Biblical Theology: Vos the Dogmatician

Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) is widely known as the father of orthodox Reformed confessional biblical theology. Also known as redemptive historical theology, biblical theology is concerned with the progressive unfolding of God’s revelation over time in history. Vos himself wrote several seminal books, articles, and dictionary entrees dealing with different aspects of the history of special revelation. Vos wrote a general introduction to biblical theology, a study of the teaching of Hebrews, a volume on the nature of Paul’s understanding of eschatology, and a fine book on the nature of the kingdom of God and the church.

Over the years there has been an unfortunate and unnecessary debate between biblical theologians and systematic theologians. The debate is unfortunate since it has gotten in the way of the mutual reinforcement, augmentation, and correction that ought to occur between both theological disciplines. The debate is unnecessary because when the disciplines are properly understood they are known to not be in competition with one another. Improperly understood they may in fact be competitive. For instance if the biblical theologian thinks that systematics is illegitimate since it forces a “foreign grid” on the text, one would then need to be reminded that the human mind is created by God to systematize. We cannot help but try to bring unity out of diversity since God is the sole author behind the diverse human authors. Besides, the biblical theologian is just as systematic as the systematician. If the systematician thinks the biblical theologian is illegitimate simply because biblical theology may be the newest kid on the block, one could be reminded that systematic theologian needs the insights of biblical theology. The tracing out of themes and motifs from Genesis to Revelation cannot but help to make systematic theology a stronger discipline.

The irony of this sad situation is that Geerhardus Vos himself was not only a gifted biblical theologian. He was equally adept at historical and systematic theology (sometimes called “dogmatics”). Many of you are no doubt familiar with Vos’ rich study of covenant theology. It is a gold mine of fascinating detail about the development of the covenant in the history of Reformed theology. But what may not be as well known is that Vos was a brilliant dogmatician as well. In fact, for several years before being appointed to the newly created chair of biblical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, Vos taught systematic theology at the precursor of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids. The fruit of that teaching has recently become available through the auspices of Logos Software and its printing arm Lexham Press.

Available for years in an original handwritten edition at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and perhaps other locations, and at some point typed out, Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics is in the process of publication both as an e-book in Logos and in beautiful hardbound volumes. The first three of five anticipated volumes have been released already. Under the editorial oversight of Vos expert Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Vos’ treatment of theology proper, anthropology, and Christology are now available for our perusal. These volumes are sure to become “go to” studies for the scholar, pastor, or interested layperson. The books use a question and answer format which we are all familiar with from our study of various catechisms. However, many of the answers are lengthy and would challenge even the most ardent memorizer of catechisms.

For those who may be wondering if the Reformed Dogmatics is a mere repetition of Herman Bavinck’s magnum opus by the same name or Louis Berkhof’s distillation of Bavinck, the answer is no. While there will no doubt be much overlap (which we would want!), Vos has not parroted the others. This is so if for no other reason than Vos produced his work before Bavinck and Berkhof! All of this is to say that Vos himself gives the lie to the idea that systematic and biblical theology are contradictory disciplines or that they are in competition. May it never be! Systematic theology is the queen of the theological sciences and draws upon biblical theology just as it does exegetics, church history and the like. And biblical theologians draw systematic theological conclusions all the time in their biblical theological studies and depend upon systematic theology in their treatment of Scripture. Vos proves that we need both.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington