True Principles & Uncertain Details About Prophecy, Part 7
The Continuous Historic approach to understanding Bible prophecy has long been the most widely held view among Christadelphians. Bro. John Thomas adopted this view in Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse in Harmony with the Things of the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Anointed.
Some brothers and sisters ascribe the highest of honors to this impressive three-volume work. For example, Bro. H. P. Mansfield wrote,
“With many Christadelphians, we believe that though Eureka is not inspired as the Scriptures are inspired, its author was divinely guided in the interpretation set forth. That does not mean that we necessarily endorse every detail of it; but it does mean that by and large, we accept it as the true meaning of the Revelation.”1
Unfortunately, a few go too far, even suggesting that if you don’t agree with the Continuous Historic approach, then you aren’t a “true” Christadelphian and you shouldn’t be in fellowship. We must avoid such extreme views. There is nothing in our Statement of Faith that requires us to accept the Continuous Historic interpretation of prophecy, so it should not be a test of fellowship.
The fact is, Bro. Thomas was heavily influenced by the most popular view of his day. For example, many of the historical interpretations in Eureka are the same as those in Horae Apocalyticae (i.e., Hours with the Apocalypse), a four-volume scholarly masterpiece by English clergyman Edward Bishop Elliott (1793-1875).
Charles Spurgeon called it “the standard work on the subject.”2 Seventh-day Adventist historian LeRoy Edwin Froom (1890- 1974) said it “is doubtless the most elaborate work ever produced on the Apocalypse.”3 Bro. Thomas’s dependence on Elliott and others does not invalidate the approach; it merely emphasizes that the Continuous Historic interpretation was (and is) not uniquely Christadelphian.
One major thing that Bro. Thomas did, which he rightly stressed in the extended title and throughout, was to correct doctrinal errors found in the mainstream commentaries. As a result, Eureka properly aligns with the first principles of the gospel. Of course, so do other interpretations that have been suggested by brothers and sisters.
Continuous Historic interpretation was (and is) not uniquely Christadelphian.
Although the Continuous Historic approach is still the most commonly held among us, there are other views that are accepted by an increasing number of brothers and sisters. Examples of Christadelphian books presenting other approaches include Revelation: A Biblical Approach by Bro. Harry Whittaker, Apocalypse for Everyman by Bro. A. D. Norris, and Exploring the Apocalypse by Bro. Peter Watkins.
This comment is not meant to endorse these alternative views other than to encourage all of us to have a broader perspective by considering other options in addition to the Continuous Historic view. We need to be able to openly discuss all gospel compliant possibilities in a Christ-like manner.
EXPLAINING THE 2,000 YEAR GAP
The Continuous Historic perspective is one way to address the problem caused by Jesus’ repeated, “I come quickly.” (Rev 2:5, 16; 3:11; 22:7, 12). It does so by setting out to find fulfillments of the prophecies in the course of history from the time of John to the present age.
Elliott claimed that by successfully doing so he had provided a convincing proof of the divine inspiration of Scripture. Though laudable in some regards, such an approach can have a major drawback: by looking backward at history to find fulfillments of the words of Scripture, we may have a propensity to find them whether they’re there or not. It’s like being told there are elephants in the clouds; as soon as you’re told to look for them, sure enough, you find them.
Apocalypse for Everyman includes criticisms of many of the Continuous Historic explanations of historical events; these were provided to Bro. A. D. Norris by his cousin and historian Bro. J. B. Norris. The rest of this article describes some of the methods that the inspired authors of Scripture dealt with delays in the fulfillment of God’s plans, and how these methods can help us understand why Christ hasn’t returned yet.
Yahweh tells Jeremiah to watch the potter handling the clay in order to teach him how He interacts with nations (Jer 18:1-11). God explains:
This idea runs throughout the Scriptures.4 When God repens, His original plans may be deferred. For example, Israel’s unbelief at Kadesh caused God to delay their entrance into the Promised Land by 40 years. Because Hezekiah prayed, God delayed his death by 15 years. Because Nineveh repented in sackcloth and ashes, God postponed their destruction for over a century. This is perhaps the most important reason Christ hasn’t returned yet.
