RPM, Volume 13, Number 33, August 14 to August 20, 2011

Fundamental Structures

The Mystery of Christ

By Herman Ridderbos

Excerpted from Chapter 2 (Fundamental Structures) of Herman Ridderbos' book, entitled, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, translated in 1975 by John Richard De Witt, published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Herman Ridderbos taught New Testament at the Theological School of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands in Kampen.

The Mystery of Christ: Eschatology and Christology

It follows directly from what has just been said that this general eschatological character of Paul's preaching is entirely defined and explained by the advent and the revelation of Jesus Christ. Paul's "eschatology" is "Christ-eschatology," and "the Pauline approach to history is faith in Christ." The fundamental structure of Paul's preaching is consequently only to be approached from his Christology.

This can be seen in various ways from the already quoted eschatological pronouncements themselves. It is the advent of Christ, the sending of the Son of God, that brings to light the fullness of the time (Gal. 4:4); similarly, the revelation of the mystery that has now dawned consists of the fact that "the mystery of Christ" has been revealed (Eph. 3:4).

It is the "appearing of our Saviour" that is the proof of the great turning point of the times (2 Tim. 1:9,10). For this reason the whole content of the mystery that has now been revealed can be qualified and summarized in the one word -- Christ (Col. 2:3), just as the gospel of the inaugurated time of salvation, of which Paul is the herald, is again and again called the gospel of Christ (Rom. 15:19; I Cor. 9:12; 2 Cor. 2:13), or the gospel of our Lord Jesus (2 Tim. 1:8), or the gospel of God's Son, whereby the words "of Christ," etc., if not always and exclusively, then certainly for the most part, have the sense of (the gospel) concerning Christ.

This interdependence between the "eschatological" and the "christological" ground motif of Paul's preaching is of the highest importance for the understanding of both.

On the one hand, it is determinative for insight into the real nature of Paul's preaching of Christ. This has in principle a redemptive-historical, eschatological content. It is decisively defined by what has taken place in Christ, by the acts of God that he wrought in him for the fulfillment of his redemptive plan and of which the death and resurrection of Christ constitute the all-controlling center.

Paul's Christology is a Christology of redemptive facts. Here lies the ground of the whole of his preaching, and it is with the historical reality of this event, in the past as well as in the future, that both the apostolic kerygma and the faith of the church stand or fall (I Cor. 15:14, 19). This historical-eschatological character of Paul's Christology also places it in organic relationship with the revelation of the Old Testament. What has taken place in Christ forms the termination and fulfillment of the great series of divine redemptive acts in the history of Israel and the presupposition of the progress and consummation of the history of the world.

Therefore the still-to-be-expected future of the Lord and the continuing activity of God in history are never to be detached from the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel, but rather must be understood in the light of them (cf. Rom. 11:15 ff.; 15:8-12). In this connection the thesis of Bultmann that Paul's eschatology is entirely determined by his anthropology, and that the history of the people of Israel and the history of the world have disappeared from his sight and been replaced by the "historicity of man," is also to be rejected.

It is true indeed that Paul does not develop a well-defined historical picture of the new dispensation of history that has begun with Christ. In that sense Paul is no philosopher or theologian of history. But this does not mean that his eschatology may be said to be only an eschatology sub specie hominis, whereby world history would have the significance of the wings and properties of the stage on which the small history of the individual man is enacted.

Paul's eschatology bears a theocentric character; that is to say, in it past, present, and future occur sub specie Dei, under the viewpoint of that God who is the Creator of heaven and earth and who conducts all things to their consummation in accordance with the prophetic revelation of the Old Testament. And this is reflected in his eschatological, redemptive-historical Christology. This Christology is not only directed to and determined by the fact that Christ brings man to his "authenticity" and destiny -- here the great narrowing of every theology that makes the knowledge and redemption of the individual man its all-controlling hermeneutical starting becomes perceptible -- but also that God in Christ has brought to fulfillment and will yet bring to fulfillment his man- and world- and history-encompassing redemptive work in a conclusive way.

This all-embracing character of Paul's eschatology and Christology comes to the fore, as we shall see still further, especially in the epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians. But it forms the great presupposition of all of Paul's preaching. For the Christ in whose death and resurrection the new aeon dawns is the Messiah of Israel (Rom. 1:2-4; 9:5), in whom God gathers and saves his people (2 Cor. 6:16ff.), and whom he has exalted and appointed Savior and Kyrios of all things (Phil. 2).

However much the name Christ in the Pauline usage seems to have acquired the sense of a proper name, this does not mean that this designation has lost its official, historic-Israelitic significance. Paul proclaims Christ as the fulfillment of the promise of God to Abraham, as the seed in which all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gal. 3:8, 16, 29), the eschatological bringer of salvation whose all-embracing significance must be understood in the light of prophecy (Rom. 15:9-12), the fulfillment of God's redemptive counsel concerning the whole world and its future.

This redemptive-historical significance of Paul's Christology also comes to light in the pronouncements, so characteristic of him, concerning Christ as the revelation of the mystery. Here the past is not described only as a time of darkness and ignorance, but rather as the preparation of the work of God in the course of the centuries. The grace that has now been revealed "was given us in Christ Jesus long ages ago" (2 Tim. 1:9), in the purpose and promise of God and in their initial realization; it was promised by God who cannot lie, before times eternal (Tit.1:2).

Therefore the mystery that has been revealed with the advent of Christ must also be made known and understood "by means of the prophetic writings" (Rom. 16:26). The nature of that which has taken place in Christ is rightly known only from prophecy, just as, on the other hand, it becomes clear in the light of the fulfilling action of God how much the Old Testament is the book of Christ (2 Cor. 3:14; I Cor. 10:4; Gal. 3:16).

