K: JNWTS 30/2 (September 2015): 9-15

Geerhardus Vos and Michael Wolter on Paulís Eschatology

James T. Dennison, Jr.

The massive 2011 volume, Eschatology of the New Testament and Some Related Documents, ed. by Jan G. van der Watt, contains articles on the eschatology of each book and author of the NT by respected scholars of the liberal critical school. It affords the reader a window into the current state of the question with respect to the unity and diversity in the eschatologies of the NT corpus. In particular, the contribution on the Pauline eschatology by Michael Wolter[1] provides a bench mark for comparing the modern consensus on this topic with the conclusions reached by the great Princetonian, Geerhardus Vos, more than a century ago. NB: Vos first offered his course on Pauline Eschatology in 1904-05 according to the Princeton Seminary Catalogue of those years (p. 24). He first published on the subject in 1911, "The Pauline Eschatology and Chiliasm" (Princeton Theological Review 9 [1911]: 26-60)óan article which was incorporated into his book The Pauline Eschatology (published by the author, 1930 and reprinted by Eerdmans in 1952 and P&R in 1991) as chapter X, "The Question of Chiliasm in Paul" (226-60). We note that a few other chapters of Vosís The Pauline Eschatology previously appeared in the Princeton Theological Review: chapter I, "The Structure of the Pauline Eschatology," 27 (1929): 403-44; chapter VI ("The Resurrection") "The Pauline Doctrine of the Resurrection," 27 (1929): 1-35; and chapter VII, "Alleged Development in Paulís Teaching on the Resurrection," 27 (1929): 193-226.[2]

First, we must ascertain the range of the primary documents for Paulís eschatology. Wolter takes the dominant higher critical position in attenuating the Pauline corpus. That is, he accepts only Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon as primary Pauline documents. Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians and the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) he dismisses as "Deutero-pauline"[3]. Ironically (or disingenuously), Wolter notes that Colossians contains the same eschatological "concepts as Paul" (420), but is not Pauline. In other words, the author of Colossians was a liar or a plagiarist, not only claiming to be Paul (when he was not), but stealing Paulís eschatology without really attributing it to the apostle. No amount of academic and critical sophistication and stature can conceal this "dirty little secret" of the higher critical fundamentalists. According to their reconstruction, six of the thirteen Pauline epistles (so labeled in the text of the NT) were written by mendacious frauds who stole the famous apostleís name in order to gain acceptance with Christian audiences.

Wolter works with a reduced Pauline canon and thus stands in stark contrast with Vos who uses the robust canon of thirteen Pauline primary documents. We are already alerted to the greater riches gathered from the greater number of authentic Pauline epistles as harvested by the inimitable Geerhardus Vos. More Pauline documents means more Pauline eschatological treasures; or the basic riches further enriched in multiform ways by the inspired apostle who unfolds the organic redemptive-historical connection of the whole counsel of our eschatological God in Christ through the Spirit. But here we have undertaken to measure the so-called "bottom line" consensus in the Pauline eschatology using Wolter as our bench mark; thus, we must work with what he gives us, impoverished, attenuated, incomplete, deficient, diminished, etc. as it is.[4]

Wolter proposes to discuss Paulís eschatology in terms of past, present and future (416). This is of course promising and all the more so since the contemporary consensus (even with an attenuated Pauline corpus) reaches the same schematic outline as the great Princetonian. There is however a significant difference. For Wolter, "past" extends only back to the life, death and resurrection of Christ. For him, the "Christ event"[5] (a term virtually echoing Bultmanian existentialism) is the beginning of the Pauline eschatology. This means that he defines Paulís eschatology only in terms of Christís past, the Christianís present ("between the times") and the believerís future (beyond the timesópast and present). In fine, this is a subtle philosophical redefinition of Paulís eschatology.

Readers of this journal will automatically recognize that Vos too schematically interfaces Paulís eschatology with past, present and future vectors.[6] The Latin dedication page[7] of Vosís The Pauline Eschatology as well as the first chapter of this magnum opus echo and re-echo this retrospective, perspective and prospective paradigm: God as Creator, time past; God as Redeemer, time present; God as Consummator, time future.

