Thursday, September 20, 2007

Book Review: God and History in the Book of Revelation

Michael Gilbertson
God and History in the Book of Revelation:
New Testament Studies in Dialogue with Pannenberg and Moltmann (SNTS 124; Cambridge: CUP, 2003).
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See for purchase.

Blurb from Cambridge: "This is an interdisciplinary study which constructs a dialogue between biblical interpretation and systematic theology. It examines how far a reading of the Book of Revelation might either support or question the work of leading theologians Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann on the theology of history, exploring the way in which the author of Revelation uses the dimensions of space and time to make theological points about the relationship between God and history. The book argues that Revelation sets the present earthly experience of the reader in the context of God’s ultimate purposes, by disclosing hidden dimensions of reality, both spatial - embracing heaven and earth - and temporal - extending into the ultimate future. Dr Gilbertson offers a detailed assessment of the theologies of history developed by Pannenberg and Moltmann, including their views on the nature of the historical process, and the use of apocalyptic ideas in eschatology".

My Review (forthcoming in EuroJTh 17.1)

Summary: This volume represents a cross disciplinary study between biblical interpretation and systematic theology. The author examines to what degree a reading of the Book of Revelation supports or undermines the theologies of Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann on the theology of history. He does this by exploring the way in which the Book of Revelation employs the dimensions of time and space in order to establish a conception of God’s relationship to history. The author concludes that Pannenberg and Moltmann’s theologies are both continuous and discontinuous with the Book of Revelation and its approach to God and history.

The objective of Gilbertson’s study is to examine the relation of the divine reality to the world of historical events. In chapter one, Gilbertson opens with discussion of twentieth-century debates about the relationship between history and faith. He surveys the work of Ernst Troeltsch who argued that the historical-critical method could not accommodate divine interaction with the world, Rudolf Bultmann who posited a strict dichotomy between history and God via his neo-Kantian dualism that separated fact from value, Wolfhart Pannenberg who advocated that the divine self-communication occurs through historical events, and finally he surveys Jürgen Moltmann who endeavoured to draw the horizons of God’s ultimate future and the human present together in order for their to be real hope in Christian thought.

In chapter two, Gilbertson examines the relationship between scripture and systematic theology. He draws attention to Krister Stendahl’s two-stage model which begins with the descriptive task of biblical theology followed by the practice of a normative systematic theology in order to prevent theological commitments from damaging the interpretation of the text. Gilbertson questions, however, whether ‘descriptive’ and ‘normative’ are really antithetical and whether the differentiation between what the text ‘meant’ and what it ‘means’ is really straightforward. Instead, Gilbertson prefers Nicholas Lash’s dialectic model of a more dynamic interface between exegesis and theology. On the role of scripture in theology, he accepts Alister McGrath’s defence of the cognitive-propositionalist approach which maintains an external referent in the story of Jesus.

Gilbertson addresses the overall perspective of Revelation in chapter three by focusing on Revelation’s representation of history, the rhetorical situation of the text, and the genre of Revelation. He examines preterist, historicist, and salvation-historical accounts of Revelation’s representation of history and finds fault with all three. Instead, Gilbertson argues that the framework of Revelation is temporal (= not about abstract principles) yet not chronological (= not about speculative future events). He locates the text in an environment that was not necessarily in crisis but the Seer aims to reveal the true nature of the situation to his readers. Accordingly, Gilbertson rejects seeing the symbology of Revelation as functioning as a psychological mechanism designed to induce certain states. He maintains that due regard should be given to the truth claims that the text makes. Thus, however the rhetorical function of the book is construed it must remain rooted in the truth-claims that the book itself makes about reality. On genre, Revelation is an apocalypse, though lacking some features of an apocalypse (e.g. pseudonymity), and the Seer attempts to influence his audience by locating the earthly present in the context of ultimate spatial and temporal horizons.

Chapters four and five deal with the spatial and temporal dimensions of Revelation. Gilbertson argues that Revelation is concerned with ‘the expansion of spatial horizons to include a transcendent spatial reality and the expansion of temporal horizons include transcendent temporal reality’ (p. 82). He finds that the juxtaposition of 2:1–3:22 and 4:1–11 create a dissonance between the crisis situation of John’s audience and the absolute sovereignty of God. This dissonance is resolved, spatially, by the future descent of the New Jerusalem from heaven to earth, and temporally, by the everlasting sovereignty of God being manifest on the earth at the same time. Although, as he points out, this imagery can also intensify the dissonance since the spatial and temporal transitions are yet to take place.

Gilbertson then compares his findings about Revelation with the theologies of Pannenberg and Moltmann in chapter six. He focuses on the dynamics of history, proleptic revelation, eschatological consummation, and the relationship of the present to the eschatological horizon. He notes the differences between Pannenberg and Moltmann not the least of which is that Pannenberg emphasizes the unity and coherence of history with God’s self-revelation, while Moltmann emphasizes discontinuity and contradiction between the present historical reality and the coming of God. Beyond this, Gilbertson adds a caveat that the conceptual worlds of John of Patmos and twentieth century theologians such as Pannenberg and Moltmann are very different, but what they have in common is a theology whose orientation is towards the ultimate future and the impact of this ultimate future upon the present. Where Pannenberg and Moltmann appear to depart from Gilbertson’s analysis of Revelation, is that the Seer can identify God’s rule as a hidden reality, whereas for Pannenberg and Moltmann, God’s rule is of the future.

In his conclusion, Gilbertson finds Pannenberg and Moltmann’s theology as being continuous and discontinuous from his analysis of Revelation. In line with the intention of the text, Moltmann and Pannenberg both posit a vision of the ultimate power of God that will ultimately shape the future but such power is for the moment hidden and not publicly manifest. Overall, a theological reading of Revelation is both a welcomed and profitable exercise if done with historical sensitivity and theological acumen. Gilbertson does both fairly well and succeeds in bringing the disciplines of biblical and theological studies together. The only misgiving I have is that while Gilbertson rejects Stendahl’s two-stage model for biblical and systematic theology, in the end his monograph is a perfect example of it as he moves from analysis of the text of Revelation (chapters 3–5) to systematic observations (chapter 6). Apart from that, this volume is a good example of how biblical interpretation and systematic theology can and should be brought together.

1 comment:

D.W. Congdon said...

"Where Pannenberg and Moltmann appear to depart from Gilbertson’s analysis of Revelation, is that the Seer can identify God’s rule as a hidden reality, whereas for Pannenberg and Moltmann, God’s rule is of the future."

This seems like a rather lame comparison. Does the author expand on this at all? Obviously, Pannenberg and Moltmann affirm that God's rule is in the present as well as in the future, so to say that God's rule is in the future is not really discontinuous with God's rule being hidden in the present. In fact, those seem to be more or less in agreement, not disagreement. If that's the extent of the conflict, then it seems a bit disingenuous for the author to speak of a discontinuity, unless there's more to it.