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Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical-Theological Beginnings

Danny E. Olinger

On September 2, 1891, at the start of the fall semester of his third year teaching at the Theological School in Grand Rapids, twenty-nine year-old Geerhardus Vos was named rector. To mark the occasion and to open the new school year, he delivered an address, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology.” In many ways the address was Vos’s coming-out party as a Reformed biblical theologian. Up to this point his only published book, The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes, had been polemical in nature. His PhD dissertation had focused on the textual criticism of a fifteenth-century Arabic document. His time in the classroom had been dominated by teaching Reformed dogmatics. The address allowed him to explore two contentions that would become hallmarks of his Reformed biblical-theological writings. In his judgment, the Reformed faith had understood correctly not only the religious end to which Scripture presses, but also that this religious end takes place in the framework of the covenant between God and man.

That Vos was thinking about the topic of the covenant and its place in Reformed theology prior to the address could be seen in his review of H. E. Gravemeijer’s Leesboek over de Gereformeerde geloofsleer (Reformed Doctrine Reader), which appeared in the inaugural issue of the Benjamin Warfield–edited Presbyterian and Reformed Review in 1890. Vos observed that while Gravemeijer believed federal or covenant theology was the pivot of the whole system of Reformed theology, nowhere did Gravemeijer in the 2,395 pages of his book provide a separate treatment of it. Rather, the different elements of covenant theology were scattered throughout the book in various loci and only referred to incidentally. Vos believed that “if once the federal idea be admitted, it can hardly be kept in such a subordinate position.”[1] He then added, “There are sound reasons for asserting that federalism is not that late and accidental accretion to the body of Reformed theology, which at the present day it is often pronounced to be.”[2]

The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology

In his address, Vos attempted to show how the doctrine of the covenant was not an “accidental accretion” to Reformed theology. In doing so, he believed that he was following the example of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which in his words, was “the first Reformed confession in which the doctrine of the covenant is not merely brought in from the side, but is placed in the foreground and has been able to penetrate at almost every point.”[3]

Further, Vos argued that the doctrine of the covenant was a peculiarly Reformed doctrine that distinguished the Reformed theology from other Protestant theologies, even its closest Reformation friend, Lutheranism. Although both the Reformed and Lutheran cast themselves upon Scripture, they had different starting points when approaching the Scripture. Lutheranism began from the standpoint of man and asked, “How can I be saved?” The Reformed began with the standpoint of God and asked, “How is God’s glory advanced?” This led the Reformed to emphasize the doctrine of the covenant and Lutheranism the doctrine of justification. The different starting points and emphases led to different views on what each believed was the condition of the covenant of grace. The Lutherans taught the only condition was faith. The Reformed believed the conditions of the covenant were faith and new obedience, which, according to Vos, was to say “that justification is by faith alone but that the covenant is much broader.”[4]

The Reformed stress upon the covenant and the Lutheran stress upon justification also led each to view the eschatological goal of man differently. Lutheranism believed that the final destination for man was the garden into which Adam had been placed prior to the fall into sin. Consequently, the work of Christ as the second Adam was to restore man to the position that man held before the fall into sin, a positon that was mutable. According to Vos, this was why Lutheran theology was consistent when it taught an apostasy of the saints.

The Reformed, however, believed the goal set before man was not a return to man’s mutable situation prior to the fall. The biblical goal was translation to a higher estate, an environment without sin and without the possibility of sin where full fellowship with God would take place.

Vos believed that because Reformed theology took hold of the Scriptures at the deepest root, the preeminence of the glory of God in all that has been created, it was in a better position than Lutheranism to work through the Scriptures. Vos summarized:

All other explanations of the difference between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions in the end again come down to this, that the former begins with man and the latter with God. God doesn’t exist because of man, but man because of God. This is what is written at the entrance of the temple of Reformed theology.[5]

Vos labelled this conviction the “Reformed principle.” He argued that when the Reformed principle was applied to man and his relationship to God, it broke into three parts. First, all of man’s work has to rest on an antecedent work of God. Second, in all of his works man has to show forth God’s image and be a means for the revelation of God’s virtues. And, third, the revelation of God’s virtues must proceed by way of understanding and will in a self-conscious manner and actively come to expression in one’s life.[6]

In the rest of the address, Vos sought to show that the requirements of the Reformed principle flowed from a proper recognition of the covenant of works, the covenant of redemption, and the covenant of grace.

