Guest Writer Dr. John Birley S. Korea-An introduction to the interpretative time frames applied to the Book of Revelation
In this post Dr John gives the different views in eschatology.
I am post trib, and futuristic, partial dispensation not full. what are you, what do you hold to, feel free to comment, comments are now open to all, just post a comment today
An introduction to the interpretative time frames applied to the Book of Revelation
The protestant canon of scripture closes with the revelation that the Apostle John received from Jesus Christ. It is a fitting end to what God began in Genesis concluding the Lord's unfolding redemptive plan with the second coming of Jesus Christ. However for many modern readers Revelation presents a challenge. As Fee and Stuart describe it, “turning from the rest of the New Testament to Revelation is like entering a foreign country” (Fee and Stuart, How to read the bible for all its worth 249). We turn from the historical narratives of the gospels and Acts to the practical and theological discussions of the Pauline, Peterine and general epistles and then we find ourselves in Revelation. A book of full of symbolism and weird imagery wrapped up in a cryptic eschatological time frame and communicated in language that Dr Utley describes it is, figurative, cryptic, symbolic, metaphorical, and imaginative. The book's language would have presented no challenge to its original first century Jewish and Christian readers. However for a number of reasons it presents modern readers with three major difficulties. Firstly for the general untrained biblical scholar, we are unfamiliar with John's apocalyptic medium of communication (How to read the bible book by book Fee and Stuart 428). Secondly most modern readers possess an inadequate understanding or knowledge of Revelation's frequent allusions to Old Testament or other first century sources. As Corbett quite rightly points out, the Book of Revelation is aptly placed at the end of the bible because without an understanding or appreciation of what comes before it one cannot hope to understand it (1). Finally, modern readers struggle to reconcile the fact that the book has a definite focus on future events whilst being married to its first century setting (How to read the bible for all its worth, Fee and Stuart 249). It is this unique combination of factors which make interpreting Revelation both an interesting challenge, and has enabled the book to be so widely and differently understood through the centuries (Johnson 622). As Utley states, the book of Revelation is highly susceptible to theological bias. Naturally each reader approaches the book with their own set of presuppositions which shape and determine how they interpret the symbolism and imagery presented.
These theological presuppositions may be determined by a number of factors including, how one understands or interprets the Old Testament allusions, the historic or fantastical nature of the symbolic imagery and the interpretative system or time frame one applies to the book as a whole. Whilst all of the above are worthy of consideration it is to the latter that this paper will be addressed. This paper therefore intends to outline the most common interpretative time frames that biblical scholars have applied to the Book of Revelation. The intent here is not to determine which interpretation is to be preferred, or to promote the relative merits of one interpretative system over another, but rather to outline what proponents of each understand as the correct interpretation of Christ's revelation to John. There have been four basic interpretations of Revelation throughout church history (Vincent 4) but within these four views there have been considerable variations (Constable 2). With this in mind it should be pointed out that space here prevents a detailed examination of the multiple variations and subtle nuances that exist in all four interpretative methods. The four interpretations are as follows
- The Preterist interpretation
- The Historicist or continuist interpretation
- The futurist interpretation
- The Idealist interpretation
We will examine each in more detail below, considering how each approach interprets the events in Revelation and considering in brief the origin or background of the interpretative framework.
The Preterist interpretation
As was mentioned above a degree of variation exists within the various interpretative schemes. This is certainly the case with Preterism. There are three kinds of Preterists, typically they are classified or described as mild, moderate and extreme (Ice cited in Mayhue 10). However in many cases mild and moderate Preterists are grouped together giving us two distinct camps. These being;
1. Extreme, full, consistent or hyper Preterism
2. Mild, moderate or partial Preterism.
The term Preterism is derived from the Latin word `praeter’ meaning past. Full Preterists therefore interpret the successive series of events John relays in Revelation to be confined to the Judaism and Paganism of the 1st century when John wrote his epistle (Constable 2) (Johnson 622). They maintain that the events recorded in Revelation have been fulfilled either at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD or at both the falls of Jerusalem and of Rome in 476 AD (Pate, “Four views” 17) (Houdmann) (Garland 114). As such they regard Revelation as being written to comfort the early Christians who faced persecution from the Roman authorities and from Judaism (Pate, “Four views” 17). In this particular interpretative view for example references to the 'Antichrist' are associated with a Roman emperor (Constable 2). Full Preterists in their understanding of the eschatological time frame presented to us in Revelation interpret the events detailed there to mean that Christians are currently spiritually living in the 'new heavens and new earth' and deny the future bodily return of Jesus Christ (Garland 114). Further to this they believe that if there is an end of current history that this is not recorded in the bible (Mayhue 10).
Partial Preterists are more moderate in their approach and many consider the full Preterist approach to be heretical (Houdmann) (Mayhue 10). It is perhaps not surprising therefore to discover that the majority of those classifying themselves as Preterists today fall into the camp of mild, moderate or partial Preterism (Garland 114). Partial Preterists maintain that most of what Revelation contains was fulfilled in the first century but some things remain to be fulfilled. They hold to the position that there will be a second coming of Christ, there will be a physical resurrection of the dead, there will be an end to temporal history and a new heaven and new earth will be established (Mayhue 10). Let us now consider briefly the historic background to this interpretative approach.
