, but there was no scheduled visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem (“Yad Vashem” is a biblical term drawn from the Sabbath text in Isaiah 56). The past was there (archaeology). The future was there (eschatology). Only the present was missing.

In the Valley of Dura (Daniel 3:1-30)

Hartlapp uses “the Valley of Dura” as a metaphor for the experience of German Adventists during the Hitler years. Before we close, let us go to the Valley of Dura in the days of King Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.).

He was the king who wanted to Make Babylon Great Again, the builder of the Ishtar Gate and the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. He built the Wall, too, to ensure the safety of Babylon. Estimates for the size of the wall varies, from 75 feet tall to 300 feet, with a width up to eighty-five feet. He was a great military leader — certainly not one to request deferments.

Nebuchadnezzar understood the need to harness religion and capture the religious vote. To this end, he staged a spectacular rally in the Valley of Dura (or Plain of Dura). He made Babylon an object of idolatry, projecting a connection between god and country so close that the two became indistinguishable (Daniel 3:1-6). “Great” and “Good” are not the same, and Nebuchadnezzar was more interested in “great” than in “good,” and his project was decidedly this-worldly.  

Shadrak, Meshak, and Abed-Nego did not prostrate themselves before the image. If they had been in the United States today, would they have taken the Pledge of Allegiance with the religious tone it has acquired? (For the religious meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance in a church context, please see Stanley Hauerwas “Why Did Jesus Have to Die? An Attempt to Cross the Barrier of Age,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 28 (2007). Would they have applauded flags in our churches? On a “Valley-of-Dura scale,” where should we place a 3ABN program that was broadcast four years ago? (The telling part begins six minutes into the program and ends at twelve minutes). Would Shadrak, Meshak, and Abed-Nego sing along with the people in the program and take the Pledge of Allegiance amid symbols of power and patriotism? I see a “Valley-of-Dura” scene. What do you see?

I have noted earlier that the Quarterly seems to put all its eggs into the historicist basket:

A careful reading of Revelation’s prophecies (like those of Daniel) shows that the historicist method of prophetic interpretation is the correct way to understand the prophecies’ intended fulfillment, because they follow the flow of history, from the prophet’s time to the end of the world.

This is at best incomplete. First, the prophets (and John is a prophet, too) were forth-tellers more than fore-tellers. Their expertise and sense of vocation were not limited to foretelling the future but to bringing spiritual clarity into the present. They knew what to do in the Valley of Dura then; the prophet knows what to do in the Valley of Dura now. And there is a now. The “time of anguish” (Daniel 12:1) may come later than we imagined, but it has also come sooner than we thought, and we did not see it.

Second, affirmations of historicism as “the correct way” should not leave out the storm that swept the historicist landscape in the twentieth century in the fascist dream of Hitler (“the Great Deed”) and its Marxist version. And it can certainly not leave out the storm that laid bare the vulnerability of Seventh-day Adventists and our historicist understanding in the same century.

Third, unless forth-telling is robustly joined to fore-telling in the Adventist view of prophecy and our communal witness, we shall have a weak voice in the world, and we shall lose the next generation. I don’t deny that some young people master the art of fore-telling. But many more do not and never will. The young people I have met in my teaching experience might come along if we teach them more of the art of forth-telling, point out the prophetic foundation, and march into the Valley of Dura to take a stand.


*Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Volume 1: The Spell of Plato. Volume 2: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath (London: Routledge, 1989-90. Orig. 1945).


Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019

Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019

Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019

Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019

Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019

Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019


Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash


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