Born Under An Evil Star:
The Rise of the Biblical Theology of Geerhardus Vos
The Decline of Reformed Orthodoxy
by Reformed Orthobilly
In Fulfillment of the Master’s Thesis Requirement for the Degree of Master of Divinity
The North American Reformed Seminary
November 24th in the Year of Our Lord 2014
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction 1
§1 Preliminary Remarks 1
§2 Definition of Terms 2
§3 Plan of Treatment 3
§4 Positive Aspects of Vos’s Writings 3
Chapter 2: Vos’s Biblical Theology Program Described 6
§1 Influences on Vos’s Program 6
§2 Vos’s Definition of Theology 9
Chapter 3: Vos’s Appropriation of Liberal Theological Methods 12
§1 Redemptive Hegelianism 12
§2 History at the Center 12
§3 Organicism 15
§4 Idiosyncrasy 17
§5 Anti-scholasticism 22
§6 Conclusion of Vos’s Appropriation of Liberal Theological Methods 23
Chapter 4: Vos’s Biblical Theology Program Compared and Contrasted with Reformed Orthodoxy 25
§1 Introductory Remarks 25
§2 Inspiration and the Authorship of Scripture 25
§3 Theological Method and Interpretation of Scripture 39
§4 Subject Matter of Scripture 47
§5 Ethics 55
Chapter 5: Concluding Applications from Findings 60
§1 Concluding Remarks 60
§2 No Rehab for Hegel 60
§3 Practical Steps for Church Officers 61
§4 Epilogue 63
Bibliography for Born Under and Evil Star 64
Chapter 1: Introduction
§1 Preliminary Remarks
Richard Gaffin, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, states that Geerhardus “Vos’s work in biblical theology is largely without direct antecedents and indicates the originality with which he wrestled with the matter of biblical interpretation in the Reformed tradition.”1 Vos himself describes his predecessors in the science of Biblical Theology in less-than-favorable terms, stating that the science of Biblical Theology stood under the spell of unbiblical principles, and that “Her very birth took place under an evil star.”2 In light of Vos’s perceived originality3 and influence, as well as his own assessment of the self-destructive fate of Biblical Theology, I have undertaken to research Vos’s major works related to Biblical Theology,4 and compare and contrast their contents with Reformed Orthodoxy. Upon my research, I am convinced that Geerhardus Vos’s Biblical Theology, though containing various salutary concepts, has nevertheless been at least partially responsible for the modern decline in historic Reformed Orthodoxy.
§2 Definition of Terms
In order to clarify terms, I will allow Vos to define what he meant by Biblical Theology, and will define what I mean by Reformed Orthodoxy. Vos states that “Biblical Theology is that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.”5 Later in the same work Vos asserts that the “method of Biblical Theology is in the main determined by the principle of historic progression.”6 By Reformed Orthodoxy, I mean generally the historic and public confessions of faith of the Reformed churches and their catechetical standards. Particularly, I refer to the Westminster Confession (unamended) and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Also, the theological writings of such men as John Calvin, William Perkins, James Ussher, Samuel Rutherford and other Westminster Divines, William Ames, Francis Turretin, and Wilhelmus à Brakel serve to elucidate such public confessions and catechisms. I consider marks of declension to be the degree to which ecclesiastical bodies and their ministers cease to adhere to, subscribe to, promote, practice, and teach the faith and piety embodied in historic Reformed Orthodoxy.
§3 Plan of Treatment
In order to more firmly grasp Vos’s program of Biblical Theology, and its relationship to Reformed Orthodoxy, I will pursue the following plan. First, I will give a more detailed sketch of what Vos’s Biblical Theology program entails, as described in his major writings identified above. Second, I will demonstrate Vos’s appropriation of certain aspects of liberal theological methods. Third, I will compare and contrast Vos’s Biblical Theology program with Reformed Orthodoxy in terms of the inspiration and authorship of Scripture, theological method and biblical interpretation, the subject matter of Scripture, and ethics. Fourth, I will consider practical applications for modern day theologians, churchmen and the flock of Christ at large, particularly in churches that claim adherence to any of the Reformed confessions.
§4 Positive Aspects of Vos’s Writings
Before delving into a critique of Vos, I believe that it is important to emphasize that though some of my analysis may seem harsh and perhaps one-sided, I recognize and rejoice in the efforts Vos made to maintain orthodox doctrine. Though I do not believe that Vos succeeded, yet I recognize in him a sincere desire to return the ark of God’s strength to Shiloh, even if with a Philistine cart. Vos’s good points include his emphasis on Scripture as a divine revelation, his strong emphasis on the authority of Scripture over the theological enterprise,7 his desire to rend the Scriptures out of the hands of his profane contemporaries,8 his emphasis on sin and theocentricism,9 the divine promise of rewards for the saints’ good works,10 and various other helpful points regarding eschatology,11 the Psalter,12 etc. Though the emphasis of my paper is a critique of the shortcomings of Vos’s Biblical Theology program as set beside Reformed Orthodoxy, yet praise must be given to whom praise is due. Vos stood as a luminary in the context of German Rationalism, and even to some extent in the context of more liberal and consistent pantheists of his day. With that introductory remark aside, I will begin my critique.
Chapter 2: Vos’s Biblical Theology Program Described
§1 Influences on Vos’s Program
First, then, Geerhardus Vos’s Biblical Theology program must be considered in more detail. Vos sought to relate his Biblical Theology program, in some respect, to federalism, an offshoot of Reformed theology:
Its doctrine of the covenants on its historical side represents the first attempt at constructing a history of revelation and may justly be considered the precursor of what is at present called biblical theology. But the Reformed have always insisted upon it that at no point shall a recognition of the historical delivery and apprehension of truth be permitted to degenerate into a relativity of truth. The history remains a history of revelation. Its total product agrees absolutely in every respect with the sum of truth as it lies in the eternal mind and purpose of God.13
This assessment of Reformed theology as providing a precursor to Vos’s Biblical Theology, as I shall seek to demonstrate, is more wishful thinking than proper theological analysis.
Vos was more correct to identify Biblical Theology as descended, in some respects, from Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669), who wandered from confessional orthodoxy toward eccentricism in doctrine and Romanticism in historical approach. Vos explains, “What was new in Cocceius was not his covenant theology as such, but rather the historical conclusions for the economy of redemption which he drew from the covenant concept. When these conclusions became apparent, the struggle against Cocceianism was on.”14 The emphasis on historical process is key to Vos’s conception of Biblical Theology, and one reason why he considered Cocceius as a precursor to his program.
Vos indirectly explains how Cocceius serves as a harbinger for the nineteenth-century German novelty of zentraldogma:15 “Cocceianism and covenant theology would then amount to the same thing. If that is taken to mean that Cocceius was the first to make the covenant idea the dominant concept of his system, then there is some truth to this opinion.”16 Thus, for Cocceius and for later Biblical Theology one central concept comes to dominate all others. Hence the “struggle against Cocceianism,” and the reason Vos’s version of Biblical Theology has made such serious and far-reaching alterations to the theological beliefs of churchmen in confessionally Reformed churches, such as abandonment of the WCF’s teaching on the Sabbath, worship, civil government and other issues that do not meet the history-centered approach.
For Vos, the concept of zentraldogma seems to take the shape of a Hegelian or German romantic approach to historical process. Though Vos acknowledges the influence of Darwinism on his method,17 yet one must dig deeper to find the roots from which Vos’s program matured. Vos saw the evolutionary impact on Biblical Theology as merely formal:
But Biblical Theology is, perhaps, more than any other branch of theological study affected by it, because its principle of historic progress in revelation seems to present certain analogies with the evolutionary scheme, and to offer exceptional opportunities for applying the latter, without departing too far from the real contents of Scripture. This analogy, of course, is merely formal and from a material point of view there is a world-wide difference between that philosophy of history which the Bible itself outlines, and which alone Biblical Theology, if it wishes to remain Biblical, has a right to adopt, and, on the other hand, the so-called facts of the Bible pressed into the evolutionary formulas.18
Perhaps it would be more correct to say that both evolution and Biblical Theology find a common parentage in pantheism, or German Romanticism’s emphasis on historical process, organicism, etc.
Be that as it may, Vos’s assertion that the agreement between evolution and Biblical Theology is merely formal betrays a singular lapse in judgment on his part. Since Biblical Theology is a method by which Scripture is interpreted, the question of its nature is formal, by definition. Whereas the content of Scripture provides the material, the process of interpretation is formal. Thus, when Vos asserted a formal agreement between evolutionary principles and the historical process he utilized to interpret Scripture, he implicitly acknowledged that they were related to one another. Protests aside, the method is the message in this case. The method is the message because the notion that the Scripture should be interpreted as a historical process says much about the fundamental assumptions Vos made prior to engaging in his work. In fact, when set in the light of German Romanticism, Vos’s notions of historical process may be seen as an offshoot of the pantheistic tendencies of nineteenth-century German philosophy.
§2 Vos’s Definition of Theology
Another critical aspect in understanding the nature of Vos’s program of Biblical Theology is to view his program in the light of how he defines theology in general. Vos discusses the formation of the sciences:
Sciences are not formed at haphazard, but according to an objective principle of division. As in general science is bound by its object and must let itself be shaped by reality; so likewise the classification of sciences, the relation of its various members in the body of universal knowledge, has to follow the great lines by which God has mapped out the immense field of the universe.19
Thus, for Vos, the object of one’s science determines the division of such a science. Where then does that leave Biblical Theology? Is it a science which has God for its object? Vos answered in the negative: “Biblical Theology is that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.”20
The implication of these two fundamental premises is that Biblical Theology is not actually a theological science. Rather, Biblical Theology is merely the study of a process, since the process itself is the object, and not the God revealed by the process. Logically, we are left with two alternatives: Vos’s Biblical Theology is either not theology, or it is a pantheistic system in which process is god. Nor is this a mere catching at words, but I hope to demonstrate that Vos drank from the wells of Hegel, not Scripture, in quenching his hermeneutical thirst. In particular, I will seek to demonstrate that Vos’s methodology was heavily influenced by German pantheism, as handed down via Romanticism, and that his biblico-theological methodology assumes that man is created in the image of history, rather than the image of God.
To be fair to Vos, however, as I briefly noted above, one must acknowledge that he maintained orthodox dogma at certain points, though his methods were born under an evil star. Even in his definition of Biblical Theology as the study of a process, Vos continues to maintain that the Bible is a divine revelation. Thus, on a positive note, though his Biblical Theology is not properly theology, yet it quixotically seeks to point us to God. Vos notes that, “Biblical Theology deals with revelation as a divine activity, not as the finished product of that activity. Its nature and method of procedure will therefore naturally have to keep in close touch with, and so far as possible reproduce, the features of the divine work itself.”21 Again, Vos considered the activity of God as the object of his science rather than God Himself, as is the case with actual theology. Yet at least Vos considered God as the actor in his romantic drama. Thus, a more in-depth look at Vos’s Biblical Theology program demonstrates that he understood it to be the study of a historic process. Vos sought to align his program with federalism, while recognizing a certain formal agreement with Darwinism. All the while, Vos sought to retain certain aspects of historic Reformed Orthodoxy.