The second coming depends on the repentance of Israel (Acts 3:19-21 NRSV), so as long as Israel remains unrepentant, Gentiles will continue to be called into the family of God:
The second coming depends on the repentance of Israel
Notice that it is God who is blinding Israel, thus extending the riches of the Gentiles. Bro. Thomas explained: “Had the nation continued to obey the Lord’s voice and to keep the covenant, and when Christ came received him as king on the proclamation of the gospel, they would doubtless have been in Canaan until now; and he might have come ere this, and be now reigning in Jerusalem, King of the Jews and Lord of the nations.
“But had this been the case, we Gentiles would have had no part in the kingdom. We might attain to eternal life at the end of the reign; but in the glory of the kingdom, and in the administration of its affairs, as heirs of the world with Abraham and his seed, we should have had no part; for it was the unbelief of the forty-second generation of Israel that became the riches of the Gentiles.” (Elpis Israel, p. 309).
While we all long for the time when Christ has returned to fulfill the hope of Israel, until then, we should be thankful that we have been included in that hope.
TIME FROM GOD’S PERSPECTIVE
Peter faced the same issue we do:
As part of his response, Peter explained that, on one hand, God can cause the activity that would normally take 1,000 years to happen in one day; and, on the other hand, He can wait 1,000 years for the activity of one day to happen:
APOCALYPTIC REAPPLICATIONS OF UNFULFILLED PROPHECIES
As we saw in an earlier article in this series,5 the basic process of apocalyptic literature is to take unfulfilled or partially fulfilled prophecies of the past and re-apply them to present or future circumstances. Here are a couple of examples.
(a) In Daniel 9, the angel Gabriel re-applies Jeremiah’s prophecy of 70 years captivity by reinterpreting it to be an updated prophecy concerning 70 x 7 = 490 years.
(b) Peter applies Joel’s prophecy of God pouring out his Spirit upon men and women so they could prophesy to the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21).
(c) The inspired New Testament writers re-apply Daniel’s allusions to Antiochus Epiphanes setting up the abomination of desolation (Dan 11:30-39; 7:8, 20-21, 24- 25; 8:9-12, 23-25; 9:27; 12:11; see also 1 Macc 1:10-64) to the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (2 Thess 2:1-12; Mark 13:14; Matt 24:15).
(d) Similarly, John envisions a composition of Daniel’s four beasts to represent the Roman Empire (Dan 7; Rev 12-13).
In this way, God’s plan can appear to skip past long periods of time, leaving big gaps in the fulfillment of prophecy. This is a key idea underlying Futurist interpretations of Revelation.
New Testament expectations are reapplied to the last days leading up to Christ’s return. Sometimes these reapplications entail adaption and reinterpretation of some elements of the prophecies.
THE DAY-FOR-A-YEAR PRINCIPLE
The idea that days represent years in prophetic time periods is a key ingredient to the Continuous Historic approach. The evidence for the principle comes from three passages (Num 14:34; Ezek 4:4-6; Dan 9:24).
In the first of these, Israel was to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, one year for each day the spies were in the land.
In the second, Ezekiel was to lie on his side for 390 days, one for each of the 390 years Israel was going to be punished, and then 40 days, one for each of the 40 years Judah was to be punished.
In the third, Daniel is told that there will be 70 “weeks” corresponding to 490 years.
This day-for-a-year principle is then applied, for example, to the 3 ½ times = 42 months = 1260 days (Dan 12:7; Rev 11:2; 12:14; 13:5) to get 1260 years, as well as to the 1290 and 1335 days (Dan 12:11-12) to get 1290 and 1335 years, respectively.
Such an approach has been challenged.6 One problem with it is the many prophecies in Scripture where the times are clearly meant to be taken “literally” (Gen 15:13; 41:29-30; Isa 38:5; Jer 25:11-12; 29:10; Jesus being raised on the third day; etc.).
One particularly unfortunate application of the principle led Bro. Thomas, following Elliott, to predict the return of Christ around 1866. Sadly, this same error has been repeated many times by our community. In contrast, the actual Scriptural principle is more like “so many days for individuals corresponding to so many years for nations.”
