Literal Interpretation of Revelation?

I am currently preparing sermons on the book of Revelation. In reading through the commentaries, one finds much that is helpful, and much that is useless. An example of the latter category comes in Robert L. Thomas’s premillenial commentary. He says on p. 32:

The futurist approach to the book is the only one that grants sufficient recognition to the prophetic style of the book and a normal hermeneutical pattern of interpretation based on that style. It views the book as focusing on the last period(s) of world history and outlining the various events and their relationships to one another. This is the view that best accords with the principle of literal interpretation. The literal interpretation of Revelation is the one generally associated with the premillenial return of Christ and a view of inspiration that understands God to be the real author of every book of the Bible.

There are so many problems with this analysis that it is difficult to know where to start. First of all, he assumes that which must be proved in the first sentence. “Prophetic” must equal “future,” and therefore the futurist approach is the only possible approach that would sufficiently acknowledge the prophetic character of Revelation. He downplays apocalyptic features of the book elsewhere (the reason why is somewhat mystifying in its absence).

Secondly, his bifurcation of world history is extremely unhelpful. How could the book have been written to first-century Christians if the things described in Revelation have no relevance to the first century? Yes, Revelation is written to the entire church. That is why the events of Revelation happen all throughout history, having relevance to the entire church age between the first and second coming of Christ.

Thirdly, his view that only the literal interpretation of Revelation is consistent with a high view of inspiration is quite frankly ludicrous and offensive. According to Thomas’s view, God could not possibly reveal anything to us in a symbolic way without compromising inspiration. I might remind Thomas at this point of John 11, where the disciples take Jesus literally when He says that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and thereby misinterpret Jesus. Thomas might object at this point and say, “Ah, but John tells us that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.” To which I would reply that John does so again in Revelation 1:1, where the word “semaino” means to reveal by means of signs and symbols (see Beale’s commentary). Given that such a description is meant to describe Revelation as a whole, the default in interpreting Revelation must be symbolic, not literal.

To put this in a less abstract way, if I want to say that my wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, I could say it just like that. Such a statement would be objective, scientifically verifiable fact stated by a completely unbiased person. Well, maybe not, but it would be a very literal way of getting the point across. But I could say it another way, by quoting George Gordon, Lord Byron: “She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.” Now, Robert Thomas, which of these statements is more true than the other? Having trouble with that? Well, of course you are! That something is true is a distinct question from how that truth is stated. Thomas does not understand this, and therefore equates literal interpretation with a high view of inspiration. One can have a very high view of inspiration (I believe, for instance, that every single word of Revelation is inspired by God and is utterly infallible) and yet interpret Revelation symbolically because it is a symbolic book.

The real fear, of course, is that a symbolic interpretation would give license to the interpreter to say whatever he wants to about the text. This is a genuine problem with those who have over-reacted to the literal folks. The solution is to recognize that there are brakes on symbolic interpretation. Those brakes are called “the rest of Scripture.” For Revelation in particular, the Old Testament functions as the source of almost all of the imagery. John is either explicitly alluding to the Old Testament or (maybe even unconsciously!) simply lives in the aura of the Old Testament. John is saturated with the Old Testament. It comes out his pores. This is not surprising, given that Revelation pulls all the threads of the Bible together and wraps everything up.

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