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Geerhardus Vos: The Biblical Theology

Danny E. Olinger

During the first semester of his middler year at Princeton Seminary, J. Gresham Machen took Geerhardus Vos’s course in biblical theology. Machen and Vos would go on to spend twenty-three years together on the faculty at Princeton from 1906–1929. They would also share active membership in the Presbytery of New Brunswick from Machen’s ordination in 1914 until Vos’s retirement in 1932. But, in September 1903, Machen was just a second-year seminary student writing down everything he could from the lectures of Vos the professor. Machen’s handwritten notes from the class have been preserved. There are loops and circles at the top of pages and doodling throughout in the Greek alphabet. But, there is also Machen’s declaration in capital letters prior to the final exam, “I FLUNK VOS!”[1]

Machen did not flunk the course, and thankfully, his understanding of Vos improved as a student at Princeton to the point where he was writing his mother in praise of Vos. After hearing Vos’s sermon “Rabboni” on John 20 during his senior year, Machen wrote his mother.

We heard this morning one of the finest expository sermons I ever heard. It was preached by Dr. Vos, professor of Biblical Theology in the Seminary. It rather surprised me. He is usually too severely theological for Sunday morning. Today, he was nothing less than inspiring. His subject was Christ’s appearance to Mary after the resurrection. Dr. Vos differs from some theological professors in having a better developed bump of reverence.[2]

Machen’s appreciation for Vos would grow over the years. Once Machen began serving with Vos on the Princeton Seminary faculty, Machen told a fellow professor, “If I knew as much as Dr. Vos, I would be writing all the time.”[3] When Vos couldn’t find a publisher for his book The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, Machen wrote letters in the summer of 1926 to publishers on Vos’s behalf, including one to the eventual publisher, the George Doran Publishing Company.[4]

But, Machen as a student was scrambling to keep up with Vos’s lectures and writing down every word he could decipher from Vos’s heavy German brogue. Machen’s extensive notes reveal the close connection between what Vos was teaching in 1903 and his Biblical Theology published in 1948. The recording of a day’s lecture of Vos in Machen’s notebook often closely matches the content of a chapter in the book. Occasionally paragraphs are shuffled from where they appear in the lecture and where they appear in print. However, the exegesis and teaching are remarkably consistent.

Biblical Theology

A comparison of Machen’s notebook with Biblical Theology reinforces the fact that the book was the compilation of Vos’s class lectures. In the Eerdmans Quarterly Observer promoting “Outstanding Theological Volumes in Work,” for release in the fall of 1948, the anticipated title is listed as Old Testament and New Testament Notes on Biblical Theology. The flyer also said:

Despite the fact that these notes have never appeared in book form, the work is of such outstanding character that it is famous in seminary circles throughout the United States and Canada, and students who have sat in Dr. Vos’ classes at Princeton have treasured and passed on copies of these notes for many years. All of the material has now been thoroughly edited, annotated, and indexed by one of the author’s sons, the Rev. Johannes Vos, who has simplified certain portions and enlarged others. In this work he has had access to the private files of his father, who is now in retirement. The work will carry an introduction by the author.[5]

What is also timely with Machen’s 1903 notes is that Vos’s short article “The Nature and Aims of Biblical Theology” had just been published in 1902.[6] Whether Vos drew the article from his lectures, or wrote the article and then added it to his lectures, we do not know. But, a deep connection exists among the article, the lectures recorded in Machen’s notebook, and the book. Vos lifted the concluding paragraph of the article and placed it in the preface to Biblical Theology. He concluded the article:

In the foregoing the question has not been raised in how far the name Biblical theology fits the discipline we have endeavored to describe. It cannot be denied that this name lies open to serious objection, although it may be impossible to displace it, now that it has become almost generally adopted. The appropriation of the adjective “Biblical” would seem to call in question the Biblical character of the other theological disciplines, which, from a Protestant point of view, would be tantamount to denying their right of existence altogether. If the usual division of theology into the four departments of Exegetical, Historical, Systematic, and Practical Theology is to be retained, the designation of a subdivision of one of these four by a phrase constructed on the same principle as the names of the main divisions, must inevitably lead to confusion of thought. These difficulties can all be obviated by substituting for Biblical Theology the name, “History of (Special) Revelation,” which has actually been adopted by some writers.[7]

In the preface to Biblical Theology, Vos expanded the single paragraph to two paragraphs and changed the wording slightly.

