by Vern S. Poythress
[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 55/1 (spring 1993): 164-166. Used with permission.]
Scott Gambrill Sinclair: Revelation: A Book for the Rest of Us. Berkeley, CA: BIBAL, 1992. 156. $12.95, paper.
J. Ramsey Michaels: Interpreting the Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992. 150. $9.95, paper.
Robert L. Thomas: Revelation 1–7: An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody, 1992. xxvii, 524. N.P.
Robert W. Wall: Revelation. (New International Biblical Commentary.) Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991. xv, 295. $9.95, paper.
Four books by Sinclair, Michaels, Thomas, and Wall attempt in different ways to aid us in interpreting the Book of Revelation. The books by Sinclair and Michaels are topically organized, in order to aid us in addressing Revelation as a whole. The other two books, by Thomas and Wall, are commentaries that proceed through Revelation linearly.
Sinclair’s semipopular book is designed to help ordinary people interpret Revelation. The chapters discuss major issues of background, themes, hermeneutics, and application. Sinclair gets many things right. He argues that Revelation provides us with a big, global message about the rule of God over history, rather than providing esoteric details about the future (pp. 73-78). In structure, Revelation is dramatic and recapitulatory (pp. 59-72). The vision of the glory of God in Revelation 4–5 plays a key role (pp. 87-94), along with the antithetical contrasts between God and Satan, Christ and the Beast, the Church and the Prostitute (pp. 95-104). Revelation can have practical application in refining our sensitivity to modern idolatries and injustices, as well as assuring us of God’s character and his ultimate triumph (pp. 147-156). Revelation sensitizes us also to meaningful beauty in liturgy (pp. 143-146).
Unfortunately, the overall effect of the book is seriously undermined by a Barthian view of revelation. The book argues that the imagery of Revelation is not itself a divine message, but rather John’s culturally conditioned response to a wordless and nameless encounter with God (pp. 106-110). Sinclair therefore finds it possible to declare that Revelation is true as exhortation and future vision at the same time that it is false as prophecy—”many of Revelation’s predictions were not fulfilled” (p. 118).
The same fundamental error leads to other problems here and there. For example, Sinclair fails to indicate that there is any serious alternative to a second-century BC dating of Daniel 7–12. More generally, he implies that the authority of biblical books stems from the church’s decision to canonize (p. 23) rather than from divine inbreathing. They “became authoritative because they encapsulate the foundations of our faith” (p. 137).
The book has many useful ideas. But because of its fundamental failure, it cannot be recommended to its intended audience. It could, however, be useful to well-trained evangelicals who can screen out its Barthianism and still hear its good ideas.
Michaels’ book on interpreting Revelation belongs to the series of “Guides to New Testament Exegesis” edited by Scot McKnight. Within this series each volume focuses on one kind of book within the NT. Because Revelation represents a unique genre, it must have a distinct volume devoted to it alone. The book instructs pastors and other professional interpreters on how to go through the major steps involved in interpretation. It does not intend to do the students’ work for them, but lays out the general areas that
they will have to bear in mind as they do their own work. So it has chapters on genre and authorship, historical setting, structure, text criticism, grammar and style, narrative voices, tradition history, and theological themes.
Unfortunately, this kind of approach does not work well with Revelation. Most of the burning questions about Revelation have to do with the book as a whole. The questions must be answered once for the whole book, not over and over again for each separate passage or verse. Students want to have the major answers in hand when they approach a particular passage. Michaels repeatedly fails to provide such answers, but says instead that it is “for the student to decide” (p. 58; cf. pp. 71, 97-99, 147).
The book also frustrates students by its choice of topics. The book has one chapter each on text criticism, grammar and style, and narrative voices, though these investigations really contribute very little to solving the major problems of interpretation. We finally do arrive at two final chapters on “tradition history” and “theological interpretation,” where we encounter matters of substance. But then it is too little too late—and too tentative as well.
The book lacks discussion of some needed topics. There is virtually no discussion of the general theme of theophany and the appearing of God, no discussion of the theme of holy war, no discussion of irony and counterfeiting in the depiction of the forces of Satan, no discussion of the practical import of the final vision of the new Jerusalem. There is not even any substantive discussion of the four schools of interpretation, preterist, historicist, futurist, and idealist. The latter omission is particularly strange in a book intending to guide students in the task of interpretation.
