Monday, June 15, 2015

The "Profane" Book: Why the Fathers of Protestantism Wanted to Get Rid of the Book of Revelation

 "In the Reformation period, a determined theological criticism was raised for the first time.  In the preface to his September Testament of 1522, Luther bluntly denied that Revelation had the character of an apostolic witness, for two reasons.  First, in his view it lacked the clarity of didactic statements.  Revelation is neither apostolic nor prophetic because 'the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and plain words, as do Peter and Paul, and Christ in the Gospel' (Works 35:398).  Second, Luther contended that Revelation's witness to Christ lagged behind that of Paul and the Gospels.  He concluded that Christ 'is neither taught nor known in it.  But to teach Christ, this is the thing which an apostle is bound above all else to do' (p. 399).  Zwingli is no less clear in the Bern disputation:  'I do not accept the witness of Revelation because it is not a biblical book.'  Finally, Calvin passed over it in silence in his Bible commentary," Jurgen Roloff, Revelation, pg. 2


Speaking as an ex-Protestant Christian, I can sympathize with Luther, Swingli, and Calvin.  It seems ironic that such a mysterious book would be titled "Revelation."  The only thing that seems to be revealed in it is a series of impossible riddles.  Murphy writes:
"When texts do not conform to what we expect of them, we are surprised and often frustrated.  For most modern readers, reading Revelation is a unique experience.  They have never read a book like this before, foreign to their world in both form and content.  Since they cannot fit it into any familiar category, they may dismiss it as cryptic, disturbing, or irrelevant,"Frederick J. Murphy, Fallen is Babylon:  The Revelation to John
And our frustration is compounded by the apparent intentionality behind the strangeness:
"Apocalyptic language is not simple and straightforward.  The strangeness of apocalyptic discourse makes it hard to determine exactly what some apocalypses mean.  Apocalypses use complicated codes in which referents are masked rather than specified.  That has suggested to some that apocalypses are meant to convey information to those who understand the codes, while hiding the message from others.  The message would be clear to those holding the key to its imagery, but gibberish to others," Frederick J. Murphy, The Religious World of Jesus, pg. 167 
 I'll be honest with you, until this past weekend I had little interest in the Book of Revelation.  I simply had no idea how to approach it.  But then I came across a book by Brian Metzger titled "Breaking the Code:  Understanding the Book of Revelation" in which he writes:
"...it is important to recognize that the descriptions are descriptions of symbols, not of the reality conveyed by the symbols," pg. 14
"We must remember that the objects and events seen in a vision are not physically real.  As was mentioned earlier (pp. 12-13), Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37) and Peter's vision of a great sheet let down from heaven and filled with all kinds of unclean creatures (Acts 10) were perceived in a trance.  Such things seen in a vision are not physically present.  So too, in the book of Revelation the descriptions are not descriptions of real occurrences, but of symbols of the real occurrences.  The intention is to fix the reader's thought, not upon the symbol, but upon the idea that the symbolic language is designed to convey," pg. 66
So the Book of Revelation is encoded in several ways.  One, the author, John, was probably not wanted to say anything explicitly anti-Rome and so he had to encode it:
"The beast on which the woman is seated is Rome, as in 13:1-8.  Its seven heads represent both the 'seven hills' that had been for generations the trademark of Rome and the 'seven kings,' the full line of Roman emperors (17:9-10).  As another parody of the name God's people wear on their foreheads, harlot Rome has a name of mystery emblazoned on her forehead:  'Babylon the Great' (17:5)...In Jewish tradition, 'Babylon' came to mean 'Rome' after Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 66-70 C.E., as Babylon had done in 586 B.C.E. (cf. II Esdr. 3:1-3; 1 Peter 5:13)," M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, pg. 180
But the primary way that Revelation is encoded is in the very nature of the genre.  It's a very specific type of Jewish literature:
