What Kind of Book Is Revelation? Bauckham on Common Misconceptions

In his fantastic little theological commentary on Revelation, Richard Bauckham notes that “Misconceptions of Revelation often begin by misconceiving the kind of book it is” (1). No doubt Bauckham is right: many people think Revelation is a doomsday account of the last days of our planet. Revelation’s confusing symbols, strange characters, and rash of plagues also lead people to stay away from it altogether. This is understandable.

However, we should actually read Revelation as a hopeful book—one that centers on the triune God’s redemption of all things. Revelation 21-22 are some of the most encouraging and inspiring chapters in the Bible because they tell us that one day God will make all things new, eradicating sin and death once and for all.

Bauckham tries to help us understand that there’s much more to Revelation and its place in the Bible’s storyline, noting that it is a book that fits under multiple genres and serves multiple purposes.

1. Revelation Is a Christian Prophecy

John wrote Revelation with a clear self-indentification as a prophet in the line of other biblical prophets. Bauckham points out that John uses OT allusions and language similar to other prophets like Amos and Ezekiel. Also,

“John’s great oracle against Babylon (18:1-19:8) echoes every one of the oracles against Babylon in the Old Testament prophets, as well as the two major oracles against Tyre. It seems that John not only writes in the tradition of Old Testament prophets, but understands himself to be writing at the climax of the tradition, when all the eschatological oracles of the prophets are about to be finally fulfilled, and so he interprets and gathers them up in his own prophetic revelation.” (5)

So Revelation is not just a prophecy book about “end times,” but a book about God’s promises in the past being fulfilled in Christ now and into eternity. This is not dreadful news, but immensely good news, because we know that God has kept his promises.

2. Revelation Is an Apocalypse

When we hear the word “apocalypse,” many of us automatically think of meteors falling from the sky and entire cities being destroyed. Judgment of this sort is certainly a piece of ancient apocalyptic works, but it’s not all they represent. Quoting J.J. Collins, Bauckham says that apocalypses primarily act as disclosure of “a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world” (6).

In other words, apocalypses are a glimpse not simply into divine judgment, but also a look at final salvation. Yes, Revelation shows that Satan and his followers will be thrown into the “lake of fire” because of their evil. There’s no denying this aspect of the book. But it ultimately shows that good will conquer evil, and that those who follow Christ will be spared from this judgment.

Bauckham also reminds us that Revelation is slightly different than other apocalypses of its day, because it deals with the future and deals with the contemporary issues of its first audience. This makes sense, of course, given that Gods eschatological salvation and victory apply to us now, though they will be fully realized in the future at Christ’s return.

3. Revelation Is a Circular Letter

Flowing from the last point about the setting of the first audience of Revelation, Bauckham rightly says, “Many misreadings of Revelation, especially those which assume that much of the book was not addressed to its first-century readers and could only be understood by later generations, have resulted from neglecting the fact that it is a letter” (12).

When we overlook the fact that this book was written to seven churches in first-century Asia, we miss the situatedness of the letter. This is not to say that Revelation has no meaning for us today—Bauckham makes a good case that the number seven (completion) means that this letter is for all churches in Asia and in every age afterward. However, we cannot see symbols and numbers like 666, for example, and believe they’re only codes to be cracked in some future time. John even says that the original readers can understand some of these symbols in their day.

Revelation, then, isn’t a book about distant events that we can take or leave—it’s actually a book written to Christians in the first century and every other age, encouraging us to fight for right doctrine, stand firm against persecution, and look to the triune God’s mission to redeem all things. Revelation is more than a book about divine judgment and end-times destruction—it’s a book about eternal hope in Christ.

Evangelicals and Historical Theology

For a few years now I’ve felt that evangelicals need to reevaluate our relationship with the Christian tradition. Some of this is related to my own experience with tradition, while other aspects of this impulse arise, I think, from seeing how evangelicals use the tradition in their own work, whether in service of their scholarship or of their understanding of liturgy. I am concerned that, for most evangelicals – including myself  – the tradition is at best, a blunt instrument to be (sparingly) used, or, at worst, something completely ancillary or even inimical to our commitments to sola Scriptura. I’ve written about the latter elsewhere; here I want to highlight a few ways in which I think we as evangelicals need to reconsider how we approach tradition as simply a tool to be used rather than as a gift to be received under the authority of Scripture.

