Thursday, April 18, 2013

Genre and Hermeneutics in relation to the book of Revelation

Genre is certainly the dominating hermeneutic these days in interpreting the book of Revelation, no more clearly evident than among evangelicals, however evangelical commentaries frequently ignore the need for clarifying exactly what this apocalyptic being spoken of is [1] and how a lack of clarification of apocalyptic impacts ones understanding of the book of Revelation, leaving aside the ever present problems of defining genre itself. [2]

Nowhere is this confusion clearer than when scholars question how we can claim the book of Revelation is apocalyptic when some 30 of the 31 base characteristics used to define apocalyptic could just as rightly be said to be the marks of prophecy! Indeed the naming of the author of the book, [3] which Revelation does, and the use of epistolary sections which the book of Revelation also has, marks it more as prophecy than apocalyptic! The nail in the coffin here is that the opening verse which declares it is prophecy! In the face of this many today are opting to say the book is a mixture [4] of these genres while others go so far into the nether region as to proclaim that its meaning is to be determined by comparing it with non-biblical apocalyptic texts!

Robert Thomas notes “most distinctive of all, however, is the fact that the book calls itself a prophecy ( 1:3, 22:7,10,18,19 ).” [5] To neglect, or ignore such a clear pronouncement is to undermine all ones attempts to understand Scripture.

Again Robert Thomas gives all who study the book of Revelation an astute reminder when he states in his Commentary on Revelation that too often we meet ‘genre override’. We do well to heed his warning as already far too many purported scholars are relying upon genre when the exegesis and consideration of the text in context fails to meet their preconceived theology. What we encounter is amillennialist’s arbitrarily resorting to “apocalyptic genre” to justify not taking the text literally even when there are no grammatical indicators to suggest a given passage is not literal. It is basic hermeneutics to take careful note of such indicators as the words “like” or “as” in the text, for example as seen in chapter 13:2, or when the text already clearly indicates that what is said is figurative as seen in chapter 11 which explicitly says “figuratively called Sodom and Egypt” where also ‘their Lord was crucified’ 11:8 or again when the text declares to the reader that a “sign” is being given as in Rev 12:1, Indeed in Rev 1:1 we are already told that it was signified to his servants, that is, “shown by a sign”. Again, just consider the usage of numbers in chapter 21. Many have found issue with the number 1000 in chapter 20, yet the text frequently clarifies exactly the literal nuance to be understood when a number is not symbolic, as in chapter 21 verse 17 it tells us it was 144 cubits thick by man’s measurement! And in 21:16 it has told us “found to be 12000 stadia in length” and height and width. Given the careful use of such grammatical markers or when the author has repetitive use of the same number without any contextual indication that it is to be taken symbolically, one should be hesitant to assume a number is symbolic. [6]

The arbitrariness of interpreting Revelation literally at one point and then symbolically at another without any grammatical justification is evident when genre driven interpreters get to chapter 11. Most Commentators I have read take the two witnesses as two people. After all the context clearly explains, they are literally two. It says in verse 4 “they are the two olive trees and the two lampstands”. They are protected from harm vs 5, they are crucified in Jerusalem 11:8. And they are two prophets vs 10. Yet on their [7] hermeneutic one could just as easily say they are symbolic, that the point being made is legal witness, for 2 are required to stand as legal witness against another. Lo and behold are we surprised when Gentry develops this thought by saying the two witnesses “probably represent a small body of Christians who remained in Jerusalem to testify against” the temple. “They are portrayed as two, in that they are legal witnesses to the covenant curses.” [8] The trouble is that the reader is at a loss to determine much of what the book of Revelation is on about when there are so many possible interpretations. The incredible diversity found in those that advocate apocalyptic Genre indicate the problems remains of deciding which interpretation is likely. Here, the number two on Gentry’s interpretation means “a small number”. If they are to be taken as “a small number in Jerusalem”, then what historical evidence do we have of them being crucified ( Rev 11:8 ) in AD70, which is also what Gentry, a Preterist says the book of Revelation relates.

Commentators such as Mickelsen, Gordon D Fee & Douglas Stuart, Leland Ryken, M Robert Mulholland, Beasley-Murray, Mounce and Leon Morris ( those who combine a idealist and futurist approach ) [9] arbitrarily switch in their hermeneutical stride from Symbolic or figurative to literal and so reveal a dire hermeneutical inconsistency. Too often they take this approach and yet are silent in regard to providing justification for doing this.[10] It is hermeneutical gymnastics and further, methodologically undermines a rational approach to God’s revealed Word. [11] Appeal to apocalyptic genre just won’t overcome firstly, the subjective manner of being literal on whim, often ignoring context and secondly, the prevailing differences of a multiplicity of varying interpretations between them on such passages meaning. We see this frequently also in Paul Barnett’s book ‘Apocalypse: Now and Then’: We acknowledge his stated aim is to provide a “devotional commentary” for families and individuals to read, however, declaring Revelation to be a confusing book, and reinforcing this in the mind of the reader by saying that one needs a key to decipher it, he should provide a little more justification for some of his more questionable claims or at least admit there are people who differ with him on these points.

For example his book follows an idealist / future interpretation and his [ layered ] seven fold structure follows closely that argued by Hoekema with his recapitulative theory of Revelation which finds its genesis in Augustine.

