Revelation: Our Options for Interpretation


(Spectrumbot) #1

“Are you a preterist, futurist or historicist? Here’s a list of these three ways of interpreting the last book of the Bible. Check the one which is yours, sign it and we’ll get back to you. Or maybe not.”

Although I’ve taught for more than four decades on Adventist campuses, once during the 1969–1970 school year at Andrews University for undergraduates when I was a student at the Seminary, and since 1974 at what we now call Loma Linda University Health, I’ve never been asked such a question and I doubt that I ever will be.

Perhaps this is because I have made it clear, I hope in respectful ways, that it would be a waste of time to make this kind of inquiry of me because I would decline to answer it. I have also swiftly added that I would be more than happy to summarize my views on any issue in my own words in a paper.

Not long ago, I and others were asked to declare our views regarding our denomination’s Twenty-Eight Fundamental Beliefs. I wrote an essay in which I divided them into two clusters. In the first, I put those beliefs which are now worded in ways that are fine with me. In the second cluster, I put those which I would reword if I could and I spelled out the changes I would make if I were given an opportunity.

I presumed that every Seventh-day Adventist, including the General Conference president, would reword at least one thing in the Twenty-Eight and in the same spirit I offered my suggestions. I think things went well enough because I was told that I “passed,” and I am still here.

This is also how I taught my course in “Adventists Belief and Life” this past quarter in which most of the 54 students were Roman Catholics. There were also quite a few Christians of other sorts plus several Buddhists, one or two Muslims, a Zoroastrian, but no Jews. A handful of them were Adventists.

I told them at the outset that I would favorably present our denomination’s Twenty-Eight Fundamentals but then I would indicate how I thought that some of them could be improved and why. I told them that I would sharply distinguish the two so that they would know when I was doing what.

We had a splendid time as evidenced by the desserts they brought for me which I enjoyed even though I do not need the calories. I will long remember with a fond chuckle the Buddhist woman whose study of our Twenty-Eight established that there is an error in one of the ways they are presented someplace on the Internet.

For at least two reasons, I think it important to spell out what one believes in one’s own words. One of these is that the same words can have different shades of meaning to different people. If one lets others set up the questions and answers as a so-called “objective inventory,” one does not have an opportunity to explain what one believes at sufficient length and with adequate nuance to give the inquirer what he or she wants, or justifiably needs, to know. This helps no one.

An example of this is the Swedish representative of British Petroleum who announced to the media that arrangements had been made to help everyone who had suffered loss because of an oil spill on the coast of the United States. He declared that BP would take care of all the “little people” when he meant all the “small businesses.” Despite his impressive Scandinavian dignity, it was difficult for many of the Americans in the crowd of people to hold a straight face and some didn’t even try.

A second consideration is that such lists never present all the options and it is big mistake to allow people to treat them as if they were. When, as a youngster, I took a message to the Post Office, I was asked if I wanted it sent by “regular mail” or “airmail,” and the second was always more expensive. Now I could send the same message at very little cost by telephoning, emailing, texting, faxing, and Internet conferencing as well.

It is very important to understand the point. It is not merely that we now have options that we did not have then. Much more significantly, it is that neither I nor the officer of the Post Office even imagined the options we now have. Not the paucity of our alternatives, but our incapacity to imagine additional possibilities is the problem. It is a big one. When it comes to interpreting Scripture, it is one of the biggest.

Preterism, futurism and historicism respectively say that the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation have already been fulfilled, that they are yet to be fulfilled, or that over many centuries they have been in the process of being fulfilled and that this process will continue until the Second Coming of Jesus. Although other possibilities have been proposed, these three are the primary ones.

These three options have been more or less the dominant ones since the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic [not “Counter”] Reformation. For much of this time, most Protestants were historicists who saw in Roman Catholicism the fulfillment of many of the most dreadful prophecies in Daniel and Revelation. Roman Catholics tended in the main to be preterists, but some were futurists.

Either option—preterism or futurism—delivered Catholicism from the arrows Protestants aimed at it from their reading of these prophecies. It is more than possible that preterism and futurism emerged partly for the polemical purposes of those who propounded them.