PROGRESSIVE DEFERMENT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT ERA7
The New Testament coverage of the last half of the first century A.D. illustrates the ongoing deferment of God’s plan. There were those who claimed they were already in the kingdom (1 Cor 4:8), the day of the Lord and the resurrection having already occurred (2 Thess 2:1-2; 2 Tim 2:16-18).
They didn’t believe in bodily resurrection (1 Cor 15). They had to be comforted when some died (1 Thess 4:13-18). They had stopped working (1 Thess 4:11-12; 5:14; 2 Thess 3:6-15), had a shared purse (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37), and ultimately became known as the Ebionites, “The Poor Ones” (Gal 2:10; Rom 15:26).
Paul’s letters are full of exhortations against these ideas. It is likely the reason he has so many negative things to say about the kingdom (Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:19-20; 6:9-10; 15:50; Gal 5:19- 21; Eph 5:3-5). In addition, against this view, Paul, Mark, and John demonstrate that they were still in the first of three phases; and as God delayed the coming of Christ, the first phase continued to be extended.
We have three stages of this progressive development of God’s plan in A.D. 50-100.:
(a) 1, 2 Thessalonians, c. A.D. 50-51 outlines the three phases (2 Thess 2:1-12; 1 Thess 4:13-5:11), and is based on the sequence of prophetic events in Daniel (some of which were mentioned above).
(b) Mark 13, the Olivet Prophecy, c. A.D. 70 is also divided into the same three phases (Mark 13:5-13, 14-23, 24-27), and includes many verbal links to Thessalonians and Daniel. Mark 13:9-13 extends the first phase by recalling Jesus’ prediction of the events that would occur during the 50s and 60s, as recorded in Acts.
(c) Revelation, c. A.D. 69-96 has the same three major phases (Rev 4:1-11:14; 11:15-15:8; 16-22), each introduced with a vision in heaven, and including verbal links back to the Olivet Prophecy, Thessalonians, Daniel, etc. The Trumpets (Rev 8-11) extend the first phase by describing events that occurred during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, covering the reigns of Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, including, for example, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, Titus’s comet, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the horrible plague in the reign of Titus, and the notion of Nero Redivivus.
This progression shows how the New Testament writers were inspired to deal with the increasing delay of the return of Christ and the ensuing consummation of all things. They described the events that took place during the incremental gaps between their present time and the writings that had come before. In essence, this is what our “signs of the times” watchers do today.
This article and the others in this series have emphasized the difference between prophetic ideas that are true principles that we must all agree on and those which are uncertain details that we must allow for flexibility.
The true principles are those that are essential to salvation
The true principles are those that are essential to salvation, those that we rightly treat as tests of fellowship. They include first principles like the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the judgment of the just and unjust, the Kingdom of God in the earth, etc.
The uncertain details include topics like the design of the temple in the Kingdom Age and the various approaches to interpreting prophecy.8
These are not in our Statement of Faith and should not be made tests of fellowship. We must allow differences of opinion on these nonessentials. We must be able to discuss them in a Christ-like manner.9
Austin Leander, TX
1 The Christadelphian Expositor, The Book of Revelation: The Apocalypse Epitomised, p. 14.
2 Commenting and Commentaries, p. 199.
3 The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, Vol. III, p. 716.
4 Joe Hill, Tidings, August, 2017, pp. 326-332 (https://tidings.org/wp-content/ uploads/2020/04/2017_08_Aug_Special.pdf).
5 Joe Hill, Tidings, March, 2021, pp. 142-143 (https://tidings.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/ March_2021_tidings.pdf).
6 Joe Hill and George Booker, “Does the ‘day-for-a-year’ principle pass the Scriptural test?” (http:// www.christadelphianbooks.org/agora/art_less/d06.html).
7 This section takes some material from my article, “God Repents,” referenced in endnote 3.
8 The Continuous Historic, Preterist, Futurist, Progressive Deferment, and other approaches all have strengths and weaknesses, which is one reason that none of them should be elevated to an essential doctrine that must be accepted by everyone in our community.
9 See the special issue, “When We Disagree: Ensuring Love Prevails,” Tidings, October 2021 (https:// tidings.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/2021-10-Special.pdf).