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Geerhardus Vos: Family Life, the Kingdom of God, and the Church

Danny E. Olinger

After nine years of teaching at Princeton Seminary, Geerhardus Vos had settled into the rhythm of a quiet professorial life. According to Princeton historian David Calhoun, by 1902, “Dr. Vos’s fine features, slightly stooped figure, and quiet dignity were a familiar sight to his fellow Princetonians.”[1] Dwelling at 52 Mercer Street with his beloved wife, Catherine, he worshiped at First Presbyterian Church, taught two or three courses per semester at the seminary, took daily walks with his friend Benjamin Warfield, and wrote numerous reviews and articles. When the school year ended, Geerhardus and Catherine would return to the Grand Rapids area for the summer to be near their families.[2]

Change, however, was on the way in that Catherine was expecting. According to her daughter, Marianne, “My mother did not have children for the first nine years of her marriage. She then went to a surgeon in Philadelphia who diagnosed that she needed a slight change in a muscle.”[3] After that, the problem was alleviated.

On February 4, 1903, Catherine gave birth to a baby boy, Johannes Geerhardus. The next day the members of the senior class at the seminary presented a baby carriage to the new father and mother. According to the New York Times, Dr. Vos expressed his thanksgiving for the gift, and then added “that the donation might have been postponed until tomorrow with great propriety, as the subject of his lecture then would be ‘The Fatherhood and the Sonship.’ ”[4] Geerhardus and Catherine also received other gifts from their friends, most notably a silver collapsible drinking cup from Benjamin and Annie Warfield and a silver porringer from Woodrow and Ellen Wilson.[5]

A little over two years later, Bernardus Hendrik was born on April, 19, 1905. Marianne Catherine was born on December 7, 1906, and the last child, Geerhardus Jr., was born on March 7, 1911. As the Vos family was growing, Geerhardus and Catherine purchased a summer home in Roaring Branch, Pennsylvania, north of the city of Williamsport.

After obtaining the house in 1906, they purchased thirteen acres of land between 1908 and 1910 directly outside of Roaring Branch. Once the land was acquired, they raised the house on rollers and had it moved to the new location with its clear view of the town and the mountains in the background.

After Christmas, Catherine would order the food supplies and clothes for the summer from the Sears Roebuck catalog and have them sent directly to Roaring Branch. Once the school year for the children ended, Catherine and the children would typically travel by train one hundred miles west to Roaring Branch ahead of Geerhardus. As the rest of the family unpacked and set the home up for the summer, Geerhardus would slowly make his way to Roaring Branch by car, stopping at hotels with his books in tow. He would read and write and then journey to the next town and the next hotel.[6]

Once the whole family was in Roaring Branch, there was a pattern to the days. A mile walk to the post office in the morning and then again in the evening to pick up any mail. Geerhardus read literature to the entire family situated on the front porch. Catherine read Scripture with a running commentary (which would in time become the basis of her book, The Child’s Story Bible), and then Geerhardus prayed. The family would worship on the Lord’s Day at the Methodist Church, the only church in town. So beloved was this summer retreat, that when Catherine and Geerhardus Vos died, they would not be buried in Grand Rapids or Princeton, but in Griffin Cemetery in Roaring Branch.

The routine of the family when it returned to Princeton at the end of the summer was geared around the seminary. The Warfields at 74 Mercer Street lived a few houses down from the Vos’s home at 52 Mercer Street. Catherine and Marianne would visit Anne Warfield for tea. Once when Marianne had a birthday party and wanted to dress up, Mrs. Warfield loaned her a beautiful shawl.[7]

Geerhardus and Benjamin Warfield would take a daily walk at noon.[8] But, it was not just Warfield who Vos walked with on Mercer Street. J. Gresham Machen, an avid walker himself, would take strolls with Vos, as would other Princeton professors. Also accompanying Vos on his walks would be one of the family dogs. His daughter, Marianne, described the scene.

He was fond of dogs. We always had a little dog and a big dog, a dog about the size of a collie, and a little dog. I often remember him walking up and down the street with Machen and some of his other colleagues at Princeton swinging a cane in one hand and a dog following his footsteps as he walked back and forth.[9]

Geerhardus and Catherine were also known for their hospitality, particularly to Dutch friends.[10] Their guests were invited to participate in the family time of Bible reading and prayer.[11] The learning of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in English was emphasized with the children, although there were periods of time in the Vos household when German was the dominant language spoken.[12] If any of the children were puzzled about anything in the Bible or in the Shorter Catechism, they would approach their father after supper in his study. He would listen patiently and attempt to explain to them the meaning of the question and answer.

