Towards Understanding Revelation


Good morning! Today we’ll start on the 19th century books. I have far too many to use all of them (though I will be looking at all of them when we’re doing the verse by verse) so we’ll just try to look at some representative books. Depending on how much you are into reading commentaries, you might recognize some of the authors.

We’ll start with John C. Woodhouse’s book THE APOCALYPSE, OR, REVELATION OF SAINT JOHN, TRANSLATED; WITH NOTES, published in 1805. This is from the Introduction:

The Prophecies of the Apocalypse, though illustrated by commentators of all ages, have not been so successfully explained, as to afford general satisfaction. From the interpretations most commonly received, many of the learned have withheld their assent; and doubts have been expressed, whether we are yet in possession of the fortunate clues to be derived from human sagacity or Divine inspiration; or of the necessary aids of learning; or of the events in history; which, at some future period, may be destined to ascertain the completion of these predictions. 

   “Under such circumstances, opportunity is fairly afforded for attempts to explain this mystical book by new methods of inquiry. And, while the rash precipitancy of the enthusiastic and unqualified interpreter is to be discouraged, indulgence will justly be thought due to those, who with pious caution, with laborious investigations, and literary research, endeavor to explore its sacred recesses. To illustrate it in all its parts, to prove the completion of all its predictions, to exhibit it as that perfect evidence of the divine origin of our religion, for which it is perhaps intended, ‘in the latter days’, can only be the work of time, and must employ the labors of succeeding generations.

I agree with most of what he said, though I don’t like the allusion to the “unqualified interpreter.” To discourage anyone from reading and interpreting the Bible, no matter how “rash” or how “unqualified” they might be, is not Christian. If a Christian is reading with the Holy Spirit, they are not “unqualified;” and if a non-Christian is reading, and comes up with an interpretation that is “rash” and “unqualified,” we need not fear that they will corrupt a discerning, Bible-reading Christian’s thinking. And perhaps, with the help of a Christian friend, the non-Christian may come to a better understanding of what he read.

“Yet to interpret and explain, by scriptural induction, the symbols and language under which the events are pre-signified; to separate and assort the prophecies; to discriminate those whose fulfillment has already taken place, and to point out their agreement with certain records of history, is a work which at any time may be reverently attempted, and is encouraged and indeed authorized in this divine book…The supposed obscurity of these prophecies, and the doubtful and discordant methods hitherto employed for the interpretation of them, together with some imagined difficulties in the evidences of the book containing them, have occasioned some persons of eminence in literature to question their divine origin.

“The late distinguished Professor, J. D. Michaelis, in a work of great merit, and of general circulation, has proposed this question, and assigned reasons for his doubts respecting it…The author of [this] work, for the solution of his own difficulties, had engaged in this inquiry even before the publication of Michaelis’ Introduction to the New Testament, [translated] by Mr. Marsh…it will be attempted to show, by an appeal to history, that many of these prophecies have received their completion; and, consequently, that the book which has recorded them is divine. Such are in part my motives for the present publication; in which, however, I should not have engaged, if a peculiar method of studying this Book of Revelation had not happened to present its prophecies to me in a new and original point of view, which I presume may be usefully communicated to the students of the Apocalypse…if the Apocalypse be of divine revelation, it appeared to me, that an uniformity must be expected to subsist between this and other parts of sacred Scripture…a mutual relation must subsist between them; and the light derived from the one must contribute most beneficially to the elucidation of the other.”

It sounds like Mr. Woodhouse is also a preterist. It’s good that he refutes Mr. Michaelis’ view that only the very educated should attempt to interpret Revelation, but it looks like he’s fallen into the trap of “if the prophecy hasn’t been fulfilled yet then it must be false”. I don’t blame people for thinking this, but it shows a lack of faith in God’s Word.

His last point, about the uniformity between parts of Scripture is very well taken. I have mentioned this already, and am happy to see Mr. Woodhouse bring it up.

From Chapter 2 of the same book:

“…We shall, therefore, place the date of the Apocalypse, as Mill, Lardner, and other able critics have placed it, in the years 96 or 97 : probably…at the beginning of the latter. It could not be circulated through the Seven Churches sooner…”

As I’ve previously outlined, the state of the churches in Asia is a very persuasive  argument against an earlier date for Revelation. 

Regarding “Mill,” this is most likely a reference to John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher of the early to mid 19th century.  His most known books are A SYSTEM OF LOGIC and ON LIBERTY. He was a Utilitarian, which says that morally right acts are those that provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Mill was a very rational man and apparently did not speak about having faith, but in a review of the book JOHN STUART MILL: A SECULAR LIFE, a case is made for Mill thinking of himself as a ‘Christian’. I can’t find any works by him that explicitly refer to Revelation.

