[K:JNWTS 27/1 (2012): 46-48]

Book Review

Antonio Portalatín, Temporal Oppositions as Hermeneutical Categories in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2006. 295 pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-8204-9946-8. $88.95.

Time and its twin—space: surely the stuff of finitude. But the epistle to the Hebrews (as all divinely-inspired Scripture, hence non-Apocryphal graphē) directs us to infinitude—beyond time and space. And yet . . . . . the interface of time and eternity as well as the spatial and aspatial is the fundament of what Geerhardus Vos calls “the philosophy of revelation and redemption” (cf. the profound 3rd chapter of The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews). What do we encounter—Who do we encounter in receiving the self-disclosure of the Father, who in these last days speaks by the Son through the Spirit? The Very One-Triune who creates the one dimension while remaining distinct and separate from it (classic Creator-creature distinction) is infinite, atemporal, eternal, aspatial—in fine, he is of an entirely different dimension. And yet, magnum mysterium, he binds himself to the obverse (this God whom heaven and earth cannot contain)—nay, embodies himself in time and space. What wondrous love is this, O my soul?! The Infinite→finite. The Eternal→temporal. What transforming juxtaposition is this that time and space serve the One who made them—even by encapsulating deity in the ordo salutis to recapitulate ordo historiae! And the telos/end of all this is the inversion of the obversion: glorification of time and space (concomitantly encapsulating those who are his very own sojourning in it). What does it mean to possess a country where time is no more—only unending eternity? What does it mean to belong to a city which has no limits—an aspatial metropolis rolled out like an infinite scroll on a celestial lapis lazuli tarmac? What does it mean to participate in eternity and infinity—in very God himself—even as one participates in faith in very God himself? What does all this mean to “many sons” (and daughters) of these eschatological days?

It is the rôle of this book to prod, to provoke, to break beyond the maudlin, the commonplace, the ho-hum—to push the envelope of the temporal to exegete the atemporal—to prod us to interface with a profound mind and pen (the Hebrews author) as he becomes the vehicle of God incarnate so as to unfold (in measure) the intersection of the temporal horizon with the eternal prospect. The oppositions (?dare we say antitheses) in time (redemptive-historical in nature) are the substratum of the narrative perspective of the writer to the Hebrews. Portalatín meticulously unpacks these categories in his exegesis while leaving us with the supreme antithesis—namely, the eschatological antithesis. It is a remarkable achievement and pushes the reader beyond its pages to  . . . .  atemporal eternity!

This volume is a slight revision of a dissertation presented to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome in 2005. Portalatín’s Roman Catholic predilections do not often interface with his exegesis—the text holds him captive as it also should every Protestant. And from the text, our author mines riches which arise from the revelation itself—the revelation alone—only and solely the revelation spoken by God in “these last days”—finally, once-and-for-all (άπαξ/hapax)! He reviews the literature on the genre and structure of Hebrews (9-40); he sets forth the lexical and semantic range for the Greek vocabulary of time (41-43); he provides a superbly nuanced analysis of the summary preface to the epistle (1:1-4, a summary which encapsulates the whole epistle in the opening four verses) (43-53); and then unfurls the bulk of his thesis in page after page of reflections on the temporal horizon in opposition (interface) with the eternal dimension as the inspired writer traces, reveals and interprets from chapter 1 to chapter 13 of his marvelous letter.

The result is stunning—indeed, revolutionary in part. While all of this is present already in the text of the epistle, Portalatín directs us away from the scholarly agendas (critical and fundamentalist alike) to the mind of the writer which (in our opinion) is the mind of God Triune.

