Reformed Theology/G.J.Vos,1862

You Need to Know Geerhardus Vos, by Rev. Danny E. Olinger

Bavinck Byeon 2019. 11. 9. 23:07

You Need to Know Geerhardus Vos 

(Interview with Danny Olinger)


Rev. Danny E. Olinger



Who is Geerhardus Vos and what drew you to him?


Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) is rightly considered the “Father of Reformed Biblical Theology.”  Princeton Theological Seminary established a chair in biblical theology in 1893 and sought Vos to fill it.  He accepted the invitation and would serve for thirty-nine years until his retirement in 1932. 


In speaking for myself, Vos is unparelled as an exegete and theologian. This is not to take away from the great insights of so many other gifted individuals, but his commitment to the Scriptures and understanding of Christ at the heart of redemptive history was life-changing. There is no hedging with Vos, just as there is no hedging in the Bible. Your life is either found in Christ or it is not.


Perhaps the greatest contribution from Vos is when he unpacks for us the original purpose of creation. What then was the end goal for humans (Adam and Eve) and what would have happened if they had never ate that forbidden fruit?


In exegeting Genesis 1–3 and 1 Corinthians 15:42-50, Vos believed that the Reformed faith had not errored in proclaiming that the Bible taught that God created Adam and Eve upright in righteousness and holiness.  He also believed that the Reformed faith was correct in arguing that perpetual life in this original estate of innocence was not the goal set before Adam and Eve. In Genesis 2:16–17, God extended to Adam and Eve the prospect of life with God in an estate of Glory. In Vos’s words, “Man had been created perfectly good in a moral sense. And yet there was a sense in which he could be raised to a still higher level of perfection” (Biblical Theology, 22).  The prospect of leaving the probation state behind and entering into a higher estate was because of God’s condescension, not anything inherent in man’s creation.


Appealing to Revelation 2:7, Vos understood further that the tree of life was reserved for the overcomer, that is, the one would pass the probation. If Adam and Eve had obeyed the word God spoke in Genesis 2:16–17, the higher, unchangeable life marked by full communion with God and symbolized in the tree of life would have been secured.


But, Adam and Eve failed the probation. The question connected with the probation eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was whether they would obey for the sake of God and God alone. When Eve eats the forbidden fruit, she exchanges the truth of God for a lie.  She places the Tempter in the place of God, calling good (the Word of God) evil and evil (the word of Satan) good.


Going back then to the beginning, Adam and Eve were created immortal in the sense that they were created upright with souls that would last forever. In this estate of innocence, however, they did not possess immortality in the sense of possessing unlosable communion with God. After the fall into sin, they are mortal as death works in them. Immortality only comes to them and their offspring as a result of the coming of Jesus Christ, the promised one who will crush the head of the serpent. The story of the Bible from beginning to end is about Christ, promised in the Old Covenant, realized in the New Covenant.


Vos is the father of “Biblical Theology”, what is that?


In his inaugural address at Princeton, “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” Vos stated that the only legitimate object of theology is God. But, God is the object of theology only in so far as he has supernaturally revealed himself in Scripture. Biblical Theology seeks to examine how God has revealed himself in Scripture as parts and products of a divine work, applying no other method of grouping and arranging these part and products than is given in Scripture itself.


Such an approach to Biblical Theology, where the supernatural character of God’s self-revelation is recognized, recognizes the historical progression of Scripture. God’s revelation of the knowledge of the truth is interwoven with and conditioned by the supernatural redeeming activity of God in history. In the words of Vos from the same address, “God has not revealed himself in a school, but in the covenant; and the covenant as a communion of life is all-comprehensive, embracing all the conditions and interests of those contracting it.”


Many Christians stay away from the Old Testament because it’s obscure, seems difficult to “apply”, and so we stay on the New testament. We like the feel-good  one-liners and the instant “application” we glean there. What would Vos have us concern ourselves when we read the Old Testament?


I believe that he would emphasize the Old Testament is a book of redemption that bears an organic connection to the salvation that has come in Jesus Christ. There is no separation between the Old Testament work of God and the work of Jesus. The two constitute a singal body of supernatural revelation and redemption. There is unity between the Old Testament promises and Jesus’s fulfillment of the promise in the New Testament. Further, the church unfolds and fulfills the prophetic program of the Old Testament that centers around the Messiah. The church is the fulfillment of the Old Testament hope, but not bound to Old Testament types and shadows for the day of fulfillment and reality have come through the person and work of Jesus Christ.


