Author’s note: This article reproduces and modifies some of the chapter on “Covenant and Apocalyptic” in the book I am writing. It is therefore not meant to be a full exploration of the subject.
If you have been keeping abreast of evangelical treatments of the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, or the Olivet Discourse or Book of Revelation you will have run into the term “Apocalyptic literature.” It’s the favorite go-to for anyone who wants to stop the mouths of the prophets while sounding scholarly.
I realize that opening line is a bit testy, but I write it as one who has spent some time studying the major works on Apocalyptic — all written by critical liberal scholars — and have read the almost threadbare regurgitations of conservatives who are content to use this scholarship to support their reading of the Bible while retaining traditional beliefs.
It is hard to find an evangelical treatment of apocalyptic language and literature that has any depth. Evangelical discussions of the genre lean heavily on liberal work, and are often both cursory and deficient in their reporting of the state of the matter. Only a few evangelical scholars, like Brent Sandy (Plowshares and Pruning Hooks),* provide any in-depth work on the genre, and his work is heavily dependent on liberal scholarship and the kind of philosophical hermeneutics which relies on an evolutionary view of language. Small wonder then that Sandy has moved further left in his commitments. (For example, his The Lost World of Scripture, co-authored with John Walton, is an insidious attack on inerrancy and authorship via appeal to extra-biblical authorities).
In saying this I am not claiming that there is no such thing as apocalyptic. But I am saying that a truly biblical approach to it will have to look very different than the standard critical proposals. This is because the assumptions which force critical scholarship into interpreting the genre contradict the Bible’s own worldview, including the origin and purpose of language and the function of the prophet.
1. Before swallowing the ideas of apocalyptic literature it is wise to examine the presuppositions of those who promote it.
To show how liberal writers understand their work, let us hear from one of the foremost authorities on apocalyptic literature in the world. One of John Collins’s main arguments about Jewish apocalyptic is that it borrowed from the folklore (his word) of the surrounding cultures. On the strength of this he makes an obvious inference:
It should be clear that a mythological allusion does not carry the same meaning and reference in an apocalyptic context as it did in the original myth. If the “one like the son of man” who comes on the clouds in Daniel 7 alludes to the Canaanite figure of Baal, this is not to say that he is identified as Baal, or that the full story of Baal is implied. It merely suggests that there is some analogy between this figure and the traditional conception of Baal. In the same way, the “Son of Man” passage in Mark 13:26 alludes to Daniel, but the figure in Mark does not have the same reference as it had in Daniel, and the full narrative of Daniel 7 is not implied.” (John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 2nd edition; 19)
Of course, Jesus Himself believed that Daniel was a historical figure, and plainly implied that He was the “Son of Man” about whom Daniel wrote. Furthermore, Jesus clearly viewed “the abomination of desolation” as prophetical, not apocalypse in the sense Collins would make it (see Mark 13:14). But if you view Daniel as a pseudonymous second century composite work as Collins does, his thesis about myth-borrowing looks plausible. It becomes implausible only when one begins with Scripture as the Word of God.
Of course, Collins, et al. do not believe that Daniel is describing actual events. He views Daniel as ex eventu prophecy, written centuries after the protagonists were dead. Neither does he hold that books like Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah record predictions. From this starting point, it is a foregone conclusion that he will entertain very different opinions about the nature of apocalypses than I. Since apocalyptic language cannot be describing events and persons, nor is it predictive as such, then it is primarily aimed at arousing emotions.
Biblical scholarship in general has suffered from a preoccupation with the referential aspects of language and with the factual information that can be extracted from a text. Such an attitude is especially detrimental to the study of poetic and mythological material, which is expressive language, articulating feelings and attitudes rather than describing reality in an objective way. The apocalyptic literature provides a rather clear example of language that is expressive rather than referential, symbolic rather than factual. (Ibid., 17)
The effect that liberal presuppositions about dating, divine inspiration, borrowing from Canaanite myths, and predictive prophecy have upon ones understanding of a genre is very profound. But conservatives have bought into the conclusions of such scholars while trying to hold on to the Bible as inspired. Yet, if they were being consistent with the biblical worldview, these ideas would have informed their study of apocalyptic literature, at least in the Bible, and lead to the formulation of a separate set of conclusions about apocalyptic.
Moreover, those evangelicals who have drank most deeply from the liberal wells are the ones who end up sounding more and more like their critical mentors. Sometimes the contradictions are embarrassing. For example, Chalmers is of the opinion that chapters 7 to 12 of the Book of Daniel represent the “most fully developed example of apocalyptic” in the Old Testament. (Aaron Chalmers, Interpreting the Prophets, 132)
But then he says in a footnote that the fully grown form of apocalyptic arose about the third and second centuries B.C. (Ibid, n. 8). All the liberal protagonists in the field of apocalyptic literature adhere doggedly to a second century date for Daniel, and they would use Chalmers’ argumentation to argue to that end.
2. Sticking with the Bible
To say the least, the way many evangelicals have seized upon the conclusions of liberal scholarship without realizing the dominating influence of the critical assumptions on those conclusions reveals an attitude which can only be described as sloppy. Often, in fact, the term “apocalyptic literature” is simply a handy dismissive to fend off plain-sense interpretation. No content is put into the term. It just stands for “it doesn’t mean what you think it means.”
If one turns to the Bible, things begin to look different. The two great exemplars of apocalyptic are Daniel and Revelation. Some think that the visions of Daniel and Revelation are written in code so that antagonistic forces will not understand the material. If that is true, it is difficult to call it a revealing. But according to its own witness the Book of Revelation is a prophecy (Rev. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18-19). Labeling it as “apocalyptic” flies in the face of John the Apostle’s own testimony to what he is doing. Even the Greek title of the book, “Apocalypsis,” means a revealing or unveiling, not a veiling.
In Daniel 2 we find the phenomena of prophecy describing an image with four materials. This prophecy is then reproduced with more detail with “apocalyptic” descriptions in chapter 7, this time using four creatures. If the prophecy of chapter 2 refers to the same matter as the apocalypse in chapter 7, then it is clear enough that apocalyptic and prophecy cannot be interpreted differently, as if they mean different things.
We should know something about the literature of inter-testament period, but that background, being as it is profane history, should not govern our approach to the interpretation of Holy Scripture. It is just a matter of fact that the whole idea of apocalyptic literature stems from biblical scholars looking beyond the Bible. When we do that, we are saying that God gave us an insufficient revelation which has to be supplemented by Bible-rejecting man.
*Plowshares and Pruning Hooks is a book that has all sorts of problems, not the least of which is that one gets the sense that despite all the theory and him claiming to be “biblical,” Sandy goes outside the Bible, and his method renders much of the Bible uncertain (viz. his insistence of “translucent prophecy” as he puts it), and makes faith cling to feelings and impressions instead of propositions. But that is for another time. For now, here is a link to a fine presentation of some of the issues by Charles Clough.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.