Revelation Essay

1728 words - 7 pages

"Revelation, n. A famous book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew. The revealing is done by the commentators, who know nothing."1 The book of Revelation, the only apocalypse among the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, has always occupied a marginal role within the field of Biblical interpretation. Its bizarre visions of beasts, dragons, plagues, and cataclysms have inspired poets and artists while confounding more traditionally minded scholars for centuries. England in the early seventeenth century proved an exception to this rule. The flowering of apocalyptic exegesis in this period among academic circles bestowed a new respectability on the book of Revelation as a literal roadmap of church history from the time of Christ to the present, and on into the eschaton. The principal writers in this field, including Arthur Dent, Thomas Brightman, and Joseph Mede, have been dubbed "Calvinist millenarians" by modern historiography. They were certainly Calvinist in their views on doctrine, and also in their melioristic vision of England as the consummation of the Reformation, as an elect nation with the potential to recreate the true church of the early Christians. Their intense belief in the imminence of the end of the world, however, along with the mode of interpretation which they applied to the Revelation, reflected trends in Christian thought redirected by Martin Luther, and largely ignored by John Calvin.

In this paper I will examine Luthers role in three English interpretations of the Revelation, discussing both his influence as an intellectual precedent, and his appearance as a character within these texts. Luther himself never wrote a detailed commentary on the Apocalypse, but in a preface to the 1530 edition of his German New Testament, he outlined a mode of exegesis which emphasized the application of the Revelation to history. This literal approach first appeared in England in a 1545 commentary by John Bale, a transitional figure often considered the progenitor of the English apocalytic tradition. Later works utilized Luthers model more completely, and I will cite three of these in particular: Arthur Dents Ruin of Rome (1603), an excellent introduction to the mainstream of English commentaries; Thomas Brightmans Revelation of St. John (1609), which epitomized the Anglocentric slant inherent to the English version of the paradigm; and Joseph Medes Key of the Revelation (1627), which superseded all previous works in its sophisticated juxtaposition of history with Scripture, bringing the tradition to a kind of conclusion. Although these later scholars cited Luther as an important figure in church history, they did not acknowledge (or realize) any methodological debt to him; adopting a mode of interpretation outlined by Luther, they redirected these ideas towards a scheme which was Calvinist in its hope for worldly improvement.

The phrase "Calvinist millenarian," upon further...

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