Sigve K. Tonstad, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019.

Ekkehardt Mueller, ThD, DMin, is an associate director (ret.) of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Sigve K. Tonstad is a professor of religion and assistant professor of medicine at Loma Linda University. He is a prolific writer and has published a number of books, mostly with non-Seventh-day Adventist publishers. His commentary on Revelation is part of the Paideia Commentary series in Baker Book House’s Academic line. This series focuses on cultural settings and the theology of the discussed biblical book by going through the book, not in a strict sense, but by looking at the larger rhetorical passages.

What pastors can expect

  1. The work is well-written and a joy to read. The author has a splendid mastery of the English language with graphic vocabulary, for instance, Satan as the “mudslinger” (181) or “the Maternity Ward of the Ages (12:1–2)” (184). The theological issues discussed are issues that the present generation is wrestling with.
  2. The introduction not only deals with the common introductory questions but also has a larger section on the Roman setting (8–19) and deals with the Apocalypse as “Revelation,” “Exposé,” and “Unveiling” (20–26).
  3. Throughout the commentary, the reader will find interesting and surprising insights (e.g., that the tree of life in the new Jerusalem, having trunks on both sides of the river, may represent both the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden, “immortality and morality,” “life and freedom” (325–328).
  4. The Old Testament is important to the author, even foundational, especially Genesis 3, Isaiah 24, and other prophetic books. He emphasizes Genesis and Revelation as the bookends of Scripture.
  5. Tonstad is concerned about the repudiation of God and the issue of theodicy. “Nothing is more in need of healing than humanity’s view of God” (329). This also applies to Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists.
  6. He rejects the concept of an intermediate state of the soul and the idea that the redeemed are permanently in heaven (291), which is a given to Adventist theology but not so in the rest of the theological world.
  7. The author works with certain presuppositions, as we all do. In his case, he works with the biblical book as it comes. The presuppositions include, among others, that the Apocalypse has a cosmic perspective that is more than the “Roman reality” and has a “nonhuman aspect” (e.g., 19, 214, 215). He says this perspective may be called the “Cosmic Conflict View” or the “Imitation View” (20). This is the strength of the commentary.
  8. More problematic assumptions and positions are (a) Revelation is not about revenge and retribution. There is no violence on God’s side: God does not “make Babylon burn” (260). (b) Evil is self-destructive (e.g., 3–6, 294–296, 318). The acting person is Satan, and “the judgment is never juridical but revelatory” (297). (c) Dealing with the 144,000, he suggests a symbolic understanding, adding “although the possibility of male bias and sexual apprehension is not fully muted” (201). Writing about the marriage of the Lamb and Adam and Eve, he makes the puzzling statement, “the exclusionary zones of marriage in human experience—only her, only him, or only the other one [?]—to the exclusion of everyone else, some single, some disappointed, and some widowed and divorced, are now erased by a marriage embracing all” (274). (d) There seems to be a trend toward universal salvation (298, 317, 318, 330, 331). For example, the mourning of the tribes of the earth in Revelation 1:7 is “not a ‘too late’ scene” (50). On the second resurrection in Revelation 20 and the final judgment, he states that “with the judgment come return, resurrection, and restoration (20:13). . . . For victims, hope resides in restoration rather than in seeing the perpetrator of violence punished” (298). How far he is willing to take that is unclear to this reviewer.
  9. The reader can expect some illustrations and images. He mentions, for example, Hitler and Napoleon and their support by masses of people. He also narrates his own experiences, which makes the commentary lively.

What pastors cannot expect

  1. Since this is a theological commentary and not an exegetical commentary, certain verses, concepts, and phrases are not discussed. The commentary presents a big picture based on the presuppositions mentioned above.
  2. This is a commentary for a non-Adventist publishing house, which brings with it some limitations. However, the author himself rejects preterism, historicism, and futurism. Pastors and other readers will not see this as a typical Adventist commentary. The author interprets, for instance, the seven seals and the seven trumpets but does not apply them to historical events. With him, there is no interpretation reaching from the time of John to the end of history by identifying certain successive historical events. With the first beast of Revelation 13, he comes close to the papacy, but then he seems to draw back: “Revelation operates at the level of symbols and representations. Drawing lines from the symbols to historical realities is a fraught enterprise, as all the dominant schools of interpretation prove” (215). He is correct about abuses of historicism, which have also caused most theologians in other denominations to shy away from histori­cism, and we must be very careful in what we claim and make sure that it is biblically and historically defensible. But while the present reviewer would not understand the cosmic conflict and a sound historical approach as mutually exclusive, Tonstad would.
  3. This means also that prophetic time periods, which normally are interpreted according to the day-year principle, are not taken as such by the author of the commentary. He does not explain some (179, 191) or speaks only about a considerable period (185).

The commentary is worthwhile to read—especially for its cosmic conflict approach—if one does not expect a typical Adventist commentary, if one is willing to be challenged, and if one is willing to evaluate the author’s work carefully.

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Ekkehardt Mueller, ThD, DMin, is an associate director (ret.) of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

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