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Geerhardus Vos: New Beginnings at Princeton

Danny E. Olinger

On July 3, 1893, Geerhardus Vos wrote Herman Bavinck about his decision to accept Princeton Seminary’s offer to join their faculty. Vos told Bavinck that he was sorry to leave the Theological School in Grand Rapids, but he did not see a future at the school due to the poor academic level of the students.[1]

Vos was not alone in his judgment regarding the academic standing of the Theological School. J. Van der Mey described the educational deficiencies of the Theological School to Abraham Kuyper. He wrote, “The education under Prof. Boer and Hemkes was in every sense poor. After the graduates became ministers, they felt the lack of sound knowledge, and when they entered their congregations, they tried to improve themselves through continued study.”[2] Van der Mey then credited Vos’s efforts in trying to raise the standards at the school and to introduce the students to the teaching of Kuyper himself. Van der May said, “Those who were educated by Geerhardus Vos have come to your side as a consequence of the powerful training they enjoyed under Dr. Vos.”f[3]

For Vos personally, his five years of teaching at the Theological School had been a great training ground. Spending twenty-three to twenty-five hours a week lecturing helped develop his pedagogical style. He had also produced a hand-written, five-volume Reformed Dogmatics and a Hellenistic Greek Grammar.[4]

But, a price had been paid in laboring so hard. His health suffered from the work load. As he constantly found himself needing to prepare for his classes, he corresponded less and less with his friends. Henry Dosker, professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, reflected the common opinion when he told Bavinck in early 1893 that he had “heard nothing from Vos. He is dry-as-dust and seems to become a bookworm more and more.”[5]

What Dosker perhaps did not realize was that Vos had more than one motive for turning into a “bookworm.” Given the inadequacy of the Theological School’s library, which held less than one thousand volumes, Vos often found himself at the Grand Rapids Public Library after the school day had ended. Whether it was through the constant repetition of his checking out books, we do not know, but a friendship developed between Vos and the librarian at the circulation desk, Catherine Smith.

Catherine Smith

Catherine was born on August 11, 1865, in a small village near Lima, Ohio, to Henry and Mary Ann Smith. Henry Smith was a school teacher and the family lived for the most part in and around Chicago. After Henry died of tuberculosis in 1880, Mary Ann moved Catherine and her two younger sisters to Grand Rapids. Fifteen-year-old Catherine started attending the South Congregational Church of Grand Rapids and joined as a member in June 1880.[6] She then attended Grand Rapids High School and graduated with high honors. Bernardus Vos later testified to his mother’s academic ability. He possessed her high school geometry notebook “done with ruler, compass and drawing pen, every line perfect, no mistakes in the entire notebook.”[7]

In 1886 Catherine was hired as an elementary school teacher at the Madison Avenue School in Grand Rapids. Six years later, she started working as a librarian at the Grand Rapids Public Library. According to Bernardus Vos, this is where his parents met.My father met my mother in an unusual way. After his return to Grand Rapids from Strassburg in 1888 he became a member of the faculty of [the Theological School in Grand Rapids]. In the years that followed he frequently was found in the Grand Rapids Public Library. My mother was at the time doing volunteer work at the circulation desk of the library, and this how they met.[8]

That Geerhardus struck up a friendship with Catherine and wanted to marry her had to be a surprise to his parents. Catherine was neither Dutch nor a member of the Christian Reformed Church. Marianne Vos Radius believed that “there was perhaps a slight disappointment” for her grandparents that her father had fallen for her mother. “They fell in love, but his parents were never happy about an English girl who couldn’t speak Dutch and who was a Methodist. She became a very good Presbyterian and insisted on us learning the Shorter Catechism, but she didn’t know Dutch.”[9]

The language issue was a particular hardship in the relationship between Catherine and her future mother-in-law Aaltje Vos. Marianne commented, “My grandmother spoke only Dutch; she never learned to speak English. My mother never learned to speak Dutch. There was never any communication between them at all. My grandfather was a sweeter person than my grandmother was.”[10]

