How Did the Early Church Fathers View the "Revelation of John?"July 1st, 2007
Have you done much study in regards to how the early church fathers viewed the book of Revelation?? I know the book was not universally accepted but I was wondering of those that embraced the book did they interpret it from a futurist, historisist, or preterist view?
This, I must say, is an interesting and amusing question for me.
First, I am not an expert in this area - not in the early church thinking and even less when it comes to understanding and having a credible idea about Revelation. In fact, I really do not have a good working knowledge of the terms you are using: preterist, semi-preterist, dispensational-premillenialists, etc.
This is just not my cup of tea. I have never been convinced of any particular position on this stuff. I call myself a "pan-millenialist," - I believe it will all "pan" out in the end - God is sovereign and He will do what He wants.
To begin a conversation about the early church view of The Revelation of St John I would point you to Martin Rist's introduction to Revelation in the Interpreter's Bible Commentary set, 1957. He has a very good section on how Revelation was seen/accepted in the primitive church. I will summarize the primitive church position:
- The Revelation had difficulty making it into the NT canon for a few reasons. One was that authorship was not certain (similar to the letter to the Hebrews [See our discussion on the authorship of Hebrews]). But another reason was the strange nature of the writing - nobody in the primitive church claimed to know or understand what the writer was trying to say. Some of the early fathers thought he was describing current events of his day and the struggle against Rome. Some thought he was describing the future.
I realize that many "End-time" preachers and teachers claim to have figured out the "code" of the scriptures and can explain John's Revelation. When working for my ordination I studied, thought and prayed about eschatalogy (the study of the last age) and came to the decision that the scriptures really were not clear. This is how I became a "pan-millenialist."
I remember when Colin Deal travelled around speaking and selling his book, "Christ Returns by 1988 - 101 Reasons Why." I thought it was goofy when I heard him and I was really amused when he had a sequel, something like "100 Reasons Why Christ Will Return by the Year 2000." I am not knocking myself out to get these exact titles because, quite frankly, I do not take this kind of writing seriously. My point is that many men (and a few women) have stepped up to say that have this thing figured out only to come up with silly ideas that do not stand the test of time.
I am not meaning to be sacrilegious, or to poke fun, or even to be disrespectful - I hope that Mr. Deal and others like him admit their folly - but Jesus hinted that we would not know exactly when and the theories as to understanding the "seasons" are all over the map. I am content to say that God does not want us to know it all.
- The immediate return of the Lord to the earth was always taken seriously. It was never universally thought that particular things "had" to happen - believers in almost every era of struggle have thought the end could be happening.
- The 1,000 year reign was believed by some at the end of the first century. We know this because of the Revelation, but also through the fragments of Papias. He speaks of this reign in miraculous terms. Justin Martyr believed this as well, as did the writer of the Shepherd of Hermas. However, a section of the church rejected this whole concept, to a great degree BECAUSE they did not accept Revelation as inspired.
11 "The same writer gives also other accounts which he says came to him through unwritten tradition, certain strange parables and teachings of the Saviour, and some other more mythical things.
Eusebius follows Origen in his thinking. Indeed, the church in the east fell into the Alexandrian school of biblical interpretation, using allegory and symbolism to explain many things that did not appear to have an immediately clear meaning (they even used allegory for things that did appear to be clear!). It was probably difficult for Eusebius to see the Revelation as a prophetic view of the future - he saw it as symbolic. He also believed that Constantine had ushered in a new age - the age of the Church, and he saw the Emperor as the personal representative of Christ on the earth.
My summary of the first four centuries would be that the immanent return of Jesus was held at first, died away after the Romans wiped the Jews out in 70, and slowly regained strength in the 90's due again to persecution. My limited understanding of Revelation is that it was written in the late 90's during the persecution of Domitian. The immanent return of Jesus stayed fresh during the persecutions of the second century, but by the end of that century the fathers, probably through witnessing such harsh persecution without a parousia (the appearing), do not speak of the second coming or the end of time very often (if at all - I do not recall any discussion on this topic, but it has not been something I specifically looked for). Finally, as was mentioned earlier, Constantine comes to power, becomes a Christian and reverses Roman antagonism - this probably brought the thoughts of the second coming to its lowest point in the history of the early church.
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