Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Richard B. Gaffin Jr.'s short introduction on the life of Geerhardus Vos

The following short introduction to the life of Geerhardus Vos is by Richard B. Gaffin from the Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), ix–xiii.

Vos was born of German parents in Heerenveen, in the province of Friesland, the Netherlands, on March 14, 1862. Following the completion of his secondary education he came to the United States in 1881, when his father accepted a call to a congregation of the Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The next seven years were spent in theological study, first in Grand Rapids, then at Princeton Seminary, and then in Germany at Berlin and Strassburg. During this last stage he spent time in the Netherlands, where he had contact with the leading figures in the Reformed community there, including Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. In 1888 he received his doctor’s degree in Arabic studies from the philosophical faculty at Strassburg.

Already during his student days Vos provided unmistakable indications of remarkable scholarly ability. The period of European study was facilitated by a fellowship awarded by the Princeton faculty for a thesis on the Mosaic origin of the Pentateuch. This work was of such outstanding quality that soon after it was submitted it was published with an introduction by William Henry Green. It demonstrates a capacity for writing on crucial theological issues that is at once penetrating, thorough, and balanced. The character of his doctoral work indicates something of his breadth of interest and aptitude.

These unusual gifts did not go unrecognized. Even before the completion of his doctoral work he was approached with teaching offers. With the personal involvement of Kuyper he was offered the first professorship in Old Testament theology at the Free University of Amsterdam. However, in what was surely a consequential decision for the Reformed world, he declined, choosing rather to accept an appointment to the faculty of the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, where he taught for five years beginning in the fall of 1888. During this period he was responsible for a wide range of subjects from Greek grammar to systematic theology and carried an instructional load that at times was as high as 25 hours per week. Nevertheless, he managed several major productions, notably his rectoral address of 1891, a historical study of the covenant doctrine in Reformed theology, in Dutch, and a multi-volume dogmatics, also in Dutch.

Sometime during the latter part of 1892 or early 1893 Vos made another crucial decision. He accepted appointment as professor to the newly created chair of biblical theology at Princeton Seminary. This was not an easy decision; he had been approached by the Seminary for the preceding academic year but had declined. But it proved to be the choice of a lifetime, for he remained there for 39 years, until retirement in 1932 at the age of 70.

The passing of time has cast a veil which makes it difficult to answer clearly a number of questions about this move to Princeton. What motives prompted it? Doubtless there were more than one. Some seem obvious: a lighter, more attractive teaching load, exposure to a larger and more varied student body, certainly too, the strategic importance of Princeton on the American theological scene. But none of these was decisive. Rather, judging from subsequent developments, it would appear that what was especially important and attractive to Vos was the opportunity to concentrate his efforts in the area of biblical theology.

This, in turn, raises a more important question. What is the background to Vos’s interest in biblical theology? What formative factors shaped his deep attraction to this discipline? Apart from a long-standing and deeply rooted interest in the doctrine of the covenant, it is difficult to find the answer to this question in either the Princeton or the Dutch tradition of Reformed theology as Vos was exposed to them. In 1891 the Princeton faculty had requested the Board of Directors to establish a professorship  of biblical theology. However, this action seems more to reflect a recognition of the growing importance of that field in the broader theological scene and of the need to give it a place in the curriculum than a strongly felt concern developing organically from work already being done at the Seminary. A conception of biblical theology is present, to be sure, in A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, less clearly in Charles Hodge, but is not elaborated or given any special prominence, nor, more importantly, does it influence their theological methods in any significant way. On the Dutch side, Kuyper’s viewpoint is ambivalent. He rejects the notion of biblical theology. However, both he and Bavinck call for a study of the history of revelation, the latter especially emphasizing both the importance and traditional neglect of such study.

The period of study in Germany certainly must have stimulated Vos’s interest in biblical theology. But the “critical” conception he encountered there can hardly have been a decisive positive influence. At any rate, already in his inaugural address given in May, 1894, he provides a clear, fully developed discussion of the idea of biblical theology and its place among the other theological disciplines. The apparent conclusion is that Vos’s work in biblical theology is largely without direct antecedents and indicates the originality with which he wrestled with the matter of biblical interpretation in the Reformed tradition. It should also be emphasized, however, that he had a strong sense of his own place in that tradition and the thoroughly Reformed character of his work. Writing at the height of his career, he observed that Reformed theology “has from the beginning shown itself possessed of a true historic sense in the apprehension of the progressive character of the deliverance of truth. Its doctrine of the covenants on its historical side represents the first attempt at constructing a history of revelation and may justly be considered the precursor of what is at present called Biblical Theology.”

The long Princeton years were relatively quiet and untroubled, given over to teaching, research, writing, and occasionally preaching, with long and pleasant summers in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. Apparently there were no outside involvements or other complications which interrupted this pattern in any substantial way. Although he could and on occasion did state his position clearly and forcefully on the raging church controversy of this period, he did not, as did several of his colleagues, become extensively involved. Gentle and naturally retiring, he did not acquire a large following among the students. By many, perhaps the majority, he was probably more respected than understood. No doubt his lectures were like his writings, intrinsically difficult because of the wealth of insight packed into virtually every sentence.

The years of retirement appear to have been peaceful, spent first in southern California and then in Grand Rapids, where Vos died on August 13, 1949, at the age of 87. He lies buried in Roaring Branch, Pennsylvania, not far from the family summer home, beside his wife of 43 years, the author of the well-known Child’s Story Bible, who died in 1937. He was survived by three sons and a daughter.