Chapter 3: Vos’s Appropriation of Liberal Theological Methods
§1 Redemptive Hegelianism
Second, in my reading of Vos, I noted that his model for interpreting Scripture appropriated various aspects of liberal theological methods. Not only was Vos influenced by the more conservative federalism of Cocceius, and various strands of Reformed Orthodoxy, but also by the process philosophy of Darwin and Hegel, and the anti-scholasticism of the Romantics. However, as an original genius, Vos went beyond these influences to make significant developments toward what I would call Redemptive Hegelianism.22 This Redemptive Hegelianism includes flashes of Reformed Orthodoxy, a touch of Darwinism, and aspects of German Romanticism or pantheism, such as its emphasis on eccentricity, organic processes, history, and anti-scholasticism. These influences met together in Vos and created a unique way of approaching Scripture. Having dealt with Cocceius and Darwin above, I will concentrate my efforts on Vos’s appropriation of the liberal theological methods of Romanticism or pantheism, and their accompanying emphasis on history, organicism, eccentricity, and anti-scholasticism.
§2 History at the Center
In applying the romantic method, Vos emphasized history as the circle within which the god process incarnates itself: “The process of revelation is not only concomitant with history, but it becomes incarnate in history. The facts of history themselves acquire a revealing significance.”23 Rather than limit the doctrine of incarnation to the eternal Son of God, Vos imitates the impiety of nineteenth-century German pantheism, which makes processes incarnate themselves, and even acquire revelatory powers by union of their divine nature (process) with their human nature (history). This is impious blasphemy, and, as we will see further on in this paper, strikes at the very heart of Reformed Orthodoxy. Nor is this merely infelicitous language, but lies at the center of Vos’s biblical program as a whole. As a sidelight, the god process becoming incarnate is most likely the illegitimate father of “incarnational inspiration,” but I will leave that for another day.
From this pantheistic or historical starting point, Vos attacked the notion of the orthodox that Scripture is intended to be considered as primarily teaching “what man is to believe concerning God”24:
The first feature characteristic of supernatural revelation is its historical progress. God has not communicated to us the knowledge of the truth as it appears in the calm light of eternity to His own timeless vision. He has not given it in the form of abstract propositions logically correlated and systematized. The simple fact that it is the task of Systematic Theology to reproduce revealed truth in such form, shows that it does not possess this form from the beginning.25
Again, adopting the posture of a romantic, Vos stumbled at the form of Scripture, and ascends no higher to its material. This is quite unlike the Holy Spirit speaking within Scripture itself, Who draws His readers upward from the historical narratives to timeless truth when interpreting other Scriptures.26
The irony of the quotation above is that Vos elsewhere plainly admitted that both Biblical Theology and systematic theology make the material of Scripture undergo a transformation:
The fact is that Biblical Theology just as much as Systematic Theology makes the material undergo a transformation. The sole difference is in the principle on which the transformation is conducted. In the case of Biblical Theology this is historical, in the case of Systematic Theology it is of a logical nature. Each of these two is necessary, and there is no occasion for a sense of superiority in either.27
This would mean that the cannon fired at systematics would turn back toward his own artillery, and his critique quoted above that Scripture does not possess the form of a systematic theology would have value against his own novel program: the Scripture does not possess the form of a Biblical Theology either!
Given the primacy of the historical process for pantheists, recasting theology in the light of this godless philosophy is understandable. However, as we will see below, the method of interpreting Scripture betrays one’s assumptions about what man is, and Who God is. If man is created in the image of God, including and especially the intellectual faculty, then one would expect a logos that is logical. If man is created in the image of history, a la Hegel and other romantics, then one would expect a historical process, which is just what Vos asserts as the primary feature of Scripture.
Not only did nineteenth-century German pantheists emphasize historical process, but they also emphasized organicism. Aubert discusses German pantheism’s notions of the relationship between history and organicism:
In contrast to rationalism, Romanticism stressed mystical thinking and encouraged progressive doctrines. The ideas of ‘historical continuity’ and ‘organic growth’ were central to Romantic thought, particularly as they concerned past events.28
In contrast to the Enlightenment, a characteristic of nineteenth-century European scholarship was the expanded ‘comprehension of history’ as introduced by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) and developed by Hegel and his followers. Theologians of that period felt compelled to engage with these views of history. Moreover, the age in which Gerhart labored was marked by a zealous concentration on ‘life’ wherein theological systems became unnecessary. It was the precise development of life concerning ‘human personality…as it ran through the course of history’ that became essential, as did considering its early beginnings and its final consummation. The key idea was found in the historical process in which history was viewed as an ‘organic process.’29
This philosophical background is critical in understanding Vos’s history-centered hermeneutical approach, and his organic inspiration ideas.30
In fact, of all the unbelieving German philosophy that Vos imbibed, the organicism of the pantheists may justly be placed in the first rank. Organicism governed how Vos viewed inspiration. In reviewing Herman Bavinck’s “Reformed Dogmatics,” Vos stated:
It is freely acknowledged that the old theology framed too mechanical a conception of the process of inspiration. This is not granted, however, by way of concession, on the ground that mechanical inspiration would offend the dignity of man, and is therefore inconceivable in itself. There is nothing derogatory to man in his sustaining the same relation towards God as a child usually sustains toward its parents, or a servant towards his master. The simple truth is that the Bible itself shows us God condescending to clothe His Word and make it as it were incarnate in the peculiarities of human nature. But the organic view should never be held to the detriment of the divine authorship of the Scriptures. As Christ, notwithstanding His incarnation and the weakness and contumely inseparable from it, nevertheless remained free from sin, so Scripture is sine labe concepta.31
Again, Redemptive Hegelianism requires that incarnation of the great Idea take place, and therefore an organic view of inspiration was required to flesh out the process via the peculiarities of human nature. Human personality, for Vos, ran through the course of history, and inspiration was concomitant with history. This is a play right out of the playbook of Team Pantheos.
In Hegel’s rendition of pantheism, “Reality as a whole is an organic unity, the several moments of which are God, nature, and the finite mind. On the one hand, the absolute Spirit is presupposed in all finite existences, and, on the other hand, as the idea of the Infinite contains in it the idea of the finite, so the real Infinite contains the existence of the finite.”32 Thus, Scripture expresses the God-nature-finite mind Hegelian trifecta for Vos. God is the source, nature contributes the historical process, and the finite mind of man offers its peculiarities.
Vos expresses this pantheistic organic unity of God-nature-finite mind more clearly in discussing his understanding of regeneration:
Now, this new creation, in the objective, universal sense, is not something completed by a single act all at once, but is a history with its own law of organic development. It could not be otherwise, inasmuch as at every point it proceeds on the basis of and in contact with natural development of this world and of the human race, and, the latter being in the form of history, the former must necessarily assume that form likewise.33
Note how Vos’s assumptions about history, process, and organic unity made him deem it necessary that regeneration have “its own law of organic development.” Further, since history and man express the same Hegelian Idea, Vos asserts that regeneration is based upon the natural development of this world and the human race. Necessity arose, in this case, from the Hegelian laws embedded deeply in Vos’s psyche. Necessity does not arise from Scripture or from the nature of God’s saving activity.
Vos appropriated various strands of liberal ideology, and these influences found expression in history at the center of his worldview, the notion of organic unity, and also in terms of an emphasis on idiosyncrasy. Aubert notes “Romanticism’s preference for the Eigentümliche (‘idiosyncratic’) and Gewordene (‘what happened’) resulted in the insistence on ‘historical consciousness.’”34 For Vos, idiosyncrasy found expression, not only in his keen historical consciousness, but also in his approach to the particular “types of truth” found in Scripture, and the peculiarities of human nature found in each human writer of Scripture. After all, human personality ran through the course of history and inspiration goes hand-in-hand with history.
This emphasis on idiosyncrasy often led Vos to speculate romantically on the psychological state, intention, and, at times I wondered, the color of the writer’s socks. For instance, in discussing the “Pauline eschatology,” a term in itself liable to much confusion, Vos attributed the statements of Scripture to the idiosyncratic psychological state of the Apostle Paul:
Paul had been the first to grasp with his master-mind the single items of eschatological belief scattered through Scripture, and to weave them into a compact, well-rounded system, so coherent, that, speaking after the manner of man, it became next to impossible for any of the precious texture henceforth to be lost.35
For Vos, Scripture’s eschatological “master mind” was not the Holy Spirit, as in Reformed Orthodoxy; rather, it was the human spirit of Paul. This speculative emphasis on human authorship and activity reflects the God-nature-finite mind Hegelian model in which the divine Scripture (God), following the organic process (nature), is produced by the master-mind of the Apostle Paul (finite mind).
Another instance of such impiety in Vos is in his discussion of the “present juncture in the history of Old Testament eschatology” which, he maintains, “was partially due to revelation.”36 Nice to know that God had partial responsibility for the eschatology taught in the Old Testament! Though Vos would reject the pantheistic premise out of hand that all-is-god, yet his method is indubitably rooted in that impious tradition.
The idiosyncrasies of the human spirit are pressed so far in Vos’s system that he refers to Paul as having his own type of Christianity.37 One of Vos’s books is entitled Pauline Eschatology, reflecting the German pantheistic approach to idiosyncrasy. Thus, Vos romantically speculated about the internal motions of the human spirit in contemplating the divine truth. This idiosyncratic approach made Jesus and Paul to be recipients of mere human opinions, developed in a Hegelian organic parallel with human history. “We should also remember that Paul, no less than our Lord, inherited this distinction from Jewish theology or Apocalyptic, where it undoubtedly had the meaning of successiveness.”38 Again, Vos had to believe in an organic growth of Christian consciousness to satisfy his Hegelian starting point.
Vos’s impious roots also show forth when discussing the question of the coming of Christ. Vos asserts that Scripture was mistaken in its assertions concerning the timing of this event. But the Hegelian dialectic consists of the Word of God (thesis) and the word of man (antithesis), and produces Scripture (synthesis). What else would one expect than that this synthesis is occasionally mistaken? Vos says that “After all, what is most convincing in this respect is the indubitable expectation of the nearness of the parousia which pervaded the Christian mind, and can, both as an expectation and a wish, be traced in the consciousness of the Apostle himself.”39 This is sheer and utter nonsense! Vos speculates about “the Christian mind,” though all we truly have is the mind of Christ deposited in Scripture. Vos announced that his understanding of the parousia passages of the New Testament is indubitably certain on the expected timing. This would make Paul to be a grand wisher, whose romantic hopes were mistaken, but well intended.40 In all this, Vos’s true colors shine through: he is a German romantic trying to download a new operating system to the CPU of Reformed Orthodoxy.
Not only did Vos tinker with mere points of eschatological thought in the Scriptures recorded by Paul, but he had the gall to assert that Paul’s notions derived from un-inspired sources, which built upon the Old Testament Scriptures: “Probably it was not even necessary to contribute much de novo to this circle of ideas, for here, if anywhere, Jewish or Jewish Apocalyptic literature had, on the basis of the Old Testament, prepared the way for the Apostolic doctrine.”41 Not to beat a dead horse, but note how mere human spirits contribute to the Hegelian synthesis of Scripture. Even if we assume that Vos considered the Old Testament as purely divine, which he apparently did not, the synthesis of Old Testament Scripture (divine), plus Jewish literature (the human spirit), follows the organic pattern of growth and development (nature), and thus becomes Scripture.
