Liturgy and Slaughter in the Book of Revelation

Introduction: The Priority of the Book of Revelation

As a young man the Anglican theologian and Bishop John Robinson tried his hand at demythologizing the Christian creeds in Honest to God; around the same time, he participated as a defendant in the Lady Chatterley trial; years later, the gadfly Bishop wrote about Redating the New Testament, proposing that all the texts were in circulation before 70, and pointing out that most efforts to date these books amount to pulling a number out of a hat. Robinson concluded his theological pilgrimage, toward the end of his life with a book called The Priority of John. It was a catchy title but not even the Bishop of Woolwich was loopy enough to propose that John’s Gospel was chronologically prior to the Synoptic Gospels. The idea which the title catches is the thematic and structural priority of John’s Gospel. The idea is that John’s Gospel should take priority in our understanding of the historical shape of Christ’s life. Taken as a whole, this idea has had little take up, though a few scholars give priority to some parts of John’s Gospels over the Synoptics—for instance, John’s dating of the Last Supper.[1] I always thought that The Priority of John was an interesting stab at retrieving the theological tradition of Biblical interpretation without mentioning that tradition. Most theologians before Strauss see the Messiah of the Synoptics through the lens of the Logos of John’s Gospel. And Robinson’s book catches that sense that it is John’s Gospel which somehow makes sense of the Synoptics and in that sense “underlies” or antecedes them.

It is in the very loose “Woolwich” sense that I want to make use of this paper to propose, lightheartedly though not in jest, the priority of the Book of Revelation. It does not mean chronological priority, although I like the old apocryphal joke that as a young man John first wrote Revelation and went over everyone’s heads, so he tried again in middle age with the Gospel, and that still left them gawping, and then he tried the letters, and his audience was still out of its depths, so finally, in old age, he gave up writing altogether and exhorted “little children love one another.” I mean the thematic and structural priority of Revelation, both for understanding the Scriptures and for appreciating the nature of theology. Within the New Testament corpus, John the Theologian best explicates the nature of theology.

Objections to the priority of Revelation will nonetheless be felt. One may very naturally sense that Revelation is too obscure to lay the groundwork for theology. Anyone could pluck a sentence out of it at random, and lay down absurd rules for theological practice. For example, Revelation 8.1: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” This could be taken to mean that theology should be silent, and that the Quakers have got it right after all. It will be said that too much bad—and not just bad but absurd—theology has been based upon literal interpretations of random excerpts from the Book of Revelation, for a proposal to prioritize the Apocalypse to be taken seriously.

An allied objection is that, whereas contending for the priority of John’s Gospel is deeply in keeping with the theological tradition, the book of Revelation has never been the central driving force of mainstream Western or Eastern theological tradition. We know that the Book of Revelation was not only the last to receive widespread admittance into the canon of Scripture, but that it was the only book to bounce in and out of the canon.[2] The reason for this was precisely, on the one hand, the proclivity of sections of the faithful to take the text literally and, on the other, the determination of bishops and their ever-eager handymen to stamp out the ensuing end-of-the-world fervor. Sometimes the episcopal sidekicks took the book as literally and reductively as the enthusiasts, but reacted negatively rather than positively to the imagery. A Roman Presbyter named Gaius in Rome in the third century asked:

What good does the Revelation of John do me when it tells me of seven angels and seven trumpets, or of four angels who are to be let loose at the River Euphrates, and of the mighty host of ten thousand myriads of warriors and of a thousand times ten thousand horsemen in flame-red, dark, and hyacinth blue armor?[3]

Gaius clearly expected the answer, “none whatsoever.” In the fifth century Jerome put his finger on the problem of the book of Revelation: to follow Irenaeus and “to take the text literally is to ‘Judaize,’ whereas to take the text allegorically has no foothold in tradition.”[4] At that juncture, allegorical reading of a text which had barely got its boots inside the canon of Scripture had no foothold in the theological tradition. Augustine changed all that, with his magnificent allegorizing philosophy of history in The City of God: the twin cities of the biblical text become the two cities whose intermingling is the motor of the human story. In the centuries that immediately followed, Augustine’s interpretation influenced the theological interpretation of Revelation, as can be seen, for instance, in the Venerable Bede. The City of God is perhaps too magnificent to generate successors: in any case, philosophy of history of that kind had no take up in the centuries in which the Roman Empire fell into disrepair; even when it regrouped under Charlemagne, an admirer of Augustine’s work. It is only with the first heterodox interpretations of Revelation, in the late 11th century, that the book of Revelation once again becomes the beacon for theology of history. With Joachim of Fiore, Revelation is taken literally, and predictively, for the first time in half a millennium. His readings in Revelation will influence several generations of heterodox Franciscans.[5] A sporadic paper trail of literal and predictive readings of Revelation can be laid from heterodox Franciscans to the Anabaptists. Luther and Calvin are compelled to persuade their followers to desist from literalist readings of Revelation by marginalizing the book in much the same way the early Church bishops had done. Modern scholars, from Eric Voegelin to Henri de Lubac, to my esteemed colleague Cyril O’Regan, have argued that subversive use of the Apocalypse is a subtext to modern German Idealism, and thus to much contemporary Continental philosophy.[6]

