I grew up in North Alabama. The northern realms of Alabama at one time had the highest number of Churches of Christ per capita in the world. This is not a good thing. The large number of congregations was the result of a large number of church splits.
The church of my preschool years split twice before I left for college. My home congregation cleaved off the original church over the orphan’s home issue — whether church funds might be used to support orphanages. Really.
All the other congregations in the area were “non-institutional,” although we said “Anti” — pronounced with a certain curl of the lip. So I grew in a world where supporting orphanages out of the treasury was considered “liberal.” Fellowship halls damned. Youth ministers were considered with great suspicion.
Foy E. Wallace, Jr.
Orthodoxy — soundness — was defined by Foy E. Wallace, Jr. Among his many pet issues, Wallace pushed hard against the Churches of Christ’s historic pacifism and premillennial and postmillennial teachings. (We had some in both camps.) Wallace considered premillennialism a step toward Universalism, and hence surely damning.
In his 1966 commentary on the Revelation, Wallace argued for a Preterist, amillennial approach to the Revelation, that is, no actual thousand-year reign and fulfillment of the prophecies before or at 70AD. And so he interpreted Rev 21 as describing the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD —
This triumphal administration of judgment has been wondrously portrayed in the scenes of the apocalypse, depicting the end of Judaism with the fall of Jerusalem; and the triumph of Christianity in the glory of the New Jerusalem, the church of the Lord of all glory. Before its march of advance the evil powers of paganism collapsed and the empire of heathenism crumbled.
Really? Well, Judaism did not end in 70 AD, as we still have Judaism with us 2,000 years later. The Temple cult — the sacrifices, etc. at the Temple — ended. But Judaism continued.
Christianity did ultimately triumph, in the sense that Christianity has survived long after the Fall of Rome, but that happened hundreds of years later. Christianity did not suddenly take over Rome in 70 AD. Rather, Jewish Christians fled Jerusalem and found refuge in other cities in the area.
The impact of the fall of Jerusalem on Christians outside of Judea was not great. The impact on Judaism was, of course, huge. The Jews had to rethink how to be Jews with no Temple. And it’s likely than many Jews found reason to convert to Christianity at this time. But no historian would find in Rev 21’s victorious language a description of the horrors suffered by the Jews in Jerusalem or the flight of the Christians from the encompassing Roman armies.
On the other hand, he was nearly completely successful in his opposition to pre- and post-millennial interpretations of the Revelation. In fact, I managed to graduate from Lipscomb without knowing the meaning the “Rapture.” I had to look it up when the “In case of Rapture, this care will be unmanned” bumper stickers came out.
Clarke’s Commentary is from 1831 and remains popular among many in the Churches of Christ due to its opposition to instrumental music (see the commentary on Amos 6:5). As to the Revelation, Clarke declined to adopt an interpretation (from his Introduction to the Revelation) —
I feel myself at perfect liberty to state that, to my apprehension, all these prophecies have been misapplied and misapprehended; and that the Key to them is not yet intrusted to the sons of men. My readers will therefore excuse me from any exposure of my ignorance or folly by attempting to do what many, with much more wisdom and learning, have attempted, and what every man to the present day has failed in, who has preceded me in expositions of this book. I have no other mountain to heap on those already piled up; and if I had, I have not strength to lift it: those who have courage may again make the trial; already we have had a sufficiency of vain efforts.
Despite so saying, Clarke’s commentary largely ties the visions of the Revelation to events in the history of western Europe — all the while denying any confidence in his understanding of the visions.
Following Clarke, the Churches of Christ have largely ignored the Revelation in their teaching.
On the other hand, Barnes’ Notes, from 1834, was popular in the Churches of Christ at least until the 1950s and 1960s (just notice how often it’s cited in articles from that time), and Barnes took a historical/futurist perspective. That is, he tied the visions in Revelation to particular events in the history of the Western church.
In the Gospel Advocate commentary series, John T. Hinds’ 1936 volume on the Revelation adopts Barnes’ approach nearly wholesale. (He says so.) Like Barnes, he ties the visions of the Revelation to Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — making the Revelation essentially a history of Rome and western Europe written in advance.
For example, regarding Rev 8:12, Hinds writes,
If the three preceding interpretations are correct, the fourth trumpet vision found fulfillment in some devastating power that came against the Roman Empire, the same western division affected by the preceding powers. According to historians the Western Empire ended in A.D. 476. In the last half of the century the most of the Western Empire was controlled by barbarians and the emperors at Rome were only such in name. The rule was exercised by a patrician, the officer of highest military rank. In 476 the soldiers under Odoacer mutinied and ousted Augustulus, the young emperor, from the throne, and offered submission to Zeno, emperor at Constantinople. The former glory of both emperor and senate was gone, and Odoacer by authority of the Eastern emperor ruled Italy as patrician for fourteen years. (Decline and Fall, Vol. III, p. 512.) So ended the Western Empire; the rulers lost their power, yet enough was left to show the light had not been completely extinguished; or, if so, it would be restored by another and different kind of ruler in the city of Rome.
… This in time led to the inauguration of a new spiritual ruler in the imperial city who, with the title of Pope, claims to be the universal father of the church.
But, somewhere in all this, Hinds (and Barnes) failed to notice that Asia Minor (modern Turkey) was not part of the western Roman Empire, and did not fall to the barbarians, but was part of the Byzantine Empire — a continuation of the Roman Empire that stood until defeated by the Ottomans nearly 1,000 years later — in the 15th Century! Why would seven churches in Asia care about the distant future history of Europe? Why would the history of Asia Minor be ignored in all this?
Asia Minor has had no Pope. They became Orthodox. They had national patriarchs, and they never submitted to the authority of the bishop of Rome. And yet influenced, I’m sure, by Luther, Barnes and Hinds identify the Pope as the Antichrist.
The dangers of the historical approach
I recall a sermon delivered during my childhood based on this passage —
(Rev. 12:13-14 ESV) 13 And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.
The theory was that each “time” in verse 14 was one year or 365 days, so that 3.5 years x 365 years produced 1277.5 years of the church hiding in the wilderness.
He concluded that the church became “apostate” under Pope Gregory in about 590 AD (although other preachers said the church went apostate in the Second Century when bishops were appointed over elders, as the church was no longer “scripturally organized”). This yields a date of 1867 for the church to leave the wilderness — being about the time of Alexander Campbell’s death.
Hence, the Restoration Movement is the true church, the church had been in hiding over 1200 years awaiting the arrival of the Restoration Movement, no one was saved during this long window of time, and the Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, etc. are all going to hell. (And, yes, it makes no sense.)
This was not straight out of Barnes’ Notes by any means, but it shows the ease with which a historical approach to the symbolism can be manipulated to produce “proof” of whatever you wish to prove.
More Than Conquerors
In 1939, William Hendriksen published More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation, taking a radically different approach. Hendriksen interprets the Revelation as a series of highly symbolic, parallel sections.
While rarely preached in the Churches of Christ, Hendriksen’s book will be found in many a Church of Christ library. We’ll cover his ideas in the next post.