On the Lord’s Day, once Johannes was old enough to lead his siblings, the children would walk to the First Presbyterian Church for Sunday School classes. After Sunday School finished, they would then walk and meet their parents at Princeton’s Miller Chapel for worship. Marianne recalled one memorable Lord’s Day:

Our parents would already be seated. The students sat in the center. The faculty members had their own assigned seats on the sides. I remember the glorious day when the Stevenson twins had their feet on the pew in the front and the pew in which they and their mother were sitting tipped over.[13]

The Bible Student

In addition to experiencing the dynamics of family life, and settling into his second decade teaching at Princeton, Vos began publishing theological articles that were more accessible to the general public. The accessibility was due mainly to the fact that he kept his analysis of critical viewpoints to a minimum and focused on the exegesis of texts. Six such articles, the majority around 2,500–3,000 words in length, appeared in the newly created The Bible Student from 1900–1903. Edited by William McPheeters, professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, and co-edited by Warfield, George Purves, and John Davis of Princeton Seminary, The Bible Student was dedicated to promoting traditional biblical doctrines. The articles not only marked a transition for Vos in style, but also signaled the themes that he would develop in his major articles and books. This was most readily seen in Vos’s first two Bible Student articles, “The Ministry of John the Baptist”[14] and “The Kingdom of God.”[15]

In both, Vos presented a redemptive-historical look at the doctrine of the kingdom of God. In examining the role of John the Baptist, Vos exegeted the meaning of Jesus’s statement in Matthew 11:11 (KJV), “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Here Jesus declared that John was outside of the New Testament realization of the kingdom of heaven that had been inaugurated by Jesus himself. By this, Jesus did not mean that John was not a believer in the Old Testament sense. Rather, John did not share in far greater blessings of the new covenant. Vos explained, “He that is lesser in the kingdom of heaven, i.e., occupies a relatively lower place than John under the Old Testament, is nevertheless absolutely greater than John, because the kingdom itself is far superior to the typical stage of the theocracy.”[16]

Although standing outside the kingdom, John understood the great principle on which the kingdom was built, self-denial and service. John believed that “He (Jesus) must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). Consequently, when John was in prison and expressed doubts, Jesus took pains to defend him. Vos commented, “There is to us something unspeakably touching in this loyal gratitude to a faithful servant on the part of Him who had Himself come to serve all others.”[17]

In “The Ministry of John the Baptist” Vos examined the formal questions that accompanied the conception of the kingdom of God. He then turned in “The Kingdom of God” to answering material questions.[18] According to Vos, the content of the doctrine of the kingdom of God represented the whole sum and substance of the teaching of Jesus. Jesus taught that with his arrival the kingdom of God was both a present and future reality. As the kingdom was centered in God himself and in his glory, Jesus represented the kingdom as the highest object after which men are to strive.

Vos followed the two articles with two reviews that revealed that he was not entirely satisfied with what others were teaching on the subject of the kingdom of God. The first was a review of Wilhelm Lütgert’s Das Reich Gottes nach den synoptischen Evangelien.[19] Lütgert believed that the kingdom is entirely present. According to Vos, this one-sided insistence that the kingdom is wholly present blinded Lütgert to the fact that the kingdom of God is both a reign and a realm.

In his review of Paul Wernle’s Die Reichsgotteshoffnung in den altesten Christlichen dokumenten und bei Jesus,[20] Vos contended that Wernle’s eschatological view of the kingdom of God erred in the other direction. Wernle altered the sayings of Jesus in order to argue against a present kingdom. He also denied that righteousness was a part of the conception of the kingdom. For Vos the result was the worst of all possibilities, a kingdom that did not consist in righteousness or communion with God prior to the last day.

It was evident from the article and the two reviews that Vos did not agree with the doctrine of the kingdom being put forth in his day. On the one hand, the immanent school (Lütgert) taught that the kingdom of God was entirely present and disregarded the supernatural work of God. On the other hand, the eschatological school (Wernle) posited that the kingdom of God was entirely future and weakened the Bible’s authority in the realm of ethics. What was needed was a redemptive-historical exegesis of the Lord’s doctrine of the kingdom of God without the overreach of modern theology.

The Teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church

When Vos’s 1903 book The Teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church appeared, it was clear that he had used his previously published material. The “Kingdom of God” article provided the outline and bulk of the content for the first five chapters of the book, the sentences slightly changed and paragraphs rearranged. The remaining chapters of the book, prior to the concluding “Recapitulation” chapter, exegetically confronted the liberal conceptions regarding the essence of the kingdom that he had challenged in the reviews.[21]

In the self-effacing fashion that matched his personality, Vos did not include a preface, forward, or acknowledgements in the book. The book began with Chapter 1, “Introductory,” but the chapter did not partake of the nature of a typical introduction. More accurately, it should have been labelled “The Public Ministry of Jesus,” for that was the topic that Vos immediately addressed from the start. Vos noted that Jesus declared the kingdom of God was at hand. The main purpose of Jesus’s mission consisted in the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God.[22]

Still, Vos maintained that God himself, and not the kingdom, occupied the highest place in the teaching of Jesus. All that salvation contained flowed from the nature of God and served the glory of God. This is why Jesus did not speak of the “kingdom,” but spoke of the “kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven.”

But, in appropriating for himself the function of bringing in the kingdom and in laying claim to the Messianic dignity promised in the Old Testament, Jesus knew himself as both the goal of history and the servant of history. The entire historic movement converged upon and terminated in him.

Still, Jesus did not speak of the kingdom of God as previously existing. Vos explained, “To [Jesus’s] mind [the kingdom] involved such altogether new forces and unparalleled blessings, that all relative and provisional forms previously assumed by the work of God on earth seemed by comparison unworthy of the name.”[23] For Judaism, the divine rule was equivalent to the sovereignty of the law. Jesus did not exclude this, but he “knew of a much larger sphere in which God would through saving acts exercise his glorious prerogatives of kingship on a scale and in a manner unknown before.”[24]

While the Jewish habit to substitute “heaven” for “God” was meant to emphasize God’s unapproachable majesty, Vos believed such a mode of speech endangered “what must ever be the essence of religion, a true communion between God and man.”[25] Jesus used “kingdom of heaven” to awaken in his disciples a sense of the mysterious, supernatural character of heaven, that realm of absolute perfection and grandeur, and to teach them to value above all the new order of things. “If the king be one who concentrates in himself all the glory of heaven, what must his kingdom be?”[26]

Vos then laid out what the church historically had believed concerning the coming of the kingdom.

The kingdom, it was believed, comes when the gospel is spread, hearts are changed, sin and error overcome, righteousness cultivated, a living communion with God established. In this sense the kingdom began its coming when Jesus entered upon his public ministry, his work upon earth, including his death, was part of its realization, the disciples were in it, the whole subsequent history of the church is the history of its gradual extension, we ourselves can act our part in its onward movement and are members of it as a present organization.[27]

This view, Vos maintained, was under attack in Christendom as unhistorical. Jesus was only a man, and no man could bring in the kingdom. God would bring in the kingdom in a great world-crisis, one that Jesus expected in his lifetime.

Both views held that Jesus associated the coming of the kingdom in its final absolute sense with the end of the world. Where the views differed was whether Jesus’s spiritual labors brought about the beginning of the kingdom. How one decided this question had the gravest consequences, for it involved the question of the infallibility of Jesus’s teaching. If he expected only one coming of the kingdom to happen within his lifetime, then there is no escape from the conclusion that he was mistaken.[28]

According to Vos, the modern views necessitated ascribing to the Scripture an unhistorical representation of what Jesus actually taught. For those who held to the trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts, there was no doubt that Jesus’s Messianic labor ushered in the kingdom prior to the last day.

Further, as Jesus distinguished his Messianic activity on earth in humility and his Messianic activity from the throne of glory, he also distinguished two different aspects of the kingdom of God, the immanent and the eschatological. It followed that “the ancient theological distinction between a kingdom of grace and a kingdom of glory is infelicitous.”[29]

Vos also believed that the kingdom of God is not a means to an end apart from man’s glorifying and enjoying God. This was seen in a proper understanding of the theocracy in the Old Covenant. The theocracy’s primary purpose was “to reflect the eternal laws of religious intercourse between God and man as they will exist in the consummate life at the end.”[30] This focus on the procuring of life and communion with God is why Jesus did not view the kingdom conflict as being Israel versus Rome. The true conflict is the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of Satan.

