The Apostle John

Studies in his Life and Writings

By W. H. Griffith Thomas

Part 4. - The Revelation

Chapter 3


The main lines of explanation must now be given:

1. Preterist.

This regards the entire book as fulfilled in the past, within the time of the Roman Empire and in the life of the Apostle John, with special reference to A. D. 70. This is the view taken in two books: "The Parousia," by Dr. Russell, an English Congregational minister; and "The Christ Has Come," by E. Hampden Cook.

The question arises whether this view is really possible. It was not known in the early Church. It must be confessed that it is often (though not in the two writers named above-) associated with rationalism and antisupernaturalism. And it seems to indicate the despair of any interpretation made according to the analogy of the Old Testament with its detailed prophecies, both fulfilled and unfulfilled.

2. Idealist.

This understands the book as one of great principles, symbolically stated, with special reference to the persecution of the Church. It is thus a record of conflict and victory. A general view of the book on this interpretation would be:

(1) Introduction (1).

(2) The Church in History (2-3).

(3) Victory Anticipated (4-5).

(4) Great Judgments (6-16).

(5) Victory Accomplished (17-19).

(6) The Church Perfected (20:1 to 22:5).

(7) Conclusion (22:6-21).

This is the view associated with three books b}' Dr. Milligan, the volume in Schafif's Commentary on Revelation, the Baird Lectures on Revelation, and the volume in the Expositor's Bible; and with Bishop Boyd Carpenter in Cassell's Commentary.

The newest book taking this view is "Studies in the Book of Revelation," by Dr. S. A. Hunter, of the Western Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh. It is called "A Bible School Manual" and includes introduction, analysis, copious footnotes, extracts from many modern writers, and other materials. It gives an able presentation of the symbolical view, together with' acute criticisms of other methods of interpretation. It is the best work available for the thorough study of this view Of the Apocalypse.

A recent writer who may perhaps be included in this school, though he has distinctive features of his owm, is Provost Erskine Hill, in Apocalyptic Problems. Up to the present time the treatment of only the first half of the Revelation has appeared, though its general line may be easily understood. To Mr. Erskine Hill the book is timeless and records the view of the angels about the various spiritual movements of all time. He does not identify this or that part with' any historical period, past or present, nor does he allow a future specific application. The message of the book is said to be that "it reveals the power o-f self-sacrifice to solve the mystery o^ pain, and the power of the Living Christ to give his followers protection from all evil, and victory over all temptation" (p. 4). He thus faces the important question of the symbolism and its difficulties: "Imagine a learned scientist trying to explain the mysteries of wireless telegraphy to some untutored aboriginal tribe. The teacher would be confronted with the double difficulty of the crudity of his hearers' minds, and the extremely limited nature of their vocabulary" fp. 14). He is afraid of materializing Christ's sayings about the Advent, and he interprets the eagles of Matthew 24 as spiritual insight (p. 49f). The ''sealed book" of chapter 5 is taken "to represent the problem of the existence of suffering in the world and the toleration of the sin which lies behind so much of it" (p. 91). But perhaps the most striking argument is his dealing with the "Coming of the Son of Man." In regard to the assertion of Christ in Matthew 10:23:"Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of man be come," Mr. Hill thinks it refers to our Lord's first coming: "His Coming as Son of Man to the world of men was still an event of the future" (p. 56). "It was in his Mystical Body and on the Day of Pentecost that his first Coming as the Son of Man to the world took place" (p. 59). It is interesting that "coming" in the papyri is almost a technical term.

Now there is undoubted truth in this idealist view, but it may be seriously questioned whether by itself it is specific enough. Also, the relation of the book to the Old Testament and the connection and analogy with prophecies there would seem to demand something more definite. As the book is prophetic, it should be regarded and interpreted as such.

