Recapturing the Hermeneutics of Henry Barclay Swete for the Apocalyspe of John

Anytime I study scholars from prior generations, I am humbly reminded that we stand of the shoulders giants. Henry Braclay Swete is one of those giants whose shoulders have provided me with an better vista when pondering the grander of John’s Apocalypse.

Henry Barclay Swete
Henry Barclay Swete

H.B. Swete (1835-1917), regius professor of divinity at Cambridge and author of several works, wrote a commentary on Revelation first published in 1906. Its worth may be attested by the numerous editions and reprints that still circulate today.


I have been writing about the history of interpretation of the Apocalypse. Swete’s commentary is one that I always have at the ready when researching. As part of his lengthy introductory material forming the first third of his commentary, he surveys the contributions of ancient and medieval commentaries. After discussing some of the developments and views of some scholars leading up to the end of the 19th century, Swete lays out his own views concerning his approach to interpretation.

As I read his remarks, I was amazed at how well he articulated some of the  same basic views I have come to adopt for interpreting the book of Revelation (with some modification). The following selection of extended quotes, in my opinion, are not only brilliant and balanced, but also need to be recovered for our own day.

1) John was a prophet in the tradition of the OT prophets and it should be read in a similar manner.

“This commentary has been written under the conviction that the author of the Apocalypse was, what he claimed to be, an inspired prophet. He belongs to the order which in older days produced the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. . . His rendering of this message into human through and speech must be interpreted as we interpret the prophecies of the Old Testament canon. . .” (ccxvi)

What I find so important about this quote is that Swete correctly recognized that John wrote in the same tradition as the other canonical prophets and therefore should be understood with respect to these prophetic writings. He builds upon this in the next quote to clarify what we should and should not expect to find in terms of future predictive prophecy.

“The student who approaches the Apocalypse from this point of view will not expect to find in it express predictions of persons and actions which in St. John’s day were yet hidden in the womb of a remote future; nor will we look for exact chronological order in its successive visions, or for a sense of the distances which part great epochs from one another. But on the other hand the will expect and, it is frimly believed, will find that the prophet of the New Testament is not less able than the prophets of the Old Testament to read the secrets of God’s general purpose in the evolution of events, to detect the great forces which are at work in human life under all its vicissitudes, and to indicate the issues toward which history tends.” (ccxvi)

In this quote, Swete expresses two important ideas about how the read the Apocalypse as future prophecy. I think what he is saying here is that we should not look to understand every detail as a projection of some futuristic scene, but rather to see how it reveals history and its trajectory toward its consummation.  He appears to want to avoid the tendency of some to read it as purely a book describing far off future events from John’s day. He implies that the vision has an atemporal quality that speaks to every generation of the church throughout history,  but at the same time he recognizes that it does indeed speak to final events related to God’s plan for history.

2) John’s message came through a series of visions and shares many characteristics common to apocalyptic literature.

“The Divine message came to John in a series of visions; it is an apocalypse, and it uses the ideas, the symbols, and the forms of speech which were characteristic of apocalyptic literature . . . It is possible to exaggerate the influence which these Jewish books exerted over the mind of the Christian Apocalyptist, and it my be questioned whether he has made direct use of any of them; but they establish the existence of a common stock of apocalyptic imagery on which St. John evidently drew. The modern interpreter of the Apocalypse is bound to take into account the presence in St John’s book of the conventional language of apocalyptic literature, and to refrain from pressing them into service of his own line of interpretation.” (ccxvii)

He argues that the language and imagery of John’s apocalypse is something that would have been recognizable to those in the first and second century because it shares similarities with other such literature. He cautions, however, that we should resist seeing John as dependent on these writings. He further suggests how and why we should read the Revelation with an awareness of other apocalyptic writings:

“Phrases and imagery which fall under this category must generally be held to belong to the scenery of the book rather than the essence of the revelation. A recognition of this canon of interpretation will save the student from adopting the naive and sometimes grotesque attempts which have been made to interpret every detail in a book which, like all writings of its class, defies treatment of this kind.”

3) Interpreting Revelation requires series attention to and consideration of the purpose of the book in view of the historical situation surrounding its composition.

“The Apocalypse is cast in the in the form of a letter to certain Christian societies, and it opens with a detailed account of their condition and circumstances. Only the most perverse ingenuity can treat the messages to the Seven Churches as directly prophetical. The book starts with a well-defined historical situation, to which reference is made again at the end, and the intermediate visions which form the body of the work cannot on any reasonable be dissociated from their historical setting. Hence all that can throw light on the Asia of A.D. 70-100, and upon Christian life in Asia during that period, is of primary importance to the study of the Apocalypse, not only in view of the locally allusions . . ., but as helping to determine the aim and drift of the entire work.” (ccxvii-ccxvii)

All I can say about this is – Amen! If I may quote his again to assert another hearty amen:

“No one who realizes that the prophecy is an answer to the crying needs of the Seven Churches will dream of treating it as a detailed forecast of the course of mediaeval [sic] and modern history in Western Europe.”

If we view Revelation with this sensitivity, how does it relate to the future and the purpose of the book? He answers this question by stating:

“So far as the Apocalyptist reveals the future, he reveals it not with the view of exercising the ingenuity of remote generations, but for the practical purpose of inculcating those great lessons of trust in God, loyalty to the Christ-King, confidence in the ultimate triumph of righteousness, patience under adversity, and hope in the prospect of death, which were urgently needed by the Asian Churches, and will never be without meaning and importance so long as the world lasts.” (ccxviii)

4) Interpret Revelation eclectically with reference to the major contributions throughout the interpretation history.

It will be seen that an interpretation conducted upon these lines will have points of contact with each of the chief systems of Apocalyptic exegesis, without identifying itself with any one of them as a whole. With the ‘preterists’ it will take its stand on the circumstances of the age and locality to which the book belongs, and will connect the greater part of the prophecy with the destinies of the Empire under which the prophet lived; with the ‘futurists’ it will look for fulfilments of St John’s pregnant words in times yet to come. With the school of Auberlen and Benson it will find the Apocalypse a Christian philsophy of history; with the ‘continuous-historical’ school it can see in the progress of events ever new illustrations of the working of the great principles which are revealed. (ccxviii)

If I did not know that commentary was written over a hundred years ago, I would assume it was more recent due to the way Swete advances an approach that so skillfully works though challenges still evident in scholarship on Revelation today.



One thought on “Recapturing the Hermeneutics of Henry Barclay Swete for the Apocalyspe of John

  1. Well done Alan, I agree with your take on Swete and found myself gravitating to him in these areas as well. Thanks for the post.

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