New In Print: Geerhardus Vos, Natural Theology

For Christians who came of age during the heyday of Barthianism, the very words “natural theology” can send shudders down the spine. Barth himself went to war against natural law, natural revelation, and natural theology of all kinds. Modern Evangelicals have resonated with Barth’s repudiation of natural theology because they usually do not have much place for the nature in their theology. They typically have, to put it in neutral terms, a highly realized eschatology that crowds out much consideration of nature. To put it in plainer terms, for most evangelicals (as with the Anabaptists) grace destroys nature. The traditional way to think about nature (creation) and grace is to recognize both spheres as created by God and designed for certain ends. Where, for example, Aquinas said that “grace perfects nature, the Reformed (who sometimes used the same formula but in a different sense) thought of grace as renewing human nature. For Thomas, nature is considered inherently defective because of its finitude and concupiscence. For Thomas, nature is incapable of the supernatural (e.g., beatitude), even before the fall. The Reformed, however, nature, before the fall, was capable of beatitude.

We expressed this in our doctrine of the covenant of works (foedus operum). Consider Heidelberg Catechism 6:

Did God create man thus wicked and perverse?

No, but God created man good, i.e., in righteousness and true holiness that he might rightly know his Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify him.

We confess nothing about any need for grace to restrain concupiscence before the fall nor about the need for grace to attain a state of blessedness. In Belgic Confession art. 7 we say that Adam was under the “commandment of life.” Adam, we confess, was created “good, just, and holy; able by his own will to conform in all things to the will of God” (emphasis added). As Bavinck said, “man in his original state” could keep the covenant of nature “with the powers bestowed on him in the creation, without the assistance of supernatural grace.”

So, before Barth, against Thomas, the Anabaptists, and the Kuyperians, who tended to scoff at the traditional Reformed understanding of nature and grace as an illegitimate “dualism,” and who talked about “transforming” not just persons in sanctification of “all of life” so that, in a way not utterly distant from the Anabaptists, the very category of nature was jeopardized—hence talk of “Christian softball” or “Christian plumbing”— the Reformed affirmed nature as a valid and valuable category of thought and analysis. Nature is good, if affected by the fall. Nature, per se does not need to be perfected. For more detail on the immediate background of Vos’ lectures on the natural theology see John Fesko’s introduction (xxxi–lxlv).

It is against this backdrop that Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949) gave his lectures on natural theology as a young seminary professor at the fledgling theological college of the Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids beginning in the late 1880s before he was called to Princeton Theological Seminary, where he would spend the rest of his career.

Students of the history of Reformed theology will be happy to see this first-ever English translation of Vos’ lectures on natural theology if only because they connect us to a time before Barth and to a young, confessional Reformed theologian who was vigorously learning and busily teaching traditional Reformed theology (including traditional Reformed covenant theology) to ministerial students in the late 19th century. By studying these notes we can see what he was learning and teaching about nature, about what we know about God from nature, and how Reformed people should think about nature and natural revelation. Those who are familiar with the traditional “five ways” (Quinque Viae) will enjoy reading Vos’ engagement with them. For more on these topics see the resources below.

Vos’ notes come to us in the form of a catechism in 10 parts:

  1. Prolegomenon (introduction)
  2. Systems of Religion
  3. Historical Overview of the Various Systems of Religion
  4. Critical Overview of the Various Histories of Religion
  5. The Cosmological Argument
  6. The Ontological Argument
  7. The Teleological Argument
  8. The Ethical Argument
  9. The Religious Argument
  10. The Immortality of the Soul

This is only a preliminary notice of the book. We expect to publish a review in future. You can order the book via Reformation Heritage Books in hardcover for $19.00

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for pointing to these topics and resources. God upholds nature, so man’s first ability (Belgic Conf. 14, not 7) to will in conformity to the will of God was never independent, always a creation gift sustained in providence. Should Adam not have given continual thanks to God for the ability to obey, and prayed to persevere in it? Would Bavinck deny this?

    If human merit in the covenant of works requires the exercise of natural ability without supernatural grace, what of Christ’s human nature, which never existed except in union with the supernatural?

    Adam was created good, but the hidden plan for a “man from heaven” (1 Cor. 15) is more glorious, calling out more praise.

    • John,

      First thing that we must do is affirm that the covenant of works and the covenant of grace are two distinct things, founded on two distinct principles: law and gospel.

      The first Adam and the second were both in a covenant of works, not in a covenant of grace.

      That said, obviously, Inasmuch as both the first and last Adams are true humans both had to be sustained by divine providence.

      The Holy Spirit certainly sustained Christ in the wilderness and throughout his life but the merit Christ accomplished for us was condign, worthy and not congruent (imputed).

      That condign merit is imputed to us.

      The other principal at stake here is is the distinction between life before the fall and after. Pelagius denied the distinction and Pelagians of various kinds have always blurred that line ever since. One of the great errors that Arminius made was to blur the distinction. This happens when we make the prelapsarian world like the postlapsarian and vice versa.

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