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?
I am reading a book titled "The Parousia" coupled with Hank's new book "The Apocalypse Code" which view The Olivet Discourse and the Book of Revelation from a Preterist/semi-preterist perspective. In criticizing LaHay and other "prophecy experts" they are both quick to point out that dispensational-premellinalims is relatively new on the scene so I was wondering how late in the game did preterist belief take to surface in the church? Also, they both attack Ireneaus for dating the Book of Revelation erroneously at 95 AD. What are your thoughts on when the book was written since the preterists position rises and falls on when the book was written?
This, I must say, is an interesting and amusing question for me.
It is not the first time I have been questioned on this issue. I will only be able to give you a short answer. You can read my Personal Comments on Revelation at the bottom of the page.
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 came out with a sequel in 1990, 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 they 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 be disrespectful - I hope that Mr. Deal and others like him admit their folly - but Jesus told us we would not know exactly when these things would happen 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.
Listen to Eusebius on Papias:
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.
12 To these belong his statement that there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and that the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth. I suppose he got these ideas through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not perceiving that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures.
13 For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses. But it was due to him that so many of the Church Fathers after him adopted a like opinion, urging in their own support the antiquity of the man; as for instance Irenĉus and any one else that may have proclaimed similar views."
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.
Personal Comments - RA Baker (10-16-2013)
It is important for me to state up front that THIS section is NOT under the normal rubric of CH101, an attempt to give the facts, the data from the early church and the early fathers. This is my personal commentary, my opinion. I am adding it to this page because my comments are on the topic of Revelation.
The Revelation of John belongs in a literary form known as "apocalypticism," from the Greek word apocalypsis which is translated: "from cover" or to "uncover." The sense is that apocalyptic writing is "revealing" something that has been hidden. There were many apocalyptic writings in the first two centuries: the War Scrolls in the Dead Sea Scrolls, several texts labeled Apocalypse: one from Paul, Peter, James and Adam (all found in the Nag Hammadi texts) and The Shepherd of Hermas. Apocalpytic writing typically deals with hidden knowledge, uses symbolism regarding the end of the world and the fight between good and evil.
I am NOT lumping Revelation into the same exact bundle, after all, it was included in the NT canon, but it IS an apocalyptic writing. Revelation is filled with symbolism and various numbers, all of which probably carried certain meanings to some of the original audience. The problem is that the bulk of the writing is very difficult to follow and understand in any kind of depth. The basic message is easy: no matter what happens in this world (persecution, people falling away from faith or physical distress) God is in control. God's people are safe for eternity in His hands and in the end God wins the battle.
All of the other stuff: tribulation, weeks, times, time and half a time, vials of wrath, seals and trumpets, the ten-headed beast, the anti-Christ, the three horsemen - is confusing and none of the teachers agree on how it all fits together. I have read the NT a dozen times. I studied Revelation in order to get ordained. I had to be able to explain my positions on various eschatalogical points that my denomination held. In the end I wrote a two page response on my "exam" stating that I do not know definitively what the text says about the tribulation and the 1,000 year reign. I made a commitment NOT to teach against the positions of the denomination - I did not think the text was clear enough for me to teach anything but the general message I gave above - that remains my position now, 13 years later.
I know several men who get all worked up about the details in Revelation and they claim to understand it. One told me recently "it is crystal clear." Have you ever seen a chart of Revelation? I have sat through 2-3 different expositions with charts. Anyone who thinks he/she understands all of these details should try to explain it to the average beleiver and see how much they can follow.
Does anyone think the early Christians living in 95-105 AD could understand more than the general message? Less than 5% of the population in the first century was able to read and write. Nobody can remember half the imagery, time spans, vials/wrath and chronology after someone has read Revelation to them one time - Impossible. The illiterate Christian living in the first/second centuries could not have grasped and understood the chart data. This leads me to an important rule in biblical exegesis:
The text cannot mean to us what it could NOT have meant to the original audience.
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