The Covenant of Works and the Reformed Principle

In postulating that all of man’s work has to rest on an antecedent work of God, Vos defended the biblical validity of the covenant of works. An eternal and unchangeable future communing with God was put before man in the garden, and the means of obtaining this end was the covenant of works.

Lutheranism, devoid of a covenant of works in its system of theology, denied that a higher goal existed for man than life in Eden. But, in immediately placing man in the highest estate of bliss at creation, Lutheranism overlooked the requirement that man’s life-purpose and motivation must be the glory of God. Even less, Vos stated, did Lutheranism satisfy the requirement that man consciously seek to express the revelation of God’s virtues in life.

A proper understanding of the covenant of works allowed the Reformed to avoid these errors. The Reformed believed that the covenant of works posited for mankind something higher as a goal than the indirect and losable communion that took place in the garden between God and man. Vos wrote:

The Reformed view fixes its gaze on something higher. It sees man not as being placed in eternal bliss from the beginning, but as being placed in such a way that he might attain to eternal bliss. There still hovers above him the possibility of sin and death which is given with his mutable freedom. He is free to do the good out of his good nature, but he has not yet attained the highest freedom which can do good only. The latter is placed before him as an ideal. The means of obtaining it is the covenant of works.[7]

Vos believed the lack of appreciation for the covenant of works grew out of an instinctive aversion to the use of language that gave the impression that God would be in the debt of man. Vos explained this was not the case. “Out of the nothingness from which the Almighty called him into being the creature brought along no rights, least of all the right to an un-losable, eternal life.”[8] The Westminster Confession of Faith in a pointedly beautiful way explained that the covenant of works was more than the natural bond between God and man:

The distance between God and the creatures is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.[9]

After man’s fall into sin, the covenant of works was not set aside, but was incorporated into something higher, the covenant of grace. This is why the command “do this” is still valid, even if the command is not followed by “you shall live.” Thus, the participants in the covenant of grace “are exempt from the demand of the law as the condition for eternal blessedness, but not from its demand as being normative for their moral life.”[10] In his self-conscious, covenantal seeking after God and his virtues, man displays God’s image and meets the second and third requirements of the Reformed principle.

The Covenant of Redemption and the Reformed Principle

Vos maintained that if there was a covenant of works, there must furthermore be a covenant of redemption, also known as a counsel of peace. The work of redemption, which proceeded from God’s sovereign and eternal will, was executed in a covenantal way through Christ the Mediator. Christ’s work as Mediator was essential because “after the fall man will never again be able to work in a manner pleasing to God except a completed work of God be performed on his behalf. Earning eternal life has forever been taken out of his hands.”[11] Vos noted on this point “the entire Reformation, both Lutheran and Calvinist, took exception to Rome, which failed to appreciate this fundamental truth.”[12]

But, despite all the purity in which the doctrine of justification by faith alone was given back to the church anew, Lutheranism did not comprehend that a higher point remained, namely, that the heart of Abraham’s faith was in Abraham glorifying God (Rom. 4:20). But, what Lutheranism did not pick up upon, the Reformed did, argued Vos.

When the Reformed takes the obtaining of salvation completely out of man’s hands, he does this so that the glory which God gets from it might be uncurtailed. What is important for him is the realization that God glorifies Himself in the salvation of sinners.[13]

There was no gift that the believer enjoyed that Christ did not earn. Neither was there any gift to the believer from Christ that did not elevate God’s glory. When the believer grasps this by faith, the magnificent idea of grace begins to dominate his life. Vos finished, “In this way Reformed theology simply showed that here too it would be content with nothing but its one all-embracing slogan: the work of grace in the sinner as a mirror for the glory of God.”[14]

The Covenant of Grace and the Reformed Principle

Vos believed that if the work of salvation had a covenantal form at its roots, which it did, then the unfolding of that work in history was bound to proceed in a covenantal way. Christ, the anointed Mediator in the covenant of redemption, rules in the house of grace and gathers to himself his church through his Word and Spirit. Christ became guarantor precisely so that believers “might be presented as parties in the covenant and behave as such, so that there will be no imputation to them of His merits without re-creation in God’s image and glorification of God’s grace in the mirror of their mind and in the activity of their life.”[15]

Vos then enumerated four sub points under the Covenant of Grace.