A word before I do about why this is important – tradition, to quote Jaroslav Pelikan, is the living faith of the dead. When quoting someone we are not merely citing abstract ideas or sentences from thin air; we are attempting to receive and continue to pass down the faith once delivered in, by, and to the communion of the saints. Treating tradition rightly is a matter of loving one’s neighbor, both through receiving rightly – accurately and faithfully – what those before us have passed down and through ministering it to others. With that context set, how do many evangelicals (including myself) use tradition?

  1. Tradition is useful as a concept when I want it to be. We evangelicals often talk out of both sides of our mouth about tradition. On the one hand, we want to uphold sola Scriptura, often to the point that it effectively becomes nuda or solo Scriptura. This total rejection of tradition in service of (supposedly) proving and bolstering our commitment to Scripture’s final authority has resulted in a generation of Christians, lay and academic alike, who by and large haven’t thoroughly read the Fathers or the Medieval theologians, who don’t know enough about the intricacies of the historical development of Christian theology, and who haven’t been trained to read with the communion of the saints under the authority of Scripture. On the other hand, we want to claim tradition when it is useful. We pull it out of the closet in which we’ve shoved it when we need it, whether to spur on our hobby horses or to hammer our opponents. We say to tradition, “you should not be seen or heard unless spoken to,” and we only speak to it and call on it to speak when it is convenient for us. We use it as a blunt instrument, instead of seeing it as a gift from our brothers and sisters in Christ to be received and passed on in like-minded service.
  2. Tradition is useful for proof-texts. Because of our common lack of training in the tradition, the means by which tradition is useful to many of us can only be by proof-texting. Not many of us have read through the corpora of the Fathers or through Anselm or Aquinas (much less Ephrem or Bernard or the like). This leaves us with only one option when we need to call on the tradition – proof-texting. There are, of course, times when one verse from Scripture or one sentence from an historical figure has a meaning that is unequivocal and obvious. But more often than not, proof-texting leads to misinterpretation and misuse of texts, biblical and historical alike.
  3. Tradition is useful because it is malleable. Because we are not trained in the tradition, because we only need proof-texts, and because we see it as lacking in authority in any sense, tradition is continually subject to individual judgment in each generation. This means we can change it based on our own individual interpretive judgments – excising creedal clauses being the most obvious and egregious example.

So what are some ways to turn the tide on these problematic approaches to tradition? Here are some suggestions for moving from a utilitarian approach to tradition to what I hope is a more healthy view and appropriation of it.

  1. Read through the corpora of a few major historical figures. Take some time to read through all of the major works of Irenaeus and Augustine. Or all of Gregory of Nazianzus and Athanasius. &c. You’ll be challenged, surprised, encouraged, and convicted. You’ll also be confused sometimes, and even find yourself in disagreement. That’s fine – we all need to learn how to read charitably and critically at the same time. Most of the major works of major historical Christian figures are available for free at ccel.org.
  2. Read the recent scholarship on ancient Christian exegesis and the historical development of Christian theology. Because earlier generations of Christians, and particularly those in the Patristic and Medieval periods, do not share our cultural contexts, there are times where they are difficult to understand. There is much recent scholarship on the hermeneutical, philosophical, and theological commitments of early Christian theologians that will assist in accomplishing #1. You could find many resources for each theologian and for each period, but I’d start with John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, and Frances Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture. 
  3. Read with charity and humility. Neither of the above points matters if we aren’t reading primary and secondary sources in order to love our historical neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ, but instead are reading them to use and abuse them for our pet arguments and projects. These are men and women to be loved as image bearers of God and as brothers and sisters in Christ. That means we need to treat them and their ideas with love and respect. Critique is necessary, because we’re all finite and fallen, but critique must come from within the confines of Christ’s Church, the unity we have in him by the Spirit, our common goal of bringing glory to the Father, our common table, and our common final biblical authority. Both reception and critique also must come with an acknowledgment that, again, we are all finite and fallen. When I read, I read as one who is not God, either in terms of my intellect or my authority. I do not know everything, and the things I know I only know by the grace of the one true God who reveals himself to me by his Word and Spirit and who made me in his image. This means that I must be circumspect when I critique, because I do not critique from a place of omniscience or ultimate sovereignty but as a fellow beggar trying to help another beggar know what good bread looks like. Of course all Protestants, including myself, will see places where we disagree with the tradition. But we need to do so having given our interlocutor, our brother or sister in Christ, a fair, generous, and full hearing before doing so.

