Early Church Fathers Were Historicist – H. Grattan Guinness

300px-HenryGuinnessI continually hear that the early church fathers were all futurists with only vague references, there is nothing vague in what our author reveals here:

.1. The Fathers interpreted the four wild beasts of prophecy as representing the four empires, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Here we have the foundation of the historical interpretation of prophecy. Take as an instance the words of Hippolytus on the great image and four wild beasts of Daniel : ” The golden head of the image,” he says, “is identical with the lioness, by which the Babylonians were represented ; the shoulders and the arms of silver are the same with the bear, by which the Persians and Medes are meant ; the belly and thighs of brass are the leopard, by which the Greeks who ruled from Alexander onwards are intended ; the legs of iron are the dreadful and terrible beast, by which the Romans who hold the empire now are meant ; the toes of clay and iron are the ten horns which are to be;the one other little horn springing up in their midst is the antichrist ; the stone that smites the image and breaks it in pieces, and that filled the whole earth, is Christ, who comes from heaven and brings judgment on the world.” 1 This statement is remarkable for its clearness, correctness, and condensation, and expresses the view held still by the historic school.

Hippolytus says, in the treatise on ” Christ and Antichrist “: “Rejoice, blessed Daniel, thou hast not been in error ; all these things have come to pass” (p. 19). “Already the iron rules ; already it subdues and breaks all in pieces ; already it brings all the unwilling into subjection ; already we see these things ourselves. Now we glorify God, being instructed by thee ” (p. 20).

.2. The Fathers held that the ten-horned beasts of Daniel and John are the same. As an instance, Irenasus, in his book “Against Heresies,” chap, xxvi., says : “John, in the Apocalypse, . . . teaches us what the ten horns shall be which were seen by Daniel”

.3. The Fathers held the historic interpretation of the Apocalypse. As Elliott says, none of the Fathers ” entertained the idea of the apocalyptic prophecy overleaping the chronological interval, were it less or greater, antecedent to the consummation, and plunging at once into the times of the consummation.” Here, for example commentary of Victorinus on the Apocalypse of John, written towards the end of the third century. This is the earliest commentary extant on the Apocalypse as a whole. In this, the going forth of the white horse under the first seal is interpreted of the victories of the gospel in the first century. This view, you will observe, involves the historical interpretation of the entire book of Revelation. Victorinus interprets the woman clothed with the sun, having the moon under her feet, and wearing a crown of twelve stars on her head, and travailing in her pains, as “the ancient Church of fathers, prophets, saints, and apostles ” ; in other words, the Judaeo-Christian body of saints. He could not of course point to fulfilments which were at his early date still future, but he recognises the principle.

.4. The Fathers held that the little horn of Daniel, the man of sin foretold by Paul, and the revived head of the Roman empire predicted by John, represent one and the same power ; and they held that power to be the antichrist. For example, Origen, in his famous book, ” Against Celsus/’ thus expresses himself (bk. vi., chap. xlvi.). After quoting nearly the whole of Paul’s prophecy about the man of sin in 2 Thessalonians, which he interprets of the antichrist, he says : “Since Celsus rejects the statements concerning antichrist, as it is termed, having neither read what is said of him in the book of Daniel, nor in the writings of Paul, nor what the Saviour in the gospels has predicted about his coming, we must make a few remarks on this subject. . . . Paul speaks of him who is called antichrist, describing, though with a certain reserve, both the manner and time and cause of his coming. . . . The prophecy also regarding antichrist is stated in the book of Daniel, and is fitted to make an intelligent and candid reader admire the words as truly Divine and prophetic ; for in them are mentioned the things relating to the coming kingdom, beginning with the times of Daniel, and continuing to the destruction of the world.”

Jerome, in his commentary on the book of Daniel (chap, vii.), says, with reference to the little horn which has a mouth speaking great things, that “it is the man of sin, the son of perdition, who dares to sit in the temple of God, making himself as God.”

