Review: Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian

Geerhardus Vos: Reformed biblical theologian, academic, churchman, son, husband, father, professor, colleague, poet, Christian. Danny Olinger’s biography Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian is a recommended read for pastors, students, and lay people.

For pastors, particularly of the Reformed persuasion, this book will likely bring them back to their time in seminary when they were introduced to the theology of Vos and his redemptive historical method of interpreting the Holy Scriptures. For students, especially seminary students, it will bring to life the man who authored many of their Old and New Testament reading assignments. For lay people, namely those in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, this biography will introduce them to one of the most consequential theological minds of the 20th century—one whom their pastors and their preaching, in all likelihood, have been influenced by.

In this biography, Olinger cogently weaves in Vos’ works, theology, and emphasis on eschatology as he chronologically follows the life of Vos. Particularly helpful are his overviews of Vos’ major works, as well as the meticulous footnotes which provide several potential avenues of further study for those inclined to pursue them.

In the first two chapters, “Life in the Old Country” and “Education in America and Europe,” Olinger details Vos’ familial, ecclesiastical, and educational histories. Additionally, his relationships with fellow Dutch Reformed theologians Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper are introduced. Particular attention is paid to Vos’ senior paper at Princeton, “The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes,” wherein he defended Mosaic authorship and a supernaturalistic interpretation of the first five books of the Bible. Against the rationalistic method of interpretation employed by leading critics, Olinger states that in his paper, “Vos maintained that what the critics considered their greatest strength, their methodology, actually revealed their greatest weakness. The critical methodology did not allow the Bible to speak for itself.”1

The third chapter, “Professor at the Theological School in Grand Rapids,” introduces several of the biblical themes Vos emphasized during his time as a professor in America. Regarding these Olinger writes, “These themes included a confidence in the Word of God, an understanding of the organic nature of the Word of God, and a belief that what is most practical in the life of the believer is the cultivation of communion with the triune God.”2 This chapter also brings in Vos’ relationship with Princeton theologian and prominent American Presbyterian B. B. Warfield. Along with Bavinck and Kuyper, these three giants of the Reformed theological world remained important to Vos throughout much of his life and thus, during much of the book. As noted by Olinger, “In [James T.] Dennison’s Letters [of Geerhardus Vos], Bavinck appears only behind Kuyper in receiving the most letters from the hand of Vos. The list of Vos letters in this collection in descending order includes Kuyper (19), Bavinck (16), B.B. Warfield (14), J. Gresham Machen (6), Henry Beets (6), Ned Stonehouse (6)…”3 This list of prominent men with whom Vos corresponded provides insight into Vos’ status as a modest yet prestigious twentieth-century theologian.

Chapter four, “Reformed Biblical-Theological Beginnings,” opens a new chapter in Vos’ life, with the meeting of his future wife, Catherine, and his difficult move from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Princeton, New Jersey. Using his 1891 address at the Theological School in Grand Rapids as a source, Olinger also introduces Vos’ Covenant theology in relation to “the Reformed Principle,” which for Vos was essentially the notion that man exists because of God and for the glory of God. As Vos put it, “God doesn’t exist because of man, but man because of God. This is what is written at the entrance of the temple of Reformed theology.”4
The fifth chapter, “New Beginnings at Princeton,” covers Vos’ moves to both Princeton Seminary and Presbyterianism, his marriage, and his emphasis on biblical theology as a science and theological discipline. Vos defined biblical theology as “the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic conformity and multiformity.”5 Vos’ role in bringing Kuyper to Princeton for his 1898 Stone Lectures on Calvinism are is also detailed here. However, as Olinger notes regarding Vos’ relationship with Kuyper by this time, “Vos was becoming more Presbyterian; Kuyper was becoming more enamored with politics,” and, he concludes regarding Vos’ scholarly focus, “If the life and thought of the nineteenth-century Vos was dominated by his Dutch Reformed upbringing, in the twentieth century, his friendships and the focus of his scholarly works would be connected to Princeton, Presbyterianism, and Reformed biblical theology.” 6

Chapters seven through ten pick up on Vos’ focus on the latter as Olinger surveys his writings and academic works headlined by The Teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God, Biblical Theology, The Pauline Eschatology, his sermons published in Grace and Glory, and several of his academic reviews. Particularly helpful are the author’s overviews of the theology of each of Vos’ works. Especially significant is the time spent explaining Vos’ theology of Pauline eschatology, which he considered to be central to Paul’s thought. For Vos, Olinger states, “Paul’s eschatological outlook, or philosophy of history, undergirded his theology. He saw all the streams of human history headed toward their final goal in the perfected kingdom of God through the person and work of Jesus Christ.”7 Each of these chapters should encourage the reader to pick up and read (or re-read) each of Vos’ works.