John the Seer vs. Caesar

Screen-Shot-2017-02-25-at-8.51.28-PM-300x299While compiling notes for my dissertation on the Book of Revelation, I came across this note on Revelation 1:16 in Craig Koester’s Revelation commentary:

The section climaxes by noting that [Jesus] holds seven stars in his right hand (Rev 1:16). This cosmic imagery conveys sovereignty. An analogy appears on a coin from Domitian’s reign that depicts the emperor’s deceased son as young Jupiter, sitting on the globe in a posture of world dominion. The coin’s inscription calls him “divine Caesar, son of the emperor Domitian,” and the imagery shows him extending his hands to seven stars in a display of divinity and power. John has already identified Jesus as the ruler of kings on earth (1:5), and the imagery of the seven stars fits the book’s larger context, which contrasts the reign of Christ with that of imperial Rome. (p. 253)

Koester is referring to the coin in the image (above), used in Rome around AD 88-96 during the reign of the brutal Caesar Domitian. Koester’s insights here give us an interesting look at the background of John the Seer’s writing during hostile Roman persecution. It also helps us think about the later date of Revelation’s writing (the end of the first century) versus a potential earlier dating (some say it might’ve been written closer to AD 65). This is enough to chew on a little bit.

But it offers us more than that. This information helps shed light on the theology of Revelation.

First, it serves as an example that much of Revelation’s imagery (beasts, numbers, etc.) is a direct shot at the Roman empire. Many believe (and I’m largely convinced) that Revelation is written during intense Roman persecution and this letter was first written to encourage the church during that time. However, as a non-preterist, I believe portions of the letter are speaking of future events—i,e., Jesus hasn’t come back yet; the New Jerusalem isn’t here yet; etc. In any event, this note might help us better understand the anti-imperial leanings of John.

Second, it shows us how high John’s Christology was. He’s not merely putting Jesus on par with some exalted or glorified person. Rather, he’s portraying Jesus as divine—specifically pitting Jesus’s true divine sovereignty against the supposed divine sovereignty of the Roman emperorship. Roman caesars liked to pretend to be gods, but John is reminding them and us that there’s only one true God. Jupiter is seated on the world with stars hovering around him? Ha! Jesus created the world and clutches the stars in his hand.

As I argue in my dissertation and elsewhere, John explicitly and purposely ties Jesus into the divine identity of YHWH, and this little note only adds to the case.

Early Christian Interpretation and Classical Christian Theism

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there were quite a few major movements in twentieth century theology, from a variety of theological streams, that concerned themselves with overturning or significantly revising classical Christian theism (CCT). Influences as varied as biblical theology, apologetics, philosophy, church history, and the history of interpretation have contributed to the suspicion, revision, and rejection of CCT. These rejections, revisions, and suspicions have resulted in everything from process theism to denials or thorough revisions of, for example, simplicity and impassibility. The basic gist of objections to these and other CCT-related doctrines is that they are unbiblical and philosophically untenable. And, at bottom, that basic objection rests on the assumption that CCT developed via reflection on God through the lens of Greek philosophy rather than through the lenses God’s Word or his actions in history.

This kind of gross mis-characterization needs to stop. The early Christian theologians were just as concerned as, say, 21st century conservative evangelicals, with demonstrating that their doctrinal formulations were thoroughly biblical. The distinction between pre-modern and modern exegesis and theology is not that the former is philosophical and the latter is biblical, but between what counts as “biblical” in either period. For pre-modern interpreters, “biblical” meant considering passages in their original historical and literary context, but it also meant considering those passages in their canonical, narratival, and metaphysical context.

One example of this kind of holistic theological method is found in Maximus’ Ambiguum 7:

For it belongs to God alone to be the end and the completion and the impassible.

Maximus in this section is discussing God’s impassibility, and his foundational metaphysical principle is that, on the one hand, “Nothing that came into being is perfect in itself and complete,” and, on the other hand, “That which is perfect is uncaused . . . [and therefore] free of passions.” In the immediately prior paragraph he says this slightly differently:

. . . nothing that comes into being is its own end, since it is not self-caused. For if it were, it would be unbegotten, without beginning and unmoved since it has nothing toward which it can be moved in any way. For what is self-caused transcends what has come into being, because it exists for the sake of nothing [other than itself].

