The first substantial opposition to the book of Revelation arose in the second century in response to the teachings of the cult of Montanism. Montanus appealed to the book to support some of his teachings. Those who opposed his teachings called into question the validity of the book he employed for his doctrines.1 Montanism taught an extravagant view of the Millennial Kingdom which placed great emphasis upon material and sensual aspects. Although the Millennial Kingdom will be a time of great material blessing, many felt that Montanus misrepresented the emphasis of New Testament teaching which is focused upon a denial of the flesh in favor of greater spiritual realities.2 This led the church to emphasize the purely spiritual aspects over the material aspects of Gods blessingsan imbalance which is still with us today. This opposition to the materialism of Montanus and to a literal Millennial Kingdom in favor of a spiritual emphasis went hand-in-glove with the growing tendency to employ allegory in interpretation.
To . . . leaders in the Eastern church, millennialism was nothing more than a Jewish concept that appealed to Christians baser sensual appetites rather than to their higher spiritual nature. . . . Early on, Augustine held millenarian views. But he abandoned that doctrine for the superficial reason that some millenarians had envisioned a kingdom age of unparalleled fruitfulness featuring banquet tables set with excessive amounts of food and drink. He favored . . . a spiritualized interpretation of the Apocalypse. . . . Augustine articulated an amillennial view in which no future thousand-year earthly millennium was expected.3Yet a belief in a literal thousand-year-reign had been the view held by those in the very early church who had closest contact with the living apostles.4
As we mentioned in our discussion of the authorship of the book, Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, felt that John the Apostle was not the author of the book. Although Dionysius was careful not to reject the book out-of-hand, his views had a large effect upon the Eastern Church and led to doubts by many who followed him.
Criticism, . . . from so distinguished a Bishop as Dionysius . . . could not fail to carry weight in Egypt and the Greek-speaking East, shaking the faith of many in the apostolical authorship of the Apocalypse, and therefore in its canonical authority. In the fourth century Eusebius is unable to speak positively as to its canonicity . . . Cyril of Jerusalem, a few years later, not only omits the Apocalypse from his list of canonical books, but seems definitely to exclude it from private as well as public use . . . it finds no place in the Laodicean list of 363, or in that of Gregory of Nazianzus; . . . In Eastern Syria the Apocalypse was either still unknown or it was ignored; it formed no part of the Peshitta New Testament. Junilius, . . . in the sixth century, is silent about the book; Ebedjesu, a Nestorian Bishop in the first year of the fourteenth century, still passes it over without notice in his list of New Testament books. . . . Neither Theodore, Chrysostom, or Theodoret is known to have quoted the Apocalypse. . . . As late as the beginning of the ninth century Nicephorus places it among the antilegomena with the Apocalypse of Peter.5
Origens pupil, Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria . . . opposed the chiliastic views of Nepos, a bishop in Egypt, and believed that linguistic differences with the Gospel of John as well as differences in thought and style meant that the Apostle John was not the author. His influence led to serious doubts in the East. Eusebius . . . said Revelation was written by John the Elder and refused to consider it canonical. Other Eastern Fathers who doubted it were Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Theodoret of Cyrsu. As a result it was not in the canonical list at the Council of Laodicea in 360, . . . Athanasius accepted it completely . . . and it is in the official canonical list at the Council of Carthage in 397.6
Among those who either distinctly declared against it, or seem to have used it with reserve, were Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen, Amphilochius of Iconium, Chrysostom, Theodoret.7The opposition of the Eastern Church showed some weakening in the third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397) which finally included it in the list of canonical books,8 but the book was not fully accepted by the Eastern Church until the Third Council of Constantinople in A.D. 680.9
Although the book was endorsed and enjoyed a wide circulation by the Western Church from a very early date (see below), an attitude of opposition or indifference toward the book continued even until the time of the Reformation. It may be surprising today to read of Martin Luthers attitude toward the book. He rejected its divine inspiration,10 placed it last in his New Testament along with other books he felt had relatively little value,11 and made a quite disappointing statement in view of the claim of the book to be the Revelation of Jesus Christ: In 1522 Martin Luther wrote of the Revelation, My mind cannot use itself to the Book, and to me the fact that Christ is neither taught nor recognized in it, is good and sufficient cause for my low estimation. Though he modified his view some years later, to the end Luther remained doubtful about the books authenticity. [emphasis added]12
Luther was not alone in his disdain for the book of Revelation. It was rejected from the canon by Zwingli13 and Calvin never produced a commentary on it.
1 In the middle of the second century the heterodox teachings of Montanus precipitated the first substantial opposition to the Apocalypse of John. . . . Because Montanus appealed to the book of Revelation for support of his extreme views, Montanism cast a dark shadow of doubt over the book of Revelation.Larry V. Crutchfield, Revelation in the New Testament, in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 26.
2 The opposition to the heresy of Montanism, which made great use of the Apocalypse and gave extravagant form to its millennial teaching, caused it to be either rejected or differently interpreted.Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 323. A number of church fathers rejected the book because of the chiliast debate and its use by the Montanists.Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 22. In the second century, the Alogi, a group of anti-Montanists in Asia Minor, rejected the Apocalypse on the basis of its unedifying symbolism and because they held it to contain errors of fact (eg., no church existed at Thyatira at that time).Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 38.
4 The most explicit reference in Scripture to the thousand-year millennial reign of Christ is found in Revelation Rev. 20:1+. It is a significant fact that the early adherents of premillennialism (or chiliasm, as it was first called), either had direct contact with John, the longest living apostle, or with his most famous disciple Polycarp.Ibid., 24.
8 The first action relating to the scriptures taken by a synod is that of the counsel of Laodicea, not far from 360. . . . It adopted an ordinance forbidding the reading of uncanonical scriptures in public worship. And in the list of canonical books given, the Apocalypse is wanting. . . The third council of Carthage (397) adopted a decree regarding the scriptures to be read in service, and the Apocalypse, in keeping with the universal opinion of the Western Church from the earliest times, was included in the list of canonical books,Ibid., 342.
10 In reference to Revelation, Luther wrote in 1522 that he could find no trace of evidence that the book was written by the Holy Spirit. In other words, he rejected its divine inspiration.Ibid., 33.
11 Martin Luther . . . [rearranged] his New Testament into sections which reflected his own attitude about the various books. In the front of his New Testament he placed those books he valued most. Another section, which he placed in the back of his Bible, included the New Testament works he felt had relatively little value (Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation).Ibid.