The present volume is entitled Biblical Theology—Old and New Testaments. The term “Biblical Theology” is really unsatisfactory because of its liability to misconstruction. All truly Christian Theology must be Biblical Theology—far apart from General Revelation the Scriptures constitute the sole material with which the science of Theology can deal. A more suitable name would be “History of Special Revelation,” which precisely describes the subject matter of this discipline. Names, however, become fixed by long usage, and the term “Biblical Theology,” in spite of its ambiguity, can hardly be abandoned now.

Biblical Theology occupies a position between Exegesis and Systematic Theology in the encyclopedia of theological disciplines. It differs from Systematic Theology, not in being more Biblical, or adhering more closely to the truths of the Scriptures, but in that its principle of organizing the Biblical material is historical rather than logical. Whereas Systematic Theology takes the Bible as a completed whole and endeavours to exhibit its total teaching in an orderly, systematic form, Biblical Theology deals with the material from the historical standpoint, seeking to exhibit the organic growth or development of the truths of Special Revelation from the primitive pre-redemptive Special Revelation given in Eden to the close of the New Testament canon.[8]

It is interesting that Vos added in the preface a description of the organic growth of the development of special revelation, particularly that biblical theology must start with an understanding of primitive pre-redemptive special revelation given in Eden. As early as his 1891 address, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” Vos had argued that the Reformed faith rightly grasped the goal set before man from creation, full communion with God on a higher estate. This understanding of the pre-Fall communion goal distinguished the Reformed faith from Lutheranism, Arminianism, and Roman Catholicism. In Biblical Theology, Vos built upon this contention exegetically. It was the eschatological strand that undergirded and connected the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation.

Pre-Redemptive Special Revelation

Vos explained this foundational concept in chapter two, “The Mapping Out of the Field of Revelation,” and chapter three, “The Content of Pre-Redemptive Special Revelation.”[9] Vos argued that it would be “a mistake to think that the sole result of the fall was the introduction of a supernatural revelation.”[10] God communicated to man by both general and special revelation prior to the Fall into sin. General or natural revelation is present in the inner core of man and also comes outside of man from nature. Special revelation is the supernatural self-disclosure of God that cannot be derived from nature.

The possibility and necessity of pre-redemptive special revelation flowed from the nature of religion itself, communion with the living God. The face-to-face communion that Adam enjoyed before the Fall was by special revelation, which transcended the indirection of the natural knowledge of God. Vos elaborated:

Religion means personal intercourse between God and man. Hence it might be a priori expected that God would not be satisfied, and would not allow man to be satisfied with an acquaintance based on indirection, but would crown the process of religion with the establishment of face-to-face communion, as friend holds fellowship with friend.[11]

Adam was created upright, but this original estate of innocence, although good, was not the higher estate of glory. This higher estate, where full communion with God is without end, was held out to Adam as a goal. Vos continued:

The same conclusion may be drawn from the concrete purpose God had in view with this first form of supernaturalism. This is connected with the state in which man was created and the advance from this to a still higher estate. Man had been created perfectly good in a moral sense. And yet there was a sense in which he could be raised to a still higher level of perfection. On the surface this seems to involve a contradiction. It will be removed by closely marking the aspect in regard to which the advance was contemplated. The advance was meant to be from unconfirmed to confirmed goodness and blessedness; to the confirmed state in which these possessions could no longer be lost, a state in which man could no longer sin, and hence could no longer become subject to the consequences of sin.[12]

God extended to Adam the prospect of this higher life, the perfecting of the communion bond with God, and pre-redemptive special revelation, the word that God speaks in Genesis 2:16–17, communicated this to Adam.[13] God supernaturally revealed “the principles of a process of probation by which man was to be raised to a state of religion and goodness, higher, by reason of its unchangeableness, than what he already possessed.”[14] This prospect of leaving the probation state behind and entering into a higher estate was due to an act of God’s condescension. There was nothing inherent in man’s creation or God’s justice that bound God to extend this provision to man.[15]

The tree of life symbolized the hope of advancement beyond probation and indirect communion with God. If Adam had obeyed, the higher, unchangeable life marked by full communion with God and symbolized in the tree of life would have been secured. However, if Adam had eaten from the tree of life prior to the passing of the probation, he would have been confirmed in an estate where the fellowship goal with God on a higher estate could not be reached. According to Revelation 2:7, the tree of life is reserved for the overcomer, that is, the one who passes the probation.