Theology has to choose. On the one hand, it can permit the Book of Revelation to exist as a side-current that perennially subverts theology, even whilst diverting much of its charismatic force into uncreative, cultist forms of Christianity. These subcurrents will be dealt with by silencing them, if they occur within the Church, or by ignoring them when they occur outside its walls. This is an odd way to interpret Revelation 8:1, but not an infrequent way. Or, theology can give genuine and authentic respect to the theological priority of the Apocalypse. In what follows I will tell you how to recognize a theology which derives its pattern and form from the Book of Revelation. I will mention seven features of such a theology.

I. Visionary

The first chapter of the Book of Revelation situates the narrator thus: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet” (Rev 1:10). The narrator, curiously, “turned to see the voice that was speaking to” him (1:12). He is presented with seven promises for seven churches, each equally bizarre and beautiful: one is promised “hidden manna” and a “white stone,” with a “name” written on it, known only to the recipient (2:17); others are promised to be made to “rule with a rod of iron” (2:27) and to be given “the morning star” (2:28). Each of the seven promises concludes, “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). Immediately after hearing or seeing these gifts for the seven churches, the narrator is beamed up through a door into heaven (4). There he will see a sequence of nightmarishly beautiful portents, battles, liturgies, and acts of angelic violence. The Book of Revelation is a vision, written by a visionary poet. As a vision, it is a highly visual work, in which the narrator says “I saw” 39 times and goes on to describe what he sees. On the other hand, the work gives some indication of being written to be read aloud,[7] and from the promises on, there is much in it about hearing and listening. Some years ago I proposed that the more “allegorical” interpretations of Revelation take an auditory approach to the text, whereas the more literal, apocalypticist readings are based on a visual “take” on the text. I fear that might have been a sideways swipe at Richard Bauckham’s statement that Revelation is “highly visual.”[8] Of course it is quite nonsensical in some sense to smack down visual approaches to the book as if they were superficial. The Book of Revelation is visual in the sense of pictorial all the way down.

Now when I move to consequences to be drawn for the theologian, one may well curl one’s toes at the thought of the upshot here. I remember studying the Epic in a class with Professor Louise Cowan. When we finished The Divine Comedy she looked round the room and said, “now was that based on a real vision which Dante had?” I demanded in vain, why do we not say the Iliad was based on a vision? The point was that Dante did not purely invent his journey out of his own Einbildungscraft. Of course he used his own imagination to construct his inferno, purgatory and paradise, but he was given to see something. And in that sense one feels as if theology is based, not only on the God-given light of faith, and not only on the form of Christ as the source of this light, but on having been shown some particular vision by the Spirit.

That theology necessarily has a charismatic element is obvious when one thinks of the stories told about Saint Thomas Aquinas by his close contemporaries and companions—men who may have had a better chance to observe his character than 21st century Thomists. All of the papal exhortations to “go to Thomas” include a description, drawn on these recollections, of Thomas’ intense spiritual life, his intercourse with Christ and the saints.[9] The narrator of Revelation is ordered to eat a scroll, and to “prophesy about many peoples and nations and tongues and kings” (10:9-11). Where it loses its prophetic element, the business of theology becomes the composition of manuals and handbooks about themes in theology.

