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.

Responding to Critiques of Inerrancy

410sPVQPOsL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In Can We Still Believe the Bible?, Craig Blomberg offers some observations on critiques of inerrancy and the idea that inerrancy “dies the death of a thousand qualifications” (pp. 126-130).

He first employs Paul Feinberg’s definition: “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.”

Blomberg says that inerrancy, then, actually has far less qualifications than most major doctrines like the Trinity or various schools within soteriology and eschatology. Feinberg’s definition has only four qualifications, all of which are left to hermeneutical and exegetical debate within these caveats. I think this should be true, but all too often inerrantists want other inerrantists to affirm whatever narrow definition they have created for themselves, leaving such little wiggle room that one wonders if inerrancy can mean anything at all. That said, Blomberg is right to fight for a healthy definition of the term rather than pretend that it is not an issue — especially here in the States.

He also argues that some people falsely consider “infallibility” or “verbal plenary inspiration” to be clearer terms. However, “the meaning of ‘inerrancy’ is morphologically straightforward: without error,” he explains. “What complicates matters is not the meaning of inerrancy, but the debate over what constitutes an error.” This gets to the heart of some of the standard external and intramural debates about inerrancy, though there is a whole hermeneutical battle being fought even within many inerrancy-affirming faculties.

Here are snippets of Blomberg’s responses to three main critiques about errors in the Bible, which I find helpful to remember in these conversations:

1.We live in a scientific world that values high degrees of precision in countless walks of life. … [H]ence by default we frequently impose modern standards of accuracy on ancient texts in hopelessly anachronistic fashion. Imagine being told one day that your job performance was going to be assessed based on standards not invented until the forty-second century, or shortly before. You’d be outraged. But often without realizing it, we impose on ancient documents twenty-first-century standards that are equally inappropriate. …

To this day, we use round numbers; ancient cultures did so regularly. … A grammatical or spelling “error” in any culture refers simply to nonstandard writing or usage of words; it is not as if there is some divinely mandated correct way to turn oral speech into letters or to arrange words to make a coherent thought. … The reporting of people’s words is a particularly significant example of where the ancients employed noticeably less precision than we moderns do. … In fact, when one historian borrowed from existing sources, it was considered good literary style and an appropriate way of owning information for oneself not to reproduce all the words verbatim…”

2. Another mistake many people make is to confuse inerrancy with literal interpretation. Even the expression ‘literal interpretation,’ as it was employed by the Reformers, meant taking the words of Scripture according to their most straightforward, intended meaning, not ignoring figurative language. … Entire passages and even whole books of the Bible may employ literary forms or genres that are misunderstood if taken completely historically. Apocalyptic literature affords a classic example. …

To affirm the inerrancy of Revelation 13:1-10 does not commit us to believing that a dragon or a beast actually exists as depicted in these verses. Instead, it means that the realities to which they point—Satan and a coming antichrist—really exist, and John really did have a God-given vision in which these individuals were represented by the creatures described. Indeed, defenders of inerrancy do not reflect often enough on what it means to say that nonhistorical genres are wholly truthful.”

3. Inerrancy does not preclude the hermeneutical need to distinguish between situation-specific and timeless commands or models in Scripture. Applying Old Testament texts in the New Testament age requires believers to filter each passage through the grid of its fulfillment in Christ (Matt. 5:17-20). Believers should not bring bulls or goats with them to church to be slaughtered to atone for sin … Christ has paid it all, as our once-for-all sacrifice for sin (e.g., Heb. 9:24-28); we obey the Levitical commands by trusting wholly in Jesus’s full and final atonement. …

When ancient Christians greeted one another with a holy kiss, they were following a culturally common and non-erotic practice of greeting friends. If kisses in certain modern cultures are not a common greeting and are likely to arouse romantic feelings, then some cultural equivalent such as a warm handshake or appropriate kind of hug should be substituted. These are all issues of proper hermeneutics and contextualization, not the direct application of a belief in inerrancy.”

