15.1.5. Representative of Seven Stages of Church History

A number of expositors down through history have held that the seven churches represent seven sequential stages of church history.1 While we do not favor this view, it is instructive to understand the arguments for and against such a view since it will frequently be encountered by students of the book of Revelation. The view is known as the historical-prophetical view:

The historical-prophetical interpretation . . . states that while all seven types of churches always exist, one type dominates a particular era of church history. Throughout church history all seven types of churches will be present, but one type will tend to dominate a particular period of church history. . . .2

Fruchtenbaum responds to the assertion that such a view of the letters to the churches violates the Golden Rule of Interpretation:

The question this . . . perspective raises is: Does this view not violate The Golden Rule of Interpretation and the principles of a literal hermeneutic? If it could be clearly shown that all that was said in a particular letter can be or was true of that particular church or that type of church, then the answer would be: “Yes.” But if statements are made that cannot in any way be true of that particular church, then the answer would be: “No.” This author would prefer to limit the interpretation to that church only or to that type of church only, but now and then statements are made which render that impossible. . . .3

Certain statements made to individual churches cannot be true of the strictly local situation, and they must have a far wider meaning. . . . One example is the promise to keep the Church of Philadelphia from the hour of trail, that hour which is to come upon the whole earth . The time is long past that this promise could be kept only to that particular church, for that local church no longer exists; nor can this promise be limited to that type of church because other types of churches of these two chapters will also share in the promise. . . . It is statements like this [the use of the Phoenician name Jezebel at Thyatira] that lend credence to the historical-prophetical interpretation. . . . In [Rev. Rev. 2:22+], the woman is to be cast into the Great Tribulation. This means that unlike the true Church, the Roman Catholic Church [represented by Jezebel] will go into the Great Tribulation . . . This is another example of a passage that simply cannot be limited to the local situation.4

Fruchtenbaum suggests the following historical correlation.5 We’ve augmented Fruchtenbaum’s suggestions with those of Bullinger that each assembly denotes a unique phase in Israel’s history:6

Seven Stages of Church History
ChurchChurch History TypifiedDates Israel’s History Typified7 Verses
EphesusThe Apostolic ChurchA.D. 30-100The Day of Israel’s Espousals (Exodus)Rev. Rev. 2:1-7+
SmyrnaThe Church of the Roman PersecutionA.D. 100 - 313The Period of Israel’s Wanderings (Numbers)Rev. Rev. 2:8-11+
PergamumThe Church of the Age of ConstantineThe Wilderness Period (Numbers)A.D. 313-6008 Rev. Rev. 2:12-17+
ThyatiraThe Church of the Dark AgesA.D. 600-15179 The Wilderness Period (Numbers)Rev. Rev. 2:18-29+
SardisThe Church of the ReformationA.D. 1517-1648The Period of Israel’s Kings (1 and 2 Kings)Rev. Rev. 3:1-6+
PhiladelphiaThe Church of the Great Missionary MovementA.D. 1648-1900The Period of Israel’s Removal (1 and 2 Chronicles)Rev. Rev. 3:7-13+
LaodiceaThe Church of the ApostasyA.D. 1900-present dayThe Period of Judah’s Kings (2 Chronicles)Rev. Rev. 3:14-22+

It is our view that the historical-prophetical view suffers from numerous problems.

  1. There is significant disagreement between different proponents of the view concerning which periods of history are represented, both their characteristics and dates. In this, the historical-prophetical scheme suffers from the same problems as the Historicist Interpretation of Revelation.10
  2. Church history is far more complex than can be reflected by seven periods sharing global characteristics.11
  3. The correlation made between the letters and church history is entirely westernized and fails to take into account important movements and activities elsewhere in the world.
  4. If the churches truly are representative of the course of church history, this fact must have been concealed from the early church or it would have destroyed the concept of imminency.12
  5. The historical-prophetical interpretation seems to read more into the text than what is intended.13

Trench observes;

The multitude of dissertations, essays, books, which have been, and are still being written, in support of this scheme of interpretation, must remain a singular monument of wasted ingenuity and misapplied toil . . . a future looking into Scripture for that which is not to be found there . . . a resolution to draw out from it that which he who draws out must first himself have put in. Men will never thus make Scripture richer. They will have made it much poorer for themselves, if they nourish themselves out of it with the fancies of men, in place of the truths of God.14

For further information on this subject, see [Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 505-515].

