The Legacy of Geerhardus Vos
‘He was probably the best exegete Princeton ever had,’ Benjamin B. Warfield once told Louis Berkhof. Abraham Kuyper was so taken with his academic acumen that Kuyper offered him the chair of Old Testament studies at the Free University of Amsterdam when he was only twenty-four years old. J. Gresham Machen commented that if he knew as much as he did, he would be writing all the time. Cornelius Van Til considered him the most erudite man he had ever known.
Testimonies like these abound concerning Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949), professor of biblical theology at Princeton Seminary from 1893 to 1932. Possessing the rare combination of first-rate exegetical, philosophical, and linguistic ability, Vos produced books and articles that remain standard reading today in Reformed theology. Although he never joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Vos befriended many of his former Princeton students who did, and his theological influence remains in the church to this day.
And yet, few men ever avoided the spotlight as much as Vos did. Irenic to a fault, he did not have the constitution to engage in controversy like his Princeton colleagues Warfield and Machen, although agreeing with their positions. Cosmopolitan in an age of nationalism, he was often ignored in the classroom by American students turned off by his thick Germanic accent. By the end of his tenure at Princeton, he had to resort to self-publishing what would become his most influential book, The Pauline Eschatology. In retirement, he became better known as the husband of Catherine Vos, whose Child’s Story Bible sold more copies than all of his books combined.
Vos himself attributed his quiet disposition in part to his Dutch upbringing. He wrote to a friend, ‘I have always been more averse to, rather than a friend of, a personal “stepping into the limelight.” This is perhaps a residue of the somewhat world-repudiating spirit of the Old-Seceder Pietism in which my parents lived and in which I grew up.’1 Although Herman Bavinck said of Vos, ‘A man can be too modest,’ Vos’s disinterest in self-promotion was consistent with his theology. Vos taught his students that their focus should be on God himself and the accomplishment of redemption, which has at its centre the person and work of Jesus Christ.
As a biblical theologian, the particular area that Vos specialized in was eschatological studies – not in the narrow sense that dispensationalism promotes, but in the broader sense of what constitutes the believer’s hope and goal. An eschatological goal – communion with God in full in a higher estate – was set before man from the beginning. Forfeited through the sin of Adam, this goal has been achieved on behalf of sinners through the work of the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Vos believed that this hermeneutic insight was a distinguishing hallmark of the Reformed faith and covenant theology.
Vos’s work at Princeton was distinguished from that of other biblical theologians of his era in that he staunchly defended the Bible as God’s inspired and inerrant Word. He believed that those who attacked the Bible frequently underestimated God and overestimated man. What man as the creature owes to God the Creator is to receive God’s self-revelation at its full divine value. Said Vos, ‘It is our duty to emphasize, especially as Reformed believers, that submission to the revealed truth is of the very essence of the Christian religion, being one of the fundamental aspects of that absolute dependence on and surrender to God in which true religion consists.’2
In his book Biblical Theology, Vos further explained how revelation and redemption were intertwined. Scripture is the record of God’s self-revealing activity, and that activity is oriented to salvation in Jesus Christ. What is revealed in seed form in Genesis 3:15, with the promise that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent, comes to fruition with the Saviour’s arrival in the New Testament. At the heart of the biblical story from beginning to end is Jesus Christ.
Vos believed that the church’s preaching should reflect that reality. Liberalism in Vos’s day had turned the message of the Bible into moralism, aiming to follow the example of the good man Jesus. ‘Oh the pity and shame of it,’ said Vos, ‘the Jesus that is being proclaimed but too often is a Christ after the flesh, a religious genius, the product of evolution, powerless to save.’3 Vos admonished future preachers to do something much different. He urged them in every sermon to leave their hearers with the impression that ‘it is impossible for you to impart to them what you want other than as a correlate and consequence of the eternal salvation of their souls through the blood of Christ, because in your own conviction that alone is the remedy which you can honestly offer to a sinful world.’4
In The Pauline Eschatology, his last published work while he was at Princeton, Vos argued that the Apostle Paul grasped through the inspiration of the Spirit that Jesus Christ had ushered in the kingdom of heaven now through his life, death, and resurrection. The Christian has the members of his body upon earth, which are to be mortified, but as a whole, the Christian belongs to the high mountain-land above. The state of having one’s citizenship above with Christ while having one’s body still on earth was described by Vos as ‘semi-eschatological.’
In July 1932, Vos retired from Princeton with little fanfare. The greater excitement on Mercer Street that summer was Albert Einstein’s arrival six doors down from the Voses. Vos quietly slipped away to California, where he wrote poetry. Following the death of his beloved wife, Catherine, in 1937, he moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he lived with his daughter (Marianne Radius) and her family.
But, even then, the bonds with his students at Princeton who helped to form the OPC remained. Upon hearing of J. Gresham Machen’s death on January 1, 1937, Vos wrote to Machen’s brother Arthur:
Dr. Machen for a short while was my pupil at Princeton Seminary. Afterwards for many years, we were associated as members of the faculty, and the time soon came that I learned more from him than had ever been my privilege to impart to him as a teacher. He was indeed a profound scholar, but what counts for more than that, a great man of God and a true defender of our Christian faith in its Presbyterian form. His name will not be easily forgotten, for the impression he made on the religious and theological mind of the church was too deep for that.5
After Machen’s death, Vos was informed of developments in the OPC by his son Bernardus, a member of Calvary OPC in Middletown, Pennsylvania, and during the visits of Ned B. Stonehouse and Cornelius Van Til to Grand Rapids. Earlier, in 1928, when Van Til was an apologetics instructor at Princeton, he sought Vos’s advice on whether he should become engaged in the Presbyterian conflict. Vos told Van Til, then a ministerial member in the Christian Reformed Church,
Look, this is going to be a much broader matter than a single, denominational issue. Princeton may be a Presbyterian seminary under the direction of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, but don’t forget that it is a rallying point for many, many wonderful Christian people all over the world – people who love Reformed doctrine and life . . . You cannot, you dare not, stand by and look on like an indifferent spectator when a conflict is being fought in the arena.6
Van Til would later honour the man he considered his theological mentor above all others by having Vos’s portrait hang above his desk during his tenure at Westminster Seminary. In return, Vos’s deep friendship with Van Til was seen in his request that, upon his death, Van Til officiate at the funeral service. Vos died on August 13, 1949, and Van Til, accompanied by OPC minister John J. DeWaard, conducted his memorial service at Roaring Branch, Pennsylvania. Van Til preached from 2 Corinthians 5:1, ‘We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’ (KJV).
- Letter to Albertus Eekhof, October 28, 1932.
- Vos, review of James Denney’s Jesus and the Gospel, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 515.
- Vos, ‘The More Excellent Ministry,’ in Grace and Glory, 102.
- Vos, ‘The Gracious Provision,’ in Grace and Glory, 238.
- Letter to Arthur Machen, January 5, 1937.
- William White, Van Til: Defender of the Faith, 48.
The author is the general secretary for Christian Education of the O.P.C.. Taken with permission from New Horizons, October 2012.
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