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Eschatology: Finally and Final Tonight

Eschatology: Finally and Final Tonight

No, it’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of my series. I went into my hiatus in presenting these studies one episode short of completing the series, so tonight I’ll be wrapping up the eschatology series and preparing for my next series which will be looking at Paul’s letters and their background, especially in Hebrew scripture.

Here’s the embed:

 

Eschatology: Daniel to Revelation

Eschatology: Daniel to Revelation

 

Sunburst in clouds with faint Christ figure emanating from center

Tonight I’ll be bridging the gap between these two very commonly associated books and doing a look-ahead to my several week study of Revelation. This study will conclude my series on Eschatology.

Amongst the small but diligent group that watches these, are there suggestions for continuation? I will doubtless keep talking, even if the audience is small!

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YouTube:

Same-Sex Marriage, Moving Candlesticks, and the Judgment of God

Same-Sex Marriage, Moving Candlesticks, and the Judgment of God

kineso ten luchnianMy instinctive reaction when I disagree with people on major issues is to come out swinging. Despite this instinct, I believe I am called to be a facilitator, to try to help people talk intelligently and communicate effectively about controversial topics.

So if you’re looking for a statement about what I believe regarding same-sex marriage, you’re going to be disappointed. If that’s what you’re here for, go for the “Back” button, mutter about click-bait, and go on to more productive activities. In fact, I’ve been criticized this very day, and on a few others, for not taking a stand on the topic. By “not taking a stand” people mean that I will publish material on either side of the same-sex marriage debate along with a number of other issues.

Do I have an opinion? Yes I do. Will I make it public? No I won’t. [sarcasm]I will restrain myself from benefitting the world with my great wisdom.[/sarcasm] I will, instead, follow what I believe is my calling. Face it, folks! While there is a great deal that has not been heard on this topic, it’s not because it hasn’t been said. In case you missed it in the previous couple of paragraphs, I believe I am called to be a facilitator. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, it’s difficult to be a facilitator and a prophet at the same time.

Just after I finished reading my dose of blogs and social media this morning, I joined in a conversation and Bible study, and I was asked an important question. We were looking at some interpretational issues in Revelation 2 & 3, the letters to the churches. There are a number of places where judgment is threatened. I was asked about Revelation 2:5, where the NRSV translates “remove your lampstand from its place.” It sounds a bit harsh. The question was, just what did this mean?

My answer is that I believe it is symbolic, but only at one remove.

  1. The lampstand is a church.
  2. The church does not repent.
  3. The church is removed.

I think we likely have many “removed” churches. They’re still sitting there occupying space, but the light has gone out. God is not there. The glory has departed. It’s harsh, but I think it’s true.

You see, I believe in the judgment of God. In fact, because of the way in which I believe God’s judgment works, I believe God’s judgment can be quite implacable. Mercy holds the door open while there is an opportunity for repentance, for change, but eventually the door shuts. I believe the door shuts, or the voice ceases, when we cease to listen. I would commend Hebrews 6:4-6 (or really, it would be better to read 6:1-12; or hey, just read the whole book!) on this. There comes a time when we no longer hear the call to repentance.

So my answer was that a church can fail. It can essentially lose its place because it does not listen to God. I think this is important. I’m not a universalist. I believe that God’s freedom gives us responsibility, and with responsibility comes the consequences of our actions. This means that we have a choice. The choice has a result. That result fits the choice.

I further believe that God has sent the Holy Spirit to guide us and the church. Yes, we start in scripture, but we read and interpret that with the help of the Holy Spirit. This may not result in agreement, but the most important part is the listening. As long as we are listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit, and willing to hear and to do, we have that opportunity to repent, to change direction. Once we are no longer listening, when we no longer have ears to hear, we will no longer hear what the Spirit says to the churches. America is filled with churches that affirm doctrinal statements and action plans, yet do not do what they know.

As I facilitate discussion, I let many things pass. People seem to get tense mostly about abortion, homosexuality, and evolution. I find myself restraining myself on many other topics, including immigration, care for the poor, spreading the good news of God’s grace, carrying out the mission of the church, and training and empowering our young people (to do all of the above, of course!), all of which I consider of critical importance for the church today.

Not all of you are to be facilitators however. I can leave definitions undone in a publishing company, but if your church is to do ministry you have to make decisions, and to make good decisions you need to listen for the voice of the one who walks among the lampstands (Rev. 1:9-20).

Please do listen. “I will remove” is a very harsh phrase.

But I think it’s very real.

 

Getting Literal, Eschatological, Apocalyptic, Even!

Getting Literal, Eschatological, Apocalyptic, Even!

