The Father of Reformed Biblical Theology: Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949)
By James T. Dennison, Jr. –
Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) was born in the old world (Holland); he died in the new world (Michigan)—and his life was spent explaining the world to come. His magnum opus was The Pauline Eschatology (1930). Eschatology considers the world to come, the eternal world that now is; the world of heaven; the world of the risen Son of God, his all-gracious Father and the in-dwelling Holy Spirit. It was this world which was disclosed to believers through the pages of the divinely-inspired Scriptures. Vos believed that the Bible revealed God’s eternal world to those who loved him and believed on his Son, having been (re)born into that world (“born from above” = heaven, John 3:7) by the Holy Ghost. This was the world of the new birth, new creation, new covenant, new man (and woman), new Jerusalem, new heavens and new earth—a world possessed by the believer even now by faith, as well as a world to be possessed gloriously when we shall “see him as he is” face to face (1 John 3:2; 1 Cor. 13:12).
Perhaps in being dispossessed of the old world and never truly at home in the new world, Vos was particularly poised to devote his mind to heaven’s world. It was this passion for that everlasting world which moved his mind, his heart, his mouth, his pen.
An intimate friend of B. B. Warfield during his Princeton Seminary career, Vos taught J. Gresham Machen, John Murray, Cornelius Van Til and hundreds of other ministers who passed through the seminary portals from 1893 to 1932. His impact is still felt today through his books, articles, sermons, letters, poetry and journal articles.[i]
When he died in Grand Rapids in 1949, he was surrounded by the environment which had first nurtured his new world Christian maturity—the world of Dutch Reformed piety. His father had accepted the pulpit of a Christian Reformed Church in that city in 1881—a Dutch pastor seeking an escape from the bellicose old world for the pacific new world of the ‘Jerusalem’ Nederlanders had established in Michigan. Nineteen-year-old Geerhardus, already brilliantly proficient (he read and spoke Dutch, German, French and English) from studies in the Amsterdam gymnasium (advanced secondary school), immediately entered the Theological School in Grand Rapids (now Calvin Theological Seminary) graduating in 1883. That fall, he enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary where he studied under the remarkable OT scholar, William Henry Green, and for whom he wrote his first book, earning a scholarship for Ph.D. study in Germany.
Vos attended the Universities of Berlin (1885-86) and Strasbourg (1886-88), sitting at the feet of several prominent liberal scholars and theologians. Through it all, his commitment to historic, orthodox Biblical Christianity, the deity of Christ, the supernatural power and revelation of God and the infallibility of the inspired Scriptures was strengthened and confirmed. From his ‘baptism of fire’ in the corridors of liberalism, he was armed for the battle brewing in the church at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries—the battle between liberalism and conservatism in the Bible and Theology. A committed confessional Calvinist, Vos adhered to the historic Reformed confessions of his Dutch heritage (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort) and his adopted Presbyterian tradition (Westminster Confession and Catechisms). With his Old School Princeton colleagues, he believed these Reformed confessions summarized the teaching found in the inspired Word of God.
Ph.D. in hand, Vos returned to the U. S. to begin teaching at his Michigan alma mater. He left in 1893 when his beloved former mentor, William Henry Green, prevailed upon him to accept an appointment to the first chair of Biblical Theology at his New Jersey alma mater. The theological world was being convulsed by the heresy trial of a notorious liberal OT professor in New York—Charles Augustus Briggs. Briggs was extremely popular, influential and opposed to the inerrancy of the Bible. But his liberal biblical theology needed to be answered and Prof. Green knew that his former Dutch student, having sat at the feet of the most prominent liberals in Europe without losing his faith in the trustworthiness of Scripture, was the ideal choice for the new chair of Biblical Theology at Princeton.
Delivering his inaugural lecture on Biblical Theology in May 1894 (“The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline”), he outlined the principles which would guide his teaching and writing for the next 38 years.[ii] Biblical Theology was based on God’s self-disclosure—his words spoken in history and his acts performed in history projecting the anticipation and the realization of “all things new.”
