The day-year principle as a means of interpreting prophecy is unique to historicism. The challenge for Adventism is to know how to work in a world where they alone defend the historicist method. From the Reformation through the early 19th century, historicism was assumed to be the method for interpreting the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation. After 1844, however, conservative Protestants moved away from historicism into futurism. In the 1870s, an early leader of the Plymouth Brethren movement in Great Britain, J. N. Darby, brought his version of dispensational futurism to America, winning over a number of leading evangelicals. In 1909, Oxford University Press published the Scofield Bible, a KJV Bible with copious dispensationalist notes by C. I. Scofield, a strong advocate of what had become known as “dispensational premillennialism.” According to The Dictionary of Christianity in America (InterVarsity, 1990), the Scofield Bible “rapidly became the most widely received defense of dispensational premillennialsm.” The “Left Behind” movie and the enormous popularity of the Christians novels in the “Left Behind” series – over 60 million copies sold – confirm that this futurist perspective is the dominant way of thinking among conservative Protestants in North America today.
Adventists, meanwhile, after 1844, began using the language of “conditionality,” a perspective informed by their own experience and illumined by a view of prophecy illustrated in the book of Jonah: when the people respond (or don’t respond), God “changes his mind,” to use the NRSV – the KJV typically says that God “repents”- a very difficult concept for those of a Calvinist bent. Jonah 3:10 is explicit: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” (NRSV). Ellen White’s words represent the best-known Adventist formulation of this concept:
The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the Word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional. – MS 4, 1883, 1SM 73 (Evangelism, 695)
Given the fact that the day-year principle is actively used only in the historicist approach to Scripture, what is the evidence for the use of that principle in Scripture? There are three notable passages:
Numbers 14:34: Israel is to wander for 40 years in the wilderness, a year for each of the 40 days the spies spent in the explorations of the land of Canaan.
Ezekiel 4:5-6: Ezekiel lies on his left side for 390 days and then on his right side for 40 days, symbolizing the years of punishment first on Israel, then on Judah.
Daniel 9:24-27: Seventy weeks of years are determined upon God’s people. Interpreters of all schools see the 70 weeks of Daniel 9 as representing 70 weeks of years.
All three passages simply illustrate the application of the day-year principle, they do not clarify it or mandate its use for any other passage of Scripture. In commenting on Ezekiel 4:5-6 and Numbers 14:34, the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary says, “In these statements are found the first intimations of the prophetic scale which later was to figure so largely in the interpretation of the great time prophecies…” (SDABC 4:590, comment on Ezekiel 4:6).
The key word is “intimates,” implying that the biblical passages constitute illustrations, not proofs. The SDABC also provides a detailed history of the interpretation of Daniel (SDABC 4:39-78). Excerpts from this history are included below, showing that the day-year principle was not used as a method of interpreting Daniel and Revelation until about the turn of the millennium, the time of Joachim of Fiore. Only when it became possible to see the 1260 days of Daniel and Revelation as years, not just days, was such an application made.
The clear implication of the other crucial SDABC article, “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy” (SDABC 4:25-38) is that in God’s original plan, the Messiah would have come long before 1844 and would have been accepted by his people. That clear implication was blunted, however, in a note added by F. D. Nichol, the commentary editor: “This rule does not apply to those portions of the book of Daniel that the prophet was bidden to ‘shut up,’ or ‘seal,’ or to other passages whose application Inspiration may have limited exclusively to our own time” (SDABC 4:38). In his Spectrum article, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and its New Consensus” Spectrum 11:2 (Nov., 1980), 14, R. F. Cottrell, the original author of the article, explains how the addition came about.
Notes on the Interpretation of Daniel
(from SDABC 4:39-78)
1. Adventist interpreters of the book of Daniel generally have taken the position that the “antichrist” is the papacy. The word “antichrist” appears in Scripture only in 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3, and 2 John 7. Through the centuries of Christian interpretation of Scripture, many candidates for “antichrist” have been proposed: Antiochus, Caligula, or Nero (or other Roman emperor), Mohammedanism, the papacy, or some last-day person or force.
2. Two 16th century Spanish Jesuits spearheaded Roman Catholic attempts to interpret the “antichrist” in a way so as to avoid incriminating the papacy. Francisco Ribera (d. 1591) proposed that the antichrist was an individual of the future located in Jerusalem. Luis Alcazar (d. 1613) suggested the preterist application to a Roman emperor of the first century AD.
3. Porphyry (232-303), a neoplatonist opponent of Christianity, is the first strong spokesman for the 2nd-century dating of Daniel. He wrote a 15-volume work against Christianity. Although the work was ordered burned, much of his argument can be deduced from the Christian authors who argued against him.
4. A Christian monk, Joachim of Floris [Fiore] (1132-1202) was the first to interpret the three and a half times of Daniel 7:25 as 1260 years.
5. Eberhard II, archbishop of Salzburg, Austria, was the first to identify the little horn of Daniel 7 as the papacy. This point was made at the Council of Regensburg in 1240 and was followed by Wycliffe, Luther, Cranmer, and Knox.
6. Drue Cressener was the first to date the 1260 from Justinian, making the identification in 1689, 100 years before the French revolution. After 1798, the identification with the 1260 years of papal domination was very common among Protestant interpreters.
7. A Persian Jew, Nahamendi (9th cent.) was the first to identify the 2300 days as 2300 years. A number of other Jews followed this line, but the dates and periods varied greatly.
8. Johann Petri, a German Reformed pastor (1718-1792) was the first to begin the 70 weeks and 2300 days synchronously, but the dates adopted by Petri and others seldom agreed.
9. Early Christians often interpreted Antiochus Epiphanes as a type of the antichrist if not the Antichrist himself. The majority of American expositors of the 18th and 19th centuries interpreted the little horn of Daniel 8 as referring to Mohammedanism.
10. Tertullian (d. 240) and Clement of Alexandria (d. 220) both saw the 70 weeks as fulfilled by Christ’s incarnation and death, but they ended the 70 weeks at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
11. Hippolytus (170-236) applied the 70 weeks to Christ but introduced a gap so that the 70 weeks were only completed at the end of time – the last week was separate at the end of time.
12. Origen (185-254) interpreted the 70 weeks by decades, extending from Adam to AD 70. Eusebius (260-340) dated the 70 weeks from Cyrus to Christ. Luther saw the cross at the beginning of the 70th week; Melancthon saw it in the middle of the 70th week.
13. Johann Funck (d. 1566) was the first to date the 70 weeks from 457 BC to AD 34.
14. William Miller dated the cross at the end of the 70th week.
1. What are the implications of the fact that the day-year principle was not applied to Daniel and Revelation until hundreds of years after the prophecies were originally given?
2. What are the implications of the fact that the dates for the earthly ministry of Christ do not correlate with the dates accepted by Adventists? In particular no known non-Adventist authority now dates the crucifixion to 31 AD.
3. What are the implications of the fact that the 70-weeks prophecy was apparently never used in the first century as “proof” of the messiah?
4. In the light of all these historical perspectives, what would hinder Adventists from shifting their focus from dates and charts to the words of Matthew 7:12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets”? Do we need to know when the Lord is coming in order to be ready for him?