But when I say theology is visionary I would hope to mean more than that it has charismatic elements, or prophetic features, or to recommend “doing theology on one’s knees.”[10]

I do not just mean, either, that one’s theology is as good as the religious experience which accompanies it. I do not mean visionary in the sense of a being shown some visual dreamscape which takes one above and beyond the form of Christ. John the theologian goes through a door which seems to take him inside the body of Christ. John “turns to see the voice,” and I would not mind if one interpreted “visionary” in terms of some weird spiritual kinaesthesia. Theology is actually a work of grace, as poetry is, something inspired, whether visually or in some auditory form. Different theologies can have more or less grace in them, or be more or less visionary. I mean that theology is not just about having insights, and it is not purely the work of the human theologian as a bare-forked cogitating creature. The Bible is finished, and the Johannine writings cannot be added to: there are no new Revelations, but nonetheless, theology is, not a purely human work.

II. Musical

The idea of the theologian as a visionary, in the wake of John, is not immediately appealing: visionary makes us think of the domineering gaze, but equally of the fixated eye, which becomes so unhinged by absorption into one literal aspect of a word or linguistic phrase, that it cannot imaginatively contextualize the details as parts of a whole. The other thing is that, as we learn from John also, “no man has seen God”: the idea of the theologian as a seer with his eyes fixed on God, gazing into the heart of the Trinity with 20/20 vision seems like jumped up arrogance. In the book of Revelation, “I saw” is directed three times to the Lamb, that is, to Christ. Vision is directed to the divine on one other occasion in John’s journey: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away” (20:11). All the other occurrences in the text of “I saw” refer to created things, especially in their relation to the cosmos: lampstands, horses, angels and more angels, with their plagues and bowls and so on, beasts, the scarlet woman, the new heaven and earth, the holy city. There is some direct, undeniable vision of God, but most of the visionary experience in the book is experience of created persons or things of some sort, of rather frightening creatures, not of God.

On the other hand, the experience of John the Divine, which is oriented toward God, is most often not oracular but auditory. He describes the “four living creatures,” who, he records “never cease to sing, Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty” (4:8). He describes the 24 elders, “each holding a harp,” and how “they sang a new song” to the Lamb, saying, “worthy art thou to take the scroll and open its seals” (5:8-9). He describes the 144,000 celibates, whose “voice . . . was like the sound of harpers playing on their harps”: these too “sing a new song before the throne” (14:2-3).

So one might want to say that the experience the theologian has in relation to creation is largely visionary, whereas the experience the theologian has in relation to God is largely musical. For the most part, John the theologian has a bird’s eye view of the created cosmos, but in so far as his attention is directed toward God, he sings rather than sees. The way the living creatures, and the elders, and the hundred and 144,000 celibates feel in the presence of God leads them to make music. Anyone who has read the Psalms of David knows this: it does not take a trip to paradise like that of John or Dante. In John’s observation, as in David’s, the experience of the presence of God arouses music-making as a response.

Thus, the practice of theology is often compared with that of music-making, and theology itself is compared to a symphony. Speaking of the centuries-long chorus of theological aestheticians in The Glory of the Lord v. 2, Hans Urs von Balthasar states,

Because no continuous development can . . . be shown, each picture that is to be offered is relatively closed and self-sufficient. That fascinating dialogues open up between one and another, one greeting another across the centuries, . . . completing what was fragmentary, and bringing to the one-sided a compensating counter-balance; this . . . the reader will see for himself.  Yet such dialogues form together no overall system; for how should man be able to attain an overall perspective on the revelation of the living God? All that develops is a full orchestra, whose various instruments blend well with one another; their mutual harmony proves that they all play from the same score (which both transcends and embraces them) (22).

In Truth is Symphonic, von Balthasar imagines, not the practice of theology, but the economy of salvation as a response to the divine Composer and conductor:

Symphony means “sounding together.” . . . The orchestra must be pluralist in order to unfold the wealth of the totality that resounds in the composer’s mind. The world is like a vast orchestra tuning up: each player plays to himself, while the audience takes their seats and the conductor has not yet arrived . . . someone has struck an A on the piano, and a certain unity of atmosphere is established around it: they are tuning up for some common endeavor. Nor is the . . . selection of instruments fortuitous: with their graded differences of qualities, they already form a kind of system of coordinates. The oboe . . . will provide a foil to the . . . strings . . . The choice of instruments comes from the unity that . . . lies silent in the open score on the conductor’s podium—but soon, when the conductor taps with his baton, this unity will draw everything to itself and transport it, and then we shall see why each instrument is there. In his revelation, God performs a symphony . . . Before the Word of God became man, the world orchestra was “fiddling” about without any plan: worldviews, religions, different concepts of the state, each one playing to itself . . . this cacophonous jumble is only “tuning up”: the A can be heard through everything as a kind of promise. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets” (Heb 1.1). Then came the Son, the “heir of all things,” for whose sake the whole orchestra has been put together. As it performs God’s symphony under the Son’s direction, the meaning of its variety becomes clear. The unity of the composition comes from God . . . As for the audience, none is envisaged other than the players themselves . . . as the music begins, they realize how they are integrated. Not in unison, but what is far more beautiful—in sym-phony (7-9).

