Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Father of Reformed Biblical Theology

At my church, I lead a discussion group that is currently reading Geerhardus Vos' Biblical Theology.  I was pleased to be asked to do this as Vos is one of my favorite theologians and has probably had the most influence in shaping my approach to scripture and preaching.  Although Vos has been acknowledged as the father of Reformed Biblical Theology and has done much in shaping current trends in Reformed hermeneutics (the study of how you interpret the Bible), many are unfamiliar with this key figure.  So, here is a brief sketch of his life, ministry and approach to scripture that originally appeared in the Ordained Servant (Vol 8, No. 3, July 1999) and was co-authored by one of my mentors, John Muether and Darryl Hart.

Nineteen ninety-nine marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Geerhardus Vos, widely acknowledged as the father of Reformed Biblical theology. A descendent of French Huguenots, Vos was born in the Netherlands on March 14, 1862. He immigrated to the United States in 1881, when his father accepted a call to a congregation of the Christian Reformed Church, and he enrolled in what is now Calvin College, in Grand Rapids. From there he continued his studies at Princeton Theological Seminary (1883-1885), and he eventually earned his Ph.D. from the University of Strassburg in 1888.

After teaching at Calvin for a few years, Vos went on to serve at Princeton Theological Seminary nearly forty years, where he taught many of the founding ministers of the OPC, such as Machen, Murray, Stonehouse, and Van Til. Yet Vos is not normally included in the chain of Old Princeton giants that preceded Machen and the OPC (a list generally restricted to Alexander, Hodge, and Warfield). Vos was "largely a forgotten man," according to one biographer. "Enrollment in his courses at [Princeton] often was sparse compared to those of other professors of a more 'popular' type, because of the weightiness of his lectures."

Another explanation for Vos's relative obscurity was his low ecclesiastical profile. Rarely did he step outside the classroom and into the courts of the church (though he fought Presbyterian attempts to revise the Westminster Confession). Nearing retirement when Machen founded Westminster in 1929, Vos, an opponent of Princeton's reorganization, did not leave Princeton for Westminster, nor did he ever join the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Instead, he retired to southern California in 1932, and he then moved to Grand Rapids in 1937, where he lived until his death in 1949. Moreover, Vos never wrote for the Westminster Theological Journal or the Presbyterian Guardian. While Machen and other founders of the OPC may never have fully understood Vos's reasons for remaining in the PCUSA, there seemed a greater willingness to forgive him than others who stayed in. (The Guardian provided partial absolution in its obituary for Vos, noting that "when he retired in 1932, he left a valuable part of his library to Westminster Seminary.") Undoubtedly Catharine Vos, the author of the popular Child's Story Bible, has been far more widely read by Orthodox Presbyterians than her husband.

Much like Cornelius Van Til, Vos was an acquired taste. Biblical theology and presuppositional apologetics were new subjects in the curriculum of Presbyterian seminaries. Like Van Til, English was not Vos's native language, and his books quickly went out of print before their rediscovery after his death. His most well known work, Biblical Theology, was edited by his son and published by Eerdmans in 1948, just before his death.

Just as Vos was never a member of the OPC, so many of his best contemporary interpreters lie outside the denomination. James T. Dennison edits Kerux, a journal dedicated to redemptive-historical preaching in the Vosian tradition. At Gordon-Conwell Seminary, G. K. Beale is applying Vos's insights in New Testament exegesis (see for example his latest commentary on Revelation).

Still, it can be fairly said that no non-OPCer this century has influenced the denomination as much as Geerhardus Vos. Orthodox Presbyterians often describe themselves as a hybrid between Old Princeton and Dutch Calvinism. More than anyone else, Vos's long career at Princeton forged links between American Presbyterianism and Dutch Calvinism that were to shape the character of the OPC. Latter day Vosians in the church include Meredith G. Kline and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

For Vos, "biblical theology" was short-hand for the study of the history of special revelation. So the starting point of his theology was acknowledgment of the progressive character of the revelation that accompanies God's redemptive activity. Vos likened this progress to the growth of a tree: "It is sometimes contended that the assumption of progress in revelation excludes its perfection at all stages. This would actually be so if the progress were non-organic. The organic progress is from seed-form to the attainment of full growth; yet we do not say that in the qualitative sense the seed is less perfect than the tree."

In historian Mark Noll's words, Vos was "attempting to roll back the assumption, prevailing since the late seventeenth century, that historical consciousness was the natural ally of naturalistic views of the Bible." For Vos, this historical progression culminated in the coming of Jesus Christ, whose work is revealed in the New Testament in terms of present inauguration and future consummation. G. K. Beale argues that while this interpretive approach is now standard (cf. Cullmann, Ridderbos, and Ladd), "Vos appears to be the first European or American scholar to espouse an ‘already and not yet eschatology'" to the theology of Paul. Yet the historical sensibilities in Vos's work has yet to gain full acceptance within the OPC, where suspicions persist that his approach may still concede too much to naturalism. Thus some contemporary exegesis of Scripture (for example, on creation), continues to miss its eschatological dimension.

Though originally a systematician, Vos's first love was biblical theology. Some of his followers suggest that Vosian biblical theology calls into question the very nature of dogmatics. Does Vos require a fundamental recasting of the categories of systematics? Can we even speak of a "system of doctrine" after Vos?

Those who would pit biblical theology against systematics have difficulty explaining Vos's long tenure at Princeton and especially his close friendship with Warfield. And Vos himself would hardly identify his insights as Copernican. He was deeply grounded in the Reformed dogmatic tradition. Far from jettisoning systematic theology, Vos was a staunch defender of Reformed confessional orthodoxy, and he used biblical theology to give fresh and creative defense of dogmatics, such as the doctrines of the covenant, soteriology, and the kingdom of God. The two disciplines were complementary, each transforming the biblical data in different ways. "Biblical theology draws a line of development," Vos wrote. "Systematic theology draws a circle." Following in the footsteps of Vos, Meredith G. Kline sees no hard and fast distinction between biblical theology and systematic theology: "biblical theology involves the systematization of the covenantal data under relatively broad historical epochs."

Vos's biblical-theological identification of the church as a pilgrim people has made the most indelible imprint on the OPC, even while it has provoked some of the OPC's strongest critics. American Christians are prone to judge the success of the church in terms of its influence in the world. For this reason, many have dismissed the OPC as "irrelevant" for its want of a social or cultural agenda. Seen from an eschatological perspective, however, it is more accurate to say that the OPC is committed to the "irrelevance" of the world to the church.

The OPC has been molded by Vos's reminder that, as part of the new eschatological order unveiled in the coming of Christ, the church locates its hope in a kingdom that is not of this world, a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Secured in a life that is hid in Christ in the heavenlies, the church longs for the return of her Lord. This eschatological location of the church as the kingdom inaugurated and awaiting consummation is the legacy of Vos. For that source of solid hope and comfort, the OPC abandoned aspirations for earthly glory. A half-century after Vos's death, political gospels and this-worldly agendas continue to tempt the church. Reformed orthodoxy needs to give a fresh hearing to Geerhardus Vos, perhaps now more than ever.

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