Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A preterist approach to Revelation

I'm going to comment on this article:
I believe that the book itself demands a basically preterist approach. This does not mean that all of the prophecies in the book have already been fulfilled. Some of the prophecies in Revelation (e.g., 20:7–22:21) have yet to be fulfilled, but many, if not most, of the prophecies in the book have been fulfilled. My approach then may be considered as essentially preterist.x
It isn't clear to me why Mathison draws the line at Rev 20-22. 
i) Maybe he thinks it would be heretical to say Rev 20-22 has already been fulfilled. But from a preterist perspective, isn't that question-begging? Traditionally, that would be heretical because traditionally Christians didn't interpret statements about the return of Christ preteristically. By the standards of the Apostles' creed and the Nicene creed, hyperpreterism is heretical.
But since Mathison thinks a midcourse correction is overdue in how we interpret NT prophecy, isn't it more logical for him to maintain that the traditional classification of hyperpreterism as heretical is mistaken, due to flawed hermeneutics? 
ii) Or maybe he thinks Rev 20-22 still lies in the future for the common sense reason that these events obviously haven't taken place as of yet. If so, it's hard to see how he'd distinguish that from past events in Rev 4-19. For instance, Revelation describes global catastrophes. On the face of it, that didn't happen in the 1C. 
Perhaps he'd say he doesn't interpret the language of global catastrophes literally. If so, how is the type of language in Rev 20-22 essentially different from the type of language in Rev 4-19?
iii) Also, on the face of it, Rev 19 describes the return of Christ. Yet he places Rev 19 in the past. Does that mean he thinks the Second Coming of Christ took place in the 1C? 
Before explaining why I believe this approach to be correct, I must explain why I do not believe the other approaches to be fully adequate. Proponents of the futurist view say that their approach is necessary because there is no correspondence between the events prophesied in the book and anything that has happened in history. This conclusion is reached because of an overly literalistic approach to the symbolism of the book and a lack of appreciation for how such language was used in the Old Testament prophetic books. This, however, is not the most serious problem with the futurist approach.
Up to a point I'm sympathetic to that criticism, especially when dealing with futurists like Robert Thomas. However, this objection generates tensions with Mathison's own position, as we shall see shortly.
The most fundamental problem with the futurist approach is that it requires a very artificial reading of the many texts within the book itself that point to the imminent fulfillment of its prophecies. The book opens and closes with declarations indicating that the things revealed in the book “must soon take place” (1:1; 22:6). It opens and closes with declarations indicating that “the time is near” (1:3; 22:10). The book of Revelation does not begin in the way the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch begins, with a statement to the effect that the content is not for the present generation, but for a remote generation that is still to come. The book of Revelation has direct relevance to the real historical first century churches to whom it was addressed, and the text of the book itself points to the imminent fulfillment of most of its prophecies.
i) We need to distinguish between Rev 2-3 and Rev 4-22. Rev 2-3 was directly addressed to 1C Christians. It's about their situation. 
And, of course, the seven churches of Asia Minor may well have been the initial recipients of Revelation. But that doesn't ipso facto mean Rev 4-22 is about them. Even if Rev 2-3 is firmly grounded in the 1C, it doesn't follow that 4-22 refer to 1C events. That requires a separate argument.
To take a comparison, Abraham was the initial recipient of God's promise. Yet the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant is incremental.  
ii) Appealing to the temporal markers ("soon," "near") is deceptively simple. This seems to be Mathison's argument:
Revelation was written to 1C readers. Revelation says these events will happen soon. Therefore, they had to happen in the 1C. 
Problem with that inference is that it turns on the correct identification of who is in view. Suppose you're a futurist. You think the final generation is the subject of the prophecies. In that case, the stopwatch begins whenever they come on the scene. 
The fact that 1C Christians were the original recipients of Revelation is irrelevant to whether these are short-term or long-term prophecies. Mathison believes that many OT prophecies were long-term prophecies. The original audience didn't live to see them fulfilled, because the prophecies didn't refer to their situation, but a future generation. 
You first have to identify the intended subject, then apply the time-markers to the intended subject. The time-marker ("soon," "near") doesn't select for the referent. Rather, the referent selects for the time-marker. Once you determine who it's about, then it will be soon for them.    
The idealist approach is held by many in the present day, but it is fundamentally flawed as a method of interpreting the book of Revelation. It’s most serious problem is that it brushes over the specificity found within the text. Bauckham explains,
Thus it would be a serious mistake to understand the images of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as a letter to the seven churches of Asia. Their resonances in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers need to be understood if their meaning is to be appropriated today.xiv
Not only does the idealist approach tend to ignore the historic specificity demanded by its character as a letter, it also tends to ignore the hermeneutical implications of its character as a prophecy. The Old Testament prophets used highly figurative and symbolic language, but they used this language to speak of real historical nations and specific impending historical judgments. Writing his own prophetic book, John does the same.xv
i) I think pure idealism is wrong. By "pure idealism" I mean a purely cyclical view of history. A closed-system in which the same kinds of things happen over and over again, without any progression towards a final denouement. No exit. 
