Interpreting Revelation (Part 2)


The Preterist View of Revelation

The most serious problem for the historicist position is that none of the historical identifications could be proven, most would be considered obscure and anachronistic in the light of the 21st century.  By the early nineteenth century, historicism was running out of new ideas.  There were two reactions to the historicist position among some Protestant writers – preterism and futurism.

Because both of these reactionary movements had precursors in Catholic theology, many Protestants who began to view Revelation as either entirely past or entirely future were viewed as giving aid and comfort to the “Papists” and were accused of not holding firmly to reformation truth.  Both preterism and futurism are found in Catholicism, although the motivation for both  futurism and preterism seems to have been to avoid the identification of the Pope as the Antichrist.  For example, in James Durham’s A Commentarie Upon the Book of the Revelation (1658) 496, he states his belief that a futurist interpretation of Revelation is a “…conceit or dream of the Papists expounding all so literally of an Antichrist who shall come from the tribe of Dan, and that shall reign just three and a half years, sitting in Jerusalem … This dream [was] invented by them to keep their Pope from being apprehended as the true Antichrist.”

Preterism argues the Book of Revelation was written to describe the events of the first century and there was little if anything that referred to the history of the church beyond that period.   One of the earliest representatives of this view among Protestants was Moses Stuart. Moses Stuart, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 2 Volumes (Andover: Allen, Morrill and Ward, 1845).  Stuart blames Joseph Mede for universal application of the year-to-day theory in prophetic studies and popularizing the 1260 year reign of papal-antichrist. Stuart is willing to accept the year-to-day interpretation in Ezekiel 4 and even Daniel 9, but argues that these two passages do not require every day mentioned in prophecy to be a year.  For example, he notes that if the year-to-day principle were applied to Daniel 4:32, then Nebuchadnezzar ate grass for 2520 years!

Preterists argue that  Revelation is a highly figurative book which cannot be approached with a straightforward, simple, literalism.  For preterists, literalism will only confuse the meaning of the book. The meaning of the book is to be found in its rather bold use of symbolism to describe the fall of Jerusalem, not modern-era warfare, etc.  For example, Literalism is impossible with bizarre figures of speech such as the three frogs in chapter 16.  Ken Gentry surveys a few literalist commentaries and notes these “frogs” are normally interpreted as demons, but with frog-like features.   Do the two witnesses in chapter 11 really “spew fire” from their mouths?  Is that what John meant for us to understand?

Secondly, Revelation claims to be describing what will happen soon (1:1-3).  Soon cannot mean some 2000 years in John’s future.  The Greek word in 1:1 tachos  means “a very brief period of time, with focus on speed of an activity or event, speed, quickness, swiftness, haste” A preterist like Gentry cannot understand why a literalist (like Robert Thomas) chooses to take the plain meaning of the text “soon” and “allegorize” it into a meaning of 2000 years in the future.

Preterists like Gentry and Chilton apply  everything in Revelation to the fall of Jerusalem.  This is not, however, the only way of handling the book as a preterist. Their view requires a date for Revelation before A. D. 70, a difficult position to defend.

A number of commentaries on Revelation interpret the books as describing the situation of the church in the first century under Roman rule.  The conflict in the book is not God’s judgment on the Jews for crucifying Christ, but rather then persecution of Christians by the Roman empire for refusing to worship the Emperor / Empire (see the commentaries by R. H. Charles, Sweet, Roloff, for example).

A growing number of scholars deny Rome was persecuting Christians during Domitian’s reign, therefore the crisis in Revelation is an “internal spiritual crisis.” (See commentaries by Yarbo Collins, L. Thompson, Krodel, Barr, for example).  The church is struggling with mixing Christianity with the worship of local gods in order to mix in Roman society; the problem of the book is compromise with false teachers such as the Nicolatians.