I have just finished teaching a class on the book of Revelation, my first in five years. I love teaching this wonderful book, full of theology and worship, but I am always bewildered by the literature that has made its way into print concerning the book of Revelation. In my five year period, this has increased exponentially due to web sites and blogs like this one.
There are four major ways to interpret the book, and you must know which of these you are using as you approach Revelation because the strategies will determine outcome in several cases. For those of you who are Revelation buffs, these are well known: the Preterist Interpretation, the Idealist/Symbolic Interpretation, the Historicist Interpretation, and the Futurist Interpretation. All of these have variations, but these are the four basic approaches, because they represent reading Revelation as past event (Preterist), events in process (Historicist), events yet to come (Futurist), or events not tied to history (Idealist). From a historical perspective, this exhausts the possibilities.
When interpreting the Bible, many students are eager to answer the question, “What does it say to me?” I’m glad they are looking to the Bible to speak into their lives, for there is no more important role for the Word of God. But it really isn’t that simple. When we interpret carefully, we should first ask, “What does the Bible say?” This means putting the text in the context of the original audience, trying to understand what it meant to the first readers. Once we have determined that meaning to the best of our abilities, we are ready to ask, “What does what the Bible says mean to me?” Lest we fall into semantic mumbo jumbo, about the Bible “saying,” “speaking,” “meaning,” and “having significance,” we need keep these two steps in order, no matter how we phrase them.
Let me give a very simple example from Paul’s writings before I tie this to the book of Revelation. In Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul give instructions for his readers concerning the relationships between slaves and masters within the household. What is the Bible (Paul) saying here? Basically, we are being taught that in a Christian household, a Christian master and a Christian slave must treat each other as fellow Christians. This does not erase the slave/master relationship, but transforms it through the common lordship of Christ. This is the primary teaching in all of the household codes of Ephesians 5 & 6. But many have wanted immediately to jump to apply this to a modern setting. Since we do not have household slaves, it is assumed that these teachings should apply to the employer/employee relationships in the workplace. Employees should work cheerfully no matter what their tasks, for they are working “as to the Lord.” Employers are not given too many things to consider, just “stop threatening” your workers. Of course this interpretation is fallacious on many counts. Employees are not slaves. The workplace of a factory or the Walmart is not the household. There is no assumed Christian bond of faith between an employee and her employer. We want desperately for this text to speak to our situation, to speak to us directly, but it just doesn’t do that in any direct sense.
So what does this have to do with Revelation and its interpretation? I think that two of these major interpretations are guilty of what I would call “Chronocentrism.” Egocentrism is a self-centered reading of the text, that it speaks primarily to me. Chronocentrism is similar, but assumes the text is speaking primarily to my time (“chronos”).
A futuristic reading of Revelation, whether dispensationalist or not, assumes that from the beginning of chapter 4 until the end of the book, Revelation is giving prophecies of the future, none of which were fulfilled during the time of the original readers. Ironically, though, while denying any historical value to the originally intended audience, futurists always see these prophecies being fulfilling in their own lifetime. I have never read a futurist interpretation of Revelation that says we need to wait another 1,000 years for the dramatic events of the end of time to take place. THE FUTURE IS NOW! Chronocentrism in all its glory!
Likewise, historicists interpret Revelation as the unfolding of the history of the church and of the world. Historicists may find Muhammad, various popes, and Martin Luther in the text. But I have never read a historicist interpretation that says, “We’re about half-way through.” Instead, the end of Revelation corresponds with the present day. THE END IS NOW! Another triumph for chronocentrism!
I don’t know if the idealists are much better. While not chronocentric, they deny historical value for all readers, past and present.
This is why I prefer a “Preterist” reading of the book, because it allows Revelation to have had a relevant message to its first century audience. I am not, however, in the camp of the “Neo-preterists,” a recent group that wants to deny a future resurrection and future return of Christ.” But that discussion is for another blog.
Today, may we be saved from unnecessary egocentric and chronocentric readings of the Bible, no matter which book.
Nebraska Christian College