The same must be said for historicism. The Protestants weren’t always above reading into Revelation what they wanted it to say. All historicists have not agreed, for nothing but scholarly reasons, on when, where, how, and by whom the prophecies were fulfilled over the centuries and will continue to be fulfilled into the future. Human frailty and faultiness sometimes crept into the interpretations of preterists, futurists and historicists alike.

Official Adventism offers the most credible contemporary expressions of historicism of which I have knowledge. This is partly because we learned early on what a Great Disappointment feels like, when we are too certain that we precisely know how the prophecies have been and will be fulfilled. It is also because during the General Conference presidency of Elder R. R. Fighur, our denomination made huge investments in Biblical and theological scholarship which resulted in Questions on Doctrines, the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, the establishment of Andrews University, and the scholarship of LeRoy Edwin Froom and his colleagues, some of whom were unsung women, which resulted in the Prophetic Faith of our Fathers and Conditionalist Faith of our Fathers.

Whether he or she is conservative, moderate, or liberal, there is a difference between a theologian who is an Adventist and an Adventist who is a theologian. I don’t know how those who have not yet spent many hours in Froom’s massive volumes can be anything more than the first. His books are widely and rightly regarded inside and outside the denomination as quarries filled with rocks which have not yet been polished by informed and insightful interpretation. This is true. But don’t complain about what Froom didn’t do! Learn from what he did!

Preterism, futurism and historicism are not the only options and it is neither accurate nor helpful to act or react as though they were. Contemporary Adventism is blessed to have an amazing number of bright Biblical scholars who are taking fresh looks at Revelation. They aren’t choosing from only three alternatives. They are transcending all three in ways which feed their best features and starve their worst.

I am not one of them; however, I know many of them and I applaud their work. I am not mentioning them by name at this time for fear that I might fail to mention someone who should be. Perhaps spectrummagazine.org will interview a number of them over the next several months.

All of our interpretation of Revelation must allow it to: 1) Say things that were immediately pertinent to those who first heard or read it; 2) Say things that were immediately pertinent to Christians in every subsequent generation; 3) Say things that are immediately pertinent to our own lives here and now; 4) Help us understand our own places and roles in the "Drama of the Ages, and 5) Make Jesus Christ the key to understanding the entire document.

All of our interpretations must allow Revelation immediately and directly to do all five of these things for Christians who do not live in Western Europe, the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. In my view, customary versions of preterism, futurism and historicism all frequently fail in this regard. Too often they wrongly leave the impression that people in other regions cannot immediately apply the last book of the Bible to their own lives but must first filter what it means to them through what it has meant to many of us. This has always been a mistake. It is especially so in our time.

David Larson is Professor of Religion at Loma Linda University Health

Photo by Tim Evans on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9322

(Kim Green) #2

Thank-you…I would love to see some of the biblical scholars you did not mention interviewed here on Spectrum. Would be great to hear other voices/positions.


(Alice C ) #3

I appreciate the clarity of your explanations and thinking.


(Joselito Coo) #4

On one hand, those who live in countries where Roman Catholic Christianity predominates, such as Latin America and the Philippines, seem to find our SDA traditional historicist view still helpful which may perhaps explain the continued membership growth in those regions. On the other hand, western secularized societies don’t seem to find much help applying in their own lives any type of interpretation of the book of Revelation that can possibly foster numerical growth as well as spiritual maturity. Preterism? Futurism? Historicism?

In light of the current religious climate in mainland China, where there appears to be a generalized repression of all forms of Christianity and religions that are not state sanctioned or approved, how might Adventist Christians find help in understanding the book of Revelation?


(George Tichy) #5

Read it.
But I am not much attracted to interpretations of Revelation. They have changed so much in 180 years… I am still waiting for the final, truly final version, the XXX.0 version of it. I am very patient, not in a rush… :wink:


(André Reis) #6

Brilliant.

I personally like Idealism and it is a pity that Ranko failed to discuss it in the lesson (at least the version that was printed!) although elsewhere he criticizes it. Idealism is an increasingly attractive mode of interpreting Revelation because it at once protects the book’s message from wild abuses from all historically-based schools (Preterism, Futurism and yes, Historicism) while allowing Revelation’s unveiling of Christ to continue to speak today.

I hope to publish my PhD dissertation soon titled “The Day of Atonement in the Book of Revelation”, written from a literary-intertextual approach.


