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.

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.

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.

Intersections Between Biblical and Systematic Theology

My field is technically biblical theology, but I’ve found that the most helpful scholars are well-rounded and able to connect the disciplines. Additionally, in my PhD studies I came to the rather outlandish idea (*sarcasm*) that biblical studies, biblical theology, systematic theology (including historical and philosophical sub-disciplines), practical theology, and homiletics ought to form an interconnected whole. This of course is not an idea original to me, but SEBTS helped me to understand it and practice it. Recently I’ve been thinking specifically about the intersection between biblical and systematic theology. I wonder if specific biblical theological themes, such as the Temple, can help us not only connect BT and ST but also categories within ST?

For instance, as the Temple is the place where God meets man, so it is also may be a place where Christology meets eschatology.

Within the doctrine of Christology, one of the most important Old Testament identity markers for the person of Christ is that of Temple. Jesus’ identification of himself with the Temple of God helps theologians to develop a robust Christological identity that includes Christ’s rule over all things, his priestly office of reconciliation, his function as the restored image of God, and his communication of the real presence of God with humankind.

Not only does this help theologians identify and characterize the person of Christ, though, but it also aids them in connecting Christology with eschatology. The doctrine of eschatology is rooted in God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament, and they can be summed up in the expectation that Yahweh will return to rule over his enemies, reconcile Israel to himself, restore Israel to be the image bearers of God, and dwell with them through his real presence.

These expectations are all realized in Jesus’ identification of himself as the Temple, and thus the Christological identity of Jesus as Temple functions also to define the eschatological reality of the inaugurated last days.

Doctrine of Revelation and the Hebrew Bible

Revelation can broadly be described as God’s self-disclosure to humanity. Brevard Childs states that the goal of God’s self-disclosure is so that all may see and know him.[1] Thus, God’s revelation proceeds from his activity and to understand his actions is to know God.[2] In the Hebrew Bible, God’s revelation comes in different variety of media: fire, thunder, a whisper, a donkey but these often are related to and initiated through his spoken word, in turn bringing upon some type of action.[3] Two examples that I think this can be seen is through creation and covenant.

In the creation story, God’s word is portrayed as the actor. The Psalmist states that it was by God’s word that creation came forth (Psalm 33:6, 9). In God’s self-disclosure to humanity in Genesis 2:17, God commands Adam to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This command has an implicit promise that if Adam and Eve refrained from eating of the tree they would continue to live in the blessings of the garden and an explicit promise that if they did eat they would die. For Adam and Eve, because of their disobedience, God’s word of judgment becomes actualized. Their knowledge of God and his action of one who blesses and provides in the garden now include a God who judges and is more concealed outside the garden.

Another significant high point in the Hebrew Bible is the Abrahamic covenant. In Genesis 12:1-3 God establishes a relationship with Abram through the utterance of a promise—heir, land, nation, and international blessing.[4] God commits himself to Abram and to Abram’s family. God reveals himself to be loyal and will bless his family. God’s act in revealing himself again begins by establishing a particular relationship through his word. Likewise, it seems that God’s disclosure is initiated freely by himself, but is actualised by Abram believing by faith.

It seems that from the perspective of these examples of the Hebrew Bible that God’s self disclosure has a tight relationship to the obedience and faith of his people. I think this brings an interesting perspective to Christian theology which rightly understands God’s initiative in revelation, but what role does the idea of understanding, listening, and obedience play in this self-disclosure?


[1] Brevard S Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 43-44.

[2] Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, 45.

[3] Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009), 21.

[4] Paul R House, Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 75.

Further Reading

Barr, James. The Concept of Biblical Theology, 468-96

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament, 333-358

Balentine, S. The Hidden God 

Childs, Brevard. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, 20-59.

Ward, Timothy. Words of Life: Scripture as Living Active Word of God.

Ward, Timothy. Word and Supplement Speech Acts, Biblical Texts, and the Sufficiency of Scripture.

LA Theology Conference

This week I learned from a few of my colleagues about a new theology conference in Los Angeles, called (you guessed it) the “LA Theology Conference.” The lineup looks to be excellent, with plenary addresses from Oliver Crisp, Peter Leithart, Alan Torrance, George Hunsinger, and Katherine Sonderegger. There will also be three breakout sessions consisting of accepted papers from other scholars that submit by the October 12 deadline.

I’m pretty excited about this, especially if it turns out to be an annual event. Even with ETS/SBL having a Western setting for their meeting every once in awhile, it gets expensive traveling from Southern California to the meeting places of conferences that generally take place back East. To have something like this in my own backyard will be great.

Constructive Southern Baptist Systematic Theology

I don’t even know that this claim can be substantiated, but what are blogs for besides making unsubstantiated claims?

I think we need more constructive Southern Baptist systematic theologies from current Southern Baptist theologians.

To my knowledge, I can only think of either a) theologies of particular doctrines b) non-Southern Baptist baptistic STs or c) the anomaly that is “A Theology for the Church.”

NOTE: Yes we have many historical theologies (Garrett’s massive tome comes to mind) and some biblical theologies (e.g. Schreiner’s NT theology). I’m talking here specifically of systematic theologies, though.

As far as the first is concerned, they are good and helpful in many cases. I’m thinking specifically of NAC’s series including volumes on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and other such works (e.g. Dever and Hammett’s works on ecclesiology, Bruce Ware’s works on theology proper, etc.). I want MORE though – more on that at the end.

In many other cases, though, these theologies on particular topics tend to focus on divisive doctrines like Calvinism and dispensational eschatology, and at this point I think it’d be nice to, you know, talk about something else. Or at least talk about soteriology and eschatology in a more comprehensively systematic context.

As to the second point, Grudem, Erickson, and Geisler have produced systematic theologies from a baptistic viewpoint, but I want to see some SBC theologians do the same.

Finally, I want to commend the purpose and spirit behind “A Theology for the Church,” edited by my former President and teacher Danny Akin. Theology is done in community, and I’m appreciative of that volume’s dedication to that truth and to its desire to combine diverse perspectives in it.

But systematic theology is systematic – it needs to fit together from beginning to end. And so I’d like to see those diverse perspectives found in the different chapters of “A Theology for the Church” get their own individual STs.

I’m looking at you Malcolm Yarnell. I’m looking at you Russ Moore. I’m looking at you Greg Thornbury, Bruce Ashford, Chris Morgan, Greg Allison, Nathan Finn, Craig Blaising, John Hammett, Ken Keathley. And all the people I’m forgetting and offending right now.

I want MORE. More than just books on particular doctrines. I want some big, fat, 7 volume systematic theologies like Baptists used to write in the 1700s. Let’s do this.

From en.wikipedia.org

John Gill Agrees – Write more ST!