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Daniel: Monotony or Wonder—Sameness or Change?


A few years ago, I was sitting in the cafeteria at the Lutheran Theological Seminary (Menighetsfakultetet) in Oslo ahead of a meeting of the New Testament Scholars’ Fellowship. This is a loosely knit group of about fifty New Testament scholars from all over Norway. It was not a matter of course that I should be there. Although I consider myself a New Testament scholar, I do not have an institutional affiliation in Norway. Connections help, however. The wife of the brother of the leading Pauline scholar in Norway has been an intern at the medical ward where I have been service chief. She and I are friends. One thing led to another. When I was invited to join the New Testament Fellowship, the reason was scholarship more than nepotism (I hope), but the connection did not hurt.

Upon learning that I am a Seventh-day Adventist, one of the professors at the table made the comment, “You Adventists are very fond of the Book of Daniel.” It was not said as a compliment, but I cannot say that the professor was misinformed. Adventists take an interest in Daniel that is well above average. The fact that the global church will study Daniel again for the first quarter of 2020 will not prove him wrong. Perhaps the professor was hinting that healthy, “normal” churches look elsewhere. If so, I was guilty as charged because I have done several evangelistic series with Daniel as the lead voice.

While the professor’s slightly condescending view of Daniel could be legitimate criticism for the way we use Daniel, I ascribe his comment to prejudice. I am not thinking primarily of his view of the Adventist community. I am thinking of his view of Daniel, first, and of apocalyptic, second. The Study Guide for this quarter goes out of its way to say that Daniel is an apocalyptic book. I take this to mean that the lesson authors feel ownership in both regards: we value Daniel, and we see no need to distance ourselves from the apocalyptic sentiments there or elsewhere in the Bible. The prejudice of the Norwegian professor (if I heard him correctly) could therefore be twofold—that Daniel is a second-rate book and that apocalyptic is second-class theology.

Apocalyptic as “the Mother of Christian Theology”

The Protestant tradition does not feel at home in the thought world of apocalyptic or in the books classified as apocalyptic. Ernst Käsemann created shock waves when he—almost sixty years ago—declared that “apocalyptic was the mother of all Christian theology.” The mother, mind you, not a bastard or an illegitimate child! “It was apocalyptic which first made historical thinking possible within Christendom,” said Käsemann. A few years later, Klaus Koch wrote a book that got the English title, The Rediscovery of Apocalyptic. The title is an admission that something had been lost (apocalyptic), but the English title is insipid compared to the German original, Ratlos vor der Apokalyptik. “Ratlos” in German means “bewildered” or “confused” or “lost.” This describes the state of mind in which the “rediscovery” of apocalyptic found New Testament scholars at the time. They did not know what to do! They were at a loss because, in Käsemann’s words, they discovered that the tributary (apocalyptic) was the main stream!

The “rediscovery” upended established conventions. Take the letters of Paul, for instance. J. Christiaan Beker (Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought, 1980) wrote that Paul’s language is “the apocalyptic language of Judaism, in which he lived and thought.” He said that “the coherent center of Paul’s gospel . . . is a Christian apocalyptic structure of thought.” He insisted that “Paul’s gospel does seem welded to the apocalyptic world view.” Ha added that “far from considering the apocalyptic world view a husk or discardable frame, Paul insists that it belongs to the inalienable core of the gospel.” In fact, he said, “Paul is an apocalyptic theologian with a theocentric outlook.” 

It is necessary to distinguish between apocalyptic thought and apocalyptic as a literary genre and apocalyptic prophecy, but this distinction does not obliterate the connection between Daniel and the apostle Paul. While thought and genre go hand in hand in Daniel, we make strides when we realize that the thought world of Paul is apocalyptic. Beker says in a follow-up book (1982) that Paul has four “apocalyptic motifs” at the “coherent center” of his gospel. “These four motifs are vindication, universalism, dualism, and imminence.”

Vindication means that a seemingly lost cause will triumph. The horizon against which the vindication plays out is creation, not only the history of Israel. In apocalyptic thought, eschatology echoes protology; the end mirrors the beginning (as in Revelation). J. Louis Martyn mastered the apocalyptic element in Paul even better than Beker. He showed that when Paul is under pressure, he discards a linear view of history for one that is punctiliar (Gal. 3:16). That is, he jumps from Abraham straight to Christ, bypassing Isaac and the whole history of Israel. Only someone steeped in apocalyptic possibilities could make such a move—and get away with it!

Universalism means that the whole world is the horizon. Sentiments of universalism are not unique to the apocalyptic outlook, but the apocalyptic mindset takes it for granted. God has a plan for the world when he calls Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). Isaiah is a persistent voice of inclusion (Isa. 11.1-10; 42:1-9; 49:1-9). Apocalyptic, however, is more consistently whole-world-oriented than either of these. We see it in Daniel’s four empires, and we see it in Revelation’s vision of new creation. But we see it in Paul, too, the apocalyptic Paul, as apostle to the Gentiles and missionary to the world. Israel-centered or Jerusalem-centered preoccupations are reconfigured into a global vision.

