By David B. Garner

Vos 121

Worth Reading

Very little writing warrants reading more than once. Less still deserves numerous readings. An exclusive group of writings rises to the level of “must read once a year” for me. One of them is Geerhardus Vos’ inaugural lecture to his new post as Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton on May 8, 1894. Today’s 121st anniversary of that lecture warrants remembering some of Vos’ fruitful insights.

Exacting in scope and sophistication, Vos’ argument offers a distinctive approach to biblical theology—one which consistently honors the divinity of the Word while scrupulously embracing its essential historical character.  “Biblical Theology, rightly defined, is nothing else than the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity.[1]

Three interdependent components warrant attention: the supernatural character of revelation, the unified historical character of revelation, and the diversity of revelation in history. I will touch briefly on each.

Supernatural Revelation in History

“The beginning of our Theology consists in the appropriation of that supernatural process by which God has made Himself the object of our knowledge.”[2]

At its most basic level, Vos’ approach to biblical theology depends on theology from above and the divine character of Scripture. In other words, Scripture is what it is because God is who he is. The Bible is not human reflection on divine activity or divine reflection on merely human events, but divine word about divine work. “Revelation as an act of God, theistically conceived of, can in no wise be associated with anything imperfect or impure or below the standard of absolute truth.”[3]

God’s Word then comes to us as God has created us and worked in redemption for us. In theology, “God takes the first step to approach man for the purpose of disclosing His nature, nay, who creates man in order that he may have a finite mind able to receive the knowledge of His infinite perfections.”[4]

For Vos, the sine qua non of biblical theology is the triune God and supernatural revelation. Faithful biblical theology starts with God, who is Truth itself. Revelation originates in and comes from the divine Revealer.

The importance of this Source simply cannot be overstated. In fact, in the present “evangelical” subterfuge of revelation by ostensibly winsome, but essentially damaging, constructions, the fact of Scripture as God’s Word—truly and actually—needs vigilant reassertion.

It also needs methodological dependence. Asserting Scripture as God’s Word and appropriating it as God’s Word are not the same. To be meaningful at all, confession of an orthodox view of Scripture mandates letting Scripture’s divinity entirely shape its handling and interpretation. Vos pleads for such meticulous and doxological care.

Because Scripture comes from God, its hearers must attend it with covenantal fidelity and humbly yield to its self-interpreting authority. The student of the Bible always sits under it, never over it. Inherent biblical authority repudiates every interpretive scheme that stifles or distorts its divine voice.

“The truth of revelation, if it is to retain its divine and absolute character at all, must be perfect from the beginning. Biblical Theology deals with it as a product of a supernatural divine activity, and is therefore bound by its own principle to maintain the perfection of revealed truth in all its stages.”[5] To put it in Jesus’ words, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).

Unity: The History of Revelation

Make no mistake: the Bible is history, indeed sacred history.[6] But it is no “mere announcement and record,” because “no true history can be made by a mere chronicling of events. Only by placing the bare record of the facts in the light of the principles that shape them, and the inner nexus which holds them together, is the work of the chronicler transformed into history.[7]

Biblical words interface with and depend upon divine acts on the stage of human history. The Bible is no abstract manual or philosophical textbook. It is no ethical anthology, psychological therapy primer, or emotional self-help manual. Scripture lands its relevance in that it communicates actual events—what God has done, and actual interpretation of those events—why God has done it. Theological meaning tethers divine word with divine acts.

As the divine Word by divine purpose in a divinely orchestrated history, Scripture possesses a vital, Spirit-given unity. The Holy Spirit authorship of Scripture entirely shapes the meaning of the text, the history of the text, and the purpose of the text. More specifically, the Old Testament’s Christ-centeredness (1 Peter 1:10–12) depends on the Spirit of Christ who gives Scripture its Christological meaning at each point of its providentially governed, historical context.

In point of fact, we find that the actual working of Old Testament redemption toward the coming of Christ in the flesh, and the advance of revealed knowledge concerning Christ, keep equal pace everywhere. The various stages in the gradual concentration of Messianic prophecy, as when the human nature of our Saviour is successively designated as the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the seed of Judah, the seed of David, His figure assuming more distinct features at each narrowing of the circle—what are they but disclosures of the divine counsel corresponding in each case to new realities and new conditions created by His redeeming power?”[8]

Surveying Scripture’s unfolding revelation, Vos exposes the Christological glue that holds it together—historically and theologically. Revelation progresses by the Spirit of Christ’s will and wisdom. By divine intention biblical texts build telescopically around and toward the Messiah, so that with purpose, precision, and perfection, biblical revelation consists of organic, progressive, and Christ-centered unity.