Paul’s idiosyncratic approach, Vos asserted, led him to teach an eschatology that is the reverse of the Old Testament teaching. “The gauge of health in the Christian is the degree of his gravitation to the future, eternal world. The Christian train of thought in this respect is the reversal of that of the Old Testament: the eternal is not so much a prolongation of the temporal, but the temporal rather an anticipation of the eternal.”42 As we will see later, Reformed Orthodoxy, following Scripture, sees the saints of the Old Testament as one in faith and hope with the saints of the New Testament, though with less precise revelation (cf. Hebrews 11). Thus, as Calvin demonstrates in his Commentary on Genesis, the earthly promises given to the Old Testament saints were intended to draw them to the heavenly City, rather than to bind them to a continuation of the temporal order.43 More could be said regarding the influence of German Romanticism’s notion of idiosyncrasy on Vos, but I believe that these instances sufficiently demonstrate that Vos was very significantly influenced by such godless thought.
German pantheism and Romanticism not only influenced Vos in terms of history-centricism, organicism, and idiosyncrasy, but also in terms of anti-scholasticism. Given the nineteenth-century emphasis on “reason” and criticism, the pietistic and romantic responses were somewhat understandable, though not excusable. Vos offered an antidote to rationalism that was merely falling into the ditch on the opposite side of the road. For example, Vos asserted that “To speak of revelation as an ‘education’ of humanity is a rationalistic and utterly un-scriptural way of speaking. All that God disclosed of Himself has come in response to the practical religious needs of His people as they emerged in the course of history.”44 Again, Vos’s Hegelian historical approach determined how he spoke of Scripture, and God’s motivation for delivering the text.
Concerning this anti-scholasticism, it is sufficient to point out that it is not un-scriptural, nor utterly so, to speak of revelation as education. Scripture refers to itself as truth, knowledge, wisdom, learning, instruction, doctrine, and more. Scripture teaches that man’s heart thinks, reasons, contemplates, and decides. Scripture refers to those who have faith in Jesus Christ as “disciples,” a term drawn from the field of education. Apostolic sermons utilize logical deduction, and draw inferences based on the texts to apply to their hearers.
Certainly, revelation is not bare education without lawful application, but if it is anything, it is education. However, as a romantic, Vos had to deprecate education for the sake of drama and pantheistic esthetics. Vos stated that “The Bible is not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic interest.”45 But as we will see later, Reformed Orthodoxy insists on man in the image of God as comprehending knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, and therefore revelation will address the image of God, whether fallen or recreated, in terms of what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.
§6 Conclusion of Vos’s Appropriation of Liberal Theological Methods
In concluding this second point, it should be reiterated that Vos, whether consciously or otherwise, was heavily influenced by pantheism. Though not formally a pantheist, Vos utilized their romantic sensibilities to interpret Scripture. Even more than this, Vos’s view of God Himself, and not merely His revelation, reflected shades of pantheistic sentiment. Vos asserted that “Like unto all theology [Biblical Theology] finds its supreme end in the glory of God. This end it attains through giving us a new view of God as displaying a particular aspect of His nature in connection with His historical approach to and intercourse with man.”46 Whether coloring man’s view of God with the lens of Hegelian historical process glorifies God is highly doubtful. As we will see in our contrast with Reformed Orthodoxy, Vos’s notion that God’s nature is demonstrated by historical process means that the god upon which he built his city is neither eternal nor unchangeable, seeing the flux of history would not only impact His self-revelation, but also His nature. This is certainly, as Vos stated, “a new view of God;” one born under an evil star. And with that, we will begin our discussion of Vos versus Reformed Orthodoxy.
Chapter 4: Vos’s Biblical Theology Program Compared and Contrasted with Reformed Orthodoxy
§1 Introductory Remarks
In this third portion of my findings, I will compare and contrast Vos’s Biblical Theology program with Reformed Orthodoxy in terms of the inspiration and authorship of Scripture, theological method and biblical interpretation, the subject matter of Scripture, and ethics. Though alluded to above, I believe that this portion will more fully demonstrate just how far Vos was from his public adherence to the Westminster Standards as a professor at Princeton Seminary.
§2 Inspiration and the Authorship of Scripture
First, I will consider Vos’s view of the inspiration and authorship of Scripture. As alluded to above, Vos held to a romantic organicism in terms of inspiration. Thus, for Vos, inspiration follows the world-process of historical development. Paul, by idiosyncratic genius and by means of natural development, thus becomes part of the synthetic process of authoring Scripture. Though Vos made striking exegetical concessions to the historic views of the orthodox, nevertheless he settled for the new view.
In discussing the “Pauline” writings on the divine attributes of love and righteousness, Vos betrayed the fatal nature of his program:
From a biblico-theological point of view, however, the question may be raised whether Paul failed to think out the ultimate consequences of his system in this respect, or whether perhaps he had in his own mind and to his own satisfaction so adjusted the attributes of love and righteousness to one another that they did not appear to him mutually exclusive.47
For Vos, then, the biblico-theological point of view entailed the humanization of inspiration on a pantheistic platform. That such a question must be raised by Biblical Theology means that the god of such a system has not spoken infallibly.
Yet, as a sort of mediating theologian, Vos sought to hold the pantheistic humanism of his biblico-theological method in harmony with various portions of Reformed Orthodoxy. I believe that this was rather quixotic, but at least Vos gave forth a noble effort. The damning evidence against his Biblical Theology program comes from Vos’s own pen:
Whenever the New Testament speaks about the inspiration of the Old, it is always in the most absolute, comprehensive terms. Consulting the consciousness of the Scriptures themselves in this matter, we soon learn that it is either ‘plenary inspiration’ or nothing at all. Further, we have found that revelation is by no means confined to isolated verbal disclosures, but embraces facts.48
If anything portends the fatal doom of Vos’s system, born under an evil star as it was, his schizophrenic doctrine of inspiration certainly does. On the one hand, Vos’s system made it necessary to question the infallibility and logical coherency of Scripture; on the other hand, Vos, as a Christian man, had to concede that Scripture assumes no such impious attitude toward the Sacred Oracles of God.
The cause of this schizophrenia, as mentioned above, lies in Vos’s adoption of Hegelian philosophy to guide his interpretive method. Any rational person would be unwilling to affirm the possibility of mistake in an infallible document. But for Vos, under the spell of God-nature-finite mind, his system makes it a must to question the logical coherence and infallibility of an inspired document. Particularly damning is Vos’s critique of the Psalms such as 6:4-5, 30:9, 88:10-12 and 115:7, which Vos held to be in error:
True, what the speakers in Job and the psalmists affirm and imply was not in the common sense revelation: it was the subjective utterance of their religious state of mind at various moments. It was not something that God through the expression of such despondencies desired to make known to us and that with the stamp of his absolute divine authority upon it. But it was not on that account withheld or withdrawn from the field of inspiration. Inspiration in such cases only vouches in an infallible way that such thoughts and misgivings and forebodings actually, and in that actual form, existed in the minds of pious Israel.49
It is perhaps true with regard to certain utterances in the book of Job, since the Holy Spirit informs us of the fact that Job spoke what was right, and some of his friends spoke amiss. It is also the case with recorded quotations from ungodly men, or misguided pious men, such as Pilate’s “What is truth?” or Peter’s “Far be it from thee, Lord!” But here, Vos, for the sake of his pantheistic mistress, attacked the “word of Christ” in the Psalms. The despondencies are not errors, but are the foreshadows of the sufferings of Christ, forsaken by His Father.
The aggravation of Vos’s error is only fully appreciated when juxtaposed with his assertions regarding the Scripture’s assessment of the Psalms themselves:
In a very striking way God regularly appears as the speaking subject in the quotations made from the Old Testament. Where Paul contents himself with the formula, ‘as it is written,’ or ‘as the Scripture says,’50 Hebrews prefers to make the affirmation of the divine authorship explicit and employs the formula ‘God says.’ That this is not the result of meaningless habit, but possesses doctrinal significance, appears from the cases, where, rhetorically considered, it would be unnatural to introduce God as the speaking subject, since in the passage quoted He is the Person spoken of. Even in such cases the author insists upon emphasizing that the statement about God came from the mouth of God Himself. It is God who said ‘the Lord shall judge His people’ (x. 30). And so vivid is the realisation of this supreme fact of the direct divine authorship of Scripture that what we call the secondary authors, that is, the writers of the Biblical books, are, again in distinction from Paul’s custom, scarcely ever mentioned. The only case where the name of a Bible writer is introduced is chap. iv. 7, and even here the phrase is not ‘David saying’ but ‘God saying in David.’ There are even passages where pains seem to have been taken to bring out the relative unimportance of the secondary authorship by more positive means than the mere omission of the writer’s name. In a couple of instances use seems to have been made for this purpose of the indefinite pronoun ‘some one’ and the indefinite adverb ‘somewhere’: ‘One has somewhere testified saying’ (ii. 6); ‘For He hath spoken somewhere of the seventh day on this wise’ (iv. 4). By this manner of statement the impression is conveyed that in view of the authority wherewith God invests every word of Scripture the human instrumentality through which the divine word was mediated becomes a matter of little or no importance. As a matter of fact the word of revelation is so literally to the writer’s mind the word of God that it is represented as having been spoken by God being locally present in His messengers : ‘God of old times spoke unto the fathers in the prophets’; ‘God said in David.’ The conception is not instrumental, as if ‘in’ were a Hebraizing construction for ‘by means of”; it should rather be compared with the similar form of statement by our Lord to the disciples: ‘it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you’ (Mat. x. 20), and by Paul who offers to the Corinthians a proof of Christ speaking in him (2 Cor. xiii. 3).51
For the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture, the Psalmists themselves are of little importance, since it was not “them that speak, but the Spirit of their Father that speaketh in them”! For Vos, God records the Psalmists’ subjective and erroneous despondency, simply ensuring that their errors are quoted correctly.
For Vos, the mixed authorship of Scripture is not merely God and the finite mind of man, but also includes nature, or the historical process. The premise of Vos’s system of Biblical Theology is that Scripture truth grows up organically according to historical process. As a true son of Hegel, his philosophy locks him into the frameworks of God-nature-finite mind. Thus, as alluded to above, inspiration comes in the form of human reflection on divine truth, as in the case of non-canonical Jewish apocalyptic literature, and Paul’s wishful thinking about the parousia. But more basically for Vos, inspiration consists of organic development. In Vos’s inaugural address as Professor of Biblical Theology in Princeton Theological Seminary, he stated:
When, nevertheless, Biblical Theology also undertakes to show how the truth has been gradually set forth in greater fulness and clearness, these two facts can be reconciled in no other way than by assuming that the advance of revelation resembles the organic process, through which out of the perfect germ the plant and flower and fruit are successively produced.52
This is perhaps an apt illustration of Vos’s doctrine of inspiration in a nutshell. The organicism of German Romanticism only permitted Vos to see the advance of revelation as resembling the organic process.
