Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Narrative order

A friend asked me to comment on this:

[The amillennial] approach does not fit the literary movement of Revelation. John pictures the period between Christ’s exaltation and return as the time of Satan’s banishment from heaven to earth, where he deceives the nations and persecutes the saints (Rev 12:1–17). By way of contrast, in 20:1–3 Satan is confined in the abyss, which means that he cannot deceive the nations “anymore” (eti), just as defeat in heaven meant that he had no place there “any longer” (12:8) and Babylon’s fall mean that life was not found there “anymore” (18:21–23). Satan does not deceive anyone during the millennium (20:4–6), but deception resumes afterwards (20:7–8; Mounce; Osborne). If the vision of Satan persecuting the faithful in 12:1–17 shows the present character of earthly life, the vision of Satan’s binding assures people that the present situation is not the final one. Evil will be defeated in ways that are not now evident (Boring; Giesen; Murphy) [Craig R. Koester, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 785.]

1. Recapitulatory parallelism

Warfield is the earliest writer I've seen appeal to this. It was, of course, popularized by Hendrickson, and later picked up by Beale and Poythress. Metzger defends it as well.

I think there's some truth to it. When I first read Revelation through several times as a young Christian, I was struck by how the narrative structure was cyclical to some degree. That's before I read any commentaries advocating recapitulatory parallelism.

That said, there are limitations to that analysis:

i) While I think Revelation has a degree of periodicity, efforts to subdivide it into 7 sections strike me as artificial. Also, I doubt the book is that literary. This isn't Dante or T. S. Eliot. I don't expect Revelation to be that symmetrical. I don't think it's that kind of work.

ii) Although Revelation has a degree of periodicity, it's both linear and cyclical. There's progression towards a definitive climax. So it's not endless repetition circling back on itself like Finnegans Wake. 

2. Visionary genre

Poythress makes the point that Revelation originates in a vision. So the question is whether the sequence is chronological or psychological. Michaels raises the same basic issues. And I think that's a legitimate query.  

To be sure, that's more of a question rather than an answer. In principle, that could be a false dichotomy. Maybe the sequence in which God revealed these scenes to John are chronological. Or maybe John edited his visionary experience into a chronological sequence–assuming he'd know the actual order of events.

3. The nature of narrative sequence

i) To my knowledge, there are roughly three types of literary genres that use plotlines: historical narratives, fictional narratives, and historical fiction. The whole issue of narrative sequence is interesting and perhaps underexplored. 

Take intervals. Our preference is to group intervals by longer or shorter units of time: we group minutes with minutes, hours with hours, days with days, weeks with weeks, months with months, years with years, decades with decades, centuries with centuries, millennia with millennia.

By the same token, our preference is to group sequential intervals by common type: a day follows a day, a week follows a week, a month follows a month, &c.

One consequence is the natural tendency to group intervals in concentric temporal relationships. For instance, we group months within a year, weeks within a month, days within a week.

So there's concentricity as well as linearity. Sequences within sequences. 

As a rule, we prefer to add days to days, weeks to weeks, years to years, &c. We prefer to say a day is sooner or later than another day, rather than a week is sooner or later than a day. We have an ordinal numerical sequence of days that begins with each new month and terminates with that particular month, then starts all over again with the new month. Self-contained intervals that are expansive when linked with other self-contained intervals. 

Of course, there are times when that breaks down. Is May later than April? Depends. If the same year, yes. But April 1941 is later than May 1940, while May 1939 is sooner than April 1940. 

So context is crucial. Are there temporal markers that clarify relative sequence? Are we comparing days to days? Years to years? A month in one year to a month in another year?

ii) Or take autobiographies. These are wildly disproportionate in terms of how much detail is lavished on particular intervals of time. That's because a human life consists of some personally significant events, along with many average days, weeks, and months. An autobiography will focus on events significant to the writer. He will write a lot about shorter significant intervals and only write a little about longer average intervals. So there's a certain paradox, where more time is given to less time and less time is given to more time. 

If he didn't make explicit that he was discussing what happened to him in the course of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it might be impossible to gauge the length of the intervals comprising the sequence. Whether he was skipping over extensive intervals. 

We also have this in Scripture. Luke and Acts are about the same length, but Acts covers a much longer span of time. Although Genesis is just one book, it covers a far longer span of time than Exodus-Deuteronomy combined (even if we omit the legal material). 

iii) And that's historical narrative. In fictional narrative or historical fiction, the chronology of the plot follows dramatic logic rather than an actual historical order of events. 

iv) Allegory is a subgenre. The plot that may in some sense parallel reality, but the correspondence isn't a mirror image of reality. 

v) Back to historical narrative, consider what's involved in writing a history of WWII. You have to write about developing events in England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Japan, North Africa, the USA, &c. So a historian will have to write about a certain interval of time in one country, then back up and write about an interval of time in another country, because there are so many parallel as well as intersecting events and developments. A historian sometimes has to back up to go forward. To pick up where he left off as he narrates the evolution and intersection of events in each major country that figured in the war. 

And if we think Revelation is about world history, will it be any less complex?


  1. @Steve: we Lutherans are confessionally partial preterist amils. Most Reformed people I've met were either amils or postmillennialists (usually the triumphalistic Reconstructionist sorts). To which, if any, millennial model do you subscribe?