1. On account of God’s accomplished work, the covenant of grace unfolds as the essence of the riches of the ordo salutis. “In response to the question how the salvation obtained by the Mediator is appropriated by the individual, the Reformed believer answers: In such a way that it best reveals the greatness and the glory of the triune God in the work of salvation.”[16]

The believer who knows that he owes all to God for his salvation is able to take in the glory of God and allow it to shine through him. This is possible with the Reformed position because it distinguished between the broader and narrower sense of the image of God in man. Even after the fall, man in the image of God can know God—although Vos quickly added after this exposition, “The purpose here is not to ascribe any good to fallen man.”[17]

After the covenant of works was broken, God kept its memory alive holding up the ideal of eternal life to be obtained by keeping the law, even though it was a lost ideal. This is why the older Reformed theologians did not always clearly distinguish between the covenant of works and the Sinaitic covenant. “At Sinai it was not the ‘bare’ law that was given, but a reflection of the covenant of works revived, as it were, in the interests of the covenant of grace continued at Sinai.”[18]

2. The essence of the covenant, by which it becomes a power in the life of the believer, is a fresh, living fellowship in which the power of grace is operative. By faith, the Christian knows “he is a member of the covenant, and that faith has a wide outlook, a comprehensive character, which not only points to justification but also to all the benefits which are his in Christ.”[19]

This again led Vos to contrast Reformed and Lutheran theology. In Lutheranism, the Holy Spirit first generates faith in the sinner, then justification follows faith, and only then does mystical union with Christ take place. The Reformed outlook is the reverse.

One is first united to Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, by a mystical union, which finds its conscious recognition in faith. By this union with Christ all that is in Christ is simultaneously given. Faith embraces all this too; it not only grasps the instantaneous justification, but lays hold of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King, as his rich and full Messiah.[20]

The difference between the Lutheran embracing of Christ for justification and the Reformed embracing of Christ for justification and sanctification was the difference between the life of a child and that of an adult. “The Lutheran lives as a child who enjoys his father’s smile for the moment; the Reformed believer lives as a man, in whose consciousness the eternal glory of God throws its radiance.”[21]

3. The covenant of grace, as far as adult members are concerned, presupposes acceptance and personal appropriation of its contents on the basis of the election grace of God. This does not mean that the covenant administration proceeds from election nor that all non-elect stand outside any administration of the covenant. The essence of the covenant, fellowship with the living God, is found only in the true children of God and is therefore no more extensive than election.

There is also a covenantal obligation in the state of grace. Lutherans were ever fearful that the Reformed had come near to Rome with the belief that new life obtained by Christ must be brought to action and development in the life of the believer. This fear was unfounded, for it was Christ working in his members which produced the fruits of gratitude. Christ, the anointed King, cannot be quiet and inactive in those who belong to him. This reality explains the church’s missionary zeal. Christianity is a restless, recreating principle that never seeks to withdraw from the world, but strives for its own completion.

4. With respect to children there is the expectation that covenant children will enter into the fellowship of the covenant. “This expectation is based on the promise of God to believers that he desires to be their God and the God of their seed and that He also desires to continue His covenant in their seed and to make it a living reality.”[22]

Precursor to Reformed Biblical Theology

Twenty-five years after Vos delivered “Doctrine of the Covenant,” he returned to a consideration of the place of the doctrine of the covenant within the Reformed faith at the conclusion of his article, “Hebrews, The Epistle of the Diatheke.”[23] There Vos made clear what he inferred with his argumentation in “Doctrine of the Covenant”; he considered the Reformed doctrine of the covenant the precursor to the discipline of Reformed biblical theology.

In building to that conclusion, Vos said that in both the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Reformed faith the covenant-idea communicated the highest possibilities of religion. This did not mean that Hebrews and Reformed theology shared the same label on the bottle, but both shared the same wine. The covenant theology, or philosophy of history, that shaped Hebrews was faithfully incorporated in Reformed theology. He then listed four places in which this connection was evident.

1. Reformed theology recognizes the sovereignty of God in the whole process of religion and redemption, which is found in the comprehensive system of the covenant. Here Vos openly borrowed from what he wrote in “Doctrine of the Covenant” regarding the “Reformed principle.” He said, “A deep impression of the divine majesty colors all intercourse with Him. For in Him are all things and through Him are all things. The creature exists for His sake.”[24] This consciousness of accountability to the sovereign God has always characterized the Reformed faith, even to the point that it has been charged with legalism. But, legalism, which lacks the supreme sense of worship (“it obeys but it does not adore”) is far removed from the Reformed faith with its sounding of adoration for God in belief and life.

2. Reformed theology stresses the spiritual intimacy of covenant fellowship between God and believers. The wonder of salvation is that the God who dwells in the high and holy place comes near to the humble heart and the contrite spirit.