The logic here is simple – Anything that has a prior cause (namely creation) has a purpose – “an end” or “telos” to use Maximus’ language. And because it has an end, which it has not already reached, it moves, or is passible, until it reaches that end. That which is unmade (namely God) is necessarily immovable since it is the end in itself. To put it simply, God has no greater end to move toward. This is why Augustine can famously say, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” – he’s drawing on impassibility. God is immovable because he is uncaused and therefore the true end, or goal, toward which all creatures are designed to move. There is no greater goal toward which he moves. Impassibility is thus directly related to telos – God is already complete, has no telos (movement towards completion), and therefore is without movement (passions).

All that may not sound very “biblical” since I have yet to provide a prooftext or even a citation. But Maximus’ logic here is filled with biblical quotations, citations, and allusions. After the second block quote above, Maximus goes on to quote, cite, or allude to Gen. 2:9, 17; Deut. 12:9; Ps. 16:15; Ps. 42:2; Phil. 3:11; Heb. 4:10; and Heb. 11:39. The point in all of these texts is that human beings are created to move toward their rest, namely rest in God. And then the kicker passage comes with his citation of Matt 11:28 – “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Christ himself, as God incarnate, is the telos, the goal, the rest toward which all creatures move. And while Jesus in his human nature experiences sleep, hunger, temptation, and death, Maximus here draws on the classic hermeneutical move of early Christian writers, partitive exegesis. (Augustine calls this the “form of a servant” / “form of God” distinction.)

We could also go on to talk about how, for Maximus, Jesus is not only the center of Scripture but also the center of the universe (again, he backs this up repeatedly with biblical citations). It’s an important point in understanding why Maximus ends with Matt. 11:28 and not, say, OT texts that talk about YHWH as Israel’s rest. Nevertheless, the point here is merely that before evangelicals (including myself) knock the Great Tradition, either hermeneutically or theologically, we should recognize that in the last half century or so our own tradition is largely untrained in the history of interpretation and historical theology. There is a thoroughly biblical, metaphysical logic behind classical Christian theism and pre-Enlightenment Christian interpretation that should be understood on its own terms before we consider rejecting it. That means returning ad fontes, reading primary sources in full and not just proof-texting them, and doing the hard work of understanding how our own hermeneutical assumptions differ from theirs.

Wesley Hill on Paul, the Trinity, and Theological Method

I interviewed Wesley Hill awhile back about his fantastic book, Paul and the Trinity. Hill’s book is one of the best books I have read in years, and was the catalyst for my current Ph.D. dissertation. I posted it on my old blog, and am reposting the interview here because I think the Biblical Reasoning crowd will find it interesting and helpful. Hopefully, this interview will encourage you to buy it and read for yourself!

Brandon: How does Paul and the Trinity seek to correct misconceptions about Paul’s theology, particularly in regard to the Trinity?

Wesley: One influential misconception about Paul is that he doesn’t have anything distinctive to say about God. As the great Pauline scholar E. P. Sanders once said, “From [Paul] we learn nothing new or remarkable about God… it is clear that Paul did not spend his time reflecting on the nature of the deity.” Paul’s distinctiveness is thought to lie, rather, in his Christology. But my book tries to make an argument that Paul’s Christology is inseparable from his view of God, so that the relationship between God and Jesus is mutually constitutive for the identities of both. You can’t say Paul has a distinctive Christology without also saying Paul has a distinctive understanding of God.

Brandon: While he’s obviously not working with precise Nicene language or concepts, you argue that exegesis of Paul does not reach its full potential without Trinitarian theology. Can you explain that more fully?

Wesley: Trinitarian theology says that God is fundamentally and eternally relational. The Father would not be Father without the Son. The Son would not be Son without the Father. The Spirit would not be the love and gift that he is without the Father and Son who together give and receive him. My book is trying to make the case that that Triune relational “grammar” is a deep insight into Paul’s theology. Paul, too, well before the Council of Nicaea, understood what Kavin Rowe has called the “relational determination” of the divine identity.

Brandon: Do you believe that Paul’s understanding of the Trinity is more fully developed or unique than that of other biblical writers?

Wesley: I don’t think it is more fully developed than, say, the Fourth Gospel’s. Borrowing terminology from my colleague David Yeago, I would say that Paul has a unique conceptual apparatus for talking about God, Jesus, and the Spirit. He uses the reverential substitute “Lord” for the divine name YHWH, and he applies that title to God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Spirit. But Paul thereby arrives at the same theological judgment as John, the author of Hebrews, and even the Synoptic Gospels, in my interpretation. There is clearly a wide variety of theological vocabularies in play in the New Testament, but in my view there is deep continuity among the various writers at the level of Trinitarian theological judgments.

