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?
Kevin S.

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. Eusebius (who was far more skeptical) cites Dionysius of Alexandria, from his work "On the Promises," as saying about the Revelation:

"Yet, having formed an idea of it as a composition exceeding my capacity of understanding, I regard it as containing a kind of hidden and wonderful intelligence on the several subjects which come under it. For though I cannot comprehend it, I still suspect that there is some deeper sense underlying the words." Ecc. Hist. VII.25

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."
E.H. III.19.11-13

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.

  How the Early Church Viewed The Revelation - (Go to the top of the page to read the article)

Personal Comments - RA Baker (10-16-2013, edited 02-23-2014)
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.

(see larger image

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." REALLY? 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 believer and see how much they can follow. If it was crystal clear we would not have so many different versions of the charts - do a Google image search and you can find dozens of charts.

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.
This is not a very popular rule.
Most denominations do not abide by it because it cuts across their particular and distinctive doctrinal beliefs.

Dec 17, 2014 - Comments sent by a reader:
The assumption that the illiterate are unable to understand the Book of Revelation is probably false for two reasons: Our problem with all the vials/wrath etc. is because the symbolism is foreign to us, but was it to the first readers? Secondly pre-literate societies have an ability to retain and process words heard in a way that we have lost.

Thank you for your good comments.
Allow me to agree with you on a basic level:
- people in pre-literate (or illiterate) cultures CAN typically hold onto verbal cues and remember symbols better than those who both read and write
- early Christians did understand the basic message of John's Revelation

Now to where I disagree:
- Those living in the first century were not "pre-literate." Writing and communication via the written word was the norm in both the Jewish and the Roman worlds. They had legal documents - all legal documents had to be in writing. The Jews had a very detailed legal code in addition to and explaining the Law of Moses - as we do today with technical details of cases and why certain judgements were made. So I do not like referring to the Roman-Jewish first century world as pre-literate.

- Did the average person on the streets in first century Jerusalem understand the vials being emptied? or that the measurements of the heavenly city walls had a particular meaning? I seriously doubt it. (As I sit here I cannot remember what, if anything the measurements of the city walls is supposed to communicate...I seem to remember hearing someone teach on this one time as a young man)

- The first century Jews had "teachers of the law," basically lawyers who debated and wrote daily on the minutiae of the Law. The average person living in the 21st century can get quickly get lost in our law. The average illiterate, first century Jew was lost with their Law as well.

The Revelation had a difficult time coming into the New Testament canon partly due to the difficulty in understanding the writing. Many of the early fathers give positive citations from the work, mostly using straightforward texts from the first 4-5 chapters. Eusebius (who was far more skeptical) cites Dionysius of Alexandria, from his work "On the Promises," as saying about the Revelation:

"Yet, having formed an idea of it as a composition exceeding my capacity of understanding, I regard it as containing a kind of hidden and wonderful intelligence on the several subjects which come under it. For though I cannot comprehend it, I still suspect that there is some deeper sense underlying the words." Ecc. Hist. VII.25

Dionysius was the bishop of Alexandria and considered a scholarly man. Note he is not saying that the Revelation should be rejected - he is actually arguing against rejecting it, for some were against the Revelation as a document to be read in church. He is saying it has deep meaning, but he admits that he does not understand it.

My PhD work was on Clement of Alexandria. If you look at his NT citations you find a HUGE amount of citations/allusions. The index I have shows over 300 citations from Matthew, over 200 citations from 1 Corinthians, and only 8 citations from the Revelation - only 1 of these came from the interior of the apocalyptic work. None of these citations come with any comment - just a reference to "24 elders" or "the Alpha and Omega."

The point? Clement is one of the most prolific early fathers when it comes to citing the NT texts, yet almost completely ignores the Revelation. While there are probably scholarly reasons for this, it makes the point: the early church fathers did not spend a great deal of time trying to figure it out.

The exception was Shepherd of Hermas. This document makes dozens of references from the Revelation, but Shepherd is also an apocalyptic document, filled with symbolism.

While the basic message of the work is clear, the details are certainly not clear. It is, in fact, part of why it is referred to as apocalypticism. I hope this helps.

Al Baker

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