The Bible is Apocalyptic

This is part 13 of 16 in the series “The Bible Is…

“Apocalypse” is a common term in our culture today, but has taken on a connotation somewhat tangential to its original meaning. The word comes from Greek, apokalypsis, and also survives in English from the equivalent Latin word – revelation. Apocalyptic literature deals with revelations, unveilings, dramatic pictures of times yet to come. In the Bible, an apocalypse, specifically, is a text or passage that looks ahead to a special act of divine self-revelation when God makes himself known in a dramatic new way. All that pop-culture stuff about the end of the world and catastrophic destruction sometimes accompanies biblical apocalyptic literature, but not always. Thus when the Bible reader speaks of a (or the) Apocalypse, God’s self-revelation should be at the forefront, and global devastation only insofar as the text includes it.

Unsurprisingly, then, the Bible has a lot of apocalyptic literature within its pages. Most of the Old Testament prophetic books have apocalyptic material, looking ahead to “the day of the Lord” and the arrival of the Messiah. The Gospels, and even some of the Epistles, contain references to the return of Christ in glory as one last great apocalypse. Some of the Bible’s most famous apocalyptic passages are found in the books of Zechariah, Ezekiel, the first three Gospels, and 1 Thessalonians. But the two books that have the lengthiest apocalyptic passages are Daniel and Revelation.

The book of Daniel is one of the newest parts of the Hebrew Old Testament, technically counted among “the writings” rather than “the prophets” in the Jewish canon, but accounted as a “major prophet” in Christian tradition. The book centers on Daniel, a Jewish wise man serving the non-Jewish authorities (Kings Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus) during the Judean exile. The first half of the book contains some famous stories – Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a giant statue, Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lion’s den. On one level these stories are heroic examples of steadfast faith in the face of deadly persecution; on another level they are lived-out pictures of the Christ who was yet to come. Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and a vision in these early chapters which Daniel interprets as prophetic, foretelling over 400 years of history. The second half of the book is less well-known because of its apocalyptic nature. Daniel has a series of visions in the final 6 chapters which are usually delivered or interpreted by Archangels Gabriel and Michael. A prominent image in the various dreams and visions throughout the book is the number 4 (four parts of a statue, four beasts devouring each other) representing four empires before God’s anointed one (or Christ) arrives: the Babylonians, the Persians and Medes, the Macedonian Greeks, and the Romans. The visions are detailed and complex, making them difficult for the reader to understand, but Christians have long seen the culmination of these visions in the person of Jesus Christ and his death on the Cross, complete with a 490-year countdown from Daniel’s dream to the crucifixion of Christ!

The book of the Revelation of Saint John is similarly complicated to read and understand. It begins and ends as an epistle, but the bulk of its contents are apocalyptic. Disagreement on its meaning and interpretation goes all the way back to the Early Church, which has resulted in its frequent neglect in church lectionaries in many traditions for a thousand years. The first three chapters are fairly straight-forward, containing visions of the risen and eternal Christ speaking to John and dictating letters to seven churches – probably the ones that that John oversaw as Apostle or Bishop. Beginning in chapter 4, however, are visions of “things that will take place”, and interpreters have been in disagreement since at least the 4th century as to how much of what follows has since taken place, and how much of it is still in our future. Various Protestant movements starting in the 19th century churned up further controversy and confusion regarding the meaning of this book, making it all the more difficult for the modern reader to know what to believe about it. The book of the Revelation contains lengthy depictions of judgment in various images: angels blowing trumpets, pouring out bowls of wrath, horsemen and locusts rampaging the earth, the heavens falling, battle with an angry and powerful serpent or dragon. Interspersed throughout are also glorious pictures of peace and worship: saints in white robes, Jesus as a lamb on a throne, the whole company of heaven singing in endless praise, the Church as a city or bride descending to the earth, a river and trees of life. Elements of these apocalyptic vision are likely futurist, depicting the return of Christ in glory, the final victory over Satan on the day of judgment, and the unending life of peace in the new heavens and earth. Elements of these visions also must be understood spiritually – the battle against the demonic powers is ongoing in the life of every Christian, and God’s chastening and judgment is constantly felt and seen in the world in various and sundry ways all across history.

