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[The following classification of interpretative approaches to the Book of Revelation, which constitutes the sixth of an eight-part discussion on this part of the New Testament, appears in the authors' Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. George P. Landow scanned, formatted, linked the text, and added bold font not in the original.]

I. Praeterist expositors

The Praeterist expositors, who are of opinion that the Revelation has been almost, or altogether, fulfilled in the time which has passed since it was written; that it refers principally to the triumph of Christianity over Judaism and paganism, signalized in the downfall of Jerusalem and of Rome. The most eminent expounders of this view are Alcasar, Grotius, Hammond, Bossuet, Calmet, Wettstein, Eichhorn, Hug, erder, Ewald, Lúmlcke, De Wette, Dusterdieck, Stuart, Lee, and Maurice. This is the favorite interpretation with the critics of Germany, one of whom goes so far as to state that the writer of the Revelation promised the fulfilment of his visions within the space of three years and a half from the time in which he wrote.

Against the Praeterist view it is urged that prophecies fulfilled ought to be rendered so perspicuous to the general sense of the Church as to supply an argument against infidelity; that the destruction of Jerusalem, having occurred twenty-five years previously, could not occupy a large space in a prophecy; that the supposed predictions of the downfall of Jerusalem and of Nero appear from the context to refer to one event, but are by this scheme separated, and, moreover, placed in a wrong order; that the measuring of the Temple and the altar, and the death of the two witnesses (ch. xi), cannot be explained consistently with the context.

II. Futurist expositors

The Futurist expositors, whose views show a strong reaction against some extravagances of the preceding school. They believe that the whole book, excepting perhaps the first three chapters, refers principally, if not exclusively, to events which are yet to come. This view, which is asserted to be merely a revival of the primitive interpretation, has been advocated in recent times by Dr. J. H. Todd, Dr. S. R. Maitlamy, B. Newton, C. Maitland, I. Williams, De Burgh, and others.

Against the Futurist it is argued that it is not consistent with the repeated declarations of a speedy fulfilment at the beginning and end of the book itself (see i, 3; xxii, 6, 7, 12, 20). Christians, to whom it was originally addressed, would have derived no special comfort from it had its fulfilment been altogether deferred for so many centuries. The rigidly literal interpretation of Babylon, the Jewish tribes, and other symbols which generally forms a part of Futurist schemes, presents peculiar difficulties.

III. Historical or Continuous Expositors

The Historical or Continuous expositors, in whose opinion the Revelation is a progressive history of the fortunes of the Church from the first century to the end of time. The chief supporters of this most interesting interpretation are Mede, Sir I. Newton, Vitringa, Bengel, Woodhouse, Faber, E. B. Elliott, Wordsworth, Hengstenberg, Ebrard, and others. The recent Commentary of dean Alford belongs mainly to this school.

Against the historical scheme it is urged that its advocates differ very widely among themselves; that they assume without any authority that the 1260 days are so many years; that several of its applications — e. g. of the symbol of the ten-horned beast to the popes, and the sixth seal to the conversion of Constantine — are inconsistent with the context; that attempts by some of this school to predict future events by the help of Revelation have ended in repeated failures.

Two methods have been proposed by which the student of Revelation may escape the incongruities and inconsistencies of the different interpretations, while he may derive edification from the truth they contain. It has been suggested that the book may be regarded as a prophetic poem, dealing in general and inexact descriptions, much of which may be set down as poetic imagery — mere embellishment. But such a view would be difficult to reconcile with the belief that the book is an inspired prophecy. A better suggestion is made, or rather is revived, by Dr. Arnold in his sermons On the Interpretation of Prophecy: that we should bear in mind that predictions have a lower historical sense, as well as a higher spiritual sense; that there may be one, or more than one, typical, imperfect, historical fulfilment of a prophecy, in each of which the higher spiritual fulfilment is shadowed forth more or less distinctly.

In choosing among the various schemes of interpretation, we are inclined to adopt that which regards the first series of prophetical visions proper (ch. iv-xii) as indicating the collapse (in part at the time already transpired) of the nearest persecuting power, namely, Judaism; the second series (ch. xiii-xix) as denoting the eventual downfall of the succeeding persecutor, i. e. Rome (first in its pagan and next in its papal form); and the third series (xx, 1-10) as briefly outlining the final overthrow of a last persecutor, some yet future power or influence (figuratively represented by a name borrowed from Ezekiel). These three opponents of Christianity are set forth as successive developments of Antichrist, and the symbols employed are cumulative and reiterative rather than historical and consecutive.


M'Clintock, John, and James Strong. Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. (c. 1871) New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894. VIII, 1066-67.

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Last modified 11 May 2010