There was also the question of just how well Geerhardus and Catherine knew each other before he headed off to Princeton without her in September 1893. Bernardus Vos, somewhat embarrassingly, noted that just a few months before his parents’ wedding on September 7, 1894, his father seemed “at that time to have been unaware that my mother’s first name was properly spelled ‘Catherine.’” The reason for Bernardus’s conjecture was due to “Katharine F. Smith” appearing in his father’s own handwriting on his father’s copy of his May 8, 1894, Inaugural Address.”[11]

Plans on Teaching Reformed Biblical Theology

With the move to Princeton, Vos had some free time to develop his classes. Unlike the twenty-three to twenty-five hours per week he spent lecturing at the Theological School, his initial workload at Princeton was a mere four hours a week of classroom instruction.[12] With the extra time, Vos wrote three letters to Herman Bavinck spelling out his plans for teaching Reformed biblical theology.

In his first letter to Bavinck, Vos told his friend that he had reflected long on what his approach in the classroom towards biblical theology should be. He wanted to 1) do justice to the unity and the historical development of revelation; 2) do justice to the theoretical and practical character of revelation; and 3) deduce the principle of how to deal with the subject from the Scriptures. He then told Bavinck, “I have come to the conclusion that the covenant idea fulfills the requirements the best of all and so I think I will start from that. At the same time I remain grounded on Reformed theology.”[13]

Vos realized that not all in the Reformed camp were as positive on the relationship between the Reformed faith and covenant theology. “When Dr. Kuyper says that Cocceius, by bringing the covenant idea itself into prominence, already inflicted losses on the claims of Reformed principles, I cannot go along with that view.”[14]

After the brief comment about his disagreement with Kuyper, Vos returned to three more elements that he saw as essential to the teaching of Reformed biblical theology; 1) Revelation reflected the relationship between the archetypical covenant in eternity, which is absolute and unchangeable, and the covenant gifts that historically follow; 2) The covenant idea contained word and deed revelation; 3) The covenant idea shows that development proceeds in an organic manner in Scripture. Vos finished, “You can sense how I think about all this in rough outline. Therefore I would greatly appreciate your opinion. The circumstances have just inspired my interest in the covenant idea. I would like to view it, as earlier dogmatic, now also historical.”[15]

After the semester had started, Vos made sure that Bavinck had not misunderstood him. He wrote:Naturally it was not my intention to take the covenant idea as a guiding principle in Biblical Theology to the exclusion of Revelation. It also gives the latter priority. Biblical Theology is for me History of Revelation. But beneath that I place the covenant concept, because God has revealed himself in the covenant.[16]

In February 1894 Vos expressed his final thoughts to Bavinck on how he wanted to teach biblical theology. He repeated his contention from the previous letter that he wanted to treat biblical theology as the history of revelation. He knew that such an approach would be a departure from the traditional way in which biblical theology was taught. Most followed “the well-known path of Oehler in starting with the doctrine of God in the Mosaic period and then moving to the doctrine of man.”[17] Vos wanted to start with what he believed stood central to revelation, the doctrine of the covenant. By starting with the doctrine of the covenant, he explained to Bavinck, there would be the added benefit of showing the students that doctrine and history are inseparable in Scripture.

During the same period when Vos was writing Bavinck, Vos also expressed his view of the relationship of biblical theology to historic doctrine and Scripture when he reviewed E.H. van Leeuwen’s Prolegomena van Bijbelsche Godgeleerdheid (Prolegomena of Biblical Theology) in the Presbyterian and Reformed Review. Vos declared that biblical theology should “attempt to show how the church, being guided by the Spirit, in its historical development of the truth has remained in closer contact with the Word than have the critical theories of the present day.”[18] He concluded, “On our estimate of the Scriptures, and more particularly on our estimate of their inspiration, the right of Biblical Theology to form a separate science depends.”[19]

The combination of what Vos wrote to Bavinck and his review of van Leeuwen’s Prolegomena previewed in miniature many of the themes Vos was going to emphasize in teaching Reformed biblical theology at Princeton.