As Vos said later in the same address, “Biblical Theology, rightly defined, is nothing else than the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity.”53 Whether this organic progress of supernatural revelation is actually within the text of Scripture itself, or is simply imposed by Hegelian assumptions would be the subject of an enjoyable debate. Suffice it to say, however, that these quotations demonstrate that Vos’s doctrine of inspiration, which he referred to as “organic inspiration,” is certainly derived from Hegel’s God-nature-finite mind paradigm.
Not only so, but later still in the same address, Vos audaciously ascribed the inexhaustible treasures of Scripture, and their fulness and variety, to the Hegelian historical process! Note that Vos did not ascribe the fulness of Scripture to Almighty God, and their timelessness to the fact that man is created in His image, but to the god process:
No one will be able to handle the Word of God more effectually than he to whom the treasure-chambers of its historic meaning have been opened up. It is this that brings the divine truth so near to us, makes it as it were bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, that humanizes it in the same sense that the highest revelation in Christ was rendered most human by the incarnation. To this historical character of revelation we owe the fullness and variety which enable the Scriptures to mete out new treasures to all ages without becoming exhausted or even fully explored.54
But Reformed Orthodoxy maintains that the fulness of Scripture is derived from its divine origin, not its historical character. The mind of Christ is delivered to us in Scripture: God speaks to man. The treasures will never grow old or be exhausted due to this divine origin and authorship, as well as to the fact that man is created in the image of God, and therefore partakes, to a limited extent, in the divine timelessness, God having put eternity in the heart of man.
In Reformed Orthodoxy, the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is quite different from the Vossian God-nature-finite mind paradigm. Reformed Orthodoxy reverently receives Scripture as the revelation of God Himself and His will, as in Westminster Confession of Faith 1:1:
Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.55
And in WCF 1:4:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.56
For Reformed Orthodoxy, then, Scripture is not the record of historical process, but is the record of God Himself, and of His will. God is the author of Scripture, not Paul, or Isaiah, or John, or any other mere man. This starting point has implications for theological method, the interpretation of Scripture, the subject matter of Scripture, ethics, and other areas, as I will discuss in more detail below.
In contrast with Vos’s notion, mentioned in his inaugural address, that the historical character of Scripture is what makes it able to mete out new treasures to all ages, Wilhelmus à Brakel says:
add to these reasons texts which emphatically establish the Word of God itself to be judge, ‘…the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day’ (John 12:48); ‘There is one that accuseth you, even Moses’ (John 5:45); ‘All scripture …is profitable for doctrine, for reproof’ (2 Tim 3:16); ‘The Word of God …is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart’ (Heb 4:12).
Thus the Word itself is arbiter in the disputes which arise concerning the Word of God, for it is the sovereign, living God who speaks in it, has spoken in it, and speaks by means of it until this very moment. Thus, the Word must be viewed as if God were continually narrating it to us with an audible voice from heaven.57
Thus, for Reformed Orthodoxy, God speaks in Scripture, judges in Scripture, and continues to unfold the riches of Himself and His will to His church by Scripture. What a far cry from Vos’s humanization of Scripture!
Moreover, the theological faculty at Leiden, one of which was a delegate to the Synod of Dort, in its famous theological treatise Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, discussed the human writers of Scripture in their definition of Scripture:
Hanc autem Scripturam definimus, Instrumentum divinum, quo doctrina salutaris a Deo per Prophetas, Apostolos, & Evangelistas, tanquam Dei actuarios, in libris Canonicis Veteris & Novi Testamenti est tradita.
But we define this Scripture to be a divine Instrument, by which the saving doctrine is delivered from God by means of Prophets, Apostles and Evangelists, God’s secretaries so to speak, in the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments.58
Thus, the prophets, apostles and evangelists are “God’s secretaries.” William Perkins confirms this statement, adding the writers’ clerical function, “The Scripture is the word of God written in a language fit for the Church by men immediately called to be the Clerkes, or Secretaries of the holy Ghost. 2. Pet. 1. 21. For prophecie came not in old time by the will of man, but the holy men of God spake as they were carried and mooved by the holy Ghost.”59
Nor is this a mere difference of phraseology between Vos and the orthodox. Rather, it is a fundamental difference with very practical implications. If the Scripture is a Hegelian synthesis of God-nature-human mind, then it may only be trusted so far as each spoke in that wheel is sound. Thus, David Dickson, in commenting on the purported inspiration of the Apocryphal books (a notion denied in WCF 1:3), states that we are not to rely on the authority of the church in reference to the inspiration of any book:
Because the word is to be received by us, not as the word of man, but as the word of God. 1 Thes. 2.13. 2d, Because the doctrine of Christ, to be received by believers, dependeth not on man’s testimony, John 5.34. 3d, Because God only is true and infallible, and all men are liars, Rom. 3.4. Heb. 6.18. He is of incomprehensible wisdom, Psalm 147.5. Of great goodness, Exod. 18.7. Rom. 11.12. Psalm 34.8. Of absolute power and dominion, Gen. 17.1. Psalm 50.1,2. Of infallible truth, who can neither deceive or be deceived, Rom. 3.4. Titus 1.2. Heb. 6.18. Therefore he ought to be credited in all his narrations, promises, threatenings, and prophesies, and obeyed in all his commands allenarly, because he himself hath said so.60
Does our faith stand in nature, or in the finite mind of man? God forbid! Therefore, if our faith is to rely on what is true and infallible, on what is incomprehensibly wise, on what is of absolute power, we must rely on a divine word. Otherwise, the narrations, promises, threatenings and prophesies of Scripture will stand in jeopardy every hour, and our faith will stand in the wisdom of men, or in the fleeting powers of organic nature. Archbishop James Ussher is also on point when he stated that Scripture is the rule of faith and obedience since “God being Author of these Books [of the Bible], they must needs be perfect, as he himself is.”61
William Ames, in his typically pithy style, describes the Scripture’s attitude about the authorship of Scripture: “Therefore, Scripture is often attributed to the Holy Spirit as the author with no mention of the writers. Heb. 10:15, Whereof the Holy Spirit also is a witness to us.”62 What is significant about the particular class of passage Ames cited from Hebrews is that Vos utilized that same class for an entirely different, nay, contrary purpose. For Ames, reading Scripture as God intended, these passages demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is the Author of Scripture, and that our faith rests in God, “the first and proper cause of things to be believed.”63
For Vos, such passages in Hebrews give him a chance to demonstrate his spiritual stupor by analyzing the “author of Hebrews’” subjective psychological state:
In agreement with this conception of revelation as a process of fellowship between God and man, the writer conceives of God as speaking through the Scripture: 4:12-14. He conceives of this as a continuous or permanent speech; God is in His Word, and this consideration leads the writer of the Epistle to personify the Word of God. He speaks of the Word judging, penetrating, etc. Such things could not be said of a word that stood by itself. After carrying out this personification, the author naturally returns to the idea of the speaking of God. Hence follows the identification of the Word with God.64
Rather than lift his eyes heavenward, as Scripture calls us to do, Vos groped in the muck pits of Hegelian historical analysis.
Yet Vos does not merely ignore the teaching of Scripture, that God is the Author of Scripture, but seeks to encroach on this truth with impious speculation. Vos, for example, speculates about the Greek preposition ™n in Hebrews 1:1 that “In [Hebrews] 1:1 the word dia could not have been used because it would signify too little; it would mean that the prophets were mere mechanical instruments of revelation, an idea which the author clearly wishes to avoid.”65 To his credit, Vos seeks to guard against what he considers the opposite error of ascribing too much to the prophets, and in the end, he throws up his scholarly hands, saying that “We need not be concerned so much about the processes of revelation, provided we maintain a firm conviction that the product of revelation is truly the infallible Word of God. This we find in Hebrews, which lays strong stress on the fact that the revelation was ‘in’ the prophets.”66
This passage in Vos’s teaching on Hebrews is somewhat encouraging, seeing Vos seeks to refute impious critics of Scripture. Yet at the same time, this passage almost seems to undermine Vos’s entire program of Biblical Theology. For example, the use of the preposition ™n in Hebrews 1:1 would seem to indicate that God actually possessed the persons of the prophets, and spoke from within them. This makes the prophets mere passive channels through which God spoke, rather than active contributors as Vos explains them to be. Vos’s example of Matthew 10:20 demonstrates this point where Christ says that “it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you.” Note that it is disclaimed that the apostles would be responsible parties in what was spoken, just as the prophets were not responsible parties in what they wrote. What’s more, since Vos declares that “We need not be concerned so much about the processes of revelation,” and since “Biblical Theology is that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God,”67 we may safely conclude that we need not be concerned so much about Biblical Theology. As for me and my house, we will retain the older method of Reformed Orthodoxy, which maintains that “God alone to be accounted the Author [of Scripture], who inspired the Hearts of those Holy Men, whom he chose to be his Secretaries; who are to be held only the Instrumental Causes thereof. (2 Pet. 1.20, 21.)”68
Though this concept of the writers as secretaries was falsely charged by Vos and other critics as mechanical or magical inspiration, yet Reformed Orthodoxy still took into account the human instruments the Lord chose to work through. The Synopsis helpfully explains:
Modus Scriptionis hic fuit; modo Deus inspirantis & dictantis, Scriptores vero amanuensium, & ad certam formulam scribentium, Exod. 34.27.28. Apoc. 2.1. &c. Modo adsistentis & dirigentis, Matth. 22.43. Heb. 1.1. ipsi vero, commentatium & authorum rationem habuerunt, Luc. 1.1.3. Non enim semper mere paqhtikîj, passive, sed & ™nrghtikîj, effective se habuerunt, ut qui & ingenium, mentisque agitationem & discursum, & memoriam, dispositionem, & ordinem stylumque suum (unde scriptionum in iis diversitas) adhibuerunt Amos. 4.14.15. 2 Cor. 10.10 & 11.6. praesidente tamen perpetuo Spiritus S. Qui ita eos egit & rexit, ut ab omni errore mentis, memoriae, linguae, & calami, ubique praeservarentur. 2 Sam. 23.1.2. 1 Cor. 7.25.40.
The mode of the writing of Scripture was this: by the method of God inspiring and dictating a certain set form of words, the Writers, however, as secretaries, Ex. 34:27-28, Rev. 2:1, etc., or by the method of attending and directing, as Matt. 22:43, Heb. 1:1, the authors sketching out the reason they had, Luke 1:1 and 3. That is to say, not always merely paqhtikîj, passively, but also ™nrghtikîj, having managed themselves as part of the productive process, such that they have employed whatever of natural disposition, and of mental activity and discursive logic, and memory, orderly arrangement of words, and the order of their own style (whence the various writers differ from each other in these matters) Amos 4:14-15, 2 Cor. 10:10 and 11:6, nevertheless the Holy Spirit perpetually controlling whereby He thus conducted and ruled over them, that they were everywhere preserved from every error of mind, memory, speech, and pen (2 Sam 23:1-2, 1 Cor. 7:25 and 40).69
Though Vos asserted things very similar to the Synopsis on this point, yet because his starting point was within the pantheistic tradition, the shape such ideas took in his interpretive system was a far cry from the shape of Reformed Orthodoxy’s interpretive system.