Concerning the handling of this Christ-centered revelation, Vos’ lecture involves both construction and polemic. On the former, the Church ought to build carefully on Vos’ insights. On the latter, the Church must enter with equal rigor, because of the sad reality facing the contemporary Church. What Vos combatted as liberal scholarship, the Church today faces under the banner of evangelicalism. Evangelical scholarship now stunningly embraces many of the assumptions and methods of historical liberalism. Evangelicals seem

resolute in showing kindness for what once was called liberalism. To put it frankly, there is an unnerving sympathy within evangelical scholarship for seeking light in darkness, for synthesizing antithesis, and even for wedding belief and unbelief. It has become all too acceptable to appropriate the methods of unbelieving scholarship, to assert common ground with its unbelieving assumptions, and to give such syncretism some credible-sounding, winsome label like ‘believing criticism.’[9]

The relationship between history and revelation often occupy center stage in these distortions. Corruptions to Biblical interpretation gain traction when biblical history gets reduced to the status of other human history and when interpretive approaches arrogantly assert the “messiness”[10] of the Bible as grounds to disorganize the Scriptures.”[11] In such views, Jesus is not in the Old Testament text, but gets retroactively read into the Old Testament by those living in the wake of his life, death, and resurrection.

Yet such a construal of biblical revelation will not stand the test of Scripture itself, and the apostles cannot be held guilty of hijacking Old Testament texts for imposed purposes. All of biblical history involves special divine providence, where God accomplishes his redemptive plan on the stage of history. The Spirit of God governs the events of sacred history and the meaning of that Christ-focused redemptive history (1 Peter 1:10–12). Divine record of this providentially composed history comes in the inspired Scriptures.

What then of the parts of Scripture we do not fully understand nor see how they fit into a cohesive whole? What may appear as biblical aberrance, inconsistency or random detail, does not warrant critical assault. As Vos articulates exquisitely, the assertion of biblical error or inconsistency evidences unbelief, not scholarship. A posture of thoughtful charity in scholarship does not require turning a blind eye to biblical difficulties, but rather begs for the humble acknowledgement of scholarly limitations and the honest acceptance of the divinity of Scripture. Because we do not understand everything does not indicate the problem lies within the text.

When facing difficult passages or critical scholarship, we do well to remember the Vosian admonition: “The deeper ground for the historic character of revelation cannot lie in the limitations of the human subject, but must be sought in the nature of revelation itself.”[12] This unifying Christ-centered principle is as true in contemporary interpretation of the text as it is in the original giving of the text.

Diversity: The History of Revelation

Affirming the integrated nature of revelation does not eclipse biblical multiformity. Revelation is more than historical narrative—that is, the Bible presents more than an instructive recounting of the events of redemptive history. Scripture involves multi-faceted history and genre, progress and human authorial personality.

God’s covenantal revelation involves the prophetic, the didactic, the apocalyptic, and the poetic. Using each writer as he intends, God purposefully employs a plethora of styles, tones, timbres, and genres in his Word. As Vos considers the human pen in inscripturation, he insists upon divine sovereignty and providence. Paul was not discovered by the Almighty by cosmic luck, but was divinely prepared for his apostolic function: “God’s method of revelation includes the very shaping and chiseling of individualities for His own objective ends.”[13] Yet Biblical diversity extends beyond the human author and interpretive narrative.

 “Historic progress is not the only means used by God to disclose the full contents of his eternal Word. Side by side with it we witness a striking multiformity of teaching employed for the same purpose. All along the historic stem of revelation, branches are seen to shoot forth, frequently more than one at a time, each of which helps to realize the complete idea of the truth for its own part and after its own peculiar manner. The legal, the prophetic, the poetic elements in the Old Testament are clearly-distinct types of revelation, and in the New Testament we have something corresponding to these in the Gospels, the Epistles, the Apocalypse.”[14]

In affirming the historical character of revelation and its organic process of unfolding, Vos avoids the error of many contemporary narrative theologies—which inescapably truncate biblical revelation by a failure to appreciate non-narrative features of Scripture. To celebrate narrative in a way that marginalizes the didactic and prophetic, for example, inevitably distorts biblical authority. Vos nimbly avoids this catastrophic error by affirming the permeating covenantal cast of Scripture: “God has not revealed Himself in a school, but in the covenant.”[15]

Acknowledging historical progress and historical context, as biblical theology rightly does, does not afford any grounds to destabilize the Bible’s authoritative, covenantal character. The human stage and the human author serve the divinely coordinated playing field for the divine revelation.