Although the glory of God, not man’s welfare, is the supreme concern of the kingdom, this does not mean that blessing and happiness are found apart from the kingdom. Kingdom members enjoy the blessedness of union and communion with the living God, which brings happiness and joy in this life. Such communion is both a gift from Jesus and the life to which the Christian aspires. The reward bears an organic relation to the conduct it intends to crown.

In discussing the relationship of the kingdom of God to the church, Vos exegeted Matthew 16:18–19.[31] The church, formed by Jesus and under his rule, is the new congregation of God as it confesses Jesus in the midst of persecution. It takes the place of the old congregation of Israel that refused to recognize Jesus as Messiah.

The church in a sense can rightly be called the kingdom. It is another question altogether whether the kingdom at all times can be identified with the church. The church is the form that the kingdom assumes because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through the Messianic acts of Jesus and an influx of supernatural power, the church has within it the presence of the Spirit, which is the power of the age to come.

Jesus identified the invisible church and the kingdom. But, the kingdom-life that exists in the invisible church must find a parallel expression in the kingdom-organism of the visible church. The visible church is not the only expression of the kingdom.

Realizing that he was qualifying many things regarding the relationship of the kingdom of God to the church, Vos said that two things may be safely affirmed. On the one hand, the supremacy of God in all things is the foundation on which the Lord’s doctrine of the kingdom is founded. This meant that Jesus saw every normal and legitimate province of life as intended to form part of God’s kingdom. On the other hand, Jesus did not believe that all of the spheres of life should be subject to the visible church in order to achieve this result.

Vos maintained that repentance and faith are prerequisites for entrance into the kingdom of God. Jesus cried out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). This demand resulted from the nature of the kingdom. “Repentance and faith are simply the two main aspects of the kingdom, righteousness and the saving grace of God translated into terms of subjective human experience.”[32] Repentance and righteousness do not earn the benefits of the kingdom, but they accompany the kingdom in such a way that through them the benefits of the kingdom come to believers.

The Lord’s teaching on repentance engages the entire person, intellect, will and affections. It includes man’s relationship to God, both religious and moral. Jesus’s conception of repentance is even wide enough to include faith. No neutrality or indifference exists when it comes to repentance. There is either love or hatred for God, or love or hatred for the world. He who repents turns from love and service of the world to the love and service of God.

The total supremacy of God in one’s life as a controlling principle is why Jesus requires that his disciples renounce all earthly relations and possessions that might take God’s place. This does not mean, however, that the believer must abandon all relations and possessions in this life. What must be destroyed is the attachment of the soul to relations and possessions as the highest good. The demand for sacrifice presupposes that what is renounced forms an obstacle to absolute devotion to God.

Vos ended the book with a summary chapter entitled “Recapitulation.” In it, he listed seven principles from Jesus’s teaching on the kingdom of God and the church.[33]

1. There is no separation between the Old Testament work of God and Jesus’s work. The two constitute a single body of supernatural revelation and redemption.

Here Vos challenged both fundamentalist and modernist interpretations concerning the kingdom. On the fundamentalist side, chiliasm did not acknowledge that old and new constitute one body of supernatural revelation and redemption. On the critical side, modernists denied that Jesus himself was conscious of the unity that existed between the Old Testament promise and his fulfillment. For Vos, the Scriptures testified and the Reformed Faith affirmed the unity between the promises of God in the Old Testament and Jesus’s fulfillment of the promises in the New Testament.

2. The doctrine of the kingdom does not teach that Christianity is a mere matter of subjective ideas or experiences. Rather, it teaches that the kingdom is related to a great system of objective, supernatural facts and transactions.

With the second principle, Vos opposed the liberal theological belief that the doctrine of the kingdom illustrated that Christianity was primarily a subjective religion based on experience. Vos believed that the doctrine of the kingdom mandated that Christianity was an objective religion based on the supernatural work of God in history. There is a subjective element to Christianity, but without the objective work of God grounding it, there is no basis for faith.

3. The kingdom-conception teaches that all of life is subservient to the glory of God. This is why the kingdom-conception is the most profoundly religious of all biblical conceptions.

The third principle was Vos’s acknowledgment that the Reformed faith had understood the Scriptures and the doctrine of the kingdom correctly when it confessed that man’s chief end was to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. The kingdom of God is an otherworldly reign and realm in which God and his glory are all-important.