God’s Kingdom from Genesis to Revelation

41BrepIX6yL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_The biblical definition of “kingdom” has long been debated. A classic evangelical view taught to me in grad school was George Eldon Ladd’s: the kingdom is God’s sovereign rule. Others have pushed a more social kingdom, arguing that God’s kingdom exists anywhere that social justice is being practiced. Of course, both of these definitions represent two extreme poles.

In his new book, The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross, Patrick Schreiner sets out to give us a more holistic understanding of God’s kingdom. In a twist on Graeme Goldsworthy’s classic definition, Schreiner defines the kingdom as “the King’s power over the King’s people in the King’s place” (18). In just 143 pages, Schreiner clearly and meticulously defends this definition from Genesis to Revelation. Don’t take my word for it; read the book.

Perhaps the best summary of the kingdom story comes near the end of his chapter on Revelation:

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil seemed to send the kingdom plan on a downward spiral, but it was through the tree of the cross that the kingdom was fulfilled. Now the tree of life [in Rev. 21] consummates the kingdom story started so long ago. The dragon is slain; the Lamb has won; the people are free; they are home. (130)

 

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.

Canonical Hermeneutics and Systemic Injustices

I watched the #PhilandoCastile dash cam video about an hour ago and am still horrified. This case appears to me to be a miscarriage of justice on every level, from the 50ish stops in 14 years to which Castile was subjected, to the actions of the officer, to the acquittal of the officer by the jury.

What is also puzzling to me is the continued insistence by some that Christians ought to concern themselves only with preaching the gospel and not with issues of systemic injustice in our societies. There are various reasons why I think some deny either that policing is a systemic issue to be addressed or that, more broadly, Christians should be engaged in confronting systemic injustice. Here I only want to briefly suggest that one of the reasons for this is a truncated canon.

My training is in biblical theology, and specifically in canonical criticism. I have been taught and have subsequently tried to teach others to read the Bible as a whole, as one book. And yet, evangelicalism continues to be what I would consider a mostly Pauline stream of Christianity. There is, of course, nothing wrong with Paul – I love Paul! I love the five solas of the Reformation, I love the explanation of the gospel of Christ followed by the ethical exhortations (indicative –> imperative), I love the rich imagery that Paul uses for God’s salvation of his people. Paul’s writings are just as inerrant and inspired as the rest of Scripture, and therefore just as important. But when we shrink our Bibles down to Paul, and specifically down to Romans and Galatians, we miss out on a lot of what the Bible has to say about justice.

The Mosaic Law, Israel’s prophets, and the wisdom literature all address justice in ancient Israel. And that material repeatedly connects justice with social issues, and particularly with the treatment of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Often (though, of course, not always), the marginalized are in that position for some ethnic reason, whether it is Israel being mistreated by a foreign nation or Israel mistreating foreigners and strangers in their midst.

When we come to the Gospels, Jesus also repeatedly speaks about how his followers ought to treat the same groups of people: the poor, the oppressed, and marginalized. And again, we see that “marginalized” has ethnic overtones. The same concern for the social implications of the gospel are found in Paul, albeit more so in Philemon than in Romans or Galatians. Still, his commands about husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves, and other such social relationships would have been radical compared to societal norms in his day. James is concerned that Christians treat the poor, orphans, and widows with the love they are due as God’s image bearers. And the book most avoided by expository preachers, Revelation, stands at the end of the canon with a hard word for the church. If Christians participate in or support the unjust systems of this world, they ride the Beast along with the Harlot.

The Bible shows that God confronts systemic injustice through his Word. Of course, the necessary caveat here is that what the Bible says is just for society is not always what society believes is just. With this caveat in mind, though, the point still stands: God cares about justice, and about the systemic injustices that occur in our societies. Perhaps if we moved beyond our (selective) Pauline canon within a canon we would see this a bit more clearly.

