Volume - Issue

The Theological Vision of Geerhardus Vos: Theological Education and Reformed Ministry

By Bradley J. Bitner


Gerhardus Vos’s lesser-known first inaugural address (1888) entailed a theological vision. Its subject was not biblical theology, but theological method and theological education for Reformed ministry. Vos first identifies cultural, theological, and curricular challenges to the kind of theological formation he thinks students need. Then he exemplifies the kind of confessional framework, theological patterns of thinking, and historical humility that he envisions as necessary for ministry that bears lasting, robust gospel fruit for the church. Vos’s vision provokes us to reconsider the shape and aims of contemporary theological education as well as the relationship between systematic and biblical theology in his theological method.


1. Introduction

Although Geerhardus Vos is best known as a biblical theologian, this is not an essay about biblical theology. Nor does it deal with his well-known 1894 Princeton inaugural address.1 It is instead a reflection on important aspects of the larger theological method that founded and funded Vos’s later work in biblical theology. It also traces how Vos’s method entailed a vision of vital Reformed church life and the kind of theological education required to sustain it and see it flourish. The basis for this study is Vos’s little-known “other” inaugural address, “The Prospects of American Theology,” delivered at a small theological college in Grand Rapids in 1888.2

The “father of Reformed biblical theology” began his career there with incisive reflections on doctrine, history, theological method, philosophy, and cultural analysis. This may strike some as strange, regrettably “scholastic,” or even suspiciously backwards. Why wouldn’t Vos simply expound a biblical text? Why not trace a redemptive-historical theme? And why (and how?) did Vos begin with systematics and then move to biblical theology from the 1890s onward?3 Surely the direction of travel ought to have been reversed?

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

The Grand Rapids inaugural has intrinsic interest. But it also has special relevance given renewed attention in the past several decades to a Vosian biblical theology,4 both within Reformed confessional circles and more broadly within evangelicalism.5 From at least three different angles, questions have arisen to which Vos’s “other” inaugural begins to provide some helpful answers. First, Craig Carter has recently queried whether Vos’s biblical theology sits within a larger, stable theological method and just how it might relate to the “Great Tradition” of patristic and pre-critical theological metaphysics, epistemology, and hermeneutics. Carter suggests that, despite its strengths and surface similarities to the proto-biblical theology of Irenaeus, Vos’s biblical theology may not be robustly theological enough.6

From a slightly different angle, Michael Allen has argued in a pair of recent articles that Vos (and those following him) developed Reformed biblical theology as a “crisis measure” that may have unintentionally yet significantly strained the relationship between the Bible and systematic theology. Here, the suggestion is that biblical theology in a Vosian mode is at best a “temporary interpretive therapy,” but one that may jeopardize, misalign, or intrude upon the fundamental theological relationship between the properly apostolic disciplines of dogmatics and exegesis.7

From yet another direction, some have argued that Vos’s biblical theology is too covenantal and dogmatically bent and thus may threaten to override the text of Scripture, either by misconstruing the redemptive historical structure of the canon or by overemphasizing divine authorship at the expense of human authors and individual Bible books or corpora.8 The implication here is—ironically, in light of the critiques of Carter and Allen—that Vos’s method is overly theological and perhaps not sufficiently biblical or exegetical.

By carefully laying out below the arguments and implications of Vos’s 1888 address we aim to engage with these critiques only indirectly. The primary purpose for this close reading and reflection is to identify some fundamental aspects of the larger theological method from within which Vos’s biblical theology emerged and to trace the thoroughly theological vision he presented for training ministers who would serve in the “small spiritual colonies” of the Reformed churches of his day.9

Undoubtedly, the substance and context of this address—Vos’s “other” inaugural—render it a programmatic statement from the very beginning of his teaching career; we may rightly call it his theological vision.10 An examination of Vos’s vision will be helpful in at least three respects. First, a return to Vos’s diagnosis—over a century ago—of the challenges facing American theology will provide us with a salutary, self-critical mirror, particularly in contemporary Anglophone and Western contexts. Second, engagement with Vos’s reflections on the opportunities for fostering a coherent, vibrant, and Reformed churchly theology on American soil may helpfully stimulate constructive reflection concerning models of theological education among contemporary churches, denominations, and seminaries, perhaps even beyond American shores. Third, a clear grasp of the pattern of Vos’s theological vision will help us more clearly to discern just how fundamentally his Reformed confessional commitments provided a theological foundation and framework for the biblical theology he would go on to develop. We will return to these three areas of relevance in the concluding reflections of this essay.

2. Vos’s Context

In order to read Vos charitably, we must consider his circumstances. He composed his Grand Rapids address as an unmarried, highly-educated young man. We must allow for some idealism. The young professor was linguistically gifted, theologically astute, and had been privileged to travel widely, living in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Berlin, and Strasbourg. Thus, as he returned to his adopted small-town home, he came with some insider knowledge but also with the reflective distance of one granted broad cultural horizons and time to study and think. His time in Europe had given Vos a deep awareness of the legacy of German Enlightenment philosophy and theology; he had a keen sense of the challenges it presented to orthodox Reformed theology and piety.11 His own family, his Dutch Reformed community, and key correspondents in the Netherlands had given him insight into ecclesiastical and theological debates in the homeland. And Vos’s time as a student at Princeton Seminary had helped him to grasp not only the doctrinal tensions within American Presbyterianism but also some of the larger cultural currents swirling in American life more broadly.

It is also helpful to recall that, although Vos had other options, his acceptance of the call to Grand Rapids was a considered choice. He might have taken up Kuyper’s offer to teach in his homeland but felt obligated to return to the relative rural obscurity of Grand Rapids.12 So we must also grant him a measure of clear-eyed, sober commitment and prayerful reflection as he surveyed the cultural context and the task before him. The role that the twenty-six-year-old Vos undertook was professor of didactic and exegetical theology at the institution that would later become Calvin Theological Seminary. He was charged to provide theological instruction to prepare Dutch students for Reformed ministry. But this was a ministry which needed to adapt and thrive in America.13 His task was to educate Dutch-American theological students who would minister faithfully and effectively in old world Reformed churches in their new world context.14

This meant the challenges before him were not only intellectual and pedagogical; they were churchly and theological in the deepest sense. It was not merely a matter of business as usual and teaching a set curriculum. This was necessary but not sufficient. Vos sensed that his students and their churches—part of an ethnic, linguistic, and theological minority with increasingly permeable boundaries—faced significant cultural and confessional difficulties as they sought to steward a vibrant Reformed faith for their churches. At various points in his address, Vos insisted that the “theological calling” of the minister was to kindle and sustain the living and growing truth of the Reformed doctrine.15

A further glimpse into how Vos perceived the challenge of his American context comes in his correspondence with Herman Bavinck. Just over a year prior to his installation, as he was preparing to return briefly to Grand Rapids and struggling with illness, Vos wrote to his friend of the coming visit: “I have been appointed to teach English and to promote the importance of the English language; yet under the present circumstances there is nothing that I consider more harmful for our little church there than to introduce English ideas. No doubt the ideas follow the language closely.”16 This passing comment in a private letter is telling. As someone who travelled internationally and possessed skilled communicative competence in at least three languages (Dutch, German, and English), Vos knew the intricate connections between language and culture and knew that language is a form of life. He felt the English language, insofar as it was a fundamental vector of American cultural assumptions and categories, was in sharp contrast to the Dutch Reformed history and life. And in Vos’s estimation the American form of life was less theological. “Here,” Vos began his address, “one breathes in a different atmosphere than that of [Dutch] theology…. It is not an interest in things theological that propels the mighty machine of American life.”17 He alluded several times in his correspondence with Bavinck, Kuyper, and Warfield over the years to similar ideas, commenting on the lack of sufficient “taste” for deep, coherent theological thinking which he thought characterized much American life, especially among the churches.18

Finally, we must also picture the occasion of Vos’s address. In his father’s church, Vos was among friends; it was a safe and perhaps slightly awed audience. He addressed other Dutch Americans in Dutch. He spoke freely and without over-qualification. His tone seems measured and formal, not jaded or overly critical. On that Tuesday evening at Spring Street Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Vos admitted that his choice of topic had been difficult. He might, he said, have spoken on any of several “concrete” topics related to the subjects assigned to him by the Curatorium to teach at the school.19 Yet Vos proposed to engage broadly in theological cultural analysis of his 19th century American context and then to outline his vision for the ways in which a confessional Reformed theology might flourish in spite of cultural pressures.20 We do not know whether it seemed ambitious and abstract to some in the audience that evening. But from our vantage point, over a century later, the context of Vos’s calling renders his choice of subject understandable, prescient, and provocative.