Dualism has two meanings. First, there is temporal dualism. Apocalyptic perceptions draw a line through time that cuts it into two: the old age and the age to come. These “ages” are “worlds” or “aeons.” While the new aeon will not be fully seen until the second coming of Jesus, it is here already. From where I sit today, in Loma Linda, California, the great fracture in time is not future but past. The New Age began with the revelation of God in Christ.

Second, there is cosmic dualism. While texts in the Old Testament are aware of a conflict between good and evil, personified evil is much more apparent in books influenced by apocalyptic perceptions. Take Daniel as an example, in words spoken by an angelic figure that most likely was Gabriel, “But the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me twenty-one days. So Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, and I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia” (Dan. 10:13). This is apocalyptic-strange, but it reflects the cosmic struggle that the apocalyptic understanding of the world takes for granted.

Imminence needs no explanation—the end is upon us, upon the world. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” is born of the apocalyptic vision (Mark 1:15)—a vision of a kingdom near and a kingdom here. We are not surprised to find this in Mark, but we find it in the Gospel of John, too, a book no less apocalyptic than Mark. “I know that Messiah is coming,” says the woman at the well to Jesus. “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us” (John 4:25). Her surprise could not be bigger. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’” (John 4:26). There is a second story like it, now in Bethany, near Lazarus’ tomb. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” Martha says of her deceased brother (John 11:24). Hope is deferred, resurrection is a future possibility—is it not so? It is—and it isn’t. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26).

We have in these texts a world transformed by apocalyptic perceptions, and the apocalyptic perception is the new reality. H. H. Rowley said it well—before apocalyptic was “rediscovered” in biblical studies. “The prophets foretold the future that should arise out of the present, while the apocalyptists foretold the future that should break into the present” (The Relevance of Apocalyptic, 1944). Paul D. Hanson (The Dawn of Apocalyptic, 1975) says that apocalyptic had a mother and a father. Both were Jewish; the child was not born out of wedlock. Mother was Prophecy, Father was Apocalyptic. “Mother taught that their nation’s God, Yahweh, acted on behalf of the oppressed within the events of history, a teaching which she (the child) found hard to accept as she grew amidst events which seemed to deny either God’s power, or his concern for the oppressed, or both.” The point is this: Mother’s outlook was wearing thin.

At that point, Father comes to the rescue. “Father’s belief seemed more plausible, namely, that history belonged to a fallen order which would be supplanted on the day when Yahweh acted to save his people” (Hanson, 1975, pp 402-3). This is apocalyptic, God breaking into history with an action that is radical, revelatory, and discontinuous even though it brings long deferred promises to fulfilment.

A Daniel All Too Familiar

Back to the professor’s comment at the Lutheran Seminary in Oslo. “You Adventists are very fond of the Book of Daniel,” he said.

What did I answer?

I probably said, “Yes, that is true.” I might even have said, “Yes, unfortunately we are too fond of it.”

Today, as I write this, I wish I had said, “I would that were true. I would that we were fond of Daniel and its apocalyptic sentiments. And I would that you, the Lutheran community, would become fond of this book and the apocalyptic understanding of reality.”

I don’t think it is a bad idea to study Daniel again even though this book is statistically the clear winner among Sabbath School topics over the past twenty years. The claim that Daniel is an apocalyptic book is also readily defended. The Quarterly puts it like this:

The prophetic visions recorded in the book of Daniel are of a different nature than most prophetic messages delivered by other Old Testament prophets. Daniel’s prophecies belong to the category of apocalyptic prophecy, whereas most of the other Old Testament prophecies belong to the category of classical prophecy. An understanding of the basic difference between these prophetic genres is crucial for a correct understanding of biblical prophecy (SSQ, 7).

The Quarterly explains that apocalyptic prophecies are peculiar for phenomena like visions and dreams, composite symbolism (animals, monsters), and divine sovereignty and unconditionality. “In apocalyptic prophecy God reveals the rise and fall of world empires from Daniel’s day to the end of time,” we read. “This kind of prophecy rests on God’s fore­knowledge and sovereignty and will happen regardless of human choices” (SSQ, 7). “In contrast to classical prophe­cies, whose fulfillment is often dependent on human response in the context of God’s covenant with Israel, apocalyptic prophecies are unconditional” (SSQ, 7).

I have no quarrel with this except to say that the contrast between conditional and unconditional deserves a longer discussion. The lesson author believes that the classical prophets made conditional prophecies, but many Protestants and members of the US Congress think that these prophecies, too, are unconditional. Belief in the State of Israel as a fulfillment of prophecy is largely based on non-apocalyptic visions in the Bible and is a factor in US foreign policy. I am curious to learn what members in my Sabbath School community will say about the alleged unconditional character of so-called apocalyptic prophecy.

