Reformation Apocalypse

Irene Backus began her study of Reformation Readings of the Apocalypse: Geneva, Zurich, and Wittenbergout of frustration that Protestant commentaries on Revelation were widely unavailable. Her book is a straightforward summation of the ways Calvinists and Lutherans read the book.

Those in Calvin’s circle were, she concludes, “conservative” in their exegesis, following patristic and medieval readings, but adding some polemics against the Pope. Nicholas Colladon, for instance, believed Revelation “furnished a proof of the speedy demise(or conversion) of the papal Antichrist and a support for the belief thatthe Last Judgment was not at hand” (136). Otherwise, Swiss commentators didn’t read the book as having direct application to their own times.

Lutherans, on the other hand, were more apt to take the book commentary on contemporary events:

“To [David] Chytraeus and [Nicholas] Selnecker, on the other hand, the Apocalypse was, indifferent ways and for different reasons, a book about the Last Judgment andthe role of the Reformation in it. Luther’s early skeptical remarks about thevalue of the Apocalypse as a biblical text were very deliberately forgotten.Chytraeus was thus quite open in stating that the Reformation was a crucialevent, in that it brought about the full manifestation of the Antichrist justbefore the Last Judgment. Chytraeus saw it as a book for his time, so muchso that he unhesitatingly used it to speculate in some detail on the date ofthe Last Judgment. Selnecker in his vernacular commentary for ‘the commonman’ actualized the text even more by making the woman (the church)of Ape 12 pregnant not with Christ or with all the faithful since the beginningof time but with Luther himself. The images and figures of the textcorrespond to diverse events in Luther’s Reformation, and the papacy is nomore than a manifestation of one of the lesser devils. Living immediatelybefore the Last Judgment, Selnecker refused to speculate on its possible date” (137).

There are plenty of intriguing details along the way.The Zurich commentator Leo Jud’s understood the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation 12 as the Word of God: “She appears in heaven, which is the kingdom of heaven, the churchtriumphant, and the seat of all true faithful who have ever existed fromthe beginning of the world. She looks toward the sun. However, she representsneither the church militant nor the Virgin Mary but the Word ofGod, ‘clear and strong.’ The moon that is under her feet is human reasoncompletely subjugated to the Word of God. The Word of God is pregnantwith Christ in the sense of ardently desiring him, as all prophets havedone. In other words, according to Jud, the Word of God, or the Gospel,engenders faith in or ardent desire of Christ” (90-1). Backus might be overreading in saying that Jud implies that the feminine Word became male by the incarnation, but that is a possible conclusion from Jud’s discussion.

In Jud’s treatment of the seals, Backus discerns the influence of Joachim of Fiore: “For Joachim of Fiore, the first seal denotes the primitive church, thesecond seal stands for the Roman Empire, the third seal symbolizes Arius,the fourth seal denotes Mahomet, and the fifth seal represents the four spiritualorders. Joachim sees his own time as the end of the fifth seal. It will befollowed by the battle of the martyrs, with the silence of the seventh sealdenoting the silence of the contemplative life which will characterize the Ageof the Holy Spirit due to take place on this earth. Jud was obviously influencedby joachite exegesis in his identification of the sixth seal with the timeof the Antichrist and in his interpretation of the half an hour’s silence as atime of earthly peace. However, Jud makes very certain that he does not followJoachim in establishing anything resembling a spiritual age on earth. Thehalf an hour’s silence is a sporadic event confined to the past” (90).

In his Sermons, Bullinger took the millennium as a literal time period, and proposed a number of options as to ts beginning. He finally decided that it began with the fall of Jerusalem: “Bullinger finally seems to opt for his own chronology,which he puts forward as the third likely time span for the millennium.Beginning with the year 73 A.D. and the fall of Jerusalem, and apparentlyignoring the fact that Jerusalem fell in 70 A.D., he takes the thousand yearsup to 1073 and the papacy of Gregory VII. Bullinger’s millennium thus finallystretches from the conversion of the gentiles until the flowering of thepapacy during the reign of Gregory VII, marked by the investitures controversyand the submission of the Holy Roman emperor, Henry IV, toecclesiastical powers” (109).This exaltation of the Papacy was the release of Satan, and he preserved the claim that Satan was released for a short time by limiting it to the century between 1070 and 1170, since Reformers soon appeared to curb the Papacy’s power (110).


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