Editor's Corner - How Should We Interpret Bible Prophecy?

S. Lawrence Maxwell


I was eleven going on 12. I was wearing short woolen pants and a blue shirt and tie, and my mother was shepherding me and my twin brother, C. Mervyn Maxwell (ten minutes older) toward our first day at the Adventist elementary school in Mountain View, California. We were dressed the way we were because at the last school we had attended, that was the school uniform, worn by nearly 700 boys with nary a girl in the entire school. It was December, 1936, just a month since we had disembarked from the brand new Queen Mary,which had brought us to the United States so dad could edit Signs of the Times.

What would this new school be like? What form would they put us in? We hadn't learned yet that Americans call forms "grades." I looked at the younger children and hoped we wouldn't be put with them.

What I am leading up to is that either that day or one soon after, Mr. Paul Meeth, the 7th-and-8th grade teacher, asked Mervyn and me to remain after the other students went home. Then he said he'd like to see how we would do on a history test he had given his students that day. We both liked history. We knew all about William the Conqueror and 1066 and Francis Drake and the Spanish ArmadaCevery English school boy knew that. But what in the world was this test asking for? I don't remember any of the questions now, except two, and both of them fit perfectly into this issue of Adventists Affirm. They were, "True or false, Prophecy is history before it happens" and "History is prophecy fulfilled." I don't know how I answered. I'd never been asked questions like these on a history test, ever. Mr. Meeth let Mervyn and me watch him check the papers and we complained to mother when we got home, "He gave us both F and he didn't give anybody an E." But he must have seen something promising about us because though we were not quite 12 he put us in the seventh grade.

Think back over those two questions. They wrap up Adventism's historicistinterpretation of biblical prophecy. Fulfilling prophecies stretch over history from the prophet's day to the coming of the Lord. Unfortunately a few Adventists, in the last couple of decades, have suggested that we should abandon the historicist approach and adopt preterism or futurism. What are those, you say?

To Learn. They are three words you will learn in this issue, which is all about interpreting Bible prophecy. The first word, as we've seen, is historicist. The "outline prophecies," including the image of Daniel 2, the four beasts of Daniel 7, the 2300 days of Daniel 8, the 70 weeks of Daniel 9, and the 1260 days of persecution in Revelation 12, are fulfilled over many centuries of history.

The second word is preterist. It is easier if you think "P for preterist, P for past."Under this scheme, the major prophecies of Daniel are interpreted as reports of events that happened in the past. They had already taken place around 165 b.c. when the author wrote about them. The major prophecies of Revelation also happened in the past (remember preterist for past), only this time around a.d. 65, in the reign of Nero.

The third word is futurist, which is easy to remember. Futurist interpretations put the fulfillment of many key biblical prophecies into the future, within a few years of the Second Coming.

Don't worry if you have trouble remembering them. You will run into them several times in this issue, and you will know them like the experts by the time you have read the last article.

And let me assure you, they are all good articles. Dane Griffin gets us started with a look at the value of prophecy for the Adventist Christian. You may be surprised at some of the ways prophecy contributes to our faith, and you will gain a new appreciation for it.

Maybe, after studying our cover, you are wondering why anyone would expect God to defend Jerusalem in the battle of Armageddon. Don't dismiss the idea so quickly! Steven Wohlberg has made a continuing study of the Middle East. You may be surprised to learn that many Christians in the United States favor giving Israel billions of dollars to suppress the Palestinians because they believe that God will bless any nation that blesses Israel. If you don't know what's going on between Washington and Jerusalem, this article may be an eye opener. It reveals what can happen when prophecy is misinterpreted.

William Shea is a scholar's scholar, and he analyzes historicism, preterism and futurism in a scholarly manner. You will feel yourself enlightened and better-armed to meet critics who want our church to adopt alternate interpretations.

Just where do the 1290 and 1335 days of Daniel 12:11, 12 fit in? Adventist authors have not said much about them over the years, and today a few Seventh-day Adventists interpreters are suggesting that they are literal days to be fulfilled sometime in the future. You will find Gary Gibbs's article helpful.

Let's look at another prophecy. Revelation 16 warns about the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. Adventists for many years have identified the false prophet as apostate Protestantism, thinking principally of the mainline denominations. But what about the folk who run Christian radio stations and have so much to say about the love of Jesus? Could some of them be included in apostate Protestantism? Be sure to read what Ethel Nelson has to say.

What is the role of America in Bible prophecy? Many people deny that it has one at all, but David Asscherick carefully examines a key Bible prophecy and shares with us its remarkable application.

Gerard Damsteegt looks at the suggestion, very popular among the Reformers of 500 years ago and which is being revived today, that the little horn of Daniel 7 refers to Islam instead of the papacy as Adventists believe.

"Beware of Earthquakes" joins other articles in supporting our time-honored way of interpreting biblical prophecies and adds a warning about a very common mistake frequently made by the best of us.

It is our prayer that this issue will Affirm your confidence in the way Adventistsinterpret the great prophecies God has given us.