The translational goal of man communing fully with God was also sacramentally symbolized by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If the tree of life was the “exaltation tree” of life with God in full, then the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the “probation tree,” the God-appointed instrument to lead man through probation to that state of highest blessedness.

Behind the probation was that which is good, the advancement of the communion bond between God and man. Behind the temptation was that which is evil, the destruction of the communion bond between God and man. The question connected to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was whether Adam and Eve would choose God for God’s sake alone.

Satan wanted Eve to distrust God’s Word. This is seen in his approach to Eve. She had not personally received the prohibition from God, as Adam did. Satan questioned the fact that God had spoken in this manner (Genesis 3:1). Eve responded by affirming that God had spoken and issued a prohibition. But she also added to God’s Word. She said that God said that the fruit of the tree could not be touched. Vos commented, “In this unwarranted introduction of the denial of the privilege of ‘touching’ the woman betrays a feeling, as though after all God’s measures may have been too harsh.”[16]

Satan seized upon this opening and declared, “Ye shall not surely die” (Genesis 3:1, KJV). Vos noted that in the Hebrew, the negative is placed at the beginning, which had the effect of charging God with lying. When she ate the forbidden fruit, Eve placed the tempter in the place of God. The result is a reversal in which she called good (the Word of God) evil and evil (the word of Satan) good.

Vos then provided examples of the careless exegesis of those who argued from Scripture that humanity did not become subject to death through sin. Some argued that since man had not partaken of the tree of life, man was not yet endowed with life and consequently was subject to death. This view failed to distinguish between the life man possessed by virtue of creation and the higher unlosable life to be possessed through the passing of the probation that the tree of life represented. Man’s having not eaten of the tree of life did not signal the absence of life in general that would bring about the necessity of death.

Adam and Eve were immortal in the sense that they were created upright with souls that would last forever. However, they did not possess immortality in the highest sense of unlosable communion. After the Fall into sin, they are mortal as death works in them. Immortality comes to them and their seed as a result of the redemptive person and work of Jesus Christ.

The Patriarchal Period

In his examination of the patriarchal period, Vos’s later influence upon Machen, particularly Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923), was apparent. Vos argued there was a difference between historic Christianity (true religion) and modernistic Christianity (false religion). True religion was not about moral uplift, but the Lord’s redemption of a particular people. The historicity of the biblical figures and the truthfulness of the biblical account were not incidentals to be cast off. Vos explained:

We must first of all emphasize that the historicity of the patriarchs can never be, to us, a matter of small importance. The religion of the Old Testament being a factual religion, it is untrue that these figures retain the same usefulness, through the lessons that can be drawn from their stories, as actual history would possess. This prejudges the answer to the fundamental question, what religion is for. If, on the Pelagian principle, it serves no other purpose than to teach religious and moral lessons from example, then the historicity is no longer of material importance. We can learn the same lessons from legendary or mythical figures. But, if according to the Bible they are real actors in the drama of redemption, the actual beginning of the people of God, the first embodiment of objective religion; if Abraham was the father of the faithful, the nucleus of the Church; then the denial of their historicity makes them useless from our point of view. The whole matter depends on how we conceive of man’s need as a sinner. If this be construed on the evangelical principle we cannot without serious loss of religious values assign these given figures to the region of myth or legend.[17]

The modern critics separated ethics and redemption, but a right understanding of revelation in the patriarchal period taught that ethics are the product of redemption. What shapes Abraham’s conduct is the thought of El-Shaddai, the one who fills his life with miraculous grace and before whose presence he walks.[18] Vos concluded, “Thus morality is put on a redemptive basis and inspired by the principle of faith.”[19]

Vos believed that the principle of election also came to the fore with the call of Abraham. One family is chosen out of the existing Shemitic families. This choosing upsets Rationalists “because the God of Rationalism was at bottom simply the God of nature, and nature is universal, therefore His self-disclosure must be as wide as nature.”[20] Such a position, however, does not account for the abnormality of sin. The covenantal promise to Abraham was built upon God’s grace, and saving grace is always a differentiating principle.