“Lardner” is most likely a reference to Nathaniel Lardner, a British theologian of the 18th century. His works are gathered in a 19th century set of 10 volumes, which I have now found in pdf form.

From Chapter 3 of the same book:

“…Irenaeus, in many passages, ascribes this book to ‘John the Evangelist, the disciple of the Lord, —that John who leaned on his Lord’s breast at the last supper.’…The testimony of Irenaeus may be supposed to extend from about thirty or forty years after the date of the Apocalypse, to about eighty years after the same period, viz. the year of our Lord 178, when he is said to have published the books which contain this testimony.”

Mr. Woodhouse respects the word of Irenaeus, which I appreciate. I do find the reference to Irenaeus “publishing” his books to be rather anachronistic.

And from Chapter 8 of the same book:

“…Have these prophecies been fulfilled? for, if it be answered in the affirmative, the consequence immediately follows; the Prophet was inspired, and his book is divine.

   “This criterion may, in some future time, when the Apocalyptical Prophecies have been more successfully studied, produce sufficient evidence to the point in question. But it cannot be applied at present…we may consider the book independently of this evidence. We may compare the doctrines which it exhibits, and the pictures and images which it presents, with those contained in other writings universally acknowledged to be of divine authority…upon comparing the Apocalypse with the acknowledged books of divine Scripture, I have almost universally found the very same notions, images, representations, and divine lights, as in other sacred Scriptures; yet not delivered in such a manner as to be apparently copied from other inspired writers…”

He very wisely lays the matter of ‘have these prophecies been fulfilled’ aside, recognizing that the lack of fulfillment is not necessarily related to the divine origin of the book. It’s a brilliant move to, instead, base his decision on how the book fits into the Scriptures. I really like the last point…”not delivered in such a manner as to be apparently copied,” and we’ll see, again, how bad the Greek is, which lends itself to the thought that none of Revelation was copied from earlier Scripture.

“The ancient objection made by some before Dionysius, that ‘the Apocalypse is unworthy of any sacred writer’, is not now persisted in, and deserves not a particular refutation; it will indeed be refuted in every step as we proceed…”

Unfortunately, this ancient objection is again current and being pushed on the internet. The most prevalent theory I’ve seen out there is that the Revelation is made up of various other documents, usually postulating a mixture of Jewish and Christian apocrypha, that were then modified by scribes over time. I have not yet seen one reference that can point to any specific apocryphal piece(s) as source material, so the theories don’t stand up well against true scholarship….and I’m not talking about me here.

Another quote from Chapter 8, regarding the Greek used in Revelation:

“This prophetic book can boast, indeed, no beauty of diction.… The words and expressions are rude and inharmonious, and, on this account, there is no book that will lose less by being translated. But this pure and simple sublimity, which is independent of the dress of human art, and to be found perhaps only in the sacred Scriptures…must be pronounced to be either an heavenly production…or such an imitation…as the Christian authors of that time were not likely, were not able, to produce. For there has been observed to be a very unequal gradation and descent, in point of pure, simple eloquence, just sentiment, and unsullied doctrine, from the Apostles, to the Fathers of the Church. And this circumstance has been applied, as an argument, to show, that the books of the New Testament are of superior origin, and could not be fabricated by those Fathers, or in those times…”

I’m really happy to see this point made. I think many of us ‘uneducated’ readers can see the difference between the Apostolic writers and the Early Church Fathers writings, but we can’t verbalize those differences well, and we don’t feel qualified to point it out, so thank you Mr. Woodhouse. He has this idea footnoted, indicating that this concept was taken from “LeClare” (probably Jean Le Clerc, a theologian from Geneva, 1657-1736) and from Jortin Remarks on Ecclesiastical History (John Jortin, an English theologian, 1698-1770).

And one last quote from Chapter 8:

“To [the] general charge of obscurity, a general answer may be given. How can you expect a series of prophecies, extending from the apostolical age to the consummation of all things, to be otherwise than obscure?…The prophecies, now dark, may, to future generations, become ‘a shining light’, and the apocalyptical predictions, rendered clear by their completion, serve as an impregnable bulwark of Christian faith…”

An inspired take on Revelation!

The next quote is from THE WORKS OF THE REV. ANDREW FULLER IN EIGHT VOLUMES, published in 1825. Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) was an English Baptist minister and theologian; he founded the Baptist Missionary Society. 