Von Balthasar is not alone in using this metaphor: Robert Jenson describes the Trinity as music, as did Erich Przywara. Being a little bit literal minded myself, I would prefer to speak of the theologian as musician, as with the harpers harping in Revelation, than of God as music. Of course the shape of the experience is related to the ontology of the “object” which brings forth the experience. But to speak of the divine Trinity as itself something analogous to music is a very phenomenological reading of Revelation. I think the creatures sing in response to what they see, the Lamb, and the throne, and one who sits upon it. But I would not make too fine a point of it, since the idea is that theology is about the interplay between the divine and the human, one in which, von Balthasar says, the theologian never has a commanding over-view of the divine, but is always tied to what he can do with the particular instrument allotted to him.

III. Symbolic-Poetic

Much of what I call “music-making” in the book of Revelation others would call doxology: the book of Revelation is replete with acts of worship. But these are strange rituals, in which hymnic adoration and praise suddenly turn into acts of extreme violence. The Lamb takes up a scroll with seven seals, and opens it:

There was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, voices, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets made ready to blow them. The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, which fell on the earth; and a third of the earth was burnt up (8:1-7).

The music fades into a perhaps ominous silence and then the implements of worship like the incense censors and trumpets become weapons of war. Because they are drawn into the acts of worship, it is a kind of ceremonial violence, like the ten plagues in Exodus, that is, not the random violence of war. The angels obey the commands which the opening of the Scroll unleash with chilling Spock-like intensity; the onslaught of “liturgy and slaughter”[11] and the demolition of much of the earth and its inhabitants lack any affective note; it is performed impersonally without anger, sorrow or pity.

So rather than describing this aspect of John’s work as doxological, I would say it describes the pitiless objective effectiveness of the words of which the Scroll is composed. The action of Revelation is the unfurling of the divine intentions. And the imagination of the author presents the divine will for the world as a Scroll. Back two chapters, the one “seated on the throne” is said to hold in his right hand a Scroll, upon which none of the heavenly company is worthy to lay his own fingers or to “look upon” (5:1-5). This mysterium tremendum of a Scroll, which no creature dares to look upon, must be the mind of God: the Lamb alone, the Son, is equal to the task of grasping and seeing the awful screed. So to the author of Revelation, the will and intentions of the Almighty take the form of “a book written within and on the backside” (5:1). The mind of God presents itself to John in the form of a Scroll.

So in the Book of Revelation, language comes before music: God speaking his mind, and doing his mind through words, takes precedence over symphonic conceptions of God. The book of Revelation is poetry, in the sense in which post-Romantic people understand the term. This is a book of signs and portents, at the center of which stands the symbolic figure of a woman giving birth under attack from a dragon. The book is poetry in the basic, Aristotelian sense of ripe with metaphors:[12] “there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up” (6:12-14). It is poetic in the richer, more “Romantic” sense of irreducible symbolisms, like the “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (5:8): the prayers of the saints are not “like” bowls of incense; they are transfigured into bowls of incense. Revelation is poetic in the third and deeper sense of symbols which do not have a literal sense, or in which the literal sense just is the symbolic meaning. For instance, “I saw a woman . . . bedecked with gold and jewels . . . holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication . . . And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:3-6). One cannot say what a cup of abominations is, except for that, it is a cup of abominations. Just as the ceremonial acts of destruction are acts of worship of God in reverse—ritual destruction of what is opposed to God—so here we have an inverted Passover meal: if the scarlet woman were told that the blood she consumes is only a memorial of the blood of the saints, not really their blood, she would have said, if I may borrow from Flannery O’Connor, “to hell with it.”