Rather than forming complex theories of the End Times based on controversial interpretations of the various apocalyptic writings, the Bible reader is better off embracing the mysteries of these complicated visions. There is much to glean from them, and good study, preaching, and teaching, can unlock many of these difficult texts. But sometimes it must be admitted that God has not made all details of the future clear, and we should simply rejoice in the knowledge that God knows how all things will be resolved, even if we don’t understand it all. The reader must be wary of the populist teachings and arguments over premillenialism, postmillenialism, the rapture, the anti-christ, and world events as “signs of the times.” Such theories verge on the conspiratorial, and have been cropping up in many different forms throughout Christian history; the Bible reader must not allow such fads to color one’s understanding of the Bible itself.

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The Formularies as Exposition

Something I spent a lot of time doing over the past couple years was developing my sense of grounding in the formularies of the Anglican tradition.  As I’ve written elsewhere, a “formulary” is a document that formulates the basis of a particular Christian tradition.  Every tradition and denomination has its own formularies, however large or small, clear or hidden.  For the Anglican tradition, we look primarily to three documents: The 39 Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal (which is, nowadays, printed as part of the Prayer Book, and contains the services for ordaining Deacons, Priests, and Bishops).

Something I read recently from Charles Simeon‘s 2,000th Sermon, about the Anglican formularies, struck me:

The scriptures alone are the proper standard of truth, but the Articles, Homilies, and liturgy of the Church of England are an authorized exposition of the sense in which all her members profess to understand the scriptures.  To these therefore we appeal as well as to the sacred records.

While it is virtually universal for Christians to hold authoritative documents alongside the Bible (even “no creed but the Bible” is itself a creed, and sola scriptura itself is an authoritative statement alongside the Bible), the relationship between the Bible and authorized documents is not always as clearly defined as some would wish.  For Simeon to say that the Formularies are “an authorized exposition” of the Bible is very interesting: it maintains sola scriptura in one of its strongest forms, and reduces the authorized documents to the role of exposition, that is, explanation and illumination of what the Bible is saying.

Although I’m not quite on the same page as Simeon when it comes to the nature of church authority, I can see where he’s coming from, recognize it as a classically Protestant perspective, and appreciate his consistency and integrity in his methodology.  When handled rightly, I believe (with Simeon) that there never should be any conflict between Scripture and Tradition; a robust set of formularies will not deviate from the biblical revelation.

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Why look at Saints when we have Jesus?

Those unfamiliar with the liturgical tradition sometimes ask us “what’s the point of Saints’ Days?”  After all, we worship the Lord God of all creation, who became flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived a perfect and sinless life, who kept and fulfilled the Law, who is our perfect example of love and obedience.  With such a great Savior and King to celebrate, why ever turn our eyes any lower?

As Saint Matthew’s Day approaches tomorrow, we find an example of why celebrating the Saints is worth our time.  In the Communion service for that Major Feast Day we read in Matthew 9 of the time Jesus called Matthew from his work as a corrupt tax collector.  The Collect of the Day (or, our traditional theme-prayer) describes and applies this to Christian life:

Lord Jesus, you called Matthew from collecting taxes to become your apostle and evangelist; grant us the grace to forsake all covetous desires and the pursuit of inordinate riches, so that we may also follow you as he did and proclaim to the world around us the good news of your salvation; who lives and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Jesus is our great and perfect example, yes, but in our sinfulness we also need examples of what repentance looks like, what it means to “forsake all covetous desires” and follow Christ.  So we celebrate Saints, not because they were “perfect,” but precisely because they were imperfect, and show us what the work of Christ does in us.

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Edward B. Pusey

September 17th is the death day and commemoration of Edward B. Pusey, an Oxford Divine, so-called because he was a leader of the Oxford Movement in the mid-19th century.  The Oxford Movement was a renewal of historic piety and theological alignment, and the controversial rise of Anglo-Catholicism.  From that movement the Anglican tradition has popularly regained many things now taken for granted even in Low-Church settings:

  • Candles on the altar
  • Priests wearing albs and stoles and chasubles
  • Communion every Sunday
  • Interest in the spiritual writings of English and British Christians before the Reformation, and the courtesy to consider them Anglican or Proto-Anglican

Pusey is one of the most important figures of the Oxford Movement because of his longevity.  A major black mark on the movement’s reputation came in 1845 when its most famous leader, John Henry Newman, converted to Roman Catholicism.  From that day on, opponents of the Oxford Movement accused all Anglo-Catholics of trying to import unacceptable Roman theology and practice into the Protestant faith.  Such smears continue to this day.  Pusey, therefore, is one of the respectable leaders of the movement who demonstrated (and argued) that the Reformed Protestant faith of the Church of England was simultaneously Catholic, and did not need to be re-written in order to suit some foreign “agenda.”