3. Vos’s Critique

Now that we have set Vos’s Grand Rapids inaugural address in context we may turn to its central concerns. Vos outlined “three phenomena” that he deemed to be at the root of “the obstacles to the flowering of our theology.”21 These were (1) pragmatism and fragmentation, (2) a lack of theological thinking, and (3) a lack of historical humility.22 In a broad sense, each of these was a theological shortcoming. But as we attend carefully, we realize Vos was moving from metaphysics and epistemology to theological principia and then to the historical inheritance of the Great Tradition, mediated especially through the Reformed confessions. In this section we will summarize Vos’s thoughts about these challenges and their effects. In the next section we will turn to Vos’s vision for how these obstacles might be overcome or their effects mitigated. Finally, we will seek to draw together the strands of his theological vision and ask what it might imply for contemporary church life and theological education.

3.1. Pragmatism and Fragmentation

The first obstacle Vos identified is foundational; the others that follow flow from it. He called it “the influence of practical empiricism,” which ultimately results in the fragmentation of the spheres of life.23 Vos observed that American life was fragmentary, shattered, lacking a unifying principle. Why was this? It was not because of ethnic or political diversity, he argued. Rather it was the result of a worldview that Vos characterized as a pernicious combination of pragmatism and empiricism.24 The external, visible world was the most real and experience—both of the sensory world and of personal, inner life–constituted the sole criterion of truth. Vos described in some detail a powerful cultural orientation, a way of thinking that was not just “out there” in the world but also “in here” among the churches.25

Herbert Spencer was the “prophet” who had granted to Vos’s American age its “deepest philosophy of life.”26 The “reality of nature,” as Vos described it, eclipsed the larger, embracing reality of the unseen and ultimate “realm of grace.”27 Throughout his address Vos hinted that this cannot but lead to a practical, philosophical materialism, which in turn blunts the hunger and thirst for the truly real in spiritual terms. Vos was adamant that the reason this pragmatist-empiricist disposition was so damaging was because it begins with the creature. And having begun with the creature, it inevitably ends in idolatry and amnesia with respect to the Creator.28 Because the external world and human experience do not contain or reveal within themselves the ultimate, unifying whole (the glory of the Creator), the American experience was one of living in a “disorganized world.” Life became fragmented and knowledge remained atomized, compartmentalized, and unintegrated.29

It was evident to Vos that this lack of integration was to some degree caused by, but also causative of, an unhealthy focus on the trees rather than the forest. Vos argued that in American culture generally there was “no eye for the whole.” Life and thought too often remain “stuck in the individual pieces.”30 As Vos probed this state of affairs, he diagnosed a deeper root cause that was particularly lamentable in connection with American churches. There was, he claimed, “an antipathy toward everything [especially in theology] that is abstract and theoretical.” This “anti-doctrinal” posture, he believed, signaled a result of the loss of a felt need for any dogmatic or theological unity of thought and a habit of being satisfied with practical solutions.31

Vos gave some examples of this tendency. In the home, there was often very little in the way of patient catechism which might provide an integrative framework for faith. In the churches, there was too little focus on support for “theological preparatory school” that might set potential seminary students in good position for their studies and ministries.32 From the pulpits, there was too little theologically or doctrinally-oriented preaching that would help believers place individual truths with reference to the whole of God’s revelation and apply them to the whole of their lives.33

Vos saw this pragmatism working itself out in other ways that made him wary. He warned against “those levelling attempts that seek here to promote the external unity of the churches at the expense of the purity of doctrine.”34 As a Princeton seminarian Vos had witnessed first-hand the tensions within American Presbyterianism that would later lead to crisis.35 He was aware of the ecumenical, cooperative urge in many quarters to move away from a perceived denominational narrowness and to establish a kind of “useful” unity among diverse churches (what would decades later become American Fundamentalism and eventually Evangelicalism).36 It is interesting to observe the basis for Vos’s concern. A thinning of confessional and doctrinal commitment in the name of unity was a problem for Vos not for reasons of tradition, nor because of a parochial or defensive small mindedness. Instead, his rationale was positive and theological: the kind of pragmatism he observed that was driving a false ecumenism was a sign, he argued, of a lack of confidence in “the veracity of our God and his infallible revelation.”37

If the churches were implicated in this state of affairs, then so were the seminaries. How did American pragmatism manifest itself in the institutions of theological training and ministerial formation? “Seminaries in this country,” Vos stated, “are much more geared toward training evangelists than theologians.”38 The pragmatic drive and its attendant dis-integration of knowledge and the theological curriculum too often gave seminaries, in Vos’s view, “the character of artificial breeding grounds of ministers of the gospel.”39 Although Vos admitted that theology and theological study could at times too easily tilt in an unhealthy theoretical direction, he did not believe this was at all the case in the American context. Vos observed that there was an overly practical approach, “a small-minded striving for utility,” that was no doubt well-intentioned but which, he predicted, would backfire in the long run.40

The unintended consequence was that churches would be left without the ripe gospel fruit that only theologically mature, incisive, and resilient ministers could provide for their congregations. The “practical” bent of his day was leading, Vos saw, to an increasingly unbalanced focus on “the critical and exegetical” (i.e., Biblical Studies as well as both lower and higher criticisms) at the expense of “ethics, dogmatics, or encyclopaedia.”41 This in turn, he observed, only exacerbated the tendency to dis-integration and the exposure to theological error. In a striking line, Vos asserted that if a self-aware and articulate ability to systematize was a sign of theological maturity, then its absence surely indicated spiritual immaturity at best, and a kind of theological madness at worse.42

Vos continued to explain with reference to the theological curriculum, preferring the metaphor “organic” over against “mechanical.”43 American seminaries, he argued, tended toward the latter to the great detriment of students, ministers, and churches. Vos was free with his indictment: “The fact is then that all too often theology in this country is absorbed in a collection of subjects and skills of whose interconnectedness the young student must remain in deep darkness even in his most lucid moments, because he has never as yet seen the architectural structure of his discipline rise before his mind’s eye.” And, Vos lamented, “who can enumerate all the harmful effects that flow from this lack?”44

In closing this first section in which we have considered Vos’s diagnosis of the challenge the Reformed churches faced because of American pragmatism, we sense powerfully what it was that exemplified, for the young professor, the ideal profile of a gospel minister. The typical graduate of an American seminary “may feel himself to be a preacher, or evangelist, or historian, or linguist,” Vos said. But without “the beautiful coherence in which the Lord God put together for us all elements [of his divine revelation] … he will never become in the true sense of the word a theologian.”45 Vos’s vision was for seminarians—evidently all of them—to become pastor-theologians rather than pragmatist-preachers.

