Revelation or Research?

One of the problems when studying the Book of Revelation is that while the book claims to be a series of visions experienced by John, the book is a complex web of allusions to the Hebrew Bible.  In fact, while Revelation never quotes the Hebrew Bible, it alludes to the Hebrew Bible in almost every line.  If this is true, then did John in fact have a vision, or did he write his book using the genre of a vision?  Is this book a Revelation, or is it Research and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, applying the prophecy of the Hebrew Bible to John’s current situation?

Here is one example drawn from Revelation 7.  John sees four angels holding back the four winds until God’s servants are sealed on their foreheads.  These are the 144,000 Jewish witnesses who are protected from the wrath to come (cf. 9:4, 14:1-4).  While it is possible to see this as a vision experienced by John, it is clear that this is an allusion to the book of Ezekiel.  In Ezekiel 9:4-6 there is another “sealing” of those who will be preserved out of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.  A mark is placed on the forehead of every man who has “groaned over” the abominations committed in the Temple of God prior to fall of Jerusalem.  A man clothed in linen (presumably an angel) passes through the city marking those to be preserved, the rest will be destroyed without pity.

John appears to be consciously evoking Ezekiel 9 here – the context is similar, a judgment of God, and the result is similar, those “marked” by God are preserved, those who are not will be slain.  Did John “experience a vision” or did he re-use the text of Ezekiel in order to describe a similar coming tribulation and preservation of God’s people?

It is equally possible that John experienced a vision and then used his knowledge of the Hebrew Bible to explain what he had seen and heard in that vision.  Either way, the book of Revelation is much more than record of a series of strange dreams.

Literal Interpretation and Metaphor

In my last post I tried to argue that the interpreter of Revelation must use the same literal hermeneutic used on Romans.  “Literal interpretation” is often lampooned as “wooden” when employed in studies on Revelation, but it seems to me that Revelation ought to be read as any other book of the New Testament.  If literal interpretation is defined properly (authorial intent) and the interpreter has a sense for the use of metaphors, then Revelation makes much more sense.

The problem in that paragraph is the “sense for the use of metaphor.”  A metaphor is a bit of symbolic language that intends to communicate something.  For example, if one of my students described my views on Revelation as “way out in left field,” he would not literally mean I was standing out in a baseball field lecturing.  That metaphor means that I was off-base (another baseball metaphor!) Perhaps another student would disagree, thinking that I had “hit the ball out of the park.”  Again, the meaning is that I did well and convinced him.  In both cases, I need to know about baseball and how these metaphors function in American culture.  If I were in Africa and someone said I was “out in left field,” perhaps the non-American would misunderstand what the point was and think I was standing over in the corn field.

This is what makes reading Revelation difficult.  We are 2000 years away from the world of the metaphor, not to mention several cultures beyond the Greco-Roman world of the first century.  In order to understand a metaphor, we need to read it as a listener in the last first century might have.  This implies a knowledge of the Greco-Roman world since Revelation was originally written to churches in Asia Minor.  More importantly, the readers were Jewish Christians who had knowledge of the Hebrew Bible.  There are two competing metaphor sets for any given metaphor in the book of Revelation – contemporary culture and the Hebrew Bible.

I’ll try one example here, the first “Horseman of the Apocalypse.”  Revelation 6:1-2 describes a rider on a white horse.  The color white is often associated with victory.  Roman emperors, for example,  rode in white when they celebrated victory.  But the color is often associated with righteousness, especially in the book of Revelation.  For example,  white robes are  promised in the letters to the seven churches and the martyrs in chapter 6, even the martyrs in chapter 5 might be said to be “victorious” because they have overcome.

There are two white horses in Revelation, this one and another 19:10-16.  In chapter 19 the horse and rider is clearly Jesus coming in victory to establish his kingdom.  If a person living in the first century Roman world heard this metaphor in either case they would think of victory and conquest.  Based the fact that this is a white horse, can we say that the white horse and rider is a positive image (Jesus, the gospel going into the world, etc.), or is it negative, the “antichrist” who goes out “bent on destruction”?

In my view, the rider on the white horse is a parody of Christ in 19:10-16, he is a “false messiah,” he is “anti-Christ.”  The rider is the Anti-Christ, going out “bent on conquest” from the beginning of the tribulation.  Several contrasts with the white rider in chapter 19 :  the name of the rider is “Faithful and True,” here the rider is given the power to judge and make war.  The crowns are different, the weapons are different.

Twenty-somethings: Ye of Little Faith?

According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, people born since 1980 are less likely than older generations to affiliate themselves with any particular religion.

