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Committee on Christian Education Feature

Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics

Lane G. Tipton

Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949) was a professor at Princeton Seminary whose teaching and writings greatly influenced the founders of the OPC and Westminster Theological Seminary. His influence is still felt today, as shown in this review article by Rev. Dr. Lane G. Tipton, associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster, who unpacks some of the riches of Vos’s recently published, five-volume Reformed Dogmatics.

Richard B. Gaffin Jr.’s editorial oversight of the translation of Geerhardus Vos’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek has brought to light yet another theological treasure from perhaps the finest Reformed theologian since Calvin.[1] The sustained depth of penetration of the traditional loci of systematic theological discussion is coupled with the warmth of a theological reflection pursued in vital communion with the absolute, triune God through Spirit-gifted, faith-union with Christ. This renders it ideal for both seminary instruction and devotional reading.

On the one side, Vos’s work displays the proper, and it seems to me necessary, task of retrieving creedal doctrine in the preservation of Christian theology. On the other side, his work displays the proper, and it seems to me equally necessary, task of reforming that creedal doctrine in the formulation of a confessionally constructive, Reformed theology, tethered to its preceding creedal and confessional expressions, yet advancing organically beyond both, through biblical and systematic theological methods of interpreting the inerrant Scriptures. Vos not only expounds orthodox creedal theology in a faithful way, but, within the boundaries of confessionally Reformed theology, he advances that confessional theology with unparalleled insight. His work presents us with an orthodox, yet constructive, expression of the truth of the Scriptures that faithfully serves to instruct the church in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

To show the depth of Vos’s theological insight, I will focus on two sections of the Reformed Dogmatics that bring into view what, in Vos’s theology, is the proper relation between the absolute and unchanging triune Creator and an eschatologically oriented creation, focused specifically on man as the image of God.

Vos argues that creation is a “transitive act” that occurs “in time” (1:177). That transitive act must be set qualitatively and ontologically over against the absolute, triune God in whom, as the Creator, “no time distinction exists.” For this reason, creation does not occasion a change in God. Rather, creation expresses the willing agency of the absolute and unchanging, triune God, who remains absolute as the Creator in relation to the world. Vos, quoting Voetius, says, “Creation, actively considered, is not a real change because by it God is not changed by that act; it only requires a new relationship of the Creator to what is created. And this new relation, which is not real in God, can therefore not effect a real change in Him” (1:178). Thus, the absolute God remains absolute both behind (ad intra) and in (ad extra) the “new relation” brought to pass by God’s free act of creation. This is the substance of what we term a logical, but not real, change in the God-world relation. That there is no change in God as he creates—which is what the language of “no real change” is designed to safeguard—is a deeply creedal and confessional strand of orthodoxy. God freely wills a “new relation” that introduces no change in God as he wills that “new relation.” Hence, while not introducing change in God, either ad intra or ad extra, the absolute God freely wills a bona fide “new relation” in the act of creation, yet undergoes no change himself. Hence, God relates to the world as the absolute, triune Creator.

What, more precisely, can we say about the nature of that “new relation” into which God freely enters, while remaining absolute and triune? Put negatively, the “new relation” does not introduce into being a freely willed, contingently temporal, interactive feature somehow “in” God ad extra, yet not “in” God ad intra. Put positively, God remains immutably absolute and triune precisely in his relation to creation.[2]

This critical formulation provides the theological and creational backdrop for Vos’s discussion of the God-world relationship in general. Yet, at the same time, the discussion also provides the context for developing the approach of God to man, the image of God, that constitutes the religious essence of the “new relation” freely willed by the absolute Creator.

Vos amplifies this discussion under the topic of anthropology, specifically, man (male and female) created as the image of God. The religious and eschatological character of man as he is the image of God adds clarity to the nature of the “new relation” to creation willed by the absolute, triune Creator.