3.2. Lack of Theological Thinking

The second obstacle that Vos identified followed from the first. Pragmatism fostered in the American churches an antipathy to thinking rigorously in relation to theological foundations or principia.46 There was a general distaste, in his view, for the kind of theological thinking that was patient and coherent. For Vos, these principia were the Reformed principia.47 But as becomes clear from the following context, in referring to “principial” theological thinking, Vos also had in view commitments to fundamental Reformed doctrines such as the Creator-creature distinction and the glory and sovereignty of God.48

Vos observed in American churches a “remarkable lack of thinking through the implications of principia”—that is, knowing where the theological anchor points are and being able to consider the theological consequences of exegetical decisions and ethical or practical commitments.49 This was an intellectual weakness as well as a theological and spiritual matter. “Every thought,” Vos noted, “is the daughter of another thought.” This demands, especially on the part of Christian ministers, the ability to think from consequences back to principles and vice-versa.50 In language reminiscent of Ephesians 4:14, Vos insists that “we must know whence the wind blows and in what direction it goes, unless we want to let it freely blow toward fruitfulness or destruction.”51 The pragmatic, anti-theological wind of Vos’s day was chilling. Its numbing effect, he warned, ensured that the principia of the age and not the principia of our theology “will make us, in spite of ourselves, the instrument of her intentions.”52

What this means, Vos argued, is that without “principial reflection” rooted in the theological tradition, two things might result. One is confusion even among well-meaning Christians. If they were not able coherently to integrate in a living way the various elements of their theology and practice, either because they were unable or averse to thinking in terms of principia, then their doctrinal knowledge and instincts were at serious risk of being in conflict rather than providing mutual reinforcement. Another outcome was that we “come altogether under the influence of the hostile principium.”53 The assumptions and spirit of the age would cause Christians unknowingly to warp their theology and practice precisely because they were not moored properly to the principia.54

We can tell this provoked Vos by what he said next: “Thus it may fill us with legitimate concern for American theology–also to the extent that it is and wants to be Reformed–when we see it incorporate, in fatal blindness for this inescapable demand, so many heterogeneous elements.”55 Despite wanting to be and remain Reformed, the churches and ministers that drifted from the principial anchor points became unwittingly eclectic and therefore theologically unmoored and exposed. And the real possibility loomed that what might sound useful or appear benign in theological or practical terms could sneak in under the radar. Or worse, error might be positively embraced without a realization that it did not grow from the Reformed principial seed. Vos continued,

Misled by appearances, [American theology] wants to appropriate results and use fruits that have grown on an utterly reprehensible tree. We already find ourselves in a period in which for most people it is rather a matter of indifference how one arrives at one’s faith or theology and what the foundation for this faith or theology is, as long as one has this or that theology.56

This “indifference toward principia,” Vos insisted, was deadly. The danger lay especially in the syncretistic theology and ethics that grew up in the “fertile soil” of indifference towards theological foundations.57

Vos illustrated this with the doctrine of Scripture. What is fascinating is how Vos analyzed the errors threatening the Reformed orthodox doctrinal formulations. He did not make what we might consider a traditional case for the inerrancy, authority, or trustworthiness of Scripture. Nor did he make the kind of elegant argument from Biblical Theology for the divine coherence and beauty of Scripture that he would make five years later in his Princeton inaugural.58 Instead, Vos appealed to the Reformed principia and to theological consequence. This section of his address is worth quoting at length in order to observe and reflect on the theological and logical moves Vos makes:

Among the brethren of Presbyterian descent who call themselves Reformed more than one now accepts the newer view of Scripture that has been imported directly from Germany or via England. If we think this through on the basis of principium, there can be no doubt that this view of Scripture is a direct offshoot of the doctrine of God’s exclusive immanence, i.e., of a pantheistic philosophy. But it is doubtful that if one wants to hold on to the theistic concept of God, and to a corresponding revelation, one must accept the doctrine of inspiration in its classical, full meaning.59 Attempts have been made to escape this by conceiving of a theism that is comprehensible without inspiration, but without success. Even as it is impossible for pantheism to view inspiration as a possibility, so it is impossible for a clearly thought-through theism to maintain itself without [a doctrine of inspiration]. In spite of this we see that men of name and authority indulge in the foolish illusion that they can through their own ingenious inventions link together that which cannot be joined. Such a thing would be impossible if, instead of being satisfied with accepting things as they are, one viewed them in terms of their spiritual relatedness and origin on the one hand, while on the other hand consistently extending the line of one’s own principia. Not only this [newer] view of Scripture, but many other intrusions would thus be excluded that now uselessly cover the earth and overgrow the native plants.60

Note Vos’s assumptions, definitions, and argument. He began by pointing out that among those who “call themselves Reformed” there are some who have embraced false views of Scripture. The root cause for this, he believed, was that they had forgotten or let go of the Reformed principia. As a result, scholarly views from abroad appealed to them, for whatever reasons, without setting off their theological and confessional alarm bells. Vos did not reply with either exegetical or detailed scholarly responses here. Instead, he went straight to the Reformed doctrine of God. His confessional upbringing, his training, and his theological instincts engendered in him a principial reflex (“If we think this through on the basis of principium …”). His philosophical, historical, and cultural awareness enabled him to see both the root causes and the theological consequences of deviating from the “classical, full” (i.e., Reformed confessional) doctrine of Scripture.61 It was “pantheistic philosophy” that had led to an aberrant view of “exclusive [divine] immanence,” which in turn gave rise to a deficient doctrine of Scripture.

Vos did not assert that the “new” view of Scripture was “unbiblical” (though he knew it was, and he would argue in these terms elsewhere). What he did say was that “if” one were to remain anchored firmly in the Reformed principia (God himself, the principium essendi, and divine revelation in Scripture, the principium cognoscendi), then one must remain committed to the Reformed doctrine of Scripture, inspiration and all. Vos saw the reciprocal and absurd effects that an uninspired, errant, fallible Bible would have with reference to a transcendent Creator who graciously reveals himself to the creature. He saw too, conversely, that only a transcendent Creator could possibly grant to the creature a reliable, true, inspired Bible. Vos knew that alterations of this kind with respect to one doctrine would necessarily lead to the distortion of other fundamental doctrines upon which the living and coherent theological system depends for its integrity.

Vos could have gone further in teasing out the theological consequences of this line of thought. But he prepared to move on. Yet there are several further comments he makes in this section that are worth attending to before we follow him to his analysis of the third obstacle he perceived. In dealing with the doctrine of Scripture, Vos noted that although the Reformed theological foundations and framework provide a healthy constraint in the face of erroneous doctrine, nevertheless “men of name and authority” often persuaded themselves and others that they could “link together that which cannot be joined.”62 Vos alluded also to “many other intrusions” that similarly disregard the principia and yet tend to capture the imaginations of even the so-called Reformed. He mentioned three without elaborating: (1) many were attempting “to make theology Christocentric instead of theocentric,”63 which, he implied, would lead to distortions;64 (2) prevalent everywhere was the “spirit and method that characterise the critical studies of the Scriptures;” and (3) there were certain forms of “biblical theology” that contradicted the “dogma of inspiration.”65 Vos would address these theological and methodological concerns in various ways over the coming decades.

3.3. Lack of Historical Humility

The third and final obstacle Vos identified was the “lack of a sense of historical continuity.”66 Having earlier pointed to the need for logical, systematic-theological integrity, Vos now turned to the striking ignorance and arrogance with respect to historical theology. It is evident that by this he meant a sense of Reformed identity and a knowledge of orthodox creedal formulations and confessions from church history. Vos was not speaking of the Bible as redemptive-historical but of the church’s doctrine when he remarked,

If it is true that every thought (and thus also the thoughts of God), instead of standing alone, stands a link in the logical chain, so that when we pick a link up or let it go we at the same time pick up or let go of the entire chain, so it is with the thoughts of God, of the entire structure of theology, that constitutes a part of a historical line that reaches back from the present to the earliest times of the church. There is thus not only a logical but also a historical coherence–the latter is in fact nothing but the former as it took shape before us in time.67

For Vos, the knowledge of God articulated by the church over time on the basis of divine revelation and with divine providential aid was a rich inheritance to be received gratefully rather than spurned. This was not only an implication of the doctrine of God’s self-revelation; it was linked also to Vos’s sense of humility as an interpreter. “The truth of God,” he asserted, “is so powerful and full that not one single generation, let alone one single person, could master it.”68 Vos’s commitment to the churchly locus of theology appears strongly here. He claimed that engagement with historical theology is not merely intellectual, nor is it individual. It is in fact taught by God “with all the sharpness of living contrast through the consciousness of the church.”69 Vos clarified further that the “church lives the truth and must, as it were, capture it piece by piece in the continuous battle against the power(s) of the lie; blood and tears cling to her dogmas.”70

If this is the case, then “it would not only be a lack of piety, but foolish vainglory and self-overestimation if one wanted to build single-handedly a [comfortable] theological house without taking into account the work of previous generations.”71 No person, Vos insisted, no church, no denomination or gospel partnership, no seminary is a historical island. To think or act or to “do church” otherwise is hubristic. The Dutch diminutive Vos employed to describe the result of such historically myopic theological endeavors was not particularly flattering: a huisje is a “small” or “cozy” cottage.72 The impression one has from the context is a vision of theology and ministry that orbits around small, independent family homes where the theological project is naively begun afresh in each generation, independent congregations in each locale operating with very little reference to definitions already tested and honed or to battles previously fought. By contrast, Vos painted a very different picture of what it would mean properly to embrace historical continuity:

