Monday, 27 February 2017

Book Review: Ian Paul, Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World

Ian Paul, Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World: The ‘Now’ and ‘Not Yet’ of Eschatology (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2017)

I am grateful to Grove Books for a review copy.

I came to faith in my early teens while attending Sunday School in a Brethren-influenced independent evangelical church. The eschatology espoused here was of the sort found in this Chick tract and the wonderfully and increasingly camp Left Behind series. Almost thirty years on, I cannot help but wish there had existed at that time a book on eschatology as effective as Ian Paul’s Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World. Reading a short book such as this back in the late 1980s and early 1990s not only would have saved me some theological blushes among my peers, but also have given me a wider framework in which to read Scripture as a whole.

Paul first considers the ideas of kingdom and hope as expressed in the Old Testament. The Creator God is king of the world but delegates divine rule to men and women, God’s vice-regents. However, in a fallen world, humanity fails to live up to its high calling, and so God elects Israel to demonstrate how people are to live in the world in continuous relationship with God. The emphasis here is on the prophetic expectation that God will eventually exercise divine rule through a true successor to Israel’s king, David. This, Paul contends, means that the fulfilment of Israel’s future expectations is not simply a matter of God intervening in human history but of God acting sovereignly to establish a new creation.

Old Testament eschatology
Paul goes on to affirm that the various New Testament books point to this very fact: a new creation has been inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus, even though there is still a ‘surplus of hope, the difference between what we see already realized of the kingdom in Jesus, and what we do not yet see realized in the present age’ (p. 12). This is the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of the book’s subtitle.

New Testament eschatology
Thus all the Old Testament’s future expectations find completion in Jesus. This is not to say that there is nothing in the New Testament that some would label ‘end-times prophecy’, but that finally everything is centred on Jesus and not on the execution of some kind of divine blueprint. As Paul writes, ‘At no point does any NT writer suggest that Jesus does anything other than fulfil all God’s promises in the OT. We might not see their complete fulfilment until his return—but it is his life, death and resurrection, and not some other historical events, which meet all our hopes’ (p. 17).

Needless to say, I regard Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World as a very good addition to the Grove Books Biblical series. Admittedly, those familiar with some of Tom Wright’s writings, or those who have somehow escaped the influence of Scofield-style hermeneutics, will be unlikely to find much novelty here. But this is not a criticism. The strength of this slim volume is that it manages to convey a lot of detail about eschatology in relatively few words, successfully demonstrating the extent to which eschatological themes pervade Scripture and how these themes continue to be important for Christians today. Paul writes clearly and fluently, and his discussions of the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24–25 and parallels) and the book of Revelation are standout examples of how a carefully considered understanding of eschatology helps to exegete difficult biblical passages. Some might find Paul’s careful survey a little too tidy: Should we not expect to find at least a few loose ends or unresolved tensions in Scripture simply by virtue of it being a collection of diverse texts? Also, I notice there is no treatment of eschatology as found in the New Testament from Hebrews to Jude. While I appreciate that inclusion of such might not add too much to the overall analysis (as well as making this particular Grove Book longer than others in the series), I do think Hebrews has some uniquely interesting things to say on how the life of the age to come impacts on the life of the present age.

In short, I commend Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World. It contains a lot of good material for individual study and could also be used effectively in a home group setting. The book is available here.

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