Bauckham Writes Theology of Revelation
Richard Bauckham. 2017. The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Orig pub 1993). UK: Cambridge University Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Revelation captures the imagination like no other book in the Bible. Its popularity among Christians is almost a striking as the reluctance of pastors to teach it. Who wants to initiate a discussion that is likely to grow heated as participants defend their own favorite interpretations? Yet, what other biblical text elicits such passion on a regular basis? This is both the attraction and the risk of Revelation.
Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation with this overview:
“Revelation is seen to offer not an esoteric and encoded forecast of historical events but rather a theocentric vision of the coming of God’s universal kingdom, contextualized in the late first-century world dominated by Roman power and ideology. It calls on Christians to confront the political idolatries of the time and to participate in God’s purpose of gathering all the nations into his kingdom.” (i)
The series that this text embodies strives to offer a theological commentary rising above the usual focus on exegesis of individual verses, which is limited to historical, textual, grammatical, and literary commentary according to the series editor, James D. G. Dunn at University of Durham (xi). As someone who has spent a lot of time reading commentaries, I find this series highly attractive—one goes to seminary to study God, not just to analyze an ancient text with the modern scientific tools of a skeptical mind, as is the usual fare in commentaries.
In his introduction, Bauckham asks a fundamental question: what kind of book is Revelation? He writes: “Revelation seems to be an apocalyptic prophecy in the form of a circular letter to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia” (2). In other words, we see three genre (or classes of literature): apocalypse, prophecy, and letter. I will borrow these three genre to structure the remainder of this review.
Bauckham follows J.I. Collins in using this definition of apocalypse as a literary genre:
“Apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another supernatural world.” (6)
Bauckham sees John’s revelation as both highly contextualized to the first century church’s situation and a visionary disclosure of God’s perspective more generally on the human condition (7). Bauckham writes: “It is John’s readers’ concrete, day-to-day world seen in heavenly and eschatological perspective.” (8) What makes John unique among apocalyptic writers is that he writes in his own name and timeframe—more typically apocalyptic writing takes the name of an historical prophet and is set in an historical period (11).
Bauckham sees John’s prophecy arising out of a vision that he has written down with great care and intense study within the tradition of Old Testament (OT) prophecy (2-3).
For those unfamiliar with OT prophets, the OT prophet worked, not so much as a visionary, but as someone who called his audience back to faithful commitment to the Mosaic covenant. Frequently this involved reminding the community of faith of the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy 28. Because covenant non-fidelity remained a theme in the OT, the curses tend to get the most show time and they represent, not so much a prediction in time and place, but a verdict rendered in the heavenly court.
Bauckham sees Christian prophecy having three elements. First, the prophet discerns the contemporary situation in lieu of God’s nature and purpose. Second, the prophet predicts how the current situation must change if God’s kingdom is to come. Third, the hearer of this prophecy is then expected to respond in faith, which leaves room for the individual or community to participate freely in God’s purpose for the world. This why, for example, Nineveh was spared after Jonah prophesied its destruction. The destruction of Nineveh was contingent on its citizen’s rejecting God’s purpose for them (148-149). God is slow to anger precisely because he truly wants us to repent and accept salvation (Exodus 34:6).
“The whole book of Revelations is a circular letter addressed to seven specific churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea (1:11; cf. 1:4; 22:16). They are probably named in the order in which they would be visited by a messenger starting from Patmos and travelling on a circular route around the province of Asia.” (12)
Each church is called to be conquering as their part of a general eschatological battle. Bauckham sees these specific letters being both tailored to the particular problems of those church, which John clearly understands in great detail, and representative of wider problems in the church. This wider application becomes obvious when you ask—why only these seven churches (there were many more) mentioned?
Bauckham’s answer is that these seven messages are used by John as seven different introductions to Revelation, reflecting seven different ways that the book can be read (14). While I have personally always seen the letter to Laodicea being especially pertinent to the modern church, I would be curious how to read Revelation in view of the others—Bauckham does not offer these tantalizing details. However, we recognize that the number seven is the biblical number reflecting completeness (16).
Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation is a fascinating read and of interest to anyone having an interest in understanding the Book of Revelation. I bought my copy during a visit to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s bookstore in Charlotte, NC knowing that I would find it useful in teaching. Still, Bauckham writes with surprising clarity about this complex subject.
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