Second, in comparing and contrasting Vos’s Biblical Theology program with Reformed Orthodoxy, I will consider the issues of theological method and biblical interpretation. As I just alluded to, the shape Vos’s doctrine of inspiration took in his interpretive method is quite diverse from the shape of Reformed Orthodoxy. Because Vos saw Scripture as a synthesis, this influenced how he handled various texts as well as the entire theological project. Again Vos stated that the “method of Biblical Theology is in the main determined by the principle of historic progression.”70 Because Reformed Orthodoxy looks upon Scripture as a revelation of God Himself, and of His will, this too shapes its views of these same texts and the theological project. It is my burden to demonstrate that Vos’s exegetical and theological methods find no support within Scripture itself, whereas Reformed Orthodoxy’s exegetical and theological methods are those of God Himself, speaking in Scripture.
§3 Theological Method and Interpretation of Scripture
Concerning nineteenth-century German theology, Philip Schaff noted that “The influence of Germany is both negative and positive; it tends to undermine old foundations, and aids in building up new constructions. It has been felt so far mainly in biblical and historical theology, but these are the foundation of systematic theology.”71 As we have seen thus far, Vos was heavily influenced by German theology, leading him to undermine old foundations and build up new constructions. This is particularly evident in his theological method and exegetical approach.
As is often the case with history-centered theologians, they feel obliged to take logical, scholastic, or confessional approaches to task for perceived inadequacies. Dr. Richard Gaffin notes that “There is little question that Vos is countering what he considers a tendency in Protestant orthodoxy to deal with Scripture largely in terms of the loci or topical structure of dogmatics and in so doing to treat its statements as more or less isolated proof-texts.”72 In this connection, Vos states that “Biblical Theology relieves to some extent the unfortunate situation that even the fundamental doctrines of the faith should seem to depend mainly on the testimony of isolated proof-texts.”73 Rather, as one might expect, Vos wishes to make such doctrines “grow out organically before our eyes from the stem of revelation.”74 This approach generally reflects the divergent views of man: Reformed Orthodoxy deals with man as the image of God, and therefore theological method reflects this fact; Vos dealt with man as the image of historical process.
A few instances may help illustrate this basic divergence in method. One instance is in Vos’s discussion of Old Testament types, and what the saints of old took them to mean: “It is unhistorical to carry back into the Old Testament mind our developed doctrinal consciousness of these matters.”75 Shaping Vos’s exegetical method is, of course, history and human consciousness. The “Old Testament mind” represents human personality running through the course of history. Yet Scripture must then be condemned on Hegelian grounds since we are told that the patriarchs received and embraced the promises, though afar off, while on pilgrimage to the heavenly City (Heb. 11:13-16), Moses forsook the riches of Egypt for the reproaches of Christ (Heb. 11:26),76 some saints did not accept deliverance that they might obtain a better resurrection (Heb. 11:35), the saints ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink (1 Cor. 10:4), and so forth. Suffice it to say, Vos’s method judges Scripture as unhistorical, since God Himself carried back into “the Old Testament mind” our developed doctrine consciousness of these matters.
This is particularly where Vos’s method falls flat on its face while Reformed Orthodoxy receives a victor’s crown. While Vos emphasizes historical context, Reformed Orthodoxy emphasizes Scripture as a revelation concerning God Himself, His will, and the duty He requires of man. Thus, as à Brakel notes:
A fourth practice, insisting that no text in Scripture can be correctly understood unless viewed in its context, is also to be avoided. Apart from the fact that the context itself is usually obvious, it is generally easy to grasp even for an uneducated but godly reader—easier than some are ready to admit. Where the context is not so readily perceived—one interpreting the context differently from another—it is due to man’s darkened understanding. A godly person, when reading Scripture in all simplicity and being capable of perceiving its spiritual dimension, will often be more capable of understanding the context than others, even though he frequently will not be able to prove his case as would a scholarly person who is in the state of nature. An awareness of the context is not always essential, however, to the correct understanding of a text or a passage. There are thousands of expressions in God’s Word which, when heard or read individually, have a precise meaning, give full expression to their doctrinal content, and are sufficiently penetrating to stimulate faith, render comfort, and be exhortative in nature. This is illustrated in the following examples, ‘He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life’ (John 3:36); ‘Ask, and ye shall receive’ (Matt 5:3-12). Yes, many of the proverbs of Scripture are presented without an apparent context; whoever would search for a context in such a situation would be guilty of obscuring the matter.77
Because the Holy Spirit is the Revealer of truth as well as the one who writes truth on the heart, a regenerated soul is essential to the interpretive process. Thus a godly person will better grasp the true meaning of Scripture than an ungodly but learned person.
Also, à Brakel referred to the “spiritual dimension” of Scripture, and how context can easily be overdone in scholarly pride. God has spoken in Scripture for man’s salvation, edification, comfort and to stimulate faith. Thus, the “isolated proof text method”78 recognizes the spiritual dimension of Scripture, and the fact that many statements of Scripture do not require contextual analysis. In line with the spiritual dimension, William Perkins comments on the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the text, “The principall Interpreter of the Scripture, is the holy Ghost. 2. Pet. 1. 20. So that ye first know this, that no prophecie in the Scripture is of any private interpretation. Moreover, hee that makes the law, is the best and the highest interpreter of the law.”79 Again, this doctrine of the divine origin of Scripture necessitates a certain method of interpretation, which is Scripture interpreting Scripture, callously referred to as the “isolated proof text method.”
William Ames also noted that:
Although various parts of the Scripture were written upon a special occasion and were directed to particular men or assemblies, in God’s intention they are equally for the instruction of the faithful of all ages, as if specially directed to them. Therefore in Heb. 12 the exhortation of Solomon found in Proverbs is spoken (as to sons) to the Hebrews who lived in the apostles’ time; in 2 Peter 3:15 Paul is said to have written to all the faithful in writing to the Romans; and in Heb. 13:5 what was said to Joshua is said to all believers.80
What Ames supported by a few passages could be bolstered with example after example. As noted above, the New Testament reads the “developed doctrinal understanding” of later ages into previous revelation. Likewise, once the spiritual dimension of Scripture is grasped, the Hegelian historical primacy loses its grip on the soul.
A few examples of the “isolated proof text method” which bolster Ames’ assertion may be drawn from the discourses of our Lord in the Gospels and from the Epistles of Paul. For example, our Lord demonstrates the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead from isolated proof texts in Exodus 3:6 and 16. This, by the way, is yet another instance, contra Vos, of reading doctrines revealed later in time back into earlier revelation. Because the Bible is not the word of man, and is most emphatically the Word of God, the most appropriate context is not historical, but theological.
Another instance of “isolated proof texts” is in Romans 3:10-18, where Paul deduces the conclusions listed in verses 19-20 from that list of Old Testament quotations in verses 10-18. Note that rather than the Holy Spirit reading each verse in historical context, He uses what à Brakel calls the spiritual dimension. Since the mind of God is the context for Scripture, remaining chained down to historical context would not just be less fruitful–it would be impious. But as we have seen above, Hegelianism was Vos’s lens for viewing Scripture, and tragically, his method was born under an evil star, and fated to destruction.
David Dickson also provides a helpful refutation of the calumny against Reformed Orthodoxy in discussing the use of logical deduction in theological discipline:
Quest. IX. ‘Is it warrantable to argue in articles, or matters of faith, by consequences natively deduced from scripture?’
Well then, do not the Socinians, Quakers, Anabaptists, and Arminians err, who maintain, That all matters of faith are set down expressly, and in so many words in Scripture, and that no matters of faith, at least necessary to salvation, can be built upon consequences drawn from the Scriptures?
By what reasons are they confuted?
1st, Because Christ himself proves, that necessary point of faith, the resurrection of the dead, from scripture by a consequence, Mat. 23.29,31,32. To be any one’s God, is to give one eternal life, Psalm 33.12. Psalm 144.15. Whence followeth, that those patriarchs lived still with God, in respect of their souls, which these Sadducees also denied, Acts 23.8. and should also rise in respect of their bodies, and live eternally: Seeing he is called a God, not of one part of them only, but of their whole persons. And in that same chapter, v. 43,45. Christ proves his deity by consequence from Scripture, against the Pharisees. 2d, So doth Apollos, Acts 18.28. and Paul, Acts 19.22. prove from the Old Testament, Jesus to be the Christ: But it is not expressly said in the Old Testament, that he is the Christ. Is not that which necessarily follows from scripture, contained in it implicitly, and implicitly revealed by God, infallibly true?81
Note that Dickson clearly demonstrates that the proof-text method, and deducing articles of faith from particular texts is not merely warrantable, but was the inspired methodology of Christ and the Apostles, and even of Apollos.
Vos’s method runs aground of the WCF when he discusses the Scripture’s teaching on the anti-Christ and the man of sin in 2 Thessalonians. Vos claims that “Only after the contents of it shall have been ascertained, so far as this is possible, does the law of the ‘analogia fidei’ demand of the student that he shall endeavor to correlate and harmonize the one with the other.”82 Thus, again, the assumptions Vos held of Scripture as a God-nature-human mind synthesis made each passage, particularly by different human writers, severable from all others for individual analysis. Vos seems to take the analogia fidei into account only as a last resort of sorts, rather than as a basic step in the interpretive process. Yet WCF 1:9 states that “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”83 Thus, if there is any question about the true and full sense of the “man of sin” passage in 2 Thessalonians, we must search other Scriptures that speak of his identity, even if written by another apostle who used different terminology such as “anti-Christ.”
The error of severing the mind of Christ delivered to us in Scripture is demonstrated in Vos’s impious assertions about Christ’s teaching in the Gospels concerning the resurrection of the body versus Paul’s teaching on the same topic in the Epistles: “We have no right simply to carry back into our Lord’s teaching the specifically Pauline conception of the spiritual body. On the other hand it should be remembered that undoubtedly this Pauline conception was derived from the appearance of Christ in His celestial glory which Paul beheld on the way to Damascus.”84 Not to overemphasize this point, but Vos’s view of inspiration forced him to spout such drivel, though obviously we have every right to interpret Scripture (“our Lord’s teaching”) with Scripture (“the specifically Pauline conception”)! In fact, Vos’s Confession bound him to do so, and the gall it took for him publicly to repudiate this claim on his thinking is staggering. Is it any wonder that Schaff stated that Germany undermined old foundations? Because Vos viewed Scripture as an organic, natural, and historical process, rather than as the mind of Christ delivered in writing, his method of interpretation was at variance with Reformed Orthodoxy. Though more could be said on this point, Vos’s method of interpreting Scripture, and of constructing a theological system, led him to certain conclusions about what Scripture actually says.
§4 Subject Matter of Scripture
Thus, third, in comparing and contrasting Vos’s Biblical Theology program with Reformed Orthodoxy, I will deal with the subject matter of Scripture. What is the Bible really all about? What are its main teachings, and what should a reader of Scripture expect to read and take away from his reading? As cited above, Vos’s foundational statement is that “Biblical Theology is that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God.”85 For Vos, then, so far as his Biblical Theology program is concerned, process is the main focus of Scripture. This would include the human mind of the writers, their subjective consciousness, the organic and historical development of ideas among the people to whom Scripture addresses itself, and other such factors.