  1. Biblical theology is the history of special revelation.
  2. Biblical theology rightly conceived cannot operate outside of an orthodox view of Scripture.
  3. Biblical theology recognizes that Scripture has the right to determine its own method of approach.
  4. Biblical theology understands that special revelation is historical; justice must be done to both its unity and diversity.
  5. Biblical theology understands that special revelation is organic; the older contains the seeds of the newer.
  6. Biblical theology does not separate redemptive deed and revelatory word; revelation interprets redemption.
  7. Biblical theology does not separate the theoretical and practical character of special revelation.
  8. Biblical theology is covenantal.

What Vos did not include in either the letters to Bavinck or the review was that biblical theology was eschatological—a view that would inform his teaching at Princeton. As shown in his 1891 address, “The Reformed Doctrine of the Covenant,” Vos had already come to the conviction that the Scripture taught a particular philosophy of history. Namely, that the goal put before man at the creation, full communion with the living God forever, forfeited in Adam’s sin, had been achieved for believers through the person and work of the second Adam, Jesus Christ. At Princeton, he would add to this the belief that Scripture taught that it was the Holy Spirit’s intention to bring those who the Father had chosen and Christ had died for to the realm of the Spirit, the heavenly Jerusalem above. Christ’s resurrection from the dead, by which he was declared to be the Son of God in power, and the subsequent down payment of the Spirit, were unto this end.[20]

In light of the above principles and more that Vos incorporated in his teaching at Princeton, Richard B. Gaffin Jr. has persuasively argued that Vos “is the father of a Reformed biblical theology.”[21] Gaffin stated that although attention was certainly given to the historical progress of revelation by Reformed theologians,Vos is the first in the Reformed tradition, perhaps even the first orthodox theologian, to give pointed, systematic attention to the doctrinal or positive theological significance of the fact that redemptive revelation comes as an organically unfolding historical process and to begin working out the methodological consequences of this insight.[22]

The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline

On Tuesday, May 8, 1894, at noon, in the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, Vos publicly expressed his views on Reformed biblical theology for the first time. The occasion was his formal installation as Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. In his address that day, “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and a Theological Discipline,” Vos humbly acknowledged the great responsibility before him. Biblical theology at Princeton had been entrusted to his special care and keeping.

In explaining the nature of biblical theology, Vos declared that the only legitimate object of theology was God. But, God was the object of theology only so far as he had supernaturally revealed himself in Scripture. Biblical theology sought to examine how God had revealed himself in Scripture as parts and products of a divine work, applying “no other method of grouping and arranging these contents than is given in the divine economy of revelation itself.”[23]

Such an approach to biblical theology taught that a leading characteristic of supernatural revelation was its historical progress. God had not communicated the knowledge of the truth as it appeared in the calm light of eternity. Rather, God’s revelation of the knowledge of the truth was interwoven with and conditioned by the supernatural redeeming activity of God in history.

The second ground for the historical character of revelation was its eminently practical aspect. In Vos’s judgment, the importance of this practical aspect of revelation found expression in the doctrine of the covenant. “God has not revealed Himself in a school, but in the covenant; and the covenant as a communion of life is all-comprehensive, embracing all the conditions and interests of those contracting it.”[24]

Having established the historical and practical nature of revelation, Vos explained the importance of recognizing revelation’s organic character. On the one hand, biblical theology aimed to maintain the perfection of revealed truth; on the other hand, it sought to show that this truth has been gradually set forth in greater fullness and clearness. “These two facts can be reconciled in no other way than by assuming that the advance in revelation resembles the organic process, through which out of the perfect germ the perfect plant and flower and fruit are successively produced.”[25] At center of this organic process stood Jesus Christ. “From the beginning all redeeming acts of God aim at the creation and introduction of this new organic principle, which is none other than Christ.”[26]

