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The Difference Between Historicism and Historic Premillennialism


Two similar words, historicism and historic, are often confused, such that it is common to find people describing “historic premillennialism” as a historicist view of prophecy: that the prophetic events in the Bible are symbolic of various events throughout history.  Historicism is really one of four approaches to the prophetic chapters of Revelation, and the historicist approach is not limited to any particular millennial view, premillennialism or other.  After all, the 16th century Reformers were amillennial and historicist, seeing the pope and Catholic system in their day as the antichrist.

The term “historic premillennialism” refers simply to the historic (not historicist) view of premillennialism, a term broad enough to include the variations among many believers throughout church history, with no association to whatever other doctrines they may have believed.  This grouping includes the early church fathers, who showed understanding of future events and their sequence, as briefly quoted previously here  — a futurist understanding (that the prophetic events are future to our age, not occurring throughout history).

Within the Protestant era, historic premillennialists generally came from the post-Reformation background including Covenant Theology, and 18th century premillennialists such as John Gill also had a historicist view of prophecy.  The mid-19th century premillennialists came from the background of this historicist approach, but through their emphasis on the literal hermeneutic  understood the problem with historicism: simply, that the events described in Revelation have not yet happened.  It is interesting as well to read Benjamin Wills Newton put forth the same futurist arguments as modern-day writers, for a rebuilding of Babylon to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and in Revelation (prophecies which tell of a destruction of Babylon that has not yet happened), in a detailed look at the actual history of Babylon and its surrounding region up to the mid-19th century.

Newton, in Thoughts on the Apocalypse, also shared this then-new development of a more literal understanding and futurist approach.  As he noted, we do see some of the same characteristics, in our age, of the great evil events yet to come: a kind of foreshadowing as history moves toward its conclusion, as the events of world history move closer and closer toward the final manifestation, the antiChrist’s rule.  But we must go beyond the historic similarities, the application, to the direct meaning of the text and what God intends as His primary communication to us in His word:

(Concerning Revelation 17-18):

We cannot, therefore, be surprised that this chapter has frequently been applied by the servants of God, in different ages, to those ruling systems which they have severally recognized in their own day as hostile to the people and to the truth of Christ, whilst perhaps blasphemously assuming His authority and name. Nor were they altogether wrong in this; for what ecclesiastical body, I might add, what secular body, has yet arisen in the earth, that has set itself to order the ways of men either in their relations toward Christ or in their natural relations toward God, that has not run counter to His will, dishonored His Scripture, opposed His saints, and arrogated to itself a place which God never gave it?

And how can any be the sustainers of such things, without names of blasphemy being written on them, the more in proportion to the energy and devotedness of their labor? Many a defender of Romanism and such like systems, must be regarded as marked with names of blasphemy — for falsehood cannot be thrust into the place of Truth, without Truth being rejected and reviled; and false assumption, and the consequent reviling of God’s Truth and people, is blasphemy in His sight. ” I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews, and are not ; but are the synagogue of Satan.”

But the exactness of prophetic statement must not be destroyed by applications, which, however valuable as applications, must never be substituted for direct and exact interpretation. Our first duty always is to inquire what the event which God is pleased to reveal, definitely and specifically is. It may be with godly and upright intention that many have sought to turn the edge of the testimony of (Revelation 17) sometimes on Rome, sometimes on national assumptions of Christianity; but the cause of Truth will not ultimately be served hereby, if in doing this they have unconsciously narrowed the testimony of God, and refused to see in this chapter the definite picture of that closing system to which Romanism and everything else that successfully sways the unregenerate heart will finally lead …  It cannot be doubted by any who seriously examine this chapter, that its fulfilment is altogether future.

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  1. December 29, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Very clear thoughts. Appreciate how you defined historicism vs historic pre-millennialism.

    • December 29, 2013 at 7:01 pm

      Thanks, J.S. It’s an interesting subject, including the history/background development.

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