While reading this short book, I had trouble with wanting to see it as an exegesis on the historical situation of the Seven Churches in Asia and what the original author was trying to communicate. Further, I wanted a historical critical take on the book, and instead, I walked away with a practical theological assessment of the book, which while akin to William Barclay, presented a modern application of those letters. While I completely disagree with him on several minor details, I had to step back and remember that the book’s purpose was not to engage the original audience of the text, but the audience of the modern church. What really stood out was the author’s personal connection in life experiences to these letters, which I think is the real key to understanding the long controversial book. It was not about secret code words, only to be deciphered fifteen minutes after the end of the world, but the original intent of the book was to speak to the audience and to any audience in perpetuity, about their current condition, whether it is apathy, love or persecution. What Daniels has done is to scrape off some of the patina of countless and needless interpretative attempts to make, at the very least, these letters applicable to the modern Church.
Of the seven letters, two portions stood out to me, namely Ephesians and his postscript. In the letter to Ephesians Daniels calls for a more generous orthodoxy. For this letter, his focus is on this passage found in Revelation 2.2-4, on what they did right and what they did wrong. The Ephesians had orthodoxy (although, admittedly, while Revelation was written sometime around 96 according to many scholars, there was most likely not a general orthodoxy subscribed to by the communities interpreting the message of Christ) but they had lost the love of one another. Daniels quotes, Barclay,
It may be that a hard, censorious, critical, fault-finding, stern self-righteousness had banished the spirit of love… Strict orthodoxy can cost too much, if it has to be bought at the price of love. (p39)
Daniels further notes:
Few if any of us who are believers accepted Christ into our lives because we were doctrinally argued into the Church. It was the love of God demonstrated in the life of the Spirit-filled body of Christ that wooed us into relationship with the Father….(p40)
…. However, there is something in letter from the Revelator that desires the Church in Ephesus to place orthopraxy (rightly living out the faith) or orthopathy (having the right heart or spirit) above orthodoxy (mentally assenting to correct doctrine as cognitive propositions). (p42)
I believe that he is partially correct here – that doctrine is not what draws us to Christ so much as what explains to us that call and the life led thereafter. I have a problem with his apparent lack of focus; instead of maintaining orthodoxy, he is in favor of practice and love as a measure of unity. I mean, what’s that all about?
Daniels then goes on to speak about Scripture in a communal setting on page 135 and 136, noting that we read ‘Scripture in community to learn to interpret ourselves and the world as Christians.’ This passage stood out as one which is needful at this present time. We have a large and ever growing community as the world gets smaller. Perhaps one of the best things to happen to (Western) Christianity in this century is the rise of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens) and their militant campaign against religion in general and more specifically, Christianity. The voices of the New Atheists focuses us on scholarship, theology, and looking at our presentation of the Gospel Message. Further, I think that we have to hear the voices of those who believe that Leviticus is a New Testament book or that women are nothing more than property with a voice heard only at the request of her husband. With that said, Daniels’ reading of these letters is part of this embodiment of the Scriptures in community (136), and while I disagree with him, mainly in his interpretation of Thyatira, I find that there is much here to listen to and to learn from.
I feel that Daniel’s section on Thyatira is lacking in grounding, with his dualist notions of what the problem in that city is unsupported by history or text. While his other letters are generally found to have some historical reality, this section seems almost to be pulled out of the very thin air of speculation, and mediocre air at that. I think that there are other ‘real life’ examples and applications that could be drawn from the situation in Thyatira, notably the fact that a woman, unquestioning, was allowed to preach.
The minister, whether pastor, subordinate or simply lay, should be able to gain a great deal from the book. Notably, the fact that Revelation is applicable today, and not as fictional tales told to scare people into serving God, but real theological discussions meant to encourage conversations about what may be holding congregations back from growth. I think that the author does a fair job of naming the problems which plague many churches. Whether a too-strict orthodoxy which strangles the orthopathy, the consumerism which leads to the commodification of the Christian faith (47), accommodation, individualism in a faith community, or apathy (93) the spirits of the congregations envelope these groups and are self-feeding. In turn, these possessed congregations will select, either actively or through passive support of, leaders who feed into their spiritual need to neglect the Gospel. Further, Daniels helps to counter such rants as we see today against corporate salvation and stands firm against the American introduction to an individualistic faith. The author calls every congregation and ever leader in a congregation to name the spirits that plagues them and to use Scripture in a communal application against them.