Theology is not a house but a temple of God whose dimensions are so large, the materials of which it is built so exalted, that it is like the gothic temples of the Middle Ages, in which not the idea of a single architect but the deepest vision of generations found expression. All that we can do is contribute building blocks, and we must see it as an honour to be able to place them on the foundation that was laid by our forefathers through the concerted effort of all their spiritual powers. Only insight into this truth, only a sense of solidarity with the church of God of all centuries can teach us the truly scholarly caution and humility that are the necessary obverse of principial reflection.73

We will return to the contrast between “house” and “temple” below. But for the moment, note Vos’s assumptions and argument. He assumed that theological caution and interpretive humility are desirable virtues in Reformed church life and ministry. As such, one sees more clearly how the creedal-confessional tradition supports this. One also realizes that contemporary churches (in any age) desiring to be and to remain robustly Reformed have a responsibility to cultivate a historical-theological consciousness. This proper love for and deference to the tradition creates, Vos said, “the courage of conviction, but also the awareness of responsibility, if we want to claim for this conviction the name and the authority of the historic church.”74

Instead of seeing creedal and confessional theology as a stifling constraint on biblical conviction and living piety, Vos urged the churches and seminaries to take the opposite view. Without strong historical-theological roots, he feared, the churches would far more easily be swayed by “the exuberant noise and all the excessive pretensions of novelty” that characterized the contemporary culture.75 In the face of these pressures, churches that are fueled by an unexamined pragmatism, unimpeded by rigorous, principial thinking, untethered from the Reformed confessional formulations would wrongly think it necessary to engage afresh with “each old and new aberrant view.”76

Vos’s point was that small cottages are more exposed not only to doctrinal gales but also to “every gust of wind that blows.”77 He readily admitted that divine authority is rooted in Scripture (not in the church itself) and is rightly interpreted with the help of the Spirit. Yet he pressed his point that “the theological enterprise must carefully consider what it is up to, in order that it does not waste its powers on work already done.”78 Once again Vos is worth quoting at length as he gave a further example with reference to Chalcedonian Christology:

What historical nonsense it is to think that, e.g., the Christological controversies shook the church of God for nothing and caused it to vibrate down to its finest nerves, in order that we may simply substitute for the dogma of Chalcedon, for which such a high price was paid, a doctrine of kenosis or any other view on which judgment was already passed many centuries ago. Such [an approach] betrays distrust in the leading of the Spirit, i.e., doubt as to the possibility of theology in general, and thus judges itself. This does not mean that the church would not be allowed to revise and further refine its own development of dogma; all that is asserted is that she must not take jumps into a vacuum. When she reaches back, it must be a reaching back to a position taken earlier; she must at all times stay in touch with history, and the line of continuity must at no point be broken.79

The creedal and conciliar tradition and the Reformed confessions offered to the churches a foundation on which to build and a framework which guides and protects. Exegesis and theological construction must align with the foundation; progress in theology may extend and refine earlier dogmatic conclusions, but it must proceed with reference to creedal and confessional formulations.

In Vos’s view, the causes of the “contempt for history” that he observed in American Christianity were themselves historically and culturally complex.80 He saw the radical break of modern churches with the historic formulations of the church as a result of Enlightenment epistemology, exemplified particularly by the rise of the natural sciences and their “mechanical method.”81 This in turn led to the overtaking of theological and exegetical method by rationalism and naturalism, which was further catalyzed by a “worldly wisdom” that privileged individual autonomy.82

None of this, however, was unique to the American continent. This toxic post-Enlightenment brew with its “practical rationalism” was imported to America where it was distilled by other New World factors with the ultimate outcome that churches “not only rejected [Old World] decayed and played-out institutions but also rejected her sound foundations.”83 In the end, for Vos, this meant an American attitude of “imperturbable self-confidence in an elemental natural force, which thinks to be able to achieve in a short time span what centuries have labored over.” It fostered a “naive conviction, as if in science … to artificially condense into a few moments through ingenious inspirations and clever inventions the development that took years.”84 Its effect in the churches and seminaries was a lack of historical and doctrinal humility and a mode of self-reliant exegetical and theological innovation with little regard for the historic creeds and confessions of the Reformed church.

3.4. Summary

As we step back momentarily from the three obstacles Vos identified it is worth asking what we make of his analysis over a century later. There is a sense in which we might say that the cultural dynamics Vos was critiquing are characteristic of worldliness in any age; certainly, there are resonances here of the cultural situation in many times and places in the modern West and not only in America. Yet if Vos’s cultural critique sounds familiar, this is surely because it agrees in many respects with some of the perceptive analyses of contemporary intellectual historians.85 Many of the same cultural phenomena and pressures Vos identified are still extremely familiar in our modern, western, and especially Anglophone contexts. Pragmatism, philosophical and economic materialism, the fragmentation of life, anti-intellectualism and anti-doctrinal biases in the church and wider culture, theological incoherence, and historical myopia are still with us, amplified and exacerbated by added layers of postmodern dis-ease, economic disruption, globalized mobility, and a disorienting media ecology. Yet for all the differences in context between us and Vos, there are some uncanny echoes in his critique that sound remarkably contemporary.

4. Vos’s Vision

Vos responded by asking, “What calling do these curious conditions demand of us?” His answer was realistic and confessional. There was no “removing” the obstacles he had identified. The way forward lay instead in “strengthen[ing] the organism” of the churchly Reformed theology in order to enable its “healthy flourishing.”86 As he responded with constructive suggestions, Vos gave his audience metaphors to think with, to work from and towards. Rather than following Vos’s order of presentation as such, we will organize, summarize, and reflect on the constructive aspects of Vos’s theological vision under headings provided by three key metaphors he employed.

4.1. Temple Not Cottage: Inhabiting the Creeds and Reformed Confessions

As we saw earlier, Vos identified a contempt for historical-theological thinking. He contrasted the metaphors of a small, cozy cottage and an exalted, gothic temple.87 His vision for a healthy, growing Reformed theology rejected the ahistorical, do-it-yourself comfort of the former and embraced the historically aware, humbly reverential inhabitation of the latter. The points of contrast are many: a contempt for historical theology versus a sense of generational solidarity; the exposure to each new (or old) wind of error versus the stability and shelter of a carefully constructed doctrinal edifice; a suspicion of tradition and a cultural short-sightedness versus a posture of trust in the considered consensus reflected in the church’s dogmatic conclusions.

Vos’s answer to the self-sufficient attitude embodied by the huisje approach to church life and theological education was to elaborate on the treasures available in the temple of historical theology. The naive cottage mindset believes it can “artificially condense into a few moments through ingenious inspirations and clever inventions the development that took years.”88 A living, vibrant theology that grows in, with, and for the church thrives only with a posture of humility and teachability. Theology “does not allow herself to be forced, but only to be conquered gradually through love and consistent devotion.”89 Vos was not interested in what might be perceived as an “arid scholasticism.” His concern was for cultivating piety and for fruitfulness in the faith.

Vos exhorted his audience,

All of us, especially to the extent that we are, or hope to become, ministers of the Word, have not only a calling to expand the kingdom of God and to introduce the church to the truth already found, but we are also charged with enriching the treasure of the truth through new finds from the mine of Scripture. We have a theological calling, and that is the most glorious of all. We must go on from the standpoint to which God has brought us and where he has kept us through his grace. And that we can go on, and in fact can make progress, will be the best proof for us that we are builders, not of a clever house of human scholasticism, but of the living temple of the Truth under the leading of the Spirit.90

Without idealizing the past, Vos proposed that it “must be seriously doubted whether even in our best-educated circles today the level of theological knowledge is as high as it was in the period of its flowering among the [Reformed] fathers.”91 In context, Vos clarified that he was not merely speaking here of the content of Reformed theology, as if repristination were enough.92 He meant, too, the “sharpness and clarity of [our] judgment and discernment.”93 His plea was for the students in attendance that evening—and the churches who funded and supported and prayed for them—to “once again take up the historical line of our fathers, and do all the work that our hands find to do only in continuity with what their diligent hands did.”94 Despite the allure of the new and novel that surrounded them, Vos urged them to be more enchanted with their “ancient family possession” preserved in a lively historical theology.95

4.2. Seed Not Weed: Principial Thinking and Theological Coherence

In pointing to the lack of theological thinking in American culture Vos highlighted the need for a more articulate and coherent ministry, self-consciously rooted in Reformed doctrinal commitments. He used a second image of a seed to depict these principia from which the healthy, robust tree of churchly, pastoral theology must grow.