The quote is from the Preface to Volume 6:

“The reason also assigned why we should study this part of the Holy Scriptures in particular—that ‘the time is at hand,’ seemed to have greater force after a lapse of above seventeen hundred years, than it could have at the time of its being written. I conceived also that the events of the present times, though we should beware of illusive hypotheses founded upon them, yet called for a special attention to prophecy. They might also be expected to throw some light upon it. Some late writers upon the subject appear to understand many things which earlier ones did not; and there is reason to expect that prophecy will be understood much better in years to come than it is at present…”

Rev. Fuller died at the peak of Napoleon’s power. As Napoleon is often still called one of the Antichrists, I’m sure that his exploits around Europe led to many people looking to Revelation for guidance. I find Rev. Fuller’s comment here to be very thoughtful and measured. I suspect we will find his reasoned voice to be worth listening to in the verse by verse.

We now turn to COMMENTARY ON THE APOCALYPSE, Vol 1 & 2, written by Moses Stuart and published in 1845. We’ll start with quotes from the Preface of Volume 1:

“…The book is made up of one continued series of symbols, unaccompanied for the most part by such plain and explicit declarations with regard to their meaning, as are generally to be found in like cases among the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. The original and intelligent readers of this book, beyond all reasonable doubt, could understand the meaning of the writer; else why should he address his work to them? Their acquaintance with the circle of things in which he moved, and their familiarity with the objects to which he refers, superseded the use of all the critical apparatus which we must now employ…”

This is the very good point, brought up previously, that the people of the times and of that culture would find Revelation easier to understand.  Yet despite this idea, I suspect that even the people of John’s day had a hard time with this book. Mr. Stuart is kind of ducking the implications of his lack of understanding by appearing to blame most, if not all of it, on cultural differences…which shots a hole in the concept of Biblical inerrancy.       

“Hitherto, scarcely any two original and independent expositors have been agreed, in respect to some points very important in their bearing upon the interpretation of the book. So long as the Apocalypse is regarded principally as an epitome of civil and ecclesiastical history, this must continue to be the case. Different minds will make the application of apocalyptic prophecies to different series of events, because there is something in each to which more or less of these prophecies is seemingly applicable…”

Mr. Stuart is known to be a preterist, so he refers here to Revelation being “regarded principally as an epitome of civil and ecclesiastical history,” yet he begins the sentence with “So long as…”, implying that there could be another interpretation.

Returning to the Preface:

  “The ground on which I stand, or at least on which I aim to stand, is the same that I would occupy, in case I should endeavor to prepare myself for the interpretation of any or all other books of Scripture. I take it for granted, that the writer had a present and immediate object in view, when he wrote the book; and of course I must regard him as having spoken intelligibly to those whom he addressed. In order to find out his meaning, I have endeavored to resort, as I would in all other cases, to the idiom; to the times in which the author lived; to the events then passing or speedily about to take place; to the circumstances in which he and his readers were placed, and which called forth his work; to the adaptation of the book to these circumstances; and (in a word) to all that is local and belongs to the times in which it was written, whether it be peculiarities in the mode of expression, thought, reasoning, or feeling, or anything else which would influence an author’s style or manner of arranging his composition…”

I have some concern about this paragraph. For most books of the Bible his plan of approach is very appropriate. For the heavily prophetic books, I worry about the implication that the book was written from the mind of the named author, rather than having received the book from God, or in this case, Jesus, and the implication that it was written for the individual purpose of the writer.  For this type of book I would like to see something in his plan regarding the discernment of the prophetic vision itself. But, having said that, I think he actually does look to that issue, as we’ll see in this next quote from the Introduction to Chapter 1 of Volume 1:

“Whatever difference of opinion may exist among interpreters of the Apocalypse, in respect to the meaning which must be assigned to particular portions of it, there can be but one opinion, as it would seem, among intelligent and considerate readers, as to the general object or design of this book. It lies upon the very face of the whole composition, I mean the prophetic part of it, that the coming and completion of the kingdom of God or of Christ, or in other words, the triumph of Christianity over all enemies and opposers, its universal prevalence in the world for a long series of years, and its termination in an endless period of glory and happiness, constitute the main theme of the writer, and is indeed the almost exclusive subject of his contemplation…Christianity is in a manner personified, and it appears on the scene of action, engaged in a contest with the powers of darkness so violent, that the struggle must evidently end in the extermination or utter subjugation of one of the parties. Successively one and another bitter and bloody enemy of the church is overcome; then follows a long period of peace and prosperity, during which the influence of Christianity is so widely diffused, that no apparent hostility disturbs it. After this the powers of darkness renew their assault with exasperated malice and rage; but the interposing hand of heaven smites them down, and puts a final end to the contest. The peaceful and universal reign of the Christian religion then succeeds, and continues down to the final consummation of the Messianic kingdom on earth, when the resurrection and the judgment-day introduce a new and perfect order of things, which is to continue through ages that have no end.”  

