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A Helpful Little Primer on Eschatology? A Review Article

Jeffrey C. Waddington

Ordained Servant: April 2016

Why Shakespeare Matters

Also in this issue

The Bard for Preachers

Why Shakespeare Matters

Faith, Politics, and the Fall in Thatcher’s Britain: A Review Article

The Triumph of Faith by Rodney Stark

Sonnet 73

As You See the Day Approaching: Reformed Perspectives on the Last Things, edited by Theodore G. Van Raalte. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016, ix + 169 pages, $21.00, paper.

As You See the Day Approaching is the fruit of the January 2015 conference held at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS) in Hamilton, Ontario. Theodore Van Raalte, professor of ecclesiology at CRTS, has ably edited a fine collection of essays focusing on eschatology. Each of the essays shares the admirable trait of being crystal clear so that the argumentation can be followed without the hindrance of poor writing.

Van Raalte contributes two chapters. In the first (1–19) he lays out the contours of the doctrine of eschatology or last things. The author notes three usages of the term “eschatology” which entered the English lexicon in 1841 following its introduction in German theological terminology. The doctrine refers to last things or those events surrounding the return of Jesus Christ at the end of the ages. This is what Van Raalte refers to as the “traditional” usage. The second usage is associated with a more philosophically driven use tied to theologians such as Karl Barth. The third usage is also orthodox and is associated with Geerhardus Vos; and in this case eschatology is short form for redemptive historical (2). The author then develops discussion of the three uses (and connects them to Barth and Pannenberg on the one hand and Vos, Herman Ridderbos, and Richard Gaffin on the other) of the term eschatology and notes that the first and third will appear throughout this volume. The remainder of the chapter is then devoted to providing brief descriptions of the remaining chapters.

The second chapter is penned by the OPC’s own Lane G. Tipton (20–35) who looks at Paul’s comparison of the eschatological blessings of union with Christ with pre-fall Adam in 1 Corinthians 15:42–49 and post-fall Moses in 2 Corinthians 3:6–18. Tipton argues via in-depth exegesis that in both instances Paul makes a comparative argument using absolute categories. Compared to the blessings that have come with the person and work of Jesus Christ in functional identity with the Holy Spirit, the pre-fall Adam and the post-fall covenant of grace Mosaic administration were as dead. The beauty of this essay is that the author is able to do equal justice to the covenant of works and the continuity/discontinuity of the covenant of grace in two of its varied administrations.

Jannes Smith provides us with a fascinating exploration seeking to find eschatology within the Psalter (36–53). Smith intends to be sensitive to the expanding contexts of the Psalms: original setting of each Psalm, the context of a psalm within the psalter as a whole, and finally within the canon as a whole. Related to these three contexts the author seeks to set out the “explicit teaching” of the psalms, the “implications,” and the “direct application” to our own lives (37). Smith recognizes that these distinctions are not hermetically sealed compartments. It is a way for the pastor-scholar or lay person to be self-conscious in his reading of the Psalms with a view to seeing the eschatology of the book. This is a thought-provoking chapter and is useful in raising the right issues.

In “Working Politically and Socially in Anticipation of Christ’s Coming,” Cornelis Van Dam presents his case for a chastened transformation of culture by Christian disciples (54–69). He is seeking to recognize both the cultural imperative (Gen. 1:26–28) and the eschatological reality of the “already/not yet.” Van Dam draws upon Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles (Jer. 29:5–7) about seeking the welfare of the city to which they have been exiled despite knowing that after seventy years or so God will bring his people back to their homeland, renewed and ready to serve him. The example of Daniel is also considered as well as NT examples like John the Baptist. Undoubtedly this will be one of two provocative chapters, challenging the hegemony of the popular Two-Kingdoms theology.

Theodore Van Raalte’s second essay addresses the intermediate state and the existence of the human soul (70–111). By far the longest essay in the book, it repays repeated readings. What is the intermediate state? It is the state of the saints in heaven with the Lord between their deaths and the resurrection at the end of the age. It is a vast improvement on living in this beautiful but fallen world, but it is not yet the eternal state of the new heavens and new earth. Saints live in a disembodied state and so the discussion about the nature and existence of the human soul. Van Raalte properly takes aim at the problem of physicalism (that every process of thinking or feeling, choosing, or willing is a chemical reaction or is an epiphenomenon). Physicalism, if true, would require a major (indeed impossible) reworking of the system of Christian doctrine. Van Raalte notes that some Christian theologians have bought into physicalism, namely Joel Green and N. T. Wright (75).

