In the history and prehistory of human societies, poets, prophets, and seers (the word vates can cover all three) have often been virtually indistinguishable from one another. From time immemorial, their respective activities overlap and interpenetrate to such an extent that prophets (or mantics or seers) and poets have been closely associated and tend to completely coalesce in many of their functions and modalities. The Sanskrit word kavi (like its Latin cognate vates) embraces both. A certain strand of ideology running through the Bible (at least as interpreted by classical rabbinic texts) aims to drive a wedge between God-inspired prophecy and humanly created poems. Nevertheless, the Hebrew word nabi for “prophet” means “bubbling forth, as from a fountain,” so the vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible, too, is naturally apt to suggest the creative fecundity of verbal imagination. In fact, Amos, Isaiah, Elisha, and Ezekiel frequently produce parables, proverbs, and even love songs. In primordial cultures, with only minimal social stratification and differentiation of roles, long before any specific mantles as either prophet or poet can be identified and donned, a figure like that of the shaman or even the wizard (Merlin, for example) is often emblematic of a certain undecidability between religious revelation or spiritual experience and creative imagination and invention. Of course, in modern cultures, with their highly differentiated social roles, theological revelation and poetry are typically seen as distinct and often even as opposed to each other in crucial respects. Yet the two still need to be understood together as reciprocal and symbiotic in their origins, aims, and purposes. Throughout subsequent history, the deepest intents of literary and religious practices remain inseparable from each other in their myriad manifestations within our cultural traditions and institutions; they thus stand to be illuminated by such a juxtaposition. Poetry and prophecy together comprise the common matrix of some of the oldest and most fundamental modes of expression of humanity across cultures.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, or the Apocalypse of John, has been extraordinarily influential in Christian life and theology. For example, because of the many hymns sung by the heavenly host, Revelation has, like Isaiah 6:3, been particularly influential on liturgy and also music, for instance, the setting of Revelation 5:12, “Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain,” in Handel’s Messiah. It is one of two biblical apocalyptic texts (the other being the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible). Apart from the opening words, a dominant theme of Revelation is prophecy, and its imagery emphasizing what John “saw” on Patmos suggests that the form of prophecy in the first century ce included a significant visionary element, akin to earlier biblical exemplars such as Ezekiel 1:40–48 and Zechariah 1–8. The interpretation and reception of Revelation are closely linked. Like other biblical prophetic books, it became a reservoir for understandings of the future, but alongside it there developed a role as a way of unmasking the imperfections in church and society. This article uses the evidence of its reception to understand the nature and meaning of the book, its theological antecedents, and its relationship to other early Christian writings. Its role as an eschatological guide as well as its importance for political theology, complementing what we find in Daniel, are considered. It has also inspired artists down the centuries, from the time of the first illuminated Apocalypses, and this rich visual tradition captures something of importance about the book itself and the visionary stimulus it has provided.
Alister E. McGrath
Following the deep and unsettling questions raised about the legacy of German Protestant theology as a result of the Great War (1914‒1918), a new interest emerged in returning to the fons et origo of Protestant theology in the writings of Martin Luther and other reformers. This was given additional impetus through the work of Karl Holl, who is widely credited with shaping the “Luther Renaissance” of 1919‒1921. Dialectical theology was a movement focused on Karl Barth that arose within German-speaking Protestantism in the aftermath of the Great War. The reception of Luther within the dialectical theology movement is complex and not easily reduced to simple categorizations. The diverse theological and confessional commitments within the movement led to various readings of Luther, generally mediated through secondary sources or channels. The movement portrayed itself in terms of a theocentric new reformation, breaking free from the cultural compromises and entanglements of German liberal theology in the first two decades of the twentieth century, particularly in relation to anthropology, Christology, and the understanding of sin. The movement presented itself as both the heir and reinterpreter of the theological legacy of the Reformation, particularly the theology of Martin Luther, most notably its emphasis on divine revelation. Yet its leading representatives—Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and Friedrich Gogarten—understood Luther in somewhat different manners. It is therefore important to consider the use made of Luther by each of these figures individually, rather than try to collapse them into a single generic approach which is held to be representative of dialectical theology. The high profile these four writers accorded to Luther unquestionably stimulated Luther studies in the postwar period and contributed significantly to the current appreciation of Luther in contemporary theological debate.
Robert C. Saler
While the term theologia crucis itself is most prominent in Luther’s early works, the later texts bear up the scholarly contention that the fundamental contrast between “cross” and “glory,” with its various methodological and theological implications, remains and is in fact amplified throughout Luther’s later writings. Indeed, considered topically, Luther’s treatment of virtually every significant theological locus throughout his canon—e.g., revelation, ecclesiology, and ethics is impacted by his understanding of the cross. “Theology of the cross” in Luther does not refer to a bound set of theological statements but rather a methodological stance in which epistemological fidelity to the modes in which God chooses to reveal himself—in suffering, death, and contradiction to expectation—marks the whole of the theologian’s orientation to knowledge of God and the world. While the theology of the cross in Luther’s deployment certainly touches on sociopolitical and ecclesial realities within his time, it is crucial for readers of Luther to understand that for him the motif was bound up within the total “thickness” of Christian life—the sacraments, prayer, discipleship, etc. In contrast to the temptation to treat the notion as a critical principle that can be detached from this total picture of Christian existence, scholarly attention to Luther must take seriously the ecclesiastically embedded character of theologia crucis—with all of the interweaving strands of inquiry that such embeddedness necessitates—in order to get the full picture of how Luther understood the cross’s impact on theology and the Christian life. The cross is also crucial theologically for Luther because it gets at the core of what he sees the theological project being able to do—deal with God in God’s self-revelation, under the confusing and sometimes seemingly paradoxical terms by which God chooses to engage humanity. Theologia crucis thus stands as the theological putting to death of the Old Adam—who is aligned, for Luther, with theologies of glory—so as to allow the theologian to hear and proclaim the gospel apart from pretension or undue speculation.
As the expectation of imminent, total, collective salvation from a world in dire need of repair, millennialism has long inspired individuals and groups to take dramatic actions in anticipation of the establishment of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). The term “millennialism” is derived from the prospect of a thousand-year reign of Christ (mille = one thousand in Latin) expressed in Revelation 20. As that suggests, the origins of millennialism go back to the ancient Mediterranean world in the period roughly between Alexander the Great (356–323 bce) and Constantine (272–337 ce) when Alexander’s world kingdom and its successors deprived local populations of political, and often religious, autonomy. One response to that situation, which appears in Jewish, Christian, and other Greco-Roman sources, was the claim that humanity had reached a crisis point and that divine intervention would soon accomplish renovation of the world in which those suffering unjustly under foreign domination would be saved. Although millennialist movements have been fairly common in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, and various indigenous traditions have produced their own millennialist movements. In addition, many millennialist movements have drawn on eclectic ideological sources. Some political movements, such as Marxism, German National Socialism, and Maoism have had pronounced millennialist emphases, sometimes with the admixture of religious or occult elements. In the 21st century, millennialism in many different forms can be found throughout the world. Many millennialist movements are founded by individuals claiming charismatic authority. They can claim the ability to see the signs of impending transformation and will frequently strive to interpret cultural wisdom traditions as shedding light on their current predicaments. But such leaders, and their followers, inevitably have to come to grips with the disappointing reality that their fondest hopes have not come true. Responses to the disconfirmation of millennialist prophecies, however, run the gamut from abandonment to reaffirmation. Millennialist hopes persist because viewing the imperfections and evils of the world as in dire need of dramatic rectification, generally with the aid of divine or superhuman figures, continues to exert an attraction to those who are deeply disappointed with the status quo.