Revelation in the patriarchal period also demonstrated the objectivity of the gifts which God’s revelation bestowed. Here Vos explained two bedrocks of Reformed biblical theology, the relationship between the objective and subjective aspects of religion, and the historical-progressive character of religion. Vos said, “The keynote is not what Abraham has to do for God, but what God will do for Abraham. Then, in response to this, the subjective frame of mind that changes the inner and outer life is cultivated.”[21] What unites the objective and historical-progressive elements in revelation is God’s supernatural imposition and activity. The result is a religion that is thoroughly supernatural and eschatological in its outlook. Abraham’s supreme blessedness consisted in the possession of God himself. But, to secure God and his promises, Abraham had to renounce his own effort and to look entirely by faith to the supernatural work of God.

The Mosaic Era

In chapter 8, “Revelation in the Period of Moses,” the largest single chapter in the book, Vos repeated many of the arguments from his first published book, The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes. Critics viewed the Old Testament revelation from a naturalistic standpoint. Consequently, they believed that Moses and his teaching was an imaginary construct of the later prophets cast back upon the biblical record. Vos countered that a supernatural factor was at work. According to Hosea, by a prophet—Moses, not a school of prophets—the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt (Hosea 12:13). Occupying the dominant position that he does in the religious development of the Old Testament, Moses “is placed not merely at the head of the succession of prophets, but placed over them in advance. His authority extends over subsequent ages.”[22] Moses was set over God’s house (Numb. 12:7), and as such, he prefigured Christ to the extent that “nearly all the terms in use for the redemption of the New Testament can be traced back to his time.”[23]

The relationship between Moses and Christ, and the parallel of the relationship of Moses to Israel and Christ to the church was not lost upon the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 10:1–3, Paul declared, “Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” The mighty acts of redemption that God worked through Moses pledged Israel to faith in him. So, in baptism, the believer and Christ are brought into an intimate relationship based on Christ’s saving work.

The theocracy in Israel was the union of religious lordship and national kingship in the one person of Jehovah. This demanded God as king, and not a human king, because only in God are the two spheres interwoven. But the relationship between the religious and civil in the land was such that the religious sphere had the pre-eminence. “The chief end for which Israel had been created was not to teach the world lessons in political economy, but in the midst of a world of paganism to teach true religion, even at the sacrifice of much secular propaganda and advantage.”[24] The theocracy, the abode of Israel in Canaan, typified the perfected kingdom of God, the consummate state of heaven where there no longer will be a distinction between church and state.

The Decalogue, which contained no ceremonial commandments, illustrated the redemptive structure of the theocracy. Like the theocracy in general, the Decalogue hovered above Israel as an ideal never realizable. Still, as a revelation of God, the Decalogue descended into and condescended to the abnormalities of Israel. Vos wrote:

The most striking feature of the Decalogue is its specifically religious character. It is not an ethical code in and by itself, resting, as it were, on the bare imperative of God. The preamble brings the affection to Jehovah, in view of what He has done redemptively for the people, to bear through a responsive affection upon their conduct. If we may apply the term “Christian” thus retrospectively to the Decalogue, we should say, what it contains is not general but Christian ethics. Ethics is represented as the redemptive product.[25]

Vos gave special emphasis to the first four words that dealt with the relationship between God and man. The first three words protest against the sins of polylatry (worshiping more than one God), idolatry (worshipping the creature rather than the Creator), and magic (seeking to manipulate God through the use of his name for personal gain). The fourth word “consists in this, that man must copy God in his course of life. The divine creative work completed itself in six days, whereupon the seventh followed as a day of rest for God.”[26] Vos stressed the eschatological character of the fourth word.

The Sabbath brings this principle of the eschatological structure of history to bear upon the mind of man after a symbolical and a typical fashion. It teaches its lesson through the rhythmical succession of six days of labour and one ensuing day of rest in each successive week. Man is reminded in this way that life is not an aimless existence, that a goal lies beyond. This was true before, and apart from, redemption. The eschatological is an older strand in revelation from the soteric. The so-called “Covenant of Works” was nothing but an embodiment of the Sabbatical principle.[27]

The significance of the Sabbath is that it points forward to eternal issues of life and history. Vos wondered if the church of his day had lost sight of this eschatological meaning by making Sabbath observance an instrument of religious propaganda at the expense of the day’s eternity-typifying value.