John’s language and imagery is constantly evocative of the language and imagery of the prophets and of Exodus, and yet he does not literally quote them.[13] He did not compile Revelation out of Old Testament quotations or write it out massive knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and apocryphal writings as one produces a book out of knowledge of earlier books. The Book of Revelation defies being explained solely by reference to its context in the tradition of Jewish apocalyptic: it cannot be explained solely by reference to that language-game because it makes a new, creative move in the game which is not wholly prepared by its antecedents. As Henri de Lubac so often noted, the downfall of purely historical explanations of Scripture is the inability to account for novelty.[14] It is absolutely new and fresh even in relation to the tradition of apocalyptic, and in that sense it is not, for Christian theology, simply an act of the poetic imagination of John the Divine, but an exposition of the poetic imagination of God. In the Book of Revelation John the Divine is made to see and to hear the words and actions of God as a stream of terrifying, divine poetry. He glances over the shoulder of the Lamb onto the scroll and sees poetry; he sees the “objective world of images” which “exists in God.”[15]

The theologian who gives the Book of Revelation priority in the formation of his or her conception of theology could not, I think, understand their task as conceptualizing what is given as images in Scripture, because the text of Revelation cannot survive transplantation into conceptual form: it simply withers and dies. So to prioritize Revelation would be to eschew heading into Scripture study with an already formed metaphysical schema by which to read and translate it. One would have, rather, to listen to and contemplate the images themselves, as the very expression of the mind of God, his distilled word. On the other hand, the thought of the Book of Revelation giving rise to narrative theologies makes one laugh to conceive of what kinds of narrative might come, in that sleep of reason: Revelation does have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it has no sequential, ordered narrative. The very causal order presupposed by all narrative theology is absent from the Apocalypse. Every effort to find narrative, causal order in the Book of Revelation smacks of desperation.

Everything else in the New Testament could almost, at a pinch, be said in another way and roughly mean something like the same. This is not the case for Revelation. And thus to prioritize it is to say that Scripture is first and foremost the very word of God. To write theology in the wake of John would thus be to concede, following von Balthasar, that:

There will never be a theology that gives a fully valid translation into abstract concepts of the dimensions of poetry and image in Scripture; not because God’s word is exclusively poetry and pictorial language, but above all because the verbal form of the Bible is the only proper form for all that is said by God’s Son and Word concerning the Father (268).

IV. Typological

Just as much as in the first four centuries, so today, readers of the book of Revelation divide between those who understand it literally and those who understand it allegorically. Does “soon” in the Apocalypse mean literally “soon,” in the sense of next week? It has seemed to many avid students of this book that, in that case, it is a text which literally predicts and describes the last days of humanity. Or is “soon,” and all the other temporal markers in the text, to be understood allegorically? In this case, the text as a whole is not describing events which may one day take place, but rather eternal truths which are dimly mirrored in the recurring cycles of history until the end of time. For the allegorizers, it is simply one anti-Christ after another until the public judgment. Whereas, I think that prioritizing John’s Revelation means thinking that “soon” does and does not need to be taken literally: it must be understood typologically.

Jean Daniélou spoke of that biblical exegesis which is neither allegorical nor literal as typological: it bases its symbolism on some literal, historical core. This way of speaking has spread, and the Patristic scholars and mediaevalists have attempted to gather in force against it. They claim that distinguishing the allegorical, as the speculation which does not keep Scripture anchored in history, from the feet-on-the-ground typological has no foothold in the mind of the Fathers,[16] let alone their unanimous consent. I somehow fail to feel the force of the objection that typology is an anachronism when applied to the Fathers, and that it was only the Romantics who taught us to prefer symbolism to allegory.

For John is entirely literal minded, focused on the details and their external objectivity, and yet constantly insists that the scenes he describes are portents or signs (e.g., 12:1, 3; 13:13, 14; 15:1, 16:14; 19:20). He thinks typologically, in τύπος and σημεία, and so will any theologian who follows in his footsteps.

V. Witnessing

“Witness” or μαρτυρεῖν is a prominent term which spans the Johannine corpus. The first line in the book of Revelation declares for the priority of the act of divine revelation over human attestation to it, but it clearly describes witness as the corollary of reception of revelation: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place; and he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (1:1-2). What would it mean to claim that a theologian is one who “bore witness to the word of God”? In keeping with the predilections of Johannine language, the first note of witnessing is that it is a legal term. Bearing witness in a court of law, giving testimony, giving evidence: these are actions which bear legal definitions. The “official” side of theology, the theologian’s need for objective accreditation and the requirement that his evidence meet publicly-known standards is not at odds with the definition of the theologian as a witness. The theologian must be able to say how he knows what he knows. Given the circumstances under which John knows what he knows, this amounts to saying that the theologian must be able to give the theological grounding of his assertions. In John’s theological lexicon, witnessing is primarily not an existential term but a forensic one. This is not to say that he is uninterested in existential sincerity, but rather that he measures sincerity by the degree of truth of a claim. So for a theologian to be a witness in the Johannine sense would not be for him to be true to himself, but for him to be true to the light by which theological truths are known. For a theologian to be a witness in the Johannine sense is for him to be faithful. Insofar as “faith” implies trust in and loyalty to the unverified word of another, we cannot be faithful to ourselves. The term “self-sincerity” makes sense; the phrase “self-faithfulness” does not.

