Book Review: Buist M. Fanning, Revelation (ZENTC)

Fanning, Buist M. Revelation. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2020. 623 pp. Hb. $59.99   Link to Zondervan   

In the preface to this new contribution to the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series, Buist Fanning mentions three pairs of influences on his thinking about the book of Revelation: G. B. Caird and S. Lewis Johnson; Richard Bauckham and Craig Blaising; R. H. Charles and John Nelson Darby. In the strange universe of Revelation commentaries, these are indeed strange bedfellows. As Fanning comments, “Revelation functions as a kind of literary Rorschach test” (p. 23).

Fanning, Revelation, ZENTCIn fact, Fanning observes, the interpretation of Revelation often tells you as much about the interpreter as the message of the book. He therefore identifies himself as an evangelical with a commitment to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture, using “chastened” historical critical method and reads Revelation in the light of other first-century Jewish apocalypses. Following Richard Bauckham, he recognizes Revelation as the climax of the canon. Fanning’s commentary blends a typological method with a futurist reading of Revelation. He certainly takes into account the context of first century Asia Minor and apocalyptic literature of the Second Temple period, yet he does not get lost in the parallelomania which sometimes plagues commentaries on Revelation.

In the introduction to the book of Revelation, Fanning argues John the Apostle is the best candidate for authorship, writing in A.D. 95-98 to churches in Asia Minor.

As is common in commentaries on Revelation, a major section of the introduction is devoted to method. Fanning makes six axiomatic statements with respect to imagery and symbols in Revelation. First, literal does not equal “real, actual” nor does symbolic equal “imaginary.” It is not as though literal is true, and a symbol is untrue. Second, literal and symbolic language can refer to a range of entities with different character and scope. Third, a literal description can include emotive or connotative elements as well as denotative. Fanning offers as an example, “the Big Apple.” This is symbolic language refers denotatively to New York City, but it also evokes certain connotations and emotions. Fourth, a symbol can refer to a real entity without corresponding point-by-point comparisons which relating to reality. Fifth, Fanning follows Norman Perrin by contrasting steno-symbols (one-to-one specific historical figures) and tensive symbols. A tensive symbol cannot be totally exhausted nor adequately expressed by one reference. It “teases the mind into ever new evocation of meaning” (p. 35). For example, the Lamb in Revelation 5:6 refers to Jesus, but there is very little literal correspondence. The reader knows the lamb is Jesus. The trumpets in Revelation 8 build on imagery drawn from the Exodus. “They are intensified and universalized to be sure, but not changed to a different ontological realm” (p. 37).

Regarding the classic hermeneutical approaches to the book of Revelation, he begins by defining each preterist, futurist, historicist, and idealist. With the exception of historicism, he concludes each approach offers something of value for reading Revelation. Like Grant Osborne’s BENTC on Revelation, Fanning grounds his commentary in the world of the first century and finds application appropriate for the contemporary Christian reader, but he is also clear the book refers to future events.

In fact, Fanning has a consistently futurist perspective. With respect to the seven seals, Fanning suggests they are “the initial expression of God’s judgment on sin in anticipation of completing world-wide redemption.” These vivid symbols “referred to “real, this-worldly suffering that the earth and its inhabitants will experience as judgment from God during the future climactic events of this age” (p. 235). The 144,000 are ethnic Jews: “John affirms the widespread ancient Jewish expectation of the regathering in the end-times of all the tribes of ethnic Israel from the exile among the nations” (p. 263). The locust from the abyss are demons functioning in some ways like an invading army (p. 299), but this “nightmarish scenario will be devastatingly real” (p. 306). The mark of the beast most likely refers to Nero, but it is part of John’s typological pattern which foreshadows “the escalated fulfillment in the future antichrist” (p. 380). As for meaning of Babylon in Revelation 17, he rejects the classic dispensationalist view the city as literal Babylon as well as the common preterist view the city is Jerusalem. He argues Babylon refers to Rome as part of John’s use of typology, first-century Rome foreshadows the ultimate future worldwide enemy of God (p. 440-41).

The introduction concludes with a discussion of what Fanning means by typology and how the book of Revelation alludes to the Old Testament (and possibly Jewish apocalyptic, Greco-Roman literature and ancient Near Eastern mythology). The clearest examples of Old Testament types or patterns in Revelation are the reuse of the Egyptian plagues from Exodus in the Trumpets (Rev 8-9) and broader Exodus typology found throughout the book. For Fanning, this typology is more than a matter of how the New Testament uses the Old, it is “grounded in observations about God’s consistency in working out his purposes a crossed human history” (p. 47). Typology should not be limited to Christology or Soteriology, although those are common examples. In Revelation, judgment of the ungodly and opposition to God often conform to patterns found in the Old Testament. Fanning is clear: typology does not “require a metaphysical shift from physical, geographic, or historical entities to some sort of spiritual or eternal realities in the New Testament antitype” (p. 48). His view of typology does not require an antitype to be limited to a single climatic fulfillment. This allows for Antiochus IV Epiphanes to be a type of the future Roman emperors as well as a still-future antichrist (p. 48). Fanning argues this use of typological patterns accounts for John’s references to realities in the first century (preterism) as well as a final climactic period in the future (futurism). He cites favorably Marvin Pate’s progressive dispensationalist approach in Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Zondervan, 1998) and the “already/not yet” rubric.

In the commentary’s body, each unit begins with the literary context of the section followed by a concise summary of the pericope. Fanning’s translation appears in a graphical layout showing the relationship of clauses and the use of interpretive labels. A brief comment on the structure and an exegetical outline follows. The bulk of each unit explains the text. Each verse begins with a translation and the Greek text. Greek words appear without transliteration in the body of the commentary. The introduction to the series suggests readers with two years of Greek and some intermediate grammar will follow the discussion well. As the editors lay out the text, even readers without Greek will find the text accessible. Almost all detailed discussion of syntax and interaction with secondary literature appears in the footnotes. Each chapter of the commentary concludes with a section entitled “theology in application.” These are brief biblical-theological observations rather than pastoral guidance for preaching various sections of Revelation. Nevertheless, these observations often reveal Fanning’s pastoral heart as he seeks to apply the text of Revelation to a Christian reader.

Following the commentary proper is a chapter entitled “Theology of Revelation.” Fanning argues the book of Revelation is centered on “the true and living God engaged with his good creation.” He observes that Revelation is a “God-saturated book” (p. 568) and offers a series of points summarizing how Revelation describes God. Revelation is also a book about the reality of evil that has corrupted humans as well as creation. The book therefore describes an ongoing enslavement to deception and corruption by Satan and his minions (p. 571). Yet God works to establish his reign over his defiant and rebellious creation. God and the Lamb finally rule over creation, fulfilling God’s purpose of redemption. Revelation also describes a new community of the redeemed, although the word church does not appear in the book after chapter 3. Those who follow Christ suffered greatly in the severe final tribulation to come and the church is called to endure in faith and obedience in these intense trials (p. 573) while looking forward to the final salvation of diverse corporate worship of God.

Conclusion. It seems strange to describe a 600+ commentary as brief, but this only in comparison to the mammoth commentaries from Aune and Beale. Fanning’s contribution is worth consulting, especially as a representative of a future-orientated commentary on Revelation. His approach to symbolic language and typology grounds the exegesis in the overall story of Scripture. It is superior in this regard to Robert Thomas’s overtly dispensational commentary (Moody, 1992) or Paige Patterson’s attempt at a consciously pre-millennial commentary in the NAC series. Like other Zondervan Exegetical New Testament Commentaries, Fanning’s work is exegetically solid and reflects evangelical theological commitments.

NB:  Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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