Geerhardus Vos. The Eschatology of the Old Testament. Ed., James T. Dennison, Jr. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2001. ix+176 pp., paperback. ISBN: 0-87552-181-9. $11.95.
Through the labors of James T. Dennison, Jr., previously unpublished manuscripts and notes of Geerhardus Vos on the subject of Old Testament Eschatology have been collected and edited in a single volume. In the "Editor's Preface," Mr. Dennison states that among the papers of Vos were five different manuscripts and lecture notes dealing with the topic of Old Testament eschatology. Taking these sources and weaving them together, Mr. Dennison has constructed "the most complete text possible of Vos's materials on Old Testament eschatology" (vii).
The book opens in parallel fashion to Vos's The Pauline Eschatology, his landmark 1930 study of the Apostle Paul's New Testament eschatology. In The Pauline Eschatology, the opening words put forth the following definition of eschatology.
In The Eschatology of the Old Testament, the opening sentences once more provide a definition of eschatology.
A comparison of these two definitions not only serves to illustrate the stylistic flavor of The Eschatology of the Old Testament, but also reveals part of the value of the new work. What were previously two sentences in The Pauline Eschatologypacked with information but awkwardly punctuatedhas been expanded and yet placed before the reader in a very uncomplicated manner in The Eschatology of the Old Testament. Throughout the book, this type of stylistic clarity is evident. Whether this is due to Mr. Dennison's editing touch or to the nature of materials that were compiled, the reviewer does not know. Regardless, it seems certain that this stylistic change may help many that in the past have despaired of understanding Vos.
Immediately after the definition of eschatology, a second important point is made in the opening chapter entitled, "Introduction." We are told that "the correlate of eschatology is creation" and that "a God who cannot create cannot consummate things because he is conditioned by something outside himself that will not lend itself to him for the execution of a set purpose and for the plastic handling of what is antecedently given to him toward that end" (p. 1). This is a very important statement for there are those who erroneously argue that Reformed Biblical Theology has no interest in creation. That misunderstanding is laid to rest here. Vos argues that eschatology presupposes that God is the Creator. To deny that God created is to sever the beginning from the end. "The correlate of eschatology," writes Vos, "is creation" (p. 1).
In drawing the connection between eschatology and creation, Vos emphasizes that the Bible teaches that God created with a particular goal in mind. That goal is for man to be clothed with the supernatural so that he might enjoy full communion with God forever in an environment beyond the probation. Concerning the probation itself, Vos argues that it "had a very solid piece of eschatology in it because under the symbol of the tree of life it held out the prospect of a higher (i.e., the ultimate) life, which forms the goal of all eschatological revelation" (p. 37).
Vos is not downplaying creation, then, when he writes that "eschatology aims at consummation rather than restoration" or that "eschatology does not aim at the original state, but at a transcendent state of man" (p. 74). What he is doing is pointing out to his reader that creation has a goal beyond itself. Its hope is fixed upon the eternal even before the fall. The uncorrupted world stretches itself out toward some goal of consummation (p. 6), so it should be no surprise to us that the fallen world also longs for the same. This is how Vos understands the eschatological groaning of which Paul speaks in Romans 8:23: "The eschatological groaning . . . besides being a cry of pain on account of the misery of sin, has in it the undertone of an ineradicable desire for the complete, absolute possession of and satisfaction with God, such as within the present world is impossible. Hence the apostle adds: we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we also still groan within ourselves, stretching out praying hands of hope and faith toward the end" (p. 7). This is what informs Vos's contention, then, that "every act of salvation must be medical and supernaturalizing whereby man is not made merely normal, but is prepared for the supernatural" (p. 74).
Eschatologythis hope of communion with God on a higher planeis the essence of true religion (p. 75). The goal is in place prior to the intrusion of sin. The tree of life held out to man eternal life with God in prospect, but this prospect is conditioned by obedience (p. 75). As Vos states it, "there is a whole chapter of eschatology written before sin . . . an absolute end is posited for the universe before and apart from sin" (p. 72). What has happened with the first man's fall into sin is not the removal of the goal. Rather, the disobedience and sin of the first Adam forfeit the attaining of the goal. The goal itself, however, has not been annulled because of sin. Vos writes, "The original goal remains regulative for the redemptive development of eschatology by aiming to rectify the results of sin (remedial) and uphold, in connection with this, the realization of the original goal as that which transcends the state of rectitude (i.e., rising beyond the possibility of death in life eternal)" (p. 74). Despite the fall, the goal set before man from the beginning remains, and it is realized through the person and work of the Second Adam, Jesus Christ.
Another key theme that runs through the book is the proper interpretation of the Old Testament forms. In approaching this issue, Vos asks the question, "Is Israel to be looked upon as a form or a substance" (p. 119)? Vos will argue that the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments teaches us that the value of the forms rested in the spiritual essence to which the forms pointed. Vos applies the term, "spiritualizing" to the process of determining the essence of the form. Vos argues that the New Testament believer finds the warrant for such spiritualization in the example of the Lord and his apostles (p. 36). In the New Testament, the form is cast aside and the substance is brought to light (p. 119). According to Vos, this New Testament spiritualizing is a continuation of what is found in the Old Testament itself, as the prophets themselves viewed the external forms of the Old Testament through a spiritual lens (p. 36).
For example, Jeremiah and Isaiah recognize that the lessons first taught in the old administration through the earthly forms will no longer be needed in the eschatological period. Jeremiah recognizes this to be true concerning the ark of Jehovah when he comments in 3:16:
There is no need in the coming day for the ark or even mention of it because it will have been spiritually fulfilled. Isaiah points to the temporal nature of the Old Testament forms by implying the impossibility of their fulfillment (pp. 119-20). According to Vos, this is how Isaiah can make statements that are physical and logical impossibilities ("all nations will rest and worship on the Sabbath at Jerusalem").
In light of the prophets's own spiritualizing and transportation of Old Testament forms into a higher spiritual key, Vos argues that nobody has a right to say that the Christian church has falsified the Old Testament by spiritualizing it (p. 36). What occurs in the New Testament is simply the continuation of the process begun in the Old Testament itself.
This is not to say, however, that this was always clear to the Old Testament people of God and the prophets. Vos writes, "To the people, and in part to the prophets, the symbolical nature was not always perspicuous" (p. 120). Often, the Old Testament prophets and people of God were inclined to take the form and substance as a whole and would project them together into the future (p. 118). Still, according to Vos, "the prophetic understanding of the eschatological revelation was not the measure of its revelation-import to the mind of God, far less the understanding of the people." The standard is the mind of God, and to the mind of God, all earthly apparatus employed is purely symbolical (p. 120). "The revelation of God," Vos states, "is to be measured as to its content by the intent of God, i.e., his words must mean what he would have them to mean" (p. 119).
For those familiar with the writings of Vos, this is a book that will reinforce and supplement what has previously appeared from his pen concerning the Old Testament. In particular, with the appearance of The Eschatology of the Old Testament, there is the enhanced opportunity to interact with The Pauline Eschatology and the volume that includes the majority of Vos's previous treatment on the Old Testament, Biblical Theology. Such interaction, the reviewer believes, will demonstrate that The Eschatology of the Old Testament is an elaboration of Vos's seminal statement in The Pauline Eschatology: that the eschatological principle is so deeply embedded in the structure of the biblical religion as to precede and underlie everything else (The Pauline Eschatology, p. 66). The Reformed theological world owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Dennison for making such interaction possible.