The groundwork laid, Vos put forth what he believed to be a proper definition of the theological discipline that he had been appointed to teach. “Biblical Theology, rightly defined, is nothing else than the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity.”[27]

Vos realized, however, that not everything passing under the name of biblical theology fit this definition. Modern theologians appealed to the historical principle of biblical theology to neutralize the revelation-principle. That is, they divided Scripture between that which was thought to be conditioned by the subjectivity of the authors and that which was thought to be eternal truth. The result of such a division was the denial of the philosophy of history which the Bible itself outlined. According to Vos, the value and legitimacy of biblical theology as a theological discipline ultimately rested on the right of biblical theology to reject philosophies of history that proceeded from speculation and the right to adopt the philosophy of history put forth by the Scripture itself.

Vos then detailed in four points the revelation-based biblical theology he sought to teach at Princeton.

  1. Biblical theology must be based upon the oracles of God, and not the speculation of man.
  2. 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.[28]

  3. Biblical theology must proceed knowing that the reality of revelation is the supreme factor by the historic factor is kept under control. The historical character of the truth is subordinate, not antithetical, to the revealed character of the truth.
  4. Biblical theology must stand on the truthfulness of the Scriptures as whole. Scripture includes a great variety of historical aspects, but there are no inconsistencies or contradictions in the Word of God.
  5. Most importantly, biblical theology must recognize that the inspired Scriptures contain a divine philosophy of the history of redemption and of revelation in general outlines. Vos said, “Whosoever is convinced in his heart of the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures and reads his Bible as the Word of God, cannot, as a student of Biblical Theology, allow himself to reject this divine philosophy and substitute for it another of his own making.”[29]

In the concluding section of his talk, Vos said that he had not forgotten that he was called to Princeton to help prepare men for the gospel ministry. He then expressed what he saw as the advantages of teaching biblical theology to aspiring pastors with four more points.

  1. Biblical theology exhibits to students the organic structure of the Word of God. It helps students understand that the various parts of Scripture do not stand in isolation, but “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 upon the rest, while in them and through them all throbs as a unifying principle the Spirit of God’s living truth.”[30]
  2. Biblical theology provides the most effective antidote against destructive critical views. “Their chief danger lies, not in affirmations concerning matters of minor importance, concerning errors in historical details, but in the most radical claims upsetting the inner organization of the whole body of truth.”[31] The best way to show this is to place over against the critical theories the organic history of revelation in the Bible, which is the very thing biblical theology endeavors to do.
  3. Biblical theology gives new life and freshness to old truth. The treasure-chambers of Scripture are historical, God having embodied the contents of revelation “not in a dogmatic system, but in a book of history.”[32] A biblical theology that possesses a spirit of humble faith in exploring Scripture will enrich the student in coming to the wealth of living truth.
  4. Biblical theology when rightly conceived is of the greatest value for the study of systematic theology. In the end, “Dogmatics is the crown which grows out of all the work that biblical theology can accomplish.”[33]

Presbyterianism and Marriage

The end of his first year teaching at Princeton proved to be an eventful one for Vos. Not only did he deliver his inaugural address in May, but two weeks earlier on April 24, at the Second Presbyterian Church in Princeton, he was ordained by the Presbytery of New Brunswick as a gospel minister in the Presbyterian Church in the USA.

