I have been researching eschatology quite a bit of late. Please be aware, therefore, that this review comes from one who has only read a limited amount on the subject. I will not be offering insights from an expert, and am fully ready to admit that I am still learning. That said, I chose Four Views on the Book of Revelation because I enjoy reading from different sides of debates like these. I think it is important to have an understanding of each position from proponents of the different views. I will here offer a brief review of the book. [If you decide to get the book, please use the links in this post support my ministry through Amazon.]
Overview of Content
The work begins with a rather lengthy introduction to the book of Revelation and the various views regarding its content. The bulk of this section is its introductions to each of the views featured in the work. Interestingly, the historicist view is basically dismissed out of hand in the introduction:
This volume incorporates the current, prevailing interpretations of Revelation. Thus, while the historicist approach once was widspread, today, for all practical purposes, it has passed from the scene. (18)
Kenneth Gentry, Jr. begins his exposition of preterism with a bold claim: “I am firmly convinced that even an introductory survey of several key passages, figures, and events in John’s majestic prophecy can demonstrate the plausibility of the preterist position” (37). Before diving into this survey, however, Gentry outlines the importance of understanding that Revelation “is a highly figurative book that we cannot approach with… literalism” (38). He defends this claim with a number of points, including the precedent of earlier prophets who used symbolism and the difficulty of consistent literal readings (38-40).
Gentry’s case for preterism focuses squarely on the introduction to the book. This is not to suggest that is the only part of his argument, but rather than he himself recognizes the introduction as a central tenant of preterism. He notes the continued refrain of Jesus “coming soon” and argues that this suggests a reading of the text as real prophecies occurring within the lifetimes of those present.
Much of the rest of Gentry’s survey is built upon tying the prophecies in Revelation to the historical events of the attack upon Jerusalem. A good representation can be found in tying the “Beast” 666 to Nero and the seven mountains to Rome (67-69).
Sam Hamstra, Jr. argues that the core of the idealist view of Revelation is found in a message: “While at this moment the children of God suffer in a world where evil appears to have the upper hand, God is sovereign and Jesus Christ has won the victory” (96).
The idealist case centers around seeing Revelation as apocalyptic literature, and interpreting it through that lens (97). However, Revelation is not exclusively apocalyptic but is rather “a mixture of literary styles” (99). The idealist interpretation sees the use of “like” throughout the descriptions of Christ and elsewhere as supportive of the non-literal nature of the book (101ff).
Hamstra’s survey of the book of Revelation continues to note what he holds are the symbolic use of symbols and other imagery. Representative is the use of the number seven, which suggests “completeness… the author is speaking of the church at all times and in all places” (102).
For the idealist, then, the book of Revelation can have multiple fulfillment throughout time. It is a book which comforts Christians who see the constant wars, plagues, and the like seen in Revelation by reminding them that God is in charge. Ultimately, Pate’s view can be summarized easily: “the best understanding… is that Jesus’ utterances about the Kingdom of God were partially fulfilled at his first coming… but remain forthcoming until his return” (175).
Progressive Dispensationalist View
C. Marvin Pate’s progressive dispensationalism is grounded in the theme of “already/not yet” (135). This notion hints at eschatological tension which can be found throughout the book of Revelation, according to Pate. That is, there are things which may seem fulfilled “already” but have “not yet” reached their fullest completion. As an example, he notes “with the first coming of Jesus Christ the age to come already dawned, but it is not yet complete; it awaits the Paraousia for its consummation” (136).
The notion of already/not yet allows Pate to interpret some texts in a kind of preterist light, while maintaining that they still have yet to find their fullest realization. An example can be found in the letters to the churches in which Pate notes that these are set against the background of Caesar worship while also pointing forward to future events (139ff).
Pate’s view is decidedly focused on the millennium and a more literal reading of the texts than the previous two views. The interpretation of Christ’s return is illustrative (166ff).
Classical Dispensationalist View
Robert Thomas argues that dispensationalism must be viewed in light of its hermeneutical system, which attempts to remain as literal as possible throughout the itnerpretation of a text (180). Thus, Thomas is an ardent futurist, waiting for the events recorded in Genesis to come about.