4. The message the kingdom imparts to Christianity is that salvation is by the power and grace of God. This principle is connected to the necessity of faith.

Having affirmed the Reformed position in principle three, Vos pivoted in the fourth principle to show the errors of liberalism, Arminianism, and Roman Catholicism concerning the relationship between the kingdom and salvation. Salvation is not through the effort of man, but the work of God alone.

5. Jesus’s doctrine of the kingdom upholds the primacy of the spiritual over the physical. The ultimate realities of the invisible world, to which everything else is subordinate, form the essence of the kingdom. This principle is connected to the demand for repentance.

The unseen realities of heaven constitute the essence of the kingdom of God. Liberalism tied the ethical solely to this world, which left no place for biblical faith and repentance. There is an ethical dimension to the kingdom, but it has to do with repentance from sin and faith in Christ.

6. The form which the kingdom takes in the church shows it to be inseparably related to the person and work of Jesus himself.

In the sixth principle, Vos stated without reservation or qualification that Jesus Christ stands central to the church. Without Christ’s historical person and work, there is no Christianity worth proclaiming. To remove Christ as Savior from his church would be to remove the church’s reason for existence because upon Christ everything depends.

7. The concept of the kingdom of God implies the subjection of the entire range of human life to the ends of religion. The kingdom reminds us of the absoluteness, the pervasiveness, the unrestricted dominion, which of right belongs to all true religion. It proclaims that religion, and religion alone, can act as the supreme unifying, centralizing factor in the life of man, as that which binds all together and perfects all by leading it to its final goal in the service of God.

The kingdom of God in Jesus’s teaching informs the believer’s life in total. Complete devotion to God is demanded in everything that is done. But, such a service, a giving of oneself for the living God, is the only one that gives meaning and value to life.

Reviews

In a turn that had to be amusing to some, and perhaps an indication of Vos’s quiet service at Princeton, Vos himself reviewed The Kingdom of God and the Church in the Presbyterian and Reformed Review. Vos-the-reviewer explained that the aim of Vos-the-author was to produce a popular and yet not too elementary discussion from the biblico-theological point of view on Jesus’s doctrine of the kingdom. Vos proceeded to summarize the headings of the chapters without adding any insights other than the topics covered. He ended the review by stating that the book had an index and large type.[34]

In what would be typical of the writings of Vos, later generations of Reformed theologians would rescue The Kingdom of God and the Church from obscurity. In particular, Vos’s students at Princeton who went on to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary, John Murray, Ned B. Stonehouse, and Cornelius Van Til, each praised the book in print and in their classes. When the book was reprinted in 1951, Murray reviewed it in the Westminster Theological Journal.[35] Murray commented that it had been nearly half a century since the book was first published, but that the volume was far from obsolete. He said:

It is one of those books which have permanent value, for it is a masterful presentation of the teaching of Jesus as presented in the four Gospels. It exhibits the profound and accurate scholarship which was characteristic of all Dr. Vos’s work and it is also written in a style which is not as heavy as that of some of the other volumes of Dr. Vos’s pen. It is splendid to have this new edition of so notable a work.[36]

Murray believed, however, that Vos would be disappointed with the one change that the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company had made in republishing the book, the change of the title from The Teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church to The Teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom and the Church.” “On one thing Dr. Vos was insistent—we not speak of the Kingdom but of the Kingdom of God. That emphasis was pivotal in Vos’s thought.”[37]

Still, Murray was thankful that the book would be receiving a new audience. He finished, “Vos provides us with a biblico-theological study which supplies us with the conceptions which must guide and govern our thinking if we are to be faithful to him who went preaching the kingdom of God."[38]

In the same issue of the Westminster Theological Journal, Ned B. Stonehouse reviewed the Dutch edition of Herman Ridderbos’s The Coming of the Kingdom.[39] In what he considered high praise, Stonehouse wrote that Ridderbos’s volume “may advantageously be compared with that of Geerhardus Vos on The Teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church.”[40] Stonehouse continued:

Broadly speaking the same conception of the significance and scope of the kingdom of God appears in both volumes, which is rather remarkable in view of the consideration that Vos’s treatise evidently was not known to Ridderbos at the time that he wrote the work. If one takes in account, however, the fact that Ridderbos like Vos stands squarely in the stream of the Reformed tradition, sharing its convictions and insights, and is also a scholar of wide learning and rare exegetical skill, the larger measure of agreement will not appear as a bare coincidence. It is refreshing, nevertheless, to receive a new reminder that after fifty years Vos’s fundamental perspectives and conclusions are by no means outdated.[41]

