Trajectory of Revelation Through Time

LaCocque and Ricoeur (1998) stressed that a part of the exegetical process is understanding the trajectory of the text through the various historical interpretive traditions which have left their marks on the text and shape how the text is received in its contemporary setting. There has been general agreement that the interpretive trajectory of the Apocalypse passes through several distinct interpretive views. The exact number may vary as some scholars have considered some views subsumed within others.
The following comments summarize four of the traditional views and adds a fifth view relating the text to the growing Emergent Church which attempts to situate the meaning and practice of church within the contemporary postmodern context.

Historicist view

According to Beale (1999), there are several variations of the historicist view. Generally, the historicist interpreters have understood the
Apocalypse as predicting the major movements of Christian history. Osborne (2002) noted the trajectory through time of this particular interpretive view. Joachim of Fiore first espoused this interpretive theory in the 12th century. The Reformers, Luther and Calvin (16th century), preferred this method which interpreted the pope as the antichrist. Classical dispensationalist (ca. 1850-1940) thinking took this approach in understanding the letters to the seven churches as the seven periods of the church age. Because of the attempt to map the events of the text to specific historical events, in addition to the pope, historicists identified the antichrist with Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler. The need to rework the historicist interpretation with each new period of history is a weakness of this approach. Additionally, this interpretive view does not adequately account for the importance of the Apocalypse to its 1st-century audience.

Preterist view

The preterist approach, according to Osborne (2002), views the Apocalypse as relating only to the 1st-century audience, to their world, and not to any future period. There are three approaches to the text within this school of thought. The first views the Apocalypse as concerned with Roman oppression and the fall of the Roman Empire. Due to the rise of the imperial cult, there was significant pressure for Christians to conform, resulting in persecution and a serious threat to the church. The various judgments in the text concern God’s judgments on
Rome. In this view, the book describes the conflict between the church and state and the conflict between faithfulness to God and compromise with the pagan world. Scholars who have taken the second approach have argued that there was little persecution of the church. According to this view, the central issue is the temptation to compromise the faith through cultic practice as seen in the Nicolaitan
cult. The third view adopts an early dating for the book prior to AD 70. The central point of the Apocalypse is prophesying the fall of Jerusalem and God’s judgment on apostate Israel for rejecting the Messiah and persecuting the church. This third position raises problems because it involves admission of prophetic error (Beale,1999; Osborne, 2002). In this view, the prophesies concerning the end of the world simply did not happen. Jesuit Luis De Alcasar (ca. 16th century) was the first to articulate the preterist position during the Counter Reformation period. Dutch jurist, philosopher, and theologian Hugo Grotius (ca. early 17th century) appears to be the first major Protestant scholar to have embraced this view. Osborne (2002) cited a number of 20th-century scholars who interpreted the Apocalypse from the
preterist point of view.

Futurist view

Beale (1999) identified two forms of the futurist view. The first is dispensationalism which purports to interpret the text literally and sees the
visions as representing the historical order of future events. The second version Beale referred to as modified futurism. This view does not attempt to interpret the text literally nor does it hold to a strict understanding of the visions as chronological in nature. Osborne (2002) observed that some of the church fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries such as Justin, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus employed the
futurist method. However, because of the allegorical approach to biblical interpretation initiated by Origen (ca. 185- 254) and the influence of the amillennial view of Augustine (354-430), the futurist view disappeared for over 1,000 years. The Spanish Jesuit Franciscus Riberia’s (1537-1591) influence in turning attention back to the early church fathers gave rise again to the futurist view which returned to prominence as a viable interpretive option. The weakness of this view is that it can develop into a perspective that makes the text essentially irrelevant to the 1st century audience and thus lead to speculation severed from the 1st-century context. Finally, if the text simply describes a sequence of events, much of the power of the book is lost when those events are devoid of symbolic and theological meaning.

Idealist view

The idealist view holds that the symbols do not relate to historical events but to timeless spiritual truths (Osborne, 2002). As such, the message of the Apocalypse relates primarily to the status of the church existing between two advents (i.e., Christ’s first and second comings). Therefore, its primary theme is the continuing struggle between God and evil and between the church and the world. The strength of this approach is the centrality of theology to interpretive method, its relevance to the church of all times, and its understanding
of the symbolic nature of the text. The weakness of this approach may be a failure to make the connection between future-oriented prophecies and history. Osborne observed that the Apocalypse does seem to make this connection in several instances.
In recent decades, some scholars have taken an eclectic approach that combines particularly the preterist, futurist, and idealist views in various ways. Beale (1999) took this approach, arriving at a modified idealist position. Osborne (2002) used an eclectic approach where the futurist view is primary.