The tabernacle embodied the eminently religious idea of the dwelling of God with his people, a fellowship made possible by God’s condescension. “Since the Israelites lived in tents, the idea of God’s identifying His lot with theirs could not be more strikingly expressed than by His sharing this mode of habitation.”[28] The materials for the tent came from the free-will offering of the people, which symbolized their desire to have God dwell with them. This is why the fellowship takes place in the “tent of meeting.” The meeting did not refer to a general meeting of the people in an accidental manner, but to the special meeting of God with his people. Vos wrote:

The word that is rendered “meeting” does not designate an accidental encounter, but something previously arranged. It implies that Jehovah makes the provision and appoints the time for coming together with His people. The idea is of importance, because it is one of the indications of that conscious intercourse between God and man which characterizes the Biblical religion.[29]

The tabernacle was also instructive in that it provided a clear instance of the co-existence of symbol and type in the Old Covenant. Vos defined a symbol in its religious significance as “something that profoundly portrays a certain fact or principle or relationship of a spiritual nature in a visible form.”[30] The symbol pictures that which has a present force and application. A type “relates to that which will become real or applicable in the future.”[31] Symbolically, God met with his people in the tabernacle, a present redemptive reality. But, typically, this communion between God and his people pointed to the final embodiment of salvation in the Christian state.

Prophetic Epoch

Vos next moved to the second part of the book, six chapters that covered the prophetic epoch of revelation. Israel’s sinful turn to worshiping the Baals left the prophets feeling as if they were living among a people who did not treasure the same things that they did. Consequently, the prophets looked to the future for what the present denied them. But, they did so on the basis of the Word of God. The divine message that they heralded was “not to bring out of chaos and dissolution of sin the return simply of the former state of affairs but the attainment of a higher order of things.”[32] Their message further marked “the religion of the Old Testament as a religion of conscious intercourse between Jehovah and Israel, a religion of revelation, of authority, a religion in which God dominates, and in which man is put into the listening, submissive attitude.”[33]

In dealing with the prophets of the eighth century, Vos argued that their orientation was God-centered. Vos quickly added, “This is but another way of saying that it is religious, for without that, no religion deserving that name can exist.”[34] The finest product of religion is a passion for God and his glory that is not only clearly-recognized, but also shared with others. Vos explained, “God is not a philanthropist who likes to do good in secret without its becoming known; His delight is in seeing Himself and His perfections mirrored in the consciousness of the religious subject.”[35]

God originated the covenant union with Israel in history. In this bond, Jehovah gives himself personally and fully. He woos Israel and draws her to himself, and unlike the Baals, he extends in the covenant loving-kindness, mercy, and faithfulness. “He is personally present in all His favours, and in them surrenders Himself to His people for never-failing enjoyment.”[36]

What attitude of the people was expected in response to such divine love? Not sacrifice, but righteousness and the knowledge of God were expected. The knowledge of God, with its character-forming influence, was intended to make Israel like God.

The New Testament

In the final part of the book, Vos looked at the New Testament. The teaching of the New Testament revealed that Jesus Christ is the great fact to be expounded. “To take Christ at all He must be taken as the centre of a movement of revelation organized around Him, and winding up the whole process of revelation.”[37] A continuity existed for believers living between the first and second coming of Christ. “Still, we know full well that we ourselves live just as much in the New Testament as did Peter and Paul and John.”[38]

In the chapter “Revelation in the Probation of Jesus,” Vos exegeted Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Vos said:

In our case temptation chiefly raises the question of how we shall pass through it and issue from it without loss. In Jesus’ case, while this consideration was not, of course, absent, the higher concern was not avoidance of loss, but the procuring of positive gain.[39]

Luke in his account carried the genealogy back to Adam, and then subjoined to it the probation of Jesus, the second Adam. Adam began with a clean slate. In the case of Jesus, he had to remove pre-existing sin before the positive act of procuring eternal life for his people. For Jesus as second Adam, then, the temptation involved suffering and humiliation, not just obeying.

Satan wanted Jesus as the Son of God to bypass humiliation, but Jesus existed as Messiah in a state of humiliation. After Jesus passed through the humiliation, he would enter into a state of exaltation where that which was offered to him as temptations would become perfectly normal and allowable.

