“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slant inherent to the English version of the paradigm; and Joseph Medes Key of the Revelation (1627), which superseded all previous works in its sophisticated juxtaposition of history with Scripture, bringing the tradition to a kind of conclusion.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 examination, joins two sets of seemingly incompatible ideas without explaining the origins of this odd combination. Calvin himself expressed little interest in either history or eschatology. William M. Lamont has noticed that like St. Augustine, Calvin “viewed the Apocalypse with detachment: it had a circumscribed, allegorical significance, and that was all. Calvin remained wedded to a view of God as, in all significant things, Unknowable.”2 He concerned himself more with personal salvation than with the salvation of the world, and his sparse and unsystematic views on history tended to look for progressive improvement rather than rapid upheaval. Calvin spoke in terms of a “zeal for daily progress” among the community, and his followers expanded his ideas to encompass the betterment of a much larger group. “Indeed, despite Calvins Augustinian avoidance of historically oriented eschatology,” writes Robin Bruce Barnes, “the hint of progressivism in his thought left the way open for the frank meliorism and chiliasm of many later Calvinist thinkers.”3
Luther alone among the magisterial reformers displayed a healthy interest in things apocalyptic, and even he only gradually overcame his disdain for the book of Revelation. In a 1522 preface, he condemned the text as “neither apostolic nor prophetic,” and suggested that Jerome, who had taken an interest in it, should have devoted his attention to more worthy areas of scripture.4 He concluded a three-paragraph introduction with the decidedly uninspired opinion, “My spirit cannot fit itself into this book. There is one sufficient reason for me not to think highly of it,–Christ is not taught or known in it.”5 In his revised preface to the Apocalypse in 1530, however, he abandoned the traditional Augustinian interpretation for a more literal stance. Trained in the via moderna, Luther inherited the Quadriga, or four-fold sense of scripture, the standard medieval hermeneutical tool. Augustine had set a precedent by insisting on the priority of the literal sense of scripture over the other, higher meanings: the allegorical, which concerns what is believed; the anagogical, which concerns what is hoped for; and the tropological, which concerns moral conduct. Luther further divided the literal component into two senses; the literal-historical, and the literal-prophetic. The first of these emphasized the specific historical situation described in the Bible, and the second addressed the ways in which scripture had been played out in history since the time of the early church.6 Luther used this distinction primarily as a means of interpreting the Old Testament in light of the New, but his methodology yielded interesting results when applied to Revelation.
Despite his increased interest in Revelation, in 1530 (as compared to 1522) Luther made only a few cautious attempts to identify its various vials, trumpets, and seals with events from church history. He stated at the outset that the Revelation fell under the most obscure sort of prophecy, which foretold the future “without either words or interpretations,” but with dreams, visions, and symbols.7 After commenting on previous expositors relative lack of success in explaining theRevelation, he presented the basis for his own approach:
Since [the book] is intended as a revelation of things that are to happen in the future, and especially of tribulations and disasters for the Church, we consider that the first and surest step toward finding its interpretation is to take from history the events and disasters that have come upon the Church before now and hold them up alongside of these pictures and so compare them with the words. If, then, the two were to fit and agree with each other, we could build on that, as a sure, or at least an unobjectionable interpretation.8
Luther then embarked on a brief chapter-by-chapter explication of the text, in which he described the physical and spiritual tribulations of the church since the time of Christ. He did not make any attempt to modify the chronology of the book, but read it as a linear account of church history. He identified the four bad angels of Revelation 8 as Tatian, Marcion, Origen, and Novatus, leaders of heretical sects of the second and third centuries.9 The trials of the faithful were capped by the three woes, in the form of Arius, the fourth-century heretic; Mohammed and the Saracens, “who inflicted a great plague on the Church, with their doctrines and with the sword”; and the papal empire, which committed both spiritual and temporal “abominations, woes, and injuries.”10 “Thus the Church is plagued most terribly and miserably, everywhere and on all sides, with false doctrines and with wars, with book and sword.”11 The remainder of the book after chapter 14 contained only “pictures of comfort” for Luther; in the angels he saw preachers of the true Gospel revealing the false nature of the papacy, and the seven vials he interpreted as continued attacks on false doctrine which would lead up to the ultimate victory over Pope and Turk alike. He refrained from attributing specific events or names to these angels and vials, but wrote instead of anonymous “learned and pious preachers” who spread the Gospel. He likewise hesitated to assign specific dates to the events of past and future. The overall tone of the 1530 preface, however, suggested that “things are at their worst,” and that the recent turmoil associated with the Reformation prefigured an imminent end–a concept which he expanded upon amply elsewhere.”12
Luthers interpretation of the Revelation, tentative as it was in terms of specifics, nonetheless contained new and seminal insights into the study of church history. Barnes phrased it well, writing that the “crux of all that was new in Luthers reading of biblical prophecy, and the most influential of all his prophetic discoveries, was his identification of the Antichrist with the papacy at Rome.”13 Most medieval commentators believed that the Antichrist was yet to come, and focused their attention on predicting the nature of the coming evil.
The few early critics who did associate the pope with the Antichrist, such as Jan Hus and Savonarola, did so on moralistic grounds, using the Antichrist as a rhetorical device to criticize corruption in the Catholic church.14 By contrast, Luthers attack was rooted in the firm ground of Scripture. He rejected the old church because he perceived its teachings to be perversions of the Word of God, and in so doing he modified the traditional approach to the Revelation.15 As he saw it, “. . . by means of [the papacys] book, the world has been filled with all kinds of idolatry–monasteries, foundations, saints, pilgrimages, purgatory, indulgence, celibacy and innumerable other creations ofhuman doctrines and works.”16 Unlike some medieval commentators, who also identified the pagan Turk with Antichrist, Luther chose to apply the image strictly to the papacy, and associated the Turk with the beasts unleashed by the devil after his millennium of bondage.17
Thus Luther used both history and Scripture to attack the Pope, and this doctrinal foundation allowed him to carry his polemic one step further. He believed that under the influence of the ungodly papacy the Church had diverged from the true, “hidden” Church which continued to uphold the Word of God under persecution. Luthers reinterpretation of the two cities of Augustine appeared in his 1530 preface, where he stated that one could read the Revelation as a warning against the trials the church will face. In these battles, the enemies of the faithful will obscure the church under heresies and other faults, calling the elect “them damned heretics who are really the true christian Church.”18 Luther was far from being the first to interpret history as Gods work, but his insistence on the agreement between the Bible and history led him to mount a novel, doctrinally based assault on the Catholic Church.