Vos Still Matters

WSC grad and PhD student Andrew Compton points out  something I have thought for many years, that Geerhardus Vos fundamentally undermined the entire higher critical (liberal) project.  Since that time it is often the case when I read some (higher) critical commentary or someone lauding one of the quests for the Jesus of history I think to myself,  “This cat should read Vos.” Whatever attraction the modern quest project might have held for me disappeared when I read  Vos’ The Self Disclosure of Jesus. His Pauline Eschatology reduced to rubble the modern criticism of Paul. His Biblical Theology fundamentally subverts the atomistic approach to Scripture employed by both modern evangelicals and modern liberals (both of whom exercise a sort of autonomy over the text that is alien to Reformed theology – the liberals are less guarded about it and the evangelicals are more guarded but many evangelicals live on the same continuum with liberalism).

In a similar way, it has long been a frustration that Ned Stonehouse has not received the recognition that he deserves. In the late 80s Moises Silva wrote about him and his influence but beyond that Stonehouse has largely been ignored. His work on the gospels (The Witness of Matthew, Mark, and Luke to Christ) is remarkably penetrating. Stonehouse was able to appreciate the different theological interests of the gospel writers while holding on to an essential unity among the gospels. This seems to be a trick that contemporary students of the gospels still need to learn.  One of the great things about William Lane’s commentary on Mark is that he was a faithful student of Stonehouse. He does an excellent job of paying attention to the message that Mark wants to communicate — rather than either setting Mark against the other synoptics or ignoring the distinctive contribution of Mark to our understanding of Christ.

This is not a plea to ignore contemporary biblical scholarship; far from it. We must engage the evangelical and (higher) critical reading of Scripture as it is today. As we do so, we will benefit from reading contemporary scholarship in the light of work done by confessional Reformed writers who worked at the highest level, who, it seems to me as a non-specialist, did ground-breaking work in biblical studies.

If their work was so good, why has it been ignored? The reasons probably vary. Ned Stonehouse did his work at what was then a very small seminary in Philadelphia that was regarded by the mainline/liberal/critical establishment as a backwater. He published his work with small, conservative presses. Some liberal/critical/mainline writers did appreciate his work but the growing neo-evangelical movement seems largely to have ignored him. I think he was too sophisticated for the evangelicals of the time and not critical enough (at all) for the establishment.

In the case of Vos, I suspect that he did not have the influence he should have because of timing. His career ended in 1932 just after Princeton was reorganized. He retired early and his pen went silent. His writing career stopped just when, in most cases, writers begin to gather up their life’s work and put it into print. Like Stonehouse, he was ignored by both the evangelicals and the liberals because he didn’t fit either paradigm. His work seems to have fallen into neglect until it became fashionable again in the 70s.

The relative neglect of both Stonehouse and Vos may signal the fortunes of Reformed confessional scholarship in the middle of the 20th century when the religious academic world was divided into fundamentalists/conservatives and liberals. There was little space for those who were committed to the Reformed confessions and who did not fit neatly into either box.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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