For more on Pusey and Anglo-Catholicism, I highly recommend this article by the Rev. Wesley Walker, published on 16 March 2018 at the Conciliar Post: https://conciliarpost.com/christian-traditions/anglican/keeping-the-anglican-in-anglo-catholic/

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Definition of an Evangelical

The term ‘evangelical‘ is one of the most widely used terms in American culture right now.  The popular media uses it to refer to socio-politically conservative people who self-identify as Christian (often synonymous with the term fundamentalist), certain liberal Protestant denominations refer to themselves as evangelicals (perhaps in comparison to their more catholic or high church counterparts), there is a multi-denominational movement stemming from the 1950’s and 60’s originally called Neo-Evangelicalism that was an intellectual and activistic reclamation of Protestantism from the ashes of the modernist versus fundamentalist controversy, and there are many people today (mostly non-denominational) who call themselves evangelical Christians.

In the modern American context, I do believe there is a “right answer” to this question: Evangelical Christianity in America is the descendant of the movement that began about 60 years ago with the likes of Harold Ockenga and Billy Graham, and emphasizes biblical infallibility, biblical literalism, the centrality of Jesus, the penal substitution atonement model, and an emphasis on personal conversion.

But of course the 20th century movement and its present form are just the most recent iterations of Protestant self-identification.  One of the first Englishmen (Anglicans) who took on the label of Evangelical was Charles Simeon.  In his 1,933rd Sermon, he defined it this way:

As though men needed not to be evangelized now, the term evangelical is used as a term of reproach… It is not our design to enter into any dispute about the use of a term, or to vindicate any particular party, but merely to state, with all the clearness we can, a subject about which everyone ought to have the most accurate and precise ideas…

We have already seen what was the great subject of the apostle’s [Paul’s] preaching, and which he emphatically and exclusively called the gospel, and if only we attend to what he has spoken in the text, we shall see what really constitutes evangelical preaching.  The subject of it must be “Christ crucified,” that is, Christ must be set forth as the only foundation of a sinner’s hope, and holiness in all its branches must be enforced, but a sense a Christ’s love in dying for us must be inculcated as the main spring and motive of all our obedience.  The manner of setting forth this doctrine must also accord with that of the apostle… in proportion as any persons, in their spirit and in their preaching, accord with the example in the text, they are properly denominated evangelical.

So to him, an evangelical was one preached the gospel of Christ’s death for us sinners, and the call for us to live holy lives in thanksgiving for Christ’s great love for us.

One can see here the germ from which our current Evangelicalism has grown!

Indeed, I think this does represent the heart of the evangelical tradition, in its various forms throughout history and across denominational lines.  The emphasis on “preaching it like Paul”, so to speak, links to a network of common assumptions regarding the nature of the atonement in Paul’s writings, the theological understanding of Jesus’ identity, and the secure authority of the Bible to tell us all this in the first place.

In its most basic form, evangelicalism can find a home almost everywhere: in Pentecostalism, in conservative and liberal Protestantism, and even in the Catholic traditions.  But taken in its more developed sense of self-identification, it seems to me that Evangelicalism is a generally-conservative form of Protestantism most at home in the Reformed and Baptist traditions, but compatible with Pentecostalism, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism with minor shifts in emphasis.

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John Chrysostom

Saint John Chrysostom is one of the giants of early Christian leadership and teaching, essentially the Eastern Greek-speaking counterpart to the Western Latin-speaking Augustine of Hippo.  John was born in 349, after Christianity was legalized, and he lived through the last imperial persecution under the last pagan Emperor, Julian the Apostate.  Thus John’s generation saw a transition from the greatest Saints being martyrs to being ascetics, confessors, and teachers of the faith.