Even when he then turned to talking about the advantages of having Ridderbos’s Coming of the Kingdom in print, Stonehouse could not help but turn back to Vos’s contribution. Stonehouse said that Ridderbos had provided a book on the kingdom of God with a far greater scope, but “brevity in the hands of a precise thinker like Vos is not necessarily a serious liability, and my impression is that his little book will long remain a classic because of its masterful analysis and formulation of various aspects of the subject.”[42] Stonehouse’s recommendation was to keep Ridderbos’s volume close as a reference tool continually to be consulted, but to read Vos’s book at least once a year.[43]

Van Til leaned heavily upon Vos when talking about the kingdom of God in his book Christian Theistic Ethics. In it Van Til declared the kingdom of God “is a gift of free grace to man and that therefore the summum bonum is a free gift to man.”[44] According to Van Til, “Vos has worked this out beautifully in his little book, Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church. The kingdom of God is not realized by self-righteousness but by the righteousness of God, which must be given to men.”[45]

In detailing how the kingdom of God was both a present reality and a goal, Van Til again turned to Vos. “The kingdom of God is a present reality. We have entered into it. But it is also that for the realization of which we daily strive. Dr. Vos has made this two-fold aspect of the kingdom abundantly clear on the basis of the teaching of Jesus.”[46]

In explaining how righteousness, holiness, and blessedness belong together in the kingdom of God, Van Til referenced Vos’s The Kingdom of God and the Church once more. Van Til wrote:

Dr. Vos makes plain that there is a two-fold aspect to Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom. Righteousness and conversion have to do with the present aspect of the kingdom, and blessedness primarily with the future aspect of the kingdom. Apart from the fact that those who are in the kingdom are now blessed, in the sense that they know themselves to be heirs of God, their actual and complete blessedness lies in the future. They cannot be completely blessed till all of sin and all of the results of sin are done away. Hence they cannot be perfectly blessed till their own souls are perfectly and permanently cleansed from the last remnant of sin . . . In short, they cannot be fully blessed till “the regeneration of all things.”[47]

Orthodox Presbyterian historian Charles Dennison, a student of Van Til and Gaffin at Westminster, also highly praised the book. In particular, he observed that Vos’s concluding chapter, “Recapitulation,” was no summary in the ordinary sense. In summarizing Vos’s seven principles, Dennison said, “For Vos, Jesus’ theological method rises first of all from the historical reality of God’s interaction with this world. This historical reality involves the historical unity of God’s Old Testament work and Jesus’ labors recorded in the gospels.”[48] Dennison continued:

Indispensable to Jesus’ theology is his identity as Savior, a fact from which his church cannot separate itself and still be called the church. For Jesus to be Savior, in his theology of the kingdom, means the essential message of faith and repentance to those who would enter the kingdom.[49]

In Dennison’s judgment, Vos had rightly understood the essence of the kingdom. “The essence of the kingdom is understood in terms of salvation for another world, righteousness for that world, and blessedness intimately, in it.”[50]

Dennison questioned, however, if the book reflected an “idealism” on Vos’s part that he moved away from in his more mature writings.[51] Vos would declare later in his Pauline Eschatology that “the historical was first, then the theological.”[52] The coming of the kingdom of God is a great event, not an ideal.

Charles Dennison’s older brother, James T. Dennison Jr., focused on Vos’s opposition to nineteenth-century liberal views and early twentieth-century apocalyptic views of the kingdom of God. These views desupernaturalized the kingdom in contrast to Jesus’s proclamation. Dennison also noted that Vos emphasized the eschatological nature of the kingdom. He wrote,

The “now” and “not yet” (or the two ages) of Jesus’ kingdom proclamation surpass Judaism with its nationalistic, political, sensual kingdom hopes. The presence and future of the kingdom that Jesus brings contravenes classic liberalism that immanentizes the eschaton.[53]

Although very appreciative of Vos’s contributions as a whole, George Eldon Ladd believed that Vos had erred in his identification of the kingdom and the church when interpreting Matthew 16:18–19. Ladd wrote, “Vos presses metaphorical language too far when he insists that this identification must be made because the first part of the saying speaks of the founding of the house and the second part sees the same house complete with doors and keys.”[54] Ladd concluded that “Vos confidently affirms the church is the kingdom.”[55]

According to Ladd, a better understanding of the text is that there exists an inseparable relationship, but not an identity. The many sayings about entering into the kingdom are not the same as entering into the church.

