3. Four Ways to Interpret Revelation
We continue our introductory material on Revelation by looking at the difference between Apocalyptic and Prophetic Literature and then turning our attention to the four views around which all interpretation revolves. Folks have been interpreting Revelation since its first hearers and readers heard and read it. It has a long history of interpretation. However, if you have ever heard anyone interpret this book before, it was most likely interpreted via one or a mixture of the four views we will share in a bit.
Difference Between Apocalyptic and Prophetic Literature
Since both Apocalyptic and Prophetic Literature deal with events that are to come, one might think about the question: What is the difference between Apocalyptic and Prophetic Literature? There are two aspects that will help us answer this question: The message and the method of the writers.
When the prophets spoke, they spoke in terms of the present world. The cry of the prophet was for social, economic, and political justice. God’s children should serve and obey God’s covenant in the present world (age). The mindset of the prophet was that he believed that the world could be reformed, remade, and then God’s Kingdom would come and rule. The prophet believed in history. He would rebuke sternly, but would continue to believe that things would get better and things could be mended. He was an optimist!
The Apocalyptic writer, on the other hand, thought in terms of a future new world. For this writer, the world was beyond mending. It was completely given over to evil. He looked forward to the destruction of the Present Age and the creation of a new world. He was a pessimist!
The Prophets were spoken messages. They were delivered by prophets personally and then written later. The prophet confronted people with the message of God with a call to repentance. They were the spokesmen of the Covenant. “Shape up or ship out” was often the gist of their message.
The Apocalyptist wrote his message. It was a literary production. It has been said that Apocalyptic is prophecy turned senile!
Internal Characteristics of Apocalyptic Literature
The following are usual characteristics of literary production of Apocalyptic Literature.
- The Anointed One (Messiah) was a divine, preexistent, other worldly figure of power and glory waiting to descend into the world to begin his all-conquering career.
- A time of travail – birth pangs
- A time of terror
- A world shattered by a cosmic upheaval
- A destruction of human relationships in last times
- A time of judgment
- A return of Jews to the Holy Land
- A New Jerusalem already prepared in the heart of God (In the fourth revelation of Fourth Ezra (9:26-10:59), Ezra witnesses a mourning woman change into the heavenly Jerusalem. This concerpt was not new to John in Revelation.)
- A resurrection of the dead
- A duration of the Messianic Kingdom
- The blessings of the Age to Come
– The divided will be united
– The world will be amazingly beautiful
– No enmity between man and beast
– All wars will end
– No pain or sorrow
– Perfect righteousness
Four Views Of Revelation
Regardless of how many different ways it appears that you can interpret the Book of Revelation, there are four standard ways it has been interpreted.
Preterist (In That Time)
The book must be understood within the history of the first century. All its prophetic words were fulfilled during the first century and are only good in the following centuries for teaching what happened. It is not visionary and was written to the people who were its first readers. The book addressed their problems, needs, and circumstances. The specific purpose is locked in that time period. It does not allow for “speculative stargazing,” that is to say that one can’t speculate on a future meaning of the words in the text. Its specific meaning is placed in concrete time and space. The Antichrist mentioned in Revelation 13 is Rome. The book is seen just like a Jewish apocalyptic writing. Facing persecution, the Jewish writers wrote their apocalyptic pieces to keep the people of God focused in the face of persecution and help them to understand that the end was soon to appear.
Historical (All of Time)
This view presents history as a timeline that begins in the first century and continues till the end of time. It is symbolic prophecy of the entire history of the Church age to the coming of Jesus a second time. It is like having a cosmic calculator. If the readers can discern where on the timeline they are living, then they can discover when the coming of Jesus and the end of time will occur. Today, this view is held by Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons. This view often sees the Beast as the Roman Papacy and the False Prophet as the Roman Catholic Church. It was the predominant view of interpretation about 150 years ago. Matthew Henry followed this view in his commentary.
