“‘Write What You See in a Book’: How I Came to Write a Commentary on Revelation” by Joseph L. Mangina
I never intended to become a biblical scholar. When I received my doctorate in 1994, I expected to teach and write systematic theology and not engage in “exegesis”; exegesis was what the folks in the biblical department did. And this was at Yale, a supposed bastion of “postcritical” interpretation of Scripture.
Here’s how my plans changed. I was on sabbatical at the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) in 2002, facing a blank computer screen and a dearth of ideas. The project I was working on was going nowhere fast. So I dropped into Robert Jenson’s office one day to ask his advice; “Jens” was the chief theological advisor at CTI in those days.
After offering sympathy on the writer’s block, he said, “You keep going on about church practices—tell me a specific church practice you’d like to write about.”
“The Eucharist,” I said, without thinking very much about it. He went on, “Now name a biblical book.” To this day I don’t know why, but I instantly responded, “The book of Revelation.
“All right,” Jens said. “Now all you have to do is write a paper on the Eucharist in Revelation.”
That became the paper I wrote and presented to my CTI colleagues that term. I discovered there was a surprising amount to write about, given the prevalence of liturgical and eucharistic imagery in the Apocalypse. This was fun, I thought. Before my term at CTI was over I had parlayed the paper into a full-fledged proposal for a book, not on simply the Eucharist but on the Church in the Apocalypse. I sent it to Rodney Clapp, who signed me up for a contract with Brazos. The book was to be called Followers of the Lamb, the title of a rousing nineteenth-century Shaker hymn.
But it was not to be. A curious thing happened as I worked on that book. When I approached the topic of the church in Revelation in a purely conceptual way, the material died in my hands; I was using Scripture rather than reading it. It was far more satisfying when I simply sat with the text, reading it—or, appropriately for Revelation, listening to it—chapter by chapter, verse by verse.
Then one day Ephraim Radner dropped by my office and mentioned that Rusty Reno was looking for someone to write on Revelation for the Brazos series. I offered the feeble excuse that “I don’t know how to write a commentary.” This lasted about a day and a half, as the realization sank in that I was already writing the commentary. Then I signed up.
As it turns out, probably none of us who have written Brazos commentaries knew in advance quite what we were doing. Everyone has come up with their own solution to the problem. If the series has done nothing else, it has helped to pose the fundamental questions, what is Holy Scripture, and what does it mean for us to interpret it?
Before sitting down to write, I sought advice and counsel from various quarters. Perhaps the most helpful advice was a passing remark by Telford Work (he probably doesn’t remember saying this). Telford was answering the criticism that theological commentary isn’t real exegesis, since it adds things that aren’t really there in the text of Scripture. His answer, as I recall, was something like, “Of course it’s not in the text. It’s a commentary; it’s what we say in response to what we hear in Scripture.” And this, of course, is true whether one is writing a standard historical-critical commentary—whatever that might be!—or a theological commentary à la Brazos, or for that matter any of the commentaries, sermons, and marginal notes on Scripture throughout the tradition.
I found Telford’s remark liberating. Of course, like all freedom under the gospel, the freedom of the Christian commentator has to take shape as obedience. Even if the words were my words, these were answerable to the Word of God in Holy Scripture. I couldn’t just say anything I like—couldn’t just “make it up,” as the saying goes.
The critics of theological interpretation of Scripture are right that eisegesis, like sin, is always lurking at the door. They are wrong if they imagine that there is a method that will save us by guaranteeing fidelity to was in der Schrift steht (“what stands in Scripture”).
For myself, I was genuinely grateful for the labors of modern Revelation scholars like Henry Swete, Paul Minear, G. B. Caird, Richard Bauckham, Christopher Rowland, Leonard Thompson, David Barr, Eugene Boring, and Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, along with many others.
I will cheerfully admit to being an absolute junkie for historical information. I was happy to be instructed on the “year of three emperors” (AD 69), the rumors of Nero’s return (Rev. 13:3?), and the location—so archaeologists tell us—of the famously lukewarm church of Laodicea halfway between a hot and a cold spring (Rev. 3:16).
The commentators I gravitated toward, however, were the ones who were able to use this information to explicate the theme or subject matter of Revelation, its urgent message, which is….
But why should I tell you everything in the first blog post? In my next posting, I will talk about some common misconceptions concerning the Apocalypse—“seven things Revelation isn’t”—before going on to discuss some of the things it is.
Joseph L. Mangina (PhD, Yale University) is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He is the editor of Pro Ecclesia, serves on the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue commission for Canada, and is the author of two books on the thought of Karl Barth.
For more information on Revelation, click here.