For this reason the ultimate root of every believer’s relation to God lies in the most intimate and individual act of election, an act wherein the love of God consciously chooses and sets up over against itself a human spirit to be bound to God in the bonds of everlasting friendship.[25]

3. Reformed theology ascribes to the Christian life a unique degree of devotion to the glory of God. Again, Vos reworked what he argued previously about the “Reformed principle” in “Doctrine of the Covenant.” He said:

The believer does not merely desire to have intercourse with God, but specifically to make this intercourse subservient to glorifying God. Hence on the one hand the high place which the direct worship of God holds in the exercise of the religious function, on the other hand the consistent effort to organize the whole of life on the principle of a comprehensive service of God, the religious impulse imparting to every human activity and achievement that spirit by which they are made to rebound to the honoring of God’s name.[26]

4. Reformed theology upholds the absolute truthfulness of Scripture. In this regard, the Reformed faith was the least pragmatic of all forms of Christian teaching, even though “it has from the beginning shown itself possessed of a true historic sense in the apprehension of the progressive character of the deliverance of truth.”[27] Vos concluded, “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.”[28]

Election, Covenant, and Baptism

While “Doctrine of the Covenant” allowed Vos to explore what would become core beliefs of his Reformed biblical theology, there could be little doubt that the concluding remarks in the address on the relationship of election and the covenant were an answer to his main critic, L. J. Hulst, editor of De Wachter. Starting in February of that year, Hulst had attacked Vos in print for not endorsing infralapsarianism, which Hulst believed was the position of the Canons of Dordt. Apparently Vos’s comments struck a nerve in Hulst. On the day after the address, Hulst submitted an official protest about Vos to the Curatorium of the Theological School. In the protest, he argued that Vos had strayed from the confessional standards of the Christian Reformed Church in teaching supralapsarianism to the students.[29]

Canadian Reformed theologian Jelle Faber in his book American Secession Theologians on Covenant and Baptism detailed the dispute from Hulst’s perspective. According to Faber, Hulst could not reconcile God’s election and God’s covenant of redemption as eternal decrees with the execution of God’s covenant as a relation established in time. Hulst concluded that understanding the connection between election and covenant belonged to the secret things of the Lord. He stated, “When I saw this clearly, I abandoned that speculative idea of a covenant of grace from eternity and I descended to the covenant that God has established with Abraham and his descendants, Genesis 17. This is the covenant to which the entire Bible refers.”[30]

When Vos stressed the centrality of the covenant of redemption in the plan of salvation, Hulst believed that he was advocating a speculative position that could not be supported from Scripture. But, just as objectionable was when Vos spoke of two sides of the covenant, one forensic and the other relational. The forensic or judicial agreement was seen as being under the covenant, and the relational or fellowship of life was seen as being in the covenant. Faber wrote of Vos’s division, “The purpose of the forensic agreement is the transition into the fellowship of life. Being under the covenant is meant to lead to life in the covenant. Where the fellowship of life is absent, there the essence of the covenant is absent.”[31]

Faber, supporting Hulst, believed this distinction denied the teaching of the Canons of Dordt regarding the baptism and salvation of the infants of believers. He said, “When Geerhardus Vos thus restricts the being in the covenant to the elect only, he does not do full justice to the confessional expressions of Lord’s Day 27 and of the Canons of Dordt I, 17.”[32]

Whereas Faber sided with Hulst, Charles Dennison sided with Vos. Dennison argued that Vos’s distinction was helpful in answering what had become a perennial question in the Christian Reformed Church of the late nineteenth century, the relationship between membership in the covenant and divine election. On the one hand, membership in the covenant of grace was limited to the elect since only the elect can enjoy true communion with God. On the other hand, membership in the covenant of grace included more than the elect as many members of the covenant never arrive at true communion with God. Could these two positions be reconciled? Dennison wrote:

To resolve this difficulty Vos says we must speak on biblical grounds of the covenant as a “legal relationship.” Here the emphasis is upon what ought to be. But we must also speak of covenant as “living fellowship” and not of what ought to be, but of what actually is. Only those who truly believe are in the covenant in the latter sense. However, all born into the covenant of believing parents are under the covenant and can be said to be in the covenant.[33]

Dennison explained that Vos’s distinction between the legal and the essential threw light upon two different questions that were being asked. If asked, when looking at the legal relationship aspect of the covenant, “of whom can it be expected that they live the covenant life?”, the answer is believers (all who have professed the faith) and their children. If asked, when looking at the essential side of the covenant, “in whom has this legal relationship become a living fellowship?”, the answer is the regenerate, those who have faith and are living for God. Dennison concluded, “The covenant relationship into which a child of believers is born is the image and likeness of the covenant fellowship in which he is later expected to live.”[34]