[R]evelation is organically connected with the introduction of a new order of things into this sinful world. Revelation is the light of this new world which God has called into being . . . the beautiful creation of His grace.[iii]
This supernatural (indeed eschatological!) revelation was unique to the Bible and was the vehicle by which OT and NT believers entered into the world to come (even as they sojourned as pilgrims in this world). Faith was focused on the central person in redemptive history, namely the eternally begotten Son of the Father. United to Christ either through the promise (OT) or through the fulfillment of the promise (NT), believers enjoyed the full benefit of Christ’s supernatural person and work for the justification of sinners. The OT was the anticipation and projection of this work of Christ; the NT was the realization and culmination of his work. And that work of Christ was to bring the sinner “near unto God” (Heb. 7:25)—even seat him in “the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6) because the believing sinner had been united to Christ by faith and his/her life “was hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Such sweet union with Christ was all of grace—no merit from a sinner of any kind at any time intruded, otherwise grace would not be grace (Rom. 11:6). With Paul, Vos could declare: what sinner “has first given to God that he should repay him” (Rom. 11:35)? The rhetorical question is as clear in Paul as it was in Augustine, Calvin, Edwards and a host of Augustinian-Calvinists including the founder and Old School faculty of the Princeton Vos attended and served. Grace was an eschatological gift (1 Cor. 4:7) as God was its sole source, heaven its destiny and the Triune God its all-sufficiency. God originated; Christ centered; historically manifested; eschatologically oriented: that was the Biblical Theology of Geerhardus Vos.
From 1906 to 1932, his summers were passed at a house in tiny Roaring Branch, central Pennsylvania. There his body was laid to rest on August 17, 1949. Buried next to his wife, Catherine, who bore him four children, this bride and groom await the consummation with the eschatological Bridegroom and Bride. And that is the now/not yet promise of the Pauline eschatology for all believers. A legacy which this great Princetonian has left to the church—a legacy for the world that now is and for the world that is to come. Geerhardus Vos—a man between two worlds; a resident of the eschaton (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 12:22)!
Recommended Resources: a full bibliography of Vos’s writings to 2005 is contained in J. Dennison, ed., The Letters of Geerhardus Vos, 89-112. Additions since then are published in Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary at kerux.com.
Also, you can now buy Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics (5 Vols.) through Logos Bible Software!
James T. Dennison, Jr., is Th.M., Professor of Church History and Biblical Theology and Academic Dean at Northwest Theological Seminary. He is the editor of Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary and the author/editor of several books and numerous journal articles. His “awakening” to the Reformed faith came in 1960 while reading Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” At Geneva College, he studied Bible with Dr. J.G. Vos, son of Geerhardus. After a year in medical school, he enrolled in Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where he studied under John H. Gerstner. It was while preaching through the gospel of John in 1972 that he discovered the biblical theology of Geerhardus Vos and his love of the centrality of Christ was wonderfully heightened.
1For his books, see Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments; The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews. For his articles, see Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation. Also see his reviews of Albert Schweitzer and Wilhelm Bousset. And for an example sermon, see Grace and Glory (1994). For a collection of his letters, see The Letters of Geerhardus Vos, ed. J. Dennison, with full biography, pp. 13-85. Additionally, his poetry and journal articles can be found in Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary (at kerux.com), which is dedicated to advancing his penetrating insights into the Word of God.
3“The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 9-10.
Read other articles like this one in the recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Old Princeton.”
Each of us are indebted to those theologians of ages past who have gone before us, heralding the gospel, and even fighting to their last breath to keep the God of that gospel high and lifted up. It is hard to think of a group of men more worthy of this praise than those of the Old Princeton heritage. Men like Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and many others, stand in this rich heritage, men who defended the faith once for all delivered to the saints against the ever-growing threat of liberalism around them.
Since this year marks the 200th anniversary of Old Princeton (1812-2012), it is fitting that we devote ourselves to remembering and imitating these great theologians of yesterday, not because they are great in and of themselves, but because their example points us to the great and mighty God we worship. And who better to introduce us to these Old Princetonians than James M. Garretson writing on Archibald Alexander, W. Andrew Hoffecker making our acquaintance with Charles Hodge, Fred Zaspel reminding us of B. B. Warfield, and D. G. Hart increasing our love for J. Gresham Machen? Not to mention a very in-depth interview with Paul Helseth on Old Princton and the debate over “right reason.” May these articles and interviews inspire us so that in our own day we might experience a revival of this rich orthodoxy that has stood the test of time.