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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Four Approaches to Interpreting the Book of the Revelation

This is the last of the prepatory notes designed to precede our study of Revelation. My goal was to give short definitions of the four positions, and offer a brief critique of the three views I disagree with. Brevity was a chief goal here, as you will notice. Of all the sets of notes I've prepared recently, these cover the subject of which I'm the least knowledgeable, particularly with regard to Idealism and Historicism. I trust those of you who are more familiar with these positions will offer your thoughts if you feel I have misrepresented them.

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Four Views of Revelation

American satirist Ambrose Bierce accurately reflected the sentiments of many who have attempted to make sense of the last book of the Bible when, in his book The Devil's Dictionary, he defined "Revelation" as "a famous book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew. The revealing is done by the commentators, who know nothing." Such cynicism is understandable, in light of Revelation's complexity. And yet, if we are to take Paul's words seriously when he says, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16), then to allow such cynicism to keep us away from a deep study of the book is inexcusable.

Acknowledging this, of course, doesn't make the task any easier. There have through the years been endless attempts to come to a conclusive, systematic understanding of the book. From these many attempts, however, have emerged four dominant approaches. A consideration of these before examining the book itself should prove helpful in our own study.


I.) Futurism

Futurism is the view that holds that the major portion of Revelation (from chapter 4 to the end of the book) has yet to be fulfilled in history, and will be fulfilled at the end of the current age. The seven year Tribulation, the coming of the Beast, the last battle, the Millennium, and other common themes of Bible prophecy, have yet to happen. This view is the majority view in the church today, as the majority of the church is Dispensational. Not all Futurists, however, are Dispensationalists.

Because of its wholly future nature, Futurism is subject to "newspaper exegesis". Each generation of Futurists, when encountering the evil of the world around them, has a tendency to come to the conclusion that they must be living in the "last days". The fruit of this is a proclivity to attempt to fit current events into prophetic passages, often resulting in bizarre and even humorous interpretations. Any political leader, for instance, who finds himself with an unusual amount of influence on world events is subject to the suspicion of being the Beast of Revelation 17. Yet while Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, and Ronald Reagan have all returned to dust, Futurism continues to try to put the pieces of the puzzle together, ignoring all its prior failures to predict the happenings of the end of days.


II.) Historicism

Historicism teaches that the central portion of Revelation is an unfolding of the course of history from the establishing of the Church until the Second Coming of Christ. Certain elements in Revelation are regarded as corresponding to specific historical events, such as the destruction of Rome, the rise of Islam, and the Protestant Reformation. A key aspect of the Historicist view is the belief that the Roman Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon, and that the Papacy is the Beast. Historicism was the view held by the vast majority of Protestant theologians up until the 19th century. It is in our time probably the least commonly held of the four positions.

When it comes to the obstacles this position faces, Historicism suffers from much the same problem as Futurism. While one might comfortably align passages with historical events from earlier centuries, the struggle comes when one seeks to find one's own era in Revelation. The Reformers thought that the end of the Church age would be soon and, seeing themselves freed from "the Beast", thought that they would certainly be entering the Millennium very shortly. And yet, as its predictions have failed, Historicism has undergone repeated revision. This state of flux has no doubt been a contributing factor to the majority of interpreters abandoning this approach.


III.) Idealism

The Idealist approach (also known as the Spiritualist approach) sees Revelation as a series of allegories of the life of the Christian and the Church. Rather than attaching the events in the book to specific historical occurrences, Idealism views Revelation as containing images of the struggles every Christian goes through in life, or that individual churches will experience in history. These are to be taken as a source of encouragement. Idealism is a common view in our time, particularly among Amillennialists.

While it is proper to look to Revelation for examples of how to conduct oneself in the world, to reduce it in all its complexity to mere moral lessons seems to dishonor the text. Would God really give us such details, only to have them correspond to nothing in particular? For God to everywhere in Scripture be concerned about place, matter, and history, to then give us a book that has no link to these things, seems to me to be incongruent with His character as Scripture reveals it to us.


IV.) Preterism

Preterism teaches that the majority of the Revelation was fulfilled in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A. D. Building off of and fulfilling Old Testament prophecy, Revelation shows God bringing destruction upon Israel and specifically Jerusalem for her repeated failure to trust and obey Him, which culminated in her rejection of her Messiah. While it is still a minority view, Preterism has become more common in recent years.

There have been attempts at combining the above views in various ways. Most common is the attempt to combine elements of Preterism with Idealism, such as is done by Hank Hanegraaff. Nonetheless, these four are the major views taught in the church today.

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