Revelation is a difficult book. Except perhaps for tele-evangelists, who have spent dozens of hours studying it and thousands of hours preaching it. But even John had difficulties understanding what was going on in his own book (Rev 7:13-14; 17:7; 19:10; 20:8–9). And it is deemed a difficult book by most biblical scholars and commentators.
Because of Revelation’s difficulty, we should not be surprised to discover many different approaches to it in church history. (We must remember, however, that tele-evangelists arose late in church history. Consequently, the first 2000 years of Christianity did not have access to their perceptive insights and powerful analyses.) Most of these differing approaches can be sorted into four basic schools of interpretation, as we shall see.
To subscribe to a particular school of interpretation is not a matter that we can decide prior to our exposition. In this regard, Austin Farrer notes in his commentary that “an exposition of the Revelation is at the same time an argument. And it is one of those arguments in which nothing short of the whole story proves the case.” G. B Caird concurs: “It is better therefore to postpone all argument until we come to the commentary, where the whole story can be told, and to allow John to unfold his theme in his own way.” Robert Mounce agrees: “it is difficult to say what anything means until one has decided in a sense what everything means.”
As we look at the history of approaches to Revelation “most scholars summarize the options under four headings” (Osborne, Revelation, 18). Each of these four schools of interpretation have representatives ranging from conservative evangelicals to radical critical scholars. Alan F. Johnson (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:410) makes an important observation on this matter: “Since there have been evangelicals who have held to each of the four views, the issue is not that of orthodoxy but of interpretation.”
Oddly enough, all evangelical millennial schools are represented (to varying degrees) among these various approaches. We can discern this surprising reality when we notice even the merging of elements of preterism and futurism in G. R. Beasley-Murray (Eerdmans Bible Commentary, 1280), George E. Ladd (Revelation, 14), Robert Mounce (Revelation, 29–30), and Marvin Pate (Doomsday Delusions, 40–44).
We should note also that though there are four leading schools of thought or interpretive classifications, oftentimes an author might hold to a merged or blended view. As Isbon T. Beckwith (Apocalypse, 335) observes “such a classification, however, is not to be carried out on rigidly fixed lines, for most of the interpreters combine, at least to some degree, elements belonging to different systems.”
Nevertheless, historically interpreters divide among four schools. In the next few blog articles I will briefly survey those while mentioning their strengths and weaknesses. I hope you will join me in my study of these schools of interpretation.
Do you know what the four basic schools are?