A closer reading of the context from which Ladd pulled the quote indicates that Vos’s affirmation was more carefully nuanced than Ladd reported. Vos argued that when Jesus declared that Peter had been given the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose on earth, that declaration must be understood in light of the earlier declaration regarding Peter as the foundation rock. Vos said, “First the house is represented as in process of building, Peter as the foundation, then the same house appears as completed and Peter as invested with the keys for administering its affairs.”[56] This is followed by the statement that Ladd quoted and the statement that he paraphrased, “It is plainly excluded that the house should mean one thing in the first statement and another in the second. It must be possible, this much we may confidently affirm, to call the church the kingdom.”[57] What Ladd does not add is Vos’s next statement, “It is another question, to which we shall presently revert, whether the kingdom can under all circumstances be identified with the church.”[58]

For Vos, the church was in possession of the powers of the world to come. The kingdom-life which existed in the invisible sphere found expression in the kingdom-organism of the visible church. But, it did not necessarily follow that the outward expression of the kingdom was found only in the visible church. He said:

While it is proper to separate between the visible church and such things as the Christian state, Christian art, Christian science, etc., these things, if they truly belong to the kingdom of God, grow up out of the regenerated life of the invisible church.[59]

The question would become whether Vos maintained this view of the church and culture in his more mature biblical-theological writings.

Endnotes

[1] David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, vol. 2, The Majestic Testimony, 1869–1929 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 210.

[2] Interview, Marianne Vos Radius by Charles G. Dennison, February 27, 1992, at the Raybrook Assisted Living Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[3] Ibid.

[4] February 6, 1903, New York Times, in The Letters of Geerhardus Vos, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 43.

[5] Email, Raymond Vos to Danny Olinger, December 12, 2016.

[6] Charles G. Dennison, taped comments to Vos Monday Group, Sewickley, PA, July 21, 1996, archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[7] Interview, Marianne Radius, archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[8] Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, 2:210.

[9] Interview, Marianne Radius, archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[10] George Harinck, “Geerhardus Vos as an Introducer of Kuyper in America,” in The Dutch–American Experience: Essays in Honor of Robert P. Swierenga, ed. Hans Krabbendam and Larry J. Wagenaar (Amsterdam: VU Uitgeverij, 2000), 244.

[11] Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, 2:210.

[12] Marianne recalled, “For two years we had German governesses, and we spoke nothing but German in the house.” Interview, Marianne Radius. Interestingly, according to George Harinck, once Geerhardus was at Princeton, he hardly spoke Dutch anymore. Harinck, “Vos as Introducer of Kuyper, 244.

[13] Ibid. In 1914 J. Ross Stevenson became the second president of Princeton Seminary.

[14] Geerhardus Vos, “The Ministry of John the Baptist,” in The Bible Student 1 (1900): 26–32, reprinted in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 299–303.

[15] Geerhardus Vos, “The Kingdom of God,” in The Bible Student 1 (1900): 282–89, 328–35, reprinted in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 304–16.

[16] Vos, “Ministry of John the Baptist,” in Gaffin, Redemptive History, 300.

[17] Ibid., 303.

[18] In “The Kingdom of God,” Vos wrote, “In a previous article we endeavored to discuss some of the formal questions that cluster around the conception of the kingdom of God. We must now look for a moment at the content of the idea from a material point of view.” Vos, “The Kingdom of God,” in Gaffin, Redemptive History, 310.

[19] Geerhardus Vos, review of Das Reich Gottes nach den synoptischen Evangelien, by W. Lütgert, Presbyterian and Reformed Review 11, no. 41 (1900):171–74. Wilhelm Lütgert (1867–1937) was professor of New Testament at Griefswald. He would move to the University of Halle in 1901 and serve there as professor of systematic theology. In 1929 he succeeded Reinhold Seeberg as the chairman of systematic theology at the University of Berlin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would serve as Lütgert’s academic assistant at Berlin, and Lütgert as Bonhoeffer’s advisor would help Bonhoeffer publish his postdoctoral dissertation, Act and Being.