A Biblical Theology of Resurrection in an Early Christian Burial

My wife, Aubree, and I recently had a chance to get away for a few days to visit Rome—the Eternal City. It was a great visit and Rome truly is one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest. We spent a few days doing the normal tourist things like finding pizza and gelato.

One of our destinations—not too long after some gelato—was the Catacombs of Priscilla, “Regina Catacumbarum: The Queen of the Catacombs.” This catacomb, was used during the 2nd–5th centuries AD and houses some 40,000 Christian graves with a great number of Christian martyrs. The tour was an interesting experience and I marvelled that the tombs were used by rich and poor Roman Christians because they desired to be buried together so that they might all resurrect together.

A particular meaningful part of the tour was a room called the “Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman.” It is thought that these frescoes date somewhere to the second-half of the third century, but I think what is really interesting is that it has a biblical theology of resurrection of sorts represented through painted frescoes.

The centre of the room has a young woman praying with her arms extended, and directly on her left and right are other life scenes—possibly scenes from her life or the life of her family. And above her, in the centre of the ceiling is a painting of the Good Shepherd in Paradise surrounded by lambs, peacocks, and doves.

On the wall to the left is a painting of Abraham and Isaac. And on the wall to the right is a painting to the right is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the midst of the fiery flames. And in the archway of the room is the Prophet Jonah being vomited from the fish.

Each of these scenes depict resurrection, but it is interesting there is no picture of the empty tomb. It is clear that they put hope in that event, but these early Christians drew upon the Old Testament Scriptures as a way of depicting their hope of the resurrection of the dead. It appears—and I’m no Robert Langdon—that early Roman Christians understood that these Old Testament images reveal the character of God and his providential patterning of the future. What God has done in the past, they trust he will do again in the future.

Baptist Theological Method

Over the last day or so I’ve read Richard Barcellos’ The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory (Fearn: Mentor, 2013). I highly recommend this short but pastoral, exegetically based, and historically informed study of the church’s communion practice from a Baptist perspective. Although I could highlight a number of quotes from the book on everything from prayer to the Holy Spirit to Baptist history, one of my favorite sections is a very brief note on theological method Barcellos makes at the beginning of his final chapter. He writes,

The Reformed confessional and catechetical formulation of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace is not based on one biblical text or a few isolated proof texts. It is based upon a complex of texts, exegetical work on those texts, the doctrines derived from those biblical texts and others in concert with a redemptive-historical, whole-Bible awareness and in conversation with the history of the Christian tradition.

In place of “the Reformed confessional…as a means of grace,” we could substitute the simple phrase “Christian doctrine.” Doctrinal formulation is not a matter of proof-texting (although certainly we should allow for doctrinal formulation on the basis of only one text), but rather, as David Yeago puts it, using conceptual terms to render accurate judgments about the patterns of language found in Scripture.

Intertextuality in Revelation

Today on Twitter (and by today I mean 2 minutes ago) I mentioned that I think there is much work to be done on intertextuality between Revelation and the rest of the New Testament. Because of John’s obvious reliance on the Old Testament, there have been an increasing number of articles and books published on intertextuality between Revelation and the OT. For instance, G. K. Beale in his commentary, as well as in his earlier John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation (which has been assimilated into the much larger commentary), notes all kinds of fascinating intertextual connections, but they are largely confined to Revelation’s use of the OT. So far there has been surprisingly little published on how Revelation alludes to other NT books.

Alistair Roberts pointed me to the John-Revelation project, which is a fascinating and compelling textual comparison of the two books, and he also mentioned Peter Leithart’s forthcoming commentary on Revelation as a possible source for this kind of work. In my book I point to a number of textual parallels between Revelation and Hebrews-Jude, and early in the twentieth century R. H. Charles in his ICC volume noted the distinctive connections between John’s Apocalypse and the Gospel of Matthew. But, given Revelation’s status as the canon closer and its relatively late date in comparison with the rest of the NT, we shouldn’t be shocked if there are a plethora of connections between it and the Gospels and Letters. I for one believe this is an area where NT scholars can find hundreds of treasures in a relatively unexplored field.

