The four principal ways to interpret Revelation

  1. The preterist approach interprets the book as referring solely to events in the first century.
    • Proponents: Charles, Sweet, Roloff, Schussler Fiorenza, Collins, Thompson, Barr, Christian reconstructionists (Source: Face of NT Studies)
    • Leon Morris says this approach makes the book meaningless for people today
    • Mounce says that this approach implies that the prophecies of John were not fulfilled
  2. The historicist approach says that the book is fulfilled by specific events that occur throughout history from John’s day to ours (the papacy, the rise of Islam, the Reformation, etc)
    • Proponents: Joachim of Fiore, Franciscans, Reformers, Scofield type dispensationalists regarding ch. 2-3This approach makes the book meaningful for its original readers (Source: Face of NT Studies)
    • This approach was popular with the Reformers, who saw the pope as the fulfillment of the Beast or antichrist.
    • This approach would seem to make the book meaningless to its first readers (Source: Morris). But: the other books of the Bible were written for their generations, and we derive meaning from them.
    • This approach tends to focus on western European history to the exclusion of the rest of world history (Source: Morris)
    • Historicists tend to disagree about which historic events fulfill which phenomena in Revelation. The method tends to be subjective, limited by one’s grasp of history.
  3. The futurist approach treats the book as a window to the future: a glimpse of the last generation before Christ’s second coming.
    • Proponents: Justin, Irenaeus, Ladd, Thomas (Source:Face of NT Studies)
    • Morris says that this makes the book meaningless for all but that generation. But: knowing where history is going would be very meaningful for helping us construct the present.
  4. The idealist approach sees the book as portraying theological principles and dynamics that are true of every stage of human history.
    • Proponents: Milligan, Hendriksen, Hoekema, Hughes, Hays (Source: Face of NT Studies)
    • Morris says this approach makes the book relevant for everyone, but by itself it lacks a historical anchor.

In recent years many commentators (Morris, Johnson, Roloff, Giesen, Mounce, Beale, Osborne and many others) have opted for an eclectic approach, borrowing from all the approaches except the historicist approach.

The present author’s support for the present approach is for the following reasons:

  • Clearly John meant for his book to encourage his readers, and not simply with information about events in the far future. While the general principles in the idealist approach could have that effect for his readers, there are many similarities to first century events and details in the book (Rome as a city on seven hills, the list of goods imported to Rome, the imperial cult, the many parallels between the seven letters and the historical backgrounds to the cities, etc). There is undoubtedly more specific first century relevance in the book than we know of now, and probably far more than we will ever be able to mine from the book at this distance centuries later. So a preterist approach, while not exhausting the meaning of the book, surely plays a central part.
  • John purports to tell of things to come, of the future. Many of the things he said did not come to pass in as grand a fashion as he described them. I believe we should view Revelation as we do Old Testament prophecy: as having various levels of fulfillment. Just as Isaiah and other prophets saw fulfillments in their own time yet their words pointed to grander fulfillments centuries later, so Revelation, while pointing to first century issues, also points beyond itself to larger realities that have not yet come to pass. Also, many of the events described in the book are portrayed as happening as a lead-up to the second coming of Christ. So the futurist approach, not alone but in conjunction with the preterist and idealist approaches, also adds to our understanding of Revelation.
  • The fervor in ages past for the historicist approach, in my opinion, is actually support for the idealist position. Every age tends to read Revelation and spot dynamics on display that mirror dynamics in their own political, economic and religious situation. Revelation touches the heart of people in every century. We see corrupt beasts, the cult of personality, oppression, conformism, martyrs and valiant sacrifices in every age. So I am throwing my support in for the idealist position as well. Rather than identify every symbol from Revelation with one specific historic moment, we should see the symbols as pointing to something in Rome AND something at the end of the age AND something that we also see at work in limited ways in the intervening centuries.
  • My view is not merely the idealist view. Quite the opposite. I believe that the book needs to be interpreted primarily in light of both the first century and the final years before the second coming. Only after we have done that will we be in the best position to appreciate the dynamics that occur in every century.

Sources: Leon Morris, Tyndale NT Commnetaries: Revelation, revised edition. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987); Robert H. Mounce, NICNT: The Book of Revelation, revised. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998); Grant R. Osborne, “Recent Trends in the Study of the Apocalypse”, in The Face of New Testament Studies. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 476

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