“Millennials, the generation of young adults born after 1980, are significantly more likely than older adults to say they are unaffiliated with any particular religion.  Roughly a quarter of all Millennials (26%) are unaffiliated, compared with 20% of current Gen Xers, 13% of Baby Boomers and very few older Americans.”

I am not really surprised by this, although I think I take a bit different angle than others.  It is not so much that the “Millennials” are not religious because science and technology has released them from the need for religion.  I think that most 20-somethings do not associate themselves with a religion that the research people understand.  The question asked was “What is your religious preference:  Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, some other religion, or no religion?”  Given that choice, I might select “no religion” as well!

The interpretation of the survey data went on to make this observation:

“Today’s young adults also attended religious services less often and are less likely to say religion is important to them than are older adults. Still, in other ways, such as praying daily, beliefs about life after death  and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles, Millennials remain fairly traditional in their religious beliefs and practices.”

These people who do not associate with traditional, mainline denominations are still “fairly traditional” in religious practices.  They are “less religious”yet they still pray?  They still worship God?  Seems to me that the Millennials see their relationship with God as just that, a relationship, and not an affiliation with a denomination.  Relationship with God is more important than signing a confessional statement or observing a particular religious calendar or liturgical cycle.

Is this a bad thing? Probably, but it is a natural reaction to hypocrisy in in mainline denominations.  It is the natural result of religious leaders who live their lives absolutely opposed to what they preach from the pulpit.  It is the natural result of churches and denominations not addressing contemporary culture, but rather feeling from it, or worse, ignoring it.   If you drive people out of the church for not conforming to the church, you really cannot complain that they do not associate themselves with your church!

What is remarkable is that last paragraph could describe America, 2010, or Europe 1500, or Rome, 1000.  I wonder how the generation just prior to the Reformation would have answered the Survey’s questions?

Interpreting Revelation (Part 4)

Modified Futurism

This position is often listed as a final option which attempts to combine the best of the preterist, idealist and futurist positions.  George Ladd, for example, combines idealism and futurism.  He held that most of Revelation was future, but only after chapter 6.  Chapter 6 is symbolic of the general flow of the church age, similar to the idealist position rather than the historicist. (Eerdmans, 1972).  One finds something very much like this approach in the recent commentary by Grant Osborne (Baker, 2002).

Greg Beale’s commentary attempts to be a “redemptive-historical form of modified idealism.” (Eerdmans, 1999).  He attempts to read the symbols very much like an idealist, but includes a future aspect as well.  The beast of chapter 13, for example, is representative of all the “anti-christs” throughout history, but also points to the ultimate Antichrist of the future.  For Beale, the idealist view is primary, the futurist is secondary.

Grant Osborne concurs with Beale’s approach, but emphasizes the future aspect of the prophecies.  Osborne defines apocalyptic as “the present addressed through parallels with the future” (22)  For example, Osborne feels the three and one half year great tribulation in Revelation serves as a model for all previous tribulations the church has faced.

C. Marvin Pate writes as a contemporary dispensationalist attempting to read Revelation as a book about the future, to be understood as literal, but also to address some of the excesses of the dispensational approach (Four Views, Zondervan, 1998).  The criticism of dispensational futurism have merit; dispensationalism needs to “reinvent itself” in order to deal with the critique from Reformed writers (primarily a-mil and idealist / preterists).  This “re-invention” is modeled along the catchphrase “already / not yet”  as applied to the Kingdom of God in the Gospels by C. H. Dodd and later by George Ladd.  Progressive dispensationalism attempts to see both the presence of God’s kingdom in the present age while also looking for an ultimate fulfillment of the kingdom in the future.

I think that recent commentaries on Revelation (like Beale and Osborne) are less worried about futurist / preterist categories, and I think this is helpful.   While Robert Thomas’s two-volume work published by Moody is an example of a purely futurist commentary, most scholars are coming to the point where they realize Revelation is too complex for a single view.  John certainly was looking at events of his own day (preterism) and did in fact deal with the problem of evil faced by the church in all ages (idealism), and he certainly looks forward to the return of Jesus (futurism).   All three of these are necessary ingredients to a full understanding of Revelation.

Interpreting Revelation (Part 3)

The futuristic approach

Like Preterism, Futurism began as a Catholic reaction against medieval historicism.  The Jesuit Franciscus Ribera was the first Catholic futurist.  Ribera interpreted the Revelation 17 as the city of Rome defecting to the  Antichrist in the final three and one-half years of human history.  While the first chapters of Revelation pertained to ancient Rome at the time of John, the rest to a future reign of Antichrist in the final three and a half years of history.