Princeton Seminary’s Pursuit

The more that Hulst accused Vos of doctrinal error, the more Vos began to consider teaching at another school.[35] Vos expressed his frustration over the situation to Herman Bavinck. He said, “Those who have thrown this matter of discord in our small church are as absolutistic as possible. There is only one Reformed opinion and that is theirs. They push the matter through and seem to have in mind that our church will put an end to the issue.”[36] Vos added:

In this matter, my position is not pleasant. I am not a fanatic, and will gladly concede as much as I can, but here I surely cannot. As I wrote you, I cannot agree with Dr. Kuyper in everything. But it seems to me that he is criticized for the good Reformed views in his presentation.[37]

Vos then revealed that he was more and more coming to the conclusion that he could not stay on teaching in Grand Rapids. “More than once I have been approached concerning how I feel about accepting a chair in a seminary of the Presbyterian Church. Lately I like the idea more than before.” Vos quickly added that he would rather labor at Kampen, but that two things pleaded against that option, his parents living in America and the charm of American life.[38]

The seminary of the Presbyterian Church that was pursuing Vos as a teacher was Princeton Seminary. Vos’s old mentor, William Henry Green, served as the school’s main recruiter of Vos’s services. Green was eager to have Vos join the orthodox fight against liberal theology as represented by Charles A. Briggs of Union Seminary in New York. On February 23, 1892, Princeton issued a formal call to Vos inviting him to accept its new chair in biblical theology.[39] Green followed up the invite with three consecutive letters to Vos on March 17, 18, and 19, 1892, which urged Vos to accept the offer and come to Princeton.

In Green’s opinion Vos’s laboring in Grand Rapids was not the greatest use of the talents that God had given him. He told Vos that it was the equivalent of a talented engineer at work on a small job in the interior when his skill was needed on the coast to save the whole country from flooding from a break in the dykes. Those living in the flooded area besiege the engineer, begging him to come because there is no one to stop the river from devastating the entire region. But the man continues to decline. Green then asked, “Does he do right? Is a man at liberty to decline a public duty in a time of general peril, however willing he may be to remain in obscurity and whatever local value may attach to his less conspicuous labour?”[40] He then addressed Vos directly.

My dear Dr. Vos, this may be the turning point of your whole life, on which your entire future may hinge, and the service you can render to the cause of Christ. Remember that the master, under whose orders you serve, rules the whole field of battle, and not one corner of it merely. Is he not calling you to a point where you can do his work more effectively, and where there is a more pressing need than where you are now?[41]

In his last letter to Vos, Green elaborated on the situation at Princeton and the important part it played in the conflict that was developing over the theological soul of the Presbyterian Church. He explained that four vacant professorships needed to be filled at the seminary, and not just anyone would do. The Presbyterian Church was engaged in a theological battle due to the rising tide of rationalism in the church. If Princeton brought in incompetent men, the consequences for sound conservative theology would be disastrous. Pleadingly, Green wrote:

If it were not for the present theological crisis and the position which Princeton holds before the church, the case would be very different. If it was the mere question of the temporary prosperity or abasement of the Seminary—and other seminaries more prosperous would do Princeton’s work, the case would be different. But as matters stand, if Princeton goes down, the cause of orthodox theology and evangelical religion will receive a heavy blow. This is the reason that such grave issues hang upon your decision and that we cannot regard the possibility of your adhering to your declinature with any equanimity.[42]

Green urged Vos to come to Princeton in person and to allow the faculty verbally to express the importance of his accepting. In his closing sentence, he again returned to the central contention of the letter, “You will inflict, I fear an incalculable and irreparable injury on the cause which is dear to your heart, if you insist on declining.”[43]

Unbeknownst to Green as he was writing Vos, the Curatorium at the Theological School had called an emergency meeting the week before on March 11. Having been informed of the Princeton call, they made clear to Vos that they would do all within their power to retain him. Vos’s father, Jan, a member of the Curatorium, wanted his son to stay for more than the theological education of the students. Jan Vos also wanted his family to stay together in Grand Rapids.[44]

In his March 18 letter to Warfield, Vos indicated that he had been living in suspense after receiving Princeton’s offer, but lamented that he had to turn it down. Although his personal desire was to be at Princeton, Vos did not believe that the situation allowed him any other decision. In his opinion, the students at the Theological School were starting to show some promise. If he were to leave, that advancement might soon disappear, and the blow to the seminary might prove fatal. Vos also considered it important to preserve among the Dutch the old Calvinist faith. He wrote:

