Editor’s Note: Dr. Ron J. Bigalke is the author of the brand new book, When? The Biblical Timing for Prophetic Fulfillment, from Dispensational Publishing House. The book is now available for presale, and it has the potential to become a go-to resource for years to come in the realm of eschatology—for students in the classroom and pastors in the study, as well as committed Christians who simply desire to know more about how the future will unfold. Although the focus of the book is not on the Reformation, Bigalke shares some interesting insights regarding the intersection of the Reformation and the issues of interpretation and Biblical prophecy, and that is the subject of this timely three-part blog series, which is compiled from excerpts from the book. I present this work to you with the highest commendation, then, and trust that it will be a blessing to many.
“ALL FLESH IS LIKE GRASS,
AND ALL ITS GLORY LIKE THE FLOWER OF GRASS.
THE GRASS WITHERS,
AND THE FLOWER FALLS OFF,
BUT THE WORD OF THE LORD ENDURES FOREVER.”
And this is the word which was preached to you. (1 Pet. 1:24-25)
Historicism equates the current church age with the period of the tribulation. Some historicists teach the tribulation began in A.D. 300 with the rise of the papacy as the Antichrist. The Protestant Reformers supplemented Augustine’s amillennialism with the view that the papacy (as a system) was the Antichrist. The seal, trumpet and bowl judgments are fulfilled throughout various historical events in Europe. The seal judgments could include the rise of Islam, whereas the trumpet judgments could include the march of Napoleon across Europe. Since the major of these judgments have already occurred in church history, it is not uncommon for historicists to anticipate the battle of Armageddon.
The absence of any systematic eschatology by the early church fathers is the consequence of the lack of consistency by them regarding the exact chronology of the premillennial return of Jesus Christ. Since the early church did believe in an imminent return of the Lord, it would seem that any references to them by posttribulationists must explain how they could believe in a doctrine of imminence, yet also thought they were experiencing the tribulation. The reason why the early did not give systematic thought to eschatological doctrines is understandable.
The church soon became involved in problems other than the study of prophecy, however, and church councils in the fourth century and in following centuries were concerned primarily with the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of sin, and various controversies. Paganism and ritualism engulfed the church after the fourth century, and it was not until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century that Biblical doctrines began to be restored.
The systematic teaching of premillennial pretribulationism is a consequence of the Protestant Reformation. Amillennial and postmillennial theologies essentially deny the principle of sola Scriptura by not applying the Reformation hermeneutic consistently. (Due to their own historical context, the Protestant Reformers themselves cannot be directly accused of this deficiency.) However, it is not clear why the majority of modern posttribulationists deny imminency. Although posttribulationists make frequent appeals to the church fathers for defense of their view, it is unmistakable that there is a lack of continuity between the early church and posttribulationists today. Nevertheless, the early church simply did not articulate a systematized form of eschatological doctrine.
A major change to prophetic interpretation occurred in the second and third centuries with Origen (ca. 185-254). He absolutely ignored the literal, normal meaning of Scripture, and it was his method of spiritualizing and allegorizing that became unusually excessive throughout the church. Augustine of Hippo is best known as the father of amillennialism. Augustine dated the beginning of the millennium to the first coming of Christ and taught the kingdom of God was present on Earth. He modified Origen’s allegorical method by confining it solely to Bible prophecy. Following the teachings of Augustine, the church developed a sense of triumphalism that remained the dominant view of prophecy until Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1135-1202). Joachim developed the day-year theory, which understands the 1,260 days of Revelation as 1,260 years. He taught that Babylon was Rome, the Pope was the Antichrist, and the Age of the Spirit would begin in A.D. 1260. Joachim’s historicism thrived during the Middle Ages (among those who did not merely allegorize prophetic truths) and into the period of the Reformation.
Often historicism has thrived during momentous eras of the church (e.g., during persecution or revival). What is evident regarding classic historicism is the vigorous promotion of the teaching that the Antichrist is an ecclesiastical system (viz. the Roman Catholic Church), and the vehement denial of the Biblical teaching that the Antichrist will be an individual. The Reformers endured such incredible persecution under the Catholic Church that it was only natural to spiritualize Scripture and understand the pope to be the Antichrist (it is, therefore, understandable why the Reformers developed their conclusions!). The Reformers abandoned the allegorical method of interpretation (characteristic of Roman Catholicism) in all areas but eschatology. Amillennialism is the prophetic viewpoint of the Catholic Church, and a non-literal millennium was also the prophetic viewpoint of the Protestant Reformers. The reason that many of the Reformers retained the amillennialism of Catholicism was due to the time in which they lived. They did embrace a grammatical-historical interpretation of the Scripture in regards to soteriology and ecclesiology. Since eschatology was not a major issue during the Reformation, the Reformers did not have the opportunity to apply their hermeneutic consistently. Although human personalities do not endure, thankfully, the Word of God does abide forever.
(Read Part 2)
Dr. Ron J. Bigalke serves as the Georgia state minister for Capitol Commission. He also pastors a church plant through Biblical Ministries Worldwide and has taught for Bible colleges and seminaries—serving as a research associate with the University of Pretoria (missions and ethics project). He is a frequent contributor and editor for various publications through Eternal Ministries, Inc., writes for Midnight Call magazine and is general editor of the Journal of Dispensational Theology. It is with great enthusiasm that we include him as an author for Dispensational Publishing House.
Copyright © 2017 by Dr. Ron J. Bigalke. Used by permission of the author.
Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®,
Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995
by The Lockman Foundation
Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)
 David Larsen, “Joachim of Fiore: The Rebirth of Futurism,” Covenant Quarterly 60 (2002): 1-15.