Idealist (Above Time)
There is a great cosmic conflict occurring between the kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God. Time is not an issue. It reveals great truth and principles for any moment in history. The book simply depicts that good will win over evil. This view came into existence at the conclusion of World War II.
Futurist (End of Time)
This view sees the book as prophecy of future events which will attend the end of the world and the coming of Jesus. Revelation claims to be a prophecy (1.3). There are two basic belief systems within this view: 1) Dispensationalism and 2) Moderate.
Dispensational Theology interprets the book as a guideline for the future. The seven letters which make up chapters 2 and 3 are seen as seven successive ages within the history of the church. They are:
- Apostolic Age: the Ephesus church
- Persecution Age: the Smyrna church
- Patronage Age: the Pergamos church
- Corruption Age: the Thyatira church
- Reformation Age: the Sardis church
- Evangelism Age: the Philadelphia church
- Apostasy Age: the Laodicea church
Dispensational Theology believes in a literal seven-year tribulation period before which the church will be raptured. The rapture of John symbolizes the rapture of the Church (Chapter 4). Chapters 6-18 equals the Great Tribulation. The nation of Israel will be judged by God because the Jews are understood to be God’s children. Jerusalem and the Temple must be restored. The Jews are protected from the wrath of God while they suffer persecution of the Antichrist. Jesus will come and the final days of this world will play themselves out. Dispensational eschatology has been softened in the recent book Progressive Dispensationalism by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock (2000). Another book by the same name written by Ron J. Bigalke Jr. seems to be a refutation of the previous book by Blaising and Bock, it’s subtitle reading “An Analysis of the Movement and a Defense of Traditional Dispensationalism.”
The Moderate Futurist view does not take the seven letters as a literal representation of seven successive church ages. Those holding this view find no reason to distinguish sharply between Israel and the Church. In fact, the people of God who face persecution is the Church. There is no indication that John’s rapture is the Church’s rapture. In a sense, Rome of the first century is a preview of the eschatological Antichrist. Biblical prophecy often sees the future in terms of the near present. It describes the future with the terms of the present. This view believes that the message of Revelation must be understood within the light of its first hearers, while fulfillment of the seven letters can now happen within any church. God’s people are the church, not the Jewish nation. The church will go through the tribulation, but will be saved from destruction by God. The temple will not be rebuilt and God will not deal with Israel as a nation.
Which one is correct?
The interpretation of Revelation is widely disputed among modern believers. There are only the four major ways we just mentioned for interpreting the book. The historic church through the centuries appears to have viewed the book through the lens called the Moderate Futurist View. When seen from this point of view, the book was written within a first century historical context (Preterist: In That Time) and could have been perfectly understood by its first hearers/readers. When the Moderate Futurist View is adopted, it diminishes much of the speculative stargazing that other views indulge in today in books like the Left Behind series. The theme of the book is comfort and all its major themes are salted with such an understanding. When being persecuted for the faith, receiving comfort is very important. This, in my opinion, is the foundation for a correct understanding of Revelation.
Dispensationalism and Fundamentalism: The Theory Behind the Left Behind Series
Dispensationalism and Fundamentalism have become almost synonymous during the last part of the last century. In order to understand dispensationalism in America, we need to look at the man who almost single-handedly anchored dispensationalism as an American theology.
Several years ago when I was attending Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, I was chatting with Dr. Colin Brown (Editor of Dictionary of New Testament Theology) in his office. I asked him if Dispensationalism as a Biblical system of Hermeneutics was very prominent in England. Dr. Brown is originally from England and England was the motherland of Dispensationalism. He told me that it had been a strong influence until about fifty years ago, but not now. He also shared that the first Bible to which he was introduced was the Scofield Reference Bible (SRB). The sale of that Bible in America is the foundational reason for the rise of Dispensational Theology. Here is the story in brief.