A Counter to Dispensationalism: Emerging Church View

According to LaCocque and Ricoeur (1998), an important part of marking the trajectory of a text is to understand the connection between the text and a living community. Speaking in this case of biblical texts, these authors noted that it was in response to the needs
and expectations of a living community that these texts came into existence. Furthermore, these texts continue to exist through time due to the sponsorship of that living community because the use of the text continues to give shape to the community. “Cut off from its ties to a living community, the text gets reduced to a cadaver handed over for autopsy . . . . The eulogy might be accurate and appropriate, but it is nonetheless ‘premature’” (p. xii). John’s Apocalypse continues to shape the 21st-century church along the lines of a primarily futurist interpretation.
However, another important contemporary Christian movement, Emerging churches, responds to the text differently. According to E. Gibbs and Bolger (2005), “Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus in postmodern cultures” (p. 44). These authors described “the way of Jesus” (p. 44) as “the life of Jesus and his engagement with his culture, as embodied in community
and given verbal expression in the Sermon on the Mount” (p. 44). E. Gibbs and Bolger identified nine shared practices of Emerging churches: (a) identifying with the life of Jesus, (b) transforming the secular realm, (c) living highly communal lives, (d) welcoming the stranger, (e) serving with generosity, (f) participating as producers, (g) creating as created beings, (h) leading as a body, and (i) taking part in spiritual activities. The kingdom of God is the central point of reference for Emerging churches. E. Gibbs and Bolger noted that Emerging churches hold that the kingdom of God promised by the Hebrew prophets became a provisional reality in the first coming of Jesus and in the outpouring of his Spirit. Seeking to realize that promise in their communities, Emerging churches strive to be servants and signs of the kingdom that is both present and yet to come.
One observes here a latent eschatology. Interestingly, in E. Gibbs and Bolger’s (2005) study which presents their findings from interviews with 50 Emerging church leaders, there were no specific indexed references to Revelation, John’s Apocalypse, prophesy, or even eschatology. Likewise, Anderson’s (2006) discussion of eschatology in his work An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches was built on a foundation of the threefold apostolic ministry of Jesus reasoned from the gospels, the book of Acts, the letters of Paul, and Hebrews 13:8. Noticeably absent is any reference to the Apocalypse. As for E. Gibbs and Bolger (2005), the Kingdom of God is central in Anderson’s eschatology.
Emerging churches become apostolic when they seek to define and make clear the apostolic work of Christ in the present century rather than the first century. . . . Moving ever closer to this final century, the church expects the kingdom of God to be present in ever new and renewing ways. (p. 211) While it appears difficult to find specific references to the Apocalypse in Emerging churches’ eschatology, McLaren (2007), one of the leading Emergent church thinkers, made specific reference to this text. In the quote below, McLaren
explained his view of the kingdom.
We are all part of one kingdom, one beautiful whole, with one caring
Creator, who is faithful to us even in our stupidity and sin. God calls us to
reconcile with God, one another, and creation, to defect from the false
stories that divide and destroy us, and to join God in the healing of the
world through love and the pursuit of justice and the common good.
McLaren then implied that many who hold a futurist interpretation believe that the apocalyptic vision of the New Testament does not intend to offer the hope described. Specifically, McLaren took issue with the interpretation of the new Jerusalem (Rev 21) as describing the destruction of the present space–time universe and replacing it with a perfect replacement that is beyond time (i.e., eternity or
heaven). McClaren wrote,
Increasing numbers of us disagree with this assessment. . . . .We believe the
vision of new Jerusalem, like all prophetic visions, seeks to inspire our
imaginations with hope about what our world can actually become through
the good news of the kingdom of God. . . . the message of the apocalypse is
that the empire of Caesar, including the religious apparatus that sustains his
system, will not last for ever, but that the empire or kingdom of this world
. . . will ultimately be transformed so that it becomes “the kingdom of our
Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation
11:15). This is the coming of a new generation of humanity [emphasis
added] that Jesus embodied, demonstrated, proclaimed, and invited us to
believe. (p. 296)
The thrust of the Emerging churches is to point to the kingdom of God in a postmodern world. Nevertheless, the intellectual foundation for the eschatology described appears firmly rooted in 19th-century modernist liberalism. According to Erickson (1985), liberals of this period found the doctrine of the second coming of Christ to be “an untenable carry over from a prescientific way of understanding
reality” (p. 1156). Nevertheless, they believed the teaching carried an important message: the victory of God’s righteousness over evil in the world. This message, joined with the generalization of Darwin’s theory of evolution to all of reality, engendered a doctrine of social progress. Liberalism proposed that the continuing Christianization of the social order would ultimately exemplify the real meaning of
the second coming. This appears strikingly similar to the Emerging churches postmodern eschatology described through the works discussed.



The Apocalypse shaped its community through the ages. Likewise, the community shaped the understanding of its meaning through
various interpretive points of view. One view may rise to counter the excesses of another. For example, the futurist view of the 2nd-century fathers gave way to the allegorical understanding of Origen which is similar to the idealized view. This later gave way to the historicist view in the 12th-century until meeting the opposition of the preterist view in the 16th-century Counter Reformation along with a return of the futurist view. Today, the futurist view in the particular form of dispensationalism is the dominant popular view. However, the Emerging churches, in their attempt to articulate eschatology compatible with the postmodern condition, appear to be returning to a form of idealism informed by 19th-century liberalism.
Anderson, R. S. (2006). An emergent theology for emerging churches. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press.
Beale, G. K. (1999). The book of Revelation: A commentary on the Greek text.Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans.
Erickson, M. J. (1985). Christian theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
Gibbs, E., & Bolger, R. K. (2005). Emerging churches: Creating Christian community in postmodern cultures. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
LaCocque, A., & Ricoeur, P. (1998). Thinking biblically: Exegetical and hermeneutical studies (D. Pellauer, Trans.). Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press.
McLaren, B. D. (2007). Everything must change: Jesus, global crises, and a revolution of hope. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Osborne, G. R. (2002). Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
Copyright 2018 © by Jeff R. Hale
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This post is adapted from A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Meaning of Leading Organizations in Chaotic Times Through an Application of Paul Ricoeur’s Interpretation Theory to John’s Apocalypse by Jeff R. Hale, copyright 2011 by ProQuest LLC. Used by author permission.
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