Sunday, January 11, 2009

Some Groundwork

I'm going to quote from and briefly comment on a section of James Jordan's book "Through New Eyes" where he offers some helpful rules for interpreting biblical symbolism.

1."Biblical symbolism and imagery is not a code. The Bible does not use a symbol where a literal statement will do."

Jordan uses (coincidentally to the theme of this blog) the example of Revelation 13 and identifying the beast. By using the symbol of "beast" and the number "666" John is drawing together a host of prophetic associations. Jordan notes that John is alluding to "the beast in the Garden, Adam clothed in skins of beasts, Nebuchadnezzar turned into a beast (Daniel 4), the beasts in Daniel’s visions, the human beasts who rioted against Paul at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32; Acts 19), etc." So while Nero is likely the most immediate "beast" John has in mind, he is not speaking only about Nero without reference to previous beasts or possibly future beasts.

2. "Biblical symbols do not exist in isolation. In the Bible, the entire symbolic world is one organized and unified worldview, a worldview that actually takes its rise in the first chapters of Genesis... The rest of the Bible simply unpacks their meanings."

This means that to understand Revelation (and, really, the whole of Scripture) we need to understand what is going on in the opening chapters of Genesis. We must keep in mind that while Genesis is the start of our Bibles, it is a product of the cultural and socio-linguistic context in which it was written.

3. "We must always have clear-cut Biblical indication for any symbol or image we think we have found. We don’t want to read the modern secular worldview into the Bible, but we don’t want to read the corrupt worldview of ancient Near-Eastern paganism into it either." (Bold in original text)

I should think this is common sense, but it is surprising how often commentators and lay-people of all stripes are guilty of doing this one way or another. While period ancient literature can be helpful we must take great care that we aren't reading another worldview into Scripture rather than letting Scripture dictate and shape our worldview.

4. "The heritage of the Church in systematic theology and in the history of exegesis is always a check on wild speculation."

Citing Ephesians 4:8, 10-11 Jordan admonishes, "The godly wisdom of these gifts, these men, is part of the treasure of the Church, and to ignore it is to despise the gifts of the Spirit." Our theology and exegesis, Jordan is saying, does not happen in a vacuum. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and we benefit from their godly exercising of their spiritual gifts. This is not to say that we are bounded by it, rather we should use our rich heritage as a tool to keep us from straying too far beyond our established orthodoxy.

5. "Biblical symbolism must be interpreted in terms of Biblical presuppositions and philosophy... The Bible has its own presuppositions and its own philosophy of type and allegory; we do not need to borrow anything from Plato."

Jordan is referring to the early Church and specifically to the school at Alexandria which was "notorious for allegorical and symbolic exegesis" by which they forced biblical teaching into Platonic categories and philosophy. Once again we want to make sure that Scripture is shaping our view and not the other way around. I think these interpretive rules, or guidelines, would be a big help in endeavoring to let Scripture do so, especially when talking about Revelation.

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