Friday, January 13, 2012

My Own Fault (a book review by an orthodox rebel)

Book: Reading Revelation: A Comparison of Four Interpretive Translations of the Apocalypse, by C. Marvin Pate. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2009. 208 pgs. (including introduction and list of additional resources)

Introduction: Perhaps it is not unfair to say that of all the books of the Bible, Revelation is the most famous both inside and outside the church. Its fame bounces between intrigue and obsession: many people are just curious about its contents while others have staked entire theological frameworks upon it. In truth, however, an unbiased (and uncritical) reading of Revelation can only "reveal" the book to be an oddity. Its symbols and metaphors are lavish and obscure, breathtaking and mysterious. Its details travel from the sublime to the bizarre to the monstrous, and its ordering of events make any stable chronological connotation impossible. No historical application neatly fits it. No single hermeneutic covers all the facts. No one interpretation satisfies all questions and curiosities.

For those who have not settled down on any one particular view of Revelation but would like to have a way to tangle with it from all sides, C. Marvin Pate offers a solution: a single, easy-to-read reference work that charts out the four main interpretive schools of the book side-by-side along with a translation of the book straight from the Greek text. That is what Reading Revelation is meant to be, "a work that converts the four major interpretations of [Revelation] into four parallel translations, thereby highlighting both the similarities and the differences characterizing those respect viewpoints" (7). Mr. Pate hopes that Reading Revelation will give fair treatment and representation of the four major interpretive schools while providing the reader with adequate information in regard to how they view Revelation verse-by-verse. That is what he offers; whether he succeeds is another matter.

Summary: The book is basically divided into two parts: an introduction and then the parallel readings of Revelation. The introduction gives a brief overview of the four major schools of interpretation for Revelation, which are as follows:

(1) The preterist school: this school sees Revelation only through the lens of its historical context "by relating it to its original author and audience" (7). It sees the events of Revelation as already having been fulfilled in the first century A.D. For them, John wrote Revelation as a means of encouragement to Christians suffering under persecution by painting that persecution in spiritual terms and then showing how Christ has triumphed and will triumph over all. For us today, Revelation is not about the apocalyptic future but rather about specific past events. Its only "use" for us is as a tool of encouragement: as God was with them, so He is with us.

(2) The historicist school: this school sees Revelation as a prophetic gloss of the whole of church history "from the first century until the return of Christ" (9). It is a cataloging of what the church has gone, is going, and will go through. Unique to this school of interpretation is its ardent Protestantism vs. Roman Catholicism bent. It views church history (and consequently Revelation) as a battle between the "true" Church (i.e., Protestantism) and the "false" church (i.e., Catholicism). Its primary "use" for us today is to encourage us with God's specifically Protestant victory over the Catholic Church. (Note: This view is not as in vogue today as it once was, and "very few" actually hold to it; 9).

(3) The futurist school: this school sees Revelation as a prophetic account of the coming apocalypse. Popular amongst the masses, this is the admittedly "pessimistic" school (10-11), holding that things will get worse and worse until Christ comes again. The only variance within this school is in regard to the Church's relationship to "things getting worse". One side (i.e., dispensationalism) holds that the Church will avoid the greatest part of the earth's troubles in a "pretribulation rapture" (10). The other side (i.e., historic premillennialism) holds that the Church "will undergo the messianic woes" within the tribulation, right up to when Christ returns. Other than this in-house squabble, the futurist message is roughly in sync, seeing Revelation's "use" as a warning to believers and unbelievers alike about what awaits us all in the end.

(4) The idealist school: this school sees Revelation in its most general and abstract sense, in that it "interprets the book spiritually, or symbolically" (11). In short, Revelation is not about any particular event(s), but rather is an imaginative retelling of "the ongoing conflict of good and evil" (11). It loathes giving to Revelation "historical connection to any social or political events" (11), choosing instead to let it be a wild and wondrous accounting of timeless truths about God, the Devil, and the spiritual war between them. Thus, Revelation's "use" for us is as a reminder of the spiritual realities that we are currently living in but are apt to forget.

So much for the introduction. The second part of the book is the parallel readings of Revelation, taking the book verse-by-verse in five columns, the first giving a wooden, straight from the Greek translation of Revelation, and the other four giving translations of Revelation from each of the four schools.

Review: I must admit: this book disappointed me, and it was probably my own fault. I was expecting a much different book: a parallel commentary of Revelation that showcased the different interpretive schools' eschatology. What I got was a parallel Bible (or one book from the Bible) where each translation was done in the light of the different schools' eschatology. In short, what I was expecting were the causes; what I got was the results. And the reason this disappointed me was that I wanted the causes. I wanted to see the schools' speak for themselves about their own ideas and thoughts about Revelation, not their unique (and occasionally strange) versions of Revelation. Again, this disappointment of expectation was my own fault, but I cannot help but think that the book I was expecting would have been a much better book than what I got.

Reading Revelation feels too thin for its own good, which is the whole "causes" vs. "results" thing rearing its ugly head. By far, the introduction is the most valuable part of the book, but even it is not enough. It only touches the surface and whets the appetite, but no more, and it is the "more" that is needed. It does give you a taste of the interpretive stances of the four schools; but without a deeper wading into those waters, the subsequent parallel versions of Revelation come off merely as quaint rather than informative or engrossing. As such, it wasn't long before I found myself bored with the whole thing. This is unfortunate, as I am sure Mr. Pate put hard work into this; but in the end, what I hoped would have challenged and inspired me did neither.

Recommendation: Reading Revelation is not a bad book; there are just much better books out there. I can even think of two: Four Views on the Book of Revelation, which is also by Mr. Pate and is much more in depth in regard to the interpretive schools; and Revelation: Four Views, by Steve Gregg, which appears to be exactly the parallel commentary that I was looking for (and which Mr. Pate points to in Reading Revelation). Both of those are far better books for anyone looking to increase their understanding and appreciation of the Bible's most mysterious book.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the recommendation--will have to check out Gregg's book!