Why Pastors Should Engage Geerhardus Vos
Among confessional Reformed and Presbyterian theologians from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, few were held in higher esteem by their like-minded contemporaries than was Geerhardus Vos. His reputation in his birth-country of the Netherlands was such that when Vos was in his mid-twenties Abraham Kuyper offered him a position at the Free University of Amsterdam and Herman Bavinck urged him to come to the Theological School at Kampen.
A Theologian’s Theologian
William H. Green, however, eventually recruited Vos to Princeton Seminary, where Vos would teach for thirty-nine years. There, according to his colleague Benjamin B. Warfield, “He was probably the best exegete Princeton ever had.” John Murray, who taught alongside Vos at Princeton for a year before teaching at Westminster Seminary, agreed with Warfield’s assessment. Murray stated, “Dr. Vos is, in my judgment, the most penetrating exegete it has been my privilege to know and I believe, the most incisive exegete that has appeared in the English-speaking world in this century.”
Knowing these testimonies from leading Reformed theologians, pastors have picked up Vos’s writings with the hope of gleaning from his exegetical insights. Too many times these same pastors have given up in frustration at not being able to comprehend what Vos is saying.
Sinclair Ferguson acknowledges both Vos’s elite reputation and the perceived difficulty of his writings. Ferguson calls Vos “a scholar par excellence” and “a theologian’s theologian.” He believes that those who endure with Vos encounter theological riches, a vision of God from the Scriptures that produces a new and more holy and heavenly perspective on life. But, Ferguson also recognizes that Vos is not the easiest for some to read. He writes, “Geerhardus Vos’s original writings are demanding reading for theological students, never mind for those without academic training. That is partly a stylistic manner, but mostly it is a matter of the weight and profundity of his thought. He takes readers into rivers of biblical theology in which they are unaccustomed to swimming. For some, the depth of the water and the speed of the current prove to be too much.” Warfield: “Vos was probably the best exegete Princeton ever had.” Click To Tweet
Ferguson does not spell out what the rivers of biblical theology are that prove difficult to navigate, but it is fair to surmise that it includes Vos’s emphasis upon the eschatological structure of Scripture. According to Vos, the Bible teaches that eschatology precedes soteriology. This is spelled out clearly in Vos’s books, Biblical Theology and Pauline Eschatology. In Biblical Theology, Vos exegetes the opening chapters of Genesis and argues that in the garden, God the Creator put before Adam, the creature, the prospect of an eternal and unchangeable fellowship. Pre-redemptive special revelation, the word that God speaks in Genesis 2:16-17—referred to in Reformed theology as the covenant of works or the covenant of life—communicated this to Adam. If Adam had not sinned, he would have moved from the state of unconfirmed righteousness and indirect communion with God to one of confirmed righteousness and full communion with God.
In Pauline Eschatology, Vos provides the New Testament support for this eschatological understanding from a detailed exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15:42–50. Vos explains that in verses 42–44a Paul contrasts the natural, state-of-sin body that is perishing, dishonorable and weak with the spiritual body in the eschatological state that is permanent, glorious and powerful. In verses 44b–46, Paul enlarges one side of the contrast. He broadens the scope to include the pre-fall estate, the order of things established in creation when referring to the natural body.
The all-important question to Vos is why Paul changed the terms of the contrast. Vos answers that Paul was intent upon showing that from the beginning in the plan of God provision was made for a higher kind of body than that of our present existence. From the body of sin, this inference cannot be drawn. But, it can be shown in the correlation between the world of creation and the world of eschatology. The first Adam prefigures the second Adam (cf. Romans 5:14), the natural body points forward to the spiritual body. The resurrection is when the spiritual entered, the second Adam was exalted, and the eschatological era inaugurated. Those who are joined by faith to the risen Christ, and thus bear the image of the second Adam, inherit the kingdom of God.
Pre-redemptive and redemptive realities are united under the schema of the two Adams. This results in a philosophy of history in which every redemptive-historical development could be construed in relation to the starting point and terminus. Redemptive special revelation, the word that God speaks in Genesis 3:15 and throughout the rest of the Bible—referred to in Reformed theology as the covenant of grace—promises the fulfillment of the eschatological goal set before man in the garden. The whole Old Testament movement concerning the promised Messiah, divinely directed and inspired, arrives at its goal in the coming of Jesus Christ.
To take Christ at all, he must be taken as the center of a movement of revelation organized around him. Revelation is not given in isolation. Revelation interprets the redemptive acts of God, such as the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection of Christ. This revelation is not subjective and individual in its nature, but objective and corporate. With the closure of the saving acts of God in redemptive-history (all that remains is the return of Christ, cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:10), there is the closing of new revelations.
These biblical-theological insights, taken from the teaching of Scripture itself, are foundational for Vos. It is the basis of his book, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church. By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ has ushered in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is both a present and future reality. Joined by faith to the risen Christ, the believer already experiences heavenly citizenship. By the resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Spirit, the new age has entered already the actual experience of the believer. That is, the believer has been translated into a state which, while falling short of the consummated life of eternity, yet may be truly characterized as semi-eschatological.
Vos’ Pastoral Benefit
The pastor that picks up Vos will profit. But, as Ferguson puts it, in a sound-bite world, Vos takes concentration and focus. It also often takes some help from others. A great place to start for those who are unacquainted with Vos is to listen to Camden Bucey and Lane Tipton’s Vos Group podcast on Reformed Forum, particularly episode 331 on “The Content of Pre-Redemptive Special Revelation.” For those interested in a detailed analysis of the Vosian literary corpus in the main, I would humbly point to the newly released, Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian. If one wants to start directly with Vos’s writings, his collection of sermons, Grace and Glory, communicate the redemptive-historical message of the Bible in a clear and devotional way. Vos believes that to preach a risen Christ means to preach a gospel where all distinctive elements relate to Christ and bear upon their face his image and superscription. He said, “God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. In the procuring of righteousness Christ is the one efficient cause. In Christ, believers were chosen, called, justified, and will be glorified. To be converted is to die with Christ and to rise with him. The entire Christian life, root and stem and branch, and blossom, is one continuous fellowship with Christ.”
This Christ-centered focus is the help that Geerhardus Vos brings the pastor who patiently delves into his writings.