Though shrinking from the many unpleasant features of this work, I do not feel at liberty before God to abandon it. Before I received the call, I was also fully aware of this, but it is sometimes necessary to be placed before a definite choice in order to see one’s duty clearly pointed out. Though feeling sad, I know that I could not act otherwise.[45]

Vos hoped that his decision had not disappointed Warfield to the extent that he might lose his brotherly love and counsel, which had become a comfort to him. He closed positively, “I do believe, if we are found faithful, that better days are still in store for the Calvinism, which you and we love, and which, each in our own sphere, we try to uphold and restore.”[46] Given how much Vos internally debated the offer, and in all probability relying on the counsel of Green and Warfield, Princeton wisely kept the call open ended even after Vos declined.

Around the same time that Vos was turning down Princeton, Bavinck inquired if Vos might entertain the possibility of joining him on the faculty at the Theological School in Kampen. Even though Vos was not inclined to go to Kampen, his friendship with Bavinck was evident when Bavinck visited America that summer. Bavinck stayed three weeks with Vos and his family in Grand Rapids. When Christian Reformed members celebrated Bavinck’s presence with a banquet for him at the Macatawa resort hotel located on Lake Michigan, Vos wrote a poem in honor of his friend.[47]

While the visiting Bavinck might have been honored with the banquet, Vos was at the height of his popularity at that time. When Vos’s decision to remain at the Theological School was announced, the student body rejoiced with pride that Vos was still their teacher, even presenting him a gold watch for staying.[48] The words of Henry Beets reflected the prevailing attitude in Grand Rapids about Vos.

We have a splendid professor in Dr. Vos. He is a Calvinist of the most pronounced type and a supralapsarian at that … He is a young man of thirty and as kind and obliging and humble as I never saw a man before. And what a treasure of knowledge he may call his own! I suppose you know that he is a close friend of your old professor Dr. Steffens and also to the Drs. Bavinck, Kuyper, Warfield.[49]

Vos was also extremely popular as a preacher in Grand Rapids at that time. Jacob Vanden Bosch observed:

Whenever (Vos) preached, he addressed audiences that filled every seat. He did not carry his hearers away with his eloquence, nor did he present truth so simply that the people always understood him. But he was Dr. Vos: that was enough. He was indeed a unique figure among us. Perhaps never again did like response greet him.[50]

In the Report of the Superintendent of Public Education in the State of Michigan regarding the Theological School for the 1892 school year, Vos was singled out for praise. The report read, “Dr. Vos, one of the professors, is of national celebrity[51] and has recently declined a professorship at Princeton, N.J., Theological Seminary, preferring to labor in the interest of his own seminary at Grand Rapids.”[52]

Jan Vos and Abraham Kuyper

At the same time that Vos was considering where his future rested, he continued in his efforts to introduce Kuyper to the English-speaking Reformed world. In a review of Kuyper’s De verflauwing der grenzen (The Fading of the Boundaries), Vos agreed with Kuyper’s contention that Christianity is in itself a protest against all naturalism and evolution. Pantheism attempts to silence this protest by removing the supernatural element from Christianity, but Christ is the miracle with his birth at Bethlehem.

Kuyper rejected an apologetic method to combat this naturalistic influence because not even the most eloquent pleading could save Christians in a court where reason is party and judge at the same time. God prescribes the true method of resistance in his Word, the separation that exists between believers and the world. Both explaining and defending Kuyper’s position, Vos wrote, “We should not spend our force in fruitless skirmishing; but retreat behind our defenses, and create for ourselves a new sphere of life, in which all lines drawn by God are respected.”[53] Vos emphasized with Kuyper that such a stance did not mean there were spheres of life from which Christians should withdraw.

While Vos’s Kuyper review was appearing in the Presbyterian and Reformed Review, Vos’s parents and sister were headed over to the Netherlands to attend the Synod of Dordrecht, where Kuyper’s influence loomed large.[54] The previous summer at the Synod of Amsterdam, Kuyper’s six-year old Doleantie and the fifty-eight year old Afscheiding united and adopted the name The Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (De Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland). At the conclusion of the Amsterdam synod, Kuyper was appointed to serve as a deputy to invite other Reformed churches to send delegates to the next year’s synod at Dordrecht in order to acquaint them with the union that had taken place. When the Christian Reformed Church Synod in North America received the invitation, they voted to send Jan Vos as their representative.