Jesus regarded the movement of the Old Testament “as having arrived at its goal in Himself, so that He Himself in His historic appearance and work being taken away, the Old Testament would lose its purpose and significance.”[40] Jesus held the Scriptures in the highest regard. Jesus’s underlying supposition when engaged with others was that the Word of God was unbreakable, that not believing it involved an attempt to break something God had declared sure.

Reviews

When Biblical Theology appeared in print, Westminster Seminary professors John Murray and Cornelius Van Til praised its appearance in Eerdman’s promotional literature. Van Til wrote:

The publication of Dr. Vos’ Biblical Theology marks an event of great importance in the field of Biblical and theological learning. These notes represent the ripe fruit of a lifetime of labor on the part of a great linguist, a profound theologian, and a humble believer. In a unique and penetrating fashion they trace the gradual development of God’s revelation to man in both the Old and New Testaments. As such they form an excellent help for combatting modern evolutionary views. The minister who uses them for background study will find that his preaching becomes less stereotypical and more truly Biblical.[41]

Murray said that Eerdmans had performed “an incalculable service” by making available the ripe fruit of the sanctified and erudite labor of Vos.[42] He continued:

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. His work in Biblical Theology is quite unique. It is safe to say that no one has written on this branch of exegetical theology who has exhibited a comparable grasp of the significance and character of Biblical Theology as the department of biblical science which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.[43]

Murray would also review the book for the Presbyterian Guardian. Murray acknowledged that some rightly recoil from the discipline of biblical theology and the concept of progressive revelation because of liberal misuse of it. Murray countered:

But the abuse of a concept is never a reason for the rejection of the concept as such. The abuse and distortion place the student under greater obligation to frame a true conception and to apply it properly. This is the great service performed by Dr. Vos.[44]

Vos recognized that while the self-revelation of God is progressive, the content of that self-revelation is deposited entirely in the Scriptures, which closed with the completion of the New Testament canon.

Murray lamented the incompleteness of the section on the New Testament, which ended with “The Revelation of Jesus’ Public Ministry,” but said that Vos’s teaching on the rest of the New Testament is available in articles and books.[45] Murray closed with a glowing tribute to his former teacher.

Although, Dr. Vos, because of his advanced years, is not now able to enrich us with the fruits of his theological erudition, we rejoice that we now have this new memorial to the graces and gifts with which God has so singularly endowed him. Those of us who have been privileged to sit at his feet wish with all the depth and warmth of esteem and affection that in his declining years the candle of the Lord may shine upon his head and the secret of God abide upon his tabernacle.[46]

After its appearance in print, Biblical Theology became a standard text for Reformed institutions of higher education. At Murray and Van Til’s own Westminster Seminary, fellow professors E. J. Young and Ned B. Stonehouse assigned major portions of the book in their classes. Richard Gaffin Jr., who studied Vos under these men before becoming a faculty member at Westminster himself, sees Vos in his Biblical Theology as putting forward the biblical methodology called for by the Bible itself. Gaffin writes:

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the biblical-theological method, or better, the redemptive-historical orientation exemplified by Vos is, to date, the most fruitful and pointedly biblical realization of the Reformation’s insistence that Scripture interprets Scripture.[47]

Gaffin’s dependence upon Vos in teaching biblical theology at Westminster can be seen in the reading assignments from Gaffin’s New Testament Biblical Theology course. Gaffin required the students to read in the following order:

G. Vos, Biblical Theology, pp. 11–27
R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, II, pp. 237–251.
G. Vos, Biblical Theology, pp. 321–327
G. Vos, The Kingdom and the Church
G. Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, pp. 39f., 44–56, 105–302
G. Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, chapters 1–4, 6, 8–12
O. Cullman, The Christology of the New Testament, pp. 1–10, 315, 328.[48]

Regarding the subject matter of Scripture, Gaffin argues that Vos’s basic point “is that revelation is the interpretation of redemption. God’s word invariably has his redemptive deeds for its subject matter.”[49] The burden of Vos’s biblical theology is to orient “biblical interpretation to the history of redemption in a pointed and programmatic fashion.”[50]

The influence of Vos’s Biblical Theology, however, is not limited to Westminster Seminary. Wilbur Smith at Fuller Theological Seminary praised the work in the promotional material for the release of the book. He wrote, “A real work on Biblical Theology is exceedingly rare. Dr. Vos is one of the finest authorities on this subject in our country. He is truly a great scholar as well as a remarkable teacher.”[51] John Bolt notes that for three decades (1955–1985) at Calvin Seminary, Martin Woudstra, professor of Old Testament, annually led the students through Vos’s Biblical Theology in class.[52] The same could be said for E. Clark Copeland, professor of Old Testament at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Charles Dennison believed Vos’s unique contribution in the Biblical Theology was the consideration of Scripture with the end of God’s purpose always in view.[53] This is why Vos could say that biblical theology yields the highest fruit of practical theology.[54]  It points the believer to life with God in heaven, which is the goal set before humanity from the beginning.