He would also stress that the Old Testament being a shadow of what was to come must be turned verticially. For example, what is linear in the Old Testament, say the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, must be understood vertically, heavenly, in light of the coming of Christ.  He is our heavenly high priest who has entered into the holy of holies before us.


Still, Vos would want us to affirm the validity of faith of those who lived in the Old Testament. Participation through shadow was a participation in the reality of that which was above, validation of the genuineness of their faith.


You mentioned that Vos “departed from the traditional consensus that Paul’s primary interest was justification by faith”. In other words he was saying that the New Testament is NOT mainly about “Jesus dying for our sins so that we can go to heaven when we die”, instead, the primary focus was on the “realization of history’s purpose through the death and resurrection of Christ”. Can you explain that for us?


Vos was adamant that the Bible teaches that believers are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ. The question that he asked, however, was whether that was centerpiece of the Apostle Paul’s teaching. In his book Pauline Eschatology, Vos wrote, “We hope presently to show that, as a matter of fact, not only the Christology but also the Soteriology of the Apostle’s teaching is so closely interwoven with the Eschatology, that, were the question put, which of the strands is more central, which more peripheral, the eschatology would have as good a claim to the central place as the others” (28–29). 


Eschatology must not be understood here in a narrow sense, but as “the doctrine of last things” that deals with the teaching or belief that the world is moving to a definite final goal, a new state of affairs, heaven, that partakes of the permanent character of the eternal. In other words, eschatology brings into view the goal set before Adam and Eve in the garden, full communion with God on a higher estate.


The Apostle Paul recognized that the eschatological process had been set in motion through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The result for Paul is that his thinking reflects a philosophy of history into which the soteric and theological are slotted, every development construed in light of its starting point and terminus. Unfolding the Apostle’s eschatology, then, is unfolding his theology.


You said that “Sadly, in the modern church there had developed a widespread demand that God’s love, and nothing but God’s love, shall be made the keynote of every message Christianity has to bring to the world.” – why have we resolved that this is the optimal message, and what is the complete message?


The context of the statement was the proposed revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith that would eventually take place in 1903 in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.  Vos believed that the revision effort was not only devoid of Scripture support, but also that it exhibited a failure to recognize between God’s general benevolence for humanity and God’s special love for his own. Vos said, “The divine love for the elect is different not only in degree but specifically from all other forms of love, because it involves a purpose to save, of which all the other forms fall short.”


Now, undoubtedly, according to Vos, the teaching of the love of God occupies a central place in the teaching of the New Testament, but the New Testament never denies the other attributes of God’s divine character. Vos said, “While Jesus invites us to love the heavenly Father, He, on the other hand, also exhorts us to fear the God who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.” Vos believed that as long as the church faithfully confessed the doctrine of eternal punishment for sin as an essential part of Jesus’s message, then it would also have to admit that biblically there is a relation between God and man determined by the principle not of love, but of justice. The Bible teaches that the love and righteousness of God are not mutually exclusive.  He wrote, “On Christ as the substitute of sinners the love and righteousness of God terminated in perfect harmony.”


Many people think Christianity is mere sin-management and a suppression of the things/sins that they like to do, and that Christianity is just a boring but necessary ticket to heaven – but then we read Vos when he says in a sermon “So far from being a matter of gloom and depression, religion in its true concept is an exultant state, the supreme feast and sabbath of the soul” – what is Vos seeing that many of us don’t?


There are two sides that comprise the covenant relationship in the Bible, what God is for man and what man is for God. This is what is behind Vos’s proclaimation in his sermon, “The Wonderful Tree,” that true religion is not doom and gloom  but a supreme feast and sabbath of the soul. The text for that sermon is Hosea 14:8, “I am like a green-fir tree; from me is thy fruit found.” Here Hosea teaches that “the possession of Jehovah himself by his people will be of all the delights of the world to come the chief and most satisfying, the paradise within the paradise of God.” The great marvel, “the heart-miracle of all true religion, the great paradox underlying all God’s concern with us” is that the all-sufficient God, forever rich and blessed in himself, should give himself to fallen creatures without reserve. The covenant relation into which it pleases God to receive Israel to himself “has in it a sublime abandon; it knows neither restraint nor reserve.”