A major challenge for this view is the interpretation of texts about Christ coming “soon” and “quickly.” Thomas notes that this theme can be grounded in the notion of imminence in which we are to always be ready for Christ’s return as opposed to a notion of immediacy (189).
A typical classical dispensationalist reading of Revelation can be found in Thomas’ interpretation of the horsemen. He notes that the first “portrays a rider on a white horse, who represents a growing movement of anti-Christian and false Christian forces at work early in the period… the third… rider on a black horse [represents] famine-inducing forces….” (193-194). Thomas also argues that Israel is not the church and so must have the promises fulfilled to Israel as a nation (196ff).
Thomas argues that the major issue is dependent upon which hermeneutical system one employs. If one employs a literal hermeneutic, he contends, one will be dispensational. Period (211-214).
I will only briefly comment on each view here.
Gentry’s case is quite strong, but I have to wonder about the appeal to the language of “coming soon,” particularly in light of the constant refrain in the Hebrew Scriptures of the day of the Lord being “near.” These prophets clearly did not witness the “day of the Lord” (which, on preterist views is either the 70AD destruction of the Temple or still is yet to come), and so such language has a precedent for longer periods of time than the preterist appeals to.
Overall, however, some of the themes Gentry points to does hint at the possibility for interpreting certain prophecies as fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem.
The idealist position has some draw for me because it focuses on the applicability of the book to all Christians in every time and place. In particular, the idealist interpretation of the letters to the churches is, I think, spot on. It allows for historicity while also noting the fact that we continue to live in an age in which all those types of churches still exist.
Yet I can’t help but also note that the idealist interpretation at times seems to play too fast and loose with the text, assuming that certain persons or events are types when it seems more clearly to point to a future fulfillment. Of course, the idealist could respond by saying many of these still are in the future after all.
There is great appeal in the notion of the already/not yet aspects of Revelation, which seems to give proper deference to the historical background of the book while also grounding it ultimately in the future promised fulfillment.
It is interesting to see that Pate is willing to interpret some aspects of the text figuratively, yet remains convinced that there will be a literal 1000 year reign, among other things. One could charge him with inconsistency here (as Robert Thomas does).
I admit Thomas’ view was the most confusing for me. He insists that one must read the text literally, but then says that the white horse is not a white horse with a rider but rather “anti-Christian and false Christian forces.” Frankly, that is not the literal meaning of the text. It is commendable to desire to stay as true to the text’s meaning as possible, but using the word “literal” in this way seems to be abuse of language.
But Thomas’ view also has more to recommend it, such as his focus upon the future fulfillment. It is hard to read Revelation and not see many of the events as yet to occur, particularly if one desires to read the text as literally as possible.
One thing I must note is that I did experience some great disappointment with the book in that it did not follow the standard format of the Zondervan Counterpoints series. Specifically, the book does not have each author interacting with the others after each view. Although the authors clearly had access to the other essays and were given the opportunity to interact via footnotes throughout their own essay, the level of interaction was not on par with other books in the series.
Others have expressed displeasure with the fact that the book does not present the historicist view of Revelation. I share some of that, though I would still maintain that–despite other reviewers [mostly on Amazon] are saying–there are definitely four distinct views presented in this book. They do not cover all the views as comprehensively as some might like, but the views which are included are each unique and worth reading. The quick dismissal of historicism in the introduction may be the consensus of scholarship, but historicism remains a major view among the laity as well as many clergy and some scholars. To have it not included is not the greatest crime, but it does hint at a lack of completeness with the survey here.
Overall, I would recommend this book as a way for those interested in Revelation and eschatology more generally to read. It presents four major views of the interpretation of Revelation by giving each author a rather lengthy section to make their case. Readers will be familiarized with the different views, along with arguments for and against each view. Although the book could be improved by the inclusion of the historicist position and greater interaction between the views, Four Views on the Book of Revelation is a worthy read. Let me know what you think. What is your view on Revelation?
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Book Review: “Understanding End Times Prophecy” by Paul Benware- I review a book on eschatology written from the premillenial dispensationalist position.
Source: Four Views on the Book of Revelation edited by C. Marvin Pate (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998).
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