SpiralPMT 2014-027 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

A reader has written asking for evidence that Revelation follows a recapitulation scheme instead of a linear progression scheme. This is a good question, one that I think might be interesting to my PostmillennialismToday readers. I will engage this question over the course of two blog articles. In this article I will set up the problem. In the next one I will resolve it. Let’s get started!

This is an important good question, for a major challenge facing Revelation interpreters is the nature of Revelation’s progress. Does Revelation’s plot-line unfold in terms of linear progression? That is, does John prophesy events that will occur in a generally straightforward, continuously chronological progression from Revelation 4 through 22 (while allowing for a few interludes or back-flashes)? Charles (Revelation, 1: xxiii) insists that “the events in these seven parts are described in visions in strict chronological order, save in the case of certain proleptic visions . . . thus there is no need to resort to the theory of Recapitulation.”

Or does the drama move in some sort of recapitulatory or cyclical fashion? That is, does John prophesy events, then reconsider them from different angles in a spiral-like development, while repeatedly coming to the same conclusion-point? Smalley (39) argues that “the movement of the drama is spiral, not linear.” So then, A. Collins (2000: 388) summarizes the two basic positions: “some think that the literary design involves a linear sequence of events, whereas others argue that the same events are described repeatedly from different points of view.”[1] As Beale (Revelation, 116) notes: “to one degree or another most scholars fall along the spectrum of one of these two positions.”

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Though fundamentalist commentators today tend to adopt the linear view as the only legitimate position, Louis Brighton (Revelation, 29) observes that “throughout most of the history of the church these two methods of interpreting Revelation have coexisted.” David Aune (Revelation, xci) points out that in our earliest extant commentary on Rev, Victorinus of Pettau (d. ca. AD 305) “proposed that the seven bowl plagues (15:1–16:21) do not chronologically follow the seven trumpet plagues (8:6–11:15) as part of a continuous series but are actually parallel accounts of the same events, which they recapitulate in another form.” A. Collins (2000: 388) notes that “Victorinus’s principle of recapitulation was taken up by Tyconius . . . [who] applied this rule in his influential commentary on the book of Revelation, written about 385 C.E.” [1]

This issue is extremely important in that it can greatly impact Revelation’s overall meaning. As ISBE2 (4:174) notes: “A major problem in the interpretation of the book is the relationship of the seals, trumpets, and bowls: in the solution of this problem may lie the key to the interpretation of Revelation.” We can see an indication of the significance of the question in Kistemaker’s (65) comment that “the first [i.e., chronological] approach interprets the book literally, wherever this is possible” whereas the other approach recognizes the abundant symbolism within. I will be presenting the cyclical view in this commentary.

Though he cautions against a too precise recapitulation scheme, M. E. Boring offers several helpful insights into the matter. He notes that John does not intend his story-line to unfold in terms of linear logic, but more “as a gestalt of simultaneous images” (Boring, Revelation, 58). He argues this partly on the basis of the fact that, the very means of his receiving Revelation suggests the opposite, for “picture language is a better vehicle for dealing with ultimates than discursive propositional language, no one picture can capture or convey the reality of its subject matter. Thus a plurality of pictures of the same reality are found in Revelation, pictures than cannot be logically harmonized if reduced to statement” (Boring, Revelation, 58).

Boring continues: “While . . . there is some considerable parallelism between the series of events represented by the seals, trumpets and bowls, the material must again be forced to make it fit a neat scheme of recapitulation. This series of visions is not a chaos of disorder, but neither is it architectonically precise. It moves forward as a kind of impressionistic, interrelated spiral, bringing previous scenes before the imagination in new and intensified light, but never in some predictable, diagrammable way. John’s style of communication is allusive and evocative, imaginative and pictorial, rather than rigidly logical and consistent” (Boring, Revelation, 58).

The dominant view today is some form of the recapitulation or spiral approach rather than chronological progression: “the continuous chronological approach is not accepted by the majority of contemporary writers” (Robert Mounce, Revelation, 31). We see samples of this conviction in the following scholars’ statements:

Premillennialist Henry Alford (Alford’s Greek Testament, 4:665) states of 11:15, for instance, that “all this forms strong ground for inference that the three series of visions — the seals, trumpets, and vials — are not continuous, but resumptive.”

