Pauline Eschatology: A Question on the History of Interpretation

It is now axiomatic in Pauline studies that eschatology is central to the Apostle’s theologizing. Any serious study of his thought must reckon with his belief about the future; it is pervasive in his thought.
Such was not always the case in critical studies of Paul, though. Indeed, it was not until the early 20th century that Pauline scholarship really began to wrestle with the eschatological dimension of Paul’s letters. Albert Schweitzer is largely credited with establishing the importance of eschatology for the study of Paul, but, as far as I can tell, Geerhardus Vos was doing the same thing at about the same time. Vos’ monumental volume, The Pauline Eschatology, was first published in 1930, the same year as the German edition of Schweitzer’s influential The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. In the foreword of the 1979 reprint of Vos’ book, Richard Gaffin suggested that while Schweitzer is more frequently credited with “leading the way in bringing about a widespread awareness of the pervasively eschatological character of Paul’s teaching,” Vos did so more faithfully to Paul without some of the weaknesses Gaffin finds in Schweitzer’s understanding of Paul’s Christ-mysticism. Gaffin goes on to point out that Vos articulated many of the central issues in his 1912 essay, “The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit.” Schweitzer, however, also raised the issue in that same year with his Paul and His Interpreters, in which he concluded that Paul’s theology is essentially eschatological.
So, here’s the question: Did Vos and Schweitzer place this initial emphasis on the importance of eschatology for Pauline theology simultaneously, or did one of them publish something prior to 1912 that should be credited as being the pioneer study on the matter? Some of you Paul scholars out there, help me out.

11 thoughts on “Pauline Eschatology: A Question on the History of Interpretation

  1. Hi Poe, thanks for your thoughtful post. With regard to Pauline studies before Vos and Schweitzer, there was an emphasis on reading Paul as having broken strongly with Judaism and being heavily influenced by Hellenistic categories. The construct was Hellenistic (Pauline) Christianity versus Jewish (Petrine) Christianity. F.C. Baur was influential in this regard, and (I think) made the presence of this conflict the litmus test for determining authentic Pauline letters. If I've misrepresnted that, someone else is welcome to correct me (Ben or Carl?)

    Your question on law and eschatology is a really big question that cannot be done justice in a blog post. I just read the section on Law in Dunn's Pauline Theology and found it helpful in many places.

    Briefly, I would say that the various covenantal administrations come to their fulfillment (climax?) in the Christ-event, which is also an eschatological event, the inauguration (but not the consummation) of the Messianic kingdom with Jesus being resurrected from the dead. Not sure if that's helpful.

    Thanks for reading and posting. Matt


  2. I am wondering, what was the primary theological construct which was prevalent in Pauline theology prior to that of Vos and Schweitzer's model of eschatology?

    Also — and this is a bit tangential, but it has been on my mind as of late — how exactly does Paul's eschatology interact with the various covenant theologies laid out in the Torah (i.e. covenant with creation in post-flood cosmos; covenant with a particular people in the election of Abraham/Israel)? While Paul certainly does look forward via eschatology he also seems to be looking quite far back as well, even into creation theology (i.e. Colossians 1; Romans 5).

    What I am getting at of course is, how does one reconcile the Torah/law as “holy” and “good,” as Paul says in Romans 7, while keeping in mind a “new” thing that Christ has now done (or maybe rather than new.. “newfangled” is the operative word, one might argue)? Some NT scholars argue that Paul is arguing that the law only functioned as primarily a means of intensifying sin so to bring about reconciliation via Christ; though if the law was set in place ONLY to bring about an ultimate end in Christ (i.e. eschatology) then are we not resigning into a consequentialist god which is only concerned with the bigger picture which is waiting at the end of the tunnel, ignoring the needs of a people at present (eschewing the covenant theology and creation theology)? Aren't we losing out on the original meaningfulness that law served for a broken and battered people now just coming out of exile (desperately yearning for some kind of order, strangely and sadly nostalgic of the canopy of safety/security once provided by Pharaoh)? Now, of course the law ended up intensifying sin, no doubt; but was that really the original purpose and function of law per say as Yahweh saw fit? Was Moses onward just a slew of sacrificial lambs living under a law that brought sin/death — an Augustinian necessary evil — concerned not with them but with a later generation of peoples more than a millenium later?

    I am grappling with Romans 5; 20 in particular: does the law come WITH THE RESULT THAT trespasses multiplied; or does the law come IN ORDER THAT trespasses multiplied?



  3. Following on from Ben's comment–i.e. about Schweitzer drawing on those before him–I just came across something rather intriguing (at least for me).

    A little work by H. St. J. Thackeray, The Relation of St Paul to Contemporary Jewish Thought (1900), esp. 99-135. He sees eschatological ideas as primary in Paul's mind, and that they remained as such from the beginning of his ministry up the end.

    I'll give it a read over the next day or so and get back with you. The reason I found this work intriguing is that neither Vos nor Schweitzer mention Thackeray.


  4. Schweitzer's Paul and His Interpreters came out in 1912, as far as I can tell from a quick internet search. While being focused on the survey and critique of others, it documents a movement towards eschatology that Schweitzer places himself. There are several Germans in the late 19th century that Schweitzer drew from, so the movement started before him, but he (and, now I learn, Vos) helped focus the way the scholarship turned.



  5. Thanks, Jason. Even as I was typing the question I was suspecting that an ideological or confessional bias might very well be the base issue.

    I plan to mention both, and, at this point, say that they were basically doing similar things simultaneously.


  6. Because Vos was more conservative in his orientation, therefore less influential (and considered less important) by the academy.

    Fail to mention S. in a dissertation and you will be punished and perhaps fail a viva. Fail to mention V…no one cares.


  7. Hey Carl, thanks for this. The more I think about it, that both of these guys were saying similar sorts of things over the course of two decades or so suggests that they should probably both be credited for drawing attention to the eschatological dimension of Paul's thought. I'm wondering now why Schweitzer is generally more credited with this contribution than Vos.

    Thanks for looking around for earlier works. I've yet to find anything earlier, thought I haven't looked very carefully yet. I'll be curious to hear if you turn anything up.

    Good to hear from you and I hope your research is progressing smoothly.


  8. Between just Schweitzer and Vos, the 1912 article by Vos is the earliest thing I know. (His is a good article, by the way). I'll nose around tomorrow and see if I can find something sooner by either one. Although, it is quite possible that the two of them developed along similar lines, without knowledge of each other's work, and came to similar (if not equal) conclusions.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s