A month ago I threw out some ideas about Reading the Bible Better. I loved the comments and questions that it generated. It led to a short discussion about the book of Revelation – which is one of my favorite topics. I had to take some time off for the Soularize conference and some other projects but now I am back. I thought is would be good to pick up were we left off.
I first heard about Ronald Farmer in an interview with Homebrewed Christianity. His take on different ways of reading the Bible (hermeneutics) was helpful and inspiring. He has a commentary on the book of Revelation in the Chalice series.
He breaks down the different ways of looking at the book of Revelation into 4 schools: Historicist, Futurist, Symbolic and Preterist.
The Historicist school thinks that Revelation is a forecast of Western history “from the 1st century until the consummation of time.”
The Futurist school is similar to the Historicist but thinks that most of the book (chapters 4-20) is yet to happen and will start after the ‘rapture’. Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, as well as the Scofield and Ryrie study Bibles are in this camp.
The Symbolic school thinks that the main point is God’s ultimate triumph over evil in symbolic or poetic imagery. So the ‘Beast’ would be “neither the 1st century Roman empire nor a future end-time antichrist.” It represents tyranny wherever it is found.
The Preterist school comes from the Latin for “past” (preter). “It confines the meaning and significance of the book… to the immediate circumstances of the the author’s day”.
Farmer makes an important distinction between foretelling (predicting the future) and forthtelling which is proclamation to the generation of one’s writing. Misunderstanding the nature of prophecy leads to the kind of ‘event-substitution’ that both the Historicist and Futurist schools error in. It jams the 21st century back onto the 1st century and that is never going to go well.
He then takes the Preterist and Symbolic schools and combines them in an innovative way. Looking first and how the original audience would have understood the symbols and then -and this is the innovation – explores how the text might come to mean something in our new setting that is different than what it meant in its original one.
I wanted to introduce this material because A) It is a really helpful overview for any discussion and B) it will set us up so that I can distinguish how what I am up to is a little bit different that what he ends up doing.
Thoughts so far?
October 31, 2011 at 9:57 pm
Interested, for sure, to see where you are going to go with this.
Last year, my church’s Sunday School group did a Revelation study which looked through the lens of each of these positions, letting them interrogate each other and bring about a fair bit of good discussion. I don’t know if anyone really changed their mind, most are futurists (and in the concluding “What do you think? Where do you stand?” discussion, most said that they were still futurists), but I found a word for the way I had been reading it prior to beginning the class. Which is, symbolically. Probably that stems from doing some philosophy classes on Ernst Cassirer (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms). I think I end up in a similar combo as well, so I’m interested to see how he does it, and also what you are going to do/doing.
November 1, 2011 at 1:26 am
Jordan, thanks so much for the feedback! I am interested in this Philosophy of Symbolic Forms – maybe you can write a little bit next week in response to my 4 posts 🙂 that would be great.
I plan on leaving lots of room for the symbolic school in my writing even though that is not where I come down on the issue. But over the next three posts it will be fun to compare notes…
November 2, 2011 at 3:20 am
Well, we’ll see if I have anything to say, haha! Its good to have something to look forward to thinking about :).
(to get you further interested (I hope), another way of speaking about this philosophy of symbolic forms would be as a critique of culture- heavy Kantian inspiration, but still quite original as well, I think)
November 1, 2011 at 5:28 pm
This could be very interesting. I think, like Jordan, I have always read Revelations from a symbolic standpoint, only taking literally those things I could even remotely see as possible with my sometimes simple ways of comprehending. I am interested to hear and learn more about these other schools of thought and see how it effects my way of reading this book.
November 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm
Love that methodologically helpful breakdown. It sure beats coming to the text pretending you are not using a lens at all, but simply reading it “literally”. I am down with that! Looking forward to this discussion!
“Two men walking up a hill… …etc.etc.etc…”
November 2, 2011 at 3:29 am
I was raised with the idea that there was only one way to read Revelation…the futurist way. Every reference/sermon I was exposed to (until I started listening to you preach) was from this perspective and I literally (I’m mortified to say) had no idea there was another option. Because it was incongruous with my take on the good news, I left Revelation in it’s own untouched little compartment. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series of posts!!
November 3, 2011 at 3:40 am
I am nominating this for comment of the year. Thank you so much for the feedback (and honesty).