Cyrus Ingerson Scofield was born August 19, 1843 in Lenawee County, Michigan. While he was a young boy, his family moved to Tennessee. Scofield enlisted in the Confederacy in his teens and served with distinction. When the war ended, he studied Law and was admitted to practicing Law in Kansas. He became involved in politics and served in the state legislature and was appointed United States Attorney for Kansas by President Grant.
His family were members of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Scofield did not become a believer until he was thirty-seven (37) years old. One day in his Law office a friend asked him why he wasn’t a Christian. This led Scofield to commit himself to Christ in 1879. Upon his conversion, he became deeply interested in the study of Scripture. He soon met Dr. James H. Brookes, Pastor of Washington and Compton Avenue Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. It was under the guidance of Dr. Brookes that Scofield studied Scripture. While being taught by Dr. Brookes, he worked at the Y.M.C.A. for three years until 1882.
In 1882, he was invited to become Pastor of First Congregational Church of Dallas, Texas. There were only twelve members - eleven women and one man. It was there that he was ordained into the ministry. He stayed there until 1895. The membership of his church grew to 551 members. During this time of pastoring, he wrote his first book entitled Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth. This book grew out of a weekly Bible class and contains, in a concise form, what he would later systematize into a reference Bible. In this pastorate, he also began Scofield Correspondence Course.
At the insistence of D.L. Moody, Scofield became Pastor of Northfield Massachusetts Congregational Church and President of Northfield Bible Training School. Here he completed his correspondence course. In 1902, he returned to the church in Dallas for one year as pastor.
He retired from the pastorate to devote himself to production of the SRBs with the financial assistance of two businessmen. It was seven years in the making (one might say - one year for each of his developed dispensations). Scofield died in 1921 at the age of seventy-seven.
There are several observations which will add to our understanding of Dispensationalism as we proceed. 1) Scofield was a trained lawyer - this provided him with a rather literal wooden way of looking at Scripture. 2) Dr. Brookes, his first mentor, was a follower of J.N. Darby - the father of Dispensational Theology.
The rise of Dispensationalism came in England. It was sometimes called Darbyism after its founder J.N. Darby. This form of hermeneutics had its rise in the Plymouth Brethren Movement in England in 1825. In 1827, J.N. Darby entered the movement and became a leader in the area of prophetic interpretation. The theory of a pretribulational rapture, which is an essential element of Dispensationalism, began to take place under Darby’s influence at the Powerscourt meetings from 1826-1830. It was during this time that Darby modified the futurism of prophecy by teaching a coming of Christ to rapture the church before the tribulation. Not everyone accepted his teaching. However, it still took root.
During the Nineteenth Century, postmillennialism (Jesus would return after the millennium) was the prevailing view of prophecy in America. Its main proponent was Jonathan Edwards and Matthew Henry. Against this backdrop, Darby’s views began to find their way into America. There were two access points. The printed page and the visits of Darby. He made seven trips in fifteen years to America.
Darby met Dr. J.H. Brookes in St. Louis on one of his visits. Brookes was never willing to go on record that he owed his teachings to Darby. In 1870, Brookes published Maranatha, or The Lord Cometh. By 1878 this book was in its fifth edition. This was just one year before Scofield’s conversion. In this book, it is clearly established that Brookes was highly influenced by Darbyism. He taught that the coming of Christ was going to occur in two phases, the coming for the saints and the coming with the saints. In 1874, he published a monthly periodical, The Truth. In this periodical, a series of articles entitled “Israel and the Church” appeared. These articles made a firm distinction between the earthly and heavenly people of God. These articles appeared between 1881 and 1883. It was during this time that Scofield was given personal instruction in the home of Dr. Brookes. It is not difficult to see the influence on Scofield in his first book Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth.