Brandon: Which thinkers set the foundation for Paul and the Trinity?

Wesley: Kavin Rowe’s book Early Narrative Christology was very important for my work. It made the argument that Trinitarian concepts of “persons” and “relations” were the outgrowth of New Testament texts. The Gospel of Luke, in Rowe’s reading, portrays the “Lord” of the Old Testament and Jesus the “Lord” as “overlapping.” And yet Rowe also emphasized the irreducible distinction of the two in Luke’s narrative: Jesus carries out the mission given him by Israel’s God. This “doubling,” in which both profound identity and distinction are held together, is what later Nicene theology expressed with the language of one ousia (“essence”) and three hypostases (“persons”).

Brandon: There’s been a divide between systematic theology and biblical studies for centuries (insert Gabler joke here), yet Paul and the Trinity is a rich combination of the two. How can this integration move Pauline studies forward?

Wesley: Although it seems counterintuitive to many biblical scholars, reading the creedal, confessional, doctrinal texts of Christian history is, or should be, an exegetical enterprise, precisely because doctrines are exegetically derived. If doctrines came from Scripture, they should lead back to Scripture. In this way, we might say that Christian doctrines like the Trinity are retrospective: they are oriented toward the reading of Scripture; they are meant to take us back to reread the text. They are hermeneutical aids, if you like. Doctrines are not free-floating entities that improve upon the messiness of Scripture by replacing Scripture’s loose ends with a more straightforward, easy-to-follow summary. Rather, they are meant to prompt and enable deeper wrestling with biblical texts, including, as I argue, Paul’s letters.

The “Scripture and…” Seminars in Boston

I say it every year, and I mean it every year – my favorite events of IBR/SBL are the Scripture and Hermeneutics, Scripture and Doctrine, and Scripture and Church Seminars. These seminars attempt to combine rigorous biblical study and philosophical and theological reflection in an ecclesial context. This year, the SAHS and SADS seminars will continue their themes from last year, the Kingdom of God and Divine Action in Hebrews respectively. The SACS seminar will discuss the theme of the Kingdom of God from an ecclesial and liturgical perspective. I’ve listed the program, including date, time, and location, below.

If you’ll be in Boston, I’d encourage you to sign up for these seminars (links to SADS, SAHS, SACS sign-ups), as well as for the dinner on Saturday night. That meal is the absolute highlight of the entire week, for me, and this year the cost has been reduced – so please join us!

SCRIPTURE AND DOCTRINE SEMINAR

11/17/2017
1:00 PM to 3:15 PM
Room: Back Bay C (Second Level) – Sheraton Boston Hotel (SB)

Benjamin Quinn, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Presiding

Steve Harris, Hamilton, ON, Canada
Hebrews in Historical Theology: The Contours

Craig Bartholomew, KLICE, Tyndale House, Cambridge
Creation, the Ongoing Priesthood of Jesus, and Divine Action in Hebrews

Gareth Cockerill, Wesley Biblical Seminary
The Present Priesthood of the Son of God

Luke Stamps, Anderson University
“No One Greater”: Hebrews and Classical Christian Theism

Scott Hahn, Franciscan University of Steubenville
Covenant, Sacrifice, and Divine Action in Hebrews

Q & A Panel with Presenters
Discussion

Q & A Additional Panelists
Michael Rhodes, Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies, Panelist
Amy Peeler, Wheaton College, Panelist

SCRIPTURE AND HERMENEUTICS SEMINAR

11/18/2017
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: 306 (Third Level) – Hynes Convention Center (HCC)

Heath A. Thomas, Oklahoma Baptist University, Presiding

Jason Hood, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Boston Campus
God’s Empire: Exploring the Structure of the Kingdom in the Gospels

David J. H. Beldman, Redeemer University College
“Where Now Is Your King?” The Kingdom of God in Judges

Lynn H. Cohick, Wheaton College (Illinois)
“The Kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph 5:5): Kingdom in Ephesians and Philippians

Julien Smith, Valparaiso University
The Transforming Image of the Ideal King: Paul’s Apostolic Defense (2 Cor 2:14-4:6) in Light of Greco-Roman Political Ideology

Walter Strickland, Southeastern Seminary
Interpreting the Kingdom of God: The Ethics of Black Liberation in James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts

