by Jared L. Olar
JULY, 2013- In the previous issue of Grace & Knowledge, editor Doug Ward explained the ancient Jewish method of interpretation of Bible prophecy known as "pesher" (See " `The Harbinger' and Pesher Interpretation', Issue 27, November 2012, pp.22-28). Among the examples he discussed were some interpretations that have been popular in the former Worldwide Church of God and many of the groups that originated from the WCG. In particular, Ward analyzed interpretations of the letters to the seven churches in Rev. 2-3 that see those letters as prophecies of seven "Church Eras" beginning in the days of the Apostles and continuing until the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the world. As Ward showed, Herbert Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God and its offshoots were not the first and are not the only religious groups to promote a "Church Eras" interpretation of St. John's letters to the seven churches of Asia. Indeed, even Henry H. Halley presented a variation of the "Church Eras" interpretation in his popular Bible Handbook (See the 22nd edition, 1924, 1959, pp.632-641), though Halley of course interpreted the letters from the vantage point of an orthodox evangelical Protestant rather than a Seventh-Day Sabbatarian disciple of Herbert Armstrong.
The "Church Eras" interpretation was far from the only distinctively "Armstrongist" interpretation of Bible prophecy. To be sure, numerous other examples of "pesher" interpretation of Bible prophecy could be cited from the milieu of the former Worldwide Church of God and its offshoots. As Ward has shown the inadequacy and inappropriateness of "Church Eras" interpretations of the letters to the seven churches, the same flaws and weaknesses can be demonstrated in the other WCG peshers. In this essay, we shall examine what is perhaps one of the most important of those distinctive WCG interpretations: the way Herbert Armstrong interpreted, and the way his disciples still interpret, the prophetic visions found in Daniel chapters 2, 7, and 8, and Revelation chapters 13 and 17.
The Beast Chart
Current and former members of the WCG and its offshoots will no doubt recall the "Beast Chart" from Herbert Armstrong's old booklet, Who or What is the PROPHETIC BEAST? Armstrong's chart interpreted the visions of Daniel and Revelation as a prediction of a succession of kingdoms and empires, tracing human history from the time of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, who died in 562/1 B.C., until the present generation, when, as Armstrong and his followers have expected, Jesus Christ would return and overthrow the kingdom of the Antichrist. In Armstrong's "Beast Chart," each substance in the image of Dan. 2, and each beast and head and horn of the visions of Dan. 7-8 and Rev. 13, 17, was identified with a specific kingdom or empire, with the Roman Catholic Church and Papacy allied with them at almost every step of the way.
Just as the "Church Eras" interpretation is not unique to the former WCG and its offshoots, so too the approach that Armstrong took to these visions has ample precedent in wider Adventist and fundamentalist Protestant circles. The basis of this approach, though of course not the specifics of how each horn and head is interpreted, can even be found in certain early Church Fathers such as St. Irenaeus of Lyons or St. Hippolytus of Rome and others. Thus, there is little dispute in Christian tradition that Daniel's image represents the succession of empires starting with Nebuchadnezzar's Chaldean Empire, followed by the Medo-Persian Empire, followed by the empires of Alexander the Great and his successors, culminating with the Roman Empire, which would be overthrown by the Kingdom of God. Similarly, it is obvious to all that St. John intended his readers to recall Daniel's visions of beasts when he wrote of a "Beast" that was a sort of chimera of the four beasts of Daniel's vision. It is also obvious to all that the "Beast" of Revelation represents the Roman Empire. Where the various interpreters have parted ways, of course, is in the details of St. John's visions that show the manner and timing of Christ's overthrow of the Roman Empire.
