By Ferrell Jenkins
Theories of Interpretation
The proper interpretation of the book of Revelation depends upon the method of approach in the study of it. In this section we intend to mention the major methods or theories of interpretation that have been used, giving some of the strong and weak points of each system. After this, perhaps we will be in a position to make some suggestion as to what seems to us to be the best approach to the book.
Pieters describes Revelation as “God’s great picture book at the end of the Bible.” He says, “it is a picture book of a peculiar kind.” 48 Some of these pictures are to be interpreted just as they stand. For example, we see many pictures and drawings today that truly represent what they depict, while there are others that are symbolic of the thing depicted. The G.O.P. Elephant, the Democrat Donkey, or even “Uncle Sam” would hardly be considered as literal representations by anyone. Everyone understands the figurative nature of such symbols as a flying horse, a firebird or a tiger in a tank used by modern petroleum companies. In the book of Revelation there are signs and symbols, which are not to be taken literally.
The Historist or Continuous-Historical interpretation of the Apocalypse is held by no small number of expositors. These believe that the book of Revelation is simply a great panorama of all church history from the time it was written until the end of time. They are anxious to tell us where the Pope, Napoleon, and Hitler appear in the book. Movements such as the Roman Catholic apostasy, Higher Criticism, and the New Deal are clearly “revealed” to these writers. No doubt some will even find President Johnson’s “Great Society” in this apocalyptic vision. With a view like this, one can attempt to decide at just what stage we now stand, and also predict the future.
Albert Barnes presented the continuous historical view in his Notes on the Book of Revelation. He thinks of Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman Empire as corresponding beautifully with the book of Revelation. Of Gibbon he says:
“I have found it difficult to doubt that that distinguished historian was raised up by an overruling Providence to make a record of those events which would ever afterwards be regarded as an impartial and unprejudiced statement of the evidence of the fulfillment of prophecy. ” 49
Those holding this view come up with differing definite fulfillments of the prophecies in Revelation, but they all unite in declaring the “beast” to be the Pope, and “Babylon” to be Papal Rome.
A number of writers within the Restoration Movement have advanced this view, B. W. Johnson in his Notes, and John T. Hinds, in his commentary in the Gospel Advocate set of New Testament Commentaries, being chief among these. One book is advertised as having been written for the purpose of informing its readers of the beginning, work and ending of the Catholic Church.
Included in this group of interpreters are some who make the seven churches represent seven phases of church history. Of course, we are now (now, being any time a commentary is written taking this view) in the seventh or Laodicean stage.
Pieters tackles this theory vigorously. His reasons for rejecting it as fundamentally unsound may be summarized as follows: (1) The Apocalypse, so understood, is entirely out of touch with the situation of the early church, to which it was written. (2) The importance attached to the Roman Catholic apostasy seems out of proportion; it appears to be the only Triemy of true religion. (31 The outlook of such interpreters seems too narrow. They find the fulfillment of the prophecies of Revelation only in the countries composing the ancient Roman Empire. Hence, a greater part of mankind is excluded. This outlook is entirely out of date for us. (4) The interpretations of this school often descend to manifestly absurd detail. (5) This method leads to the calculation of times and periods, which have been falsified by the event, and have wrought great harm. 51
Some interpret the Revelation so that almost everything from chapter four on is “limited entirely to the eschatological time at the end of history, a time identified in this view with the period immediately preceding, contemporary with, and following upon the ‘thousand years’ literally interpretated (20:1-10).”51
The Futurists are divided into two major groups, namely: (1) Post-Millennialists, who regard the thousand year reign as figurative or an indefinite period of time before the second coming of Christ. (2) Premillennialist, who state that Christ will return personally and reign upon the earth for a literal one thousand years.
The futurist position is inconsistent with the first statement of the Apocalypse, which states that these things would shortly come to pass. Some, however, take the statement in 4: 1, “After these things,” as implying that the material from there on could have a future fulfillment. But the things which must “shortly” come to pass cannot be limited tot the first three chapters; these describe things as they were at that time. Perhaps the most serious objection to this system is that it “leaves the Apocalypse quite out of relation to the needs of the church to which it was addressed … prophecy begins with its own generation.”52 Any position which takes the book away from its first readers must be rejected. To be told of the immorality of the Roman Catholic system, or of the campaigns of Napoleon would hardly be comforting and encouraging to the Christian of Smyrna or Ephesus who could not buy or sell because he refused to worship at the emperor’s temple. The overthrow of the Papacy would have been a small comfort to Polycarp as the flames rose about him.
Summers points out that much of the symbolism of Revelation is incompatible with the futurist method. Such portions as the twelfth chapter dealing with the woman and the birth of the man-child quite naturally have to be interpretated as belonging to the past. 53
The Preterist school of interpreters look upon the Revelation as having been fulfilled within the first two or three centuries after it was written. This school is divided into two groups. The most liberal do not consider the book Of Revelation as inspired literature. Those who accept its inspiration find some things yet future in the Book. A. T. Robertson says that Revelation was written during the stress and storm of Domitian’s persecution to cheer the Christians with a view to final victory, “but with no scheme of History in view.”54 This fits in well with the Preterist view. I think it is important to remember that many expositors can not be limited to a specific view, but only tend to a given view while using what they see as the good points in others.