Discussion

SCRIPTURE AND CHURCH SEMINAR

11/19/2017
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: 103 (Plaza Level) – Hynes Convention Center (HCC)

Michael Wagenman, Western University, Presiding

Vince Bantu, Covenant Theological Seminary
Biblical Interpretation and Liturgical Performance in Global Christian Perspective

Peter Leithart, Theopolis Institute
The Kingdom of God and Everyday Liturgies in the Old Testament

Ruth Padilla-deBorst, Boston College
The Kingdom of God and Everyday Liturgies in the New Testament

Dru Johnson, The King’s College (New York)
Placebos, Elevator Buttons, and High Powered Lasers: How Ritual Ethics Enable Us to See the
Kingdom of God

Discussion

Basics for Interpreting the Book of Revelation

I didn’t grow up a Christian, but as soon as I began following Christ and attending a local church, I was almost immediately introduced to the Book of Revelation via the movie Left Behind. Like most Southern Baptist churches in the 90s, we talked a lot about the rapture, the Antichrist, the Tribulation, and miscellaneous details we could supposedly understand by decoding Revelation’s bizarre language and imagery.

Relatedly, I always remember being told I’d spend forever in Heaven, once I was raptured with Jesus and this world was destroyed. When I thought about Revelation, it was mostly wars, meteors, and desolation. Many of you can probably relate. I’m grateful, though, that I’ve been able to study Revelation for many years now, including as a major piece of my dissertation. In my experience, Revelation has been underplayed, under-appreciated, and simply misrepresented.

While there are many ways to approach interpreting Revelation, here are a few basics to consider first.

1. Revelation is not a book about destruction and fear.

Revelation certainly has its destructive elements—bowls of wrath poured out, beasts, the fall of Babylon, etc. However, these elements point to a greater hope, a hope found in God’s justice in his war against sin and death and evil. These sometimes terrifying elements of the book serve to show us that God is making all things new and redeeming the world fractured by the Fall (Rev. 21-22), not that he’s coming for us with a fireball in one hand and a lighting bolt in the other. Revelation has destruction within it, but it isn’t about that. It’s about our hope in the culmination of God’s promises.

2. Revelation is not about escaping Earth.

“This is not my home, I’m just passing through” is a sweet hymn, but it’s wrong. We don’t spend eternity in some far away place in the sky. Rather, we spend eternity right here, on this planet, the way God intended from the beginning (Gen. 1-2). This place is our home, though it’s certainly due for a major renovation. Sin didn’t cause a Plan B in God’s sovereign blueprint. He’s not abandoning his original plan for an Earth sprawling with image-bearers just because we messed things up; no, he will resurrect his people just like he resurrected his Son (1 Cor. 15). Heaven and Earth were joined together in the beginning, and they’ll come back together in the end (Rev. 21-22).

3. Revelation is not merely about future, end-times events.

This is probably the most misunderstood portion of Revelation. To be sure, it is an apocalypse in the sense that it deals with visions, prophecy, judgment and redemption, etc. However, we should remember that the book is also addressed to a specific audience in specific time (Rev. 1-3), and deals with issues that the original audience could understand and apply. It’s safe to say that Rev. 21-22 are about future events that haven’t happened yet, but the rest of the book is debatable. Likely, most of Revelation simultaneously applies both to its original audience and every generation afterward. Many of the allusions to Babylon, an antichrist, etc. can be applied to Rome and the Caesar the original audience knew, while also being representations or types for many generations of worldly kingdoms and rulers.

4. Revelation is not divorced from the rest of the Bible.

The numbers vary depending on who you ask, but most scholars say that Revelation has approximately 600 references or allusions to the Old Testament. In my study of Revelation, I’ve seen these allusions over and over again. Revelation’s author, John, never directly quotes the OT, but there are unmistakable allusions or hat-tips to the OT every few verses. John likely sees himself as a type of prophet, self-consciously telling the story of how Jesus finally fulfills all of the promises and expectations of the prophets, from Daniel to Isaiah to Zechariah to many others. Revelation is very much a capstone to the Bible’s unified storyline, not a freaky add-on to the end.

Theological Moorings for Canonical Readings

My doctoral supervisor, David Hogg, was once asked in my Theological Method PhD seminar what his method is. I still love his response: “I look for patterns and weird stuff.” That is, his approach to reading Scripture consists largely of paying attention to what is repeated and what stands out as extraordinary, either in terms of actual events or their description or both. This interpretive method produces readings that sometimes (many times) vexes those who hold to the historical-critical method and its evangelical cousins.