Vos folds Paulís eschatology back to creation, enveloping believers, through divine and supernatural grace in the primeval, patriarchal and Jewish OT era of redemptive history, into the fruition of the visio Dei, while he reminds us that for the apostle, future hope and delight in the Lord belongs to the children of grace ("elect from the foundation of the world," in Paulís Ephesians 1:4 terminology) from Adam the first to Adam the last (so 1 Cor 15: 45 and Rom 5:18-19). Wolter does not provide any clue about what he thinks of Paulís OT eschatology, especially for OT believers. Thus, he ignores eschatological motifs patriarchal, Davidic/royal-monarchic, prophetic and Messianic from the former revelation (effectively de-eschatologizing the OT Scriptures for Paul). All of these are foundational anticipations prospectively of, to use Wolterís phrase, the "Christ event". Wolter narrowly focuses on Paulís eschatology for Christian believers (the existential factor) and does not address the possession or inheritance eschatology of believers from Adam to Christ. Vos therefore provides a richer tapestry of the plan of salvation from protological to eschatological Adam for those who inherit the reality, "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Ps 23:6).

Similarly, when Vos places Godís redemptive acts in organic eschatological tandem (The Pauline Eschatology, 36-41), he folds the future back upon the present so as to define the redeeming life, death and resurrection of the Son of God as a realization of the Ďnot yetí in the Ďnowí.[8] Wolter will use the vocabulary of what Vos labels the "semi-eschatological" state (38), but without the drama with which Paul invests the concept. The present life of the Christian believer (saved by divine and supernatural grace, i.e., the supernatural element[9]) is a possession of the redemptive eschatological benefits of the life of Christ Jesus, the death of Christ Jesus and the resurrection of Christ Jesus. All these past historical once-and-for-all accomplishments are a present realization of the guarantee (Greek arrabon) of a final eschatological righteous life (in the life of Christ), a final death to death (in the death of Christ) and a final resurrection body (in the resurrection body of the risen Christ). There is no future attenuation of all the Christ benefits presently realized, possessed and enjoyed by the one "in Christ" (a favorite phrase of Paul, but never mentioned by Wolter, though the apostle uses it more than fifty times in Wolterís truncated Pauline corpus). All present gifts are future possessions (because it is a present possession and inheritance), now and not yet. Wolter agrees with the vocabulary; Vos makes the vocabulary alive and vibrant as Paul himself does. It is not existential stasis that undergirds Paul; rather it is supernatural drama erupting in history in its fullness and graciously, unmeritoriously gifted to the sons and daughters of the age to come en Christo. Rather for Wolter, the relation is merely existential, not covenantal, identificational, participational, inclusional (i.e., not folded into the eschatological personóSon of the Fatheróand the eschatological arenaóheaven).†

Wolterís article is subdivided into comments on Paulís "retrospective eschatology" (417-19); its "between the times" features (419-22); "the reality of present salvation in the light of the future" (422-24); the hortatory "now is the day of salvation" (425-26). We will examine each of these in order not only to understand in prťcis current liberal critical thinking on these matters, but to observe how Vos anticipates the consensus (in formal terms) even as he differs (in essential metaphysico-philosophical terms) while penetrating more profoundly the status quaestionis.

By "retrospective eschatology", Wolter means the eschatological significance of the "Christ event" (417, 418). This language has existential overtones and raises the question of whether Wolter dissolves the "Christ event" into mere "encounter" (a term which we admit does not appear in his essay). The "event" occurs in the fullness of time (Gal 4:4) "relating to the fate of Jesus of Nazareth" (417).[10] It includes his death and resurrection which are part of the "temporal dimension" in Paulís proclamation (although Wolter never uses the word "historical" in his essay). However, Wolter does not address the relationship between Christís death on the cross and this eschatological redemption. What is the nature of the crucifixion in his thought? Is it symbol ("image"óa term he prefers elsewhere) or is it concrete historical reality? Is it the experience of eschatological judgment pro nobis? Is it the satisfaction of eschatological divine wrath (another word conspicuously absent from this essay) against sin for the sons and daughters of Godís grace? In avoiding these questions, Wolter ignores the finality attached to the issuesóthe eschatological finality which was experienced in history by the God-man (theanthropos), Jesus Christ, for those who died, were condemned, forgiven and justified once-and-for-all from sin, death and Hell as Jesus himself was.

