Interpretive Approaches to the Book of Revelation
By Andrew E. Courtis
Out of all the books in the New Testament, it is usually agreed that Revelation is the most difficult to interpret due to its use of symbolic language.[i] Traditionally there have been four interpretive approaches used in order to understand the Apocalypse: (1) Preterism, (2) Idealism, (3) Historicism, and (4) Futurism. In more recent years there are many who would hold to a hybrid of these approaches (eclecticism), which will also be considered. For the purpose of clarity, it will be helpful to identify and define each category in an isolated manner so as to provide an understanding of the varying hermeneutical foundations of each approach.
The preterist[iii] approach teaches that most[iv] of the events listed in the book of Revelation have already been fulfilled from the standpoint of the modern reader. This view interprets the content of the book as referring to events taking place in the context of the Roman Empire.[v] Luis De Alcasar (1554-1613) is believed by many to have first developed the preterist view as a formal interpretive approach in 1614.[vi] Amongst those of this hermeneutical persuasion, some believe that the majority of events fulfilled took place at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction in A.D. 70. This view necessitates an early date of authorship usually believed to be ca. A.D. 54-68. Others who affirm the preterist view interpret the events of Revelation as taking place during the Roman Empire. The beast in Revelation is said to speak of The Roman Empire or the Roman Emperor.
Idealism is a hermeneutical approach that views the events of the book of Revelation as non-historical, non-futuristic and interprets by means of allegory and spiritualization. The idealist approach views Revelation 20 as an event that occurs throughout church history prior to the Second Advent.
The historicist approach[viii] views the details of the book of Revelation as a chronology of events that span from the time of John’s writing up until the eternal state. It provides a somewhat detailed panorama of Western church history. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin identified the pope with the biblical account of the coming Antichrist.[ix] The historicist view was the dominant approach in interpreting the Apocalypse in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[x] However, traces of this approach have been applied amongst some dispensational interpreters.[xi] Concerning Revelation 20:1-3, this passage refers to the defeat of Satan throughout the ages
A difficulty with this interpretation is that it limits the fulfillment of the events of the apocalypse to the western church’s history and ignores the place of the church of the east in history.[xii] Mounce notes, “The subjectivity of this approach is underscored by the fact that no essential agreement can be found between the major proponents of the system.”[xiii] When compared with the other approaches of interpreting the Apocalypse, amongst the majority of scholars today the prominence of this view has declined.[xiv] An exception to this would be the Seventh Day Adventists.[xv]
The futurist approach views the details of chapter 4 onwards as events that are still future.[xvii] This approach treats this book as a prophecy concerning the worldwide tribulation, the Second Coming, Millennial Kingdom, judgments, and the eternal state. The futurist understands the events in Revelation 20:1-3 as yet future and occurring after the Parousia and before the final judgment.
More recent commentators have taken a somewhat eclectic approach in their interpretation of the book of Revelation. However, eclecticism[xviii] can vary by the interpreter emphasizing certain approaches over others. For example there are futuristic-preterists[xix] and preterist-idealists.[xx]
[i] Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, 10.
[ii] The following commentators hold to a preterist approach: R. H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John with Introduction, Notes, and Indices, also the Greek Text and English Translation: Volume 1. International Critical Commentary, eds. S.R. Driver, C. A. Briggs, and A. Plummer, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920); J. M. Ford, Revelation. Anchor Bible, eds. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman, vol. 38. (New York: Doubleday, 1975).
[iii] The name preterist is formed from two Latin words: praeter ‘past’ and ire ‘go’ thus providing the meaning of that which occurs in the past.
[iv] There are those who have been labeled as full preterists who adhere to the notion that all of the events in Revelation have been fulfilled in the first century…
[v] The duration of the Western Roman Empire was 27 BC-AD 426.
[vi] M. D. Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things, (Wheaton, Illonois: Crossway, 1998), 145; Johnson, Revelation, 409.
[vii] The following commentator’s hold to an idealist approach: W. Hendriksen, More than Conquerors, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1940); Hoekema The Bible and the Future, Hughes, The Book of Revelation, 1990.
[viii] Scholars generally align the origins of this approach with Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202). Osborne, Revelation, 18.
[ix] J. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 2 Thessalonians, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books), 330-331, J. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, The first Epistle of John, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books), 190., Ladd, The Blessed Hope, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 32.
[x] C. S. Keener, The NIV Application Commentary: Revelation, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000), 27.
[xi] The dispensationalist’s overall approach to interpreting the Apocalypse is futuristic, however when it comes to the interpretation of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 some have viewed these to be represent seven successive church periods from the time of John up until the future tribulation.
[xii] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 46; Kistemaker, Revelation, 41; Leon Morris, Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 19.
[xiii] Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 27.
[xiv] M. C. Pate, Gen. ed., Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998) 110.
[xv] John Noe, An Exegetical Basis for A Preterist-Idealist Understanding of the Book of Revelation, 776
[xvi] The following commentators hold to a futurist approach: MacArthur, Revelation; Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ; Ryrie, Charles. Revelation, Chicago: Moody Press, 1968.
[xvii] This does not ignore events spoken of in the Apocalypse that occurred prior to the writing of the Apocalypse. For example, the futurist would understand the events of chapter 12:1-5 as occurring over a span beginning with Satan’s original rebellion up until the ascension of Christ.
[xviii] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 48.
[xix] G. R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation: The New Centry Bible Commentary. Rev. ed, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1981; F. F. Bruce, “The Revelation of John.” In A New Testament Commentary, ed. G. C. D. Howley, F. F. Bruce, and H. L. Ellison. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1969; Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, 14.
[xx] J. Noe, “An Exegetical Basis for A Preterist-Idealist Understanding of the Book of Revelation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49:4 (December 2006) 767-96.