At the Synod itself, the Reformed Church in America representatives, Nicholas Steffens, then professor at Hope College, and Rense Joldersma, spoke first. Their comments were warmly received. Jan Vos followed, and his remarks on behalf of the Christian Reformed Church in North America created a controversy. In his speech, he praised God that the union had taken place according to the Word of God. He also let the body know that prayer was being offered daily for The Reformed Churches of the Netherlands at the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North American which was meeting at the same time in Grand Rapids. What drew the mixed reaction were his comments concerning the Masonic Lodge issue in America.[55] The Christian Reformed Church had taken a stand against Lodge membership, banning it in 1867. The Reformed Church in America was more lenient and allowed Lodge membership. Jan Vos believed The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands should support the Christian Reformed Church in its stand against Lodge membership. Kuyper, who generally sought a mediating position on the Lodge issue, thought the remarks of Jan Vos were irresponsible. [56]

Change of Mind

Geerhardus Vos’s decision to stay in Grand Rapids did not remove the tension that existed between him and L. J. Hulst. At the June 15, 1892, meeting of the Curatorium, Vos suggested that perhaps it would be better for a different professor to teach dogmatics at the Theological School. The Curatorium responded with a unanimous vote to have Vos remain as the teacher in dogmatics. Shortly after receiving notice of the Curatorium’s vote to have him remain, Vos renounced his loyalty to the King of the Netherlands and became a citizen of the United States on July 5, 1892.[57]

 Whether it was the result of Green’s pleading, the worsening of the situation at Grand Rapids, or some other consideration, by the next Spring Vos had changed his mind about accepting the Princeton offer. When the Curatorium heard about Vos’s reversal and willingness to accept the Princeton offer, it met in special session on April 11, 1893. Despite the Curatorium’s promise at that meeting to remove anything that might cause Vos a problem at the school, a strong possibility existed that the decision to leave Grand Rapids was more than theological. Nicholas Steffens had previously written to Abraham Kuyper in regard to Vos’s teaching at the Free University of Amsterdam, “I would like to send you Dr. Vos, if I had the power to do so. But as long as his parents live and he is unmarried. I don’t think he will leave …”[58]

What changed was that Vos met Catherine Smith and wanted to marry her. Although a pious young lady and devout Christian, she had two strikes against her living in Grand Rapids. The first strike was that she was a Methodist from Lima, Ohio. The second strike was that she was not Dutch. Vos had not met her at one of the Reformed churches in Grand Rapids. Rather, they became acquainted at the local library where she served as the librarian. Going to Princeton would allow Vos to marry the non-Dutch speaking Catherine and to raise a family outside the provincialism of Grand Rapids. Vos informed Princeton prior to its graduation day on May 10 that he would accept the call.[59]

Endnotes

[1] Geerhardus Vos, Review of Leesboek over de Gereformeerde geloofsleer, by H. E. Gravemeijer. Presbyterian and Reformed Review vol. 1 (1890): 148.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Geerhardus Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 239.

[4] Ibid., 234, n1.

[5] Ibid., 242.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 243. Vos also explained here that Christ’s work as the second Adam was not restricted to restoring what was lost in the first Adam. Rather, what is inherited in the second Adam is the full realization of what the first Adam would have achieved for his posterity if he had remained unfallen and confirmed in his state.

[8] Ibid., 244.

[9] WCF 7.1.

[10] Vos, “Doctrine of the Covenant,” 244.

[11] Ibid., 246.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 247.

[14] Ibid., 248.

[15] Ibid., 253.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 254. Vos believed that this helped to explain why the use of the law differed in Reformed and Lutheran practice. Theoretically, both the Reformed and Lutheran agreed to the threefold use of the law, usus politicus, usus elenchticus, usus normativus, but Lutherans scarcely allowed a place for the law (as the Reformed did) before the fall into sin. Consequently, Lutherans related the third use of the law to the remnants of the old nature of the believer; the Reformed related it to the new man. That is to say that the Reformed also viewed the law as a positive rule of life, which is why “in the Reformed churches the law is read every Sunday, a usage with which Lutherans apparently are not familiar.” Ibid., 255 n9.

[18] Ibid., 255.

[19] Ibid., 256.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 257.

[22] Ibid., 262.

[23] Geerhardus Vos, “Hebrews, The Epistle of the Diatheke,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980). Gaffin’s astute placement of “Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke” immediately prior to “Doctrine of the Covenant” reflected the close relationship between the two articles.