3. Historicist.

This is the interpretation which regards the book from chapters 6-19 as a continuous revelation of the centuries of the Christian Church, and it is thought that the fulfilment has now extended to the sixth vial (16). According to this view the Euphrates (16:12) symbolizes the Turkish power, the Reformation is referred to in chapter 10, and the papacy in chapters 17-18. Many great, honored, and scholarly names are associated with this view, including those of E. B. Elliott and Grattan Guinness.

The serious objections raised to this interpretation include the following:

(1) Is it likely that a knowledge of history would be required before an ordinary Christian could understand this book?

(2) Is it possible to interpret a passage like 6:12-17 of anything, however terrible, that has already taken place? The great day of the wrath of the Lamb, it is urged, cannot be predicated of any event in the course of Christian history.

(3) If past vicars are carefully recorded in the book, how is it that the war of 1914-1918. the greatest in history, finds no place in it?

(4) Notwithstanding the remarkable agreement on many points, there are also great differences between writers of this school, and these seem to many to show the impossibility of identifying the references with historical events. Thus in interpreting the second trumpet (8:8, 9), the following various interpretations have been given:

The fiery mountain means Satan; Genseric; a great heresy; Vespasian; the Prelacy; Rome.

The sea means the nations; the Church with its baptismal waters; the Sea of Galilee; pure doctrine.

The destruction of the fishes means the slaughter of Christians; the Jews; the Vandals; monks.

To the same effect are some recent words of the Rev. W. Graham Scroggie, who has pointed out how "the most distinguished exponents of this school hopelessly differ among themselves." He gave these instances:

Elliott interprets the sixth seal of Constantine, but Faber sees in it the French Revolution.

Bengel sees in the star fallen from heaven (10) a good angel, but Elliott regards it as Mohammed.

Mede takes the locusts of chapter 9, which torment men for five months, to mean one hundred and fifty years of the dominion of the Saracens; but

Vitringa says they mean the Goths and the Jesuits.

Mr. Scroggie reasonably adds: "So long as there is such variance as that among those whose general view is the same, dogmatism should be avoided."

The newest book based on' this line of interpretation is "The Revelation of Jesus Christ," by H. C. Williams, in which the writer regards the Apocalypse as giving a threefold view of the future, each part ending with our Lord's coming. After the preliminary division in chapter 1, the book is divided thus:

(1) 2-3, regarded as descriptive of the whole period of the Church's history, culminating with the promise of Christ's coming (3:11, 20).

(2) 4-11, again culminating in the full realization of victory through the coming of Christ (11:15-17).

(3) 12-19, with a third reference to the coming of Christ (19:11-16).

The last two chapters are descriptive of the heavenly life of eternity, following the advent of Christ.

The general treatment is that of the Historicist School, though the writer has interpretations of his own which differ from those generally adopted by this prophetic school. He, too, makes much of the papacy as representing the antichrist, but he is possibly too apt to see the allusions to his own denomination in certain parts of the book, thereby confusing between primary interpretation and spiritual application.

4. Futurist.

This, in general, means that, while chapters 2-3 refer to the present age, everything after 4:1 is still future, and will probably take only about seven years to fulfil, a time corresponding to the seventieth week of Daniel. On this view the Church will have gone from the earth, I Thessalonians 4 l3eing fulfilled between chapters 3 and 4. The material from chapter 4 to chapter 19 is regarded as giving a series of pictures rather than a chronological sequence. One writer, Walter Scott, thinks that 4:1 to 11:18 is parallel with 11:19 to 20:3, the second emphasizing details of the first. Great names are also associated with this interpretation, including' those of Seiss, B. W. Newton, J. N. Darby, Sir Robert Anderson, and many more.

The view is objected to by adherents of the other schools, especially the Historical, on several grounds, e. g.:

(1) Is it likely that the whole course of Christian history would be disregarded?

(2) How. can the word "shortly" be interpreted on this view?

In view of all these differences of position, the student must face the question for himself, and, meanwhile, some of the matters calling for consideration may be mentioned.