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Getting Literal, Eschatological, Apocalyptic, Even!

Well, last night my discussion of According to John covered a lot of other ground. In particular, I was looking at the eschatological use of “hour” and “now,” and I suggested that John has a fairly simple eschatology to go with his fairly simple soteriology. I’m not going to rehash all of this. The foundation is found in Chapter 19 of Herold Weiss’s book Mediations on According to John: Exercises in Biblical Theology. For those who might wish to review the video, here it is.

In the middle of this discussion I got into talking about the ‘L’ word. No, not liberal. Literal. I tell people that we should avoid simply saying that we’re not taking something literal, and get specific about just how we are taking whatever it is. “We don’t take that literally,” has become commonplace in discussions of the Bible in mainline and progressive circles, but often we don’t tell people just what we do with the thing we aren’t taking literally.

Last night I was talking about something that is fairly simple to pinpoint, symbolic language in a vision report. (Note that you don’t necessarily have to believe that a person has received a divine vision in order to accept a literary category of “vision report.” I do believe people have visions, but the form remains no matter the source.) If we take a vision such as Daniel 7, for example, we have beasts (which represent something), coming up out of the sea (which represents something), onto the land (which represents something), and so forth. “Not taking Daniel 7 literally” means that I don’t believe that Daniel’s vision was about actual creatures coming from an actual sea onto the land. Rather, these beasts represent something else. Rather than taking them literally, one should take them as symbols of something else.

One of the problems with the way visions are often interpreted is that people drop from the symbolic to the literal. The beasts, the sea, and the land are symbols, sure enough, but when the Son of Man appears in the clouds, that’s literal. But there isn’t any justification in the text for taking one part of the vision literally. One interpreter of Revelation has maintained (actually more than one, but I won’t list) that we should take everything literally that we can in the book, and only treat it as symbolic where that is essential. It’s a vision! It is filled with symbols! The default has to be that anything in the vision is symbolic unless you have good reason to believe that the writer is seeing actual events. And quite bluntly, in Revelation (or the latter chapters of Daniel), you don’t.

I think a couple of extensions of how symbols might function would be in order, and Revelation provides examples. First, something literal can be used as a symbol. There is no doubt that the seven churches were real places. Under the rule of taking what can be taken literally, we would see the messages as tailored messages to those particular seven churches. But I would argue here that the actual churches are being used symbolically, with the number seven indicating that the messages to the seven churches constitute as a whole a message to the whole church. Various schemes, such as applying the churches to periods of history and their messages as specifically applicable to such times, while interesting, have the potential to lose us part of the message to the whole church. Second, I would use Revelation 12 as an example of where a visionary symbol points not to something physical, but to something spiritual. We might call it a symbol of a symbol.

It’s a bit more complex to specify how this works in other passages. For example, I would call Genesis 1 liturgy. That is, by most people’s understanding, non-literal. In addition, there are symbols within the liturgical text. This is why I think it’s important to talk about how we understand a passage and why we understand it that way and avoid simply saying that we don’t take it literally. There are many non-literal ways of taking things.

I will go into these issues in greater detail when I begin my YouTube study on eschatology starting August 17. On August 10 I plan an interview with Dr. Herold Weiss, winding up my study of According to John. I will begin the eschatology study by looking at the landscape of eschatology using Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide by Edward W. H. Vick, and then proceed to eschatological and apocalyptic passages. I talked about this in more detail yesterday.

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