For Reformed Orthodoxy, the heart and soul of Scripture are encapsulated in two things, excellently summarized in WSC 3: “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.”86 Thus, when anyone reads the Bible, the two fundamental questions that should cross his mind during the experience are “What does this passage tell me about God?” and “What does God require me to do in this passage?” William Ames’ Marrow is an exposition of this fundamental approach to Scripture, in that it divides the whole of theology into “faith and observance.”87 As cited above, WCF 1:1 states that “it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church.”88 Thus, Scripture is a revelation of God Himself, and of His will for us, according to Reformed Orthodoxy.
Francis Turretin helpfully summarizes Reformed Orthodoxy, fleshing out the corpus of faith and observance:
Our religion is that which is wholly occupied with knowing the one and triune God, the Creator, preserver and Redeemer, and rightly worshipping him according to his command. It gives the entire glory of our salvation to God alone and writes against man alone the true cause of his sin and destruction. It is our religion which recognizes no other rule of faith and practice besides the sacred Scriptures; no other Mediator and head of the church than Christ; no other propitiatory sacrifice than his death; no other purgatory than his blood; no other merit than his obedience; no other intercession than his prayers. It is our religion which teaches that God alone is to be adored and invoked and does not allow the glory and the religious worship due to him to be transferred to creatures. It is our religion which depresses man as much as possible by taking away from him all presumption of his own strength and merits; and raises him to the highest point by preaching that the grace and mercy of God is the one only cause of salvation, both as to the acquisition and as to application. It is our religion which proclaims war against all vices, recommends all virtues and presses the necessity of holiness and good works unto salvation; places piety and worship, not in bodily exercises, which are of little advantage (for instance the distinction of food, the observance of festivals, fasts, pilgrimages, flagellations and other external ceremonies and will-worships [ethelothrēskeiais], which God has nowhere enjoined), but in worship in spirit and truth, consisting in a pure heart, a good conscience, faith unfeigned, love and the practice of good works.89
This eloquent statement by Turretin assists in setting the contrast between what I have come to conclude is the fruitless and unedifying approach of Vos’s Biblical Theology program, and the wholesome words of Reformed Orthodoxy.
One way of illustrating the different conclusions about the content of Scripture between Vos’s program and Reformed Orthodoxy is to consider the concept of covenant or testament in Scripture. Since Vos is primarily interested in historical organicism, and Reformed Orthodoxy is primarily interested in faith and observance, covenant may be seen as watershed issue to illustrate the different fruit each tree produces. As cited above, Vos considered one of the forerunners of his Biblical Theology program to be Cocceius. Yet Vos also recognized how the approach taken by that seventeenth-century Dutch scholar was a departure from Reformed Orthodoxy:
Many Reformed theologians had in their systems a locus on the covenant or on the testaments. Trelcatius, father and son, Junius, Gomarus, and others taught the covenant in this sense. With them the concept remained rather subordinate, so that they cannot be called federalists in the later sense of the term.90
And on the next page:
In Calvin, too, mention is frequently made of the covenants. However, his theology was built on the basis of the Trinity, and therefore the covenant concept could not arise as a dominant principle in his case. He is the forerunner of such Reformed theologians who allocate to it a subordinate place as a separate locus.91
Thus, for Reformed Orthodoxy, acknowledging God Himself as the proper object of our studies, and the image of God as the point of contact between the mind of God and the hearers of Scripture, covenant and historical process can never be central. For a Hegelian, history must be a dominant concept, and covenant seems to have been deemed best suited to satisfy such romantic urges.
With this in mind, Reformed Orthodoxy’s treatment of covenant theology aims at teaching man what he is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man. In other words, the covenants of Scripture are intended to convey promises and precepts; gospel and law; faith and obedience. One need merely survey the passages of Scripture in which the term or idea of covenant appears, and these themes will readily be seen by an impartial reader. One rather edifying example occurs in 2 Corinthians 6:17-7:1, in which God calls upon His people to purify themselves, with the solid foundation for holy living being the words of promise, “I will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” The covenant promise, as 7:1 continues, requires that we “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” Thus, in terms of Scripture, God’s covenant is comprised of law and gospel–or, we could say, promises and precepts.92
However, in the barren wasteland of Redemptive Hegelianism, covenant demonstrates the pseudon proton of this system. After discussing the use of a covenant (Hebrew berith) by ancient near-east conquerors, Vos states that “Another instance of this peculiar meaning of the word is that the law has the idea of Berith. In Psalm 119 law and Berith are used interchangeably. The law could only be spoken of in this way by reason of the solemn religious ceremony which accompanied its establishment.”93 “Could only be” is a key phrase in any explanation, since it opens up the soul of the author for all to see. In Vos’s soul, we find, once again, the God-nature-finite mind paradigm at work. The historico-organic context for the establishment of laws by ancient conquerors, or by Jehovah in Exodus 20, could be the only reason Vos can conceive for the interchangeability of law and covenant in Psalm 119.
However, since Reformed Orthodoxy takes Scripture as God intended, focusing on what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man (WSC 3 itself being an expression of covenant as gospel and law), law and covenant are so related because man is created in the image of God. Thus, man was made for knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness. Man was made to know God and His Son, Jesus Christ. Man was made to keep God’s commandments in holiness and righteousness. Therefore, when God’s saving covenant is delivered to the image of God, it could not present itself in any other way than by law and gospel–by precept and promise.
Turretin, with his wonted edifying eloquence, expressed this idea well with regard to the clauses of God’s covenant of grace, and the duties of the people of God under this covenant:
Now these are the two principal duties demanded-faith and repentance. The former embraces the promises; the latter fulfills the commands; the one answers to the promise of grace─‘Believe and thou shalt be saved’; the other is commanded by the evangelical law─‘Walk before me, and be thou perfect’ (Gen. 17:1). For as there are two special benefits of the covenant on God’s part (the remission of sins and the writing of the law upon the heart), so on the part of man two duties ought to answer to them─faith, which applies the pardon of sins to itself; and repentance (or the desire of sanctification), which reduces the law written upon the heart to practice by walking in its statutes (which Christ intimates, ‘Repent ye, and believe the gospel,’ Mk. 1:15).94
God’s covenant and law, therefore, are terms used interchangeably in Psalm 119 because the law is one of the two major parts of God’s covenant, and one major part of the image of God. As is usually the case, the Scriptures use a part for the whole. Using the figure of synechdoche, law, a part of God’s covenant, stands in place of the entire covenant, consisting of law and gospel.
The same divergence of approach to the subject matter of Scripture may be seen with regard to the testamentary language of Scripture. According to WCF 7:4-5 the covenant of grace “is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a Testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.”95 Moreover, to clarify that this testamentary language applies equally to the Old Testament, the Confession continues:
This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all fore-signifying Christ to come: which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called, the Old Testament.96
For Reformed Orthodoxy, it is neither unhistorical nor theologically incorrect to “carry back into the Old Testament mind our developed doctrinal consciousness of these matters.”97 For Reformed Orthodoxy, the testamentary language of the one covenant of grace is entirely appropriate.
For Vos, bound by the chains of Redemptive Hegelianism, the procedure of Reformed Orthodoxy is unhistorical. Vos also asserts that “In Hebrew Scriptures the meaning ‘testament’ has no standing at all.”98 Referring to the Greek term that is used for both covenant and testament (diatheke), Vos goes on to explain:
How could such a thought have been applied to God, who is throughout the maker of the religious diatheke? In the New Testament the diatheke as a ‘last will’ is once brought into connection with the sacrifice of Christ, once with the promise of God to Abraham. The former case cannot be put on a line with what the translators of the Septuagint are charged with having perpetrated, because Christ, unlike God, is in His human nature subject to death and can appear in the role of testator.99
That this is at variance with the testament, as embraced by Reformed Orthodoxy, is plain. For Reformed Orthodoxy, the content of Scripture is taken in light of its fully divine inspiration, and in light of man as created in the image of God. As such, the death of Christ, the testator, and the everlasting inheritance are present, even under the Old Testament. For Vos, however, the content of Scripture was taken in light of an imposed God-nature-finite mind paradigm, and in the light of man in the image of history. Thus, for Vos, testamentary language would be historically misplaced, since Jesus had yet to be incarnated.
The saddest part of this equation is how Vos’s otherwise brilliant and pious mind was blinded by Redemptive Hegelianism from the facts of Scripture staring him in the face. The irony of Vos referring to Galatians 3 on the same page as the quotation just cited is that the Apostle argues that the testament with Abraham was made to the Seed, Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). Moreover, the context of Galatians 3 demands that we read the crucifixion of Christ back into the testament made with Abraham (cf. 3:1). That Reformed Orthodoxy recognizes this plain reading of Scripture without gymnastically overcoming the obvious is to its credit as contrasted with Vos’s vagaries.
Not only must we contrast Vos’s Biblical Theology program with Reformed Orthodoxy in regard to the inspiration and authorship of Scripture, theological method and interpretation, and the subject matter of Scripture, but, in the fourth place, we must consider the divergence of ethical teaching between the two. As the fundamental assumptions of each program differ, and as ethics is the fruit that each tree bears, nothing demonstrates more clearly how different Vossian Biblical Theology is from Reformed Orthodoxy than a discussion of ethics.
Of particular interest in this regard is Vos’s treatment of the First Table of the Decalogue, found on pages 129-143 of BT. By contrast with WLC 102-121, Vos’s treatment seems like a barren wasteland. Since Vos begins from the premise of man created in the image of history, and the Catechism with man created in the image of God, the exposition of each carries its first principles through consistently. For the Catechism, the Decalogue is where “the moral law is summarily comprehended.” For Vos, the Decalogue is part of the “theocratic movement,” and is “adjusted to the practical needs and limitations of the people.”100 This law of the Decalogue, for Reformed Orthodoxy, reflects the unchanging nature of God, as reflected in the divine image, even in man’s state of innocency. This moral law was “revealed to Adam in the estate of innocence, and to all mankind in him,”101 it is “the declaration of the will of God to mankind,”102 it “is of use to all men, to inform them of the holy nature and the will of God,”103 and “is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments, which were delivered by the voice of God upon Mount Sinai, and written by him in two tables of stone; and are recorded in the twentieth chapter of Exodus.”104 The chasm between Vos and the Catechism could not be wider.
Granted, Vos pusilanimously asserts that “The Decalogue, on our view at least, was not the product of the religion of the people, but the revelation of God.”105 Would to God that Vos asserted this more manfully, and was consistent with the divine origin of the Decalogue! Rather, Vos’s trumpet blows an uncertain sound, as he claimed that the Decalogue “descends into and condescends to the abnormalities of Israel.”106 Labeling the Decalogue as a condescension to the abnormalities of a particular people is hardly worthy of a divine revelation, meant as a rule of life to the entire human race for all time. Vos’s treatment of particular precepts of the Decalogue also demonstrates that he really considered the Decalogue as a mixture of both human and divine influences, according to the Hegelian God-nature-finite mind paradigm.
For instance, Vos seeks to argue against the Wellhausen school of Old Testament criticism that the Decalogue is not of Mosaic origin by stating that, “It must be urged against this that the main burden of the prophetic preaching of ethics keeps in much closer contact with contemporary developments than the Decalogue. The prophetic message revolves round such things as the oppression of the poor by the rich, the corruptness of the administration of justice. These are things not even alluded to in the Decalogue.”107 The asinine assertion that the Decalogue does not even allude to such things can only make sense in the process-theology context.
