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12. Systems of Interpretation

We now arrive at the major fork in the road in understanding the book of Revelation. If you have traveled with us thus far, you are aware of various factors which influence how one understands this last book of the Bible. We’ve discussed how anti-supernaturalism and categorizing the book as apocryphal genre can contribute toward a tendency to see the book as hyperbole or a veiled political document. We’ve also discussed the importance of how symbols are interpreted and the importance of meaning for a proper interpretation to result. We also mentioned attacks upon the authority of the book by way of questioning its apostolic authorship and acceptance into the canon. All of these aspects are brought together in the topic at hand: the various systems of interpretation through which the text of the book is understood.

Ice identifies the major approaches to interpreting prophecy which are typically found when studying the book of Revelation:

There are four approaches to interpreting prophecy, and all related to time: past, present, future, and timeless. These are known as preterism (past), historicism (present), futurism (future), and idealism (timeless).1

We would add a fifth approach known as eclectic (mixed).

Systems of Interpretation Compared
NameTime PeriodRevelation Chapters 4-19
PreterismpastDescribes the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 or the fall of Rome in A.D. 476.
HistoricismpresentDescribes major events of Christian history spanning from John’s time to the Second Coming of Christ.
FuturismfutureDescribes a future period prior to the Second Coming of Christ.
IdealismtimelessDescribes spiritual truths. Good will eventually prevail over evil. Readers are encouraged in their current trials.
EcclecticmixedTypically favors idealism while borrowing some elements from other systems.

Each “system of interpretation” approaches the text with a different set of presuppositions and necessarily derives a different understanding of the meaning conveyed by the book. Here is the source of the primary “confusion” over the book and why so many despair of grasping its contents. Not only are there a number of major interpretive systems applied to the book, but within each system there is a certain amount of variation in understanding the secondary features of the text. The amount of interpretive variation within each interpretive system ranges from relatively little (futurist) to large and substantial (historicist, idealist, eclectic).2

In keeping with the previously stated Golden Rule of Interpretation, we believe that the Futurist Interpretation is the correct approach to understanding the book of Revelation. It results in the most consistent understanding among practitioners of any one system and has the benefit of being applicable across the entire body of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. It also has the advantage of being the normal way most people read throughout the day and is as equally applicable to understanding a breakfast menu as an owner’s manual for an automobile.

When we use literal interpretation, we retain the eschatological worldview of the contemporaries of Jesus and the New Testament:

The Dead Sea Scrolls offer to us a window into the eschatological worldview of Jesus and the New Testament. Their eschatology followed a literal interpretation of prophetic texts and a numerological calculation of temporal indicators in judgment and pronouncements, and understood a postponement of the final age, while not abandoning their hope of it. In many ways their eschatology was not dissimilar from modern Christian premillennialism and reveals that as a system of interpretation, premillennialism is more closely aligned to the first-century Jewish context than competing eschatological systems. [emphasis added]3

Our treatment of the book will make mention of alternative interpretations at important junctures, but to attempt to mention them all would only lead to hopeless confusion and a commentary spanning thousands of pages which might never be completed! “It is nearly impossible to consider all the interpretive options offered by people holding the other three views.”4

Nevertheless, it is important to understand each of the popular systems in order to grasp how widely different results can be derived from the identical text.


Notes

1 Thomas Ice, “What Is Preterism?,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 18.

2 The astute reader will recognize the smaller variation in the interpretive results of the futurist system as an implicit endorsement of its validity.

3 Randall Price, “Dead Sea Scrolls, Eschatology of the,” in Mal Couch, ed., Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1996), 91.

4 John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 11.