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The well-researched answer to BH.SE Question What historical reasons resulted in Revelation being included in most Christian canons? referenced a few early church fathers that "voted yes" (Irenaeus, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen) as well as later Western Church fathers (Jerome, Ambrose, Rufinus, Augustine, and Innocent).

The answer noted that

"[the book of] Revelation had the longest and hardest fight of any book to be recognized as inspired. Though numerous early authors quoted and approved of it, others argued against Revelation."

and to combat the concern how the Book of Revelation is "obscure" and is being used to "speculate the future", St. Augustine warned that the book should only be included "with an admonition against using the book speculatively" (City of God XX.6-9). Fast forward about 1600 years, history has shown PLENTY of failed predictions for the second coming and failed predictions for apocalyptic events, which I think testifies to the wisdom of St. Augustine.

Maybe it is wise that we should only interpret the the Book of Revelation according to how the supporters of its inclusion into the canon interpreted the book? Mainstream Christians have been respecting the early Church Fathers' interpretation of the Bible regarding the Trinity. Why not respect them for the Book of Revelation as well?

Therefore, my question is: among the many interpretations that are on offer, which interpretation(s) of the book of Revelation did the Church Fathers who accepted it into the canon hold? Can we discern a common interpretation among them? I wonder whether there was a consensus regarding to the meaning of the most prominent figures: the Beast, the Antichrist, the Markings, the Trumpets, the Dragon, the Woman, Gog and Magog, Armageddon, etc?

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    The best exposition of the various interpretations of Revelation (Contemporary - or 'Praetorist'; Historicist; Futurist; and Resumptive) that I am aware of is John Metcalfe's 'The Revelation of Jesus Christ' (1998). Even if one does not accept the view that he goes on to fully expound (Resumptive) the explanation of the four main branches of viewpoint is well worth reading. Up-voted +1. Good question.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 23:07
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    I must concur with Nigel J's reference to the book published (in 1998) by John Metcalfe. It has opened my eyes, spiritually speaking.
    – Lesley
    Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 6:29
  • @Lesley Glad to hear that. I see that you both and Anne reference Metcalfe's book quite a number of times in BH.SE as well as in C.SE. Maybe one of you could add an entry to the Interpretations section of the Wikipedia article? Which category his "Resumptive" view is closest to, as it's not a common term? Or more to this Q, how would his view compared with the church fathers voting 'yes'? Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 14:27
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    @GratefulDisciple As I am not a scholar and have no academic qualifications, I would not try to add anything to 'Wikipedia'. But I have acted on your idea to quote from Metcalfe's book re. your question. He speaks of the 'Resumptive' view, which most others would know as the 'Spiritual' view. In Steve Gregg's parallel commentary on the 4 main interpretations, he uses 'Spiritual' for what Metcalfe calls 'Resumptive'. [Revelation - Four Views, Thomas Nelson 1997] It can also be known as the Symbolic or Idealist view.
    – Anne
    Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 17:32
  • The church fathers such as Irenaeus and Victorinus make numerous references to Jesus' description of the end of the world in Matt 13. Victorinus gives the wheat and tares parable as a basic structure of the book in his commentary on Rev 7. This leads to the spiritual interpretation. Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 14:41

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No, the Church Fathers who accepted the book of Revelation as divinely inspired, i.e. canonical, did not hold a common interpretation thereof. Rather, earlier Fathers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyon and Hippolytus of Rome held premillennialism (specifically historic premillennialism, which was post-tribulational) whereas later Fathers such as Jerome and Augustine held amillennialism [1].

In terms of the four main schools of interpretation in John Metcalfe's book quoted in Anne's answer, neither earlier nor later Fathers fit neatly any one of those schools. To start with, Fathers of both camps were partial preterists, the difference being the point within the text where they placed themselves. Thus, whereas earlier premillennialist Fathers saw themselves as living just before Rev ch 13, later amillennialist Fathers saw themselves as living within the symbolic 1000 years of Rev 20:4-6. The latter held also the Resumptive or Spiritual interpretation.

Whereas the above paragraphs answer the original question, I hope some readers will find the following two addenda on related topics useful or at least interesting.

Addendum 1: On the logical necessity of holding Premillennialism during the first centuries CE

I have recently noted that holding the premillennial view, i.e. that the Millennium of Rev 20:1-6 should be understood literally both qualitatively and quantitatively, was a logically necessary consequence of holding simultaneously:

  • that the total number of the elect would be large, as implied by the size of New Jerusalem (each side thereof being 12000 x 0.1575 = 1890 km long using the Egyptian stadium, which was shorter than the Olympic), and

  • that the time elapsed from the Ascension to the Second Coming of Jesus would be short, of no more than a few centuries.