Vos would further develop this insight in his articles and particularly his 1930 book, The Pauline Eschatology. He would also proclaim it regularly in the sermons that he preached at Princeton’s Miller Chapel.

Endnotes

[1] The notebook was a gift from the Machen family to Westminster Seminary senior John Galbraith for serving as a pallbearer at J. Gresham’s funeral on January 5, 1937. It is now in the Grace Mullen Archives Room of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[2] Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 1954), 72.

[3] H. Henry Meeter, “Professor Geerhardus Vos: March 14, 1862–August 13, 1949,” The Banner (Sept. 2, 1949): 1046.

[4] The letters to the publishers can be found in the J. Gresham Machen archives at Westminster Theological Seminary.

[5] “Outstanding Theological Volumes in Work,” Dr. Geerhardus Vos’ Notes on Biblical Theology (Old and New Testament) in Eerdmans Quarterly Observer (1948): 12.

[6] Geerhardus Vos, “The Nature and Aims of Biblical Theology,” Union Seminary Magazine 13, no. 1 (February-March 1902): 194–99, reprinted in Kerux: A Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching 14, no. 1 (May 1999): 3–8.

[7] Ibid. [Kerux reprint], 8.

[8] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), v-vi.

[9] Charles Dennison believed chapter three, “The Content of Pre-Redemptive Special Revelation,” was the programmatic chapter in understanding Vos’s thought. He stated, “It sets out the foundation of Vos’s essential hermeneutic. Missing him here means plainly missing him. Although a generation of Vos readers have missed the point, we find no other adequate entrance into Vos’s writings.” Comments to author, Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, July 22, 1991.

[10] Vos, Biblical Theology, 20.

[11] Ibid., 22.

[12] Ibid. Lane Tipton comments, “What is in view with Adam prior to the Fall is a movement not from sin to life everlasting, but from innocence (life very good but not perfect) to a life that is perfect. Vos wants us to see this eschatological goal of perfected communion and life beyond probation as the deepest structural strand of biblical revelation when it comes to our relationship with the Lord.” See, Lane Tipton and Camden Bucey, “The Content of Pre-Redemptive Special Revelation, Part One,” May 2, 2014, on Reformed Forum, http://reformedforum.org/ctc331. Tipton and Bucey’s “Vos Group” on Reformed Forum, http://reformedforum.org/resources/vos/ offers the clearest and most penetrating analysis of Vos’s Biblical Theology online or in print.

[13] In The Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1986), Vos makes the exegetical case for this understanding from the Apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:44–49. On page 169 (n.19), he writes that the Apostle in these verses “was intent upon showing that in the plan of God from the outset provision was made for a higher kind of body (as pertaining to a higher state of existence generally).” In affirming Vos’s understanding of Genesis 1–2 and 1 Corinthians 15:44–49, Richard B. Gaffin Jr. observes: “This correlation of protology and eschatology does not necessitate attributing to Paul the notions that creation is inherently in need of redemption or that the works of creation and redemption are identical. These are plainly excluded by what he says in these verses and elsewhere. What this passage does teach is that the eschatological prospect held out to Adam (and which he failed to attain) is realized and receives its specific character de facto by the work of the last Adam. The following three propositions define the limits of further dogmatic reflection on these verses: (1) Eschatology is a postulate of protology. (2) Soteriology is not a postulate of protology. (3) Soteriology is eschatology (Resurrection and Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987), 82, n. 14. On the latter point that soteriology is eschatology, Gaffin believes that it is important to note that salvation brings to the eschaton a Christological cast or complexion that would not have been present apart from the Fall. Comment to author, April 20, 2017.

[14] Vos, Biblical Theology, 27.