These are minor matters, however. They matter less than my three reasons for saying that Adventists love apocalyptic sentiments a lot less than we project.

First, we may be fond of Daniel, but we are less eager to embrace the full range apocalyptic sentiments in the Bible. When the SSQ uses the term “apocalyptic prophecy,” it seems to apply it narrowly and selectively. We have predictions that are unconditional and time-specific quite apart from the apocalyptic sentiments that run like the Amazon River through the gospels and the letters of Paul. What is the theological tenor of the kingdom that breaks into history according to “apocalyptic prophecy”? Does the seer know? Is the stone that crushes the image in Daniel 2 an instrument of violence? Nebuchadnezzar throws Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah into the fiery furnace, intending to burn them alive. Is this a parallel to how God treats those who disobey him, as the Christian narrative imagines it? Or is it a contrast?

These are questions for the present quarter, but I have a broader concern. What happened to apocalyptic in the other books we have studied during the past twenty years? We have studied Romans and Galatians twice and the Gospel of John once. Were students made aware of the conspicuous apocalyptic character of these books? Were we disabused of the misconception that apocalyptic sentiments are confined to Daniel and Revelation? Did we encounter the apocalyptic Paul and the apocalyptic John, both of whom use the language of apocalypse for their most important claims (Gal. 1:12; 2:2; 3:23; Rom. 1:17; 3:21, 25; 14:24; John 1:18;12:20-41; 14:8-9)? Have Seventh-day Adventists been kept in the dark with respect to the way readings of Romans and Galatians are transformed when the apocalyptic foundation is restored to its rightful place?

Second, what does it help to play up “apocalyptic prophecy” in our exposition of Daniel when we ignore the transforming impact of apocalyptic in matters close at hand? Rowley says that the classical prophets believed in a gradual, continuous path to the kingdom of God. The apocalyptic visionary replaced that vision with one that was dramatic and discontinuous. He or she did not see a kingdom emerging from within history but one breaking into history from outside (cf. the stone in Daniel 2). And yet the Seventh-day Adventist community has for twenty-five years been consumed by the quest for institutional continuity and sameness. I am referring to the spectacularly anti-apocalyptic sentiments on the question of women’s ordination. Here, our alleged love of apocalyptic possibilities cooled to become a heart of stone. It culminated in San Antonio in 2015, when a movement claiming to be apocalyptic jeered the past president of the General Conference for a point of view that—for want of better terminology—arose from the most basic ABC of biblical apocalyptic. In the years since, we have had further proof that the volcanic eruption of apocalyptic in Scripture has been reduced to the hardened lava of institutionalized church policy. The leap of apocalyptic became the limp of institutional sameness. The loud cry will remain the low cry until we let the liberating influence of apocalyptic be felt in the call to ministry and service. We have noticed, haven’t we, that the most telling moments of apocalypse in the Gospel of John happen in Jesus’ encounters with women (John 4:25-26; 11:23-27; 20:11-18)? This is the apocalyptic substrate from which loud cries are born.

Third, Daniel is a strangely political book. We have an empire on the march when Nebuchadnezzar conquers surrounding nations. We have foreigners brought into government service. We have notions of the rule of law or the lack of it when Nebuchadnezzar issues his decrees with no risk to himself and when Darius is tricked into making a decree that he is obligated to obey. We have visions of the world in a declining trajectory, all the way to feet of iron and clay. Will the politics of the book be limited to what they did in their time and their place? Their place was Babylon and Persia. The names of their place are now Iraq and Iran. It cannot escape notice, can it, that these two countries have been on the front pages of the world’s concerns for the past twenty years? Much of Iraq was reduced to rubble. Another war may be in the making, this one against Iran. Can we limit our conversation to what happened then and leave out what happens now? Is there a place for discussion not only what they did—then or now—but also what we have done to them? There was a Nebuchadnezzar in their time? Is there one in ours? There were court sycophants in their time. Do we have court sycophants now? We are impressed by commitments of principle in their time. Do we have voices of principle in ours—as witness or whistleblower?

I say this mostly in the hope that our study of Daniel this quarter will give us more than we are used to saying and restore to the book what we have not yet seen or felt. I say it also because the book originated in my wife’s home country, in Babylon, one hundred kilometers from where she grew up.           

“You Adventists are fond of the Book of Daniel,” said the professor.

I wish I had answered, as I do now, “I would that we were.”  


Sigve Tonstad is Professor of Theology at Loma Linda University's School of Religion.           

Photo supplied by the author: Serena Hasso Tonstad in front of the Ishtar Gate now in the Pergamum Museum in Berlin. The post-war chaos in her country of birth makes it unlikely that she will ever be able to go back.


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