In this context of beliefs, it was strictly necessary for the majority of the elect to come to exist - given that God creates human beings through sexual procreation - that the Parousia be followed by a qualitatively and quantitatively literal Millennium during which the earth would be populated by an aristocracy of resurrected saints in glorified bodies - and therefore not able to sin, die or procreate - ruling with Christ (physically or spiritually present) over a majority of people in mortal bodies who would procreate and die after long lives.

This might even be symbologically reflected in the numbers involved, as the geometric connotation of numbers was important for the ancient: a cubic time (10 x 10 x 10) for populating a cubic city.

Conversely, if the time elapsed between Jesus' Ascension and his Parousia is long enough for all of the elect to come to exist, then the Millennium can be symbolic and coincide with either that interval or a subset thereof beginning in 313 after the Edict of Milan, as was the implicit opinion of Eusebius of Caesarea [2].

To note, Jerome and Augustine, the first Fathers of the Western Church who held a symbolic Millennium, thought that the total number of the elect would be small, so that they could logically hold simultaneously that the length of that symbolic Millennium, i.e. the time elapsed between Jesus' Ascension and his Parousia, would be of just a few centuries.

Addendum 2: On the date of composition of the book of Revelation

Contrary to what Anne states at the beginning of her answer, the book of Revelation, far from being "the last one to be written" of the canonical books, is the first work of the Johannine corpus (Revelation + 3 Epistles + Gospel). This comes as a straightforward conclusion from 2 facts.

The first fact, pointed out by scholars since Dionysius of Alexandria through Robert Charles (1920) to Bart Ehrman (2004), is that "the Book of Revelation contains grammatical errors and stylistic abnormalities whereas the Gospel and Epistles are all stylistically consistent which indicate its author may not have been as familiar with the Greek language as the Gospel/Epistles's author" [3]. Though this fact has been usually interpreted as evidence for a different author of the book of Revelation, it is equally plausible that it shows the improvement over time (specifically over a 20-year interval) of the mastery of the Greek language by one and the same author whose native tongue was Aramaic. This interpretation is strengthened by the second fact.

The second fact is that the book of Revelation explicitely states that it was composed during the reign of Vespasian (69-79): "and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while." (Rev 17:10).

"five have fallen": Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero (54-68) (*).

"one is": Vespasian (69-79).

"the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while": Titus (79-81).

This is consistent with the description of New Jerusalem in ch. 21 plus 22:1-5, which points to the book being written in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70, as it seems to be telling Christians of Jewish background: "Don't lament over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, because God has prepared for us an infinitely better city in which God and Jesus Themselves will be our temple!"

(*) Galba, Otho, and Vitellius do not count as they did not hold power over the whole Empire, particularly over Asia, the area where the addressees of the book of Revelation lived.

References

[1] An extensive list of references of authors in both camps can be found in the Wikipedia article on Premillennialism.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premillennialism

[2] Laudes Constantini VIII.9

"Thus speedily, according to the counsel of the mighty God, and through our emperor’s agency, was every enemy, whether visible or unseen, utterly removed: and henceforward peace, the happy nurse of youth, extended her reign throughout the world. Wars were no more, for the gods were not: no more did warfare in country or town, no more did the effusion of human blood, distress mankind, as heretofore, when demon-worship and the madness of idolatry prevailed."

https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201/npnf201.iv.viii.ix.html

Vita Constantini Book III Ch. I

"Surely it must seem to all who duly regard these facts, that a new and fresh era of existence had begun to appear, and a light heretofore unknown suddenly to dawn from the midst of darkness on the human race: and all must confess that these things were entirely the work of God, who raised up this pious emperor to withstand the multitude of the ungodly."

https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201/npnf201.iv.vi.iii.i.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorship_of_the_Johannine_works

