Bauckham on the Book of Revelation

Bauckham on the Book of Revelation April 24, 2017

Bauckham Theology of Revelation


The Book of Revelation is one of the most commented upon texts in the New Testament. Unfortunately, due to the book’s complex matrix of visual symbolism, intertextuality with the OT, and allusions to historical events in late first century, an unhelpful share of the commentaries and monographs written on Revelation over the centuries have tried to “decode” the book’s imagery for direct application to their contemporary events. This unfortunate tendency has been exacerbated over the last century-and-a-half, largely due to the rise of dispensationalism and fundamentalism. Thankfully however, a steady flow of learned and well-written academic treatments of Revelation have also been produced in the last century. While the list of commentaries and monographs is filled with excellent examples of the study and treatment of John of Patmos’s apocalyptic vision, one of the best in recent years continues to be Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation.[1] Part of the New Testament Theology series produced by Cambridge University Press, Bauckham’s book seeks to do one very simple, yet simultaneously very complex, thing: lay out an accessible treatment of the major theological themes of the book of Revelation. Bauckham does this by dividing the theological portrait painted by John of Patmos into five overarching topical categories, each with its own chapter: Revelation’s theology of God (theology proper), its theology of the person of Christ (Christology), its theology of the work of Christ (Christology), its theology of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology), and its theology of the people of God (anthropology and ecclesiology). In addition to these five main chapters, Bauckham provides an opening prolegomenal chapter and a concluding chapter looking at Revelation’s continued relevance in the modern world. As will be seen, Bauckham succeeds admirably in distilling the theology of Revelation, even in as concise a format as 164 pages.


It is almost axiomatic that any academic article or monograph dealing with a topic related to Revelation must address the proper way to read the book. This is especially true of a treatment like Bauckham’s, which is seeking to lay out an understandable treatment of Revelation’s theology. Thankfully, Bauckham devotes his entire first chapter to the subject of how best to read Revelation. Right from the start, Bauckham notes that the text is complex because it is composed of three types of literary genre-forms: apocalypse, prophecy, and letter (2). Bauckham then proceeds to provide a detailed treatment of each of these literary categories as applied to Revelation (2-17). Bauckham then concludes this opening chapter by explaining how the rich and complex imagery of the book is meant to be read and interpreted within the matrix of late first-century, socio-cultural allusions and OT intertexual echoes that undergird it (17-22).


            With prolegomenal matters concluded, Bauckham moves into the main content of the book. In the second chapter, he turns his attention to examining the theology proper of Revelation. Bauckham immediately notes that the book is highly theocentric and that even though ch. 2 is devoted to the subject of God, his study as a whole will regularly return to theology proper, as it runs throughout the other themes (23). Bauckham breaks his study of Revelation’s doctrine of God into several interlocking aspects. In addition to looking at the near-Nicene level of Trinitarian theology in the book (23-25), Bauckham examines the various names and titles of God as key points reflecting how John speaks theologically. These include “Alpha and Omega” as relating to God as the origin and goal of history (25-28), “the One who is and who was and who is to come” as relating to God’s eternity, and “the Lord God Almighty” as relating to the true divine sovereignty of the triune God over and against all other claimants (30-35). This then leads directly into an assessment of how John’s doctrine of God acts naturally as a prophetic criticism of the Roman imperial ideology of the time (35-39). And since God alone is Lord of history and is supreme over all earthly and spiritual imperial usurpers, he is also the holy and righteous judge that will destroy evil (40-47). Yet, Bauckham is sure to note that any notion of God as an arbitrary despot in Revelation is countered by the equally important theme of God as loving and faithful Creator, from beginning to end (47-53).


            In chapters three and four Bauckham moves into the Christology of Revelation. For the sake of conceptual clarity, Bauckham first looks at how Revelation presents the person of Christ in chapter three. In conjunction with the high theocentricity of the book, Bauckham illustrates how Revelation also has a very high Christological outlook. He deftly shows how John of Patmos depicts Christ as sharing in the eternal being of the Creator God (54-58; 63-65), as well as how the monotheistic worship imagery of the book is directed toward Christ (58-63). With chapter four, Bauckham looks at the work of Christ as depicted in Revelation, particularly Christ’s work as the slaughtered Lamb. Bauckham presents a helpful tri-thematic rubric of Christ’s work in Revelation. These are [1] the theme of the messianic war (67-70), [2] the theme of eschatological exodus (70-72), and [3] the theme of Christ as supremely faithful and true witness to God (72-71). Bauckham then proceeds to meticulously trace how these three themes integrate into the larger prophetic and theological portrait of the book, starting with the victorious death and resurrection of Christ and culminating in the conversion of the nations and Christ’s parousia (73-108).

