No one can deny that we are living in strange times for Reformed theology. For example, we are hard-pressed to find enough professing Christians theologically astute enough to be actual Arminians. What is a Reformed person to do when there are not enough Arminians for a good, old-fashioned argument? Well, I would suggest reading Geerhardus Vos’ (1862–1949) newly translated and published lectures on natural theology.1
I must admit that I knew very little about Geerhardus Vos when I first picked up this book. Like many people who became Reformed after growing up in a different tradition, I had read his Biblical Theology.2 I also own his five-volume Reformed Dogmatics, and I have consulted it on many different topics over the last three or four years.3 Perhaps most importantly, I knew he was a Dutchman. As a member of a URCNA congregation, it is good for me to be up on all the Dutch theologians (unpronounceable though their names may be). In any case, Vos should be well-known in our circles because he is an important part of the history of not only the Dutch Reformed churches, but also the Presbyterians. His stint as a professor at Princeton Seminary meant that he helped train many American Presbyterian pastors. This does not make Vos the golden mean against which all modern Reformed and Presbyterian theology must be measured, but it does make him an important figure within the tradition as a member of what is sometimes called the “Old Princeton Theology” school of thought.
Albert Gootjes is the translator who worked on Natural Theology, and it reads well. An informed reader will be able to understand Vos’ descriptions and arguments, as well as why he is describing or arguing for a particular position. This book also features a Forward by Richard Muller (vii–ix) and a lengthy Introduction by J.V. Fesko (xvii–lxx). These alone are quite valuable for situating the modern reader in Vos’ world. Additionally, Vos himself did not write Natural Theology. Instead, it is composed from three sets of handwritten notes from his students (xi).
One of the most contentious doctrines in recent years (at least in broadly Reformed circles) is the reality, place, and purpose of natural theology. That is why the translation and publication of this book is so timely. This work fulfills two important functions: it helps modern readers know something of the history of thought in this area, and it teaches us how to think about the doctrine.
Fesko’s introduction gives the reader some much needed contextual information. He traces the idea of natural theology from Augustine (354–430) to Vos’ near contemporaries in the nineteenth century, such as Charles Hodge (1797–1878), Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), and Herman Bavinck (1854–1921). He also includes a brief biographical sketch, focusing especially on the education of Geerhardus Vos, before turning to matters of methodology, the three sources of handwritten student notes, and Vos’ relation to the Reformed tradition regarding this doctrine.
Vos’ lectures themselves are arranged in three parts. He begins in the Prolegomenon (3–17) by defining terms, outlining the purpose of natural theology in relation to Scripture, and outlining the history of natural theology from the fathers through his contemporaries. His definition of natural theology is “a knowledge of God that takes its content and method from the world as it presents itself to us governed by fixed laws” (4). Most of his lectures fall under the second section: The Systems of Religion (19–87). This is where Vos defines, explains, and critiques the various “theories” of existence, theories such as Deism and Polytheism. He does this in order to come to a conclusion regarding the reality of God and Creation and their relation to each other. This is the proper context in which natural theology can be believed. In examining these theories, Vos also gives his understanding of their historical development. For example, from pp.72–75 he examines utilitarianism and hedonism as two sides of the same coin. First he defines both terms, before moving on to note the variations introduced into these theories as the years progressed: egotistic hedonism, universaltistic hedonism, and the adaptations made by John Stuart Mill (1806–73). This shows that he knew the history of not only his own tradition, but of Western thought more broadly considered. I am not qualified to judge all of Vos’ historical conclusions, but I am encouraged that he was, at the very least, familiar with the great conversation and engaging with it. Third, he turns to the theories popular in his time used to explain the origin of religion itself as a phenomenon. He concludes that the best explanation is that the natural revelation of God sets a “foundation” upon which special revelation can rest (45). After all, the notion of natural revelation has been traditionally used to make sense of Biblical passages such as Psalm 19 and Romans 1. Vos then examines some classical “proofs” for the existence of God. Since these have to do with how we know that God exists, they serve as test cases for Vos’ view of natural revelation.4 He concludes that natural revelation is the basis for the knowledge of the existence of God, and the other proofs can be subsumed under it (84–87). Indeed, he closes this section by noting that this orthodox version of the “Religious Argument” is “the living summary” of the other arguments (87).
The third and final section is The Immortality of the Soul (89–97), where Vos argues for the immortality of the human soul based on both natural and special revelation. Natural revelation points to the soul’s immortality because all humans have a sense of God and “a priori, innate truths [about God] extend humanity’s knowledge beyond experience” (96). In this last brief section we see Vos using natural theology in conjunction (but subordinate to) special revelation (which Vos calls “revealed theology”), a case for which he argued from the beginning of his lectures (5).
Strengths and Weaknesses
This work has a number of strengths. Fesko’s Introduction gives the historical context, sets the stage, and helps the reader understand the theological world in which Vos was teaching.
When you get to the work proper, Natural Theology could be seen as a Prolegomena to Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics since it deals with natural revelation and Scripture, views of religion in general, and evidence for the existence of God.