For Vos, as for the pantheists, historical and organic processes are at the heart of understanding divine revelation. Thus, since the precepts of the Decalogue express the righteous character of God, in whose image man was created, they seem too platonic or idealistic for a pantheist. Since the Decalogue seems to lack as close contact with contemporary developments, it is characterized as some kind of ephemeral ideal hovering over the theocratic Hegelian process assumed to be Israel.108
Reformed Orthodoxy has no room for such rubbish. For example, the sixth and eighth commandments forbid “oppression.”109 The ninth commandment forbids:
all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbours, as well as our own, especially in public judicature; giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth; passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked; forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others; speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful and equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice.110
This is quite different from Vos’s assessment of what is even alluded to, much less forbidden by, the precepts of the Decalogue.
The fundamental difference resides in first principles. For Reformed Orthodoxy, Scripture is God’s Word, inscribed via human clerks. The object of this revelation is man as created in the image of God, fallen in Adam, and restored in Christ. The substance of this revelation is what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man. Thus, the Decalogue, rather than being some kind of hovering theocratic ideal, is a short summary of the entire moral law.
For Vos, the Decalogue is pressed into a process-based mold. The historical circumstances of the theocracy and the abnormalities of Israel govern his interpretation of its precepts. Thus, in rather idiotic fashion, Vos asserts that the First Commandment “is not a theoretical denial of the existence of other gods besides Jehovah.”111 Vos identifies the roots of this inane position as the context of God’s addressing the “main sins of paganism” rather than as addressing His image-bearers. Again, the context is organicism and historical developments rather than God Himself, and man in His image.
Even covenant children understand that “The first commandment requireth us to know and acknowledge God to be the only true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify him accordingly.”112 Obviously, the first commandment requiring us to know and acknowledge only one true God is not a mere prohibition of monolatry. Nor does Scripture countenance Vos’s moral turpitude, but rather skillfully lays it aside, line upon line. Even if the Hegelian assumption were granted as to the primacy of historical process, the prohibition of worshiping more than one object necessitates the prohibition of acknowledging more than one God. But Scripture being the Word of God, and the Decalogue serving as a summary of all the moral laws of Scripture, polytheism is prohibited by the First Commandment.
Chapter 5: Concluding Applications from Findings
§1 Concluding Remarks
Having reviewed my findings with respect to Vos’s Biblical Theology program, his appropriation of certain aspects of German pantheism, and Vos’s views of the inspiration and authorship of Scripture, his theological method and interpretation, and his ideas regarding the subject matter of Scripture and ethics as contrasted with Reformed Orthodoxy, I will conclude with a few brief thoughts on applying my findings.
§2 No Rehab for Hegel
First, I believe that it is fair to say that rehabilitating, much less appropriating, nineteenth-century German theological fads is neither possible nor desirable. Whether one considers Hegelianism, pantheism, or Romanticism, their fundamental premises are so impious that they can be handled with no other weapon than the beheading sword. Rather than seek to revive and perform surgery on a patient, we are to slay the beast. Redemptive Hegelianism was conceived as a bulwark against the dead rationalism of Wellhausen and others. But rather than remain on the right path, it opted for the ditch on the other side of the path: irrationality and good feeling as a replacement for sound orthodoxy.
In Vos’s Redemptive Hegelianism, Scripture is humanized and pressed into the God-nature-finite mind paradigm, and man is assumed to be created in the image of history. In this way, Vos’s Biblical Theology program changes both the speaking Subject of Scripture, and the hearing object of Scripture, contrary to the Scriptures themselves. Thus, Vos’s method is the message. Though Vos quixotically wished to retain the sound and wholesome words of Reformed Orthodoxy, and to eat from her vine and fig tree, he had already set his pantheistic ax to their roots. His method of organicism and historical process, consistently held, leaves no room for a divine word, except under the assumption that all things are god: pantheism.
In my findings, it appears that Vos’s program of Biblical Theology is rooted in a different soil from Reformed Orthodoxy, and thus cannot act as its companion system. In other words, contrary to Vos’s claim, his program of Biblical Theology cannot supplement what he saw as lacking in systematic theology. Being itself a systematic theology whose fundamental premises contradict Reformed Orthodoxy, the two are not reconcilable. As such, it would be my suggestion that theologians in Reformed Churches, whether laymen or officers, begin by acknowledging the differences between their confessional standards, and Vos’s Biblical Theology which was indelibly stamped by nineteenth-century German pantheism.
§3 Practical Steps for Church Officers
Furthermore, once these differences are acknowledged, it would behoove officers in confessional churches to re-study their confessional standards in the light of authors such as Calvin, Perkins, Ussher, Turretin, Dickson, Rutherford, and others. This is not meant to enslave us to men, but simply to set the confessional standards in an appropriate context. Finally, since Redemptive Hegelianism is a complete program of biblical interpretation, it would be important to re-study Scripture in light of Reformed Orthodoxy’s treatment on the authorship of Scripture, theological methodology, the paradigm of “what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man,” and taking into consideration man as the image of God, not as the image of history. I believe that this process will be edifying on several levels, particularly in terms of church officers being able to fulfill their vows to their confessional standards, without holding positions contradictory to Reformed Orthodoxy. Moreover, since I am convinced that Reformed Orthodoxy has the appropriate method of theological reflection, I believe that such a process will only serve to produce piety toward Christ, and charity toward our neighbor, the ethical fruit of a proper focus on the spiritual dimension of Scripture.
Geerhardus Vos had many wholesome things to say. His memory is to be honored for the efforts he made to cherish piety and faith in a world filled with godless critics and skeptics. He was correct in identifying Biblical Theology as born under an evil star. I agree with Vos that Biblical Theology is destined for destruction. Moreover, I believe that Biblical Theology, if pursued consistently, will bring impiety and misery as it undermines the roots of Reformed Orthodoxy’s faith and practice. Yet with a knowledge of Biblical Theology’s inauspicious origins, we may escape its fated doom. By recovering the wholesome words of Reformed Orthodoxy, we may delight ourselves in the fatness of her house.
In summary, Geerhardus Vos’s considered his Biblical Theology program to be a branch of exegetical theology dealing with the process of God’s self-revelation in the Bible. I contrasted Vos’s program of Biblical Theology with Reformed Orthodoxy, which I defined as the historic and public confessions of faith of the Reformed churches and their catechetical standards, particularly the Westminster Standards, and other writings of the orthodox. In particular, I set Vos beside the orthodox in terms of the inspiration and authorship of Scripture, theological method and interpretation, the subject matter of Scripture, and ethics. My findings are that Vos’s Biblical Theology, though containing some sparks of Reformed Orthodoxy, may nevertheless be justly labeled as Redemptive Hegelianism. Vos’s views of the authorship and inspiration of Scripture reflected the Hegelian trifecta of God-nature-finite mind. The Bible is the Word of God, but is also reflective of organic or naturalistic processes, as well as the finite mind of man, reflected in the various “types of revelation” Vos found in Scripture. For Reformed Orthodoxy, Scripture is a revelation of God and His will, as if He were audibly narrating the text to us from heaven as we read. Man, as the image of God, is to receive the text as God speaking to teach him what he is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of him. These two schools of thought are not reconcilable. Thus, I would encourage confessional churchmen to re-examine Scripture and their confessional vows in light of these differences, seeking the Lord to grant wisdom and understanding for the glory of Christ and the good of our neighbor.
Bibliography for Born Under and Evil Star
Dr. Peter J. Wallace, “The Foundations of Reformed Biblical Theology: The Development of Old Testament Theology at Old Princeton, 1812-1932” in Westminster Theological Journal, 59:1 (Spring 1997).
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Ed., Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980).
Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), cited as BT; The Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1994).
Geerhardus Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2001).
Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews, edited and re-written by Johannes G. Vos (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956).
Dr. Annette G. Aubert, The German Roots of Nineteenth-Century American Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Samuel Macauley Jackson, Ed., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge in 13 Volumes (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1956).
John Calvin, Commentaries on The First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999).
Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 2001).
Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service in Which Divine Truths Concerning the Covenant of Grace are Expounded etc…in Four Volumes (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).
S.S. Theologiae Doctores & Professores in Academia Leidensi, Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, DISPUTATIONIBUS quinquaginta duabus comprehensahensa Ac conscripta per Johannem Poliandrum, Andream Rivetum, Anonium Walaeum, Antonium Thysium, Third Ed. (Leiden: Ex Officina Elzeviriana, 1642).
William Perkins, The Art of Prophecying, or a Treatise Concerning the Sacred and Onely True Manner and Methode of Preaching, in The Works of That Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the Universitie of Cambridge, M. William Perkins, Volume 2 (London: Printed by John Legatt, 1631).
David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error, or, the True Principles of the Christian Religion, Stated and Vindicated Against the Following Heresies, viz. Arians…Vaninians, &c. The Whole Being a Commentary on All the Chapters of the Confession of Faith, by Way of Question and Answer: in which, the Saving Truths of our Holy Religion are Confirmed and Established; and the Dangerous Errors and Opinions of its Adversaries Detected and Confuted (Glasgow: John Bryce, and sold at his shop in the Salt-market, 1764).
Archbishop James Ussher, A Body of Divinity: Being the Sum and Substance of the Christian Religion (Birmingham, Alabama: Solid Ground Classic Reprints, 2007).
William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, John D. Eusden, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997).
Philip Schaff, Theological Propaedeutic: A General Introduction to the Study of Theology, Part II (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893).
Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, In Three Volumes (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1992-1997).
Anthony Burgess, Vindiciae Legis: A Vindication of the Moral Law and the Covenants, Westminster Assembly Facsimile Series (London: Printed by James Young for Thomas Underhill, at the signe of the Bible in Wood-street, 1647).
1 Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Ed., Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980), xii, cited as RH&BI.
2 RH&BI, 15. The classical allusion cannot fail to have its effect, since in Greek tragedies he who was born under an evil star, as by fate, brought himself to ruin.
3 For an analysis of the roots of Vos’s program of Biblical Theology, see Dr. Peter J. Wallace’s article “The Foundations of Reformed Biblical Theology: The Development of Old Testament Theology at Old Princeton, 1812-1932” in Westminster Theological Journal, 59:1 (Spring 1997).
4 Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), cited as BT; The Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1994), cited as PE; The Eschatology of the Old Testament (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2001) cited as OTE; The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews, edited and re-written by Johannes G. Vos (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), cited as Hebrews; and RH&BI.
5 BT, 5.
6 Ibid., 16.
7 E.g. RH&BI, 19, “Biblical Theology must insist upon claiming for its object not the thoughts and reflections and speculations of man, but the oracles of God. Whosoever weakens or subjectivizes this fundamental idea of revelation, strikes a blow at the very heart of Theology and Supernatural Christianity, nay, of Theism itself.”
8 E.g. ibid., 15, “From the end of the preceding century, when our science first appears as distinct from Dogmatic Theology, until now, she has stood under the spell of un-Biblical principles. Her very birth took place under an evil star. It was the spirit of rationalism which first led to distinguishing in the contents of the Scriptures between what was purely human, individual, local, temporal-in a word, conditioned by the subjectivity of the writers-and what was eternally valid, divine truth.” Vos’s inaugural address “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline” (RH&BI, 3-24) is instructive as to Vos’s private sentiments and approach to Biblical Theology, demonstrating many of his better points listed above.