What, then, are the *theological* rationales that give an interpreter the hermeneutical warrant to link certain biblical texts together in a typological chain? To put a finer historical point on it, why does Irenaeus, in his On the Apostolic Preaching, feel justified in linking the Virgin Birth to the untilled ground out of which Adam is made, or Eve’s creation out of Adam’s rib to the Church’s birth out of Christ’s pierced side? I want to suggest that there are least three theological reasons that readers feel justified in these types of patterned readings.

  1. Spirit-Inspired and Christ-Centered: Of course, a canonical method, however clearly or vaguely defined, finds its ultimate ground in confessing that Scripture is one Spirit-inspired book with one Christological point. Because Scripture is God’s revelation of himself to his people, its ultimate source is the Triune God. Its inspiration and purpose are therefore related to God’s economic activity of redemption, and specifically to his work of revealing himself to his people. Because God ultimately makes himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, we should expect that the Scriptures’ primary point is to show its readers the incarnate Son. This is bolstered by the fact that the Spirit who inspired the biblical text is a Son-centered Spirit; that is, the Spirit’s job is to testify to the Son, because the Son demonstrates to us the Father. For these pneumatological and Christological reasons, we should not find it strange when Christian interpreters insist that Scripture’s ultimate referent is the incarnate Christ.
  2. God’s Providence: Patterned readings – readings that pay attention to biblical repetition, either at a lexical or narrative level – are rooted in the fact that God has providentially ordered redemptive history to progressively  and repetitively intensify until it reaches its culmination in Christ. That is, God has so ordered the events from the first Adam to the Second Adam that they a) are repetitive at both the level of the event and the level of the author’s description of that event and b) intensify via this repetition to point forward to their eschatological fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. This providential ordering is related to the previous point, in that God’s revelation of himself centers on the person of Jesus Christ, and therefore God’s providential ordering of redemptive history also points forward to that same Christ. We should therefore expect at both the literary and historical levels to find repetition from one biblical story to another.
  3. The Christological Center of Human History: Christ is not only the center of biblical history; he is also the center of human history, of the entirety of God’s economic activity in redemption and also in creation. Interpretations of the Bible that focus on seeing repeated patterns at the lexical and narrative levels find their ultimate foundation in God’s providence over all of human history, since that providential ordering centers on Jesus. This last point actually grounds the first two: because God’s economic activities of creation and redemption both center on the incarnate Son, he has ordered all of human history, and therefore all of redemptive history, and therefore his revelation of himself as part of that redemptive activity, to point to and find their culmination in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Earthy Signs of Israel’s Restoration

At the end of Hosea, God promises to restore Israel, and he declares his redemptive purposes using the earthy symbols of grain and vine:

They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
    they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
    their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon (Hos. 14:7).

The following book, Joel, reverses this earthy restoration with a promise of YHWH’s judgment:

The fields are destroyed,
    the ground mourns,
because the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil languishes (Joel 1:10).

Notice that a third earthy element, oil, is added into the mix. We could also add here the sign of water; throughout the Old Testament, water is a sign of judgment in both its excess (e.g. Genesis 6) and its lack, as well as a sign of restoration (e.g. Ezek. 47:1-12). For Israel, then, the earthy signs that they are looking for, the signs that demonstrate that YHWH has renewed them through his Messiah and Spirit, are water, oil, grain, and vine (cf. also Deut. 7:13 for the initial promise of blessing via these elements). Israel’s redemption is pictured as a redemption of the Land, and particularly of those four elements.

When Jesus comes, he comes as Israel’s Anointed – “Messiah” just means “anointed one.” He is anointed both at the beginning of his ministry in baptism and at the end of his ministry, just before his Passion, with oil (Matt. 26:6-13). In other words, Jesus embodies these restorative signs of Israel’s salvation, water and oil, in his Messianic anointing. With respect to the grain and vine, two elements crucial to Israel’s commemorative and formative Passover meal, Jesus embodies these as well, this time in the Last Supper. As he breaks the bread and takes the cup, identifying them as his body and blood, he is taking up the rich symbolism of Israel’s redemptive hope and culminating it in himself. There is now bread to eat, and there is now the fruit of the vine to drink – in Christ. We could also point to the “I AM” statements in John; Jesus is, among other things, Israel’s Bread, Light (associated with oil lamps), Living Water, and Vine.