The idea of the theologian as taking an “umpire” position, outside the game, or a spectator who observes and comments on the contest from her couch at home, does not typically abandon the notion of witness: rather, it interprets witness as self-sincerity. And this is to give up on the eschatological claims of Scripture. Most mainstream historians think the “outside” context of the Book of Revelation is one of the many persecutions of the primitive and early Church by the Roman emperors. Inside of the book of Revelation, it is not too dark to tell the difference between light and dark: the action of the book is about the repeated conflicts between the Lamb and the Beast, the Bride-Woman and the Scarlet Woman, Jerusalem and Babylon. In both the outside and inside context, bearing witness is affirming the true God as against the idolatrous figures. It is not about self-sincerity: it is about choosing between the Lamb and the Beast where choosing the Lamb will most likely lead to being killed. If you ask why such polarized loyalties and choices are part and parcel of eschatology, I cannot tell you except to say that in the Book of Revelation, every good guy and gal has an inverted doppelgänger. As an illustration: does it make sense to think or speak of the performance of Buddhist theology as “witnessing”? Buddhism has punishment and reward via karmic justice. But there is no person to whom one owes fidelity in truth, and there is no eschatological scenario in which one’s fidelity is demanded under circumstances which are always a dramatic, identity-defining choice between good and evil. Of course Buddhism has an eschatology in the sense of a story about how this cosmic cycle will end, and the next one, and the one before last. But it does not have a dramatic, binary and final judgement. It does not divide all creatures in twain, depending on whose sign they swear to. By contrast in “Revelation there are really only two categories of people: the ‘witnesses’ who are bound to the slain Lamb . . . and those who have submitted to the beasts and are branded with their mark.”[17] Witnessing seems to require this Christian eschatological scenario.

One may, outside of the Christian scheme, speak of the philosophical act as one of witnessing: this way of understanding philosophy comes to us from Socrates’ defiance of his judge and jury, his willingness to die for truth. He was not of course being self-sincere, but rather, faithful to the “voice” which prodded him into his way of life. I think we imagine Socrates as a witness because we interpret him in the light of the Cross. He has somehow become in our imaginations one of the martyrs for truth that John meets in his heavenly journey.

Because John sets the scene for witnessing in terms of a dramatic eschatological battle between good and evil, the theological practice of witness has an existential note. John says that “When he opened the fifth seal I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (6:9). The true theologian could not be seen through, because of the poetical way in which the ideas about which he speaks are captured in his personality and character. John’s aesthetic and ethical concerns run together in his heroizing witnessing: in all the Johannine writings, figures from John the Baptist to the “two witnesses” of Revelation are real, flesh and blood symbols of the truths for which they give their lives. By contrast, self-sincere theologies are anti-poetical, because a theologian cannot iconize or symbolize himself. Theo-poetics and witnessing are inseparable and what holds them together is eschatological urgency, the demand to give account of oneself before the Judge.

VI. The Wrath of the Lamb

Much of what I have proposed about a theology grounded in Revelation concerns style more than content. The book of Revelation does not prescribe very much in terms of content for the theologians who take it as their template. But such theologians would not lightly propose or assume that, to borrow a phrase from Julian of Norwich out of context, “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”; such a theologian would not automatically assume a Hollywood Ending for every single one of God’s creatures. It is not surprising that those who take the book literally have tended not only toward millennialism but also toward ecclesial rigorism. From the seven letters onward, it is clear that the promises of eternal life are not a walk in the park to obtain. The Ephesians are criticized for “abandon[ing] the Love you had at first” but praised for “hat[ing]” the “works of the Nicolaitians” about which the Christ-figure says, “I also hate” (2:4-6). Revelation made the wealthy church of Laodicea a legend for having been “lukewarm” and therefore to be vomited out of the mouth of the divine figure who judges, rewards, and punishes the seven churches (3:16).