[15] Although Vos did not directly reference Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 7, “Of God’s Covenant with Man,” it is clear that he agreed with the chapter and used it as a guide at this point.

[16] Vos, Biblical Theology, 35.

[17] Ibid., 67.

[18] Genesis 17:1.

[19] Vos, Biblical Theology, 88.

[20] Ibid., 76.

[21] Ibid., 80.

[22] Ibid., 103.

[23] Ibid., 104.

[24] Ibid., 125.

[25] Ibid., 132.

[26] Ibid., 140.

[27] Ibid., 140.

[28] Ibid., 149.

[29] Ibid. Lane Tipton summarizes Vos’s argumentation that in making a free will offering and constructing the tabernacle “Israel by redemptive grace, as a blood bought nation, express[es] the deepest desire of the Christian religion, “God dwell in our midst.” They are not asking God, this is the thing about covenantal condescension, to be present in the way that he is present everywhere else in the world. They are asking him to be present in this unique, distinctive, intimate, sovereignly-enacted communion bond. That they long for this is probably what underlies the ‘ohel mo’ed, the tent of meeting. The idea that God comes to meet with his people, and they by virtue of his condescension, in response to his condescension, they give these offerings so that they can meet with him. Granted, their meeting with him is not the fullness and directness of access that will be opened up with Christ. Nonetheless, it is a redemptively-revealed, redemptively-secured approach to God that has communion with him at its core … [As Vos] says at the bottom of page 149, ‘The idea is of importance, because it is one of the indications of that conscious intercourse between God and man which characterizes the Biblical religion.’” Lane Tipton and Camden Bucey, “The Tabernacle,” February 17, 2017, on Reformed Forum, http://reformedforum.org/ctc477/.

[30] Vos, Biblical Theology, 144.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 189.

[33] Ibid., 193.

[34] Ibid., 234.

[35] Ibid., 235.

[36] Ibid., 261.

[37] Ibid., 302.

[38] Ibid., 303. Richard Gaffin and Charles Dennison both saw this statement as a distinguishing character of Vos’s biblical-theological approach. Gaffin wrote, “The exegete comes to see himself, despite every cultural and temporal dissimilarity as standing in principle (i.e., in the terms of the history of redemption) in the same situation as the writers of the New Testament and, therefore, as involved with Paul (and the other letter writers) in a common interpretative enterprise.” See, Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Resurrection and Redemption (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation Information Service, 1991), 19. Dennison wrote, “Here is the genius of biblical theology in its orthodox expression, the heart of our Reformation heritage. It insists we find ourselves, not so much by describing the biblical text or even by “applying” it, but by living in and from it.” See, Charles G. Dennison, “Some Thoughts About our Identity,” New Horizons 13, no. 6 (June/July 1992): 2.

[39] Vos, Biblical Theology, 333.

[40] Ibid., 358.

[41] Inside jacket cover of 1948 edition of Biblical Theology.

[42] Eerdmans Quarterly Observer.

[43] Both Eerdmans Quarterly Observer and inside jacket cover of original edition of Biblical Theology, Eerdmans, 1948.

[44] John Murray, review of Geerhardus Vos’s Biblical Theology in Presbyterian Guardian 17, no.16 (December 1948): 274, http://www.opc.org/cfh/guardian/Volume_17/1948-12.pdf.

[45] Proportionally, Vos spent 293 pages (74 percent) on the Old Testament and 103 pages (26 percent) on the New Testament.

[46] Murray, Review of Biblical Theology, 274.

[47] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “Introduction,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), xviii.

[48] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Syllabus for 2222 New Testament Biblical Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary third quarter, 1969. According to Gaffin, the inclusion of Bultmann and Cullman in the required reading list was for the purpose of providing a contrast to the various positions taken by Vos. Comments to author, April 19, 2017.

[49] Gaffin, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, xvi.

[50] Ibid., xx.

[51] Dust jacket to 1948 edition.

[52] John Bolt, “From Princeton to Wheaton: The Course of Neo-Calvinism in North America,” in Calvin Theological Journal 42, no. 1 (April 2007): 72.

[53] Charles Dennison, comments to author, September 5, 1993. Gregory Reynolds expressed the same thought that in a proper study of biblical theology, one must read the text from the conclusion. See, Gregory E. Reynolds, A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 66.

[54] Vos, Biblical Theology, 18.

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, May 2017.

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