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FOUR BASIC APPROACHES TO REVELATION

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  Leave a comment

We live in a dispensationalist era. Because of the widespread dominance of dispensationalism, postmillennialism has a hard time getting an adequate hearing. As I have been pointing out, one of the reasons for a hasty rejection of postmillennialism is due to the many judgment prophecies in the Book of Revelation. The evangelical market is flooded with naive interpretations of Revelation, often without any recognition that there are other evangelical options.

Consequently, in this posting I will briefly summarize the four main approaches to Revelation. The approach I have adopted is known as “preterism.” The preterist view works easily within a postmillennial framework, because it sees John’s prophecies as dealing with the soon-coming destruction of the temple and the collapse of the old covenant order, rather than with distantly-future judgments that must befall earth before Christ returns.

Basically there are four schools of interpretation regarding Revelation. These are broad categories of interpretation, with each school having representatives ranging from conservative evangelicalism to radical liberalism.

1. Historicist

The historicist school, also called the “continuous historical,” sees the prophetic drama in Revelation as providing a panorama of Church history from the apostolic era to the return of Christ. Historical continuity is the main focus of this approach which forecasts future history. Some have called Revelation an “almanac of church history.” The numerous judgment scenes have been applied to various historic wars, revolutions, and socio-political and religious movements (e.g., the rising of Roman Catholicism, the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, World Wars I and II), as well as important historical persons (e.g., various Popes, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Mussolini).

According to Alan Johnson, Joachim of Floris (d. 1202) popularized this view, though traces of it are found earlier in the Ante-Nicene fathers.[1] Luther, Calvin, and the Reformers greatly employed it against the Roman Catholic Church. Historicism is, ironically, often mixed with futurism in the dispensational system. Though dispensationalism is almost totally futurist, many dispensationalists view the seven churches as representative of seven stages of church history, though the later sections of Revelation are concerned with the future. Modern adherents to the historicist view include Sir Isaac Newton, Joseph Mede, E. B. Elliott, and Henry Alford.

Unfortunately, this position almost without fail assumes that present interpreters live at the conclusion to history so that all in Revelation leads up to their time just before the end. Commenting on recurring problems in eschatological debate in general, Brethren historian F. Roy Coad well states: “Almost invariably interpretation has been vitiated by the reluctance or incapacity of commentators to visualise their own age as other than the end time.” [2] As a consequence, beliefs are in a constant state of revision, especially for Revelation commentators in this school. As history has gotten longer, older varieties of this interpretive school have experienced a great number of failed expectations. Furthermore, its focus is confined to the Western world, with the progress of history traced only in a western direction. In addition, it tends to lose its relevance for its original persecuted audience. Its major problem, though, is that harmony among its proponents is almost wholly lacking due to its subjectivity.

2. Idealist

The idealist school is also called the “timeless symbolic.” This school sees the point of Revelation as not so much painting an objective, historical portrait at all. Rather, idealists suggest that John’s concern was to provide a non-historical, allegorical summation of various significant redemptive truths or historical principles. It attempts to provide the scene behind the scene, that is, it offers a look at the philosophical/spiritual issues involved in history, rather than at historical events themselves. Thus, this view is also called the “timeless-symbolic” and the “poetic-symbolic.”

Idealist interpreter William Milligan explains: “We are not to look in the Apocalypse for special events, but for an exhibition of the principles which govern the history both of the world and the Church.” [3] It provides “the action of great principles and not special events.” [4] Revelation is virtually a theological poem regarding historical struggle, providing a philosophy of history. The symbols of Revelation reveal God in his sovereign control over men and nations, despite man’s warring resistance and rebellious sin.

Of course, in a certain sense this view could be true at the same time any one of the other views, for history is in fact the outworking of divinely established principles. This view is the most recent of the major approaches to Revelation. Recent advocates of idealism include William Milligan, William Hendricksen, Philip Carrington, and R. J. Rushdoony. Its weaknesses, though, are debilitating: Revelation appears to be so concerned with concrete history, that we must wholly overlook historical events in defiance of the facts. Revelation is so long and complex that it would seem such a view as idealism could have been presented in a shorter space and without giving such an appearance of historical reality. It downplays the time-frame indicators of the book.

3. Futurist

The most widely prevalent interpretive school is the futurist. This approach to Revelation sees the prophecies of Revelation, particularly beginning at Revelation 4:1, as portraying the remote future from John’s time: “After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.” This view understands Revelation as dealing with the ultimate historical issues that the world and/or the Church will face just prior to the Christ’s Return.

It is difficult to class some of the very early premillennialists as futurists, despite the obvious predilection for futurism among present-day premillennialists. The reason for this is because the several early church fathers who were premillennial thought they were in the very end times, so that the issue of the near of the events could now be deemed preteristic from our perspective. They were close enough to the writing of Revelation that some forms of historicism or preterism could both explain their views. Futurism was almost entirely eclipsed from about the fourth century until over a thousand years later. It was revived by Franciscus Ribera, a Spanish Jesuit, in the 16th century.

Futurism is very popular due to the widespread influence of dispensationalism. Evangelical proponents of futurism include: John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, J. D. Pentecost. This view also is strongly held by evangelical theologian and amillennialist Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper says nothing in Revelation is prior to the events building up to the Second Advent.

The weaknesses of futurism include: It almost totally removes the relevance of Revelation from John’s original audience, and at a time of their great suffering. It has to re-interpret phenomena in John’s day to make them fit in modern times. It overlooks the claims of the nearness of the events in Revelation. It is not subject to historical verification presently and thus is incapable of falsification, and thereby fails the philosophical verification principle which according to some philosophers renders it philosophically meaningless.

4. Preterist

Finally, we have the preterist view, also known as the “contemporary imminent” or “contemporary historical” or “imminent historical” viewpoint. Basically this school understands the great majority (not all) of the prophecies set forth in Revelation 4-22 as dealing with issues and events beginning with John’s own day, matters that from our perspective lie in the distant past. Hence, the designation “preterism,” from the Latin word praeteritus meaning “gone by,” i.e., past.

According to R. H. Charles, traces of this view may be found in some early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Victorinus. But it really became prevalent much later, when systematized by the Jesuit Alcasar in the early seventeenth century. Many liberals hold this view, though devoid of the supernaturalism of evangelical preterism. Evangelical preterists include Moses Stuart, Milton Terry, Philip Schaff, David Clark, Greg Bahnsen, and Jay Adams.

The strengths of preterism are: It retains the relevance of the book for John’s original audience, which was undergoing a crisis of persecution and oppression. It takes seriously the time-frame indicators in Revelation (to be examined shortly). It provides a dramatic explanation of major redemptive-historical matters: the demise of Judaism and the temple system and the universalizing of the Christian faith. As such its principles may serve as a pattern showing that Christ will protect his church in all ages, since he does so in its first century infancy.



Notes

1. Alan F. Johnson, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Regency, 1981), 12: 409.
2. F. Roy Coad, “Prophetic Developments: A Christian Brethren Research Fellowship Occasional Paper” (Pinner, England: 1966), 10.
3. William Milligan, Revelation, 154 in Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (NICNT) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 43.
4. Milligan, Revelation 153, cited in Carson, Moo Introduction to the New Testament, 483

 

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 100 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

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