Review of “Triumph of the Lamb” (Johnson)

Triumph of the Lamb by Dennis E. Johnson, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001, 384 pp., hardback, $24.99

This is one of the latest additions to the surfeit of commentaries on the Book of Revelation. The author is Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary’s California campus. He begins well by telling his readers that the book is a “revelation”; an unveiling of truth for God’s people (pp.6-7). He further helps his reader by employing a clear and engaging writing style. Johnson is a fine communicator. However, as is inevitable with non-dispensational interpretations of the Apocalypse, it quickly becomes clear that Revelation only fulfills its stated function to those who have a knowledge of the genre and background of the book. Not that these are unimportant, but covenant theology must make them into the keys of interpretation. (Perhaps this explains why John Calvin was baffled by the last book of the Bible). In dismissing a grammatico-historical interpretation as unsatisfactory, Johnson writes that, “when God promises a rebuilt temple (Ezek. 40-48), this promise cannot find fulfillment in a “spiritual house” constructed of “living stones” who are people (1 Peter 2:5). But this usage of “literal” overlooks the fact that the literal meaning of a piece of language depends on what type of language it is, its genre.” (p. 11). But is Ezekiel 40-48 an example of apocalyptic? If it is then the prophet is surely guilty of the greatest redundancy and circumlocution in all literature (followed by John – if we allow a non-literal view of Revelation). Quite why Ezekiel should take a space the size of 1 Corinthians to detail so minutely a temple-building and its ordinances, when he was really speaking about people has never been satisfactorally explained. Why such avoidance of the obvious?

Johnson does not help things when he suggests on page 5 that the reader ignore the various ways to interpret Revelation until an appendix at the end of the book. He asks us to follow him, “and then ask which label best fits what we have seen and heard…” This procedure (if agreed to) will help insure that Johnson’s idealist-amillennial views get a free run (there, I gave the game away). Not that he doesn’t interact with some opposing opinions, he does; although classic dispensationalists will be disappointed that not one of their number is cited in the entire commentary!

Some of Prof. Johnson’s interpretations include construing the 144,000 from “all the tribes of the children of Israel” (Rev. 7:4), as the Church. To quote the dust-jacket, “The carefully numbered Israel of God is an innumerable international multitude.” But how can you “carefully number…an innumerable multitude”? By the time one gets to chapter 14 they are back to being the 144,000 again. Of course, this is a “symbolic” number. Again, we ask why John could not have “revealed” this “truth” more straightforwardly (instead of writing about 12,000 from this tribe; 12,000 from that…, etc. – Ch. 7:5-8). Wouldn’t it be easier to take the reference to “the children of Israel” here as Israelites (cf. 2:14)? Again, how does believing that Rev. 19:18 indicates that all non-elect are killed by the White Horse Rider prove that the thousand years of Rev. 20:1-8 cannot follow the Second Advent? Have these people never read what dispensationalists have written on 19:18? Have they not read that dispensationalists say that it is from among the offspring of these survivors that Satan shall recruit his last army? One does not wish to be unkind, but disbelief can sometimes be elevated to a potent hermeneutical principle. Of course, Johnson would feel fully justified in saying the same thing about this reviewer.

This commentary is a good example of what non-literal interpreters do with the Apocalypse. To serve such a purpose the work is recommended for its irenic tone and lucid style. If I were a fan of covenant theology I would give it the thumbs up. It has a lot to commend it, especially its exposition of the first five chapters. But for a convinced dispensationalist like myself, Triumph of the Lamb fails as a reliable interpretation of God’s last word in Scripture.

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