The book is meaningless without the assumption that God hates and punishes sin, and regards all sin as a species of idolatry. It satirically mocks the “kings of the earth and the great men and the generals and the rich and the strong” who are compelled to “hid[e] in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb”’ (6:15-17). In the Book of Revelation, plague follows plague, as justice takes its revenge, until “the wrath of God is ended” (15:1). It would not have been possible for conceptions of Christ’s atonement for sin, and conceptions of the last Judgement to have lost any punitive element unless theology had become thoroughly de-eschatologized. The Book of Revelation had to be quietly excised from the theological lectionary in order for all notions of God’s punitive justice to be eliminated from both atonement theory and anthropology.

We know that the two strands of interpretation of the Book of Revelation co-exist down until the period of the Reformation: there are the literalist and millennialists, and there are the post-Augustinian “allegorical” exegetes of Revelation. After Augustine, Revelation-literalism is sidelined, and Augustinian allegory, in which Jerusalem and Babylon chase each other through history becomes mainstream. The literalist tradition reappears with Joachim, is taken up by the spiritual Franciscans, and thereafter, never wholly disappears.[18] It reappears with the Anabaptists in the 16th century. Luther cannot allow the millennialists to destroy his Reformation, so he himself sidelines the book of Revelation itself, designating it as paracanonical.[19] Arguably, the impulse which so centralized the Apocalypse such that the last Judgement was carved over Medieval Cathedral doors waned, except in the dogged millennialists. And so, in the long run, the Apocalypse was abandoned to the literalists.

Even amongst Catholics, the connection of Revelation to the central Christian liturgical act, the sacrifice of the Mass, became more notional and less imaginatively real than hitherto. The need to keep millennialist readings of Revelation at bay and the inability of the church in the Baroque, Enlightenment, and Romantic eras to identity with Revelation’s vision of human civilization as Babylonian dust had as its consequence that Catholics still believed in punitive divine justice, and they still believed, in theory, in the reality of the sacrifice of the Mass, but they did not connect the two. If Catholics could not connect the “liturgy and slaughter”[20] of the book of Revelation to the Eucharistic mystery, no one could. If they are not thus connected, divine punitive justice will ultimately be rejected on moral grounds, as unbecoming to God. Divine wrath comes to seem unbecoming to God when it is disconnected from the wedding feast of the lamb, the Eucharist.

To repeat: through its mockery of the merchants of Babylon, who deal in “gold, silver . . . fine flour and wheat, . . . chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls” (18:12-13), the Book of Revelation pours grim coruscating sarcasm on human commerce as a whole, that is, on the economic bases of post-lapsarian human civilization. It promises punishment by fire for the bestial, demonic foes of God (16:8; 17:16; 18:8; 19:20; 20:9-15; 21:8). It envisages not only the straight-forwardly “demonic” foes, but the human city itself as “Babylon,” to be “thrown with violence:” and it states with “jubilation”[21] that, in that great city, “the sound of harpers and minstrels, of flute players and trumpeters, shall be heard in thee no more; and a craftsman of any craft, shall be found in thee no more . . . for thy merchants were the great men of the earth, and all nations were deceived by thy sorcery” (18:21-23). The Book of Revelation vividly describes the effects of God’s wrath on his idolatrous enemies. And, it seemed, first, that there were two ways of interpreting this: one, allegorizing, which connected this drama to the recurrent patterns of history, and to the daily recurrence of the Eucharistic liturgy, and the other, literal and millennialist, which thought that the book predicted exactly how, at the end of time, God’s enemies would finally receive their just deserts and the just would be rewarded. The first lot, the allegorizers, also of course believed in a public, final judgement, but, in modern times, this belief in God’s punitive justice was unmoored from the Eucharist. So that those Christians who held on to hellfire punishments came to sound fairly much like Revelation-literalists. And this is the key reason why theology ceased to give consideration, let alone priority, to the Apocalypse.

Hence, those who wish to reassert the priority of this Johannine text must ask themselves whether the book is literally predicting describing apocalyptic punishments which have yet to come, but will inevitably fall, at the end of created time, or whether that Rubicon has already been crossed. Those who wish to reaffirm the priority of the Apocalypse will ask when and where this event is supposed to take place: later, at the end of time, or at the burning center of history, in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ? Was God’s wrath poured out onto all of the demonic forces at the Crucifixion, or is there a later event to come, whose significance will displace the death of Christ? Is he the one, or is he yet to come? Has God shown his mighty arm already, in the punitive sacrifice of the Son, which is recalled in every Eucharistic feast, or is divine justice yet to be enacted: in the latter case, this future enactment of divine justice will be the climax of the human drama. Does the peaceful realized eschatology of John’s Gospel flow from the Book of Revelation, or are the two books at variance with one another? The theologian who follows John the Divine will have to decide.