Well, last night my discussion of According to John covered a lot of other ground. In particular, I was looking at the eschatological use of “hour” and “now,” and I suggested that John has a fairly simple eschatology to go with his fairly simple soteriology. I’m not going to rehash all of this. The foundation is found in Chapter 19 of Herold Weiss’s book Mediations on According to John: Exercises in Biblical Theology. For those who might wish to review the video, here it is.

In the middle of this discussion I got into talking about the ‘L’ word. No, not liberal. Literal. I tell people that we should avoid simply saying that we’re not taking something literal, and get specific about just how we are taking whatever it is. “We don’t take that literally,” has become commonplace in discussions of the Bible in mainline and progressive circles, but often we don’t tell people just what we do with the thing we aren’t taking literally.

Last night I was talking about something that is fairly simple to pinpoint, symbolic language in a vision report. (Note that you don’t necessarily have to believe that a person has received a divine vision in order to accept a literary category of “vision report.” I do believe people have visions, but the form remains no matter the source.) If we take a vision such as Daniel 7, for example, we have beasts (which represent something), coming up out of the sea (which represents something), onto the land (which represents something), and so forth. “Not taking Daniel 7 literally” means that I don’t believe that Daniel’s vision was about actual creatures coming from an actual sea onto the land. Rather, these beasts represent something else. Rather than taking them literally, one should take them as symbols of something else.

One of the problems with the way visions are often interpreted is that people drop from the symbolic to the literal. The beasts, the sea, and the land are symbols, sure enough, but when the Son of Man appears in the clouds, that’s literal. But there isn’t any justification in the text for taking one part of the vision literally. One interpreter of Revelation has maintained (actually more than one, but I won’t list) that we should take everything literally that we can in the book, and only treat it as symbolic where that is essential. It’s a vision! It is filled with symbols! The default has to be that anything in the vision is symbolic unless you have good reason to believe that the writer is seeing actual events. And quite bluntly, in Revelation (or the latter chapters of Daniel), you don’t.

I think a couple of extensions of how symbols might function would be in order, and Revelation provides examples. First, something literal can be used as a symbol. There is no doubt that the seven churches were real places. Under the rule of taking what can be taken literally, we would see the messages as tailored messages to those particular seven churches. But I would argue here that the actual churches are being used symbolically, with the number seven indicating that the messages to the seven churches constitute as a whole a message to the whole church. Various schemes, such as applying the churches to periods of history and their messages as specifically applicable to such times, while interesting, have the potential to lose us part of the message to the whole church. Second, I would use Revelation 12 as an example of where a visionary symbol points not to something physical, but to something spiritual. We might call it a symbol of a symbol.

It’s a bit more complex to specify how this works in other passages. For example, I would call Genesis 1 liturgy. That is, by most people’s understanding, non-literal. In addition, there are symbols within the liturgical text. This is why I think it’s important to talk about how we understand a passage and why we understand it that way and avoid simply saying that we don’t take it literally. There are many non-literal ways of taking things.

I will go into these issues in greater detail when I begin my YouTube study on eschatology starting August 17. On August 10 I plan an interview with Dr. Herold Weiss, winding up my study of According to John. I will begin the eschatology study by looking at the landscape of eschatology using Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide by Edward W. H. Vick, and then proceed to eschatological and apocalyptic passages. I talked about this in more detail yesterday.

Reflections on Teaching Revelation

Reflections on Teaching Revelation

Revelation: A Participatory Study GuideThis past Sunday I completed teaching a four week series on Revelation for one of the Sunday School classes at Chumuckla Community Church. It’s always interesting to try to teach a short series on the book of Revelation. There is so much there, and so much background information is needed. It’s difficult to be effective.

This series turned out well. My goal was to suggest some ways to read Revelation more profitably. We discussed the nature of the book and looked at some specific passages as examples. I hope that the material I was able to share will help folks dig deeper into other books of the Bible as well.

Here are some points that impressed themselves on me during this series.