[20] Geerhardus Vos, review of Die Reichsgotteshoffnung in den altesten christlichen Dokumenten und bei Jesus, by Paul Wernle, Princeton Theological Review 1, no. 2 (1903):298–303. Paul Wernle (1872-1939), professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Basel, was the most influential Swiss theologian of the early twentieth century. A History of Religions proponent, Wernle befriended and mentored Karl Barth for the period leading up to World War I. Richard Burnett has argued that Barth had no modern theologian more in view when writing his commentaries on Romans than Wernle. See, Richard Burnett, Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 136.

[21] Although Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics included a section on the relationship of the kingdom of heaven and the church, he did not repeat the same line of argumentation in The Teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church. See, “Essence,” chap. 1, and “Organization, Discipline, Offices,” chap. 2, in Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 5, Ecclesiology, the Means of Grace, Eschatology, trans. and ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. with Kim Batteau and Allan Janssen (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2016), 3–74.

[22] Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1972), 9.

[23] Ibid., 17.

[24] Ibid., 19.

[25] Ibid., 25.

[26] Ibid., 26.

[27] Ibid., 27.

[28] Vos did not name Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) directly, but it is unmistakable that he was contrasting Schweitzer’s view of the kingdom with the traditional understanding of the kingdom throughout this section. For an analysis of Schweitzer’s views, see Robert Strimple’s The Modern Search for the Real Jesus (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995).

[29] Vos, Kingdom of God and the Church, 39. Although Vos did not make direct reference to Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question and Answer 102, it is clear that he had this in view with this statement. Q. 102. What do we pray for in the second petition? A. In the second petition which is, Thy kingdom come, we pray that Satan’s kingdom may be destroyed; and that the kingdom of grace may be advanced ourselves and others brought into it, and kept in it; and that the kingdom of glory may be hastened.

[30] Vos, Kingdom of God and the Church, 50.

[31] Matthew 16:18–19 (KJV): “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

[32] Vos, Kingdom of God and the Church, 91.

[33] Ibid., 102–3. The seven principles are summarized below.

[34] In many ways Vos’s statement in his Biblical Theology provided more of a summary of The Kingdom of God and the Church than his review did. Vos wrote, “The kingdom is in its intent an instrument of redemption as well as the embodiment of the blessedness of Israel. To it the Messianic expectations attach themselves. It is a serious mistake to conceive of the kingdom as something accidentally arrived at, and merely tolerated for a time at the expense of democracy. The thing was too large and deep to have aught of the unessential and dispensable about it. It touches, through the kingship of Christ, the very acme and perfection of the Biblical religion.” Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1985), 185–86.

[35] John Murray, review of The Teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom and the Church, by Geerhardus Vos, Westminster Theological Journal 14 (1952):230.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 231.

[39] Ned B. Stonehouse, review of De Komst van het Koninkrijk, by H. N. Ridderbos, Westminster Theological Journal 14 (1952):160.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., a student of Stonehouse in the late 1950s at Westminster Seminary, testifies that Stonehouse declared more than once in the classroom that every minister of the gospel should read Vos’s Kingdom of God and the Church annually. Email to author, March 10, 2017.

[44] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 78.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., 90. Richard Gaffin Jr. echoes Vos and Van Til in his article, “The Bible and the Whole Counsel of God,” which honored Vos’s son, Johannes. Gaffin wrote, “The kingdom of God is the fundamental and all-encompassing category. Accordingly, the gospel (of God’s grace) is the gospel of the kingdom and its coming. Repentance and faith are the primary blessings of the kingdom. Worked by the grace of God, they are the way of entrance into and continuance in the kingdom of God.” See, Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “The Bible and the Whole Counsel of God,” in The Book of Books: Essays on the Scriptures in Honor of Johannes G. Vos, ed. John H. White (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1978), 21.

[47] Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics, 121.

[48] Manuscript of comments made to Vos Monday Group in Sewickley, PA, September 21, 1998. See, A Geerhardus Vos Anthology, ed. Danny E. Olinger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004): 27.

[49] Olinger, Vos Anthology, 27.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Charles Dennison, comments made on December 15, 1997, at the Vos Monday Group, Sewickley, PA.

[52] Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1986), 41.

[53] Dennison, “The Life of Geerhardus Vos,” in Letters, 55.

[54] George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 263–64. Ladd repeats the same statement verbatim in A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 112.

[55] Ladd, The Presence of the Future, 264, and A Theology of the New Testament, 112.

[56] Vos, Kingdom of God and the Church, 81.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid., 81-82.

[59] Ibid., 89.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, April 2017.

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