In bringing the history of the world from the days of the Apostles down to the Second Coming of Christ, Armstrong's chart presented a series of so-called "resurrections of the Roman Empire," beginning with Emperor Justinian in A.D. 554 and supposed to conclude in the end times with a final resurrection of the Roman Empire. Even though Herbert Armstrong has been dead for 27 years and very few of his predictions have come to pass-indeed, most of his predictions have been shown to be false-nevertheless members of WCG offshoots continue to regard the "Beast Chart" as the proper schema for understanding the history of the past 2,500 years of Western civilisation as well as the shape of things to come in the very near future. To cite just one example, this is the way Gerald Flurry's Philadelphia Church of God reacted to the news of Pope John Paul II's death in 2005:
"As editor in chief Gerald Flurry has stated, `Over the past 1,500 years there have been six resurrections of the `Holy' Roman Empire. Most of the time this empire revolved around Germany and the Vatican, along with Italy' (June 2000). The seventh resurrection, which is now in the making, will once again revolve around Germany and the Vatican. And a German pope may be just the man to bring the two together."
Flurry's suggestion that Pope Benedict XVI would play a role in a "seventh resurrection" of the Roman Empire has, of course, been shown by subsequent events to have been unfounded.
Now, admittedly, "the Beast Chart" is a very impressive synthesis, and at first glance, or even second or third glance, may appear to be seamlessly coherent and correct. Unfortunately, like most of the forays of Armstrong and his disciples into the areas of history and Bible prophecy, it turns out to be nothing but a mangled mess of fudged history and arbitrary interpretation.
Three Uprooted Horns
Let's begin with those three horns in Dan. 7-horns which Armstrong equated with the first three horns of Rev. 13-that are uprooted before the Little Horn of Dan. 7. Armstrong interpreted the Little Horn as the Papacy, which supposedly effected the overthrow of the three Germanic barbarian kingdoms of the Vandals in North Africa, the kingdom of Odoacer in Italy, and the kingdom of the Ostrogoths in Italy.
There are several problems with the interpretation of the three uprooted horns as the Vandals, Odoacer, and the Ostrogoths. First, the Papacy neither engineered nor played a pivotal role in the overthrow of those three kingdoms. Secondly, notice that "the Beast Chart" shows these three horns in the specific order of "Vandals, Odoacer, and Ostrogoths." All of the other horns are identified with a historical, chronological succession of kingdoms and rulers, so it would appear that Armstrong asserted that the Vandal kingdom was overthrown before Odoacer's kingdom. But when we check history, we find that General Belisarius overthrew the Vandal kingdom in A.D. 534, while Odoacer had already been slain by Theodoric the Ostrogoth in A.D. 493. The Ostrogoth kingdom was in turn overthrown through the warfare of the generals Belisarius and Narses in A.D. 554.
This mistake could be fixed simply enough, just by switching Odoacer and the Vandals around. But that is far from the only problem with the "Beast Chart," as we shall see. The chart next shows the fourth horn, identified as the famous "Imperial Restoration" under Emperor Justinian in A.D. 554, which Armstrong also identified as the healing of the Beast's deadly wound mentioned in Rev. 13:3. The deadly wound he identified as the deposition of the Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus in A.D. 476 A.D. That interpretation seems to make some sort of sense-half the Empire was lost to the barbarians, but most of Italy and North Africa and a large chunk of Spain were temporarily recaptured under Justinian. This was supposedly the first "resurrection" of the Roman Empire.
Of course, contrary to what you'd expect from a "deadly wound" to a kingdom or empire, the Roman Empire had not actually died or ceased to exist from 476 to 554, nor was it ever in any danger of being completely toppled during those decades-it just lost formal control over the Western half of its territories. Therefore it's not accurate to call Justinian's Imperial Restoration a "resurrection." Indeed, the Roman Empire continued to exist without interruption from the time of Augustus Caesar until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453-one of a large number of crucial historical facts that Armstrong's chart glaringly omits for some reason. I suspect the reason the end of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453 didn't make it onto the chart is because it would have shown a big problem with Armstrong's interpretations. He claimed that the two iron legs of the image of Dan. 2 represented the two halves or divisions of the Roman Empire. The Eastern half did not cease to exist until 1453, while the Western half went through a series of partial and total collapses. But after 1453, what happened to the image's other leg? Now, Armstrong said the unification of Italy and Germany in the 1870s constituted the two legs of the image, but where was the other leg from 1453 until 1870? Daniel didn't see an image that had a big section of its left leg missing, after all.
