A couple of posts ago, I quoted Richard Bauckham regarding John’s use of visions in the Revelation. As we prepare to move to chapters 8 & 9 and the seven trumpets, I want to offer another quote from Bauckham that I believe helps us keep our course through the barrage of images we encounter.
“Consider, for example, the descriptions of the plagues of the seven trumpets (8:6-9:21) and the seven bowls (16:1-21). These form a highly schematized literary pattern which itself conveys meaning. Their content suggests, among many other things, the plagues of Egypt which accompanied the exodus, the fall of Jericho to the army of Joshua, the army of locust depicted in the prophecy of Joel, the Sinai theophany, the contemporary fear of invasion by Parthian cavalry, the earthquakes to which the cities of Asia Minor were rather frequently subject, and very possibly the eruption of Vesuvius which had recently terrified the Mediterranean world. John has taken some of his contemporaries’ worst experiences and worst fears of wars and natural disasters, blown them up to apocalyptic proportions, and cast them in biblically allusive terms. The point is not to predict a sequence of events. The point is to evoke and to explore the meaning of the divine judgment which is impending on the sinful world.”
Richard Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation
I think this quote is worth exploring before we move further into the Revelation because it raises a couple of significant questions that easily form obstacles to U.S. Evangelicalism’s approach to the Revelation.
One question Bauckham’s quote raises is “Is the Revelation the result of John’s ability to simply dictate what he ‘saw’ or his ability to craft what he ‘saw’ into a theological and literary work to serve his pastoral purpose?” Another question raised, and which is intimately connected to the first, is “What is the Revelation’s prophetic purpose? Is it a prediction of the future or is it a pastoral refashioning if the Christian imagination?” Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are not easy to arrive at. Because for many Christians, these questions bore into the bedrock of authorial validity and biblical authority.
Simply put, many Christians merge an extremely literal interpretation of the instructions John receives from the resurrected Jesus in John 1:19, “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later,” and faulty understanding of the prophetic role to form a dictation theory of the Revelation’s origin. Here’s how the reasoning goes: In the opening chapter of the Revelation, John is taken into heaven and instructed by Jesus to write down everything he sees. Then paraded before John are series of visions that predict future events. And depending on one’s interpretative grid — future, preterist, historical or spiritual — these predictive visions find some level of one-to-one correspondence to historical, contemporary or future events. However, I believe that this approach does severe injustice to the literary style of the Revelation as well as creates various contradictions between the visions that require superhuman theological gymnastics to explain.
As I’ve posted about previously, the Revelation combines three literary styles — epistle, prophecy and apocalyptic. The Revelation flows from John’s pastoral heart as he attempts to bring encouragement and correction to the struggling churches in Asia Minor. To do this, he shares with them a prophetic message to help reshape their Christian imagination from a heavenly perspective. He wants them to view their lives from the ultimate Reality that God is on the throne and Jesus is unfolding God’s kingdom and New Creation through the Church’s ministry in the world. But God’s purpose is met with vicious opposition by distorted human kingdoms, epitomized by the Roman Empire. The emergence of God’s New Creation is a messianic war fought not by military power, but by following Jesus’ ministry of faithful embodiment, demonstration and declaration of God’s truth, even unto sacrificial death. In order to show that all of God’s purposes are being accomplished, John casts his prophetic message in an apocalyptic style that draws heavily from the Old Testament (over 250 allusions to the Old Testament) and the contemporary realities of John’s readers. So the visions themselves are not to be interpreted literally. They serve as symbolic and artistic portraits. They are not to be mastered by by our brilliant attempts at deciphering all of the detailed symbols. Rather, they are to master us as they reshape and remold our imaginations, thoughts and feelings around God’s true Reality. They are to help form the mind of Christ in us as we live in a world hostile to God’s kingdom and therefore hostile to us.
However, our current Christian imaginations have been so formed by a futurist “Left Behind” perspective that a different approach to the Revelation is difficult to accept and even threatening. Like I mentioned earlier, it touches upon many Christians’ unspoken and often distorted values of biblical authority.
At the extreme, many Christians view the Bible as God’s instrument of exerting his authority to control and supervise sinful people on earth. God is holy and humanity is sinful. Therefore, in order to communicate his mind and will, God works through human authors to record his will for human posterity. This usually diverges into two separate, but equally distorted views. Because humanity in general is sinful, in order to fully capture God’s holy will in human language, human authors either had to dictate what God told them in order to keep it free from human influence or the authors that God used had somehow attained an elite level of holiness that allowed him to use their minds and words to record his will. In the first view, if Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul, and Peter are humans like us (i.e. sinful), they most likely dictated what God told them. In the other view, if what the human authors wrote was a human endeavor that God inspired, then they must be so holy that they are no longer like mere mortals.
Personally, I think both perspectives are flawed on many levels. I don’t think God’s authority is about exerting his control over people. If it were, why is most of the Bible in narrative form and not simply a rule book? A story is not the most effective means to control people. Nor do I believe that the Bible contains timeless truths that must be deciphered and extracted for modern readers. If so, then we are implying that God made a huge mistake in giving us his Word in its predominantly narrative form. By reading and interpreting Scripture from its current form into another more “accessible” form of principles, truths and application, we are stating that the Bible’s current form is flawed.
Any way, this is moving into territory that requires a lot of thought, time and energy than this post can allow. If you’re interested, spend some time reading “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” by N.T. Wright. It’s a great introduction into the issues of biblical authority and whets the appetite for his forthcoming U.S. release of, The Last Word, which has already been released in England as Scripture and the Authority of God.