The Spirit

            In chapter five, having examined the theology proper and Christology of Revelation, Bauckham moves into how John writes about the Spirit, which (as Bauckham notes) seems to receive far fewer references (109). However, while the Spirit does receive less attention than God and Christ do, John is far from apathetic about it. Indeed, Bauckham shows how the Spirit acts as a subtle, but important, factor running throughout the book. This is accomplished by the symbolism of the “Seven Spirits” at the start of the book acting as symbolic representations of the “fulness [sic] of God’s power ‘sent into all the earth’ (5:6)” (109). The Seven Spirits then, are John’s unique way of speaking of the Holy Spirit that “represent the fulness [sic] of the divine Spirit in relation to God, to Christ and to the church’s mission to the whole world” (115). It is this same Spirit that empowers the people of God to bear faithful witness to Christ and to speak and act prophetically in a world ruled by powers of darkness (115-25).

Ecclesiology and Anthropology

            Chapter six of the book is devoted to Revelation’s imagery of the New Jerusalem. Here, Bauckham diverges somewhat from the more clear-cut categories of the preceding chapters. This is only because the image of the New Jerusalem itself is symbolically interwoven with multiple themes. Chiefly though, it addresses the topics of ecclesiology and anthropology. While the New Jerusalem is indeed drawing upon the notion of an ideal place and city (132-36), it is equally important to realize how it symbolically represents the eschatological fulfillment of God’s people (136-40). Yet, the New Jerusalem also points to the future fulfillment of God’s presence among humanity (140-43). It is in this way that it impinges upon anthropology, for when the New Jerusalem finally comes “in the perfection of God’s kingdom theonomy (God’s rule) and human autonomy (self-determination) will fully coincide” (143).

Revelation Today

            Bauckham concludes the book in chapter seven by thinking through some of the ways in which the book of Revelation continues to be relevant in a modern and post-modern world. This includes understanding the significance of Revelation’s canonical status in the Christian Bible as true prophecy properly understood, and how it speaks to the simultaneous imminence and delay of God’s final victory in Christ (144-59). Bauckham then provides eleven brief points as to how the high theocentric and Christological portrait Revelation paints can continue to be contextually appropriated in contemporary settings (159-64).


            The Theology of the Book of Revelation is an excellent example of how limiting one’s scope of enquiry can actually multiply the amount of insight gained. Bauckham, by intentionally limiting his scope to an examination of the theology espoused by the book of Revelation—rather than having to delve into additional topics about the date of composition, authorship, text-critical issues, in-depth socio-historical background, etc.— can dive deeply into the biblical-theological data of the book. This is enhanced even more by his focus on the five topoi of theology proper, Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and anthropology. While at first glance these might seem like semi-arbitrary or limiting categories, upon further reflection one can see that Bauckham is able to use these not only as theological topics to be studied, but also as organizing categories that are intrinsic to Revelation’s structure and content. John’s own symbolic world in Revelation centers on these five theological loci. Bauckham’s own approach to studying the theology of Revelation works naturally off of theological organizing principles native to the text itself.

            Unfortunately, often when one is emphasizing the theology of a biblical writer, socio-historical context can unintentionally be forgotten, and vice-versa when examining a given book’s historical or social background. This is often seen in the divide between biblical scholars and systematic theologians, with one camp condemning the other for eschewing either historical context or theological content. Not only does Bauckham masterfully avoid such treacherous pitfalls, he actually integrates socio-historical contextual insights into the theological categories of Revelation. He thus respects the historical situatedness of John’s audience and symbolic referents, yet also draws out the transcendental, theological import of the text. While Bauckham does this throughout the monograph, a prime example comes in his discussion of Revelation’s theology proper. Having just discussed the meaning of the divine title “Alpha and Omega” in its ancient context, Bauckham assesses the theological meaning of the title and integrates it into traditional dogmatic conceptions of God, without running roughshod over John’s contextual understanding of the title: “Hence the unique importance of the designation: ‘the Alpha and the Omega.’ God precedes all things, as their Creator, and he will bring all things to eschatological fulfilment. He is the origin and goal of all history. He has first word, in creation, and the last word, in new creation” (27). There are multiple other examples of this seamless weaving of history and theology throughout Bauckham’s book. Not only does Bauckham admirably seek to speak well about what John himself sought to speak about—namely God—he does so in a way that seeks to take into account all relevant NT data, both historical and theological.


Bauckham’s little monograph is excellent. There are very few books that I find nothing negative to critique; this is especially true with academic books. Bauckham’s book manages to present no discernible issues that I disagree with however. The deep scholarship is evident in the book, and the wealth of insight it provides on as complex a text as Revelation, far outweighs its concise length. Bauckham not only delineates a clear and cogent understanding of the primary theological loci of Revelation, he also does what so few other NT scholars do. He seamlessly integrates deep, historically and contextually sensitive exegesis of the biblical text into a larger theological and dogmatic vision of what we talk about when talk about God.

            [1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, NTT (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). Hereafter, page citations of the book will be parenthetically placed in the main text of the paper.

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