Moving on, we see that Armstrong identified the fifth horn of the Beast as the Western Empire of Charlemagne and his successors. Now that's quite a chronological leap-from A.D. 554 to A.D. 800. What happened to the Roman Empire during that time? Did it cease to exist? Not at all, though Justinian's restoration proved to be short-lived and of no permanent effect. In the late 500s, the Lombards invaded Italy, and the Roman Empire lost control of almost all of Italy. Charlemagne would later overthrow the Lombard kingdom and place the famous iron crown of the Lombards on his own head. Also in the later 500s, the Visigoths recaptured that chunk of Spain that the Empire had reconquered. However, the Empire maintained control in North Africa until the 600s and 700s A.D., when the new religion of Islam arose and swept through the Middle East and Africa, carving off huge swaths of the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor in Constantinople continued to claim authority over those lands, but the reality on the ground was quite otherwise. So it was that when the Pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor on Christmas Day in A.D. 800-thereby creating "the Holy Roman Empire"-the Roman Emperor in the East was not at all pleased. It would be quite a while before the Roman Emperors in the East acknowledged the legitimacy of their Western rivals or counterparts.
Notice that the Lombard and Visigoth kings in Italy and Spain, and the Frankish kings in Gaul, are conspicuously absent from the "Beast Chart." When Armstrong developed his chart, there just weren't enough horns on the Beast for all of the various kingdoms that existed back then.
Next, we find the sixth horn of the Beast of Rev. 13 identified as the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation. That's a little puzzling, because that Empire began with Charlemagne's coronation and continued to exist with only occasional interregna until 1806. However, some-influenced by an anachronistic distinction between Franks (French) and Germans-regard the coronation of Otto I the Great in A.D. 962 as the proper beginning of the Holy Roman Empire, even though it was obviously the same empire and the same crown that had existed since A.D. 800. It's hardly correct to pretend the Western Emperors from 800 to 962 were not Germans, since those Emperors were Franks, Lombards, Burgundians, or Franconians-Germans all. There really doesn't seem to be adequate grounds to say that Charlemagne and his empire constituted one horn while Otto the Great and his empire constituted another horn.
The same goes for Armstrong's identification of the seventh horn as the Habsburg dynasty. The election of Rudolf von Habsburg in A.D. 1273 as King of the Romans was no revival of a political entity that had utterly collapsed, nor the beginning of a new entity. Interregna and rival claims and civil war in the succession of the Holy Roman Emperors were hardly anything new-the Great Interregnum, which ended with Rudolf's accession, merely lasted rather longer than usual. The imperial crown still existed, and simply awaited someone to wear it again. There's really no compelling reason to see the accession of the Habsburgs as a "resurrection" of the Roman Empire, as a new horn. (And anyway, it took a good while after Rudolf's election before the Habsburg dynasty got a "lock" on the crown. Rudolf, incidentally, was never crowned Holy Roman Emperor.)
The Holy Roman Empire lasted until 1806, when it was ended by Napoleon, Armstrong's eighth horn. Napoleon euthanised the virtually dead Empire, and appointed himself Emperor, snatching the crown from the Pope during a ceremony in which the Pope was an unwilling participant (the Pope was being held hostage at the time). Napoleon was violently opposed to Catholicism, and therefore would have none of that medieval heritage of a "Holy" Roman Empire. Thus, one can rightly speak of an attempt to resurrect the classical, pagan Roman Empire.
However, it's here that we find another serious problem with Armstrong's chart. Rev. 13:5 refers to a period of 42 months (1,260 days), which Armstrong interpreted according to the biblical "day for a year" principle as symbolic of a period of 1,260 years. Armstrong said that period lasted from Justinian's Imperial Restoration in 554 until the fall of Napoleon in 1814. But as mentioned above, the Holy Roman Empire ended in 1806, not 1814. Why didn't Armstrong find anything of prophetic significance in 1806? Because he was looking for a period of 1,260 years, not 1,252 years.