As an ascetic, John was happy living as a monk.  He desired a simple life, away from the temptations of power and prestige, and (serving as a model for many bishops across the world after) he continued to live as a monk even after his consecration as a bishop.  His preaching often carried strong messages about communion with Christ and holy living – two of the subjects nearest to the heart of the monastic life.  He was especially supportive of monks, the poor, and the sick, and chastised those who attempted to use their church office or preaching abilities for personal gain.

As a confessor, John was unwavering and steadfast in the faith even in the face of persecution.  Near the end of his life he faced tremendous pressure from the royal family of Constantinople (also called New Rome) which eventually resulted in his exile where he died in the year 407.  He did not play favorites with the powerful, he showed mercy to the persecuted, and he lived what he preached.

As a teacher of the faith, John was known as a great preacher even as a Deacon in the 380’s and 90’s.  He is remembered as John Chrysostom (‘o chrysos tomos – the golden-mouthed) to this day.  His sermons stirred souls, converted pagans, offended the prideful, interpreted the Scriptures simply, and continue their influence today – especially in the Eastern Orthodox Church.  He also wrote or edited a Eucharistic liturgy, a form of which remains the standard rite to this day in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and elements of which have even influenced Anglican liturgy since the Reformation.  He was so well-respected that he was elected to be the next Archbishop of Constantinople (without his knowledge!) in 397, where he served as the de facto Patriarch of the Church throughout the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.

Many of his writings survive to this day, almost as numerous as those of St. Augustine of Hippo.  John Chrysostom is commemorated on several days throughout the year in various traditions, but the primary day is September 13th, when he died in exile.

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How God Speaks

One of the hallmarks of the 20th century Evangelical movement is biblical infallibility and (albeit with some competing definitions) inerrancy.  It has been a classical Evangelical, and typically Protestant in general, assumption that the Bible is the complete and sufficient Word of God.

But the Pentecostal movement, which began just over a century ago, brought to the fore some previously dormant questions: does God still speak through prophets?  Are there new revelations to be had?  If so, how do they comport with the authority of the Bible?  In response to this movement a clearer line of Protestant “cessationism” arose, arguing that the miraculous “gifts of the Spirit” ceased to be given as gifts after the generation of the Apostles died out and the New Testament was completed.

It can be interesting to look at evangelical writers from the centuries before Pentecostalism, as their views will be unfettered by our present “charismatic versus cessationist” debate.  For example, this quote by Charles Simeon, in his 1,933rd sermon, caught me a little by surprise.

In different ages of the world it has pleased God to reveal himself to men in different ways, sometimes by visions, sometimes by voices, sometimes by suggestions of his Spirit to their minds: but since the completion of the sacred canon, he has principally made use of his written word, explained and enforced by men whom he has called and qualified to preach his gospel, and though he has not precluded himself from conveying again the knowledge of his will in any of the former ways, it is through the written word only that we are now authorized to expect his gracious instructions.

This strikes me as interesting because while it is classically protestant material, it is not as hard-line as a cessationist would probably like.

After acknowledging the history of divine revelation in a manner reminiscent of Hebrews 1:1-2, Simeon emphasizes the teaching office in the Church – the ordained ministers authorized to preach.  This is all pretty standard stuff that one would expect.  But he slips in this curiously open door: God “has not precluded himself from conveying again the knowledge of his will in any of the former ways.”  It seems that, in his opinion, it is theoretically possible that miraculous visions and messages from God are repeatable.  There might be a place for elements of the modern charismatic movement in classical Protestant thinking.

The fence with which he binds this possibility is, I think, instructive for us today.  “It is through the written word only that we are now authorized to expect his gracious instructions.”  That is, even if God does speak through some other such prophetic utterance, we are not (or no longer) “authorized to expect” it.  So it could happen, but we cannot count on it.  The canon of Scripture is indeed sufficient, with the aid of the teaching office of the Church to interpret it.  If God still chooses to speak and reveal himself to people in more direct and unique ways, we should neither need nor seek such supplements to what he has already provided.

So, for example the writing of the book Jesus Calling, by Sarah Young, would be ruled out.  If Jesus indeed spoke to her, well and good; but neither she nor her church leaders have the authority to publish and spread such revelations to others.  As far as Charles Simeon is concerned, we already have all the books we need.

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