This redemptive self-communication of God is what Hosea had in mind in recording the promise of the text. Vos declared, “When Jehovah, entering into covenant with Israel, says, ‘I will be unto you a God, and ye shall be unto me a people,’ this means infinitely more than the trite idea: henceforth ye shall worship me and I will cultivate you. It is the mutual surrender of person to person.”


What Hosea saw as in a glass darkly through the imagery of the green olive tree will one day resolve itself into the spiritual realities of the life to come. Believers experience a taste of that spiritual reality today because of the person and work of Jesus Christ.


For you personally, what has been the most compelling or powerful aspect of the story of the Bible that you delight in, has come to you fresh, and resulted in you loving God more and being excited to be a part of God’s story?


I love it all. It is the mind of God. At the center of it stands Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.


What is the “Gospel” and what practical implications does the Gospel make in my everyday life?


The gospel is that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became flesh, and did what we did not—he lived a perfect life of obedience, and yet, he took our place on the cross, enduring the eternal wrath and curse of God which our sins deserved and rose again from the dead for our justification. The Apostle Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance to the Scriptures.” The “good news” is not about a moral worldview or a religious experience. It is about Jesus Christ. He is the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but now has been made manifest and known.


What is “sin” and what is so terrible about it when I do sin? And what is my motivation to not sin?


I cannot improve upon the definition of sin found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism 14, “Sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.” We are all those who have missed the mark. In the words of Apostle Paul, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). In our sin, we rebel against God’s glory and Lordship over us.  But, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”


What is God’s end goal for this world, all humans of this world, and me personally? Where is He taking it and what does it look like for me to be a part of that goal, and how can I have a role and purpose in that goal, and find meaning, and value, and my joy in that goal?


Again to quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the chief end of man is to glory God and to enjoy him forever. The goal put before humanity made in God’s image is to be in God’s presence forever in an environment of holiness glorifying and enjoying him in full. The realization of this goal is tied to the work of Jesus Christ in history. As Savior, he is the author and perfecter of our faith. As Second Adam, he is the leader of a new humanity. His death is unto the end of establishing righteousness in us, which is life to God. His resurrection is our resurrection. When we are raised on the last day, there will be a glorious transformation as our bodies are made fit for fellowship and full communion with God forever. The totality of his work means that we have been crucified with him. We no longer live, but Christ lives in us and the life that we now live in the flesh we live by faith in the Son of God (Gal. 2:20).


How can I, as a Christian who believes the Gospel and affirms orthodoxy, be compelled to genuinely desire God and the kingdom of God enough to become a true disciple, one who is willing to consider all things loss in comparison with knowing and loving Jesus?


Herman Bavinck rightly proclaimed, “God and God alone is our highest good.”  Brought into covenant with the living God, we have been joined to the crucified and risen Christ. He is the Lord of the covenant and to him we owe all glory. In his covenant Lordship, Christ claims us for God.  We are his possession. Whatever we eat or drink, or whatever we do, we are to do all for the glory of God.


But, he is also the Servant of the covenant. In his covenant Servanthood, Christ claims God for us. Joined to Jesus Christ by faith, we enjoy communion with God and and forevermore. We are being called to become what we already are in Christ.


Joined to Christ by faith and experiencing already the blessings of heaven, suffering and self-sacrifice for Christ become the opportunity for glory. The mode of our life as believers is modeled after Christ’s life on this earth, which was a movement from humiliation to glory. The life of faith is not just Christ for us, it is also Christ by his Spirit in us.


As a Christian, at the end of a long day (when I have done what I ought not to have done – and not done what I ought to have done) what are God’s thoughts of me when I lay down my head at at night and fall asleep?


Every day in the life of the believer is one of repentance and faith.  We confess our sins to the holy God, but we rest in the assurance that Christ has died for our sins and has been raised for our justification. When God sees me, he sees the one to whom I am joined by faith. He does not count my sins against me, but sees the righteousness of Jesus.


What is God’s mission given to us and how do I fulfill it without it becoming a feeling of another thing I have to do for God? And based upon that, What is needed at the personal, and church level to shape culture and to be on strategic mission?


In the Great Commission in Matthew 28, the church is given the tasks of making disciples of all nations, and baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Those who carry out this task are the ordained officers of the church.  What is needed is for the church to be the church, faithful in the exercise of the mark of the church—reading and preaching the Word of God, administering the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and administering discipline.



Danny Olinger is the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He serves as editor of the monthly periodical New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is the author of "A Geerhardus Vos Anthology" and "Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian".