PMT 2014-079 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.Idealism

The wry and sometimes disparaging humor of Ambrose Bierce is recorded in his Devil’s Dictionary. There he defines “Revelation” as follows: “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.” He would have loved our modern tele-evangelism use of Revelation.

Though Revelation was given to be a “revelation,” it has generated much confusion. As a consequence, four basic schools of thought have arisen regarding Revelation. I am continuing a series on this matter. In this study we will consider “Idealism.”

The idealist school is also called the “timeless symbolic” and the “poetic-symbolic,” or more technically übergeschichtlichen. This view sees a “repeated pattern of fulfillment” (Poythress 29). This school is ahistorical — or perhaps better supra-historical — in that it sees the point of Revelation as not so much painting an objective, historical portrait at all. Rather, John’s concern is to provide a non-historical, allegorical summation of various significant redemptive truths or historical principles. It attempts to provide the scene behind the scenes; that is, it offers a look at the philosophical/spiritual issues working themselves out in history, rather than at historical events themselves.

Amillennialism v. Postmillennialism Debate (DVD by Gentry and Gaffin)
Formal, public debate between Dr. Richard Gaffin (Westminster Theological Seminary)
and Kenneth Gentry at the Van Til Conference in Maryland.
See more study materials at:

Idealism, therefore, sees Revelation as presenting the ongoing struggle between good and evil, showing God’s work for good and his victory over evil by presenting “transcendent truths that are valid in every generation” (David deSilva). Advocates of idealism include William Milligan (1889), R. C. H. Lenski (1943), William Hendriksen (1967), Paul S. Minear (1968), and R. J. Rushdoony (1970), as well as modified (blended) idealist-preterists such as G. K. Beale (1999) and Poythress (2000).

Milligan argues that “we are not to look in the Apocalypse for special events, but for an exhibition of the principles which govern the history both of the world and the Church” (cf. R. H. Mounce). It provides “the action of great principles and not special events” (cited in D. A. Carson). “Revelation uses symbol, vivid imagery, and dramatic action to express transcendent truths that are valid in every generation” (D. deSilva 2009: 5). Thus, John’s great work serves virtually as a theological poem regarding historical struggle, providing a philosophy of history.

K. A. Auberlen holds that the events and personages of Revelation are mentioned only when there are “solitary examples of a principle.” The symbols of Revelation reveal God in his sovereign control over men and nations, despite man’s warring resistance. This view is the most recent of the major approaches to Rev.

Idealism’s strengths

Idealism has several appealing strengths.

(1) It seems to fit well with the symbolic nature of the book and with the frequent involvement of heaven with its “events” (e.g., 4:1–2; 9:1; 10:1; 11:19; 12:3).

(2) It provides an important framework for the Christian worldview regarding historical development in that it shows God’s governing hand ultimately at work. It thereby establishes a central place to theology in one’s historical outlook.

(3) Unlike historicism it is not subject to failed expectations since it does not expressly deal with concrete historical individuals or events. Thus, “it spares the devout the needless pains of following the course of vain calculations and questions of idle curiosity” (A. Kuyper).

(4) It does not ignore John’s original audience in that it is always applicable at any time in history.

(5) It also is amendable to the other interpretive approaches. For in a certain sense this view could be true simultaneously with any one of the other views. After all, history is in fact the outworking of divinely-established principles. P. Carrington writes of his own view (a merged preterism-idealism): “The best commentaries of recent years have been those in which the Spiritual [i.e., idealist] and the Present-Historical [i.e., preterist] methods have been combined; the Revelation represents great principles working themselves out in actual history.”

Antichrist Revealed (DVD by Jerry Johnson)
Exposes dispensational error regarding the Antichrist.
See more study materials at:

Premillennialist Ladd admits that there is “some truth in this method.” A. F. Johnson comments: “undoubtedly, the book does reflect the great timeless realities of the battle between God and Satan.” Craig Keener cites Tenney’s statement regarding idealism: “almost any interpreter of Revelation could give assent regardless of the school to which he belongs.”

(6) It encourages Christians to look beyond this veil of tears to ultimate issues controlling history which, of course, is a recurring theme in all of biblical revelation.

Idealism’s weaknesses

Idealism is not without some weaknesses, however. Consider the following.

(1) By all appearance Revelation appears to be so concerned with concrete history that wholly to overlook historical events seems to defy the strong impression the book leaves. In fact, the oracles to the seven churches clearly show a knowledge of and concern with their actual historical settings (W. Ramsay; C. Hemer; R. Worth; E. Yamauchi).

(2) Revelation is so long and complex that it would seem such a view as idealism could be presented in a shorter space and without giving such an appearance of historical reality.

(3) It downplays the time-frame indicators of the book which clearly assert that its primary intent is to deal with events that “must shortly take place” (1:1) because “the time is near” (1:3). Thus, deSilva complains: “a purely idealist approach, however, runs afoul of John’s own perspective on the imminence, and therefore special relevance, of the material for his immediate audience.”

Idealism has genuine strengths. And it probably lies behind the other views, though it should not over-ride them. I will continue this study of the schools of Revelation in my next article.

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  1. isaacoverton June 17, 2015 at 2:23 am

    Ken, are you planning on picking up this series on interpreting Revelation again?

  2. Graig Statum January 11, 2017 at 12:51 am

    Insightful article. Very helpful. Thanks!

  3. […] an opposition statement, you might want to consider Gentry’s Approaches to Revelation: Idealism as a reasonable starting […]

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