Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, 528 pages.
Don’t confuse this with a book with a similar title edited by Marvin Pate, which I also recently reviewed. That book allowed the proponents of each of four different views to present an overall summary of their approach to the book of Revelation. This book by Gregg, on the other hand, is a detailed, verse-by-verse commentary, with the text divided into paragraphs, and each paragraph followed by four parallel columns. Each column represents the interpretation of the text from one of the four major views. Gregg has studied over 60 commentaries (listed on pages 6-8) written from various perspectives, which basically fall into one of four major views advocated by evangelical students and scholars throughout church history.
Not only does he present four different views, he also includes the variations within each view, so that, for example, he will tell how John Walvoord’s view differs from Robert Mounce, although they are both in the futurist camp. The names of individual commentators are generally included, so you can see some of the variations within each camp, and check out the particular commentaries yourself if you want to go a little deeper.
This book is a tremendous tool for anyone wishing to understand how different schools of interpretation approach the book of Revelation. The four parallel columns allow the reader to compare the views and hopefully identify the strengths and weaknesses of each. In the Introduction, Gregg says that his object “has not been to advocate any position above another, so I hope that my own opinion will not be evident” (page 4). Rather he has “attempted to present the very best arguments and evidences for each view, (and ) to encourage Bible students to wrestle with the inspired text of Revelation and with the earnest efforts of godly interpreters to unfold its meaning for the people of God” (page 4).
Gregg says that whereas some readers may be curious about his own position, the commentary is not a showcase for his opinions, “which have changed a number of times and may do so again in the future” (page 4). Rather, he says that in his research, he has become increasingly convinced that , as Albertus Pieters wrote:
None of these schools of interpretation can claim any monopoly on scholarship or faith. Each group numbers many fine scholars and devout Christian believers. Therefore complete certainty in regard to the interpretation of the Apocalypse is not to be had. It is our duty to do the best we can, to study the various systems and accept the view that seems to us to be right, but always with a certain amount of reservation and of respect for the opinions of others (pages 4-5).
The format for the main body of Revelation, chapters 4 through 19, consists of four columns for the four major views: the historicist, the preterist, the futurist, and the spiritual approach. The historicist view sees Revelation as a record of the course of history from the time of the apostles to the end of the world; it is thus still in progress. The preterist view sees Revelation as future from the standpoint of the writer, but having been fulfilled not long after the author’s own time (generally 70 AD), and thus it is history from our standpoint. Some preterists believe the final chapters of Revelation still look forward to a future second coming of Christ, while others believe that all of Revelation has been fulfilled. The futurist view believes that the prophecies are of events which are yet future from our perspective. Everything after chapter 4 is usually held to refer to things that will occur in a short period (i.e. a 7- year period known as the Tribulation) before the return of Christ. Rather than seeking to find individual fulfillments of the visions, the spiritual view takes Revelation as a kind of drama, which depicts spiritual truths which may occur over and over throughout history, such as the conflicts “between Christ and Satan, between the saints and the antichristian world powers, and depicting the final victory of Christ and his saints” (page 3). Thus fulfillment may be seen as “entirely spiritual or as recurrent, finding representative expression throughout the age, rather than in one-time, specific fulfillments” (page 3). Thus the prophecies are applicable to Christians in any age.
Because there are not four distinct opinions among exegetes of chapters 1-3, those chapters do not lend themselves to the approach just discussed, and therefore the commentary for that portion of Revelation is not divided into four columns. It is not that commentators are in agreement, but rather the differences are on another basis. In fact, Gregg says that the views really do not part company until chapter 4, and “the radical differences apply only to chapters 6-19” (page 5). Still, a chart showing how each of the views generally approaches that section precedes the commentary on chapters 1-3 (see page 51).
In a similar manner, “evangelical debate over chapters 20-22 has not turned so much on whether one is a futurist or a historicist as on whether one is a millennialist, and if so, of what variety” (page 5). Therefore, in the commentary for those chapters, Gregg switches from the four column format to a three column format, presenting the premillenial, postmillennial , and amillennial views. The premillennial view holds that Christ’s second coming will precede (and thereby launch) a golden age in which the kingdom will be established on the earth for 1,000 years, with the final judgment and the eternal new heavens and new earth to follow. There are two principal varieties of premillennialists: historic and dispensational. The differences between those two perspectives center around a future place for national Israel (yes, says the dispensationalist), and anticipation of a rapture of Christians to heaven before the beginning of the Tribulation (yes, says the dispensationalist). The postmillennialist teaches that Christ will return after the millennial period, which is a quite different kingdom than the one envisioned by the premillennialist. The postmillennial’s golden age occurs as the world is gradually won over by the gospel, and is marked by a period of peace before Christ returns. Postmillennialists are often, though not always, inclined toward the preterist view. The amillennialist believes there is no literal millennium as understood by the other views, but rather that the 1,000 years of Revelation 20 corresponds to the entire span of time from the first coming of Christ until His second coming, and most aspects of Revelation are held to be symbolic.
The author emphasizes here that “it should be remembered that the various approaches to Revelation are not linked inseparably to any particular millennial position” (page 28). For example, “amillennialists have been found among adherents of several approaches to Revelation, including the historicist (e.g. Martin Luther), the preterist (e.g. Jay Adams), and the spiritualist (e.g. William Hendriksen), but only rarely of the futurist (Abraham Kuyper is an exception) (page 28). For another example, in the commentary on the sixth seal of 6:12-17, the author notes that “Matthew Henry, in most respects a historicist, applies this seal in a preterist manner (page 122). “
Here I will list some of the interesting points, or characteristics, I noted in reading the book:
1. The commentary on the text is preceded by a very helpful introduction (pages 9-50), which includes such discussions as literary type; authorship; date and historical setting; structural parallelism; Revelation’s use of the rest of scripture; additional interpretative considerations (geographical scope, meaning of the “coming” of Christ in Revelation, and the meaning of the “1000 years” in Revelation); history of interpretation; and an analysis of each of the four approaches (historicist, preterist, futurist, and spiritualist).
