Ray Summers. Worthy Is the Lamb: Interpreting the Book of Revelation In Its Historical Background. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1951.
Ray Summers was a professor of New Testament and Greek who taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Baylor University. A colleague of mine recommended this book to me because I wanted to learn about partial preterism, which was the view on the Book of Revelation that my colleague held. According to partial preterism, as I understand it, much of the Book of Revelation pertained to the first century C.E., and yet the second coming of Christ that is talked about in the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles of Paul will have a future fulfillment.
There are at least two strands of preterism with which I am familiar. The first strand interprets the Book of Revelation in light of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., and thus it dates Revelation to around that time, which is roughly two decades prior to when many scholars date it. The second strand interprets the Book of Revelation primarily in reference to God’s judgment of pagan Rome in history. Ray Summers adheres to this strand, and he dates the composition of the book to the 90’s C.E.
There was a lot that was valuable in this book. There was Summers’ discussion of apocalyptic literature in general. I was particularly interested in Summers’ assertion that the reason that much of apocalyptic literature was pseudonymous and attributed to prominent figures before or during the time of Moses was that the law had attained prominence, and thus there was a feeling that revelation after the time of the Torah would not be as legitimate as revelation before or during the time of the Torah’s revelation. I have questions about this, since the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible came after the time of the Torah and were considered (on some level) to be revelatory. But I do agree with Summers that there is significance in the attribution of much of apocalyptic literature to Moses or prominent biblical figures prior to the time of Moses: perhaps it is that earlier was considered better, or more authoritative.
Summers defends the idea that the apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation. He appeals to the views of church fathers, and he attempts to respond to arguments that have been advanced against Johannine authorship. On the dramatic differences in writing styles between the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation, one argument that Summers makes is that John may have had someone to put his thoughts into refined language when he was writing the Gospel of John, but he did not have such a person when he wrote the Book of Revelation. On the early testimony that the John who wrote Revelation was John the Elder, Summers contends that John the Elder could have been the apostle John. Whether or not one agrees with Summers’ conclusions, his arguments deserve thoughtful consideration.
Summers argues against some of the other Christian approaches to Revelation that are out there, including the futuristic, premillennial perspective, and the historicist interpretation that focuses on the medieval Roman Catholic church and the Protestant Reformation. Summers has at least two arguments against some of these approaches. One is that they can be rather arbitrary, as they posit connections between parts of the Book of Revelation and historical or (in the case of strands of futurism) current events. The second argument, which appears often throughout Summers’ book, is that these approaches violate the purpose of the Book of Revelation, which was to comfort persecuted Christians during the first century C.E. Summers wonders: How would first century Christians be comforted by John telling them what would happen in the Middle Ages or two-thousand-or-so years in the future? Summers does not believe that they would have been.
Summers interprets much of the Book of Revelation in light of realities of the first century C.E. He believes that the first horseman of the apocalypse relates to Parthia, noting that the first horseman resembles certain Parthian images. He contends that the Beast is the emperor Domitian, who insisted on being worshiped and persecuted Christians mercilessly. Summers believes that the story of the two witnesses conveys the message that the church will survive, notwithstanding persecution. According to Summers, the coming of Christ in Revelation is not the same as the second coming of Christ in other parts of the New Testament, but it is Christ coming in judgment against pagan Rome, which came to pass in history. The binding of Satan, for Summers, meant that Satan would no longer deceive people to engage in emperor worship. Summers does acknowledge that there is an eschatological element in Revelation: he interprets God’s judgment after the second resurrection and the casting of the Beast and the false prophet into hell to be things that will occur when Christ comes back in the future. But, overall, Summers believes that Revelation pertains to what historically happened to pagan Rome.
What about some of the fantastic events narrated in Revelation: mountains going into the sea, vicious scorpions stinging people, etc.? Summers interprets some of them in light of volcano eruptions and an earthquake in the first century C.E., but often he regards the fantastic phenomena as symbolic, noting that apocalyptic literature frequently uses symbolism.
I am not entirely convinced by Summers’ partial preterism. I agree with Summers that much of Revelation can be associated with events in the first century C.E., but I believe that the author of Revelation expected for Christ to return, to defeat Rome, and to set up his kingdom in the first century C.E., and that this was what he thought would give hope to the suffering Christians. Revelation 11:15, after all, presents the kingdoms of this world becoming the kingdom of Christ, and Christ reigning forever and ever. That sounds to me like Revelation is depicting Christ returning to rule the earth. Moreover, I think that work should be done on determining when Revelation should be interpreted literally, and when it should be interpreted symbolically. In my opinion, it is not enough to say that Revelation is a symbolic book, and thus we should interpret fantastic phenomena in Revelation as symbolic, for what is to prevent symbolic exegesis from becoming as arbitrary as the approaches that Summers critiques?
Overall, I found parts of Summers’ book to be deep and meaty, and parts of it to be rather shallow. Summers is quite deep when he goes into different interpretations of parts of Revelation, highlighting what he considers to be their strengths and weaknesses and offering his own opinion. Summers does not always do this in his exegesis, but he is very impressive when he does. Also, there were times when I wished that Summers provided documentation for some of his claims. Summers cites sources for different opinions on Revelation, but not so much for first century C.E. history. Summers’ book would have been better had it done the latter.