In fact, Portalatín is an unabashed affirmer of the (ontic) deity of the Son of God—joining the writer to the Hebrews in this confession of an eternal Being dwelling temporarily in the temporal arena (Heb. 1:8 declares the Son of God God, 135). This antithesis of permanence versus transience contrasts the Creator-creation divide (Heb. 1:11); creation changes with time, grows old with time, perishes in time; the uncreated Son remains, immutable (cf. 13:8), bearing in himself the ‘time of God’ (i.e., eternity) (139). Eternity interfaces with time so time may interface with eternity. All of which means Christians are united by a faith which possesses (Heb. 11:1) the permanent, unchanging, remaining, uncreation of God eternal, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And that eternity feature of the Son of God penetrates into every aspect of his temporal historia salutis work/acts/deeds: eschatological man (Heb. 2); eschatological Moses (Heb. 3); eschatological Joshua (Heb. 4); eschatological priest (Heb. 5); eschatological Melchizedek (Heb. 7); eschatological sacrifice (Heb. 9); eschatological Hebrew (Heb. 12:2). The nature of the eternal One manifests itself in the created ones as the created ones reflect the manifestation of the eternal glory of the uncreated One. A certain assurance (Heb. 10:22) flows to the Christian sojourner of eternal glory on account of the incarnation of glorious eternity in time and glorification of ‘time’ in eternity (152). All who “draw near” (7:19, 25) in him become the beneficiaries of what he possesses—permanent, abiding, everlasting, atemporal mediation. And that intercession “is based . . . not [on] his natural life of his days on earth, but his heavenly one” (159). So much the greater is the priesthood of Christ than that of Levi or Moses or even Melchizedek—for this One has the “power of an endless life” (7:16).

One of the most helpful portions of this book is Portalatín’s interpretation of 12:26-28 where the author of Hebrews distinguishes moveable and unmoveable things, transient and durable elements (160ff.). Here he ventures beyond time and space. Now the transient perishes while the intransient remains—the shakeable passes away while the unshakeable endures. Like time itself (vis-à-vis eternity), space will be superseded, transcended, eclipsed by an aspatial place called “heaven”, “city of God”, “kingdom of God”. The “then” and “now” (12:26) is antithetical—as Sinai versus the present; as the local versus the universal (note the merismus of totality and the disappearance of the heaven-earth creation, 12:27). Yet, what of the fulfillment of the not yet “now”? Portalatín states: “The cosmic tremor is not punctual, but it extends through a period of time . . . . This is the eschatological time already present. . . ” (167). Is this double-talk?—a kind of perverse dialectic? An over-realized eschatology? Actually, no! Portalatín is clear that complete removal of the moveable (“they will perish”—1:11) will occur at a point in future time. It is the possession of the unshakeable kingdom, and its Christ who is eternal God the Son, with its permanent city in which there abides a perdurable tabernacle/sanctuary and the endless mediation of an everlasting High Priest. In other words, Portalatín is pushing us to realize that a semi-realized eschatology (“now”/“not yet”) carries the atemporal into the present even as its assures of the non-temporal future—a future in which time and space (creation) will be displaced by the spaceless timeless God, all in all. The Sabbath day, from the creation, is a revelation of this paradigm (183, 188). Overarching the “rest which remains” (4:9) is the rest which abides—in God himself (and so summons all God’s children to walk in that eternal rest now, one day in seven especially, even as the week reminds them in its inauguration of the saints everlasting rest).

As with the eternal Sabbath, so with the eternal city (“the heavenly Jerusalem,” 12:22)—Portalatín explores that “better” place (aspatial) in that “better” duration (atemporal) (193ff.). It is the place (“city”) sought by all the faithful pilgrims down  through the ages (i.e., from Abel to the present; cf. Heb. 11). “Because they knew that God had prepared for them a better and heavenly city, they sought it” (201). And the readers of Hebrews receive the same invitation “by faith”—to participate in seeking that city which remains (beyond space) in a dimension which remains (beyond time). This fortifies them in persecution (10:32-34; 12:4; 13:3, 23) because it assures them of participating in the final eschatological crisis—the crisis of these last days—these eschatological days inaugurated by the speech-acts of the Son of God. “[T]here is no expectation of a new age in this world” (213) because this world of space and time is shakeable, moveable, impermanent, transient, perishable, annihilable. The new age is the arena of the Son already drawing its pilgrim sons and daughters into its glory—eternal and infinite, atemporal and aspatial.

Portalatín has directed us to plumb the deeper elements of this drama—a drama which Geerhardus Vos once suggested contains “a catholicity of religion not merely in the form of space but as well in the form of time” (“Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke,” in Gaffin, ed., Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 196). For biblical theology in the Vosian tradition, this book advances the discussion. Read all Vos’s Hebrews material and then work through Portalatín—you won’t be disappointed. Yes, the book is expensive for a paperback. But the investment will be repaid via the textual and spiritual riches received. And that is the dividend of this important book. In fact, the most important book on the epistle in over 20 years! It is, in the proverbial vernacular, a game changer!!

—James T. Dennison, Jr.