(Jeffrey Kent) #7

Thank you, David, for sharing your perspectives–which I very much enjoyed reading. But here are a few questions that you may or may not feel comfortable answering:

  1. What was the context of your “passed” views toward the 28 Fundamental Beliefs? Which entity required you to submit the essay?

  2. Do you bring up historicist interpretations in your classroom that has so many Catholics, and if so, how does the conversation proceed on your end and theirs? Personally, I love interacting with those of other faiths (and those with no faith), but some issues are easier to discuss than others!

Just curious. I appreciate your frequent contributions to this blog.


(2nd Opinion) #8

Thank you, David, for your wise and thoughtful reflections. I very much agree that our interpretation of Revelation must allow it to “live and breathe” as a divinely inspired document down through the ages and across all cultures. While traveling over the holidays, I listened to the audio version of Elaine Pagels’ book “Revelations,” in which she traces the history of John’s Apocalypse from its writing to the time of Athanasius’ placement of it in the canon [Pagels has her own interest in telling the story related to the purging of Gnostic literature]. I was struck by how Revelation has been interpreted in so many ways. Its symbols have been attached to a wide array of subjects–the beastly powers seen first as Rome, then as heretics in general (so Athanasius), and later as the Catholic Church itself, and so on. Perhaps Revelation’s highly associative quality is the nature and purpose of such imaginative literature. Was it ever intended to have a single meaning? Or does it, like so much writing, have many legitimate afterlives?


(Tanqueray Williams) #9

“Whether he or she is conservative, moderate, or liberal, there is a difference between a theologian who is an Adventist and an Adventist who is a theologian.”

Beautifully stated. Said gulf is vast.


(Tanqueray Williams) #10

Interpreting Revelation…
Idealism? Help me understand how Historicism fails to fully convey Idealism. (Sincere question)


(Tanqueray Williams) #11

“I very much agree that our interpretation of Revelation must allow it to “live and breathe” as a divinely inspired document down through the ages and across all cultures.”

Not to disparage, but I can’t rationalize “a divinely inspired document down through the ages and across all cultures” as a “living and breathing” document. Paradox?


(Steve Mga) #12

I would like to suggest this book as an answer to Uriah Smith’s.
“Reading Revelation Responsibly – Uncivil worship and witness: following the Lamb
into the New Creation”, by Michael J. Gorman.
He views the Beasts as EMPIRE, and Empire Worship.
Un-civil worship is NOT worshiping the Empire, but worshiping God.
I believe his look at Revelation would be MOST helpful to Catholics, to the Chinese.
To any group where The State requires Worship.
The Dragon is behind ALL the Empires.
Then we have RELIGIOUS POWERS introduced who take on EMPIRE TRAITS.
The Lamb is in opposition to the Dragon. The Lamb as slain, standing before God’s
throne. This is where the real Power is. And Power for those following the Lamb
where ever the Lamb goes.
Michael gives life to this Neglected Book, making it Live and Breathe and Speak.
The CALL of the angels to Come out of Babylon is a CALL to come out of EMPIRE
WORSHIP. To worship God, to worship as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
In any of our 1st World, 2nd World, 3rd World countries we can develop EMPIRE
WORSHIP, Empire Behavior.


(2nd Opinion) #13

The testimony of Scripture itself is that it is both “God-breathed” [inspired] (2 Tim 3:16) and “living and active” (Heb 4:12). The nature of Scripture, IMHO, is that it was breathed not only into one time or circumstance, but that the Word of God remains active in all times and circumstances, as there is a fresh encounter between the reader, the text and the Spirit who first inspired it. As I understand David Larsen’s comments here, we need resist the modernist temptation to reduce Scripture to a singular meaning, and allow it–as a “living and active” document–to have had a range of significance across time, place and circumstance.


(Steve Mga) #14

Tonight I got to Synagogue a little early. So was looking through the worship book.
My eyes fell on this.
TORAH is like a plant:
Constantly growing,
Yielding fruit,
Generating seeds
–and–
Producing new growth.
— The Babylonian Talmud
ANOTHER IS:
Each teacher may offer a different understanding of the Torah,
but it is One God who gave it. – Avot D’Rabbi Natan


(2nd Opinion) #15

This is a very helpful framework and a theme that Wes Howard-Brook sees running throughout Scripture. His book, “Come Out, My People!”: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, details the ongoing struggle/contrast between the “religion of empire” and the “religion of creation” from Genesis to Revelation.