It should be noted that Wolter begs the question entirely with respect to Paulís doctrine of justificationóthe justification of Christ through his perfectly righteous life and his bloody, atoning deathóall vindicated or declared as such by his triumphant resurrection (in Rom 4:25, the resurrection is the declaration of Jesusí own justification as righteous Savior who is at once damnation-bearing Savioróand it is the justification of those "in Christ" acquitted by his righteous life, forgiven the eternal guilt-condemnation of sin in his vicarious death, vindicated as resurrected together with him since the powers of grave and Hell have no hold on his body-soul; so too their body-soul united to his possesses the resurrection life of the eternal age to come). For Vos, Paulís doctrine of justification is suffused with eschatology because justification consists in final things performed by the Son of God and, by faith, those final things belong to believers because they belong to the justified and justifying Lord Jesus Christ, ontological Son of God.[11]

Having affirmed the twin poles of Paulís eschatology (now/not yet), Wolter proceeds to consider the Christian state "between the times" (i.e., in the midst of the poles). Recognizing Paulís label for the "present evil age" (Gal 1:4), Wolter grapples with what continues (sin, evil, depravityóJTDís words) even as a "new creation" breaks in. And yet, a new creation which is not the "heavenly world" (419). Those belonging to this interim new thing (as Paul declares) are already glorified (Rom 8:30), elected (Rom 8:33), sons and daughters of God (Rom 8:14-17). Outside of this evil age, they are not regarded as Godís enemies (420); rather, they are reconciled to him (Rom 5:10). Faith, for Paul, possess the essence of the Christ event while leaving "sight" of the future aeon in prospect (more Ďnowí and Ďnot yetí). This Zwischen den Zeiten distinction is pronounced in Paulís concept of glorification (421). Though this glory is yet to come, Paul considers it so certain that it is already bestowed.

Wolter has correctly explained glorification in Paul, but he does not attach the concept to Christís own glorification. As Vos suggests, if, in fact, glorification is a present reality for the Christian believer, it cannot be so in abstracto. It must be present in concrete, objective historyói.e., by someone who lived in this present evil world, passed in body-soul through death, burial, resurrection, final judgment and was glorified. That someone was Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, glorified Lord and Savior. Only if the "event" is historical concretely may believers have a sure and certain hope of their own already/not yet glorification. If Jesus is already glorified, so are those "in Christ". If Jesus is glorified eternally, so are those "in Christ". Vos, in distinction from Wolter, folds the interim life of the believer (in history) into the historical and eternal life of the Son of God (personal and covenantal incorporation as union with Christ). No mysticism there; no mere existential symbol or image there; no fabrication there (as higher criticism and liberal fundamentalism endlessly contrives); no abstraction there (as much modern evangelicalism moralistically preaches). Vos was as intolerant of vapid preachy applicationism as he was of reductionistic anti-supernatural liberalism.

Wolter outlines the "temporal succession" (421) inherent to Paulís interim eschatology. A further transformation remains; the corruptible must put on incorruption (1 Cor 15: 53). But Wolter does not penetrate Paulís argument here. In fact, he avoids it with 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 49-54 entirely absent from his treatment. Compare that with Vosís profound work on the nature of the resurrection body (The Pauline Eschatology, 206-14). Wolter rather immanentizes the eschatological life of the believer from 1 Corinthians 13.[12] The three virtues of that famous passage are central to Christian communityósemi-eschatologically so (to borrow Vosís expression). But though Wolter has a profound insight into the temporary existence of the "spiritual gifts" (423), he tends to romanticize them for the present while neglecting their heavenly dimension in Christ and in the eschaton.

Wolter is alert to the urgency in Paulís eschatology (425). Here he notes the gift of Godís grace (2 Cor 6:1) which coordinates with the gift of faith in Christ (Rom 13:11). As he interfaces with Christís death and resurrection, Paulís proclamation of the "Christ event" becomes an "eschatological event". (Do we detect here a category derived from modern existentialism, i.e., actualization through kerygmatic proclamation?) Wolter is simply adding Paulís preaching of the gospel to the "already" eschatological reality of the interim. At the same time, he concludes on a universalistic note eerily reminiscent of neo-orthodox (Barthian) universalism: "God has acted eschatologically in Jesus Christ to the benefit of all men" (426). This statement stands in stark contrast to remarks he has penned but a few short pages prior (424): "In this text (1 Thess 5:1-11) Paul distinguishes between the salvation of the Christian community and the condemnation of the Ďothersí (v. 6).† . . . [T]he communityís reality of salvation . . . will not bring it condemnation. The present reality of the "otherís" condemnation stands in opposition to this . . ..† . . . Ď[T]he day of the Lordí will bring inevitable condemnation to the Ďothersí (1 Thess 5:13), but to [believers] the transformation will result in a state of salvation, which will indeed continue eternally." Is this not dialectics with a vengeance?!