In cases where Michaels provides sample approaches to particular passages and themes, there are quite a few problems. For example, his analysis of the structure of Revelation groups together into one major unit 4:1–11:19, but then treats as a major unit of the same rank the material 12:1–15:4, and likewise the material in 15:5–16:21 and 17:1–19:10. Surely this procedure is less plausible than separating all the sequences of sevens into separate major units, or else grouping them together into two halves, divided at 12:1. Again, Michaels is confusing in his discussion of Christology. He appears to say that Christ is “an angel,” and that could be taken as a denial of his full deity (pp. 113, 132). In sum, Michaels’ book, partly because of slips in his own examples, partly because of what it omits, fails to be helpful at key points.
Thomas’s commentary is the first volume of a projected two-volume detailed commentary on Revelation. Thomas represents a classic dispensational approach, according to which “The proper procedure is to assume a literal interpretation of each symbolic representation provided to John unless a particular factor in the text indicates it should be interpreted figuratively” (p. 36). For example, the 144,000 (Rev 7:4) is a literal number of people from literal tribes (p. 478).
This principle of “literal if possible” is particularly misleading when used with apocalyptic literature, since it forces on the literature an inappropriate, stringent idea of “literalism,” wildly underestimating the pervasiveness of symbolism. Thomas makes sound judgments on some minor points (4:1 is not the rapture of the church but the translation of John the seer, pp. 336-37), but the over-all impact is dominated by the initial decision in favor of literalism. The book cannot be recommended.
Wall’s commentary is well informed by modern scholarship, but written to a broad audience of ordinary Christian readers. Wall characterizes his own interpretation as “a canonical critical approach” (p. 36). It distinguishes itself from the four traditional
approaches to Revelation by focusing on the canon of Scripture as the proper context for interpretation and continued application of Scripture. The assumption of universal applicability of the message of Revelation leads Wall in a generalizing direction, so that the results differ little from the traditional idealist approach (cf., e.g., pp. 157-58, 202).
Wall’s summary formulation of canonical criticism suffers from the same flaws that characterize many other examples of canonical criticism. Rather than viewing the books of the canon as the speech of God, he views them sociologically as arising from the needs of the church: “the Bible’s canonical role insists that the…ultimate locus of meaning is the church’s situation in life, and not the author’s intended meaning, which is subordinate to its canonical intent” (pp. 38-39). Unfortunately, this one-sided formulation leaves the way open to making the canon the servant of the church in a way that denies its lordship over the church.
The verse-by-verse commentary is uneven. Many good ideas appear as Wall explores the universal applicability of Revelation. He sees the applicability of Beast and Prostitute, judgment and salvation, to modern situations of political and economic suffering. Yet there are many small problems, both in exegesis and theology. For instance, when commenting on 1:3, Wall fails to offer any explanation of “the time is near” (though an explanation does appear much later, pp. 263-64). The commentary offers no harmonization for its apparently universalistic and nonuniversalistic statements (pp. 59, 60, 104, 184, 195, 251, 265). It fails to understand the appropriateness of rejoicing over the final destruction of evil (pp. 218, 225, on Rev 18:20). It appears at some points to collapse historical development into the one moment of the crucifixion (p. 109). The millennium apparently becomes a theological assertion about God’s faithfulness, but not a time period at all (p. 236). Beast and Babylon are repeatedly characterized as “secular” powers, though Revelation makes it clear that they are part of a system of false worship and hence are sacralized.
At times Wall mentions only one possible canonical background where other backgrounds are more attractive. For example, he sees Job 2:1–10 as the primary background for Rev 16:2, but fails to mention the more obvious parallels in Exod 9:9–11 and Deut 28:35. More than once such judgments distort the interpretation of particular passages. Wall’s commentary contains some useful things, but must be used with discrimination.
Of the four books, Sinclair’s and Wall’s have the most promise. But on the whole one would still be better off with commentaries already in print, like those of Beasley-Murray, Mounce, and Morris.
Vern S. Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary