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Reading Revelation with Goesswein, Part 3: Authorship

The authorship of Revelation

Before covering specific opinions about the authorship of Revelation, we should note that Gösswein’s use of patristic material and accurate knowledge of the Fathers are exemplary for a parish pastor. His opinions are strong but well-founded, and his coverage of authorship in four or five pages is as comprehensive as anything except the most specialized modern commentaries. He does not plead his simplicity as “just a parish pastor” or his ignorance as “not a professional exegete.” There is no necessary distinction between the pastor, the scholar, and the exegete. Gösswein unites those roles in himself to expound Scripture.

Gösswein unapologetically affirms that the apostle John authored Revelation. His contention on the authorship of Revelation is that uncertainty on the topic dates from the third century with Marcion’s denial of its Johannine provenance. Tertullian is quoted to effect that though Marcion denies Revelation’s Johannine authorship, the lines of bishops in the seven churches of Revelation can be traced back to John (Contra Marcionem, lib. IV). Gösswein himself points out that none of the seven churches mentioned in the book is the source of any doubt about Revelation’s apostolic authorship. Gösswein finds many citations of or allusions to Revelation in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. Irenaeus’ simple use of Revelation as “a writing of the Apostle John very often” and defense of the reading of 666 in Rev. 13:18 against differing manuscripts’ reading of 616 witness (Adversus haereses V:30) to the knowledge of Revelation and the affirmation of its Johannine authorship by a disciple of Polycarp and a native of Asia Minor.

Clement of Alexandria gives no indication that anyone opposes the apostolic authorship of Revelation, citing the book simply as the apostle John’s work. Gösswein also cites Origen’s unqualified affirmation of John’s authorship and names other supporters of the same position: Melito of Sardis, Papias, Theophilus of Antioch, Justin Martyr. He affirms that not only is apostolic authorship universally maintained by the Fathers but that also all agree that “in great old age, exiled to the island of Patmos, John the apostle received the Revelation.” He cites Eusebius, who mentions the historical circumstance of the Revelation and the doubts about the book on the basis of “critical comparison of the style, dogmatic polemic, and the darkness of the misuse of the book.” Gösswein does not understand Papias (cited in Eusebius) as affirming a separate “presbyter John” from the apostle but uncomplicatedly uses Papias as part of his evidence.

The patristic doubters of its apostolic authorship, of whom Gösswein mentions Dionysius of Alexandria and Jerome chiefly, complain of its obscure style, the darkness of its symbols and words, and the “fleshly, Jewish, and heathen thoughts of the chiliasts…too closely related” to the book. So for Gösswein the heretical misuse of the book is the source of the later Fathers’ doubts about the book. Its heretical misuse is the source of its orthodox neglect. What began with the doubts of the heretic Marcion is recapitulated in the dislike of Jerome for the apostolic book.

Gösswein sees church history as the battleground of orthodoxy with heresy, a battle extending into every realm of church life, including isagogical issues like the authorship of biblical books. He utilizes closely argued historical research to discover the third-century origin of doubts of Revelation’s apostolic authorship and marshals many Fathers to refute those doubts and affirm the book’s apostolic provenance.

Reading Revelation with Goesswein, Part 2: Purpose

The purpose of Revelation

The purpose of any book of Scripture illuminates its meaning for its first readers and for us. So far as we can determine, a book’s occasion heightens our understanding of what the Holy Spirit is accomplishing whenever that portion of Scripture is preached, read, and taken to heart. Over the next several segments we will work through Gösswein’s introduction to Revelation, considering its canonicity, its naysayers, and its historical witnesses and occasion. Today we begin with Gösswein’s majestic opening paragraphs on the heart of Revelation.

He begins in medias res quoting from Ps. 110:7, 88:18, and 69:2 on the tribulation and suffering of the Son of Man. In the midst of the Son of Man’s trampling down the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:16), He experienced “the evil of the old serpent and the angst of hell.” He raised His head again, took the keys of hell and death for Himself, and set Himself down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Ps. 8:6 is the pronunciation of the Father upon the Victor: Sit at My right hand! Gösswein puts the risen Christ into a dialogue with the Father, so that the announcement of Christ’s session is met with Christ’s pronouncement: To Me is given all power in heaven and on earth (Mt. 28:18). Clearly both the work of reconciliation is completed, and all things are now subject to Christ’s humanity.

Why begin there? Gösswein must begin with the work and nature of Christ because Revelation is about the work and nature of Christ. Christ no longer suffers in His own body, for “after His ascension to the throne of the Majesty He suffers no longer in His Person, but in His members, who have daily to do with His enemies and through much tribulation must come into His kingdom.” Revelation is about the connection between the suffering, risen, and victorious kingly Christ and His suffering members upon earth, bearing witness to His kingdom. Gösswein quotes Philipp Nicolai at length to make clear that the weapon of Christ’s kingdom is His Word alone. This apostolic book is another weapon in the war against Satan. The apostolic words of Revelation guide the church through the tribulation it now suffers into the eternal kingdom of Christ, just as Christ was once guided by the Psalms through His destiny as atoning Messiah to the Father’s right hand.

So Gösswein’s understanding of Revelation is that through it the Holy Spirit comforts the church concerning the future. Thereby the church does not lose heart in suffering. Through Revelation the “light of consolation and of hope” is lit again for us. Revelation clarifies that Christ’s kingdom is a “kingdom of the cross” (Kreuzreich). Whoever will not enlist himself under the cross cannot be a disciple of the Crucified. Gösswein will even say that Revelation is “best understood in struggles and needs,” because “it is a book for the church of the cross (die Kreuzkirche), for whom [Revelation] paints in prophetic pictures the struggle of Michael with the dragon to its final outcome.” One major difficulty in understanding is then the reader’s unfamiliarity with tribulation and suffering in the Name of Christ. He who does not suffer with Christ cannot understand Christ’s words. This personal aspect of understanding Scripture will recur again and again throughout the introduction and in the commentary itself.

Revelation is a book for the suffering, a book for martyrs, a book for Christ’s church that bears Christ’s cross until the day when it is approved and glorified by the Father, at Whose right hand our Royal Messiah already sits. Already King Jesus has trampled down the serpent’s head, and already to Christ belongs all power in heaven and on earth. Already the Victor reigns forever.

The First Blast of the Trumpet—A Word Fitly Spoken

By a word the sick man was healed. By a word Lazarus came out from his tomb. By a word the adulterous woman was saved from certain death. A simple, fitting word can move heaven and earth. Everlasting life depends on someone preaching, because without someone preaching, how will the dead hear and live? And the one preaching must proclaim the word of Christ and nothing else. God’s Word is enough to make the man of God perfect, equipped for every good work.

God’s Word is enough for understanding Scripture. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Scripture has its power and authority that needs no supplement for doing the work of converting, enlightening, and equipping the servants of Christ. The powerful and clear Scripture moved Josiah to upend his own kingdom.  God’s Son pointed to this powerful and clear Scripture to demonstrate that He had been sent to fulfill it. It is then powerful and clear for us, too, so that poring over Scripture in depth is endlessly rewarding, refreshing, and renewing. Sustained by Scripture, we are like trees planted by streams of water, ever refreshed and ever fruitful.

God’s Word is enough for proclaiming the whole counsel of God. The servant of Christ did not choose to proclaim but was chosen to proclaim. Paul did not select his message but was found and used mightily by the Lord to proclaim a message he had not known in his prior foolishness and blindness. Made wise by the study of Holy Scripture, the preacher will joyfully and powerfully proclaim the entirety of Scripture, not only those passages or tenses or doctrines dearest or most comfortable to him. Christ would feed His people with the plenty and the variety of His Word. Christ’s servants have only to serve what the Master offers.

God’s Word is enough for spreading the reign of God the Lord. The servant who imitates his Master and the apostles will be fervent in proclaiming the good news of Jesus everywhere he goes. He will do the work of an evangelist because he knows the kingdom of God is at hand. A sober and glorious zeal will fill his heart in extending God’s kingdom through the preaching of the gospel.

By words about reading the Scriptures, about preaching the Scriptures, and about the mission on which the Scriptures send all of us, we here at A Word Fitly Spoken aim to give you, the servant of Christ, more and more always from the fullness the Lord has given us in His Holy Word. We love and would glorify our Lord in His Church and His faithful servants, who are being changed even now from this earthly glory to a heavenly glory beyond all comparing. Look here for words on the way to that latter glory, words to refresh and guide, to lift up and to build up, words beautiful and true like apples of gold in a setting of silver.

Reading Revelation with Goesswein: Part 1

Why read Scripture with the early American Lutheran fathers?

Some things are rightly consigned to history’s dustbin. Some words and some works may be safely taken out never to return. Only the most minutely focused antiquarian could disagree. “Of the making of many books there is no end,” so that what was said before will likely be said again elsewhere at another time. Bible commentaries may be the chief of sinners in the “making of many books” and among the most numerous of all the volumes relegated to being forgotten. Browsing through a used bookstore, one can find many commentaries once common and now largely unknown: Jamieson-Fausset-Brown’s single-volume commentary, Adam Clarke, J. Vernon McGee, the old run of The Interpreter’s Bible so redolent of mid-twentieth-century mainline American Protestantism.

Why then pick up and read through what is still more obscure—American Lutheran commentaries? One of the largest forms of Protestantism in the United States, Lutherans are notoriously theologically reclusive, speaking largely to themselves and with themselves. If you aren’t a Lutheran, you have now found an undiscovered and far country. As we first take up G. Gösswein’s Scriptural and Upbuilding Explanation of the Revelation of St. John (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1900), you may find an understanding of Revelation relatively uncommon in American Christianity. If you are a Lutheran, especially in a church body descended from the old Synodical Conference, you may be familiar with Siegbert W. Becker’s Revelation: The Distant Triumph Song (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1985) or the more recent Revelation – Concordia Commentary by Louis Brighton (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1998). Some non-Lutherans and Lutherans will have heard of R. C. H. Lenski’s The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943). Becker and Brighton are nearly unknown outside Lutheranism, and Lenski’s star has faded from previous years. You may find him alongside J. Vernon McGee, standing in a pile on the floor of that used bookstore.

To take up again books now forgotten is to awaken to the height and breadth and length and depth of the cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Gösswein’s originally German book is available in English but is little known and less studied. He lived in very different times for American Christianity, American Lutheranism, and his own Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States (now the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) than Lenski, Becker, Brighton, or anyone reading this. His stresses and excurses, his emphases and his givens will be different from Lenski, Becker, Brighton, or anyone reading this. The first reason to take up Scripture with the early American Lutheran fathers in hand is to let them speak on their own terms, whether we are interested in them merely historically or because they are our spiritual fathers as confessional American Lutherans. Their works should be saved from the demons of disinterest and forgetting.

Never do we come to Scripture alone. Scripture shapes us and molds us and is its own interpreter, but it has already shaped and molded and interpreted and refreshed and perfected many, many before us. It has created the cloud of witnesses whose testimony so strongly urges us to take hold of Scripture more and more even as it takes hold of us more and more. If we do not understand how the witnesses speak or what they said or what they meant, we are the poorer for it. If we do not know our fathers (I speak chiefly to Lutherans), we do not know ourselves. Reading Scripture with the fathers is an exercise in not letting our own thoughts be obvious. We cannot be self-critical or fruitful in growing in the Scriptures if our own presuppositions, thought processes, and conclusions are obvious to us, whether because we share them with our contemporaries or share them with our fathers. We need to follow what moves the fathers make in understanding Scripture, what they chose to comment upon, what they left aside, and what Scripture made of them to understand ourselves, our readings, and our place in what the Spirit is doing throughout time in His church.