As to this recapitulative theory evidenced in the structure, one fraught with disagreement, one commentator astutely asks ”why a 7 fold structure and not 3 or 10?” [12]
Concerning the recapitulative theory, it is Hoekema himself who admits that if you don’t assume that Rev 20:1-6 describes what takes place during the history of the Church then you would need to admit that the 1000 years reign of Christ coming after his return, and it is only when one assumes 20:1-6 describes the history of the church that it follows that Revelation follows a progressive parallelism structure. [13] The question is “can one come to the meaning of the text that Hoekema gives us on a natural contextual reading of the text”? If not, it isn’t much of an unveiling!

Another serious deficit not even addressed is the problem acknowledged by commentators on how you understand the two resurrections in Revelation 20. Can they plausibly be understood as spiritualizing the first resurrection, whilst taking the second one literally as a physical resurrection? Are people who make one symbolic and the other literal really dealing with the context in any grammatically meaningful way? I believe not.

Lastly, I find Wood's arguments on how to deal with numbers especially relevant given how Barnett lays so much interpretive weight upon his meaning of numbers in the book of Revelation. Again Barnett fails to explain why numbers mean what he says they mean, and this justification is crucial when there are Greek expressions available for John to declare something to be “a very long time” without using the numeric 1000. Woods points out [14] that the phrase, “ a long time” has been used by Matthew in Matt 25:19 to “depict the duration of the Lord’s absence prior to his second advent”, and given its context in Matthew this is indeed intriguing, so much so that one might have expected John to use it here. Even in the book of Revelation itself, John has used a phrase to indicate the temporal shortness of time as in his use of “a little while”, which occurs in Rev 17:11 and his use of it again in Rev 12:12 where it is said of satan that “he is filled with the fury because he knows that his time is short.” Instead of using “symbolic numbers” it seems to me to suggest that John is quite deliberate in both his use of such grammatical temporal phrases and in his choice of numbers.  

Ryken’s comments on how one approaches the book of Revelation is characteristic of many preaching evangelicals today who see it as combining not merely the idealist and furturist but also the preterist and continuous historical. In essence he wants to have it all ways. He says: “Because of the literary form of the book, which portrays events symbolically, its relevance extends throughout the history of the world.” Thomas pg 89

Even whilst saying the book portrays events symbolically, he yet wants to keep references to the second coming of Jesus as literal. So while looking at chapters 4-18 in a very symbolic way, having interpreted so much of it under the idealistic rubric, [15] when they come to chapter 19:11-16 they want to see it as the literal physical return of Jesus to earth. If they remained true to their idealistic hermeneutic they would see Christ’s coming as metaphor for peoples moral and spiritual enlightenment much as the 19th Century liberals did with Jesus taking him purely as an enlightened man with a true sense of God. Of course taking chapter 19 in this way would mean it’s only about personal transformation and illumination, which is the end is pure mysticism.

The above is just a small investigation of the issues involved.

[1] See Michael G. Michael Macquarie University, At. S.W Australia The Genre of the Apocalypse:What are they saying now? Bulletin of Biblical Studies Vol 18 Jul-Dec 1999

[2] See David E Aune ‘The Apocalypse of John and the problem of genre’ Semeia 36 ( 1986 ) pg 66

[3] Thus contravening apocalyptic as pseudonymity. See Robert Thomas ‘Literary Genre and Hermeneutics of the apocalypse’. Pg 82. See also his Wycliffe Commentary on Revelation. Tmsj2e.pdf

[4] This is seen in saying it is Prophecy and Apocalyptic and Epistle. Cf C. L Blomberg ‘NT Genre criticism for the 1990’s’ Themelios 15/2 ( Jan / Feb 1990 ) pg 45. By conflating the three, who knew what it was saying until the 1980’s and thereafter?

[5] Robert Thomas ‘Literary Genre … ‘ pg 82

[6] Yet Paul Barnett does exactly this, ignoring context and the books use of numbers and without any supporting argument unilaterally declares numbers mean what he posits. So 1000 in Rev 20 is “a great number or a very long period”, indicating he takes it as both numeric and as temporal! That on the face of it is mind boggling.

[7] Ammillenialists for example.

[8] Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, 421-22. This is an approach exemplified in the New Hermeneutic. See D A Carson. ‘The Gagging of God’ pg 106

[9] See R Thomas ‘Literary Genre..’ pg 88

[10] Apart from a bland appeal to “genre” as apocalyptic.

[11] In other words it exhibits irrationalism. As to the accusation that my approach in this summary is mired in modernism that rejoinder will be dealt with in another article, but I believe others have pointed out the failures of postmodernism etc eg D A Carson in ‘the Gagging of God’ and William J Larkin’s book ‘Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics.

[12] See Steve Lewis, ‘Theological Presuppositions and the Interpretation of Revelation’. Conservative Theological Journal August 2003 pg 4.

[13] See Steve Lewis, ‘Theological Presuppositions and the Interpretation of Revelation’. Conservative Theological Journal August 2003. pg 3

[14] Andy Woods pg 9. 'A Case for the futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation'  and 85.pdf
[15] So Leon Morris sees the trumpet plagues as something that has been “true throughout the ages and it will be until the End.” Morris Revelation pg 123 cited in Thomas ‘literary genre ..’ pg 89