(Frankmer7) #16

How about the idea that apocalypse invites the audience into a cosmic backdrop that is unseen, and larger than everyday, lived, and visible experience? It is not so much meant to be interpreted as if breaking a future secret code, but it is meant to interpret and put into perspective its immediate audience’s life situation by the larger, eschatological context that it unveils to its readers, or in the case of Revelation’s original audience, its hearers.

Revelation, which was read as a letter in its entirety to the seven churches in Asia Minor, thus comforted the marginalized and oppressed, and admonished those in danger of compromise and becoming seduced by the predominant culture. It did so by opening up this transcendent reality to view, through its vivid and startling imagery, symbols, and even caricatures of ancient Rome, revealing its bankruptcy and its ultimate demise.

The ultimate reality that exposed this bankruptcy, and delivered warning against it, were God and the Lamb. The call of the book was not simply a call to a negative rejection of Roman culture or claims. It was first encountered as a positive call to worship, and was first seen through the worship of God by heavenly beings. This was then depicted throughout the book as the only reasonable and truly moral choice for people in a world that was dominated by the false promises of Roman peace and prosperity. Peace and prosperity that was purchased at the point of a sword, on the backs of the oppressed, and perpetuated by the false worship of the emperor and the gods, to maintain this unjust order.

Although written to a specific first century audience concerning their immediate issues, I would say that these are the most important principles that can apply to any culture, any life situation, and any time. Revelation can thus be read and interpreted like other biblical books or prophecy, as a word from the Lord for his people at a specific time and place to encourage them, to enlighten, to warn, and to call for repentance and recommitment where necessary. Not to decipher future events by a semi secret code. Nor to extrapolate a timeless message from it. It is by discerning the timely message that John intended for the specific audiences that he intended to reach at that time, that we can then apply it to our time, and our lives and various life situations today.

Thanks…

Frank


(George Davidovich) #17

David,
Can you expand on what makes Revelation different that other related prophetic code where the prophet is directly instructed to save it for a specific and later time?: "But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book , even to the time of the end…” Dan. 12:4.
Thanks


(Harry Elliott) #18

It’s dismaying to observe the abuse we have given this book. We don’t get our understanding of the Apocalypse from reading it, we get it from our Fundamental Beliefs and our need to be the stars of the drama. The very first verse sets a temporal boundary that we flat-out reject.

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which MUST SHORTLY COME TO PASS. (Revelation 1:1)

Would John have written those words about a work that covered two millenia?


(Floyd Florence) #19

How widespread is the number of SDA scholars/preachers interpretation of some time prophecies still future? Especially Daniel 12.


#20

“All of our interpretation of Revelation must allow it to: 1) Say things that were immediately pertinent to those who first heard or read it; 2) Say things that were immediately pertinent to Christians in every subsequent generation; 3) Say things that are immediately pertinent to our own lives here and now; 4) Help us understand our own places and roles in the "Drama of the Ages, and 5) Make Jesus Christ the key to understanding the entire document.”

The passage quoted above reminded me of what Des Ford called ‘the apotelesmatic principle’, which ‘. . . affirms that a prophecy fulfilled, or fulfilled in part, or unfulfilled at the appointed time, may have a later or recurring, or consummated fulfillment. The ultimate fulfillment is the most comprehensive in scope, though details of the original forecast may be limited to the first fulfillment’ and, in which ‘The main idea rather than precise details . . is what has a recurring fulfillment.’

Des believed it was used elsewhere in the Bible and by Ellen White. ‘The apostelesmatic principle is thus well attested in the Bible, in the writings of Ellen White, and in the SDA Bible Commentary. The word apotelesmatic may be new to many who have long been using the principle without realizing the fact.’
See:
http://www.goodnewsunlimited.org/library/exegesisofdaniel/22part6.cfm

So, I think what Des and some commenters are saying is that the five points mentioned in the quote at the beginning of this comment not only apply to the book of Revelation, but to the entire word of God.