This emphasis on principia was not, for Vos, merely an intellectualist impulse. It was a spiritual matter of chief importance. Fundamental commitments are spiritually anchored “in the higher, invisible world.”96 The ability therefore to distinguish concepts, to trace antecedents and assumptions, and to project consequences and entailments was an intellectual and spiritual exercise. Even more important, Vos insisted, was the development of a “refined sensibility,” that is, a discriminating theological wisdom.

A spiritual inattention to the seed from which theological concepts and their associated currents grew was deadly for the churches. As we saw earlier, Vos perceived this in his cultural setting: “Thus it may fill us with legitimate concern for American theology … when, misled by appearances, it wants to appropriate results and use fruits that have grown on an utterly reprehensible tree.”97

Life-giving fruit for the churches would grow from the seeds of the Reformed principia. Vos maintained that the Reformed must “not be ashamed of our principia.”98 Among the theological commitments he had in view, were notions such as the Creator-creature distinction and the possibility and necessity of analogical theological thinking. Vos began with (and returned repeatedly to) the principium essendi (“principle of being”). The “living God, who is transparent to himself, who actively moves outside himself, reveals himself, presents himself as object to, and in the subjects of, science [i.e., knowledge].”99

God alone possesses “the Theologia Archetypa, the patterning theology, the knowledge that God’s Being has of himself, because in the simplicity of that Being all distinction between the known and the knower disappears.”100 But true theological knowledge, albeit analogical, is possible for creatures: “The possibility of our knowledge of God rests ultimately on the fact that we have been created in God’s image.”101 The created structure of the imago dei, Vos noted, serves the purpose “that we might “truly know” him, as our Catechism so aptly phrases it.”102 But a principial commitment to God as he is, as sovereign Creator, means “we must be satisfied with a Theologia Ectypa, a representative knowledge of God.”103 This ectypal knowledge comes only with aid from the Holy Spirit “who … searches the deep things of God [and] has revealed them to us and makes us inwardly receptive to the external revelation of the Scriptures.”104

Thus, from the principium essendi Vos moves to the principium cognoscendi (“principle of knowing”). Scripture alone is the cognitive foundation of our theology and assurance of God: “The witness of the Holy Spirit to the Scriptures, through which God validates to our souls as certain and authentic that which he says in his Word concerning His Word—that is the starting point of our theology, her unprovable, self-evident principium, the rock on which she builds.”105 Any theological commitment that does not grow organically from this seed will not bear good fruit and must be challenged. But when these principial seeds are embraced—and only when they are embraced—there emerges a true, theocentric theological tree that bears nourishing fruit for the churches. From the seeds of these principia grow the doctrines of divine sovereignty and covenant theology. “The sovereignty of God over his creature,” Vos remarked, “must be the great thought that dominates all our other thoughts. We can only walk soundly if we follow this guiding principium, since God in his Word has given us his sovereignty as the guiding principium of all his works and ways, and our theology is theocentric, that is, thinks from God as its starting point, or rather, thinks after him at a sacred distance.”106

And the “counterpoint” to divine sovereignty, Vos went on, was “the doctrine of the covenant.”107 We comprehend God’s revelation “when, staying with God’s [revealed] point of view, we as it were observe and experience with him how he descends from his glory to deal with us as man deals with his brother.”108 So even as we learn of God engaging as a covenant partner with his creatures, “the relative equal status of God and us in the covenant still remains such that is colored by the idea of sovereignty, precisely because the covenant descends as it were to us from heaven through divine omnipotence–which is why it is such a glorious and precious covenant.”109 Thinking this from the seed-thoughts of our principia, Vos argued, would protect us from wrong construals of the covenant relationship between creature and Creator.110

Seeds require careful attention. Their cultivation needs time: for reflection, for developing logical and coherent thinking, for practice and formation. Intensive preparatory time is necessary if Reformed ministers are to grow up into what Vos termed “our theology.” The “gift of principial reflection,” he insisted, is critical for theological formation.111 It requires an intellectual commitment that is also a joyful pursuit of the inner structure of the revealed knowledge of God: “Especially a Reformed theologian … should know, not only that he believes, but also why, and must not cease digging until he has reached the bottom and sees the sunlight of the Spirit sparkle on the bedrock of God’s truth.”112

This kind of principial thinking, Vos alleged, was necessary because it enables the Reformed pastor-theologian to sense when the harmony and cohesion of the theological ecosystem is threatened by what is not properly native.113 Only a developed ability to relate parts to the whole of the “organism” of divine truth will serve to protect us “against the adoption of alien elements.”114 Despite his often abstract turns of phrase, Vos insisted only a loving, whole-person devotion to the seeds of true theology would help them to grow and to bear wholesome fruit.

4.3. Mature Tree Not Unripe Fruit: Practical, Resilient Ministry

We have already glimpsed a third powerful metaphor Vos employed, namely, that of pastoral theology as a tree. It is a tree that grows from a divine, heavenly seed and flourishes in the temple courts of creedal, confessional theology. Vos cast a vision of a towering, crowning tree, slowly but surely maturing until its branches bend down, heavy with fruit for the nourishing of the church. This enticing vision is one Vos wished would grow as an organic unity throughout the curricular formation of all Reformed theological students. Worried that he might be misunderstood as dividing theology from “practical” ministry, Vos put it this way:

Now, it is not in the least our purpose to deny that theology is a practical discipline par excellence, which must inevitably bleed to death and die if it is severed from the church and its concerns. But precisely because we think of [theology] as linked to the church, we are also obliged to ascribe to it a dual calling. She is the highest top of the tree of faith that grows out of the church and strives upward from below. As such [theology] has to educate theologians, and cultivate knowledge of God for the church, apart even from all practical concern. But that same tree can also be considered as bowing down from above, to the extent that it spreads its branches, loaded with fruit, over the church and provides it with nourishment. As such theology has the calling to transpose all its theory into practice.115

Vos reminded his audience that it takes time for such a tree to grow, to bud and to bear fruit. It is the case, he contended, “that fruitful praxis can only be achieved by means of a slow growth of theory.”116 Rushing too quickly to the question of utility, which was a real danger in a pragmatic cultural and churchly context, would not yield a resilient tree with mature fruit. There was a risk of hothouse flowers and resultant ministries that lacked lasting, life-giving theological power. Vos said that theological formation “must equally remember that it needs to allow the tree of theory time to cultivate fruit from bud and blossom, and that a premature looking for unripe fruit and a premature knocking of green fruit off the tree does not result in any gain and sometimes leads to great loss.”117

It is evident from the address that Vos believed in the kind of time-intensive, intellectual preparation and equally time-expensive, prayerful reflection required by a robust, traditional theological curriculum. As we have already glimpsed, Vos himself drew constantly upon historical theology, Reformed systematics, and philosophy (logic, metaphysics, epistemology). He assumed that theological students need rigorous preparation, both before and during their formal theological studies.118

But it was not only a rich and integrated curriculum that distinguished Vos’s vision of the mature, fruitful theological tree. There was also a doctrinal commitment that marked Vos’s proposal: an overriding concern for the glory of God. True and fruitful theology promotes a view of life that “has a richer content than the sum of the external things of this world” precisely because it “confesses that in all areas of life God’s glory as the highest idea must, as ultimate goal, be introduced and worked out.”119 This concern to keep divine glory central supported Vos’s insistence that theology remain theocentric (and not only Christocentric). It also bolstered Vos’s claim that a contemplative, theoretical aspect was proper to theology, indeed essential if theological formation was to resist the cultural gravity of pragmatism.120