VII. Comical and Comic

Inevitably, I must conclude by saying that prioritizing Revelation lends a comic dynamism to Christian theology. I have often had the task of explaining to folks that the Bible is a comedy, and they do not like to be told this, because they think I am somehow making fun of the Bible. In their minds, the principle image which the word “comedy” evokes is an image in which someone is mocked or satirized or made fun of. And so, to make myself clearer, I tried distinguishing between the comical buffoon, who is the butt of many jokes, and the comic hero, who is actually a rather ingenuous victor. Make use of this distinction. I would say that the theologian who follows in the footsteps of John the Divine will discover he has become a rather comical figure. Like John the divine, and most of the Old Testament prophets, he will be placed in rather absurd situations and have to tell some extremely bizarre and unlikely stories. He will have to speak about portents and dragons, and angels flying in midair. The comicality lies in the sheer disparity between the creaturely person of the witness and his sacred message.

Yet, though the theologian must perforce play a comical role, the cosmos in which he lives is ultimately comedic. Not disparity but unity and love have the last word, and envelop the theologian and his word. For the theologian inhabits a cosmos which comes to its fitting conclusion in a marriage feast:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away (21:1-5).

Editorial Note: A version of this essay, "Scripture and the Trans-Genre-ing of Literature," was delivered at the McGrath Institute's Word and Wisdom Conference.


[1] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew:  Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Anchor Bible, 1991), 398, cited with approbation in Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (Ignatius Press: San Francisco), 112-113.

[2] See inter alia, Hans von Campenhausen, Formation of the Christian Bible (Minneapolis:Fortress, 1977), 218, 235-6, 241-2; Bernard McGinn, Visions of the End (New York: Columbia, 1998), 36.

[3] Campenhausen, op. cit., 241.

[4] Jerome, Commentarium in Isaiam 18. prol. (CC 83A:40-1).

[5] See Bernard McGinn, Visions of the End, “The Franciscan Spirituals,” 203-221; F. Russo, “Gioachinismo e Francescanesimo,” in Delno C. West (ed.), Joachim of Fiore in Christian Thought, vol. 1 (New York: Burt Franklin & Co., 1975): 129-142; and Henri de Lubac, La postérité spirituelle de Joachim de Flore, tome I: de Joachim à Schelling (Paris: Lethie lieux, 1981): 69-122.

[7] McGinn, “John’s Apocalypse and the Apocalyptic Mentality,” 12.

[8] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of Revelation (New York: Cambridge, 1993), 17.

[9] Pius XI, Studiorum Ducem. #2, 7 and 28.

[10] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Theology and Sanctity,” in Word and Redemption (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965), 49-86.

[11] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama (Vol 4): The Action (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994), 35.

[12] See Aristotle’s Poetics, esp. Section III, Part 21, among others.

[13] Balthasar, Theo-Drama (Vol. 4), 16.

[14] Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), 308-309; 322-232; 433-434.

[15] Balthasar, Theo-Drama (Vol 4), 16.

[16] See Peter Martins, Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford, 2012), among others, who claim that such a distinction is rooted in late German scholastic distinctions, and do not reflect the usage of the Fathers. The argument is that the Fathers had a much more fluid understanding of these terms, and used typological and allegorical readings interchangeably. One could respond, however, that both Daniélou and de Lubac attempted to distinguish, not the actual terminology of the Fathers, but their usage as compared to their pagan counterparts, such as Philo. Thus the terms of distinction are ones of utility, not historicity; but their validity must be established precisely on those grounds.

[17] Balthasar, Theo-Drama (Vol 4), 55-46.

[18] For a powerful genealogical account of this tradition, see Henri de Lubac,  La postérité spirituelle de Joachim de Flore, tome I & II (Paris: Lethielieux, 1981); Medieval Exegesis (Vol. 3): The Four Senses of Scripture, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 327-419; and Splendor of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1953), 202-235.

[19] See Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 243 ff.

[20] Balthasar, Theo-Drama (Vol 4), 35.

[21] Ibid., 40.

Featured Image: Albrecht Durer, Illustration from Apocalipsis cu[m] figuris, 1498; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Francesca A. Murphy

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