After the school year ended, Vos returned to Grand Rapids for the summer and married Catherine Smith on September 7. When the newlyweds arrived at Princeton for the start of the 1894–1895 school year, they had to make do living in two rooms in the home of a Princeton widow.[34] The house located on 52 Mercer Street, which the seminary promised to provide for them, was not ready. Part of the delay was due to the paving of Mercer Street and installation of electricity.[35]

Finally, in May 1895 Geerhardus and Catherine settled into their new home, conveniently across the street from the seminary and the library, and closest of all to Miller Chapel at its pre-1933 location next to Alexander Hall. The first social visitors they received were Princeton University professor Woodrow Wilson and his wife Ellen.[36] The Wilsons and Voses would remain friends throughout the next two decades. When Johannes was born in 1903, the Wilsons gave the Voses as a baby present a silver porringer engraved with Johannes’s name and date of birth, accompanied by a business-sized calling card bearing the name, “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.”[37] On the night nine years later when it was announced that Woodrow Wilson had won the general election to become the twenty-eighth president of the United States, Geerhardus told little Johannes, “Let’s go see the new president.” They walked hand–in–hand down the block to the Wilson home and congratulated Wilson who was greeting the well-wishers gathered in his front yard.[38]

Although Vos was friends with Woodrow Wilson, his closest friend was his Princeton colleague Benjamin Warfield. The two men established a daily routine when school was in session that they would continue for nearly thirty years until Warfield’s death in 1921. They would walk together up and down Mercer Street talking as they went.[39] In faculty meetings at Princeton Seminary, Warfield would be the vocal leader, Vos the quiet supporter, but the two were rarely on the opposite side of any issue.

Princeton Seminary itself numbered around 250 students, a 40 percent increase from Vos’s student days a decade earlier. The increase in the student body meant that the seminary in the early 1890s had to move from away from oral examinations before a committee of the directors to written examinations reviewed by the directors. However, by Vos’s first year teaching in 1893–1894, the written examination had also become unmanageable for the directors and they requested a review of only those examinations which the faculty considered unsatisfactory.[40] The students upon completion of the three-year program would receive a certificate signed by the professors. In Vos’s third year, the legislature of the state of New Jersey approved Princeton’s awarding of a bachelor of divinity degree.[41]


In his first two years teaching at Princeton, Vos wasted little time in letting his name become more well-known in Presbyterian circles as he authored eight reviews that appeared in Warfield’s Presbyterian and Reformed Review. It was apparent from the books reviewed that Vos was reading up on the subjects that he would be teaching from Old and New Testament theology to the kingdom of God. It was also apparent in the content of the reviews that Vos was no friend of the displacement, replacement, or compromise of the Word of God. Among the more significant were reviews of Hermann Schultz’s Old Testament Theology and Willibald Beyschlag’s New Testament Theology.

Schultz’s Old Testament Theology, by then in its fourth edition, was advertised as holding a via media between conservatives and critics. Vos disagreed. Schultz’s views, such as a late origin of the Pentateuch and his naturalistic understanding of the development of Israel’s religion, were decidedly critical and belonged to the advanced school. “But all at once,” Vos observed, “and apparently unconnected with these premises, the idea of revelation is introduced.”[42] Vos commented, “It is certainly not unfair to ask on which side the influence of a work will lie, in which two such discordant elements are combined.”[43] Vos concluded, “The apparent conservativism of Schultz’s work, therefore, is something accessory, not being due to what he obtains from a careful review of the facts in accordance with his own critical canons, but largely to certain philosophical ideals imported from without.”[44]

According to Vos, Beyschlag had written a beautiful book, one “that was a delight to read” as several passages captivated “like poetry.”[45] In particular, Beyschlag had captured the art of handling and grouping his material “so as to make a historical movement pass before us as in living reality.”[46]

But, Vos also showed the emptiness of Beyschlag’s claim to occupy a middle position between “the two camps of advanced criticism and what in Germany is called the conservative school.”[47] Vos agreed with Beyschlag that the advanced, modern critics lacked sobriety and modesty in dealing with the text and that their interest with destructive theorizing was often solely to replace the traditional interpretation. Still, Beyschlag himself did not take the slightest pains to conceal his departures from orthodox Protestant doctrine. Beyschlag taught that the biblical writers “knew of no Trinity, of no divine nature of Christ in the metaphysical sense, of no personal Holy Spirit, of no vicarious satisfaction, and consequently of no justification on the ground of imputed righteousness.”[48] Further, he used what he believed was an imperfect Bible as a grounds of attack on the teaching of orthodox doctrine.

