Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (22): The Adventist Approach to Revelation II

While the early critical consensus was that the book of Revelation was primarily apocalyptic, that consensus has been seriously challenged. Some scholarly discussions of Revelation’s genre suggest that it is more prophetic than apocalyptic, others suggests a “prophetic-apocalyptic” genre, still others highlight the epistolary aspect of the book. What is clear is that the genre of Revelation is a mixed genre whose character cannot be determined with exactness. Typical of more recent discussion is the eclectic approach of G. K. Beale, Revelation, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998). When it comes to the book of Daniel, historicism as a method is not at issue, it is simply a question of whether to interpret along the lines of predictive prophecy or ex eventu prophecy. With Revelation, on the other hand, the appropriateness of historicist method is much less obvious.

Most Seventh-day Adventists have not yet felt the force of this difficulty. We inherited a historicist approach to Revelation from our Protestant forebears in the middle of the 19th Century. We have assumed that approach to be the correct one, but have never demonstrated it from the text. This came clearly into focus for me in the context of the Adventist conversations with the Lutheran World Federation. It was clear that the Lutherans had a hard time understanding the Adventist approach to Daniel and Revelation. When it came time to write the Adventist response, the committee decided that scholarly justification for a historicist method in Revelation was needed. But when I asked where in the Adventist literature such a justification could be found, few had any idea.

My own subsequent search turned up only one Adventist argument for a historicist approach to Revelation (by Roy Naden). It goes something like this. The book of Daniel clearly exhibits a series of historical events running from the prophet’s time to the end. The Book of Revelation quotes Daniel and is similar in style to Daniel, therefore, the seven-fold series of Revelation are also to be understood as historical series running from the time of the prophet until the end. This argument by itself is not satisfactory.

In a Lutheran-Adventist joint publication I added a further argument from the evidence of Jewish apocalyptic. I suggested that the historical time periods of ex eventu prophecy reflected the conviction that a genuine prophet such as Enoch, Moses, or Ezra would be capable of outlining history in advance. Since John, the author of Revelation, believed that the prophetic spirit had returned (Rev 1:3; 19:9-10; 22:6-10), he would have every reason to believe that the cosmic Christ could reveal to him the general outline of events between the advents. The return of genuine prophets would signal the return of predictive prophecy.

Should John’s prophecies be understood more in terms of the classical prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah or more like the apocalyptic prophet Daniel? Do the symbolic visions retain some of the epistolary nature of the early chapters? In the Daniel and Revelation Committee session that was held at Newbold College in England in 1988, considerable discussion was given to this issue. A developing consensus seemed to be that the churches, seals and trumpets of Rev 1-11 respectively exhibited the characteristics of the three main genre types found in the book of Revelation. Careful analysis suggests that the seven letters portion of the book (Rev 2-3) reads most naturally along the lines of the New Testament epistles, the seven seals (Rev 6-7) bear the character of classical prophecy, along the lines of Matt 24, and the seven trumpets (Rev 8-11) are the most apocalyptic in nature.

Given the mixed picture of Revelation’s genre this should be evaluated on a case by case basis. An example of such an evaluation is given in the following blogs on Revelation 12. No passage in Revelation is more critical to Adventist self-understanding than Rev 12-13. I will, therefore, examine one of these chapters for evidence of whether it reflects the historical sequencing of an apocalyptic series or exhibits the characteristics of classical prophecy. We will try to determine on the basis of exegetical analysis whether the apocalyptic reading of traditional Adventism is appropriate to Rev 12.

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