Another strength and similarity to Reformed Dogmatics is that this work is a result of Vos’ systematic theology lectures, therefore he argues in a tight, logical way. He not only gives his own position but also describes and interacts with opposing schools of thought. Reading Natural Theology reminded me of sitting in some of the systematic theology classes from my M.Div days. The question and answer format in this genre of book may be strange to modern readers, but it helps Vos clarify the topics under discussion since he provides the question as well as the answer.5 In other words, this is a form of catechism. When you read some books, it is as if you are listening to half of a phone conversation. Vos’ question and answer format eliminates a lot of the guesswork. This clarity helps us, since this work fills an important gap in our historical-theological knowledge of Old Princeton’s view of natural theology. Since so much of modern Reformed and Presbyterian theology is influenced by this school of thought in varying degrees, it is necessary for us to know what Old Princeton’s professors actually taught, and why.
Vos intended these lectures as a rigorous examination and defense of natural theology. This is exactly what he accomplished, though I doubt he expected to have so many students discovering his work over a century later. An examination of his methodology shows similarities to the Reformed scholastics of the past. This is particularly obvious in his examination of the proofs where he begins with definitions, moves to objections, and then offers his own responses and critiques. Here I must admit that I read Natural Theology as more of an exercise in historical theology than systematic theology. Though these lecturers can be seen as a (probably unintentional) prolegomena to Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics, it would be helpful to have some type of study examining Vos’ influence on the Reformed and Presbyterian pastors and theologians who were trained by him and followed in his footsteps. Of course, this is not a weakness inherent in Vos’ (unintended) book, but rather a desire for further study.6 Overall, the arguments in Natural Theology are clear and concise, and the book itself reads well and is visually pleasing. I heartily recommend it to any and all who are interested.
This book should appeal to a diverse group of people–or at least, a diverse group of people within the rather narrow Reformed/Presbyterian world. These lectures are a helpful look into Vos’ theology at these foundational points, and he has a lot to teach us in our time of bumper sticker theology and soundbite arguments. Vos was not opposed to nature, instead he saw it as part of God’s revelation. In these lectures we see that the one often dubbed the “father of Reformed biblical theology” also held to a form of natural theology. Perhaps we should do the same. This is the work of a thoughtful, educated, systematic mind. He was not the first or last to think about these things, but he’s an important part of the story…and agree or disagree, Vos makes you think. This brilliant Dutchman’s thought should not be left unread. That has already been the case for far too long.
© Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved.
1 Vos, Geerhardus. Natural Theology, trans. Albert Gootjes. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2022.
2 Vos, Gerhardus. Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948.
3 Vos, Gerhardus. Reformed Dogmatics, 5 Vols, trans. and ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2015–2016.
4 The Cosmological, Ontological, Teleological, Ethical, and Religious Arguments, respectively.
5 In fact, Natural Theology shares the same question and answer format we find in Reformed Dogmatics.
6 Fesko includes a brief section on this in his Introduction.
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It’s probably not QUITE so difficult to find enough professing Christians theologically astute enough to be actual Pelagians (though they might be a bit hazy as to the difference between a Pelagian and an Arminian)!
Synod called the Arminians Pelagians.
Are The Remonstrants Heretics?
I have this book, but haven’t started it. (Man, that introduction is a bit long.)
A friend and I are reading through his”The Pauline Eschatology”. Highly recommend it. His sermons are beautiful. “Grace and Glory” is a good collection. I love this man! Looking forward to meeting him in Heaven.
Christopher Smith, your review of ‘Natural Theology’ by Gerhardus Vos is timely, useful, and thorough.
Thank you, Catherine!
Perchance has anyone on here read or written a reformed critique of Karl Barth’s views on this topic? I come across many opposed to reformed theology whose main theological focus is to ‘change the world’ ‘fight injustice’ ‘remove oppression’ etc. when pushed on their theology all roads lead back to Barth and his rejection of Natural theology. What gives?
Dr. Lane Tipton has given a very excellent and thorough review of “Natural Theology” and Fesko’s whopping 54 page introduction (yikes!) at https://reformedforum.org/the-deeper-protestant-conception-of-natural-theology/
This is fascinating. I always argue that there is an interconnectedness present in RC doctrine that is difficult to divide or take in isolation ….either the Roman Catholic theologian is faithful or he is not. Especially post-Augustine, it appears at the end of the day they are having to be reeled back and submit to the greater institution where the true and special work of the holy spirit is deemphasized.
“ In Reformed Dogmatics, Vos incisively leverages the Reformed doctrines of the image of God, the covenant of works, and original sin against “the externalist character of Roman Catholic religion”1 that “has in principle appropriated the Pelagian conception of the will as liberum arbitrium.”2 According to Vos, the nature-grace externalism of medieval Roman Catholicism stands in sharp contrast to the “deeper Protestant conception”3 of the image of God and the “deeper conception of original sin”4 entailed by it.
In the recently published Natural Theology, Vos rejects the “semi-Pelagianism of the Roman Catholic church”5 and identifies a cast of Roman Catholic “scholastics”6 who do not view the “human race” after the fall “as entirely corrupt.”7 He sets this semi-Pelagianism of the medieval Roman Catholic church over against “Augustine’s doctrine of human corruption” that was “revived during the Reformation.”8 He specifically highlights the classically Reformed rejection of the semi-Pelagianism imbedded in traditional Roman Catholic doctrine that sinners can “rely on their own powers for their knowledge of God”9—a view that Vos contends flows directly from a “weakened” conception of original sin.10”