  1. I’m more convinced than ever that we need to read Revelation more for theology and spiritual growth and less for trying to lay out timelines for the end of the world. I find good theology and good principles in many of these passages even if we continue to disagree on the specific referents.
  2. I have a great deal of sympathy for the preterist position, even though that is not precisely what I believe. Symbols generally do find credible referents in the immediate time and place. The problem with the preterist position, in my view, is that it is easy to leave all the book’s other lessons in the past as well. Revelation spoke to its own time, but it also speaks to the future.
  3. Revelation is possibly the most violent book in the New Testament. But it’s not about the violence. It’s about God’s faithfulness.
  4. Revelation is an unfolding of the gospel. It begins with Jesus with his church/people, and it ends with Jesus with his people. The rest assures God’s people that God is paying attention and is with them even when he doesn’t appear to be.
  5. In teaching Revelation we need to emphasize the persecuted church more. When you get to the fifth seal, for example, and the souls under the altar are asking “How long oh Lord?” it helps if we understand what persecution was and is like. I have always discussed persecution as an historical phenomenon. This time I spent more time discussing the present and what some of these passage might mean viewed from the perspective of people suffering persecution right now. Like Hebrews, Revelation speaks to people suffering or soon-to-suffer great hardship. We American Christians, in our ease, are likely to have a hard time hearing the message.
  6. The most important thing a Bible teacher can so, I believe, is teach people how to study for themselves. It’s not about getting across all of my beliefs or particular interpretations. What people need is to find a way to experience God for themselves—to hear God’s voice—through the pages of scripture.

In addition, I was impressed by how badly I need to revise and improve my study guide. I’m still very happy with the basic approach, but there is so much more that could be said. I’m going to redo the layout, expand my notes and move them to the beginning of each lesson, and spend more time in the study guide talking about the lessons one can learn in this important book about reading scripture and allowing it to change our lives.

Why We Don’t Teach Revelation Contextually

Why We Don’t Teach Revelation Contextually

Lawrence Garcia asks why pastors in America don’t teach Revelation contextually. It’s a good question. He gives a good answer, concluding that the contextual message of Revelation is going to run head-on into our civil religion. We have divided loyalties, and if we see our idols—imperial power, perhaps?—condemned, we get tense. If our pastors started to tell us that the message of the cross said that our dependence on the power of this world is bad, we might start finding other pastors, presumably ones with a less startling message.

I agree that the message of Revelation runs directly into many of our favored activities and attitudes. But I think there’s another reason we don’t want to read Revelation contextually.

It’s not as much fun.

It’s not as comforting.

You may be thinking “Revelation? Comforting?” but first let’s consider the matter of fun. We really like to know the future. At least we like to think we know the future. That’s why sports analysts and political pundits can make so much money. We don’t really check the accuracy of what they say, but we like to find a prophet that tells us what we want to hear. Knowing the future makes us feel special.

Ever since we got this kind of dispensational view of Revelation that results in the Left Behind series, we’re stuck with that as the popular vision of Revelation. I recall being invited to teach a youth class shortly after I joined my first United Methodist congregation. I was there to talk about Bible translations, but when I asked for questions at the end of my presentation the first one was this: Are you pre-, mid-, or post-trib? The folks were somewhat disappointed to know that I didn’t believe in a separate rapture of the church at all. Since that time I’ve found that most discussions of Revelation are in the context of some form of futurism, with the debate being over which particular futurist view you take.

I taught Revelation from my study guide (this web site is dedicated to that guide), which does not deal with the rapture or the seven year tribulation, neither of which can be found in Revelation, in my opinion. The group insisted on a 14th lesson to specifically discuss that question. The tribulation and who was going to be in it was the critical question. Or more precisely the critical question was who could get out of it.

It’s just disappointing to realize that Revelation doesn’t provide a detailed road map of the future. We’d so much rather it did that! In fact, when it doesn’t, we insist on pretending that it does. It’s just more fun!

And it is comforting. Yes, I know there are all kinds of disturbing images in the book, but if you can figure out precisely where you fit in, and if you can convince yourself that you know the future and how you’ll handle the tribulation (it won’t trouble you!), that’s comforting. We want so badly to know the future that we’ll believe almost anything.

Eschatology: A Participatory Study GuideAnd the prevalence of a pre-tribulation rapture speaks to that desire for comfort. It tells modern Christians that unlike millions of Christians before them, and those living in other lands right now, they will indeed be able to avoid the nastiest events. They’re going to be sitting comfortably off in heaven while everyone else passes through disaster after disaster. Take that all you people who didn’t listen to us!

But the bottom line is precisely what Laurence Garcia says: Taking the message of Revelation as it would appear in its historical context brings the message much too close to home. It’s much more relevant than the futurist understanding, but it just doesn’t make us nearly as happy.

For those interested in digging deeper into eschatology, I’d like to recommend the latest volume in the Participatory Study Series, Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide. This book will introduce you to the ideas and terminology that will make it possible to sort your way through the incredible amount of drivel that’s put out on this subject on a daily basis.

Imperfections in Scripture

Imperfections in Scripture

Lee at The Dubious Disciple generously and kindly reviewed my book When People Speak for God. In that review, he included the following sentence:

A discussion of inerrancy follows, and how Henry’s recognition of the Bible’s imperfections has not disturbed his reverence for God’s Word.