In the introduction of that book, Scofield says that in 2 Timothy 2.16, Timothy is presented with seven characteristics required of him as a workman. “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” The words “rightly dividing the word of truth” are in italics in his book. The “Word of Truth,” then, has right divisions, and it must be evident that as one cannot be “a workman that needeth not to be ashamed” without observing these right divisions, so any study of the Word which ignores those divisions must be in large measure profitless and confusing (RDWT, 3). The analytical mind of Scofield allowed him to master the A B C’s of the right divisions of the Word of God as he was given instruction by Dr. Brookes.
There were seven dispensations for Scofield.
- Innocence: Genesis 1.28
- Conscience (Moral Responsibility): Genesis 3.7
- Human Government: Genesis 8.15
- Promise: Genesis 12.1
- Law: Exodus 19.1
- The Church: Acts 2.
- The Kingdom: Revelation 20.4
For Scofield a dispensation was “a period of time during which God deals in a particular way with man in respect to sin.” Based on these right divisions of Scripture, Scofield presupposed that there was a difference between Israel and the Church. This is the foundation of Dispensational Theology - there are two peoples of God, Israel and the Church. In his chapter entitled “The Jew, the Gentile and the Church of God,” Scofield says, “…it is perceived that just as distinctly as Israel stands connected with temporal and earthly things, so distinctly does the church stand connected with spiritual and heavenly things.”
The idea of two peoples of God, a distinction between Israel and the Church, leads to the idea in Dispensationalism of a postponed kingdom. The scenario goes like this: Christ presented the kingdom to the Jews, they rejected it. God postponed the kingdom until the second coming and the millennial reign of Christ in which the promises of the OT prophets will be fulfilled in total to Israel.
It was the printed works of Scofield which produced this theological bend in America. In his RDWT he plainly states that Israel and the Church are to be held in distinction. He says, “In the predictions concerning the future of Israel and the Church, the distinction is still more startling. The church will be taken away from the earth entirely, but restored Israel is yet to have her greatest earthly splendor and power (RDWT 9).
In Scofield Bible Correspondence Course, he clearly states that one must understand Bible prophecy in an absolute literalness (Vol. 1. 42).
However, the work which has had the most influence on America is the Scofield Reference Bible (SRB). Scofield believed that there needed to be an edition of the English Bible which would be built upon a connected series of references and would set forth systematically the great evangelical truths along with prophetic teaching. The venture was financed by two Christian laymen, Alwyn Ball, Jr., a real estate man from New York, and John T. Pirie, president of a retail store in Chicago. The Bible was first published in 1909, revised in 1917 by Scofield, and revised by a committee in 1967.
The SRB was the largest selling Bible for years. In 1945, two million copies had been bought by the American public. This was the vehicle which reached and influenced millions of Americans. Today, the press, which produces the SRB, guesstimates that there are well over eleven million SRBs which have been sold to the public.
Now let me connect Fundamentalism and Dispensationalism. Fundamentalism began as a movement during and immediately after WWI. Its primary concern was to reaffirm orthodox Protestant Christianity and to defend itself against liberal theology which came from the quarters of German higher criticism, Darwinism, and other ideals which threatened orthodoxy. Since that time, the meaning of the term and the ones who identify with it has changed.
In the 1940s, the fundamentalists divided into camps. One camp used the term to refer to themselves as Bible-believing Christians. The other group regarded this term as undesirable, having an innuendo of divisiveness, being intolerant, anti-intellectual. This group began to call themselves “Evangelicals,” and to equate that term with true Christianity. In 1948 a few began to call themselves neoevangelical.
The term “fundamentalist” was proudly used by such schools as Bob Jones University, Moody Bible Institute, and Dallas Theological Seminary, and by hundreds of evangelists and radio preachers in the 1950s.
In the 1970s, fundamentalism entered a new phase. It became influential in TV and in print. The leadership was composed of Jerry Falwell, Tim La Haye, Hal Lindsey, and Pat Robertson. Here the name fundamentalist-evangelical came into prominence. The theological structure which these leaders espouse is Dispensational. Thus, they have become almost synonymous positions.