Vos quickly focuses this “new relation” when he says that, “In the idea that one forms of the image is reflected one’s idea of the religious state of man and of the essence of religion itself” (2:12). What, precisely, is the “essence of religion itself,” or “the religious state of man” on which true religion depends? Quite simply, it is that image bearers are created for “life in communion with God” (2:13). The image of God means, according to Vos, “above all that he is disposed for communion with God, that all the capacities of his soul can act in a way that corresponds to their destiny only if they rest in God” (2:13). That “destiny” is movement from life in communion with God in earthly Eden (innocency) to the consummation of that life in communion with God in heaven (glory). Intrinsic to the image of God, essential to its nature, is this dynamic, eschatologically oriented, communion bond that consists in life in fellowship with the absolute, triune God.

To make clear his “deeper Protestant conception” (2:13) about the religious and eschatological essence of man as the image of God, Vos makes explicit that Rome’s view cannot supply the theological categories that account for the religious and eschatological character of man as the image of God. In particular, Vos argues that Rome’s deficient understanding of the image of God, coupled with a weakened doctrine of original sin, conspire to render its theology incapable of offering to man the essence of religion in fellowship with God.[3]

Roman Catholic theology teaches: “Only by something that raises him above his created nature,” that is, by an additional, supernatural endowment, man is enabled to “become a religious being, able to love, to enjoy his God, and to live in Him” (2:12). Man is created in the image of God, yet that image does not in itself achieve a religious relationship that yields fellowship with God. Because man bears only similitude to God by nature as the image of God, and is not created in a fellowship bond as the image of God, the Roman Catholic view requires a divinely infused, additional grace, an “added gift” (donum superadditum) that confers “original righteousness” and enables fellowship with God. Vos says:

Out of this follows entirely the externalist character of Roman Catholic religion. It becomes something added to man, that he has but is not identified with him, does not enter into his essence. That man is like God in this natural sense is a purely deistic relationship. (2:13)

According to Vos, then, the essence of religion, which consists in fellowship with God, does not reside in the essence of man created as the image of God, as understood by Roman Catholic theology. The relationship between God and man, the image of God, remains an external relation that cannot achieve the eschatological end of the essence of religion, namely, a communion bond with God. Stating the matter by way of contrast, the ethical relation to God, according to Rome, is an externally added, accidental feature of human existence. According to the “deeper Protestant conception,” the ethical relation to God exists essentially as a fellowship bond and, as such, forms the deepest integral dimension of the image of God.

Moreover, the Roman Catholic view is not merely externalist in its theology of creation; it is defective in its theology of sin. A semi-Pelagian denial of total depravity, resting on its “weakened conception of original sin,” contributes to this externalist conception and precludes the Roman Catholic proposal from penetrating to the religious essence of man as the image of God (2:13). Elaborating, Vos says that in the Roman Catholic view,

man can only lose what was not essential to him, namely the supernaturally added gifts, the dona superaddita. Because of his fall, these are lost. The essence of man, the imago, consisting in formal existence as spirit, in the liberum arbitrium [freedom of the will], remained. Because, however, there was no inner connection between the similitudo and the imago, the removal of the former cannot essentially change the latter. The liberum arbitrium might be weakened a little; in reality it is unharmed. In other words, by loosening the moral powers from the will, from the capacity of the will, and by denying that the former are natural in man, Rome has in principle appropriated the Pelagian conception of the will as liberum arbitrium. That capacity of free will has remained, and with that the possibility that man, even after the fall, can do something good. (2:13)

Vos also offers what I think are incisive critiques of the implications of the fatal flaw of the Roman Catholic doctrine of sin in relation to the image of God (cf. 2:14). It is only the Reformed who affirm and develop the key insight that “the image of God and original righteousness are to be identified,” and this means that “life in communion with God belongs to the nature of man and can nowhere be excluded” (2:13). Thus, Vos summarizes:

According to our conception, our entire nature should not be free from God at any point; the nature of man must be worship from beginning to end. According to the deeper Protestant conception, the image does not exist only in correspondence with God but in being disposed toward God. (2:13)

The “deeper Protestant conception” is the reforming of an ancient, orthodox, creedal theology in the service of the ongoing reformation of Christ’s church—a service Rome’s theology cannot render.