But for the sake of argument, let's grant that Armstrong interpreted Rev. 13:5 correctly. If so, why doesn't history record "the Beast" fulfilling the prophecies of Rev. 13:6-8 in the years after 1814? Consulting the historical record, the answer is obvious-after the Holy Roman Empire came to an end in 1806, and after Napoleon's empire was dismantled in 1814, there was no Roman Empire that could have done the things described in Rev. 13:6-8. At least, according to Armstrong's own chart, not until the unification of Italy (and Germany) in the 1870s, which is Armstrong's ninth horn.
Now, although the Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist in 1806, the Austrian Emperors retained their crown until 1918, and from 1815 until Prussia created the German Empire in 1871, there was a loose and ineffectual German Confederation that served as successor to the defunct and ineffectual Holy Roman Empire. But we don't see Austria and the German Confederation initiating a massive religious persecution or achieving world superpower status, nor do we see any worldwide worship of the Habsburg emperor (see Rev. 13:6-8). Anyway, even though the Austrian Emperor, no longer "Roman Emperor," carried on elements of the tradition of the German/Roman imperium, Austria and the German Confederation just don't show up on Armstrong's chart. Again, there apparently weren't enough horns on the Beast.
What Roman Empire?
Of course, in the 1930s we find both Mussolini and Hitler making use of the idea of Roman Imperium for propaganda purposes, but there is a pretty glaring fact that must be explained if one wishes to believe that Armstrong's interpretation really was correct: neither Italy nor Germany had "Emperors" in the 1930s and 1940s. Italy had a king and a "duce," while Germany had a Fuehrer. The last German emperors were Karl I von Habsburg-Lothringen and Wilhelm II von Hohenzollern, both driven out in 1918. We haven't seen any European emperors since. Why did this major change in world affairs-the end of the German and Austrian monarchies-didn't merit a horn of its own in Armstrong's interpretation, while the German kings and emperors Charlemagne, Otto the Great, and Rudolf von Habsburg each merited their own? The answer is that Armstrong was reading these prophetic visions with the belief that he was living in the final generation before the end of the world, and therefore sought to make the course of the preceding 19 centuries of European history conform with St. John's visions. As we have seen, however, European history does not neatly conform to the schema of the "Beast Chart."
So where does all this leave us? In the East, no "resurrections" of the Roman Empire at all, and in the West, one could argue that there have been, say, no more than four or five "resurrections"-with another two or three yet to take place, if we grant that St. John's vision was intended as a forecast of a succession of resurrected Roman Empires. That's not the arbitrary schema that Herbert Armstrong imposed onto the horned beasts of Daniel and Revelation, but as we have seen, Armstrong frequently got his history as well as his prophecy wrong.
In truth, one of the weakest props supporting Armstrong's chart is his assumption that the ten horns of the Beast represent a historical succession of kingdoms and empires over the centuries. If one reads Revelation without "Armstrongist" glasses, however, one should see that there is not the slightest suggestion in the text that St. John's visions of the Beast were intended to be interpreted that way. In this way, then, this interpretation is like the "Seven Church Eras" interpretation of Rev. 2-3. There's simply nothing in the scriptural text that would lead one to believe that a progression of historical eras is what was envisioned. It's an idea that the reader or interpreter brings to the text and imposes onto it.
Some might respond to these criticisms by saying, "If Herbert Armstrong's interpretation is wrong, then what other meaning could those visions possibly have?" That is an understandable response. However, the answer to that question is properly the subject of a whole different essay-or perhaps a series of books. For our immediate purposes, what the correct interpretation might be isn't particularly important. What matters is that the "Beast Chart" doesn't hold up under close scrutiny. Once that interpretation is eliminated as erroneous, then one may, and should, turn to other possible interpretations.
Note: A version of this essay was originally published on 7 April 2005 on "xcg", a former weblog of Gary Scott at xcg.kingary.net.
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On 28 Jul 2013, 16:44.