When one examines the writings and teachings of the early church is seems that there is little or no evidence that there were proponents of a Preterist viewpoint. According to Dr Thomas Ice a leading expert on Preterism, there is no evidence of Preterist thought from the early church through to the Reformation (cited in Price). This view is supported by Alford (cited by Garland 116) who states; “the Preterist view found no favor and was not even considered by the early church.” The influential early church teaching document known as the “Didache” or “Teaching of the twelve” dated by some as early as 70 AD clearly presents evidence of a future interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Garland 116). If we consider as evidence just one of the prominent early church fathers in Justin Martyr (100 -165 AD) we see that he saw a future fulfillment of both the tribulation prophecies and the second return of Christ (Davis).
In terms of when Preterism was developed some Preterist scholars claim that it was present in the writings of some church fathers as early as the 4th century (Zukeran). Most mainstream scholars however agree that the first appearance of a Preterist interpretation was in a commentary on Revelation by Spanish Jesuit Luis Alcazar (1554 – 1613 AD) (Price) (Garland 116). His motivation for devising such an interpretative approach developed as a reaction to the Protestant Reformation's historicist claims that the Roman Catholic Church was Babylon. Alcazar sought therefore to provide an alternative understanding of Revelation which presented Roman Catholicism in a better light. The first Protestant Preterist appears to be the Dutch Arminian Hugo Grotius (1538 – 1645 AD). The rise and development of this interpretative framework has an interesting history but that lies beyond the scope and scale of this paper. Let us turn next to the historicist interpretation.
The Historicist or continuist interpretation
The historicist or continuist interpretation of Revelation sees the events portrayed in Revelation as being fulfilled over a continual stretch of time spanning from the time John wrote Revelation in the late first century until the present time or until the return of Christ (Garland 120). Historicists view the events of Revelation as unfolding over the span of Western church history. It was a popular framework and found favor with many early believers (Berkhof 192). It was also popular and frequently employed by many Protestant Reformers who identified the depiction of the Antichrist and Babylon with the Roman Catholicism and the pope of their day (Pate, “Reading Revelation” 17). Some of the most notable supporters of this position include Wycliffe, Knox, Tyndale, Luther, Wesley, Zwingli and Spurgeon (Reading Revelation Pate 9).
The origins of the historicist or continuist interpretative approach to Revelation has been attributed to Joacim of Fiore (12th century) or alternatively Nicolas of Lyra (died 1340 AD) (Garland 120). Joacim of Fiore claimed that in a vision he was told that the 1,260 days of the Apocalypse (Revelation 11:3 NIV study Bible) prophesied the events of western history (Garland 120). In order to fit the span of history into this system the 1,260 days have been interpreted as 'prophetic days' and understood as representing years. Lyra who was a teacher of theology in Paris determined that the Book of Revelation presents us with a continuous series of events from the apostolic age to the time of Christ's return (Garland 120). Naturally such an approach has led to a wide range of interpretations of historic events being understood as part of the prophetic revelation. Indeed every historicist interpreter has tended to include the significant events of or around their own time and claimed they are events recorded in Revelation. As a result we have a prophetic understanding of the symbolism in Revelation regarding among other things, the rise of Islam, the crusades, the invention of the printing press, the French revolution and the First World War. It has led some commentators to ask that with such a wide variety of opinion which if any historicist are we to believe (Garland 122). As some examples highlight, Martin Luther declared that the pope was the Antichrist of Revelation (Vogel 184), others have made the case for the Emperor Nero, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to name just a few (Strandberg). The same can be said in regard to an interpretation of historic events, for example John Napier in 1593 correlated the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to a timetable of history he 'uncovered' in Revelation (Larsen). Thomas Foster (cited in Williams) co-founder of the Christian Revival Crusade sees the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 of being an overview of the entire church age. In his interpretative scheme the millennium proper commences around 2000 AD although the Laodicean period ended in 1967 following the Six Day war in Israel. As these example demonstrate that a wide range of interpretations have been made over time. Let us turn next to an examination of the futurist interpretation.
The futurist interpretation
As with Preterism there are two main positions within futurism, dispensationalism and premillenialism. Dispensationalism is in essence the division of history into seven distinct periods or ages. During each period of time or dispensation man is tested in some way in regard to some specific revelation of God's will (Schofield cited in Ryrie 19). These dispensations are in the dispensationalists view ordained by God to order the affairs of the world. The seven dispensations or ages are as follows; Innocence (Genesis 1:1–3:7), conscience (Genesis 3:8–8:22), human government (Genesis 9:1–11:32), promise (Genesis 12:1–Exodus 19:25), law (Exodus 20:1–Acts 2:4), grace (Acts 2:4–Revelation 20:3), and the millennial kingdom (Revelation 20:4-6) (Jackson 3).
