Warfield, Benjamin B.”The Apocalypse.” In Benjamin B.Warfield: Selected Shorter Writings. Volume 2. Edited by John E. Meeter.Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1973.
The apocalypse is a book of symbols. The whole action of the book and every detail of the representationp.652
alike,is wrought out not directly, but through a symbolical medium. And as nothing is stated, so nothing is to be taken, literally; but every event, person, and thingthat appears on its pages isto be read as a symbol, and the thing symbolized understood.
(1) We should apply its symbolism consistently throughout. For instance, the number seven is not a designation of a literal ‘seven,’ but of a divine perfection… We must not forget this in xvii. 9, and understand the ‘seven’ mountains as literally seven in number. (2) We should not forget that the purpose of this prophecy, as of all prophecy, is ethical and not chronological…. (3) We should not try to force the book to deliver a consistently progressive prophecy from beginning to end. Nothing is clearer than that it constantly returns on itself. And it is probably that with a prologue (i. 1-8) and an epilogue (xxii. 6-21), it is framed in seven parallel sections (the divisions falling at iii. 22; viii. 1; xi. 19; xiv. 20; xvi. 21; xix. 10), each of which independently unveils the great principles that rule the conflict between Christ and Belial and glance at it in its whole extent from conception to victorious conclusion.”p. 653
If some dispensationalists err in interpreting the symbols of Revelation literally, Warfield here errs in the opposite direction. For instance, the seven mountains in Revelation 17:9 are not part of the symbolism but are part of the explanation of the symbolism.
The main problem with Warfield’s structure is that it divides the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments. In the narrative structure of the book, these are interlinked. An
Warfield, Benjamin B. “The Millennium and the Apocalypse.” In The Works of Benjamin B.Warfield: Biblical Doctrines. 1932; Reprinted, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.
This article is an enlargement on the previous shorter article, “The Apocalypse.” Warfield proposes the same structure as in the earlier article. He also enunciates principles for interpreting Revelation at greater length.
We have only to bear clearly in mind a few primary principles, apart from which no portion of the book can be understood, …. These primary principles are, with the greatest possible brevity, the following: 1. The principle of recapitulation. That is to say, the structure of the book is such that it returns at the opening of each of its seven sections to the first advent, and gives in the course of each section a picture of the whole inter-
adventualperiod—each successive portraiture, however, rising above the previous one in the stress laid on the issue of the history being wrought out during its course. The present section, being the last, reaches, therefore, the climax, and all its emphasis is thrown upon the triumph of Christ’s kingdom. 2. The principle of successive visions. That is to say, the several visions following one another within the limits of each section, though bound to each other by innumerable links, yet are presented as separate visions, and are to be interpreted, each, as a complete picture in itself. 3. The principle of symbolism. That is to say—as is implied, indeed, in the simple fact that we are brought face to face here with a series of visions significant of events—we are to bear continually in mind that the whole fabric of the book is compact of symbols. The descriptions are descriptions not of the real occurrences themselves, but of symbols of the real occurrences ; andare to be read strictly as such. Even more than in the case of parables, we are to avoid pressing details in our interpretation of symbols:most of the details are details of the symbol, designed purely to bring the symbol sharply and strongly before the mind’s eye, and are not to be transferred by any method of interpretation whatever directly to the thing symbolized. The symbol as a whole symbolizes the real event: and the details of the picture belong primarily only to the symbol. Of course, now and then a hint is thrown out which may seem more or less to traverse this general rule: but, as a general rule, it is not only sound but absolutely necessary for any saneinterpretationof the book. 4. The principle of ethical purpose. That is tosay, here as in all prophecy it is the spiritual and ethical impression thatrulesthe presentation and not an annalistic or chronological intent. Thepurposeof the seer is to make known indeed—to make wise—but not forknowledge’sown sake, but for a further end: to make known unto action, to makewiseunto salvation. He contents himself, therefore, with what is efficaciousforhis spiritual end and never loses himself in details which can have nootherobject than the satisfaction of the curiosity of the mind for historicalorother knowledge.”
- Warfield’s divisions and proposal for recapitulation
failsto capture theverbalstructural markers and interlocking sections of the book.
2. I think Warfield’s structure divides the book into more distinct visions than the book itself does.
3. While generally true, if pressed to the extreme, as I think Warfield does, the book becomes unintelligible or its interpretation arbitrary. It seems that along with the symbols there are interpretations or indications of what the symbols signify. As Leithart observes, “More generally, it seems that any apocalyptic allegory must mix literal and the figurative. If it is wholly literal, it is not allegorical; if wholly allegorical, it has no hooks to real events. If there is no literal hook, how can we begin to recognize allegory as allegory? Alexander the Great is not a goat, but he does rush across the surface of the earth, does beat down a great empire (the Persians, represented by a ram), is shattered and broken into four parts (Dan. 8:5–8). To insist on
4. Barthian-influenced interpreters sometimes indicate that the point of the Bible’s historical narratives is found in their ethical teaching rather than in their historicity. But this is to create a false dichotomy. I wonder ifWarfield is stumbling into that same false dichotomy here. It is in the revelation of Christ’s future triumph that the spiritual and ethical truths are communicated.
When it comes to the Millennium, Warfield argues that it is the intermediate state. The binding of Satan is only a symbol. “There is, indeed, no literal ‘binding of Satan’ to be thought of at all: what happens, happens not to Satan but to the saints, and is only represented as happening to Satan for the purposes of the symbolical picture. What actually happens is that the saints described are removed from the sphere of Satan’s assaults.” Similarly,
I think this provides a pretty clear example of how it is not only literalistic interpretations that lead to strained understandings of Revelation. Strict symbolic readings can also produce absurd results. What is amazing is to see how a false hermeneutical axiom can lead even Warfield astray.
Warfield, Benjamin B. “The Prophecies of St.Paul.” In The Works of Benjamin B.Warfield: Biblical Doctrines. 1932; Reprinted, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.
The most valuable observation of this article is as follows:
“And it has been suggested, either that the Apostle in his early ministry made more of the Second Advent in his teaching than growing wisdom permitted him to do later; or else, that at this particular period, amid the special trials of hiswork—the persecutions in Macedonia, the chill indifference at Athens, the discouragements that met him at Corinth—he had his heart turned more than was usual with him to the blessed consolation of a Christian’s expectation of the coming glory. Both of these explanations are entirely gratuitous. A sufficient reason for this marked peculiarity lies at the hand of all in that other fact that distinguishes these letters from all their fellows—they are the only letters that have come down to us, which were addressed to an infant community just emerged from heathenism. For it is undeniable that the staple of Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles was God and the Judgment
….The address on the Areopagus, which was delivered only a few months before I Thessalonians was written, admirably illustrates how the Apostle tried to reach the consciences of his heathen hearers; and the totality of the message delivered in it was God(Acts 17:24–29) and the Judgment (Acts 17:30, 31). But if Christ coming for judgment was thus the very centreand substance of Paul’s proclamation to theGentiles, it would not be strange if he had dwelt upon it to the Thessaloniansalso. …
But we not only learn thus how it happens that Paul dwells so much on the Second Advent when writing to the Thessalonians, but we learn also what is much moreimportant,—how he himself thought of the Advent and in what aspect he proclaimed it. Plainly topp. 602-3.
himit was above all things else the Judgment. It was the Judgment Day that he announced in its proclamation ; andthis was the lever with which he prized at Gentile consciences. “The day in which God will judge the world in righteousness” was what he proclaimed to the Athenians, and that it was just this that was in mind in 1 Thess. 1:10 is evident from the officeassigned to the expected Jesus,—“the Deliverer from the coming wrath.