As such, the Bible possesses “an organization finer, more complicated, more exquisite than even the texture of muscles and nerves and brain in the human body; that its various parts are interwoven and correlated in the most subtle manner, each sensitive to the impressions received from all the others, perfect in itself, and yet dependent on the rest, while in them and through them all throbs as a unifying principle the Spirit of God’s living truth.”[16] Spirit-wrought diversity in the giving of revelation and the genre of that giving unites in his authoritative, covenantally mediated voice.

Analogous to the human body, Scripture’s diversity retains integrity by its pervasive organic unity. Thus, discerning the diverse stages of biblical revelation and covenant administrations is vital to interpretation; but so, too, is the methodological embrace of the unchanging authority of Scripture, an authority which situates, permeates and transcends history. There is a timelessness to biblical timeliness. Why? Because God is the Speaker, and his authority is not limited by historical situation. “Divine authorship is the ultimate reason why Scripture is authoritative.”[17]

Conclusion: Divine Context and Authority

The opening words of Scripture establish the divine context for all human history and indeed for all special revelation: “In the beginning, God. . .” (Genesis 1:1). In other words, all biblical context is divine before it is human. Biblical content is divine before it is human. Human history, grammar, genre and situatedness serve divine ends; they do not confine the Spirit of God to their own limits or reduce the gloriously diverse text to something less than pure, supernatural revelation.

“Whosoever weakens or subjectivizes this fundamental idea of revelation, strikes a blow at the very heart of Theology and Supernatural Christianity, nay, of Theism itself. Every type of Biblical Theology bent upon ignoring or minimizing this supreme, central idea, is a most dangerous product.[18]

We would do well to embrace the supernatural character of the text in its splendid multiformity and its permeating unity. Abandonment of any of these features of the text by conviction or by study method will always lead to distortion. Accordingly, Vos’ closing exhortation is worth repeating in full:

Let us not forget. . . that as of all theology, so of Biblical Theology, the highest aim cannot lie in man, or in anything that serves the creature. Its most excellent practical use is surely this, that it grants us a new vision of the glory of Him who has made all things to the praise of His own wonderful name. As the Uncreated, the Unchangeable, Eternal God, He lives above the sphere of history. He is the Being and never the Becoming One. And, no doubt, when once this veil of time shall be drawn aside, when we shall see face to face, then also the necessity for viewing His knowledge in the glass of history will cease. But since on our behalf and for our salvation He has condescended to work and speak in the form of time, and thus to make His works and His speech partake of that peculiar glory that attaches to all organic growth, let us see to know Him as the One that is, that was, and that is to come, in order that no note may be lacking that psalm of praise to be sung by the Church into which all our Theology must issue.[19]


[1] Geerhardus Vos, “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” in Peter A. Lillback and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., eds., Thy Word is Still Truth (Phillipsburg, NJ: 2014): 996. All Vos quotes in this article will be italicized. The underlined portion of this quote reflects Vos’ original italics.

[2] Ibid, 988.

[3] Ibid., 997.

[4] Ibid., 988.

[5] Ibid., 992.

[6] See Ibid., 999.

[7] Ibid., 1000.

[8] Ibid., 994.

[9] David B. Garner, Did God Really Say? Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012), xviii–ix.

[10] Peter Enns, for example, claims that the Bible as messy. See Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (HarperOne, 2014).

[11] Vos, “Idea,” 1001. The underline here represents an italics in the original.

[12] Ibid., 990.

[13] Vos, “Idea,” 995.

[14] Ibid., 994–95.

[15] Ibid., 992.

[16] Ibid., 1001.

[17] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 165.

[18] Ibid., 999.

[19] Ibid., 1003. The underline here represents an italics in the original.

 


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