Jesus, in other words, takes all these earthy symbols of Israel’s redemptive hope upon himself, and fulfills them. Jesus is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes, including its hope of restored Land. By taking these earthy symbols on himself, Jesus is declaring that in him Israel, including the Land itself, is redeemed. All of Israel’s promises, including the Land promises, are fulfilled in the incarnate Son.

But neither Jesus nor the NT stop there with respect to these symbols. These earthy symbols are not only fulfilled in Jesus but also instituted as signs of his Kingdom. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and King, but he does not isolate the presence of the Kingdom in his person. Instead, through pouring out his Spirit at Pentecost, Jesus spreads his Kingdom from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth via the proclamation of the gospel by his Church. And as his Spirit-filled Church expands, they bring with them signs of the Kingdom, namely the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. These two ordinances are instituted by Christ as signs of the Kingdom because they are signs of Israel’s redemption in him and therefore also signs of Israel’s restoration as YHWH’s people in Christ’s multi-ethnic church.

Jesus’ body and blood – Israel’s redeemed grain and vine – are proclaimed to us in the Supper, and therefore the Supper is a sign of Israel’s redemption. Jesus’ death and resurrection are proclaimed to us in baptism, and therefore our identification with Christ in our submergence into and reemergence out of the waters is a sign of Israel’s redemption. And as we anoint ministers, we anoint them (historically with oil) to minister the Word – the vehicle of Christ’s authority in his Church – to his people. The congregation sits under the kingship of the anointed Christ as anointed ministers proclaim his Scriptures. The Church’s symbols are therefore Israel’s symbols, and thus as the Church worships Christ they are doing so as the renewed and restored Israel, the Israel of God, because they are united to Israel’s Messiah who redeemed Israel in his own flesh.

Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology: An Allegory

This is anecdotal, and, for the purposes of this post, a bit hyperbolic, but in my experience there is still a divide within evangelical scholarship between biblical studies and systematic theology. To be sure, there are those who do these together and do it well, albeit from one or the other discipline, but, for many evangelical scholars, an academic version of Lessing’s ditch makes its disciplinary mark and it, like the original, cannot be crossed. Biblical studies is biblical studies, and theology is theology, and never the twain shall meet. Again, of course there are biblical scholars who believe all sorts of things about theology, and of course there are theologians who read the biblical text. But with respect to how these two disciplines mutually inform one another, the implied answer, at least from their praxis, seems to be that they don’t.

Here’s an example: I have witnessed, countless times, evangelicals trained in biblical studies exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to systematic categories, concepts, and terms. To my biblical studies friends, theology is something that should be kept at arm’s length, at least until we’re done exegeting. Dogmatics is also something that, to many biblical scholars, isn’t rooted in the Bible but instead in tradition, philosophy, and so forth.

I have also witnessed, namely through reading but also through listening to papers and to conversations among peers, systematic theologians theologize without exegeting the biblical text. Constructing dogmatics appears to be, for many, a task we can do without exegesis. Theologians look to philosophy, the hard sciences, the social sciences, logic, and history to “do theology,” but the biblical text is a footnote at best.

To put it simply: my biblical studies friends are often suspicious of systematicians, and my systematician friends often find exegetical work boring and useless.

Or, to put it allegorically, biblical studies and systematic theology are, in this view, like Jacob and Esau: they are family, twins, even, but different in stature, interests, and outcome. While they greet each other warmly on the outside, they do so under a cloud of suspicion on the inside (Genesis 32-33).

Rather than these two roads diverging so widely in the wood of Christian scholarship, though, it would be better if we did not put asunder what God has joined together. Frankly, this mutual suspicion between tasks is born not out of the superiority of one discipline or the other, but is instead a hangover from modernism. In seeking to cast aside every authority but the self, modernism separated exegesis from theology, interpretation from the church, hermeneutics from confession. This ought not to be so.

Biblical studies and systematic theology, rather than suspicious but related brothers, are instead more like covenanted friends. They push one another, edify one another, love one another, encourage one another, protect one another. Instead of Jacob and Esau, brothers in paternity but rivals in spirit, these tasks should be seen more like Jonathan and David: covenanted friends who seek to serve the one God together. Each has its strengths, but each needs the other to edify its work in places where its tools are insufficient in and of themselves.

Suspicion is a product of the spirit of the Enlightenment; mutual love is a product of the Spirit of God.