9 E.g. ibid., 399, “The very fact that it is not so much the grace but rather the love of God which is pitted against His righteousness betrays the true motive of the antagonism. This fact means, first of all, that there is a weakening of the sense of sin. The modern religious subject thirsts for love as such, not in the first place for forgiving, justifying grace. But this in itself is but a symptom of the general abandonment of the theocentric attitude in the present-day religious consciousness. Love is magnified because at bottom God is conceived of as existing for the sake of man.”
10 E.g. PE, 275, “Hence in Phil. 2:9 the gracious bestowal of the name above every name upon the Saviour is placed by Paul without the slightest hesitation on the footing of work rendered and value received: ‘Wherefore also God highly exalted Him and gave unto Him the name which is above every name.’ Further, through an extension of the same principle to believers, although in their case no ‘earning’ in the strict sense is according to Paul’s general teaching conceivable, they are nevertheless admitted into a status within the regime of grace where with strict maintenance of the denial of merit, they are permitted to lay up a store of recompense for themselves toward the day in which all accounts are to be settled.”
11 E.g. ibid., 358, “It is the special function of the Church to speak unceasingly and unfalteringly for this one supreme aspect of the future world, to insist in season and out of season that in it God and the service of God are to the highest good and satisfaction of mankind, that without which all other desirable things will lose their value and abiding significance.”
12 E.g. ibid., 339, “The gloria in excelsis which the Psalter sings arises not seldom from a veritable de profundis and, leaving behind the storm-clouds of its own distress, mounts before Jehovah in the serenity of a perfect praise.”
13 RH&BI, 232-3.
14 Ibid., 235.
15 For an enlightening discussion of the history of nineteenth-century American theology, as influenced by the German schools of theological reflection and philosophical speculation, see Dr. Annette G. Aubert’s excellent study, The German Roots of Nineteenth-Century American Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), cited as Roots. Though Dr. Aubert’s study focuses on Dr. Charles Hodge of Princeton, and Dr. Emmanuel Gerhard of Mercersburg, yet her linking various strands of nineteenth-century German philosophy, including the zentraldogma motif and Romanticism to American Reformed theological study sheds light on aspects of Vos’s Biblical Theology program.
16 RH&BI, 234.
17 Cf. ibid., 504: “But surely we are not reduced to the alternative of following either the old systematizing or the new evolutionary principle of treatment. From the latter we need only learn to place greater emphasis upon the historic nexus of the several types of truth deposited in the Scriptures, without thereby abating in the least our conviction concerning the supernatural genesis and growth of the body to which they belong.”
18 Ibid., 16.
19 Ibid., 4.
20 BT, 5, emphasis mine.
21 Ibid., 5.
22 This seems a more appropriate term than “redemptive historical,” since the “historical” part is Hegelian at bottom.
23 BT, 6.
24 See discussion below of Vos versus the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s teaching on the content of Scripture.
25 RH&BI, 7.
26 See discussion below of Vos versus Reformed Orthodoxy on the method of interpreting the Scriptures.
27 BT, 20.
28 Roots, 63.
29 Ibid., 111.
30 See discussion below of Vos versus Reformed Orthodoxy on the inspiration and authorship of Scripture.
31 RH&BI, 480.
32 Samuel Macauley Jackson, Ed., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge in 13 Volumes (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1956), 8:332.
33 RH&BI, 8.
34 Note 104 in Roots, 288.
35 PE, vi.
36 OTE, 68.
37 Cf. PE, 11, where Vos refers to “Pauline Christianity.”
38 Ibid., 26.
39 Ibid., 32, emphasis mine.
40 For further humanistic speculation by Vos, one may review his assertions on the merely human origins of the mistaken concept of a chronologically speedy parousia in PE, pp. 86 and 146, and RH&BI, pp. 26 and 94.
41 PE, 305.
42 Ibid., 363.
43 Cf. Commentaries on The First Book of Moses Called Genesis by John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999), 1:399 and 2:91-2.
44 BT, 8-9.
45 Ibid., 17.
46 Ibid., 18.
47 RH&BI, 447.
48 BT, 13.
49 OTE, 14.
50 Of ironic significance in this regard is Vos’s omission of Romans 1:2 in calculating his speculative theory of “Paul’s formula” where God is the Promissor concerning His Son, and the prophets were mere instruments in recording Scripture. Thus, for the Apostle Paul, God is the speaker in Scripture, and the prophets and apostles mere agents or secretaries of the Spirit.
51 OTE, 14.
52 RH&BI, 11.
53 Ibid., 15.
54 RH&BI, 23.
55 Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 2001), 19-20, cited as WCF. This book also includes the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and other accompanying documents issued by the Westminster Assembly. The particular source will be noted in the text or footnotes as WCF for the Confession, WLC for the Larger Catechism, and WSC for the Shorter Catechism.
56 WCF, 21.
57 Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service in Which Divine Truths Concerning the Covenant of Grace are Expounded etc…in Four Volumes (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 1:57, cited as RS.
58 Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, DISPUTATIONIBUS quinquaginta duabus comprehensahensa Ac conscripta per Johannem Poliandrum, Andream Rivetum, Anonium Walaeum, Antonium Thysium, S.S. Theologiae Doctores & Professores in Academia Leidensi, Third Ed. (Leiden: Ex Officina Elzeviriana, 1642), 8, cited as Synopsis; all translations are mine, along with any errors therein.
59 William Perkins, The Art of Prophecying, or a Treatise Concerning the Sacred and Onely True Manner and Methode of Preaching, in The Works of That Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the Universitie of Cambridge, M. William Perkins, Volume 2 (London: Printed by John Legatt, 1631), 647, cited as Prophecy.
60 David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error, or, the True Principles of the Christian Religion, Stated and Vindicated Against the Following Heresies, viz. Arians…Vaninians, &c. The Whole Being a Commentary on All the Chapters of the Confession of Faith, by Way of Question and Answer: in which, the Saving Truths of our Holy Religion are Confirmed and Established; and the Dangerous Errors and Opinions of its Adversaries Detected and Confuted (Glasgow: John Bryce, and sold at his shop in the Salt-market, 1764), 36, cited as Victory.
61 Archbishop James Ussher, A Body of Divinity: Being the Sum and Substance of the Christian Religion (Birmingham, Alabama: Solid Ground Classic Reprints, 2007), 15, cited as Ussher.
62 William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, John D. Eusden, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 186, cited as Marrow.
63 Marrow, 244.
64 Hebrews, 69-70.
65 Ibid., 72. Cf. Romans 1:2 where the Apostle refers to God as having promised di¦ tîn profhtîn, or by means of the prophets, making the prophets “mere mechanical instruments,” according to Vos’s Hegelian frame of reference.
66 Hebrews, 73.
67 BT, 5; see page 2 above.
68 Ussher, 5.
69 Synopsis, 22.
70 BT, 16; see page 2 above.
71 Philip Schaff, Theological Propaedeutic: A General Introduction to the Study of Theology, Part II (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893), 403.
72 RH&BI, xix-xx.
73 BT, 17.
74 RH&BI, 24.
75 BT, 148.
76 Cf. Vos’s attempt to side-step this easily understood passage, and the thrust of such statements as vitiating the Hegelian organic process inspiration theory in Hebrews, 68, “This reproach [in Hebrews 13:13] is thus seen to be a reproach which Christ Himself first bore and which we now bear together with Him. So we must similarly interpret the reproach of Christ borne by Moses. This does not imply that Moses had a prophetic knowledge of the sufferings of the future Messiah, but rather that the reproach which Moses bore was objectively identical with the reproach suffered by Christ and His people throughout the ages. This implies, therefore, that back of all the reproaches and sufferings which God’s people have endured, stood Christ. How this appeared to Moses’ own subjective consciousness is told us in 11:25, ‘choosing rather to share ill treatment with the people of God…’” Vos’s pantheistic starting point forces him to misinterpret such clear testimonies as they would prove fatal for his system. However, the weight of the evidence is overwhelming, and Christ is easily preached from Moses as well as from Matthew once Scripture is properly handled as the Word of Christ, rather than as the result of a God-nature-human mind synthesis.
Contrast this with à Brakel’s treatment of this same passage in RS, 1:452-3, “Observe this also in reference to Moses. ‘By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward’ (Heb 11:24,26). Moses knew Christ, believed in Christ, esteemed Christ as being precious, and had the promises in view through Christ. This chapter enumerates an entire register of Old Testament believers, and the benefits of which they became partakers by faith in Christ.”
77 RS, 1:80.
78 Reformed Orthodoxy does not consider the proof texts to be isolated; this is mere calumny. Rather, the proof texts are tightly knitted together in the mind of Christ, and can thus correlated with other passages of Scripture speaking on the same topic, as cited below in WCF 1:9. In fact, the scholastic method employed in developing Reformed Orthodoxy required one proof text to go through a process of rigorous disputations, logic and linguistic analysis, correlation of various texts, and theological application. The process of disputations might cover all passages of Scripture dealing with one simple proof text.
79 Prophecy, 651.
80 Marrow, 187.
81 Victory, 37-8. Cf. Dickson’s discussion of WCF 1:9 in Victory, 41-2.
82 PE, 120.
83 WCF, 24.
84 RH&BI, 322-3.
85 BT, 5.
86 WCF, 287.
87 Cf. Ames’s Theology Chart in Marrow, 72, with the two main branches of the entire book being “Faith in God” (pp. 80-216) and “Observance” (pp. 219-331).
88 WCF, 19, emphasis mine.
89 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, In Three Volumes (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1992-1997), 3:139, cited as Turretin.
90 RH&BI, 235.
91 Ibid., 236.
92 A very helpful study on this topic of covenant theology as taught in Scripture and echoed in Reformed Orthodoxy is Anthony Burgess, Vindiciae Legis: A Vindication of the Moral Law and the Covenants, Westminster Assembly Facsimile Series (London: Printed by James Young for Thomas Underhill, at the signe of the Bible in Wood-street, 1647). Burgess, one of the members of the Westminster Assembly’s committee on the law of God, helpfully explains the relationship between covenant theology and the law of God, as summarized in chapters 7 and 19 of the WCF, WLC 91-148, and WSC 39-81.
93 Hebrews, 31-2.
94 Turretin, 2:184.
95 WCF, 43.
96 Ibid., 43-4.
97 BT, 148.
98 RH&BI, 165.
99 Ibid., 171.
100 BT, 130.
101 WLC 92 in WCF, 178.
102 WLC 93 in ibid., 178.
103 WLC 95 in ibid., 179.
104 WLC 98 in ibid., 181.
105 BT, 131.
106 Ibid., 130.
107 Ibid., 130.
108 Cf., “Like the theocracy in general [the Decalogue] hovers above the life of the people as an ideal never realizable, nor realizable at the then existing stage.” Ibid., 130.
109 WLC 136 and 142 in WCF, 221 and 228.
110 WLC 145 in ibid., 231-3.
111 BT, 134.
112 WSC 46 in WCF, 299.