Mr. Stuart is still seeing Revelation as being about the Church, and not about the Jews. But even if it were about the Church, he makes a contradictory observation: that the struggle “is so violent” that one of the parties must be destroyed or utterly subjugated, but then he has the “powers of darkness” renewing “their assault.” An exterminated or utterly subjugated foe is not able to renew hostilities at a later date.

We can also see one of the big problems with preterism: he conflates the Millennium, under the direct rule of Christ, with “a long period of peace and prosperity, during which the influence of Christianity is so widely diffused, that no apparent hostility disturbs it.” According to the preterist point of view, we have been in the Millennium since Rome was defeated. That, of course, means that Satan has been bound in the abyss all this time. We just finished reviewing the history of the Christian world up through the Middle Ages…I really think that the Church was “disturbed” during some of those times, and if Satan is still bound, then I’d like to know who is behind the evil that is even now running rampant on this earth.

Mr. Stuart goes on with the theme of “John wrote the book, and it’s about the times he lived in”:

“The composition before us…seems to have been primarily occasioned by the existing state of things; and surely nothing could be more appropriate or better adapted to the purposes for which it was originally written. It is filled, from beginning to end, with encouragement and admonition and consolation to all who were engaged in the great contest then going on…All that hope or fear can do, in the way of operating upon the minds of men, to encourage them to persevere in a holy course of life, and to dissuade them from opposition to God and the purposes of his redeeming grace, seems to be held forth by the Apocalypse…”

And then from the Introduction to Chapter 2 of Volume 1, Mr. Stuart goes on with the assumption that a man conceived and wrote this book, and that perhaps that man sought out this prophecy from God:

The kernel or nucleus of the Apocalypse lies, indeed, enfolded in many a passage of the Old Testament, and in not a few of the New; but nowhere among all these passages is any such full and ample development of the subject made, as in the writing before us. Never before had such a full development been so much needed. The time was now come, during the apostolic age, when the kingdom of God was to be built upon its new and last foundation, and when the fulfillment of all that the ancient Scriptures contain respecting it, was about to commence. The writer of the Apocalypse lived in the very midst of the contest that was going on, was himself a sufferer in it, and therefore took a deep interest in the theme which was the main object of his book. Vivid feeling and powerful representation might be expected of him in circumstances like these; and such the Apocalypse everywhere exhibits…”

It is very true that Revelation brings together the Old and New Testaments.  The New Testament is said to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and in Revelation the themes of both books are blended into one at the end of time. But that did not happen in the Apostolic Age, and John did not live in “the very midst of the contest.” If he had, then our world would be a very different place!

We resume the quote:

“The charge has indeed not infrequently been made against this book, that it is altogether unique, and that the genius of the whole New Testament stands in opposition to it, or at least is as widely distant from it as possible. Even Luther, as we know, treated the Revelation with neglect, at first, if not with scorn, because, as he averred, he could not find Christ in it; for, as he viewed the subject, Jesus Christ, and Christ as crucified, must be the main theme of all that belongs to a true gospel-book. This is not the place to examine the allegations of Luther; but thus much may be said, without fear of contradiction by any intelligent reader of the present day, namely, that of all the books in the New Testament, Christ, as the beginning, middle, and end, appears most conspicuous in the Apocalypse…”

I agree whole-heartedly with this quote. Jesus Christ is “the beginning, middle, and end, [and] appears most conspicuous in the Apocalypse…”; and I would go further to say that Jesus Christ is the author of the book, and that the book is totally the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

One last quote from Mr. Stuart. This one is from Chapter 17 in Volume 1, and relates to the authorship of the book:

“…I have come back from the long-continued and often repeated pursuit of evidence in relation to the point before us [the authorship of Revelation], with the persuasion, that the argument from the testimony of the ancient Christian fathers is strongly on the side of the common opinion; and that the argument from the style and manner of the book, or (in other words) the internal evidence, is not of sufficient strength to settle the question against the authorship of the apostle. In fact, although I find some peculiarities of style in the Apocalypse, which are, at first view, strikingly and almost strangely discrepant from the usual manner of John’s Gospel and Epistles, yet there are still remaining so many features of resemblance, and, as to some prominent traits, of striking resemblance, that if the latter do not preponderate in the scale of critical judgment, they at least do very nearly hold the scales in equilibrio.”

He appears to come down on the side of John the Apostle being the “author” of the book, yet without the full weight of his opinion, as if balancing himself between the two opinions….in equilibrio as it were. I’m not sure what further evidence you would expect to get besides the Church Fathers opinions and the evidence of the style of writing…but maybe someone will come up with something else.

With that we will conclude for today.  In Part 2 we will look at the very controversial John Nelson Darby (and take a peek at Dispensationalism), and then, hopefully, have time for E. W. Hengstenberg, who dives rather deeply into the origins of the book. Until then I pray for us all to have joy in our lives.

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