The Antichrist will persecute true believers during this time just prior to the second advent. Revelation chapter 12 indicates that the true believers will “flee into the wilderness” during these last three and a half years.  The Antichrist is an individual (a Jew, from the tribe of Dan) who will rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and abolish the Christian religion.  He will trick the Jews will accept him as Messiah.  The ten horns of the beast (ten toes in Dan 2, etc.) are ten nations that will exist at the time of the second coming.  Ribera was not a pre-millennialist.  The thousand  years were an indefinite time between the cross and the second advent.  The saints are only ruling  with Christ in heaven during this time, there is no literal millennial kingdom on earth.  It is quite remarkable how close this version of futurism is to later “classic dispensationalism.” However, we should not say that dispensationalism is wrong because some of the ideas are found in a 17th century Jesuit.

Classic dispensationalism interprets Revelation as future for a number of reasons, but the primary reason is that Rev 1:1-3 imply that the contents of the book is a prophecy of the future, “what must soon take place.”  Since the events seem to describe an apocalyptic judgment of the world and climatic return of Jesus, the bulk of the book must therefore concern the future.  Part of the motivation for this is dispensationalism’s commitment to literal interpretation.  Revelation is not an allegory of the church age, or of “good versus evil,” but rather a real prophecy of what will in fact happen in the future.

One problem for futurists is deciding when the future “starts” in the book.  For example, the churches in Rev 2-3 can be taken as the “things which are,” but do the worship scenes in Rev 4-5 describe present worship in heaven, or is this worship still future, just prior to a tribulation?  It is even possible to see the seals in Rev 6 as parallel to the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, and therefore a description of this age (wars and rumors of wars, etc.)  If this were the case, then the “future” aspect of the book does not begin until the sealed book is opened and the Trumpets begin.  (Honestly, I am aware of few dispensationalists who would teach the seals describe the current age, but it is a live possibility and perhaps a good combination of idealist and futurist views.)

Some futurists persisted in reading Rev 2-3 in a historicist fashion by making each of the seven churches a “period” in the history of the church.  This was found even in the most “future” minded forms of Dispensationalism, see the Scofield Reference Bible on Revelation 2, for example. The seven churches have a four-fold application, the last of which is a prophetic picture of the seven phases of the church from A.D. 96 to the end.

To me, Futurism does justice to the claim of Revelation that it is a prophecy of the return of the Lord.  The approach suffers from an unfortunate association with predictions for the return of the Lord and the spectacular failures of those predictions.

Interpreting Revelation (Part 2)

The Preterist View of Revelation

The most serious problem for the historicist position is that none of the historical identifications could be proven, most would be considered obscure and anachronistic in the light of the 21st century.  By the early nineteenth century, historicism was running out of new ideas.  There were two reactions to the historicist position among some Protestant writers – preterism and futurism.

Because both of these reactionary movements had precursors in Catholic theology, many Protestants who began to view Revelation as either entirely past or entirely future were viewed as giving aid and comfort to the “Papists” and were accused of not holding firmly to reformation truth.  Both preterism and futurism are found in Catholicism, although the motivation for both  futurism and preterism seems to have been to avoid the identification of the Pope as the Antichrist.  For example, in James Durham’s A Commentarie Upon the Book of the Revelation (1658) 496, he states his belief that a futurist interpretation of Revelation is a “…conceit or dream of the Papists expounding all so literally of an Antichrist who shall come from the tribe of Dan, and that shall reign just three and a half years, sitting in Jerusalem … This dream [was] invented by them to keep their Pope from being apprehended as the true Antichrist.”

Preterism argues the Book of Revelation was written to describe the events of the first century and there was little if anything that referred to the history of the church beyond that period.   One of the earliest representatives of this view among Protestants was Moses Stuart. Moses Stuart, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 2 Volumes (Andover: Allen, Morrill and Ward, 1845).  Stuart blames Joseph Mede for universal application of the year-to-day theory in prophetic studies and popularizing the 1260 year reign of papal-antichrist. Stuart is willing to accept the year-to-day interpretation in Ezekiel 4 and even Daniel 9, but argues that these two passages do not require every day mentioned in prophecy to be a year.  For example, he notes that if the year-to-day principle were applied to Daniel 4:32, then Nebuchadnezzar ate grass for 2520 years!

Preterists argue that  Revelation is a highly figurative book which cannot be approached with a straightforward, simple, literalism.  For preterists, literalism will only confuse the meaning of the book. The meaning of the book is to be found in its rather bold use of symbolism to describe the fall of Jerusalem, not modern-era warfare, etc.  For example, Literalism is impossible with bizarre figures of speech such as the three frogs in chapter 16.  Ken Gentry surveys a few literalist commentaries and notes these “frogs” are normally interpreted as demons, but with frog-like features.   Do the two witnesses in chapter 11 really “spew fire” from their mouths?  Is that what John meant for us to understand?