B. B. Warfield (“The Millennium and the Apocalypse.” Princeton Theological Review 2 [October 1904]: 1904: 5) sees Revelation as “advancing in a spiral fashion to its climax.”

Beale (Revelation, 532, 534) observes that “the trumpets go over the same ground as the seal woes, but from a different perspective” and “the bowl woes are temporally parallel with the trumpets.”

Robert Mounce (Revelation, 168–69) puts it well when he notes: “While there is a rather clearly discernible literary development [between the seals, trumpets, and bowls], it is not to represent a corresponding chronological development. The three series cover the same period of travail” (though he sees this occurring toward the end of history). I will argue in my exposition of the trumpets that they actually flow out of and expand on the sixth seal.

Though the images move in a cyclical fashion, however, they are not purely circular. John’s predicament is not that of comedian Steven Wright who complains that once he owned a home with a circular driveway, which he greatly disliked because he could not go anywhere. After all, Revelation’s drama certainly heads somewhere. Actually Revelation’s movement is characteristically Johannine in involving a spiraling motion (as do John and 1 John) which re-cast earlier prophecies, even though “each series is not simply a repetition of the previous one, but is a development of it” (J. A. Filho, “The Apocalypse of John as an Account of a Visionary Experience: Notes on the Book’s Structure.” JSNT 25:2 [2002]: 215).

E. S. Fiorenza (Revelation, 1998: 171) and Paulien (“The Role of the Hebrew Cultus, Sanctuary, and Temple in the Plot and Structure of the Book of Revelation.” AUSS 33 [1995: 261]) call Revelation’s movement a conical spiral. Bruce Metzger (Revelation, 18) agrees, adding that “the book involves a series of parallel yet ever-progressing sections. These bring [matters] before the reader, over and over again, but in climacteric form.” This style is called climacteric, based on a Greek word speaking of climbing stairs: the Greek word klimax means “ladder, flight of stairs” (BAGD 549). John’s spiral structure allows parallel treatment of the events simultaneously with an upward progress within each cycle.

Thus, Revelation’s cycles do not simply restate prior judgments, but intensifies them. John Court (Myth and History in the Book of Revelation, 72) notes that the “progressive stepping-up on the severity of these plague sequences” appears in their growing from one-fourth (6:8), to one-third (8:8–12), to the whole (16:3). Richard Bauckham (The Climax of Prophecy, 1993a: 8) notes that the theophanic formula increase in wordiness from 4:5 (“flashes of lightning and sound and peals of thunder”), to 8:5 (“peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake”), to 11:19 (“flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm”), and finally to 16:18–21 (“flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder; and there was a great earthquake . . . and huge hailstones, about one hundred pounds each”) so that “the expansion of the formula corresponds to the intensification of the judgments in each series.”

In my next blog, I will focus on the actual evidence for recapitulation.


[1] “The Book of Revelation” in John J. Collins, ed. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. vol. 1: The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity (New York: Contiuum, 2000).

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  1. CJ March 3, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks for doing these entries. I’ve read two Revelation commentaries, both asserted a recapitulation interpretation, but I didn’t find how they arrived at that premise.

    I tried making my own crude chart to see if I saw a strict recapitulation, and as your entry says, there isn’t a strict recapitulation. Ie The second trumpet, seal and bowl are not the same. Yet there does seem to be some sort of mirror going on.

  2. Patricia Watkins March 3, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    Amen, amen, amen. This is so gratifying to see spelled out what I have seen for some time, but did not have a label for. Scripture is replete with triple pronouncements of prophesy (birth of Isaac, Balaam’s prophesy, etc.) and I believe the purpose for the doubling and tripling of prophesy in scripture is stated by Joseph standing before Pharoah when he explains why God gave him a double picture in his dream – it was because it was certain to happen, and because it would be occurring soon. Certainty, and imminence. Apply this principle to the tripling of prophesy in Revelation (trumpets, seals, and vials), and you have a certainty that these things will happen and also an imminent quality to them. Just another reason to establish that the prophesies would be fulfilled shortly to John’s generation. Hello early date for Revelation.

    “In the mouth of two or three witnesses let every word be established.”

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