But idealism has an element of truth. History is repetitious. Each generation faces similar challenges. Idealism is a half-truth. 
ii) There's a tension between Mathison's appeal to the use of stock imagery and his appeal to historical particularity. In the nature of the case, stock imagery isn't specific to any particular time. The very fact that Revelation carries over so much OT imagery shows you that the imagery is applicable to different times and places. Flexible descriptors. 
iii) In addition, the fact that the situation of 1C Christians occasioned Revelation doesn't mean Revelation is confined to their situation. 
iv) One commentator outright denies Mathison's presupposition. He takes the opposite view:
Despite obvious differences between John's time and our own, his visions were probably as strange to many of his first readers as they are to us. These visions are by no means a picture of the social world that John actually lived in, but rather a prolonged piercing glance through that world to the cosmic struggle between good and evil taking place just behind or beyond it…In short the book of Revelation gives us little information about the actual social world in which it was written. J. R. Michaels, Revelation (IVP 1997), 21. 
For Michaels, Revelation isn't a mural of the 1C social world, but a window into the spiritual battle behind-the-scenes. One may or may not agree with his perspective, but Mathison's guiding assumption is no longer a given. 
Proponents of the futurist, historicist, and idealist approaches offer several criticisms of the preterist approach to the book. Probably the most serious criticism is that this approach robs the book of any contemporary significance. John Walvoord, for example, writes, “The preterist view, in general, tends to destroy any future significance of the book, which becomes a literary curiosity with little prophetic meaning.”xvi Leon Morris echoes this sentiment, claiming that the preterist approach “has the demerit of making it [the book of Revelation] meaningless for all subsequent readers (except for the information it gives about that early generation).”xviiIt is actually rather surprising that this criticism is repeated so often by conservative evangelical scholars. It implies that any biblical prophecies that have already been fulfilled are meaningless for readers in later generations. But are the Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus meaningless for later generations? Are the multitudes of Old Testament prophecies concerning the destruction of Israel and Judah and the subsequent exile meaningless for later generations? Obviously not, and neither would the prophecies in Revelation be any less meaningful or significant if it were shown that many or most of them have already been fulfilled. All Scripture is profitable (2 Tim. 3:16), even those parts of Scripture containing already fulfilled prophecies.
The problem with that comparison is that if all OT prophecies were fulfilled in the past, including golden age oracles about the world to come, yet we are still here, in a world with death, disease, suffering, and moral evil, then we'd have to reinterpret those passages in a way that drains them of hope for anything better. If Christ returned in the 1C, but it made so little difference, then that's a very despairing outlook.
Now, because Mathison is a partial preterist, he can blunt the full force of that implication, but that raises the question of whether you can hop onto the streetcar of preterist hermeneutics, then hop off before it arrives at that grim destination. If preterist hermeneutics are valid for Rev 4-19, they are valid for Rev 20-22. 
Secondly, when the genre of the book is taken into consideration, it provides strong evidence for a basically preterist approach to the book. The book is a prophecy (1:3; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). It is an apocalyptic prophecy set within the form of an epistle, but it is a prophecy nonetheless. Why is this important? It is important because it means that our approach to the other prophetic books of the Bible should provide us with some guidance in how we approach this last prophetic book of the Bible. We should approach it and read it in the same basic way. We do not read any of the Old Testament prophetic books as a whole in an idealist manner, and there is precious little in any of them that could be approached in a historicist manner. We recognize that these prophecies were given to specific people in specific historical contexts. Many of the Old Testament prophecies deal with impending judgments upon either Israel or Judah or the nations that oppressed Israel. They also contain glimpses of ultimate future restoration. In short, we take a basically preterist approach to the Old Testament prophetic books, recognizing that they speak largely of impending events, yet also deal at times with the distant future.xix Given that this is the way in which the Old Testament prophetic books are approached, it seems that our presumption should be in favor of the same basic approach to the prophetic book of Revelation.
i) The scope of prophecy is qualified by the object of prophecy. The church is not a specific people at a specific time and place. The church exists at different times and places. It exists more or less continuously in some places. It ceases to exist in some places where it used to exist. It movies into new places where it didn't exist. Christians live and die at different times and places. They often face impending threats. Yet a threat impending for Christians in one period is not the same impending threat for Christians in another period. 
ii) OT prophets frequently use fairly interchangeable language for different historical judgments.
iii) Jeremiah's prophecy of the 70-year exile had a definite point of fulfillment. Yet Daniel (9:2,24-27) and the Chronicler (2 Chron 36:18-21) both view that prophecy as a specific exemplification a repeatable principle. Daniel extends it to ten jubilees. 

1 comment:

  1. Partial preterism makes NO sense. It wants its cake and to eat it to. Full preterism may be regarded as heretical and strange, but it makes more sense than partial preterism. These partial preterists choose to interpret things figuratively or literally based on when it's convenient for them...perhaps so they can stay on the right side of "orthodoxy". In this process, though, they end up promoting a strange, convoluted and ridiculous eschatological system.