Augustine was worried that what was about to happen… was about to happen.
There is a tendency in some Christian circles to view all things eschatological through the lens of current events. This was epitomized in the late 1980s and early 1990s by a popular T-shirt that read, “If you want to understand the Book of Revelation, just read the headlines!” Every earthquake, every war, every powerful new politician was understood as evidence that the end times were now upon us. This method of interpretation is nothing new.
In some senses, we can say that Luther used this method to interpret Daniel and Revelation: “The world runs and hastens so diligently to its end,” he wrote. “The Turk has reached his highest point; the pomp of the papacy is fading away, and the world is cracking on all sides” (Luther, Letter to John Frederic, Duke of Saxony, February/March 1530). In his commentary on Daniel, he stopped expounding beyond 11:39, “for only in experience can this chapter be understood” (Luther, Preface to the Prophet Daniel, (1530)). Current events, it seems, would be sufficient to interpret the text.
There are many other examples. Pope Gregory the Great, in the introduction to his commentary on Job, wrote that “the end of the world is at hand,” and “the times are disturbed by reason of the multiplied evils thereof” (Pope Gregory I, An Exposition on the Book of Blessed Job, Vol. I—The First Part). Athanasius thought that Constantius II, Roman Emperor from 337 to 361, had “surpassed those before him in wickedness,” and had “devised a new mode of persecution” and therefore must be the Antichrist (Athanasius, Arian History, Part VIII.74). Jerome informs us of Judas, an obscure writer of the sub-apostolic era, who believed that the end of the world was at hand in the year 202, “because the greatness of the persecutions seemed to forebode the end of the world” (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, Chapter LII). The list could go on, and the temptation is ever before us to use current events as the benchmark, and work backwards to make our eschatology fit.
A more reliable method, however, is to work from a benchmark established in Scripture and work forward. One of the most widely used benchmarks is Daniel’s vision of coming empires in Daniel chapter 7. Four beasts, signifying four empires, arise and fall in succession: A Lion (Babylon), a Bear (Medo-Persia), a Leopard (Greece), and “a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible” ( 7:7), which is understood to be Rome.
But the vision did not end there. The fourth beast “was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns” (7:7), and among those ten, an eleventh was to arise, “speaking great things” (7:8) “against the Most High” (7:25), who “shall wear out the saints of the most High” (7:25). This period of the ten horns is likened to the ten toes of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel chapter 2, in which the fourth kingdom “shall be divided” (2:41) and “they shall not cleave one to another” (2:43). If one were to assume an unbroken continuum of history from Babylon to Rome, then the post-apostolic era was ripe for the fulfillment of the last part of Daniel’s vision, namely, the dividing of the Roman Empire, and the rise of the Eleventh Horn.
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