Preterism, Historicism, Futurism Explained
Many Christians don’t know this, but there are really three major “prophetic schools” of interpretation now in conflict – Preterism, Historicism, and Futurism. Each of these schools view the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation differently. This Prophetic Perspectives series will simplify and clarify the issues.
One of the most well-respected Bible Commentators in the history of Christianity was England’s well-beloved, E.B. Elliott. In 1862, the 5th edition of his classic four-volume Horae Apocalypticae – A Commentary on the Apocalypse, was published in London. The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, in his Comments on the Commentaries, considered Elliott’s work “the standard.”
Volume 4 contains a well-written, thorough, and extremely valuable overview of every major Apocalyptic commentator in the history of Christianity – from the days of John to the mid 1800’s – called History of Apocalyptic Interpretation. As a result of his vast research and tremendous historical perspective, Elliott clearly reveals the three major contending schools of prophetic interpretation.
“For, in conclusion, the readers of this Historic Sketch will see that there are but three grand Schemes of Apocalyptic Interpretation that can be considered as standing up face to face against each other… The 1st is that of the Praeterists; respecting the subject of prophecy, except in its two or three last chapters [of Revelation], to the catastrophes of the Jewish nation and old Roman Empire … which Scheme, originally propounded, as we saw, by the Jesuit Alcasar, and then adopted by Grotius … by Professor Moses Stuart in the United States of America, and by disciples in the German School in England …
“The 2nd is the Futurist Scheme; making the whole of the Apocalyptic Prophecy, (excepting perhaps the primary Vision and Letters to the Seven Churches,) to relate to things now future, viz. the things concerning Christ’s second Advent: a Scheme first set forth, [as] we saw, by the Jesuit [Francisco] Ribera, at the end of the 16th century; and which in its main principle has been urged alike by Dr. S.R. Maitland, Mr. Burgh, the Oxford Tractator on Antichrist, and others, in our own times and era, not without considerable success …
“The 3rd is what we may call emphatically the Protestant continuous Historic Scheme of Interpretation; that which regards the Apocalypse as a prefiguration in detail of the chief events affecting the Church and Christendom, whether secular or ecclesiastical, from St. John’s time to the consummation: – a Scheme which, in regard of its particular application of the symbols of Babylon and the Beast to Papal Rome and Popedom, was early embraced, as we saw, by the Waldenses, Wickliffites, and Hussites; then adopted with fuller light by the chief [Protestant] reformers, German, Swiss, French and English, of the 16th century; and transmitted downwards uninterruptedly, even to the present time.
“It is the last of which [the Protestant Historicist School] which I embrace for my own part with a full and ever strengthening conviction of its truth.” Horae, Vol. 4, pps. 562, 563.
Thus Elliott identifies: 1) The Preterist School which sees most of the prophecies being fulfilled in the past in the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and the pagan Roman Empire; 2) The Futurist School which sees most of the prophecies in Revelation – from chapter 4 onward – as applying to events yet future; and 3) The Historicist School which sees the book of Revelation as largely predictive of actual events to occur throughout the history of Christianity from the time of John until the return of Jesus Christ.
The Historicist School contained the viewpoint of almost all Protestant Reformers from the Reformation into the 19th century. Elliot also shows clearly through historical research that both the Preterist and Futurist schools were definitely put forth by Jesuit scholars in their earnest attempts to divert the unanimous Protestant application of Daniel’s “little horn” prophecy and Revelation’s “beast” prediction to the rise and work of Papal Rome.
A complete treatment of Preterism, Futurism, and Historicism can be found in Steve Wohlberg’s eye-opening book, End Time Delusions.