on Interpreting the Book Revelation

Craig Keener writes in his NIVAC commentary on the book of Revelation concerning its interpretation:

Another matter of interpretation is that some want to take everything in Revelation literally.  Whether one should attempt this approach depends in a sense on what one means by the term literally.   When Reformers like Luther talked about interpreting the Bible “literally,” they were using a technical designation (sensus literalis) that meant taking each part part of Scripture according to its “literary sense,” hence including attention to genre or literary type.  But they did not mean that we should down play figures of speech or symbols.  We should take literally historical narrative in the Bible, but Revelation belongs to a different genre, a mixture of prophetic and “apocalyptic” genres, both of which are full of symbols.  The Reformers did not demand that we interpret symbols as if they were not symbols, and this kind of literalism is actually at odds with what they meant (22).

Thanks to guys like John Anderson I am in the beginnings of beginning to understand more what is meant by viewing the Text of Scripture in a literary sense (genres and such) though I have more learning to do with regard to symbols and how to understand them and their role in understanding and interpreting certain parts of the Bible, like the book of Revelation.  I understand  not everything is to be taken or understood literally but instead, (where appropriate) literarially (sp?) and how that applies to understanding such as text as the book of Revelation.  I also assume as I get more into Keener’s commentary that he’ll explain these things and it’ll start to make better sense.



2 responses to “on Interpreting the Book Revelation

  1. Two points might be worth mentioning. First, there is a difference between having a literal hermeneutic in the sense that you understand that texts have literal meanings (even symbolic texts, see below)and a literalistic hermeneutic, in which one reads everything in a literal fashion. The latter is actually quite rare.
    A second point to consider is that a literary sense does not mean that you do not have a literal meaning. Knowing when you are dealing with a metaphor or symbol is only part of the task. You still have to seek out the literal meaning of the symbol. For example, if you go to a restaurant and you want to use the restroom, in order to avoid embarrassment, you will need to be able to identify the literal meaning of a male-shaped symbol or a female-shaped symbol placed on the doors!

  2. What Charles has said I would echo. Also, I don’t know that ANYONE actually interprets the Scriptures in a literalistic fashion all the time. How would one understand the dragon, the woman with the stars upon her head, etc? A literary reading is imperative just as a literal reading in the vein of the Reformers is (in my opinion). More often than not I hear folks throw out the notion of a “literal” reading of the Revelation because they believe this does injustice to the symbols and metaphors, but the metaphors and symbols are treated as metaphors and symbols. It is an attempt to allow the text to say what the text is actually saying and not simply to dismiss what seems outlandish for whatever reason. I’ve found the “literal” label to be a double edged sword — in the hand of two forms of fundamentalist-esque folk against those who are too “liberal” with the text and the other who are too “Tim LaHaye” with the text (for lack of a better label) :-).

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