[24] Ibid., 231.

[25] Ibid., 232.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid. Vos also made the connection between the covenant and biblical theology in his July 3, 1893, letter to Herman Bavinck, which will be considered in the next chapter under the heading of Vos’s teaching of Reformed biblical theology at Princeton.

[29] See, James T. Dennison Jr., “The Life of Geerhardus Vos,” in James T. Dennison Jr., ed., The Letters of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 29.

[30] Jelle Faber, American Secession Theologians on Covenant and Baptism (Pella, Iowa: Inheritance), 30.

[31] Ibid., 32.

[32] Ibid. “Article 17: The Salvation of the Infants of Believers,” reads, “Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.”

[33] Charles G. Dennison, “The Life of Vos,” unpublished manuscript in the Archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Henry Beets expressed the general consensus regarding Vos’s departure from the Theological School when he wrote, “Apparently Dr. Vos’s decision to leave our School was taken under the influence of Hulst’s opposition.” See, Henry Beets, “Rev. L. J. Hulst, A Man of Note,” in The Banner no. 57 (August 31, 1922): 533.

[36] Geerhardus Vos to Herman Bavinck, June 30, 1891, in Dennison, Letters, 158.

[37] Ibid., 159.

[38] Ibid.

[39] New York Times, February 24, 1892, p. 8.

[40] Letter, William H. Green to Geerhardus Vos, March 18, 1892, in Dennison, Letters, 30.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Letter, William H. Green to Geerhardus Vos, March 19, 1892, in Dennison, Letters, 31.

[43] Ibid., 32.

[44] Statement of Vos’s daughter, Marianne Radius, to James T. Dennison Jr. on July 30, 1994. See, Dennison, Letters, 32.

[45] Letter, “Geerhardus Vos to Benjamin Warfield,” March 18, 1892, in Dennison, Letters, 170.

[46] Ibid., 170.

[47] George Harinck, “The Poetry of Theologian Geerhardus Vos,” in Dutch-American Arts and Letters in Historical Perspective, ed. Robert P. Swierenga, Jacob E. Nyenhuis, Nella Kennedy (Holland, MI: Van Raalte, 2008), 75.

[48] Dennison, “Life of Vos,” in Letters, 32.

[49] Letter, Henry Beets to Dirk Scholten, February 6, 1893, in George Harinck, “Geerhardus Vos as an Introducer of Kuyper in America,” in The Dutch-American Experience: Essays in Honor of Robert P. Swierenga, ed. Hans Krabbendam and Larry J. Wagenaar (Amsterdam: VU Uitgeverij, 2000), 260.

[50] Jacob G. Vanden Bosch, “Geerhardus Vos,” Reformed Journal, November 1954: 12.

[51] The reference to Vos being a “national celebrity” was probably connected to more than just Vos’s declining the offer to Princeton Seminary. It is safe to assume that Vos had already been informed that Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, determined to award him an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity in light of his outstanding service in the field of theological studies. Vos received the honorary degree in 1893 from Lafayette, which was second only to Princeton University at the time in sending its graduates to attend Princeton Seminary.

[52] “Theological School of the Holland Christian Reformed Church,” in Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction by the Michigan Department of Public Instruction, page 47. Fifty-Seventh Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of Michigan with Accompanying Documents for the Year 1893 (Lansing, MI: Robert Smith, 1894).

[53] Geerhardus Vos, Review of De verflauwing der grenzen, by Abraham Kuyper, Presbyterian and Reformed Review, vol. 4 (1893): 432.

[54] In his July 3, 1893, letter to Herman Bavinck, Vos wrote, “For sometime now my brother and I have been keeping house alone. My parents and sister are en route to the Netherlands. Father is a delegate of the church here to your Synod.” See, Dennison, Letters, 174–75.

[55] For a history of the controversy, see, Elton J. Bruins, “The Masonic Controversy in Holland, Michigan, 1879–1892,” in Perspectives on the Christian Reformed Church, ed. Peter De Klerk and Richard R. De Ridder (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 53–71.

[56] See, Charles G. Dennison, “Geerhardus Vos and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church,” in History for a Pilgrim People, ed. Danny E. Olinger and David K. Thompson (Willow Grove, PA: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 2002), 79.

[57] Dennison, Letters, 32.

[58] Letter, Nicholas Steffens to Abraham Kuyper, April 25, 1891, in Harinck, “Vos as Introducer of Kuyper,”  260.

[59] Princeton Seminary Graduation notice, May 9, 1893.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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