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Notes on Daniel: Calvin's View of Daniel Was Preterist

By Jay Rogers
Published July 25, 2019

In general, the Reformers were united in seeing the Antichrist, the Man of Sin, the Whore of Babylon and the Beast as one figure. But they were not historicists, they were futurists in this regard. They were also inconsistent, on the one hand looking for a fulfillment of these prophecies in their day, and in other places sounding like modern day postmillennialists and preterists.


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“And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever” (Daniel 2:44).

The overarching message of Daniel is that Jesus the Messiah is even now ruling over the nations. He is the King of kings. Daniel tells us that Messiah’s kingdom will advance in the whole world from “generation to generation” (Daniel 4:4,34). Christ’s dominion is “given to the people of the saints of the most High” (Daniel 7:22). Our purpose then is to see “all people, nations, and languages … serve and obey him” (Daniel 7:14,27).

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Martin Luther (1483-1546) — “[The Book of Revelation] is intended as a revelation of things that are to happen in the future, and especially of tribulations and disasters for the Church …” (Works of Martin Luther, VI, p. 481).

William Tyndale (1492-1536) — “… Antichrist preacheth not Peter’s doctrine (which is Christ’s gospel) … he compelleth all men with violence of sword” (Greenslade’s The Work of William Tindale, p. 127).

John Calvin (1509-1564) — “… we ought to follow in our inquiries after Antichrist, especially where such pride proceeds to a public desolation of the church” (Institutes, Vol. 2, p. 411).

John Knox (1515-1572) — “… the great love of God towards his Church, whom he pleased to forewarn of dangers to come, so many years before they come to pass … to wit, The man of sin, The Antichrist, The Whore of Babylon” (History of the Reformation, I, p. 76).

Some historicist scholars, such as Francis Nigel Lee, have written that Calvin interpreted Daniel as having a historicist fulfillment. I would simply respond in two ways.

1. What is historicism to us today was futurism in the 16th century. The Reformers who saw the pope and the Roman system of worship as the Antichrist, the Beast and the Whore of Babylon believed they were living at the end of history and were seeing these events as end-times signs. Obviously, they were wrong. To rehabilitate such a fallacy as “historicism” is to miss the forest for the trees.

2. It depends on when Calvin wrote. Calvin’s Commentary on Daniel, which is one of his later works, wholly agrees with a preterist approach.

Why, therefore, does the Prophet say the little horn waged war with the saints? Antiochus certainly made war against the Church, and so did many others; the Egyptians, we know, often broke in and spoiled the Temple and the Romans too, before the monarchy of the Caesars. I reply, this is spoken comparatively, because no war was ever carried on so continuously and professedly against the Church, as those which occurred after the Caesars arose, and after Christ was made manifest to the world; for the devil was then more enraged, and God also relaxed the reins to prove the patience of his people. Lastly, it was natural for the bitterest conflicts to occur when the redemption of the world was carried out; and the event clearly showed this. We know first of all, by horrid examples, how Judea was laid waste, for never was such cruelty practiced against any other people. Nor was the calamity of short duration; we are well acquainted with their extreme obstinacy, which compelled their enemies to forget clemency altogether. For the Romans desired to spare them as far as possible, but so great was their obstinacy and the madness of their rage, that they provoked their enemies as if devoting themselves to destruction, until that dreadful slaughter happened, of which history has sufficiently informed us. When Titus, under the auspices of his father Vespasian, took and destroyed the city, the Jews were stabbed and slaughtered like cattle throughout the whole extent of Asia. Thus far, then, it concerns the Jews.

When God had inserted the body of the Gentiles into his Church, the cruelty of the Caesars embraced all Christians; thus the little horn waged war with the saints in a manner different from that of the former beasts, because the occasion was different, and the wrath of Satan was excited against all God’s children on account of the manifestation of Christ. This, then, is the best explanation of the little horn, waging war against the saints. Thus he says, “It must prevail” [Daniel 7:21]. For the Caesars and all who governed the provinces of the empire raged with such extreme violence against the Church, that it almost disappeared from the face of the earth. And thus it happened, that the little horn prevailed in appearance and in general opinion, as, for a short time, the safety of the Church was almost despaired of (Calvin, Commentary on Daniel 7:21,22).

Obviously, Calvin was a preterist when he dealt with Daniel. To reiterate this point, here is the citation from Calvin’s translators:

Our readers will remember, that as an expositor of prophecy, Calvin is a Preterist, and that his general system of interpretation is as remote from the year-day theory of Birks, Faber [historicist commentators], and others, as from the futurist speculations of Maitland, Tyso, and Todd.

To those who would dismiss preterism without considering it fully, the words of Calvin’s translators aptly apply.

The first step towards progress, is to surrender all our preconceived notions, and to prepare for the possibility of their vanishing away before the force of sanctified reason and all-pervading truth (Calvin, Commentary on Daniel, translator’s preface).

Calvin was wrong in his earlier view of the Antichrist and the Man of Sin having a historicist fulfillment. Where Calvin definitely got it right was his later work on Daniel in which he is solidly preterist.


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