Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hermeneutics and the Apocalypse of St. John.

In my research for my upcoming commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John1 one of the introductory questions has fascinated me to no end. That is, the method of reading and understanding Revelation in general and the historical precedents of the great Catholic commentators of the past. In this brief post I will draw a quick sketch of the historical legacy of those commentators and the history of Apocalyptic hermeneutics2.

From my reading of the early Fathers it can be cautiously stated that on the whole the western commentators tended to couple the imagery of Revelation with historical identities, thus St. Irenaeus pictures from the words of Revelation 17:12 that the Roman Empire would be shattered into ten kingdoms and Rome (as Babylon) reduced to ashes3 (cf. Tertullian, (Adversus Marcionem. 3, 13). In St. Hippolytus we see that the Woman with child is the Church and so forth. In contrast, the Fathers of the east tended to allegorize the symbolism of the Apocalypse. So, St. Clement of Alexandria holds that the twenty four elders of Revelation is to be understood as a symbol for the new equality between Jew and gentile in Christ4. In like manner Origen scorns the wooden literal chiliastic interpretation of the thousand year reign and the white horse signifies the opening of heaven through the Divine Word (which is seen as a white light)5. However at the risk of over simplifying, this should not be seen as a total hard and fast rule. Many early commentators overlap from the literal to the spiritual and vice versa.

At the end of the fourth century in the commentary of Revelation by Tyconius (a Donatist) a new epoch in the hermeneutics of Revelation began. In a sense his interpretations of the motif's of the Apocalypse are explained as a sort of double-fulfillment, or that at first sight the imagery speaks about actual historical phenomena (Rome and her persecuting Emperors) but also that this imagery is intended by John to be understood in a deeper mystical way, (or that this struggle between Rome and the Christians is meant to symbolize the more general war between good and evil)6. In the ninth century Berengaud was bold enough to suggest that not only were the images literal and symbolic but that they also foretold the entire history of mankind, from Adam to the second coming of Christ. In the twelfth century, Joachim of Florensis (founder of the Order of Florensis) went a step beyond anyone else in reading the imagery of the Apocalypse as mainly events occuring within his time and surrounding the future events at the end of time. Not long after Joachim, Nicolas of Lyra held that the Apocalypse actually was intended to reveal the events from the first century, point by point, up until his very day. In the sixteenth century and responding to Protestant polemical readings of the Apocalypse, Francis Ribeira (Catholic professor) held that Revelation was meant to be read in the following manner; that John wrote only about events to his immediate first century future and of events surrounding the end of time, with no references to the intermediate history between these two periods. The method of reading the Apocalypse as soley referring to events of the first century (or what has been labled as preterism) has sometimes been mistakenly dubbed a liberal Protestant invention. Against this is the preterism of the Jesuit of the sixteenth century, Alcasar (and reaching back to the preteristic interpretations of Eusebius in the fourth century).

In the closing decade of the eighteenth century I. G. Eichhorn (Commentarius in Apocalypse) argued that Revelation was mainly written to convey not historical phenomena but a sort of poetic understanding of the progress of Christianity, couched in dramatic acts or scenes. Then there is Bousset. The Catholic critical scholar W. Bousset published his magisterial commentary on Revelation (Die Offenbarung Johannis) in the end of the nineteenth century7. Bousset's thesis was that Revelation was composed to reveal events of the early Church's Roman persecutions, the later triumphal age of the Church throughout history and finally the events of the end times. The twentieth century was dominated by a "futuristic" reading of the Apocalypse, or the understanding that it mainly deals with events that are still to come (events surrounding the second coming of Christ)8.

Thus, encapsulated in this shortest of histories can be found most of the major schools of hermeneutics on the Apocalypse. In modern biblical studies they have been labled as; the historicist method, or those that tend to see in the symbols of Revelation an intricate blueprint as it were of historical details. The preterist method interprets the images of Revelation owing to the events in the first (or second) century. What has been called the idealist position relegates the imagery of Revelation in terms not historical but that the images speak instead of timeless spiritual truths. The camp of the futurist method claim that most (if not all) of the Apocalypse deals with future events surrounding the second advent. A rather recent method is the eclectic method which states that to narrow oneself to only one of these views is to violate the intended meaning of Revelation. The best solution they claim is to employ a variety of these methods to deal with the hard texts of the Apocalypse.


1. Date to be announced. I have actually been working on this commentary for some time now but other priorities in life recently have demanded much attention. Recently however I have once again jumped in this project with full gusto.

2. Naturally in my commentary a fuller description is given, tighter criticism of what I consider the erroneous views and a defense of my own view. Here in this post I give but a brief historical overview.

3. (Adversus haereses. 26, 1). A theme picked up and expanded by St. Hippolytus, (De antichristo). From the literal exposition of Rev 20 Victorinus can probably be seen in this western/Latin camp. That Revelation mainly has to do with the ancient Roman Empire and her dealings with Christianity has had a long history of interpretation up until our day, cf. R. H. Charles (Revelation: ICC. 1920).

4. (Stromata. 6, 13).

5. (De principiis. 11, 11, 12; Commentarii in Ioannem. 2, 6).

6. On the whole however, Tyconius seems to favor the allegorical rather than literal interpretation. In this same camp of exposition (from the east) is the beautiful commentary by Andreas who mixes the mystical with literal interpretations.

7. Which still finds acclaims by scholars today. While not exactly a conservative commentary it was up to his time the most rigorous critical examination of the Greek text and survey of critical scholarship up to his day.

8. For example, G. E. Ladd (Revelation. 1972), G. R. Beasley-Murray (Revelation: NCBC. 1978), R. H. Mounce (Revelation: NICNT. 1998), etc. Of course this is not the only major academic interpretation of the Apocalypse in the 20th and now 21st century.

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