As we assume Wolter was selected to write his article for the massive symposium in which it appearsóa compilation of contemporary (early 21st century) consensus on NT eschatologiesówe may use his comments about Paulís eschatology to summarize the current academic, scholarly, critical majority view on the topic.

He vigorously defends a retrospective, existential, prospective paradigm for the apostleís eschatological thought. He particularly distinguishes present "already" eschatology from future "not yet" eschatology in Paul, yet underscores that both are inseparably bound in the "Christ event". For the nature of the Christian life (Christian community) in the interim between the first and second advent of Christ, he details faith, gifts of the Spirit, hope and assurance (all anchored in the death and resurrection of Christ). While he confesses a universalism of divine eschatological benefit for all mankind (the universal act of benefit in the universal man, Jesus Christ), he dialectically recognizes that the apostle has a notion of "condemnation" for those who are different ("other") from believersóan eventuality associated with the coming "day of the Lord" (1 Thess 5:2). And he writes that Paul construes the present Christian experience "in the light of the future" (cf. his four-point summary at the outset of his article, 416).

What is remarkable about all this is that Vos began to articulate it more than a century ago. And in his great book, The Pauline Eschatology, he detailed the riches of Paulís eschatology more profoundly than Wolterís brief article. The conclusion remains: the formal vocabulary of what Wolter describes as the modern consensus on Paulís eschatology was observed and described as Paulís eschatology years ago by Geerhardus Vos. So carefully did Vos read the eschatology of Paul that modern scholars agree with his formal conclusions, even when they are ignorant of his meticulous work.

The formal terms of the vocabulary and basic conceptions of the Pauline eschatology coincide as we read Wolter and Vos. Still, for all the formal similarities, we have the following concerns. We have already noted Wolterís commitment to the higher critical Deutero-paulinism. We have also indicated the failure (or, at least, hesitancy) to extend the eschatological horizon of the apostle back over the OT. Without wishing to make too much of this brief summary article, it is nonetheless peculiar that Wolterís own outline does not refer to one OT text (he does reference the person "Adam"). In our opinion, this truncates his presentation by minimizing (if not outright eliminating) eschatological categories of covenantal union (with God "in Christ" by anticipation as well as by realization) as well as the unfolding eschatological drama contained in the previous history of redemption (having now reached its concrete "fullness" in the incarnation of the ontological Son of God in history). We have observed his dialecticism as a possible echo of classic 20th century Neo-orthodoxy. However, our greatest concern arises from the language of actualization, "event" orientation and realization which is "existentially" (421) present in Christ.

Wolter does not come to Paul without presuppositions nor without previous academic and scholarly influences. Do we detect the rudiments of Bultmanian and post-Bultmanian existentialism (as re-imaged in modern or post-modern categories)? Wolter has been impacted by his German NT contextóErnst Kaseman and Hans Conzelmann to mention a few. This also places him squarely in the line of Enlightenment presuppositions and the infamous "Ugly Ditch" of G. E. Lessing. In other words, he is a post-Kantian for whom genuine supernaturalism remains problematic if not wholly impossible. This, in turn, influences Wolterís commitment to the Enlightenment paradigm which is to reconstruct the language and message of the Bible from the standpoint of the prevailing modern worldview (late 20th now 21st century weltanschauung). Paul, then, must be made relevant to the prevailing 21st century ethos and worldview. This means that the "event" which actualized or authenticated Paulís transformation must be re-imaged or reconstructed for modern mankindís "salvation". The language needs no objective historicity (in fact, objective historicity would destroy its fungibility)óit needs only the dilemma of human finitude and death.

