Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Interpretive Approaches to Revelation (A Review Summary)

While the prologue (1:1-9), John’s inaugural vision of Christ (1:10-18), and the visions for the seven churches (1:20-3:22) are seen as being "things which are," the balance of the apocalypse until the resumption of the epistolary frame in 22:8-21 focuses on things which "shall be hereafter" (1:19; cf. 22:6, where “things which must shortly be done” has raised the whole question of the timing of the events of Revelation!).

Of these "future events," those revolving around the judgment of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous in Revelation 4-19 have typically been approached in one of the following ways (see Gregg, 34-46; Pate, 19-28):

  • Preterist: events in the visions seen by "John" are symbolic representations of events before or contemporary with his time: e.g., the fall of Babylon represents the fall of Jerusalem in the Roman-Jewish War of A.D. 66-72.
  • Historicist: events in the visions occur after John but before the time of modern readers: e.g., the fall of Babylon represents the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century or the near-fall of the Roman papacy in the Reformation.
  • Idealist: the events in John’s visions are symbolic of greater, eternal truths (e.g., the ultimate victory of God over evil) and illustrate recurring themes. As a result, the visions do not necessarily have clear temporal or spatial connections. This is, perhaps surprisingly, an ancient exegetical approach, beginning with some early Church Fathers who were influenced by Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the Jewish scriptures.
  • Futurist: these prophecies have yet to be fulfilled and most will occur in the period leading up to the glorious return of Jesus: e.g., the fall of Babylon represents either the destruction of a single, worldly city or the worldly system in general.
  • Classical Dispensationalism is a particular branch of the futurist school which distinguishes between OT Israel and the NT Church, is premillennialist, and usually espouses a pretribulation rapture (the use of "dispensation" here should not be confused with LDS use of the term)
  • Progressive Dispensationalism applies the "already/not yet" hermeneutic throughout chapters 4-19 in joining aspects of the Idealists and Futurist schools. The Christ event began his heavenly reign and Christians, while living in this fallen world, have citizenship in a heavenly Jerusalem at the same time that they continue to dwell on this earth below. While progressives still look forward to a literal fulfillment of the prophecies in the future, they hold that believers are enjoying them spiritually even now (Pate, 28-34).

The LDS View, at least for the visions opened by the seven-sealed scroll in Revelation 5-11, can be termed eclectic inasmuch as each seal represents events of a different "1000-year" period of the earth’s history (see the usual reading of D&C 77:6-7). By this argument the first four seals incline towards a preterist interpretation, with some of the events of the fifth seal being contemporary with John’s time and others yielding a historicist interpretation. Much of the sixth and all of the seventh, with its seven trumpet judgments could be see as futurist.

This notwithstanding, the kinds of events that occur in the different “dispensations” (using the standard LDS meaning of the term) are the kind of judgments that happen in every age, suggesting that an Idealist approach is not out of order. I will also argue that a Progressive Dispensationalists approach is particularly useful for Latter-day Saints, allowing them to appreciate the strengths of both the Idealist and Future schools, both in Revelation 9-19 and especially in chapters 20-22, much of which we are covering in this seminar.

Other terms useful for the final chapters of Revelation include the following:

  • Premillenialist: Christ comes before the Millennium to effect the binding of Satan and the inauguration of the 1,000 year reign. This period ends with a final battle, judgment, and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.
  • Amillennialist: The binding of Satan began with the ministry of Jesus and was accomplished by his death and resurrection. The 1,000 years is an indeterminate period approximating the “Church Age”
  • Postmilllenialists: the binding of Satan and the establishment of peace is accomplished by Christ through his Church, that is through the successful preaching of the gospel. The 1,000 years may or may not be a literal period of time.

Despite differences on the “millennium,” only discussed in Revelation 20, most commentators accept the concept of “a new heaven and a new earth,” whether an actual new creation, a renewed creation, or a spiritual creation. The nature of the new heaven, new earth, and new Jerusalem is often approached in three different ways (see Gregg, 186-488):

  • The Literal, propounded largely by futurists and especially classical dispensationalists, sees chapters 21-22 as accurately describing the creation at the end of time.
  • The Spiritual applies these visions to a spiritual new creation, the Church, which exists here and now. This fits with the Idealists and Progressive Dispensationalists approach used for the earlier chapters.
  • The Symbolic applies to the vision in these chapters as referring to heaven, i.e. symbolizes not this earth but the saints heavenly home.

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