Apocalyptic developed out of Old Testament prophecy and wisdom literature in the postexilic period.  Apocalyptic sections containing visions regarding the end time can be found in Isaiah (24-27), Zechariah (12-14), and Joel.  However, the great mass of apocalyptic literature arose between 150 B.C. and A.D. 100.  To a certain degree it may be seen as resulting from the experience of the Jewish people, who in the period following the loss of an independent nationhood were at the mercy of the great world powers.  The larger question to which an answer is sought in apocalyptic literature is that of the goal that God has established for world history and the place that the endangered presence of Israel will occupy in the framework of God's plan of history.  Thus the first great apocalypse, the Book of Daniel, which was written at the time of oppression by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.), portrays a large-scale view of history.  The end of the Seleucid dynasty, the last of the four great world powers, is imminent; in the near future God will bring about the end time and rescue Israel, the people of the 'saints of the most high' (Dan. 7:2-27), from all oppression.  Similarly, later apocalypses, such as Baruch and 4 Ezra attempted to counter the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70 by sketching God's hidden plan for history, according to which the end of the hostile world power was to be awaited in the immediate future.  The essential function of Jewish apocalypses, therefore, is to serve as books of comfort:  they offer hope for the approaching era of salvation and thereby make perseverance possible in the perilous present.  Their secondary function is that of reminder (parenesis) and warning.  The intention is to show the pious that in their present critical situation everything depends on their steadfastness," Jurgen Roloff, Revelation
To conclude, the Book of Revelation can be misused given that folks want to get overly speculative with their interpretations.  But we should use the book as it was intended--as a source of comfort, knowing that no matter how bad things get, there will be a better future, that G-d will bring an end to the suffering and usher in an era of peace and joy:
"Eschatological thought goes beyond the general affirmation of the doctrine of providence, 'God is guiding history,' to a more specific statement:  'God is guiding history to a final goal.'  The doctrine of providence, as such, affirms that history has a Lord, but not that history has an end.  Providential thinking has no necessary place for thought about the 'end of the world.'  It is concerned with the process, not the goal, of history.  Eschatological thought, on the other hand, is the counterpart to the doctrine of creation:  Just as the world history have not always existed, but came into being by the act of the Creator, so this world and its history are not eternal, but will be brought to their goal by the God who declares not only that he is the Alpha but also the Omega of all that is (Rev. 1:8; these are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet).  Although 'end of the world' thinking is often thought of as gloomy and pessimistic, we shall see that in the Bible generally and in Revelation in particular the doctrine of the end of this world is a joyous hope to be celebrated--and that not because of any negative view of this world and its values...In a vast variety of imagery and forms of thought, many passages in the Old Testament indicate that the present state of the world is not God's final will for it.  Rather he will bring the world into a fulfilled state which does represent his own will for his creation," M. Eugene Boring, Revelation


2 comments:

  1. I view Revelation, in much the same way I view Daniel, it is more of a testimony to what will happen, but ultimately what happened (past tense), instead of telling us the future. I don't think most of Daniel or Revelation will even be understood, until it has already occurred, in other words, only when we look back on the events, not whats coming.

    Not only that, when we read these books, we try to make it fit our present time, when its possible that the events will take place in a "world" that doesn't even exist yet, meaning, the current world (state of affairs), will not even be present when these events actually unfold. For example, many interpret these events to occur in a world that looks very different than our current world, a world system or a one world order, which means, none of these events will occur until our world has completely changed. For example, the United States of America may not even exist as a nation when these events actually take place, we read in Daniel and Revelation, of a world ruled under a small number of kings, which our present world is not, which means something drastic would change and if we look at history, many of the ancient kingdoms that ruled the world, no longer exist, so it would not be anything out of the ordinary for such a thing to happen again.

    All that said, I agree with you, many people make all these elaborate predictions, when in reality, it should be used as a source of comfort and testimony. Even though this book is highly metaphorical, it may contain some very literal events as well, but even then, until the world is in line with the description of the text, it is purely speculation.

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    1. John 16:33
      I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

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