Notes

1 “They affirm that we have in them, besides counsels to the Churches named in each, a prophetic outline of seven successive periods of the Church’s history; dividing, as they do, into these seven portions the whole time intervening between Christ’s Ascension and his return in glory.”—Richard Chenevix Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1861), 224. “The notion itself undoubtedly dates back to a period anterior to the Reformation. The Fratres Spirituales, or more rigid Franciscans, who refused the mitigations of the strictness of St. Francis’ rule, in which the majority of his followers allowed themselves, and who on this account separated themselves from them, and from the Church which sanctioned such relaxations, are the first among whom this scheme of interpretation assumed any prominence.”—Ibid., 227.

2 Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of Messiah, rev ed. (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2003), 48-49.

3 Ibid., 49.

4 Ibid., 49, 58, 60.

5 [Ibid., 50-90] A fatal weakness of this view, in our opinion, is the variation in the results of different expositors. For example, see LaHaye. “Chart of Church Age View”—Tim LaHaye, Revelation Unveiled (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 24. Even Fruchtenbaum admits a reduction in his emphasis on the interpretation of the letters to the seven churches as historical periods: [Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of Messiah, xxxi].

6 E. W. Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1984, 1935), 73-86.

7 Ibid.

8 “300 to 800 A.D.”—J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), 153.

9 “800 to 1517.”—Ibid.

10 “There is no . . . accurate correspondence . . . the interpreters of the historico-prophetical school, besides their controversy with those who deny in toto what they affirm, have also an intestine strife among themselves. Each one has his own solution of the enigma, his own distribution of the several epochs; or, if this is too much to affirm, there is, at any rate, nothing approaching to a general consensus among them.”—Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia, 234. “Schaff, in speaking of the periods of church history, notes, ‘In regard to the number and length of periods there is, indeed, no unanimity.’ He then goes on to observe that if any general agreement exists, it is in respect to a threefold division into ancient (A.D. 1-590), medieval (A.D. 590-1517) and modern (A.D. 1517-1880) periods. If a further breakdown is desired, Schaff proposes a division of each of the three into three subdivisions, resulting in nine, not seven periods of church history.”—Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), 510.

11 “One has to force the specific problems of each congregation into a certain period of church history. And those issues do not fit as easily as one may wish. Church history is far more complex.”—Mal Couch, “Ecclesiology in the Book of Revelation,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 127.

12 “If the churches were genuinely prophetic of the course of church history rather than representative in every age, those who hold to the imminent return of Christ would have been quickly disillusioned once they realized this.”—Alan F. Johnson, Revelation: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 24.

13 “We ask, what slightest hint or intimation does the Spirit of God give that we have here to do with the great successive acts and epochs of the kingdom of God in the course of its gradual evolution here upon earth? Where are the finger-posts pointing the way? What is there, for instance, of chronological succession? Does not every thing, on the contrary, mark simultaneity, not succession? The seven candlesticks are seen at the same instant; the seven Churches named in the same breath.”—Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia, 233. “It will be good always to remember, that there is a temptation to make Scripture mean more than in the intention of the holy Ghost it does mean, as well as a temptation to make it mean less; and that we are bound by equally solemn obligations not to thrust on it something of ours, as not to subtract from it any thing of its own (Rev. Rev. 22:18-19+); the interpretation in excess proving often nearly, or quite, as mischievous as that in defect.”—Ibid., 221.

14 Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia, 237.

15 Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 505-515.