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Vos the Systematician: A Review Article

Danny E. Olinger

Reformed Dogmatics, by Geerhardus Vos, trans. and ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., et al., 5 vols. Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2014–2016, 1,269 pages, $39.99 per volume, Kindle $5.99 per volume. Also available through Logos Bible Software.

When Louis Berkhof was born on October 13, 1893, in Emmen, the Netherlands, Geerhardus Vos was an eleven-year-old living with his parents twenty miles west in the city of Lutten. Living twenty miles to the southwest of Vos in the city of Zwolle was eighteen-year-old Herman Bavinck. All were sons of families devoted to the small and disenfranchised Christian Reformed Church (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk) in the Netherlands. As adults, each would end up teaching at Reformed institutions connected with the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands and in North America. Bavinck taught at Kampen (1883–1902) in the Netherlands, and Vos (1888–93) and Berkhof (1906–44) at the Theological School (renamed Calvin Seminary) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Each would also publish a dogmatic or systematic theology. Bavinck’s four-volume Reformed Dogmatics (1895–1901) and Vos’s five-volume Reformed Dogmatics (hand-written, 1896; transcribed, 1910) were published in Dutch. It is likely that, when Bavinck and Vos were together for the summers of 1886 and 1887, they shared with each other their views of dogmatics. Bavinck had already been teaching dogmatics at Kampen, and Vos was scheduled to teach the same subject at the Theological School. After Bavinck published his Dogmatics, Vos, by then at Princeton Seminary, wrote two glowing reviews in the Presbyterian and Reformed Review.[1]

Berkhof’s Systematic Theology was published in English in 1932. In his introduction to the volume, Berkhof voices his gratitude and indebtedness to Bavinck and Vos and the teaching of their dogmatics. Little did he know at the time that it would not be until the twenty-first century that both Bavinck and Vos were translated into English. A complete English version of Bavinck’s Dogmatics, edited by John Bolt and translated by John Vriend, appeared from 2003–8.

Now, through the editorial and translating efforts of Richard B. Gaffin Jr., and the financial backing of Logos Bible Software and Lexham Press, Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics in English has finally appeared online and in print. Together, Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics, and Cornelius Van Til’s Introduction to Systematic Theology (1936)—another theologian born in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century with Christian Reformed sympathies—put forth a treasure trove of Reformed systematics. On a cursory reading, the common thread running through each is a commitment to Reformed confessionalism combined with piety built upon sound biblical exegesis. A stimulating question for Reformed scholars going forward will be to investigate the similarities and contrasts in Bavinck’s and Vos’s dogmatics, and their influence on Berkhof and Van Til.

Van Til’s high esteem for Vos and his Reformed Dogmatics was seen in a 1941 letter. A friend, probably H. Evan Runner or John DeWaard, had shared an observation about Vos and Turretin on the doctrine of the covenant. Van Til replied:

What you say about Vos and Turretin is interesting. Vos once told me that he had studied the covenant question at that early period because of the sick ideas on the subject prevailing at the time in Grand Rapids. But whether he depended on Turretin I do not know and am inclined to doubt. Turretin does not impress me very favorably, and at any rate if there is any trait that stands out in Vos it is the originality of statement and boldness of position. To think that he was able and dared to take the position he did that is revealed in his notes on Dogmatics is nothing short of amazing. Incidentally, I hope someone will give his life and labors a worthy write-up. But I do not know anyone who has the sweep of interest that he had. I know of no one who combined linguistic, philosophic and systematic interpretation as he did. Hy komt mischien niet tot aan de eerst drie, but he runs close after them, I feel.[2]

The Dutch phrase that Van Til used to communicate his exalted opinion of Vos as a theologian is from 2 Samuel 23:19 and 23, a text about David’s mighty men.

Van Til often shared his appreciation of Vos with Gaffin, his Westminster Seminary colleague, who in turn has spent the last half century promoting Vos and his theological contributions. Still, Gaffin states that had he known that the translation project for Vos’s Dogmatics would take as long as it did (five years), he might have hesitated to take on the job. But, he quickly adds, “There is no question that it was a project well worth doing and for me personally, for all that I learned from Vos over the years about Scripture and devotion to the God of Scripture, a labor of love.”[3]  

According to Gaffin, his editorial goal for Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics was to prepare a careful translation. Since the origin of the material was Vos’s lectures, the oral aspects, such as an occasional elliptical style or Vos’s brief referrals to authors and titles, have been retained. Vos used a question and answer approach and followed the outline of the traditional loci.

Vos cites John Calvin more than any other theologian. He references Augustine the second most, and, among English speaking theologians, John Owen receives the most citations. Interestingly, Vos rarely mentions Abraham Kuyper, despite maintaining a regular correspondence with him during the period that he was teaching at the Theological School and writing the Reformed Dogmatics.