Foy E. Wallace, Jr., whose God’s Prophetic Word is an outstanding work on millennialist views, advocates a preterist view.
“The structure of the book is seen in three statements: Things that he ‘saw’; things which ‘are’; things to be ‘hereafter’-that should shortly come to pass. You will notice the part that should be ‘hereafter’ is qualified, and modified, and limited by the word ‘shortly.’ The things ‘which thou hast seen’ were the things John saw in the vision. The things ‘which are’ were conditions known to exist, and then present. The things ‘which shall be hereafter,’ but shortly, deal with the immediate future experiences of the early churches, the immediate history of which tells the story in a very extensive way. The events of the Neroan, Domitian and Diocletian periods of history, following so closely upon the first century, furnish a complete counterpart to the symbols of Revelation, as fully as any future events could be made to fit them. The events of these periods did ‘shortly’come to pass and the events from Nero’s persecution to Diocletian’s reign of terror, ought to satisfy even a literalist in the interpretation of the symbols and signs employed by John. The symbols of Revelation were fulfilled in the experiences of those early churches; and the book, from our viewpoint, should be considered in the light of history rather than as a book of prophecy. It was apocalyptic prophecy when spoken, it is history now.” 55
Wallace avoids the main objection to the strict preterist view, that is, that the book has no
application to the church today. “Someone may ask,” Wallace says, “is there no practical application or spiritual meaning in all these things? There is. Every Christian may have the spirit of the early Christians, and therefore possess the soul of a martyr.”56
Philosophy Of History
This school of interpretation tends to divorce the Apocalypse from its historical background. They see the book as “containing a discussion of forces which underlie events but not a discussion of the events themselves.”57 In Revelation one sees the great principles of God’s control, which may be seen in any period of time. Swete well describes this view saying that it has “the practical purpose of inculcating those great lessons of trust in God, loyalty to the Christ King, confidence in the ultimate triumph of righteousness, patience under adversity, and hope in the prospect of death, which were urgently needed by the Asian Churches, and will never be without meaning and importance so long as the world lasts. “58
Two objections to this method are presented by Summers. (1) It removes the book too far from the churches to which it was addressed. Perhaps a combining of the preterist and philosophy of history views would eliminate this objection. (2) This method confines the book in too narrow a channel, holding that the symbols refer to forces, but not to specific events.
Summers present-, the historical-background method upon which he builds his treatment of the Apocalypse. This position does combine features of the preterist method, which respects the inspiration of the Bible, and the philosophy of history approach. There are principles that guide one in a study using this method. (1) First, a study is made of the historical setting of the book. One looks at the moral, religious, social, and political conditions of the time when the book was written, as we have done earlier. (2) Realize that the book was written in highly figurative language. (3) Keep in mind that the book uses Old Testament terminology with New Testament meaning. (4) Seek to grasp the visions or series of visions as a whole without pressing the details; of the symbolism. (5) Remember that Revelation is addressed chiefly to the imagination. One must see with the mind’s eye the various episodes of intense drama, just as if he were with John on Patmos when the visions were received.59
It seems to this writer that this type of approach, combining the historical background with the basic eternal principles, that permeate the visions, is the one that leads to a clear and correct understanding of the book. Two other views that might fit in well with the preterist, philosophy of history, or historical-background method is worthy of mention.
The Dramatic interpretation of the Apocalypse is advanced by Bowman.60 He divides the book into seven acts, with each act having seven scenes. Act I of this schema gives the picture of the contemporary church, the “what is” of Rev. 1: 19. Acts II through VII present “what is to take place hereafter,” that is, the church and the world in the eschatological time.
William Hendriksen has presented a view in More Than Conquerors, which seems to have become quite popular. He believes that the book of Revelation is not one complete story, but rather seven. He divides the book in this manner, 1-3; 4-7; 8-11; 12-14; 15-16; 17-19; 20-22. Each division represents a complete period of time ranging from the first coming of Christ to the second coming, with each period being a little more intensified or extending a little further than the former. He refers to this recapitulationism as progressive parallelism.
The writer trusts that this examination of the general background of the book of Revelation, with attention to the authorship and date, may provide others with an incentive to begin a study of the Apocalypse. The examination of the theories of interpretation with a suggestion as to the one we find most helpful should serve to guide those who read them to a proper method of approach to the book. This in turn should lead to a fruitful and faith-upbuilding understanding of the misunderstood book at the end of the Bible.
Albertus Pieters, Studies in the Revelation of St. John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950), p. 33.
49. Albert Barnes, Notes on Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1951), 1). vii.
50. Pieters, 47-49.
51. Bowman, 61.
52. Pieters, 61,62.
53. Summers, 34.
54. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1953), pp. 276-277.
55. Foy E. Wallace, Jr., God’s Prophetic Word (2d ed. rev.; Oklahoma City: Foy E. Wallace, Jr., Publications, 1960), p. 275. The first edition in 1946 carried no mention of Nero (see pp. 224225). The revised edition reflects Wallace’s present view that the Revelation was written during the Neroan period (see The Book of Revelation by Wallace).
56. Ibid. 280.
57. Summers, 41.
58. Swete, ccxviii.
59. Summers, 45-51.
60. Bowman. 58-7 1.
TRUTH MAGAZINE XVII: 27, pp.8-11
May 10, 1973