At the beginning of the 21st century virtually the entire American evangelical community has been captured by a dispensational, pretribulational, and premillennial eschatology. Best-selling book series and sensational movies, reinforced by endless radio talk programs, promote these fantastic interpretations of biblical prophecy as events coming to pass in our generation.
Unfortunately, the response of the Reformed church to this, thus far, one-sided discussion has been to caution that fantastic interpretations of biblical prophecy, especially concerning the book of Revelation, should be skeptically received. But it should be frankly admitted that we have not offered what we could credibly claim is a defensible interpretation of the last book in the canon.
This faculty forum is an attempt to rectify this omission-a deficiency that we must recognize represents a sinful omission in our Reformed history. While the Westminster Confession clearly states that the Book of Revelation is to be received according “to the rule of faith and life” (WCF, chap. 1, para. 2), we have not given John’s Revelation an equal dignity with the rest of sacred scripture. This neglect is demonstrated in the paucity of exegetical attention the book has been accorded from Reformed exegetes. We have consequently treated the Apocalypse as though it were almost an apocryphal document. And although we have silently recognized that its meaning was largely veiled to us, we have not cried out as a community to the Holy Spirit of God to illumine its message to our hearts. This omission is again largely due to our history. It is instructive that Martin Luther questioned the canonicity of Revelation, lamenting that a “Revelation” should reveal; and John Calvin, who commented on every other book of the Bible, glaringly omitted commentary on the Apocalypse. The children of the Reformers have fared little better.1And it is time to ask why?
The answer to this question, we believe, is suggested once we recognize the genre of Revelation as classically understood.2 The literary pattern of a trajectory leading from darkness to light, from a damsel’s despair to a hero’s victory celebrated at last by a royal wedding procession (komos), is comedy.3
Now, perhaps, we can understand the failure of the Reformed church to address Revelation in any adequate fashion. It is due to our history. Perhaps we must also confess it is due to our sin. For it was our Puritan forebears who closed down the Elizabethan theater, fearing the nature of the theatre to explore the comedic imagination, which was suspected (especially in Shakespeare!) of undermining good morals.4
Consequently, as a community, we Reformed folk have been skeptical of the poetic imagination. We have unknowingly but nonetheless actually shut down one of the most fundamental gestures of the soul in so doing. And we have lost the splendor of the mundus imaginalis, the wonderment and sheer joy of the soul that is our true entrée into the Apocalypse, John’s glorious vision of the beauty of the Son of Man.
The following papers from the Faculty Forum represent the ongoing project of Knox Seminary to articulate an understanding of Revelation through a lectionary reading of the Apocalypse and the Fourth Gospel and by an awareness of the overwhelmingly typological character of Johannine literature. We invite the participation of our students and the Christian community at large as we undertake this exciting study!
Please send all comments to JohnRevelation@knoxseminary.org.
© 2002 Warren Austin Gage, J. Randy Beck, Steven P. Carpenter
1 There have been several valiant attempts by postmillennialists to exposit Revelation. But postmillennialists have largely approached the book with a literary literalism similar to the hermeneutic of the premillennialists, having failed to appreciate the ironic character of the biblical understanding of victory (cf. Paul’s claim that “we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered. But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us,” Rom 8:36-37). This hermeneutical oversight is caused, as we shall argue, by the loss of a classical understanding of the possibilities of irony, the heart of the comedic imagination.
2 Modern commentaries endlessly repeat the notion that Revelation represents an “apocalyptic” genre. This wholly confected (that is, non-classical) genre category based upon intertestamental Jewish writings has recently begun to give way under the realization that it has not offered significant hermeneutical assistance in developing the contours of thought within Revelation itself. See F.D. Mazzaferri, The Genre of the Book of Revelation from a Source-Critical Perspective BZNW 54 (New York: de Gruyter, 1989) 60-75, 160-84.
3 There are four classical genres: epic, lyric, comic, and tragic. Aristotle, Poetica 1449a. See Louise Cowan, “Introduction: The Comic Terrain,” in The Terrain of Comedy (ed. L. Cowan; Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1984), 16.
4 Puritanical censors were fearful of comedic wit and humor. Wit, the comedy of the intellect, was eschewed as frivolity. Humor (from the four humors), the comedy of the body, was rejected as bawdy and obscene. This skepticism of the comedic exploration of corporality was often carried to an excess that seemed informed by a neo-platonism rather than a due regard for biblical decency and order. In this we are reminded of the ancient rabbinical canonical objections to the Song of Songs. Solomon’s allegory was relegated to the antilegomena because even the allegorical anthropomorphism of God espousing to Himself a people, once again reflecting the comedic imagination, was regarded as too bold and too bodily.