.5. The Fathers held that the Roman empire was the ” let” or hindrance, referred to by Paul in 2 Thessalonians, which kept back the manifestation of the ” man of sin” This point is of great importance. Paul distinctly tells us that he knew, and that the Thessalonians knew, what that hindrance was, and that it was then in existence. The early Church, through the writings of the Fathers, tells us what it knew upon the subject, and with remarkable unanimity affirms that this “let,” or hindrance, was the Roman empire as governed by the Caesars ; that while the Caesars held imperial power, it was impossible for the predicted antichrist to arise, and that on the fall of the Caesars he would arise. Here we have a point on which Paul affirms the existence of knowledge in the Christian Church. The early Church knew, he says, what this hindrance was. The early Church tells us what it did know upon the subject, and no one in these days can be in a position to contradict its testimony as to what Paul had, by word of mouth only, told the Thessalonians. It is a point on which ancient tradition alone can have any authority. Modern speculation is positively impertinent on such a subject.

What then was the view of the early Church ? Look at the words of Tertullian. Quoting Thessalonians, he says : ” Now ye know what detaineth that he might be revealed in his time, for the mystery of iniquity doth already work ; only he who now hinders must hinder until he be taken out of the way. What obstacle is there but the Roman state ; the falling away of which, by being scattered into ten kingdoms, shall introduce antichrist, . . . that the beast antichrist, with his false prophet, may wage war on the Church of God ?

Read the words of Chrysostom in his ” Commentary on 2 Thessalonians ” : ” One may first naturally inquire what is that which withholdeth, and after that would know why Paul expresses this so obscurely, . . . ‘he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.’ That is, when the Roman empire is taken out of the way, then he shall come ; and naturally, for as long as the fear of this empire lasts, no one will readily exalt himself; but when that is dissolved, he will attack the anarchy, and endeavour to seize upon the government both of men and of God. For as the kingdoms before this were destroyed, that of the Medes by the Babylonians, that of the Babylonians by the Persians, that of the Persians by the Macedonians, that of the Macedonians by the Romans, so will this be by antichrist’, and he by Christ.” Then accounting for Paul’s reserve in alluding to this point he adds : ” Because he says this of the Roman empire, he naturally only glanced at it and spoke covertly, for he did not wish to bring upon himself superfluous enmities and useless dangers. For if he had said that, after a little while, the Roman empire would be dissolved, they would now immediately have even overwhelmed him as a pestilent person, and all the faithful as living and warring to this end.”

From Irenaus, who lived close to apostolic times, down to Chrysostom and Jerome, the Fathers taught that the power withholding the manifestation of the ” man of sin ” was the Roman empire as governed by the Caesars. The Fathers therefore belong to the historic, and not to the futurist school of interpretation ; for futurists imagine that the hindrance to the manifestation of the man of sin is still in existence, though the Caesars have long since passed away.

.6. The Fathers held that the fall of the Roman empire was imminent, and therefore the manifestation of antichrist close at hand. Justin Martyr, for example, one of the earliest of the Fathers, in his ” Dialogue with Trypho,” chap, xxxii., says : ” He whom Daniel foretells would have dominion for ‘ time and times and a half is already even at the door, about to speak blasphemous and daring things against the Most High.”

Cyprian, in his ” Exhortation to Martyrdom,” says: “Since . . . the hateful time of antichrist is already beginning to draw near, I would collect from the sacred Scriptures some exhortations for preparing and strengthening the minds of the brethren, whereby I might animate the soldiers of Christ for the heavenly and spiritual contest.”

.7. The Fathers held that the ” man of sin’,’ or antichrist, would be a ruler or head of the Roman empire. A striking illustration of this is the interpretation by Irenaus and Hippolytus of the mysterious number 666, the number of the revived head of the beast, or antichrist. Irenaus gives as its interpretation the word Latinos. He says : ” Latinos is the number 666, and it is a very probable (solution), this being the name of the last kingdom, for the LATINS are they who at present bear rule” x

Hippolytus gives the same solution in his treatise on ” Christ and Antichrist.”

