The Hermeneutics Of Symbolism: How To Interpret The Symbols Of John’s Apocalypse -- By: Alan Bandy

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 14:1 (Spring 2010)
Article: The Hermeneutics Of Symbolism: How To Interpret The Symbols Of John’s Apocalypse
Author: Alan Bandy

The Hermeneutics Of Symbolism: How To Interpret The Symbols Of John’s Apocalypse

Alan Bandy


Revelation presents the reader with an exhilarating visual experience full of numinous sights and sounds replete with dazzling colors and thunderous roars. There are images of the glorified Christ, the heavenly throne and its surrounding attendants, a standing slain lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, a beautiful sky woman crowned with twelve stars, a ferocious red dragon, a seven-headed tyrannical beast, a great prostitute, and a host of angelic beings that inspire awe, fear, and bewilderment. These highly symbolic images make Revelation a truly unique book in the NT, and it is precisely this reason it is also the most misunderstood book. How one approaches the interpretation of these symbols impacts the entire reading of John’s vision. This article posits a methodology for interpreting the symbols in the Book of Revelation. Our task, however, is complicated by the fact that not everyone agrees on the nature of symbolism. The result is at least two competing hermeneutical approaches that pits the literal versus symbolic. Therefore, before we arrive at a methodology for interpreting symbols, we must first demonstrate that a proper hermeneutic for interpreting the Apocalypse must give primacy to the symbolic nature of the text.

The Symbolic Nature Of John’s Apocalypse

It is undeniable that John’s Apocalypse contains a legion of symbolic and metaphorical images. When it comes to interpreting these symbols two divergent hermeneutical approaches surface:

(1) primarily literal and secondarily symbolic; or

(2) primarily symbolic and secondarily literal.

The first approach advocates interpreting Revelation primarily in a literal manner unless it is impossible to do so. This view is encapsulated in the hermeneutical dictum, “[w]hen the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.”1 While still recognizing the presence of symbols, this view restricts the identification of a symbol to something that is incomprehensible if understood literally (e.g., Jesus does not have a literal sword protruding from his mouth).2 One popular proponent of this approach, Tim Lahaye, maintains that we must “take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate text, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, clearly indicate otherwise.”3 These interpreters, usually classic disp...

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