Secondly, Revelation claims to be describing what will happen soon (1:1-3).  Soon cannot mean some 2000 years in John’s future.  The Greek word in 1:1 tachos  means “a very brief period of time, with focus on speed of an activity or event, speed, quickness, swiftness, haste” A preterist like Gentry cannot understand why a literalist (like Robert Thomas) chooses to take the plain meaning of the text “soon” and “allegorize” it into a meaning of 2000 years in the future.

Preterists like Gentry and Chilton apply  everything in Revelation to the fall of Jerusalem.  This is not, however, the only way of handling the book as a preterist. Their view requires a date for Revelation before A. D. 70, a difficult position to defend.

A number of commentaries on Revelation interpret the books as describing the situation of the church in the first century under Roman rule.  The conflict in the book is not God’s judgment on the Jews for crucifying Christ, but rather then persecution of Christians by the Roman empire for refusing to worship the Emperor / Empire (see the commentaries by R. H. Charles, Sweet, Roloff, for example).

A growing number of scholars deny Rome was persecuting Christians during Domitian’s reign, therefore the crisis in Revelation is an “internal spiritual crisis.” (See commentaries by Yarbo Collins, L. Thompson, Krodel, Barr, for example).  The church is struggling with mixing Christianity with the worship of local gods in order to mix in Roman society; the problem of the book is compromise with false teachers such as the Nicolatians.

Interpreting Revelation (Part 1)

The Historicist View of Revelation

The historicist method of interpreting Revelation is usually traced to the writings of Joachim of Fiore, a 13th century monk.  Joachim has been described as the “most original and influential of all medieval apocalyptic authors” (Bernard McGinn, Anti-Christ, (1994), 135).  His commentaries can be described as pre-millennial although Joachim might be better described as looking for a “post Anti-Christ” golden age of the church. He looked for the Anti-Christ to be revealed very soon followed by his overthrow and a new age of the Spirit, in which the Catholic church would rule in its most pure form. Joachim wrote “the Antichrist is already born in Rome…..the Antichrist’s persecutions will begin in a mere four years.”

Despite the fact that Joachim was expecting a real Antichrist in the very near future who would persecute the church for a literal three and a half years, it is possible to credit him with a development of several general “principles” concerning prophetic times that would become the accepted standard among historicist prophetic writers for hundreds of years.

First, Joachim expected prophecy to be fulfilled in history and in very real events. In fact, Joachim may be one of the first thinkers to develop a philosophy of history. Joachim divided history into three ages on the analogy of the Trinity, each consisting of 42 generations of 30 years each, or 1260 total years. The first age ran began with Abraham, the second with the Birth of Christ.  The third age was to begin with an outpouring of the Spirit of God on the church, especially upon a new order of pure monks.   The seven seals of Revelation 6 are interpreted as steps from the primitive church (the first seal, the white horse) to the Saracens (the fourth seal, the pale horse, with Mohammed as the rider). The fifth seal describes the current persecution ending in his own day.

Joachim’s second contribution to prophetic studies was that he understood the 1260 days of the Antichrist’s power mentioned in Daniel and Revelation as 1260 years rather than days. This was an innovation that was almost required by the long delay in the Lord’s return.  The early commentators on prophecy took the 1260 days as a literal 3 and a half year period of Antichrist’s reign.  Joachim is the first to consistently consider a “day” in prophecy to be a “year” for all of the numbers of Daniel and Revelation.  This includes the five months of the locust plague in Revelation 9. Since five months is 150 days, therefore the period described is 150 years long.  The locust are the heretical Catharists,  although Joachim confesses he does not know the origin of the sect.

A third contribution of Joachim was his believe that Babylon of Revelation 17 was the Roman Church rather than Jerusalem. For Joachim, Rome includes all those that are reprobate whether in the church or not.  The fall of Babylon will bring about a pure church and the conversion of the Jews.

Historicism was the only method of interpreting Revelation through the Reformation and was by Luther himself. The only writers who attempted to develop a method other than historicism prior to the early 19th century were Roman Catholic scholars, likely motivated by the Historicist criticism of the pope as the antichrist.

Biblography: The best historicist commentary is that of E. B. Elliott,  Horae Apocalypticae. 4 vols.; London: Seeleys, 1851; Joseph Mede, Clavis Apocalyptica (London:  Rivington, 1833).  Originally written and published in Latin, 1627, English translation by Richard More.