This view then holds to a very literal or wooden interpretation of Scripture which is without error with a distinction between Israel and the Church at its core.
This group formed in the 1940s and came out of Fundamentalism. Evangelicalism transcends denominational and confessional boundaries. The theological stress of Evangelicalism is on the sovereignty of God, the transcendent, personal being who created and rules over heaven and earth. He is a God who hates sin while loving the sinner. He identifies with the suffering of his people. They can have access to him through prayer. He has prepared a plan by which the fallen can receive redemption.
They regard Scripture as being divinely inspired, the infallible and authoritative guide for faith and practice. Inspiration is not a mechanical dictation of verse after verse of Scripture; rather, it was given under the influence of the Holy Spirit who guided the various biblical authors in the selection of words and meanings as they wrote to the first hearers. Thus, these words are culturally conditioned. But God has still used these words to proclaim his eternal word.
They believe in the total corruption of man. All the goodness which exists in human nature is tainted by sin. There is no dimension which is free from its effects. Man was created sinless, but he rebelled against God. For Evangelicals, sin is not an inherent weakness, but a rebellion against God by each individual. Its power cannot be broken by human effort.
God has provided a way to escape for everyone who takes the challenge. This has been provided for mankind by what is often called “the Christ Event” by scholars. The Christ Event contains the virgin birth, the sinless life, the brutal death, the ascension, and the power of the resurrection of Jesus. By grace, believers are saved, kept, and empowered to live the life of Christ on the earth.
Some of the early leaders of Evangelicalism were Billy Graham, Harold J. Ockenga, Edward J. Carnell, and Carl F.H. Henry.
Liberalism was a major shift in theological thinking that occurred in the late 19th century. As with other views, it has changed over time and there is a distinction between liberals in Europe and America.
Liberals desire to adapt religious ideas to modern culture and modes of thinking. They insist that the world has changed since the time of Biblical Christianity. The terms which described Biblical Christianity are not recognizable to modern people. They maintain that Christianity has always adapted its form and language to the cultural situations.
Liberal theology rejects that religious belief should be based on authority alone. Belief must pass through the test of reason and one must be open to new ideas and truth regardless of its origin. They believe that the Bible was the work of the writers of their times. It is not supernatural or an infallible record of divine revelation. Therefore, it does not have absolute authority.
The core of Liberal theology is divine immanence. God is viewed as one who is present and residing within the world. He is not apart from or aloft from the world as a transcendent being. Because he is present in all that happens, there can be no distinction between that which is natural and that which is supernatural. One can see the divine presence in such things as rational truth, artistic beauty, and moral goodness.
Sin is understood as imperfection, ignorance, maladjustment, and immaturity, not the essential calamity of the universe. One can overcome sin by education and persuasion. Religious life is the dimension of life in which personal values can be expressed. The power of this expression contains therapeutic qualities. Prayer will give one more spiritual sensitivity and the benefits are stability, self-control, and peace of mind.
There is a humanistic optimism in liberalism. It sees mankind as moving toward the realization of the kingdom of God which is understood as an ethical state of perfection.
In Germany, liberal scholarship was dominated by Bultmann. He demythologized Scripture. This is an interpretation of Scripture which argues that the message of the NT was couched in the language of a primitive and prescientific mentality. This language from the standpoint of the history of religion must be understood as mythological. In order to understand Scripture, one must take the mythological language and restructure it into a modern language which can be understood by the modern. The method by which this should be accomplished was existential philosophy. This approach suggests that man can only begin to understand himself from the point in time of where he is. He views life from the standpoint of his experience.
By the 1960s liberals had abandoned humanistic optimism, and the dream of an earthly kingdom. They have never given ground on the nonliteral interpretation of the Bible. (Winn Griffin. Jude: How To Keep Yourself From Error. Self Published. 1997. 62-67.)