In the opening volume, Theology Proper, Vos covers the knowability, names, being, and attributes of God, and the Trinity. He also treats the decrees of God, predestination and providence. Lane Tipton in his review, “Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics,” in the April 2018 issue of New Horizons, provides a penetrating analysis of the contributions Vos made in Theology Proper.[4] Tipton notes that Vos put forth the proper relation between the triune God, who is absolute and unchanging, and an eschatologically oriented creation where man is made in the image of God. The absolute God remains immutably absolute and triune in the new relation that results from the act of creating his image bearers.

Tipton then moves to the second volume, Anthropology, to show Vos’s brilliance in arguing that the proper understanding of the new relation leads to a deeper Protestant conception. Vos maintains that God created man in his image so that men are “disposed for communion with God” and “can act in a way that corresponds to their destiny only if they rest in God” (2:13). The destiny is communion with God in full in glory, a movement from communion with God in the first estate of innocence in the garden to consummate communion with God in the final estate of heaven.

Tipton rightly understands what Vos is driving at from the opening of the Reformed Dogmatics in laying out the Bible’s teaching on the nature and destiny of man. Vos believes that the Reformed faith puts forth the “deeper Protestant conception” (2:13) because it affirms the nature of man pre- and post-Fall and the destiny of man pre- and post-Fall.[5]

In laying out his contention that Rome’s theological commitments renders it incapable of arriving at the eschatological goal set before Adam, Vos asks, “Why is this doctrine of the image of God of such great importance for theology?” He answers:

It is self-evident that by “image of God” is expressed what is characteristic of man and his relation to God. That he is God’s image distinguishes him from animals and all other creatures. In the idea that one forms of the image is reflected one’s idea of the religious state of man and of the essence of religion itself. (2:18)

Roman Catholicism, however, has no conception at creation of a personal relationship between God and man. It teaches that man was created with the image, a metaphysical correspondence of the human spirit with God, not the likeness of the image. In other words, Roman Catholicism believes that man is God’s image bearer by nature, but he needs God to supply an additional gift (donum superadditum) after creation to make him a religious being. That is, God must raise man above his created state—irrespective of the Fall—to that of a religious being capable of communion. God gives original righteousness (justitia originalis) as gift so that man might be able to love and enjoy God. The result is that Roman Catholicism is externalist in its view of creation and denies the totality of the corruption of man when the Fall into sin occurs.

The Reformed believe that man was created upright, not deficient. But, coinciding immediately with the first sin was the total corruption of human nature. Related closely to this was the loss of the gift of fellowship with God through the Spirit.

This radical change for man was reflected in his accusing conscience that brought a fear of God and a sense of shame. In casting Adam and Eve out of the garden, God showed how the relationship between man and God had changed. “Because paradise and the tree of life had been images and seals of the blessings promised in the covenant of works, man must be deprived of the sight of them” (2:54). Vos continued, “Hence banishment from paradise, the cherubim with the burning blade of a sword, and the declaration that ‘he may not reach out his hand and take of the tree of life.’” (2:54).

Vos’s mention of the covenant of works in regard to the promised eternal blessings foreshadows his later work on eschatology. In fact, when Vos reviewed the first volume of Bavinck’s Dogmatics for the Presbyterian and Reformed Review in 1896, he drew attention to Bavinck’s insight on this point. The Reformed believe that the translational hope from innocence to communion with God in full in glory—what Vos had labelled the “deeper Protestant” conception—was put before Adam in the covenant of works. Bavinck realized that there was no place for a covenant of works in Roman Catholic theology with its view of the creation of man, its denial that Adam was upright in the estate of innocence, and its commitment to the donum superadditum.

Vos immediately grasped the implications. If there is no covenant of works, then Christianity becomes a religion that aims at the elevation of man’s nature, and that through the cooperative work of God and man. If there is a covenant of works, which has been broken by Adam’s sin, then Christianity is a religion of grace in which God alone saves sinners.

In Anthropology Vos spells out how the covenant of works and the covenant of grace coincide and differ. They coincide in that the author of each is God; that the covenanting parties are God and man; that the purpose of each is glorifying God; and that the promise of both is heavenly, eternal blessedness.

They differ in the way in which God appears. In the covenant of works, God appears as Creator and Lord. In the covenant of grace, he appears as Redeemer and Father. God established the covenant of works to show his love and benevolence toward unfallen man. In the covenant of grace, God shows his mercy and particular grace to fallen humanity. In the covenant of works, there is no mediator; in the covenant of grace, there is one, Jesus Christ. The covenant of grace rests upon the obedience of Christ, the mediator, and is firm and certain. The covenant of works rested on the obedience of mutable man, which is uncertain. “Do this and live” marked the covenant of works, but the way of faith marks the covenant of grace.

Gaffin in the preface to the third volume of Reformed Dogmatics, Christology, rightly observes that at the heart of any sound dogmatics is its treatment of Christology. He observes, “Christ as the center of the entire saving self-revelation of the triune God finds full and rich expression in this present volume” (vii). Vos’s treatment of the offices of prophet, priest, and king, that Christ fulfills as mediator, supports that conclusion. When the Apostle Paul speaks of how Christ has become to us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption in 1 Corinthians 1:30, he is expressing Christ’s fulfillment of the prophetic (wisdom), priestly (righteousness), and kingly (sanctification and redemption) offices. As prophet, Christ serves as God’s authoritative representative to reveal by his Word and Spirit the counsel of God for the salvation of his people. As priest, Christ is appointed by God to represent men in bringing satisfaction to God through sacrifice and intercession. As King, Christ acts on behalf of God to rule and protect his church.

In volume 4 of Reformed Dogmatics, Soteriology, Vos examines the application of the merits of Christ by the Spirit in light of Christ’s fulfillment of the covenant of grace. Vos asks, “Why does grace work from now on in the sinner from Christ and only in union with Christ?” (4:21). The legal basis for grace lies in being reckoned in Christ by the judgment of God, a relationship that is reflected in the consciousness of the believer when he believes. This is because by faith he acknowledges that there is no righteousness in himself, but that his standing before God is only because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him.

All that the sinner receives flows from the living Christ. The result is that the sinner not only knows as an idea that he will receive everything for Christ’s sake but also experiences in life how everything comes from Christ. He is regenerated, justified, sanctified, glorified, but all this is in the closest bond with the Mediator. (4:23)

In volume 5 Vos addresses ecclesiology with comments on the importance of the Word of God and the nature of church power. According to Vos, believers are reckoned in Christ, regenerated by the Spirit of Christ, and implanted into Christ to form one body. The kingdom of God expresses the invisible spiritual principle of the church. “It is the lordship Christ exercises over our souls if we truly belong to Him, our submission to His sovereign authority, our being conformed and joined by living faith to His body with its many members” (5:8).

He continues, “The true church is a teaching church, a confessing church. Whoever comes in contact with its word also comes in contact with the root of its life, its holy walk” (5:26). Churches that abandon the Word of God or dispense with their confession are in a process of dissolution. These churches are no longer performing their main function, which is to carry out and to apply the Word of God. “Thus, insofar as the church itself is concerned, it is entirely a ministerial and not a ruling power” (5:37).

No authority may be exercised by the church unless it is derived from the kingship of Christ. The relationship of Christ’s kingship and the church carries with it the understanding that the church is more than a free association. Believers stand under the command of Christ, the King. Vos writes:

(The) kingly structure of Christ over the church is connected to the kingly word of Christ. Christ is in the church, and he rules over the church through his word. Therefore, no one can do anything in the church that would be right and conflict with that word. All believers owe unconditional obedience to the word of their king, and that obligation takes precedence before all other things. (5:37)

In answering the question, “What is contained in the term ‘eschatology?’” Vos presents the basis for the philosophy of history that would mark his later biblical theological writings. He answers that the history in which humans are situated will have a conclusion.

It is not an endless process but a genuine history that ends in a definite goal and so has a bounding and limits. As it had a beginning, it will have an ending. That ending will come as a crisis, and everything that has to do with this crisis belongs to the ‘doctrine of the last things.’ (5:251)

Vos closes the Reformed Dogmatics with what would become his biblical theological focus at Princeton, communion with God in heaven. “The enjoyment of heaven in fellowship with God is eternal life in all its fullness.” (5:310).

In the last paragraph, Vos states, “Heaven will not be a world of uniformity; diversity will rule there” (5:310). Referencing 1 Corinthians 15:41, he says that not all receive the same portion (“the one who has sowed much receives a rich harvest”), but diversity will not function in heaven as a cause of distress. This is because Christ is the head of a glorified humanity, which constitutes the body under him, and in the body, there are always different parts.

Endnotes

[1] Geerhardus Vos, review of Gereformeerde Domatiek. vol. 1, by Herman Bavinck in Presbyterian and Reformed Review 7, no. 26 (1896): 356–63, and review of Gereformeerde Domatiek, vol. 2 by Herman Bavinck in Presbyterian and Reformed Review 10, no. 40 (1899): 694–700.

[2] Cornelius Van Til to unknown friend, December 25, 1941, in Archives of Westminster Theological Seminary.

[3] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “The Reformed Dogmatics of Geerhardus Vos,” Unio Cum Christo 4, no. 1 (April 2018).

[4] Lane G. Tipton, “Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics,” in New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church 39, no. 4 (April 2018): 9–11.

[5] Vos asserts elsewhere that Lutheranism’s system of doctrine, while to be praised for affirming justification by faith alone over against Roman Catholicism, fails to understand the religious destiny of man as communion with God in the confirmed estate of glory. See, Geerhardus Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980) 241–47.

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.

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