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  • This is the kind of answer I was expecting. It would be great if you could add references. I'm going to wait a few more days before accepting, if there are no other answers. To future users (in the next decade or so): If your answer is better, I'll accept yours instead. I will not be around in a Millenium, but God willing, in the next few decades (if Parousia hasn't happened yet) :-). Commented Feb 27 at 21:43
  • @GratefulDisciple I'm glad that you found my answer useful. For references I will provide a link to the Wikipedia article on Premillennialism which has a huge list of references, from both premillennialist and amillennialist Fathers.
    – Johannes
    Commented Feb 28 at 17:47
  • It should also be noted that, as far as I can tell, the ancient premillennialists held to an historical-allegorical reading of Genesis 1 with each day corresponding to a thousand years of history, culminating with the Millennial Reign which corresponds to the Sabbath day of Genesis. Pseudo-Barnabas outlines this position in Barnabas 15, but without reference to Revelation and I think his position is incommensurate with any interpretation of Rev. because he places the final judgment before the millennium. Commented Mar 2 at 17:52
  • @DarkMalthorp The sabbatical millennium reading was definitely held by Hippolytus, in this case explicitely referring to Revelation. Quote: And 6000 years must be accomplished, in order that the Sabbath may come, the rest, the holy day “on which God rested from all His works.” For the Sabbath is the type and emblem of the future kingdom of the saints, when they “shall reign with Christ,” when He comes from heaven, as John says in his Apocalypse: for “a day with the Lord is as a thousand years.” Since, then, in six days God made all things, it follows that 6000 years must be fulfilled. Endquote
    – Johannes
    Commented Mar 4 at 18:07
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Given that the book of the Revelation was the last one to be written (by the apostle John, circa. 95 A.D.) it would be the last one to be accepted as most of the other New Testament writings had already been seen as canonical. Yet given that the Revelation was sent to seven congregations in Asia Minor before the start of the second century, the only problem with it being officially accepted as canonical would come from those who were alarmed at its highly symbolic nature. Yet given how the OT books of Daniel and Ezekiel etc. were strikingly similar re. prophecy, Christians who knew the OT would see that it was in the same genre.

The main problem re. canonicity was with Gnostic literature that purported to be authentic, but was not. Serapion, bishop of the church in Antioch (circa. 190-203) complained that The Gospel of Peter was being read as Scripture in some churches, yet it had docetic ideas of Christ, downplaying or denying his physical reality. Also, some other writings were good and by accredited Christian writers, but did not have the Holy Spirit inspired hallmark of the others. They were often read, but never formed part of the canon. Further, although the official canon was 'closed' by 376, that was just confirmation of what had long been held. Here is a link dealing with that: https://www.gotquestions.org/New-Testament-canon.html

The main question is really, "Which interpretation of Revelation did the earliest Church Fathers have?" The best way to answer that would be to find out what the recipients of John's letter thought. The first seven congregations had to take to heart Christ's warnings (and encouragements) addressed to them personally. Well, we just don't have anything on that. But we do know what the early Church was enduring with persecutions and conflicting teachings, already doing the rounds back then. To read the Revelation in light of their situation would give great understanding. They had no idea for how long they would have to endure till Christ returned but clearly the whole book was to help them remain faithful in an increasingly hostile Roman empire, till Christ suddenly came.

The problem of interpretation arises due to centuries passing and still no second coming of Christ. This means that Christians from the fourth century on would be developing different ways to understand the highly symbolic message. Here is a summary of the main schools of interpretation as in this book:

The Contemporary [Praeterist] Interpretation: This puts the entire book into past history. It views the Revelation as having been fulfilled in the early ages of the church. This interpretation places every event throughout the narrative as contemporary with the first century. [This would be the view of the earliest Church Fathers.] But a device underlies this interpretation. At the time of the Reformation the reformers identified the papacy and its political influence with the beasts in Revelation. This was of great influence. However, the Contemporary Interpretation robbed the reformers of such an application. According to the Contemporary, or Praeterist interpretation, the whole book had long been fulfilled.

The Historicist Interpretation: This views the Book of the Revelation – with the exception of the prologue and the epilogue – as a continuous unfolding of the history of the church in the world. Therefore the narrative answers in sequence to the history of the church, or of the world, or both. This interpretation commences with the apostolic age and continues to unfold to the end of time. There was no difficulty therefore in this interpretation of identifying the ‘Beast’ with the papacy, or with its influences over the worldly powers. This was the view of the reformers. At first Rome and its satellite European Community countered this view with the Contemporary Interpretation. Then a more subtle concept began to be put forth by the papacy.

The Futurist Interpretation: There can be little or no question that this view was developed as Roman Catholic counter-reformation propaganda, the Contemporary, or Praeterist, Interpretation having failed in its attempt to refute the reformers’ Historicist explanation… The Futurist Interpretation, however, put everything in the future, robbing the reformers of their ammunition at a stroke.

