Canonicity and Acceptance of Revelation (in Revelation)

From Anabaptistwiki

ADB logo letters.jpg Home A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Abbreviations Glossary

Evidence of the acceptance of the Book of Revelation in the Western church comes quite early. In Rome in A.D. 150, Justin Martyr names the book and its author, the apostle John (Dialogue with Trypho 81). In A.D. 170, the Muratorian Canon says that the Apocalypse of John was universally recognized in Rome (Swete, 1908:cx). Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 3.11.1; 4.20.11; 5.35.2), Tertullian (Against Marcion 3.14.3), Hippolytus (de Ant. 36), Clement of Alexandria (Who Is the Rich Man Who Shall Be Saved? 42; Miscellanies 6.106-7), and Origen (Commentary on John 5.3) accept Revelation as scripture. In the fourth century, Eusebius says that some accept it as canonical, but he and others refer to it as a questioned book (Eccl. Hist. 4.26). His attitude may have been influenced by the use of the book by millenarians, who believed in a literal reign of Christ on the earth. Overall, though, Revelation was accepted early in the West. Evidence of this is found in the words of St. Jerome: “The Apocalypse of John has as many secrets as words. I am saying less than the book deserves. It is beyond all praise; for multiple meanings lie hidden in each single word” (Letter 53.9; translated in Caird, 1966:2).

To the church in the East, Revelation was unknown for four centuries. It was not included in the Peshitto Version of the New Testament in the fifth century. Yet in the fourth century, Athanasius recognized Revelation, and the Council of Carthage listed it as canonical. The Third Council of Constantinople in the seventh century accepted it as part of the scripture of the Eastern church. Nevertheless, the text and imagery of Revelation is absent from the hymns and liturgy of the Syrian church throughout its history. Therefore, Revelation was not accepted as readily in the Eastern church tra- dition (Gwynn, 1897:c-civ; R. H. Charles, 1920:1.cii; Beckwith, 1919:341- 43; Swete, 1908:cxvi-cxvii).

During the time of the Reformation, Revelation came into question in the West. Luther added the Epistle of James and the books following in an appendix to his commentary but separated them from the rest of the canon. He rejected Revelation because of what he called the author’s hubris and because he thought it obscured Christ for the ordinary believer. Indeed, in his 1522 Preface to the Revelation of Saint John, Luther said: “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it” (Luther’s Works 35:399). Zwingli could not accept Revelation because its considerable use of angels encouraged what he considered an immature, pious mysticism, and its liturgical format was too close to the Catholic mass. He says: “With the Apocalypse, we have no concern, for it is not a biblical book .... I can, if I so will, reject its testimonies” (quoted in Barclay, 1960:1.1). Calvin did not voice an opinion on Revelation; he did quote from it, but his commentaries exclude it.

So, there have been diverse attitudes toward Revelation in the history of the church. No other book in the Bible has aroused such love and such hatred. The same is true today. On the one hand, in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, a monk, while attempting to find out who is responsible for a series of murders occurring in a monastery, is asked whether or not the Book of Revelation might have the solution to the murders. He responds: “The Book of John offers the key to everything!” (1980:303). On the other hand, George Bernard Shaw, in his The Adventure of the Black Girl in Search for God, calls Revelation “a curious record of the visions of a drug addict which was absurdly admitted to the canon under the title of Revelation” (1933:93).

Indeed, Revelation has been loved and hated by Christians. It has served as a paradise for fanatics who give their own peculiar interpretation to the symbols of the text. Yet it has also been rejected by many Christians as either confusing or unintelligible. Caird sums up the situation well when he says: “In modern times scores of commentaries have been written on it so diverse as to make the reader wonder whether they are discussing the same book” (1966:2).

John R. Yeatts