Paulís eschatology speaks to this radical crisis and proclaims hope, faith and assurance through the image-symbols of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While this formal language may address manís modern crises, it falls short of uniting his (objective) history with an (objective) history lived via incarnation (and that, real ontological incarnation). If God the Son joins and unites himself to concrete human history, then history has been changed forever. If not, all the religious language of the Bible, Paul included, is mere symbol, image, Ďmythí. Perhaps, Wolterís larger opus may persuade us to be less skeptical of his presuppositions and thus even more appreciative of his formal analysis of Paulís eschatology. In the meantime, we stand with Vos on more solid ground (in our opinion)óthe ground of historic Christian orthodoxy enriched by the concrete, objective eschatology performed in history by Jesus of Nazareth who wonderfully draws our concrete objective history into that marvelous eschatological arena which Paul has articulated so majestically.

[1] Professor of New Testament at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University of Bonn, Germany. His article entitled "The Distinctiveness of Paulís Eschatology" appears on pages 416-26.

[2] For a full bibliography of Vos, cf. James T. Dennison, Jr., The Letters of Geerhardus Vos (2005) 89-112 with supplements as follows http://kerux.com/doc/2601A1.asp, http://kerux.com/doc/2401A1.asp,† http://kerux.com/doc/2503A1.asp and http://kerux.com/doc/2502A1.asp.

[3] This is his term for Colossians (p. 420) and by extrapolation places him in the category of all higher critics who maintain that Paulís only authentic letters are the seven noted above. The critical position runs afoul of† the Muratorian Canon of ca. 170 A.D., which lists thirteen authentic epistles of Paul. More significantly, it contradicts the author noted in the so-called ĎDeutero-paulineí letters, cf. Eph 1:1; Col 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1; 1 Tim 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1; Tit 1:1.†

[4] We note that Wolterís article is a mere ten pages in length and is thus a summary of Paulís views. Comparing him to Vosís 319-page treatise may seem unfair, but we shall attempt to keep the discussion focused on the summary nature of the issue. An English translation of Wolterís Paulus: ein Grundriss seiner Theologie †(2011) has just been scheduled for release in November by Baylor University Press under the title Paul: an Outline of his Theology. It will be more than 460 pages in length. We acknowledge that in his book, Wolter will provide more detailed information of the apostleís eschatology, but his own critical stance will not be altered. We regard the present article under review as a summary outline of the case he presents in the larger work.

[5] He uses the term numerous times, cf. 417, 418, 419, 425.

[6] Cf. the present writerís survey in The Letters of Geerhardus Vos, 49-59.

[7] Page iii of the original 1930 volume: Deus Creator Redemptor Consummator In His Tribus Religio Nostra Universa Pendet ("God the Creator, Redeemer, Consummator: on these three things our whole religion depends").

[8] "As soon as the direction of the actual spiritual life-contact becomes involved, the horizontal movement of thought on the time-plane must give way immediately to a vertical projection of the eschatological interest into the supernal region, because there, even more than in the historical development below, the center of all religious values and forces has come to lie. The other, the higher world is in existence there, and there is no escape for the Christian from its supreme dominion over his life. Thus the other world, hitherto future, has become present" (37-38). "We think and theologize out of the present into the future, because our base of existence is in the present . . . To the early Christians a different orientation had been given, and that not merely as a matter of practical religious outlook, but likewise through the teaching of Revelation . . . The light of the world to come cast its clarifying and glorifying radiance backward into the present through the medium of teaching and prophecy concerning the future . . . Living, then, in a world of semi-futurities there is every reason to expect that the thought of the earliest Christians should have moved backwards from the anticipated attainment in its fulness to the present partial experiences and interpreted these in terms of the former" (42-43).

[9] ". . . for Paul, as elsewhere in Scripture, eschatology is supernaturalism in the nth degree" (62).

[10] Vos has a much more profound analysis/exegesis of this passage in The Pauline Eschatology (83-84, 289) where he recognizes the shift from chronos to aionios.

[11] For Vos on the eschatological aspect of Paulís doctrine of justification, see The Pauline Eschatology, 55, 151. Also: ". . . the resurrection of Jesus is in a very real sense the justification of Christ . . .," Vos, "The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit," Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (1980) 109. Also, James T. Dennison, Jr., "The Eschatological Aspect of Justification." Kerux 10/1 (May 1995): 10-16 http://kerux.com/doc/1001A2.asp.

[12] Cf. Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, n. 37, p. 29.