Approaches To Prophetic Interpretation
Eschatological passages, sometimes called "apocalyptic" writings, are found throughout the Bible, in both the Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures) and the New Testament, though as one might expect, they are concentrated in the prophetic books. In the Christian Bible, the Prophets constitute the last of the major divisions of the Old Testament, and include the books from Isaiah to Malachi. In the New Testament, Revelation is the only book in this category, though there are various short, but important, eschatological passages in the gospels and the epistles, as will be seen in the following sections. There are also many extrabiblical examples of eschatological prophecy, as well as church traditions which have been added to the scriptures over the years.
The following approaches are applied by interpreters specifically to the book of Revelation, but Revelation occupies such a central place in Christian eschatology that it is worth mentioning them in this, more general, overview. Parallel approaches can also be used in the interpretation of other prophetic passages. These approaches are by no means mutually exclusive and are usually combined to form a more complete and coherent interpretation. Nevertheless, it is helpful to have a conceptual understanding of them.
- The Preterist approach (from the Latin praeteritus meaning gone by) seeks parallels between Revelation and the events of the 1st century, such as Herod's attempt to kill the infant Christ, the struggle of Christianity to survive the persecutions of Judaism and the Roman Empire, the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the desecration of the temple in the same year, and the growth of Christianity from a sect within Judaism to an independent religion.
- The Historicist method takes a broader historical approach and seeks parallels between Revelation and the major people and events of history, especially those which have had a direct effect on Israel and the Church.
- The Futurist method approaches Revelation as chiefly referring to events which as yet have not come to pass, but which will take place at the end of this age and at the end of the world. The main focus is the return of Christ. This is the approach which most applies to eschatological studies.
- The Idealist model, also known as Spiritualist or Symbolic, approaches the images of Revelation as symbols which represent larger themes and concepts, rather than actual people and events. It sees in Revelation an allegorical representation of the ongoing struggle of the forces of light and darkness, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
But even if we accept the premises of eschatology, careful study is still necessary, for as John Walvoord says, “One of the problems in the interpretation of prophecy is that every prophecy is related to other prophecies like pieces of a tapestry to the whole.” In the light of this, and of the fact that eschatology deals with events which are as yet unseen, it behooves us to keep an open mind. Dogmatism has no place here, and we must be open to the constant refinement of our understanding, in the knowledge that the truth in its fullness will not be known until these events come to pass.
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“Talk of Columbus and Newton! I tell you the child just born in yonder hovel is the beginning of a revolution as great as theirs. But you must have the believing and prophetic eye.”
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