The Pauline Eschatology by Vos – a review

Posted: January 22, 2013 by J in Bible, Book review, Theology

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Holiday reading report: I’ve been reading this old classic by American Dutch Reformed scholar Geerhardus Vos.

I read this book because it was recommended by Richard Gaffin as an innovative and significant work in the history of biblical theology.

Vos is known as a pioneer in allowing the principles of biblical theology to guide his study of the Scriptures. This approach resulted in new insights into the shape and structure of Christian faith. One major innovation was the place and role of eschatology, which up until then had been largely relegated to the final chapter in systematic theologies, as ‘the doctrine of the last things.’

Vos’s contribution (which in some ways paralleled that of Schweitzer) was to recognise that for Paul, eschatology was a far bigger deal than this.

It no longer forms one item in the sum total of revealed teaching, but draws within its circle…practically all of the fundamental tenets of Pauline Christianity…

…to unfold the apostle’s eschatology means to set forth his theology as a whole.

Basic to Paul’s theology is the distinction between two ages or worlds, the one following on from the other. This leads to the importance for Paul of the Christian attitude of hope, the expectation of the future world’s arrival. And the corresponding disparagement of this present age or world. However the advent of Jesus, and especially his resurrection, has led to a strange situation in which the present age and the future one are in operation simultaneously – the so called ‘overlap of the ages’ with which we are by now very familiar. I say ‘by now’ because Vos was pioneering these ideas.

All this is outlined in ch.1. In ch.2 Vos asks how this hope of the future age affected the believers’ experience of salvation in the present. He finds that the eschatological view permeates Paul’s view of salvation. He finds four main strands of thinking in Paul:

  1. resurrection
  2. salvation
  3. judgement/justification
  4. Spirit

Each of these he finds are flooded with eschatological thinking. The resurrection is Jesus’ advancement into ‘a new system of reality’ , i.e. the new world – but it works its power in us now though we remain in the old.

Salvation, in view of the complete adequacy of the cross, might be expected to appear as a past/present concept, currently enjoyed, rather than an eschatological one. But in Paul it is an idea connected largely with the heavenly or future world, where Jesus now is. Hope lays hold of that unseen as a present reality.

Keen hope had projected itself into the future, and there the habit of speech about salvation had been…acquired. Afterwards it required some effort to translate such language back into the more sober dialect of the life of a protracted waiting on earth. How unfortunate that we, after waiting so long, seem to have forgotten the semi-celestial accents of Christianity’s childhood! p.54

Regarding judgement/justification, ‘the Apostle made the act… to all intents, so far as the believer is concerned, a last judgement anticipated.” (p.55)

The Spirit in Paul, was ‘before all else the element of the eschatological or the celestial sphere, that which characterises the mode of existence and life in the world to come.’ (59)

Vos concludes from these four themes that ‘the eschatological strand is the most systematic in the entire fabric of the Pauline thought world’, and that its ‘soteric [salvational] tissue derives its pattern from the eschatological scheme, which bears all the marks of having precedence in his mind’ (p.60).

The various chapters of Vos’s book survey different aspects of this eschatological structure in the writings of Paul: ethical motivation, the coming of the Lord, the Man of Sin, the Resurrection change, the question of the Millenium, the judgment and the eternal state.

There are interesting things in most chapters, though only a few are really worth the read.

The chapter on resurrection has a great section near the end on theology of the Holy Spirit. Vos laments that awareness of the Spirit’s eschatological task has been eclipsed by interest in his ‘soteric work’ (role in salvation), and wishes to right the balance.

In Paul the Spirit has a twofold eschatological role:

  1. as the resurrection-source
  2. as the sub-stratum of resurrection life, the element in which that life is lived

On 1. Resurrection source, the Spirit raised Jesus and is the believer’s present guarantee of future resurrection. Vos concludes: ‘The Spirit’s proper sphere is the future aeon; from thence he projects himself into the present and becomes a prophecy of himself in his eschatological operations’ (p.165). Nice.

On 2. Sub-stratum of the resurrection life, Vos points out that sometimes the Spirit is described in personal language, other times more like an impersonal element. He says the Spirit plays a ‘semi-personal’ role  in eschatology. The moment of resurrection is when the Spirit, as person, raises the dead into the new element or sphere of life called ‘Spirit’. This is very helpful stuff.

The other valuable chapters are the last two, on judgement and the eternal state. On the judgement, Vos has various thoughts, few of which are really developed. The most interesting is his exploration of the idea of reward in the judgement. Vos identifies our revulsion to this idea as springing from an attachment to an unbiblical attitude of altruism.

In the final chapter on the eternal state, amongst other bits and pieces, there are good discussions of the concepts ‘life’ and ‘glory’, both in relation to the work of the Spirit.

Tomorrow: my assessment

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