Now before I discuss this line, let me emphasize that this is not a critique or rebuttal of Lee’s review. I’m not saying he misunderstood me. What happened is that his particular phrasing suggested some clarifications to me, and I want to write about them now.

Let’s start with an analogy. Supposing I’m viewing a sunset with one of my grandchildren. I might discuss imaginary shapes suggested by the clouds, the beauty of the colors, and the gift of beauty that God has given us. Were a scientist to hear my description, and think I was teaching my grandchild about the technical aspects of a sunset, he might well consider that there were serious imperfections in my talk on the sunset.

In turn, if I was explaining the technical aspects to the same grandchild, discussing refraction, the composition of the atmosphere, cloud formation, the rotation of the earth, and so forth, while the scientists might be satisfied, if my wife heard the lecture, and supposed I was watching a pretty sunset, she might well consider that there were imperfections in my discussion of the sunset, which she would doubtless point out to me.

Each of these ways of talking about the sunset is good and appropriate in its proper setting, and each is severely deficient when used in the wrong context.

Now let me turn to the Bible. One of the points I endeavor to make regularly is that we must observe what the Bible is, rather than trying to predefine what the Bible should be. Instead, we often use texts such as 2 Peter 1:21 and 2 Timothy 3:16 (and if we’re lucky, 17) and construct our doctrine of what the scripture should be, whereupon we set to work trying to demonstrate that it is what it should be.

I think it would be better to observe how the Bible came to be, and determine from that just how God speaks through scripture and how it is that we should hear his voice. My primary suggestion would be that everything in the Bible starts from God acting, and people experiencing God in action. From there, the writers report God’s actions in history.

This necessarily involves their perceptions and their cultural backgrounds. This comes very strongly into play as we interpret Genesis 1 & 2 along with other creation stories. On the one hand we have objectors who see the creation story as deficient because it doesn’t tell a scientific story. On the other we have those who believe it must tell a scientific story, so therefore it does tell one.

My question is just how we expect God to communicate to those who wrote this story. Should he first provide them with all the various scientific theories and data that would allow him to tell a story that we would take as scientifically accurate? What would happen then to believers a couple hundred years in the future? Might they not regard such a story as ridiculously primitive and therefore not divine?

It’s my contention that God spoke to those people in the context of their culture and their cosmology. If I look at this as a scientific treatise or an historical record, I will, indeed, see imperfections. The Bible is very imperfect at being what it is not.

While these elements of ancient cosmology may look like errors to us, they are actually “intentionals,” i.e., they are intentional elements of the way God chose to communicate with people and also chose to provide scripture.

I would add further that the way in which the Bible was transmitted also points away from this kind of accurate fulfillment of our modern desires. I’d love to have good material on which to base precise dating of the kings of Judah and Israel. But if you try to line up those numbers you’ll find they don’t work so well. A massive effort of proposing co-regencies and various differences in recording accession years can bring much of it into line, but even Edwin R. Thiele (The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 1994) had to suggest that some of the final records of the northern kingdom had been lost. (I don’t have the page number, but I’ll hunt it down if anyone requests it.)

The message of the books of Kings is not lost, however, because I can’t satisfy my curiosity. Thus what is an imperfection from my perspective is not an imperfection from another.

I know this presents problems for some Christian apologists. The eternal effort to prove the Bible’s truthfulness, or at least make it highly probable, is very important to some. But the question is whether that enterprise matches God’s intent in scripture. As I mentioned earlier the benefit of 2 Timothy 3:17, which doesn’t say, “that the man of God may know history” or “that the man of God may know science.” Of course our understanding of how scripture is presented and how it came to be will impact the way we read that passage as well!

Now just because the Bible is aiming to teach those subjects doesn’t mean it doesn’t have information on those topics. That is a separate investigation. What it does mean is that if we try to evaluate the Bible as a history or science book, we’ll find imperfections, since “perfect” always relates to a goal or standard. If we’re using the wrong standard, we’ll be misled.

Revelation Requires Interaction

Revelation Requires Interaction

In my book When People Speak for God I used the story of the one-ended telephone cord. Edward Vick makes the same point in much more profound language than I used.

But even should someone intend to make known to me what I would otherwise never come to discover by myself, I shall not in fact know it unless I respond. The intention to reveal oneself, and the intention to know the other are not sufficient in themselves. Revelation takes place when there is giving and responding, an interaction between agents who are both free and purposive. Revelation is communication. Revelation takes place when what is ‘provided’ is grasped, what is ‘offered’ is ‘taken’, what is spoken’ is ‘heard’ (From Inspiration to Understanding, 174 [in advance copy]).