Vos’s The Pauline Eschatology – My Assessment

Posted: January 23, 2013 by J in Bible, Book review, Theology

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My Assessment:
Vos’s ‘eschatology’ take on Paul has massive explanatory power, compared to the more common approach of seeing his thought structured around the theme of ‘salvation.’ We find new insights into the texts at nearly every point, knotty exegetical problems resolved in new ways: Vos’s angle on things delivers the goods.

I’m sold. Vos has pointed the way forward in Paul studies, and the rest of us would do well to follow it. Nice to have an evangelical breaking ground for us like this – we’re usually a pretty staid, unimaginative lot in these things.

I can only wonder that evangelicals (at least my kind) have managed to adopt the biblical theology framework that Vos is using, without picking up on the main exegetical and theological goods it has to offer. We still haven’t learned to read Paul the way Vos is suggesting: eschatologically. We haven’t learned to talk about the Spirit in these ways. We haven’t figured out the centrality of the resurrection in Paul’s theology. It’s all there in Vos, 80 years ago. I reckon we still haven’t nearly caught up to him in getting this biblical theology thing to bear fruit.

Gaffin rates this book, says it’s a milestone in the contribution of biblical theology to our understanding of the NT. No doubt he’s right. But there are some pretty big obstacles in the way of its ongoing usefulness.

The biggest one is the writing style. Geerhardus Vos was not a native English speaker, and there are times when it feels like we’re reading Dutch here, not English. What’s needed is not so much a good editor, but almost a good translator. This language factor makes the book unpleasant reading. And in any language, Vos would not be a good writer. He writes extraordinarily long paragraphs with no topic sentence at the beginning and no summary sentence at the end. Chapters do not begin with a clear thesis, or end with a conclusion. It’s hard going following where we’re up to in the argument.

There is structure to Vos’s writing, but it’s not on the surface, and it took me repeated readings to get the hang of it. This is a nuisance, to say the least.

Also, he’s bitsy. The whole book feels more like a collection of articles on a common topic, rather than an organically developing book. Individual chapters can feel the same – lacking direction. Some chapters feel like a collection of inquiries or observations  with no clear reason why one follows the other. Some are little developed, and can feel a bit tacked on.

The book as a whole, even its core ideas, seem a bit introductory, exploratory, but not thoroughly developed. I kept wishing he would take things further. This is not surprising in a pioneering work: Vos has opened up new areas for inquiry, got the ball rolling. It’s too much to expect him to do all the work, take it to its fullest conclusions.

A more serious annoyance is the book’s length. Vos takes a long time to make his points. Some chapters take tens of pages to arrive at an uncertain or negative result. I found this painful.

Another weakness is the old-school methodology in deriving theology from text. Writing in the 1920s, there’s no reason why Vos should be acquainted with modern linguistic insights – and he isn’t. There is the old etymologising approach to word meaning, there is the confusion between words in the text and theological concepts. In short, while his main conclusions are persuasive, in many side matters and details they are unconvincing, hamstrung by exegetical fallacies and general bad theological method. Though some of this is probably to be put down to poor communication – his case looks weaker than it probably is.

A last thing that’s going to minimise Vos’s popularity is the fact that Gaffin has nicked all his best stuff and developed it further, in a more accessible style and with far better methodology, in his Resurrection and Redemption. This book, while still not the easiest in the world to read, is shorter and better written than Vos. Gaffin gives heaps more bang for your buck, each chapter is crammed full of awesome content, there’s no fat.

I’m glad I read Vos, but if I were to go back to it I’d only look at ch’s 1 and 2, 6 on resurrection, and then 11 and 12 on the Judgement and Eternal State. The rest I cannot recommend to anyone who values their time. To them I’d mainly recommend, go read Gaffin’s brilliant work. He stood on the shoulders of this giant, and saw further and clearer.

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Comments
  1. Ben Hudson says:

    I think it was you who got me onto Gaffin at college, Jono… can’t thank you enough for that.

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