Rev 22:18-19 NASB
(18) I testify to everyone who hears the words of the
prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues
which are written in this book;
(19) and if anyone takes away from the words
of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life
and from the holy city, which are written in this book.
This would chill me to the bone if I were an author of the "Left Behind" series. Considering the fact that those authors certainly know this verse, I must conclude that they don't consider their several-volume expansive interpretation of Revelation, Thessalonians, Daniel and Ezekiel to be an addition or subtraction to the prophecy entrusted to John and thence to us. This despite the fact that they know, or should know, that for millions of people their books, and the movies, are the only interpretation of these texts they are likely to hear. The very title of the series, "Left Behind," is a substantial addition to the account of the so-called Rapture in the letters to Thessalonica, neither of which speak of anyone being left behind at Jesus' second coming, nor shows any concern at all to describe what, exactly, happens to the unsaved at that event. They go on to add volumes of speculative detail to events that are described apocalyptically and poetically in the text delivered to us through the Apostle.
The subtraction effected by the "Left Behind" series is more subtle but even more real: the narrowing of the imagination of God's people to this single elaborate account of the end times. I have taught the Revelation to adults several times over the last years, and believe me that this series has constricted their view of the future deeply and definitively. When they read Revelation, they do not wonder what it means, they do not engage their faculties of understanding of poetry and metaphor. No, they already know what it means. They've seen it at the movies.
But here I am most interested in the question, why does God find it necessary to explicitly prohibit the addition or subtraction of words to or from his revelation? And what does he mean by addition and subtraction?
Perhaps at one level God here prohibits the addition of fake text, of additional chapters or episodes. This is, no doubt, quite important. We can't have men or women adding their own uninspired text to the body of scripture and passing it off as inspired. Why not? This may seem like a silly question but, really, why not? Is it not because we need to preserve the ability to trace the expressed thoughts back to God, who is authoritative and sovereign, or to man, who is not?
What about expansive interpretations? Do they constitute additions in the sense proscribed?
This is a more difficult question, but we can at least begin with the need to preserve the distinguishability between God's words and the interpreter's ideas. This is admittedly not always a bright, clean line. All translation involves interpretation, which of course is why we generally require our preachers to read the original languages. Idioms, especially, require interpretation from one language or culture to another. Nevertheless, translation does not generally or frequently require expansion to be faithful to the original, and a translator seeks to match form with form, content with content, and connotation with connotation. There is a general one-to-one correspondence, and in this sense a translation is not inherently an expansion.
In "Colossians Remixed," Walsh and Keesmaat offer an expansive interpretation that they consider to be a "targum" of Colossians. They explain on page 38 that this is a form of interpretation arising during the Jewish diaspora, in which the rabbis did not simply translate the text, but "would update the text, apply it to the changing context, and put it into contemporary idiom." An accompanying footnote explains that a targum "could be commentary as well as translation, and impose a comprehensive interpretation on the original Hebrew." (p. 41) It is these latter aspects that may cause targa to fall afoul of the "no additions" mandate, in my opinion.
The fundamental problem that I believe underlies God's warning is that additions are subtractions. When one "imposes" such a "comprehensive interpretation" upon the text, it certainly can and often does exclude other appropriate interpretations that the reader, especially the Spirit-enlightened reader, might otherwise bring to it. It dominates and directs the imagination. It does so, I would submit, in proportion as it is an expansion; the more extensive the examples and cultural specificities supplied by the interpreter, the more restrictive is the targum to the reader's own mind.
Writers of targums (targa?) might object that the reader knows that their targum is merely an interpretation and hence not authoritative. Perhaps. I suspect the authors of "Left Behind" offer the same defense. What, in my opinion, makes them more pernicious than straightforward commentary is that they take the same form as the underlying scripture, and thereby enter the reader's mind by the same door as the scriptures would, and gain status thereby, so to speak. I think this is dangerous ground for any teacher to tread upon.