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Synopsis of the 2014 Paul T. Walls Lecture: "The Book of Revelation in the Present Tense" (Part I)

walls-lecture

The annual SPU Paul T. Walls lecture was held in First Free Methodist Church on May 7, 2014.  Celeste Cranston, director of SPU’s Center for Biblical and Theological Education, provided some background on Paul Walls: He spent 31 years on the board of trustees; helped manage the growth from Seattle Pacific College to SPU; and before his death in 1998, he established a foundation for students’ theological education.  The dean of Seattle Pacific Seminary and SPU’s School of Theology, Dr. Doug Strong, introduced the evening’s lecturer, Rev. Dr. Rob Wall.  Dr. Wall is the Paul T. Walls chair of Wesleyan studies, and because of his expertise in biblical studies interpreting the text from a Wesleyan perspective, one of the world’s leaders in biblical scholarship.  Our work as scholars is only for the benefit of God’s people, the Church, Dr. Strong says, and Dr. Wall is exceptionally gifted.

In the biblical texts, every word makes a difference.  This is true of Dr. Wall’s writings and lectures as well, which proves challenging to summarize.  Thankfully, the lecture was recorded and archived if you’d like to listen to it in its entirety – I highly encourage you to do so!

Dr. Wall began by quoting St. Jerome’s commentary on the book of Revelation: “There are as many mysteries as there are words.”  Dr. Wall would argue that while the book’s title, apocalypsis, means to unveil or to reveal, there are many interpretations as well.  He says this book has “provoked both fearful neglect and fanatical obsession that blinds rather than reveals God’s mystery.”  Dr. Wall identifies two basic questions about the book of Revelation: What is the real address of this book?  Who are its intended readers who live there?  Then he summarizes the three main ways the Church has sought to answer these two questions: by looking at Revelation in the past, future, and present tense.

First, most Bible scholars read and/or teach Revelation in the past tense, agreeing that it must be read as an ancient literary text.  This presumes we can date the text and know its first readers were in the Roman Empire of the last 1st/Early 2nd Century.  The more intimately we can know this ancient world, the better we can understand this perplexing book.  One merit of this view: Knowing that the prophet John, the writer of this book, had his eye set squarely in this world.  Revelation is a vision of the real world, not a fiction.  The problem, according to Dr. Wall, is that apart from a lack of consensus, if you stay in the ancient past, your interest in the text is merely “ornamental.”

Second, the current reading is in the future tense; names like Scofield, Tim LaHaye, and Dr. Wall’s premillennialist grandmother come to mind here – people who use Revelation as “the Bible within the Bible to secure a detailed road map into God’s future.”  Such readings employ selective literalism to Revelation 6-19.  “The scrolls are opened, the names are read and the death, God’s greatest enemy, is destroyed.”  The New Jerusalem comes to earth and all those who have repented in time for the Lord’s imminent return for the faithful ones will be snatched away from the terrible tribulation that awaits those left behind.  Dr. Wall says the problem with this insiders’ approach to the future is it renders Revelation mostly irrelevant for today.

A third approach, and one that Dr. Wall endorses as the way the people of God should read Revelation, is in the present tense.  Revelation’s address is this congregation and this university – its audience as “those with ears to hear.”  The Spirit has decided to sanctify Revelation but this took a long time for the Church to recognize (Orthodox took 1,000 years). We must read Revelation as Scripture’s concluding chapter of God’s story, especially along with the first few. Dr. Wall says that most people come to Revelation with a bone to pick, but he encourages us that the Holy Spirit does use every reading of Scripture to form in us the mind of Christ.

See Part II.

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2014

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