Typology, TIS, and Biblical Theology

On Saturday Jim Hamilton contrasted the Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement’s and biblical theology’s understanding of typology. The gist of Hamilton’s argument is that TIS focuses on the divine author’s intent in understanding typological patterns and readings, whereas BT (or Hamilton’s approach to it, anyway) focuses on the human author’s intent.

Patrick Schreiner responded this morning with a post of his own, pointing out three ways in which he believes the divine author’s perspective is emphasized over the human author – the NT use of the OT, paratexts, and the idea of biblical authors “speaking better than they knew.”

I’ll throw my hat in the ring here, but before I do I’ll say that I appreciate both of these men’s spirit and writing. They both do a great service to the church in their thinking, and I’d imagine they are a blessing to their local churches as well. I’ve benefited greatly from both of their writings, whether it’s Patrick’s blog or Jim’s books.

For me, though, I wonder if both of these posts are articulating a false dichotomy between the human author’s and divine author’s intent. While Hamilton wants to emphasize the human author, Schreiner wants to emphasize the divine, at least in some places. And yet, don’t the two work together? As Tyler Wittman put it in a comment on Hamilton’s post,

I think since Holy Scripture is at once something written 100% by God and 100% by human authors, we simply have to deal with the text as it stands. Asking whether or not the human author intended this or that type may be the wrong question of Scripture, as if understanding the literal sense must be either/or.

The problem is that such a question seems to presuppose a competitive relationship between the divine and human authors.

This is, for me, exactly right. On the one hand with Hamilton I want to say yes, we need to understand the human author. But on the other hand I want to say with Schreiner that yes, we need to understand the divine author. And in contrast (I think) to both, I’d say that the two must be understood together. It is not as if I am seeking one author’s intent to the exclusion or downplaying of the other in the text; rather, it is in the text that we see both authors’ intent at the same time. Further, intent is a primarily textual phenomenon; it originates with the author but is known predominately through the text. To distinguish between what the divine author was thinking and what the human author understood seems to me to be impossible.

I’d also say, contra Patrick, that the NT uses the OT far better and far more faithfully to the human authors’ intents than I think we sometimes give credit. Intertextuality, sometimes quite complicated intertextuality, helps explain many of the passages Patrick cites, as well as others. G. K. Beale and John Sailhamer have dealt extensively with Matthew 2 and Hosea 11, and I have attempted to provide a thorough textual explanation for Paul’s use of the Sarah and Hagar story. The other examples he mentioned can be solved, in my opinion, through discussion of context (e.g. Rachel and Ramah – the Jeremiah passage is in the middle of ch. 31, about the new covenant).

So with Hamilton, I want to affirm the human author’s typological abilities. But with Schreiner I want to affirm the importance of considering the divine author’s intent. Contra to both, though, I want to affirm that these two work in concert, not in contrast or even in focusing on one and downplaying the other.

Scripture and Science

The relationship between science and Scripture is a hot topic today. I am of the opinion that, too often, Scripture is asked to accommodate to the positivist rationalistic assumptions and conclusions of modern scientific inquiry. Here are Vos’ insightful words on the subject:

“At present many writers take exception to [death entering the world through Adam’s sin], largely on scientific grounds. With these as such we have here nothing to do. But, as is frequently the case, strenuous attempts are made to give such a turn to the Biblical phrases as to render them compatible with what science is believed to require, and not only this, some proceed tot he assertion that the Scriptural statements compel acceptance of the findings of science.

Attempts of this kind make for poor and forced exegesis. Scripture has a right to be exegetes independently from within; and only after its natural meaning has thus been ascertained, can we properly raise the question of agreement or disagreement between Scripture and science.”

Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2012), 36-37.