The author then delves into some close exegesis of various OT and NT passages, including those where Paul notes that he longs to depart to be with Jesus and yet knows that it would be better for the church if he stays in his body on earth. The author concludes his study with a consideration of which understanding of the body-soul distinction best comports with Scripture. Van Raalte eventually concludes that the Aristotelian-Thomist model is most amenable to the biblical data on the body-soul relation (99–102). The Aristotelian-Thomist model is one model not two, at least from this side of philosophical-theological development. I think that Van Raalte has made his case.

In his chapter (112–133) Jason Van Vliet asks, “Is hell obsolete?” The author’s concern is with the falling off of the proper preaching of the doctrine of hell enunciated in Scripture. Van Vliet notes that in the last several decades a few notable evangelicals have come out against the traditional doctrine of hell as eternal punishment of the wicked. He notes especially the examples of British scholars John Wenham and John Stott. With the mention of Stott’s name we are presented with the problem of conditional immortality or annihiliationism. Before we get there, the author recognizes that there are three basic views about the fate of the unsaved: exclusivism, universalism, and inclusivism. Van Vliet seeks to address a properly balanced handling of the doctrine of hell through asking and answering four questions: (1) How do we handle the passages that seem to suggest that God wants everyone to be saved? (2) If God is perfectly compassionate, how could he condemn anyone to eternal torment? (3) If God is perfectly just, why would he give an infinite punishment to humans who have committed a finite number of sins? (4) When the Word of God speaks about the destruction of the wicked, does that mean that they will cease to exist? In answering these questions, Van Vliet affirms a proper biblically balanced preaching of the doctrine of hell following the example of our Lord Jesus himself.

In the seventh chapter of this book (134–142) Gerhard Visscher deals with the nature of the new earth. Visscher seeks to defend and unfold the earthiness of the new earth, i.e., that it will indeed be a physical new heavens as well as new earth. The author’s concern is that for many Christians, their view of the new earth is an eternalizing of the intermediate state. Visscher is correct to emphasize the importance of the resurrection of the body for Christian doctrine and experience. He wants to make sure we understand that there will be a physical new earth on which we can plant the feet of our resurrected bodies! But the author wants to argue for more than the reality of the resurrected bodies of saints and a physical new earth. He wants to include within his discussion the idea that the old earth will not so much be destroyed as purified and that we will bring (unspecified) human artifacts with us into the new heavens and new earth. Visscher will need to deal with 2 Peter 3, which is the strongest passage apparently countering his position. However, he raises a good point: Did the Noachian flood waters obliterate the pre-diluvian earth or did it purify it? God did not obliterate and recreate. He renewed the pre-diluvian earth. Peter notes that God will do with fire in the future what he did with water in the days of Noah.

To bolster a biblical case of human artifacts being brought with us into the new earth, Visscher turns to Revelation 21 and the reference (drawing upon the insights of Isaiah 60:6) to kings bringing into the New Jerusalem the glory and honor of their nations. The author does not think this means that the kings will be personally saved but that the various cultures of the world will be brought into the New Jerusalem. At the end of the day the author has presented a plausible analysis of Scripture. However, what the human artifacts might be that we bring with us into the new heavens and new earth remains vague. Given the contentious nature of this chapter’s subject matter (it argues against views advocated by some two kingdoms theologians), there should be further shoring up of its biblical foundations.

Arjan de Visser offers the final chapter, in which he examines the eschatological thrust of Reformed liturgy (144–158). Each aspect of Reformed worship is considered in terms of what kind of eschatological thrust it has. The author discusses the necessity of the minister being eschatalogically concerned so that the people of God will have set before them week in and week out the return of Christ and our consequent holy living. Visser looks at the preaching in a Reformed service as well as the celebration of the sacraments as eschatalogically colored when fully understood. For instance, the Lord’s Supper is a displaying of our Lord’s death until he returns, and it is a present feeding on Christ by faith which anticipates the marriage supper of the Lamb in the new heavens and new earth. These and other elements of Reformed worship are shown to have a proper and irreducible eschatological thrust when consistently and creatively set before the people of God.

As You See the Day Approaching provides us with a delightful consideration of the Dutch Reformed contribution to the worldwide Reformed communion. I recommend it highly. It can be read and digested in just a few sittings.

Jeffrey C. Waddington is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as stated supply of Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, April 2016.

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Ordained Servant: April 2016

Why Shakespeare Matters

Also in this issue

The Bard for Preachers

Why Shakespeare Matters

Faith, Politics, and the Fall in Thatcher’s Britain: A Review Article

The Triumph of Faith by Rodney Stark

Sonnet 73

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