.8. The Fathers held that the Babylon of the Apocalypse means Rome. On this point they were all agreed, and their unanimity is an important seal on the correctness of this interpretation. Teriullian, for example, in his answer to the Jews, says : ” Babylon, in our own John, is a figure of the city Rome, as being equally great and proud of her sway, and triumphant over the saints ” (chap. ix.). Victorinus, who wrote the earliest commentary on the Apocalypse extant, says, on Revelation xvii. : “The seven heads are the seven hills on which the woman sitteth that is, the city of Rome:’

Hippolytus says : “Tell me, blessed John, apostle and disciple of the Lord, what didst thou see and hear concerning Babylon ? Arise and speak, for it sent thee also into banishment” 3 You notice here the view that Rome which banished the Apostle John is the Babylon of the Apocalypse.

Augustine says, ” Rome, the second Babylon, and the daughter of the first, to which it pleased God to subject the whole world, and bring it all under one sovereignty, was now founded.” 1 In chap, xxviii. he calls Rome “the western Babylon” In chap. xli. he says : ” It has not been in vain that this city has received the mysterious name of Babylon ; for Babylon is interpreted confusion, as we have said elsewhere.”

It is clear from these quotations that the Fathers did not interpret the Babylon of the Apocalypse as meaning either the literal Babylon on the Euphrates, or some great city in France or England, but as meaning Rome. And this is still the interpretation of the historic school, though for the last 800 years events have proved Babylon to represent Rome, not in its pagan, but in its Papal form.

It should be noted that none of the Father’s held the futurist gap theory, the theory that the book of Revelation overleaps nearly eighteen centuries of Christian history, plunging at once into the distant future, and devoting itself entirely to predicting the events of the last few years of this dispensation. As to the subject of antichrist, there was a universal agreement among them concerning the general idea of the prophecy, while there were differences as to details, these differences arising chiefly from the notion that the antichrist would be in some way Jewish as well as Roman. It is true they thought that the antichrist would be an individual man. Their early position sufficiently accounts for this. They had no conception and could have no conception of the true nature and length of the tremendous apostasy which was to set in upon the Christian Church. They were not prophets, and could not foresee that the Church was to remain nineteen centuries in the wilderness, through prolonged and bitter persecution under a succes of nominally Christian but apostate rulers, filling the place of the ancient Caesars and emulating their antichristian deeds. Had they known these things, we may well believe their views would have completely harmonized with those of historic interpreters of later times.
The Fathers went as far as they could go in the direction in which historical interpreters of these last days have traveled. Further, much that was dark to them in prophecy has become clear to their successors in the light of its accomplishment. Divine providence has thrown light, as it could not fail to do, on Divine prediction. (Romanism and the Reformation; pg.190-200)

On Futurism

To resist the use to which Scripture prophecy was put by the reformers is no light or unimportant matter. The system of prophetic interpretation known as Futurism does resist this use. It condemns the interpretation of the reformers. It condemns the views of all these men, and of all the martyrs, and of all the confessors and faithful witnesses of Christ for long centuries. It condemns the Albigenses, the Waldenses, the Wicliffites, the Hussites, the Lollards, the Lutherans, the Calvinists ; it condemns them all, and upon a point, upon which they are all agreed, an interpretation of Scripture which they embodied in their solemn confessions and sealed with their blood. It condemns the spring of their action, the foundation of the structure they erected. How daring is this act, and how destitute of justification! What an opposition to the pillars of a work most manifestly Divine! for it is no less than this, for Futurism asserts that Luther and all the reformers were wrong in this fundamental point. And whose interpretation of prophecy does it justify and approve? That of the Romanists. (pg. 251-2)

2 thoughts on “Early Church Fathers Were Historicist – H. Grattan Guinness”

  1. So very thankful for this valuable resource. May God lead His people out of Jesuit errors, that none are found to be “left behind” in truth.


  2. An excellent and wonderful article Nicklas, very defined and clearly understandable! Thanks!!!


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