2. As regards the aforementioned section on structural parallelism, the author notes that some portions of Revelation “double back to cover the same ground that was covered in previous sections…(and) there are other indicators that the details of Revelation do not follow each other chronologically…(which) militates against making firm chronological predictions based on a passage’s position in the book” (pages 19-20).
3. In the previously mentioned section on the meaning of the “coming” of Christ in Revelation, the author notes the various ways in which a “coming” of God or Christ is used in scripture, whereby Christ is sometimes said to come in a spiritual sense (Rev 3:20, John 14:16-18, and John 14:23), or a visitation by God in temporal judgment is said to be a “coming”. This is relevant to the preterist view which holds that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD was a “coming” of Christ, as He had predicted in such passages as the Olivet discourse (Matt 24:34, et al). The author says that “while none of these considerations negate the doctrine of the Second Coming…they demonstrate that there is more than one event or phenomenon that can be spoken of as a ‘coming’ of Christ” (pages 24-27).
4. In the section in the introduction analyzing the four approaches, Gregg first analyzes the historicist view, and notes that while commentators from the past who held this position would make up an all-star list from church history (Wycliffe, Knox, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Matthew Henry, et al), “modern commentaries presenting this approach are rare to nonexistent” (page 34). He does state, however, that he has heard of a small group of evangelicals who are trying to revive this view of the book of Revelation.
5. In analyzing preterism, he distinguishes between those who believe that all of Revelation was fulfilled in 70AD and those who believe “ that the first half of Revelation describes the fall of Jerusalem, the second half predicts the fall of the Roman empire, and the final chapters describe the second coming of Christ” (page 39). Later, in the commentary on 8:8-9, he notes that “the words of Josephus, who had never read Revelation, seem almost as if they were calculated to present the fulfillment of this trumpet judgment” (page 156). (Josephus was the historian who witnessed and recorded the events of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD).
6. In analyzing futurism, he notes that this approach “is held by the majority of the most popular contemporary evangelical writers and Bible teachers…(and) has so dominated the Christian media, in fact, that many Christians and virtually all non-Christians are unaware even of the existence of other approaches” (page 40). He also says that “belief in the futurist approach frees the reader to take a more literal view of the visions, reducing the difficulty of interpreting the symbols …(since) for example, there has never been a time in the past when a third of the sea turned to blood” (page 40). He does state, however, that “most of the elements of the scenario predicted by dispensationalists’ appeal to the book of Revelation do not arise from a literal application of any particular passage” (page 41), as for example, a seven-year Tribulation “divided in the middle by the Antichrist’s violating a treaty he had made with Israel” (page 40). He says that even dispensationalists often must allow for some symbolism in Revelation. He also discusses those futurists who are not dispensationalists, but who nevertheless “expect a future Antichrist to arise in a future Tribulation period to persecute the saints, and they do anticipate a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth” (page 42).
7. In analyzing the spiritualist view, he notes that it “has a character entirely of its own, and sees Revelation from an entirely different perspective than do the more strictly historico-eschatological approaches” (page 46).
8. It is here that we should note that the lines are not as clearly drawn as one might imagine. For example, one common tendency is to mix the spiritual approach with the preterist, such as Leon Morris and Michael Wilcock. Gregg also classifies William Hendriksen’s commentary as “essentially spiritual/idealist in character, with some preterist or historicist elements” (page 45). George Eldon Ladd is a futurist who believes that “the correct method of interpreting Revelation is the blending of the preterist and futurist methods” (page 46), but he also in some instances brings in spiritual/idealist views. The same can be said for futurist Robert Mounce.
9. The structure of Revelation is seen in Gregg’s major divisions of the book, which are as follows: The Seven Letters (chs. 1-3); the Seven-Sealed Scroll (chs. 4-7); The Seven Trumpets (chs. 8-10); The 1260 Days (chs. 11-13); The Seven Last Plagues (chs. 14-16); The Great Babylon (chs. 17-19); The Millennium (ch. 20); and The New Creation (chs. 21-22).
10. The major divisions are preceded by charts giving an overview of the section from the standpoint of each of the different views, and followed by charts giving a summary of the section according to each of the views. Other helpful charts and outlines are interspersed throughout the commentary. All of these combine to enhance the usefulness of this commentary, as the summaries can be reviewed at a glance.
In summary, this commentary is a terrific piece of work. I can’t imagine any student of Revelation being without it. It has a tremendous amount of useful information that will be readily accessible to compare the various views. The format is excellent, and Gregg goes to great lengths to present all sides.
In reading the commentary from cover to cover, I elected to read it as written, i.e. to read the text for each paragraph, and then read the comments from each perspective on that paragraph. That approach worked for me, although I did find my head swimming from time to time. An alternative, as suggested by the author, would be to read through the entire commentary from the perspective of one viewpoint at a time, as for example reading through the entire book from the historicist view, and then going back and reading it through from the next perspective (the preterist), and so on, until you have read all four views. That might help keep your head clear.
But whatever approach you take to this commentary, you will find it to be a great help in coming to an understanding of Revelation with an appreciation of the views of other evangelicals who differ from your interpretation.