Let me make a summarizing point in order to show the perennial value of Vos’s theological contribution. This “new relation” Vos delineates involves a religious approach from the absolute, triune God toward his image-bearing people. In this “religious” relation, man as the image of God is oriented to eschatological consummation in communion with God as he comes from the creative breath of God (Gen. 2:7), and as the terms of that consummation are stipulated by the positive, “special providential” revelation of God by way of covenant (Gen. 2:8–17). Put more globally, the absolute, triune creator-God, while remaining absolute in the “new relation” expressed by his creative act, dwells with his people, and they dwell with him, in the act of creation and in the voluntary condescension in special providence that constitutes the sacred bond of the covenant of works.

The events associated with Jesus’s incarnation are for Vos a purely remedial means to a creational and eschatological end. This is the logic of Paul’s appeal to Genesis 2:7 in 1 Corinthians 15:45, the subject of what is arguably the most penetrating footnote in Vos’s corpus.[4] The “natural body” in verse 44, which is correlated with the “image of the earthly” in verse 49, brings into view the image of God as it was oriented toward the eschatological goal of consummate fellowship with God. That “natural body” has reached its de facto realization in the “spiritual body” of the resurrected Christ (vv. 44–45), the man of heaven (v. 47), who bears an appropriately heavenly image (v. 49).

Therefore, the incarnation is not an ontological solution to an ontological problem in relating God to the world,[5] since God already relates to the world through creation wholly apart from incarnation, and God offers eschatological advancement to Adam wholly apart from the incarnation. Rather, the work of Christ, as the last Adam, is a remedial and redemptive means toward securing the original eschatological end of the image of God, which is confirmed communion with God in a heavenly estate of glory. That communion, due to the Fall, was not realized in glory by Adam under the covenant of works. Accordingly, it is only through remedial and redemptive intervention, centered on Christ, that the eschatological essence of religion is realized, first in the ascended Christ, and then in those united to him by the Spirit and through faith, the church (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20–23). Christ’s work is therefore redemptively eschatological; it is required only where there is a need to deliver a people from sin into eschatologically confirmed fellowship with God.

At the end of his publishing career, Vos, in the Pauline Eschatology, helps us grasp not only the orthodoxy already expressed in the Reformed Dogmatics, but the widening and deepening of those same insights as they are saturated by the theology of the Apostle Paul. He says:

Although in the abstract being self-sufficient as God, He has freely chosen to carry his concern with us to the extreme of eternal mutual appurtenance of which the creature is capable. Paul affirms both, on the one hand that God is the only immortal Being 1 Tim. 6:16 and, on the other hand, that He has appointed as the eschatological goal of religious fellowship with Himself, among other things, the prize of an incorruption, Rom. 2:7 such as is equivalent to eternal life … The biblical terminology does not in respect to believers employ, after the philosophic fashion, the word “immortality,” but chooses as a larger, deeper receptacle the term “life.” … Eschatology … becomes the profoundest and most practical of all thought-complexes [for the church] because they, like Paul, live and move and have their redemptively-religious treasures in God.[6]

Vos’s penetrating and unparalleled insight into that “deeper Protestant conception” is on grand display in both the Reformed Dogmatics, a systematic theological treatise, and in his Pauline Eschatology, a biblical theological treatise.

Endnotes

[1] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, trans. and ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., et al., 5 vols. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2014–2016). Also available through Logos Bible Software.

[2] Vos adds elsewhere that what holds for God’s relation to creation holds equally for all of God’s providential dealings with creation throughout history: “We must believe that all these deeds [in history] do not effect any change in God, since they do not require time in Him, although naturally their realization falls within time” (1:14).

[3] Vos has similarly penetrating insights about the deficiencies in Pelagian, Socinian, Lutheran, and Arminian views of the image of God as well (2:15).

[4] Regarding Paul’s use of Genesis 2:7, Vos writes, “The Apostle was intent on showing that in the plan of God from the outset provision was made for a higher kind of body . . . the abnormal body of sin and the eschatological body are not so logically correlated that the one can be postulated from the other. But the world of creation and the world to come are thus correlated, the one pointing forward to the other.” Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, (1930; repr. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1979), 169n19.

[5] Vos says, “Because we hold satisfaction to be a single historical fact and not a transition in the eternal development process of the Absolute, for that reason we have need of the genuine humanity of the Lord—and as a basis for that, an incarnation taking place at a particular point in space and time” (3:25).

[6] Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 293–94.

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