What Did Geerhardus Vos Think He Was Doing?

Although Geerhardus Vos is best known as a biblical theologian, this is not an essay about biblical theology. Nor does it deal with his well-known 1894 Princeton inaugural address. It is instead a reflection on important aspects of the larger theological method that founded and funded Vos’s later work in biblical theology. It also traces how Vos’s method entailed a vision of vital Reformed church life and the kind of theological education required to sustain it and see it flourish. The basis for this study is Vos’s little-known “other” inaugural address, “The Prospects of American Theology,” delivered at a small theological college in Grand Rapids in 1888.

The “father of Reformed biblical theology” began his career there with incisive reflections on doctrine, history, theological method, philosophy, and cultural analysis. This may strike some as strange, regrettably “scholastic,” or even suspiciously backwards. Why wouldn’t Vos simply expound a biblical text? Why not trace a redemptive-historical theme? And why (and how?) did Vos begin with systematics and then move to biblical theology from the 1890s onward? Surely the direction of travel ought to have been reversed?

We would be mistaken, however, to dismiss this address as the misguided, academic idealism of one who later matured and took his stand more “squarely” on the Bible. To take this view would in fact be a grave error because it would fail to recognize the organic connections between Vos’s early work in doctrine and his subsequent work in biblical theology. This sequence and these connections also hold significant methodological implications and practical consequences for the task of theological education and the health of the church. Vos’s concern from the outset, as we shall see, was for a deeply theological Reformed theology to be preserved and consistently worked out–in theological colleges, seminaries, and pulpits–for the sake of the life of the church, for the flourishing of the gospel, and above all for the glory of God.

The Grand Rapids inaugural has intrinsic interest. But it also has special relevance given renewed attention in the past several decades to a Vosian biblical theology, both within Reformed confessional circles and more broadly within evangelicalism. From at least three different angles, questions have arisen to which Vos’s “other” inaugural begins to provide some helpful answers. First, Craig Carter has recently queried whether Vos’s biblical theology sits within a larger, stable theological method and just how it might relate to the “Great Tradition” of patristic and pre-critical theological metaphysics, epistemology, and hermeneutics. Carter suggests that, despite its strengths and surface similarities to the proto-biblical theology of Irenaeus, Vos’s biblical theology may not be robustly theological enough.

From a slightly different angle, Michael Allen has argued in a pair of recent articles that Vos (and those following him) developed Reformed biblical theology as a “crisis measure” that may have unintentionally yet significantly strained the relationship between the Bible and systematic theology. Here, the suggestion is that biblical theology in a Vosian mode is at best a “temporary interpretive therapy,” but one that may jeopardize, misalign, or intrude upon the fundamental theological relationship between the properly apostolic disciplines of dogmatics and exegesis.

From yet another direction, some have argued that Vos’s biblical theology is too covenantal and dogmatically bent and thus may threaten to override the text of Scripture, either by misconstruing the redemptive historical structure of the canon or by overemphasizing divine authorship at the expense of human authors and individual Bible books or corpora. The implication here is—ironically, in light of the critiques of Carter and Allen—that Vos’s method is overly theological and perhaps not sufficiently biblical or exegetical.

By carefully laying out below the arguments and implications of Vos’s 1888 address we aim to engage with these critiques only indirectly. The primary purpose for this close reading and reflection is to identify some fundamental aspects of the larger theological method from within which Vos’s biblical theology emerged and to trace the thoroughly theological vision he presented for training ministers who would serve in the “small spiritual colonies” of the Reformed churches of his day.

Undoubtedly, the substance and context of this address—Vos’s “other” inaugural—render it a programmatic statement from the very beginning of his teaching career; we may rightly call it his theological vision. An examination of Vos’s vision will be helpful in at least three respects. First, a return to Vos’s diagnosis—over a century ago—of the challenges facing American theology will provide us with a salutary, self-critical mirror, particularly in contemporary Anglophone and Western contexts. Second, engagement with Vos’s reflections on the opportunities for fostering a coherent, vibrant, and Reformed churchly theology on American soil may helpfully stimulate constructive reflection concerning models of theological education among contemporary churches, denominations, and seminaries, perhaps even beyond American shores. Third, a clear grasp of the pattern of Vos’s theological vision will help us more clearly to discern just how fundamentally his Reformed confessional commitments provided a theological foundation and framework for the biblical theology he would go on to develop. We will return to these three areas of relevance in the concluding reflections of this essay. Read more»

Bradley J. Bitner | “The Theological Vision of Geerhardus Vos: Theological Education and Reformed Ministry” | Themelios 46.3 (2021): 641–64

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2 comments

  1. Dr .Clark,
    Thanks for posting this. I look forward to finishing it later in the day. As it happens, a good friend and I are presently engaged in reading Vos’ essay: “The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit”. Next, we’ll begin his “The Pauline Eschatology”. Exciting!
    Roxanne Devine

    • Roxanne,

      That’s wonderful! I’m so glad that you’re reading Vos. I remember reading that essay and then the book. They were transformative for my understanding of Paul.

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