Finally, the flourishing of pastoral theology needed constant cultivation, both in terms of the piety of the Reformed ministerial student and the project of Reformed theology taken as a whole. Although Vos’s remarks were conceptually framed, he maintained repeatedly that the theological project must grow from and promote the further growth of an ardent Reformed piety. Vos averred, “Our theology is not a bare theory that can be learned, but, as our fathers said, [it lies] in the affectus of the person, that grows only in the depths of a sanctified mind.”121 As faith seeks the knowledge of God in this manner there should be no dissonance or separation between dogma and the devout life. Instead, Vos contended, “in that fervent practical piety hides the secret of the irresistible urge with which the tenderest of saints have consistently worked their way toward a clear, conscious knowledge of the ways of God.”122 This reverent approach on the part of the Reformed ministerial student to theology in turn benefits the church:

Let us confidently place over against all noisy advertising with which so often in this country religion dishonors itself, the slow but sure power of the truth, concentrated in a clear theology. If we want to arm the church against error and ignorance, we must not so much rely on the use of all kinds of clever devices that are aimed at effect but rather fill her head and heart with the healthy, nourishing teaching of the truth.123

The constant growth of piety should be matched, according to Vos, by a slow, reflective progress in constructive, contextualized Reformed theology that is living in each age:

A theology that was only a practical aid in the spread and establishment of Christianity could still be profitable and useful in case of a complete standstill, but a theology that wants to be the outworking of the knowledge of God in the church through the Spirit must never stand still, since otherwise she will [not] be convinced of her own genuineness.124

For Vos, then, the tree of Reformed theology must always be tended, always kept alive and growing if it is to nourish the ministers and the churches with the life-giving knowledge of the living God.

5. Concluding Reflections

Earlier on the same day that Vos gave his Grand Rapids inaugural, his father Jan Hendrik Vos delivered a solemn charge. The elder Vos was himself a minister. His text was 2 Timothy 2:15: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”125 The younger Vos’s theological vision, articulated in response hours later, and then over the course of his teaching ministry, presses us to re-evaluate what precisely 2 Timothy 2:15 might mean for those of us who take up that charge in our own teaching and ministries, our own curriculum design, pedagogy, and assessment, and our own congregational and denominational support for ministerial formation.

As Vos concluded his address that evening at Spring Street Christian Reformed Church, he was optimistic, even slightly effusive:

Let us again and again through the Spirit, who knows neither distance nor time, establish ourselves in the heart of our God-consecrated history, establish ourselves, also through love and prayer, and through every communion of saints, in the brotherly heart of all who confess Christ, so that out of a high awareness of our glorious heritage and our beautiful calling we may find both courage and strength for the building of an AMERICAN REFORMED THEOLOGY!126

Given what followed in Grand Rapids and then later at Princeton, one wonders how the older Vos, decades later, might have evaluated, tempered, or qualified that first inaugural delivered by his younger self. We have no way of answering that. We might, however, consider whether this obscure address has anything to say to us today in our contemporary cultural contexts. If Vos’s vision has any merit, what might its implications be for contemporary seminaries and theological colleges, for our own churches and denominations? To what extent do the obstacles that he discerned and described remain challenges for us today? And what do we make of his vision? Which aspects strike us as attractive, which as misguided? Why? Are there features of his vision that have been or are being realized in part? Are there elements of his proposal that seem out of reach or endangered? And to what degree has Vos already answered many of our most natural critiques–that such a vision is too much academic and too little practical; too narrowly theological and not broadly evangelical enough; too difficult, expensive, and time-consuming, not accessible or quick enough? With questions such as these in mind, we conclude with several observations.

Vos’s vision remains in many respects counter-cultural, even in the Anglophone evangelical and Reformed world. His diagnosis of cultural pressures such as empiricism, pragmatism, and ecumenism was perceptive in its time. So too was his acknowledgment that the churches he had in mind were embedded in American culture and not somehow separate from or immune to it. These were pressures—intellectual and affective—that shaped expectations, often unconsciously, about what the churches looked for in their ministers and thus what they expected from their seminaries. Vos was particularly keen to point out the dangers of uncritically accepting these cultural commitments and dispositions; he believed they were linked to the perils of negotiating critical biblical and theological scholarship and the difficulty of maintaining doctrinal faithfulness. If we hold up Vos’s vision as a mirror of sorts to our own contexts, it offers several critiques and cautions worth pondering.

First, Vos argued, well over a century ago, that American pragmatism and utilitarianism threatened to undermine and dis-integrate the theological curriculum. He predicted that the lack of a deep and coherent curriculum would have deleterious long-term effects in ministry. In the history of contemporary North American theological education (including some Reformed and Presbyterian seminaries), there has been a steady, market-driven, consumer-focused transformation of the theological curriculum. Often this has meant trimming or cutting altogether original language instruction and required courses in systematic or historical theology. Increasingly, this has taken the form of modularized classes, smorgasbord options, drastically reduced credit requirements for MDivs, and significant proportions of electives catering to student choice. While the driving forces and affordances involved in this steady shift are complex, we can be sure that in very many cases Vos would be likely to label the results as “curriculum lite,” “curriculum incomplete,” or “curriculum confused.”127

In a British context, some of the same challenges and trends apply. But there are also different pressures and debates into which Vos might speak as a critical friend. Among those with Reformed sympathies in the UK there is a widespread model of “Bible-handling” (typically careful, English-based, inductive Bible-study for teaching and preaching) that has borne much fruit, but which frequently comes packaged with a deep suspicion of both historical and systematic theology as well as an ambivalence towards the value of Hebrew and Greek instruction. This is often a model, which for quite particular historical and contextual reasons, has come to be preferred on the basis of, among other things, its perceived utility and efficiencies. It is an approach that favors local apprenticeships and regional Bible-focused training schemes over the more broadly integrated, deeply theological, historical, and biblical curricula of the best theological colleges. Whether this approach can provide deep foundations for the kind of sustained, fruitful gospel ministry Vos envisioned is perhaps an open question.

Second, and more constructively, Vos’s vision implies a theological method and a pedagogy. His plea that church life and mission were best served by a rigorous, patiently integrated, Reformed curriculum was tied to his assumption that this kind of formation was an inheritance that, if renewed in each generation, would in fact produce ministries that were godly, coherent, fruitful, and therefore practical. In addition to Bible knowledge and evangelistic zeal, theological students require significant philosophical and historical training. They need cultural awareness and tools for cultural (and self-) critique. A theological curriculum should draw explicitly on the Reformed principia as well as creedal and Reformed confessional commitments as a way of integrating theological knowledge. Such a matrix enables the possibility of overcoming the tendency toward fragmentation inherent in subject-specific instruction; it checks the impulse to bypass a doctrinal (“encyclopaedic”) framework in favor of an exclusive or unintegrated focus on biblical and “practical” subjects. An increasing historical knowledge should promote a proportional growth in interpretive humility, prayerfulness, and piety. The whole architecture of Reformed theology should in fact rise gradually, block by heavy block, in the minds and hearts of theological students. The sovereignty of God and (therefore) the glory of God must be the nexus of this curriculum in order to sustain fruitful, gospel ministries and flourishing—even if modest—churches.128

One important thing Vos doesn’t argue for, but which he assumes and exemplifies, is a deep, Reformed piety: a posture of love for the triune God, instincts that lead him always to foreground divine love, grace, and glory, a confident humility that takes its stand on a received inheritance, a lively personal theological knowledge, and an expectation of intellectual excellence in the service of the church. Vos contended that the key to this is “a sanctified mind.” The head leads the heart (and life) of the minister-in-training. This happens as deep and incisive theological instruction and reflection in the seminary interfaces closely and thoughtfully with worship and practice in partnering churches. Of course, this project is bigger than any one educational institution; it is also, however, larger than any one church or local training partnership.