Chapters six, eleven, and twelve (“Confessional Revision,” “Changes at Princeton…,” and “Presbyterian Unrest”) delve into Vos’ Princeton and Presbyterian connections. Here, the author covers Vos’ roles as both a churchman and professor in the midst of theological controversies at the Assemblies General and at Princeton Seminary. Although known for his calm and erudite demeanor, Olinger describes how Vos sometimes addressed disputes in his Biblical theological writings. The author provides overviews of Vos’ Eschatology of the Psalter and The Self-Disclosure of Jesus as two valuable examples of his polemic methodology.

Chapter twelve, “Whither Westminster and Retirement,” details Vos’ final teaching years, his family life, his failing health and eventual death. The thirteenth chapter, “Appreciation and Legacy,” notes his influence in Reformed and Presbyterian churches over the last 100 years, including his effect upon men such as J. Gresham Machen, John Murray, Cornelius Van Til, and Richard B. Gaffin. Although Vos never joined his colleagues at Westminster Theological Seminary or in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Olinger notes his distinct and lasting effect on both of these important institutions.

In addition to the careful footnotes, much appreciated in this biography are the concise histories provided by the author on subjects such as nineteenth-century Dutch church history and early twentieth-century Presbyterian church history. These brief surveys serve to both contextualize Vos in the broader scope of modern church history, as well as offer threads for the reader to pick up on for further research.

Whether this book provides the reader a reminder of Vos, an introduction to him, or further insight on him, it is indeed worth the read, especially considering his influence on so many of those who now serve in seminaries, pulpits and sessions across this country. Thanks to Danny Olinger and the publisher, Reformed Forum, for providing this valuable insight on such an important thinker whose profound influence is undeniable in Reformed churches today.

© Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.

Endnotes

1. Olinger, Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian (Philiadelphia, PA: Reformed Forum, 2018), 18.

2. Ibid, 30.

3. Olinger, Geerhardus Vos, footnote 32 on page 24.

4. Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 239; from Olinger, Geerhardus Vos, 48.

5. Idem, “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” in Redemptive History, 15; from Olinger, Geerhardus Vos, 80.

6. Olinger, Geerhardus Vos, 96.

7. Ibid, 168.

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  • Scott McDermand II
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    Scott McDermand II is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Bad Axe, Michigan. He graduated from San Diego State University (B.A., History) and earned masters degrees at Westminster Seminary California (M.A., Historical Theology; M.Div). He serves on the board of directors of the Heidelberg Reformation Association as secretary. He has a passion for preaching and teaching the Word of God, Biblical theology, Church History, and enjoying fellowship with the people of First Presbyterian Church, Bad Axe, MI. In his free time, he enjoys baseball, reading, classical music, eating whatever his wife cooks for him, and walking their two dogs.

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4 comments

  1. Reformed Forum has singlehandedly resurrected the life and work of Vos and given back to the church one of her brightest minds.

    • Bill,

      We’re all grateful for the work of the RF in drawing attention to Vos, but where do you suppose they learned about Vos? At seminary. In my school, Westminster Seminary California, we’ve taught Vos to over 1,000 graduates and we’ve been doing it since the doors opening in 1980. I read all of Vos as a student at the encouragement of my professors and we all assign/encourage our students to read Vos today.

      Old Westminster taught Vos as did the old Reformed Episcopal seminary in Phila.

      There are a lot of us out there who’ve been doing our part of uphold the side.

  2. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for posting this review by Scott McDermand II, on a book about Gerhardus Vos. Several years ago, as a result of your frequent references to Gerhardus Vos, I bought several of his books on Kindle. Scott’s article prompted me to begin reading through Vos, in a devotion, as a lay person to support the Recovery of the Reformed Confessions in our congregation. I decided to begin with Natural Theology. I am blessed; I found an Introduction (68 pages) written by J. Fesko. Dr. Fesko’s research displays the importance of Gerhardus Vos’ voice for Reformed Covenant (and Confessional) Theology. Reading about the conflicts that erupted from those who did not agree with Classic Reformed Theology was enthralling, like a good crime novel. Evidentiary exploration of differing ideas – with a commitment to distinguish the sources of ideas regarding the Confessions, Catechisms and Westminster Standards – makes the path of the Reformed Confessions more clear and the disagreements more understandable.

  3. Great review! This book is on my stack of books to read.

    In his lectures on amillenialism, I recall Kim Riddlebarger telling the story of the friendly debate between Gerhardus Vos and B.B. Warfield on eschatology. Warfield, a post-millenialist, would say, “Christ will return to a saved world.” Vos, an amilleniast, would reply, “Christ will return to save the world.” Those lectures can be found here:

    https://www.kimriddlebarger.com/amillennialism-audio-links-charts

    Also, Riddlebarger has posted a chart of Vos’ two age eschatology that has a bit more meat on the bones that the chart posted on p. 176 of Olinger’s biography. That can be found here:

    https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5f7f81cd67b88d47b94051ed/t/609ec3cb970b7f6a6d50d8ad/1621017547711/Two+Age+Eschatology+Chart.pdf

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