The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John
Loren L. Johns. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003. xi + 276 pages.
This book, which is a slightly revised version of a doctoral dissertation submitted to Princeton Theological Seminary in 1998, makes a significant contribution to the now-voluminous academic literature on the Revelation. Loren Johns is currently the Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, having served earlier as a professor (at Bluffton College), pastor, and theology book editor. Johns works deliberately and adeptly “as a member of two overlapping communities: the community of scholars and the community of faith” (18). While written as a dissertation, the book is still readable by nonspecialists, and ancient languages are carefully translated.
Johns identifies explicitly what for him are the personal and social issues behind this investigation, namely, the pervasive power latent in religion and more particularly violence in the name of religion. Admitting that “the Apocalypse of John is arguably the most dangerous book in the history of Christendom in terms of the history of its effect” (5), Johns’ explicit concern is to assess how its eschatology and its Christology are related to its ethical vision. The crux of the matter is to see “how deeply writ in the rhetoric of the Apocalypse are its visions of violence” (13). His thesis is that the Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse has a fundamentally ethical force, intended to promote paradigmatically an “ethic/theology of nonviolent resistance to evil in a variety of ways,” despite the manifold martial metaphors and violence in the writing (20).
The bulk of the book consists of an investigation of the semantic field and rhetorical force of lamb symbolism in biblical and extrabiblical literature (22-107, 127-149), while the remainder is a more direct treatment of the Apocalypse and its sociohistorical setting (108-127, 150-205). A lengthy bibliography and indices for subject, modern authors, and ancient sources add to the value of the book.
Johns concludes that the lion and lamb images are not traditional titles or symbols for the Messiah, but are new, metaphorical creations of the author, based on associations of the lion as a powerful aggressive force in one version of Israel’s future domination over the Gentiles, and on associations of the lamb as representing vulnerability and nonviolence, but not weakness: “The Lamb Christology predominates in this vision because it expresses best the author’s own understanding of the nature and importance of the death and resurrection of Christ for the question of how believers in the province of Asia are to express their resistance to evil” (203).
But in order to emphasize the paradigmatic, ethical import of the Lamb Christology, Johns tends to minimize both the very fact of the future conquering of the Lamb and the violence associated with that future conquering. Instead, he favors a primarily backward look to the cross and resurrection (e.g., 161, 168, 185, 203). Not only does Johns highlight rightly that there is no future conventional warfare in which the earthly saints participate, but also (with some overstatement) that “no [future] battle story is possible” (185), and that the blood that is spilled in the book is that of Jesus or the martyrs. Accordingly, the import of texts such as 17:14; 19:17-21; and 14:17-20 (winepress) in relation to 19:15 is overlooked.
And thus ethics is gained somewhat at the expense of a thoroughgoing eschatology in which injustice is (violently) vanquished, and a paradigmatic nonviolent Lamb is emphasized over an executive warring Lamb who has the prerogative—and obligation—to still vindicate in the future on behalf of God’s people. The latter theme, in fact, provides a critical motivational framework for the nonviolent resistance that is enjoined in the book.