How do seminaries and theological colleges offer this kind of theological formation, with and for the churches? What sort of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment values and cultivates this kind of theological thinking and posture? In some ways these are perennial questions. Yet Vos’s vision offers us thoughtful and provocative maxims to guide us in our self-examination and strategizing:

  1. Theological education must have the glory of God as its lodestar and telos. This was a deeply theological conviction for Vos that had implications for curriculum and ministry. He insisted at various points that this was the distinctively Reformed element in his theological vision. Of course, many would share this conviction. But working out its implications in practical terms needs patient collaboration between faculties and administrations; it needs close conversations with the churches they serve. Vos’s own vision suggests this will work best when those involved in this collaboration draw together on a shared confessional system and a shared set of churchly histories.
  2. Theological education must be Trinitarian and not only Christocentric. This is a noteworthy point made by the one would go on to popularize a redemptive-historical approach to biblical interpretation that justly emphasizes Christ as the culmination and integrating center of Scripture. Vos believed an education that rightly attended to the glory of God would result in a minister and a ministry that held forth the majestic person as well as the creative and redemptive work of the Trinity. A robust, biblical, and confessional Christology would take its place within this Trinitarian framework. And as a result, the Reformed gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, for the glory of God alone would be anchored fathoms deep in the triune God himself and would be symphonically (and not monotonically) proclaimed. Perhaps it goes without saying that to accomplish this, the theological student must study historical and systematic theology and not only exegesis, homiletics, and ethics.
  3. Theological education must train pastors to think theologically and biblically. Vos’s insistence on thinking from theological foundations and thinking through theological entailments requires more than the delivery of historical or systematic content. It also militates against “theological signaling” of the type that values positions, conclusions, or commitments that are often unmoored from the frameworks from which they emerge and within which they are sustained. Vos’s example above of arguing for the orthodox doctrine of Scripture remains instructive. It is theological thinking (in this case with reference to the biblical doctrine of God) that marks his method, not a mere biblicism or assertion from tradition. We would do well to ask what kind of teaching and assessment in the seminaries fosters precise, adaptable, and resilient theological thinking? And what kind of churchly, denominational, or fraternal cultures are willing to invest in this for theological students and to encourage and support ongoing theological growth for ministers?
  4. Theological education must be coherent and not eclectic. Time and again Vos maintains that a curriculum designed for Reformed gospel ministry should not remain at the level of unintegrated classes or subjects. Seminaries and faculties should certainly strive for excellent, judicious, constructively aligned teaching and assessment within individual classes and subdisciplines. But Vos’s vision pushes us to consider further how true integration and cohesion among the various elements of the curriculum might best be achieved. As anyone who has ever served on a curriculum or re-accreditation committee knows, “integration” of this scope is a goal more easily named and claimed than attained. Yet Vos seems to suggest that not only a careful sequencing of or cross-referencing among seminary classes is needed. Even more, a kind of shared and confessional and theological framework should be offered to students in a lively, well-judged manner such that the pieces of the puzzle gradually fit together over their seminary years and set them up well for the demands of church life and ministry.

Third, Vos’s vision should inform and guide ongoing debates over Reformed theological method. What we have encountered here were Vos’s thoughts in 1888. Thus, together with his Reformed Dogmatics outlined in the following years, we should work to ascertain just how closely and in what manner Vos was working with the “Great Tradition” by the time of his better-known Princeton inaugural when he launched his biblical-theological project. That is to say, Vos was not first a biblical theologian. He develops his biblical theology after, with, and because of his theologically astute confessional, metaphysical, and epistemological commitments. We should also note that this background complicates the narrative that biblical theology was, particularly for Vos, largely a “crisis measure,” somehow unintegrated into a larger theological method.

Significantly, for those who see great value in a Vosian redemptive-historical biblical theology and the exegesis it involves and energizes, this account of Vos’s vision calls for a continued re-examination of the mutually-informing relationships among exegesis, biblical theology, and systematics. Vos’s vision and the pattern and development of his own thought and teaching ministry suggests there is theological warrant for a close relationship. Among other things, he demonstrates how a specifically-confessional, strongly systematic-theological framework undergirds, constrains, and is enriched by careful biblical-theological work. Finally, one further question this raises concerns any method of “Bible-handling,” or of exegesis tracing the unified, redemptive narrative from Genesis to Revelation that is abstracted from the larger Reformed architecture. One wonders whether such methods and readings can sustain themselves and the churches they aim to serve in the absence of the larger theological vision that rendered a redemptive-historical biblical theology so fruitful in the hands of someone like Vos.

[1] May 8, 1894: “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” in Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980), 3–24 (hereafter RHBI).

[2] September 4, 1888: “De Uitsichten der Amerika Theologie,” An English translation by Ed M. van der Maas and a brief editorial introduction by James T. Dennison are found in Geerhardus Vos, “The Prospects of American Theology,” Kerux 20 (2005): 12–52 (hereafter “Prospects”). Available at

[3] This is confirmed by Vos’s five-volume Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2012–2016), written from 1888–1893.

[4] Vos’s best-known works include his Princeton inaugural (1894, “The Idea of Biblical Theology”) and his 1948 book Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, reprint ed. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), which bookend his life’s work in biblical theology with a remarkable consistency of method; see Gaffin, “Introduction,” in Vos, RHBI, xv.

[5] Edward Klink III and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), group Vos and the “Philadelphia school” together with the “Chicago school” (exemplified by D. A. Carson) and the “Dallas School” in their category BT2, “History of Redemption.” This is an understandable but overly broad categorization, as others have pointed out, and as the evidence from Vos’s total oeuvre demonstrates. Among those who have taken a significantly “Vosian” line in major works are Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002); G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

[6] Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018), 256–57. Testing this comparison between Irenaeus and Vos will be the focus of a separate article.

[7] Michael Allen, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology—Part One,” Journal of Reformed Theology 14 (2020): 52–72; Michael Allen, “Systematic and Biblical Theology—Part Two,” Journal of Reformed Theology 14 (2020): 344–57.

[8] Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Pres, 2012), 80–84.

[9] Vos, “Prospects,” 50.

[10] For “theological vision” as a concept, variously defined, see Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 312–34; Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012); D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 95–97.

[11] See the account in James T. Dennison, ed., The Letters of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 14–26 (hereafter Letters). Vos mentions his interest in philosophy, particularly epistemology, while in Berlin and Strasbourg (1885–1888). See, e.g., his letter to Herman Bavinck (June 16, 1887): “From an encyclopedic point of view [i.e., the division and inner organization of theology], Philosophy is a study which gives more satisfaction than German theology.… With special fondness, I am keeping busy now with Philosophy—and indeed most of the time with the theory of knowledge” (Letters, 125–26). Vos also mentions his critical engagement with lectures by the noted neo-Kantian Wilhelm Windelband, on whom see F. C. Beiser, The German Historicist Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 365–92.

[12] Gaffin, “Introduction,” in Vos, RHBI, x.

[13] See George Harinck, “Geerhardus Vos as Introducer of Kuyper in America,” in The Dutch-American Experience: Essays in Honor of Robert P. Swierenga, ed. Hans Krabbendam and Larry Wagenaar (Amsterdam: VU Uitgeverij, 2000), 243–61.

[14] These churches were increasingly formed by and pressured within their American context. See James D. Bratt, Dutch Calvinism in Modern America: A History of a Conservative Subculture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).

[15] Vos, “Prospects,” 43: “Our dogmas must once again leave the classrooms and be carried into the hearts of the people, especially the hearts of a young generation, with fresh power of thought.”

[16] Vos, Letter to Herman Bavinck (June 16, 1887), in Letters, 125; see also “Prospects,” 49.

[17] Vos, “Prospects,” 14.

[18] See, e.g., Letter to Benjamin B. Warfield, October 22, 1889: “My own impression is that there is not much demand in this country for discussions of this sort, as people are apt to consider theology under an exclusively practical aspect, so that perhaps an Encyclopedia of Theological Science [such as Kuyper was undertaking] would be received with a certain indifference which it would be hard to overcome” (Vos, Letters, 129).

[19] Vos taught widely across the curriculum in subjects such as exegesis, systematic theology, philosophy, and non-Christian religions; see Letters, 26.

[20] Vos, “Prospects,” 13.

[21] Vos, “Prospects,” 15.

[22] Vos, “Prospects,” 15. Van der Maas, the translator, remarks that in the manuscript Vos uses the terms “empiricism” and “realism” as virtual synonyms (p. 15 n. 4). The larger context of the address confirms this. We will use “empiricism” throughout for consistency. By “realism” Vos indicated the externalism of a philosophical materialism or naturalism.

[23] Vos, “Prospects,” 15–16.

[24] Vos, “Prospects,” 16–17.

[25] Vos, “Prospects,” 18–19.

[26] Vos, “Prospects,” 19–20.