The Futurist Interpretation views the church prophetically from the day of Pentecost till the second coming of Christ in historical sequence throughout Chapters 2 and 3 of the book. In Chapter 4:1 a secret rapture of the church is proposed… It follows therefor that the prophetic narrative of events from Chapter 4 to Chapter 20 have nothing to do with the church. It is presumed that this is to do with Israel over a future seven year period of tribulation. In Chapter 20 the thousand years are taken literally, assuming Israel on earth, and the church suspended above it in heaven for the entirety of this period…

This astounding scheme was recovered from oblivion – the Reformation by then seeming to be of little consequence – largely by the ecumenical meetings for prophecy at the castle of Lady Powerscourt in Ireland. J.N. Darby and other early brethren leaders, many of them clergymen, featured prominently. The Plymouth Brethren adopted and propagated this originally papist subterfuge with great vigour from the 1830’s onward. After the division at Plymouth, the American Schofield had the temerity to incorporate this papist propaganda, with other horrific schemes, such as dispensationalism, interleaving such things so as to add them to the Holy Bible, newly dubbed ‘The Schofield Bible’.” The Revelation of Jesus Christ by John Metcalfe, pp 13-15 (published 1998)

He then details The Resumptive [or Spiritual] Interpretation, which he holds to, where the entire age of the church is revealed seven times over, culminating in the last judgment, each presentation adding more details and principles to the monumental struggle between the church on earth and the demonic, invisible powers trying to crush her, to this day. He points out that Rev. 2:10 (the church in Smyrna) had, in those days, the faithful martyr Antipas, and such persecution would continue till Christ returned (p 47). Thus, the message to the seven churches speaks to the persecuted saints in every age from Christ giving the Revelation, to his sudden appearing.

He makes clear that Christians holding to the Resumptive [Spiritual] Interpretation are aghast at that of the Futurists. Nor did the Reformation Historicist view uphold the 1800’s ideas of the Futurists. Both those groups maintained that “The Last Days” had begun in the 1st century A.D. and continue to this very day – Hebrews 1:1-2.

This answer may appear to go beyond the remit of the question, but due to gradual developments over the centuries, only this over-view shows the early Church Father's interpretation, which then had to be 'adjusted' once the Reformation challenged this view that it had all happened in the past. The 'adjusted' interpretation is (ironically) held by many Protestants! It is the prevailing view today but it certainly was not the view of the earliest Christians or of the earliest Church Fathers because they expected Christ's return very soon. Only with the passage of a few hundred years would it be obvious that claiming, "It all happened in the past" just no longer held water.

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    I'm afraid the bulk of your answer is Mr. Metcalfe's position as well as his characterizations of the other 3 categories, which from the limited quotes seem a gross oversimplification. Other than broad-based Preterism you haven't provided details of the church fathers mentioned, but Preterism has several varieties (partial, full, etc.) and early church fathers seem to hold different opinions. Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 20:31
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    For example, St. Irenaeus (the earliest "yes") didn't associate the beast with Rome (!) (see this paper) although Francis Gumerlock wrote in Revelation and the First Century: Preterist Interpretations of the Apocalypse in Early Christianity that most were partial preterist and DID associate the beast of Rev. 13 with Nero. Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 20:38
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    @GratefulDisciple Similar positions are held by large numbers of Reformed Presbyterians. Read 2 articles by Pastor Alan Hill, Lausanne Free Church, Switzerland, in October & November 2022 'Evangelical Times' and my letter to the Editor June 2023 saying how similar his summary was to Metcalfe's book. [email protected] Also, listen to a series of lectures on Revelation at www.ericalexander.co.uk (Free Church). In my comparatively short answer, simplification is unavoidable. I quoted from a 614 page book. Yes, there are variations. Yes, the idea of Rome being the 'beast' was never
    – Anne
    Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 13:30
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    held by Rome! But go check the many groups of Christians who, despite agreeing on the Trinity, could not associate with Rome re. baptism and other clashing doctrines. By the time of the Reformation, Rome knew it had to ‘do something’ about counter-beliefs re. Revelation, for there was no way any thinking person could keep maintaining it had all happened in the past so that the Revelation was only relevant for a future second coming. There was only the one interpretation of Rome to begin with (which I stated) but others grew despite attempts to silence opposing views.
    – Anne
    Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 13:31

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