For this reason one of the leading motifs of Paul's preaching is that his gospel is according to the Scriptures (Rom. 1:17; 3:28; cf. Rom. 4; Gal. 3:6 ff.; 4:21 ff.; I Cor. 10:1-10; Rom. 15:4; I Cor. 9:10; 2 Tim. 3:16, et. al.). However this use of the Old Testament by Paul is further to be judged in detail, a most basic conception of Christ's advent and work lies at the root of this whole appeal and use, that of the divine drama being realized and fulfilled in his advent and work; this fulfillment was not only foretold by the prophets, but signifies the execution of the divine plan of salvation that he purposed to himself with respect to the course of the ages and the end of the times (Eph. 1:9, 10; 3:11). This is the fundamental redemptive-historical and all-embracing character of Paul's preaching of Christ.

On the other hand -- and this is of no less importance -- Paul's eschatology is entirely determined by the realized and still-to-be-realized redemptive work of God in Christ. However much he gives expression to the significance of Christ's advent with the help of the conceptual materials of the Old Testament and Jewish eschatology, this does not mean that the eschatological "setting" in which he describes this advent and significance can simply be reduced to an Old Testament or Jewish "schema" lying ready to hand, from which Paul's Christology may be said to have borrowed its composition and from which it would thus be easy to extract this form.

What is so remarkable about Paul's eschatology is that although he avails himself of all kinds of traditional terms and ideas, yet it is distinguished from all forms of the contemporaneous Jewish eschatological expectation and bears a completely independent character. Now this has its origin in the fact that Paul's eschatology is not determined by any traditional eschatological schema, but by the actual acting of God in Christ. This is the fundamental Christological character of his eschatology.

This distinctive character emerges most plainly in the peculiar tension that is to be ascertained between the aspects of fulfillment and expectation in Paul's eschatology and which already finds expression in the eschatological terminology. For while, on the one hand, the apostle speaks of the fullness of the time that has taken effect and of the new creation that has begun, on the other hand he is clearly conscious of still living in the present world and the time corresponding with it (cf., e.g. Rom. 8:18; 11:5; 12:2, et. al.).

Of the new world, denoted in the Jewish usage as the world to come, he makes mention exclusively in a future sense (Eph. 1:21; cf. 2:7). And he does speak of the present world time in which the church is living as "the end (literally, the ends) of the ages" (I Cor. 10:11), "the last times" (I Tim. 4:1), but sometimes the expression "in the last days" has reference to a period that has not yet been entered upon (2 Tim. 3:1).

Finally, to mention still another example, in one place Paul can speak of "the present evil aeon" as of a situation from which Christ has snatched his people (Gal. 1:4), and he can reproach the church for having subjected itself to all manner of commandments "as if still living in the world" (Col. 2:21; cf. also Eph. 2:2), while elsewhere he speaks of the present aeon and of the world as the place where the believers must live godly lives (Tit. 2:12), and must shine as stars (Phil. 2:15).

The result is that in certain contexts he qualifies the unredeemed life prior to the redemptive time as a "once," "in that time," etc., which has now been overcome (cf. Eph. 2:2, 12), in contrast with the present "now" of the new creation, the time of redemption and fulfillment (2 Cor. 6:2; Eph. 2:13; Rom. 3:21, et.al.). Elsewhere, however, the "at present" or "now" indicates the continuance of the mode of existence defined by the world, over against the "then" or "once" of the perfection still to be expected (I Cor. 13:10, 12, et.al.).

It is this remarkable ambivalence of the "now," which can have the sense of the "already now" of the time of salvation that has been entered upon as well as of the "even now" of the world time that still continues, which imparts to Paul's eschatology its wholly distinctive character.

The attempt has been made indeed to recover in certain Jewish eschatological notions the "fundamental schema" of this "already" and "not yet" eschatology (namely, in those writing in which the Messianic time of salvation is placed before the end of the world, as in Baruch and IV Ezra), but in doing so one must establish that for Paul's consciousness, otherwise than is the case in these apocalypses, the eschaton in a certain sense has already dawned; and furthermore, in order even so to be able to lay this schema at the foundation of Paul's eschatological pronouncements, one must come to highly dubious and untenable exegeses of certain Pauline pronouncements.

It is very striking that Paul, at least in the epistles that have been preserved to us, makes no attempt whatever to present the church with a balanced eschatological timetable. It may perhaps be said by way of conclusion that in Paul a "mingling of the two ages" takes place and that the advent of Christ is to be viewed as the "breaking through of the future aeon in the present." For him the future has become present time, and even when he speaks of the groaning of the creation and of the church in the present world, that is for him not a reduction, but a confirmation of the coming redemption (Rom. 8:13).

But Paul himself gives no explanation of this tension between the "even now" and the "already now" in the categories of an eschatological system. For he was not a "theologian who thought in terms of the aeons," but a preacher of Jesus Christ, who has come and is yet to come. Here is the reason why this eschatology is ambivalent and fits into no single schema, and why he can employ the eschatological categories at one time in a present, and at another time in a future sense, apparently without concerning himself about the "unsystematic" character of it.

The revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah promised by God to Israel determines and creates Paul's historical consciousness and eschatological thought, and not the reverse. Who Christ is and what he does, what the relationship is between the time of salvation that has been entered upon with him and the future still to be expected, all this is not determined by eschatological-theological presuppositions, but is only gathered by the apostle from the unexpected and overwhelming manner in which God in Jesus Christ has given and will yet give the fulfillment of the redemptive promise.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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