[27] Vos, “Prospects,” 20–21.

[28] Vos is making a claim about the general epistemological orientation of American culture rather than an absolute epistemological claim. For a recent engagement with his epistemology, see J. V. Fesko, “The Scholastic Epistemology of Geerhardus Vos,” Reformed Faith and Practice 3 (2018): 21–45.

[29] Vos, “Prospects,” 21–22, and 21 n. 32.

[30] Vos, “Prospects,” 21.

[31] Vos, “Prospects,” 22–23.

[32] Vos does not elaborate on what form this might take.

[33] Vos, “Prospects,” 23.

[34] Vos, “Prospects,” 24.

[35] James H. Moorhead, Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), esp. 311–39.

[36] Vos, “Prospects,” 24. See also George M. Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 31–52; P. C. Kemeny, “From “Old Time” Christian College to Liberal Protestant University: The Forgotten Interlude in the History of the Secularization of Princeton University,” in Faith, Freedom, and Higher Education: Historical Analysis and Contemporary Reflections, ed. P. C. Kemeny (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 35–53.

[37] Vos, “Prospects,” 24.

[38] Vos, “Prospects,” 25.

[39] Vos, “Prospects,” 25.

[40] Vos, “Prospects,” 25.

[41] Vos, “Prospects,” 26.

[42] Vos, “Prospects,” 26.

[43] Vos, “Prospects,” 26. On the organic motif in Dutch theology, and in Vos’s contemporaries Kuyper and Bavinck in particular, see James Eglinton, Trinity and Organism: Towards a New Reading of Herman Bavinck’s Organic Motif, T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology 17 (London: T&T Clark, 2012).

[44] Vos, “Prospects,” 26.

[45] Vos, “Prospects,” 27. The final word theologian was underlined in Vos’s manuscript.

[46] Vos, “Prospects,” 27.

[47] For the Reformed principia, see Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 1, Prolegomena to Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) and John Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11 (2009): 56–71.

[48] Vos refers to the two formal Reformed principia, that is, the principium essendi (the Triune God) and the principium cognoscendi (Holy Scripture). He also uses the terms principium and principia more broadly to encompass fundamental Christian doctrines or presuppositions.

[49] Vos, “Prospects,” 27–28.

[50] Vos, “Prospects,” 28.

[51] Vos, “Prospects,” 28–29.

[52] Vos, “Prospects,” 29.

[53] Vos, “Prospects,” 29.

[54] Vos, “Prospects,” 29–31.

[55] Vos, “Prospects,” 29.

[56] Vos, “Prospects,” 29.

[57] Vos, “Prospects,” 29–30.

[58] Vos, “The Idea of Biblical Theology,” in RHBI, 21–22.

[59] Although this sentence reads awkwardly, Vos’s meaning is clear from context: the Reformed principia, emerging from Scripture itself, necessarily entail a Bible that is fully inspired, inerrant and authoritative.

[60] Vos, “Prospects,” 29–30.

[61] See further Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1. Vos returned to and developed this theme in many of his book reviews and articles.

[62] Vos, “Prospects,” 30. Perhaps the Briggs controversy was in the background, on which see Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[63] Vos, “Prospects,” 30, italics mine.

[64] See J. V. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 104–5.

[65] Vos, “Prospects,” 30.

[66] Vos, “Prospects,” 31–32.

[67] Vos, “Prospects,” 31–32.

[68] Vos, “Prospects,” 32.

[69] Vos, “Prospects,” 33.

[70] Vos, “Prospects,” 33.

[71] Vos, “Prospects,” 33.

[72] Vos, “Prospects,” 33 n. 66.

[73] Vos, “Prospects,” 33.

[74] Vos, “Prospects,” 33.

[75] Vos, “Prospects,” 33.

[76] Vos, “Prospects,” 33.

[77] Vos, “Prospects,” 33.

[78] Vos, “Prospects,” 34.

[79] Vos, “Prospects,” 34, italics mine.

[80] Vos, “Prospects,” 35.

[81] Vos, “Prospects,” 34.

[82] Vos, “Prospects,” 34–35.

[83] Vos, “Prospects,” 35.

[84] Vos, “Prospects,” 35.

[85] See, e.g., Roger Lundin, From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); Joel Isaac, James T. Kloppenberg, Michael O’Brien, and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, eds., The Worlds of American Intellectual History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[86] Vos, “Prospects,” 38.

[87] Vos, “Prospects,” 33.

[88] Vos, “Prospects,” 35.

[89] Vos, “Prospects,” 35.

[90] Vos, “Prospects,” 44, italics mine.

[91] Vos, “Prospects,” 49.

[92] Vos, “Prospects,” 49; Vos spoke instead in terms of retrieval, revitalization, and construction.

[93] Vos, “Prospects,” 48.

[94] Vos, “Prospects,” 47.

[95] Vos, “Prospects,” 48.

[96] Vos, “Prospects,” 27.

[97] Vos, “Prospects,” 29.

[98] Vos, “Prospects,” 45.

[99] Vos, “Prospects,” 40. Recall that the Kantian divide between subject and object loomed in the background for Vos, together with various neo-Kantian reactions and developments.

[100] Vos, “Prospects,” 41. See Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology. With the Life of Fransiscus Junius, trans. David C. Noe (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 86 (Thesis 7). Electronic edition available at Vos repeats and expands on these formulations in Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1.

[101] Vos, “Prospects,” 40.

[102] Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 6.

[103] Vos, “Prospects,” 41.

[104] Vos, “Prospects,” 41, where he seems to allude to 1 Corinthians 2:10. Vos distinguishes carefully the Reformed vs. Lutheran views of the Word as a means of grace in relation to the Spirit’s action in Reformed Dogmatics, 5:81–82.

[105] Vos, “Prospects,” 45.

[106] Vos, “Prospects,” 45.

[107] Vos, “Prospects,” 45.

[108] Vos, “Prospects,” 45. The phrase “staying with God’s point of view” is repeated in Vos’s later writings and is important for understanding his approach to Scripture as “redemptive revelation” in his biblical theology.

[109] Vos, “Prospects,” 46.

[110] Vos, “Prospects,” 46.

[111] Vos, “Prospects,” 30.

[112] Vos, “Prospects,” 30.

[113] Vos, “Prospects,” 46.

[114] Vos, “Prospects,” 46.

[115] Vos, “Prospects,” 25.

[116] Vos, “Prospects,” 25.

[117] Vos, “Prospects,” 25.

[118] Five years later, as Vos prepared to move to Princeton, he expressed a measure of frustration at the preparation of the students in Grand Rapids: “I am naturally sorry to leave my present field of activity. At the same time, the appeal of the work here would not have been enough to keep me here in the long run. The young people who study are so poorly educated that despite the diligence of their instructors the results that they accomplish are so small that you have to lose heart. Again this year the examination was exceedingly poor” (Letter to Herman Bavinck [July 3, 1893], in Letters, 175). His tone is much warmer two decades later in writing to a former student about some young Dutch men from Grand Rapids who had come to study at Princeton; see Letter to Henry Beets (March 16, 1912), in Letters, 211.

[119] Vos, “Prospects,” 20.

[120] Three years later in 1891, while still in Grand Rapids, Vos would similarly emphasize the glory-center of Reformed theology as the critical distinctive in its doctrinal system and its covenant theology. See Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” in RHBI, 234–67.

[121] Vos, “Prospects,” 42.

[122] Vos, “Prospects,” 42.

[123] Vos, “Prospects,” 43.

[124] Vos, “Prospects,” 43.

[125] “Editor’s Introduction,” in Vos, “Prospects,” 12.

[126] Vos, “Prospects,” 50–51. The translator notes (n. 104) that in the manuscript “the words Amerikaanische Gereformeerde Theologie! are written larger.”

[127] And this is to say nothing of the breathtaking shift towards online, digital-distance modes of instruction and the equally complex affordances attending this. We may imagine that Vos might ask, among other things, what kind of sustained, theological, Reformed gospel ministries will be possible if a generation of pastors receive much or all of their theological education in this mode and manner.

[128] Vos referred to the flourishing Dutch Reformed churches he had in mind as “small spiritual colonies” (“Prospects,” 50).

Bradley J. Bitner

Bradley J. Bitner is associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California.

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