Premillennialism differs from the two other eschatological views of postmillennialism and amillennialism. Premillennialism is the belief that at the end of the church age there will be many signs prior to Christ making a bodily return to earth to judge all people and reigning with His saints for a literal 1000 years (Wolf). It derives its name from the idea that Christ will return before the start of the literal 1000 year reign. It is the approach to interpreting the events portrayed throughout Revelation which has probably gained the most advocates in the modern era. This has been partly because in recent decades notable seminaries such as Dallas Theological seminary and Moody Bible Institute in the USA (Zukeran) have both adopted dispensational theology, along with a literal interpretative approach to all Old Testament scriptural passages involving Israel. This literal view proponents claim is the key to understanding Revelation. Such an approach recognizes that in order to comprehend the original sense of scripture we must apply to it the normal customary use of language. This means using the regular rules of grammar and staying consistent with the historical and contextual framework (Zukeran). For some this literal approach presents a hermeneutical problem. This is particularly the case if we apply what Constable (2) describes as a 'wooden literalism' the idea that everything must be understood literally as presented in Revelation. For example how are we to understand Revelation 12:4, here we are told about a dragon standing in front of a woman waiting to devour her child. Are we to literally understand the passage to imply a real dragon is present or that it is figurative or symbolic language? Constable resolves this issue by likening the Book of Revelation to the realism school of painting. John's intent is to show as realistically as possible what he saw but he employs symbolic imagery in order to do this. We should remember that the rest of the bible and in particular the Old Testament prophetical books help us interpret many of these symbols (Constable 2, 3).
Futurism is basically therefore a literal interpretative approach which sees the prophecy in Revelation, specifically in chapters 4-22 as being future events that will mostly be fulfilled at or around the time of the second coming of Christ (Constable). Futurists generally divide Revelation into three distinct sections. The first division is chapter 1 which describes the past, the second division is chapters 2 and 3 which describe the present as it applies to its first century audience and the third division includes the remainder of the book which detail future events. Let us conclude our examination of futurism with a brief consideration of its origins.
Futurists contend that the literal interpretation of Revelation finds its roots in the ancient church fathers (Zukeran). They claim that elements or facets of this teaching, such as a future millennial kingdom, are found in the writings of Clement of Rome (AD 96), Justin Martyr (AD 100-165), Irenaeus (AD 115-202), Tertullian (AD 150-225) and others (Zukeran). Garland supports such a position, claiming that futurism was undeniably the position held by most in the early church (123). Historical sources provide evidence that generally speaking the early church fathers taught a literal futuristic interpretation of Revelation until Origen (AD 185-254) introduced allegorical interpretation (Zukeran).This allegorical interpretative framework become famous under Augustine (354 – 420 AD) and for many theologians replaced futuristic interpretation. The allegorical model would remain the dominant interpretative scheme for over 1000 years (Garland 123). With the Reformation however we again saw the re-emergence of a futuristic literal interpretation and it has enjoyed popularity and adherents into the modern era. Finally we will turn our attention to the idealist interpretation.
The idealist interpretation
The idealist or one who holds to the idealist interpretation of Revelation believes that the events outlined in the book do not refer to any actual historic or future event. Rather the book is a timeless allegory depicting the eternal conflict of good versus evil (Kreider 54) (Williams 3). A battle in which good ultimately triumphs (Constable). It is worth just spending a moment to clarify what exactly we mean by allegory. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus defined it as, “saying one thing and meaning something other than what is said” (McGrath 205). The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines allegory as a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation. Taking an allegorical view of Revelation idealists understand the apocalypse as fiction with a deeper hidden meaning beyond or behind the literal meaning of the words. In such a view they see it as an allegorical story in the same way that John Bunyan's, “Pilgrim's progress” is an allegorical tale of the Christian walk. Biblical scholar Robert Mounce summarizes the idealist interpretation of Revelation by describing the book as, a theological poem in which the forces of light battle the forces of darkness (cited by Zukerman). In this approach, the figures or characters presented us in the text, such as the Antichrist are not real historic figures but rather in the Antichrists case the personification of evil. The events depicted are not historic actualities but represent themes in church history. The battles are representative of the spiritual warfare that Christians have faced and will continue to face throughout history (Zukerman). Let us consider the origins of this view.
This view originated with the Alexandrian school of theology represented by Clement and Origen (Williams 3) (Reading Revelation Pate 12). They taught that a true spiritual understanding of the book of Revelation could only be discovered through an allegorical interpretation. It was a popular and widely held view from the time of Augustine (354 - 430 AD) to the Reformation (Kreider 54). In the modern era the view is not widely supported (Williams 3) especially by those holding a high view of the inspiration of scripture (Constable). This may be because of the hermeneutical issues that always surround allegorical interpretations; namely that each individual is at liberty to identify or recognize their own allegorical interpretation from the text (Jensen cited by Williams 3). This concludes our examination of the four main interpretative views of the Book of Revelation.
This paper has outlined the four most common interpretative approaches to the Book of Revelation. The intention was to present an explanation of what those holding such a view believe and how they interpret John's Revelation and give a brief historical outline of where the view originated. Naturally the limitations of this small paper have not allowed for a detailed analysis of each position but it is hoped that the reader has some understanding of the interpretative approach adopted in each view.
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