Vos applauded Beyschlag’s conclusion that Paul taught that Christ’s death has not merely a justifying but also a sanctifying effect, and that these two effects proceed from Christ’s death in organic unity. Beyschlag’s great failure, however, was his adherence to the moral influence theology. This led him to the erroneous conclusion that the twofold effect in its organic unity was irreconcilable with the doctrine of vicarious atonement. Vos wrote:

In Romans 8:3, a passage of which Beyschlag makes much, the judgment of sin in the flesh is not simply the killing of sin, but the judicial killing of it, and Paul has evidently chosen this very term κατακρίνειν to indicate the organic unity of the two sides of Christ’s work: the breaking of guilt and the breaking of the power of corruption, in such a way that the latter proceeds from the former. Beyschlag overlooks the peculiar choice of the term and the judicial element implied in it, limits the sense of the expression to the sanctifying effect of Christ’s death, and thus makes it appear as if in Paul’s mind justification depended on sanctification. Paul’s view in this and other passages evidently is, that the cancelling of our guilt in Christ’s death is the objective cause of the subjective breaking of the power of sin within us. In other words, our dying with Christ proceeds logically from Christ’s dying for us, and herein lies the organic unity of the two acts of salvation.[49]

Charles Augustus Briggs

Although it was clear from the reviews that Vos was engaging critical thought in Europe, it was also evident from his letters to Kuyper and Bavinck that he was keeping even closer attention on the events surrounding Charles Augustus Briggs. A ministerial member of the Presbyterian Church, Briggs was Vos’s counterpart in biblical theology at Union Seminary in New York City. He was also undoubtedly the figure that William Green had in mind in urging Vos to come to Princeton to stop the rising tide of historical criticism in the Presbyterian Church. From the early 1880s onward, Briggs had sparred with Benjamin Warfield, who would become Briggs’s co-editor of The Presbyterian Review in 1888, and the faculty of Princeton over the doctrine of Scripture and historical-critical methodology.[50]

In 1890 Union Seminary created a chair in biblical theology and appointed Briggs as its first occupant. On January 20, 1891, Briggs used the occasion of his inaugural address, “The Authority of Holy Scriptures,” to declare that he planned to use biblical theology to modernize the outdated views of the Presbyterian Church regarding Scripture. For nearly two hours, Briggs argued the historical-critical method applied to Scripture promised a reinvigoration of the faith, a reawakening of the church’s spirit from dead orthodoxy. The Bible was an error-filled book, and those who argued otherwise were nothing more than Reformed scholastics.

For Briggs’s audience, there could be no doubt that the “Reformed scholastics” who held to a “dead orthodoxy” were the men at Princeton Seminary. The stage was thus set for the upcoming 1891 General Assembly where Briggs’s appointment needed approval.[51] The assembly indicated at its start which side it favored with the election of one of Briggs’s main opponents, Princeton’s William Henry Green, as moderator. From the chair, Green appointed Francis L. Patton, the conservative president of the College of New Jersey, to serve as the chairman of the standing committee on theological seminaries tasked with making a recommendation regarding Briggs’s appointment. The Patton-led standing committee recommended a veto, and the assembly agreed with the recommendation and did not approve the appointment of Briggs.

Angered by the decision, Union Seminary declared independency from the Presbyterian Church. Briggs, however, retained his ministerial credentials in the Presbytery of New York. Charges were brought against him at the presbytery level, but Briggs was acquitted. The decision was appealed to the 1893 General Assembly, which found him guilty and suspended him from the gospel ministry. Briggs then left the Presbyterian Church and joined the Episcopal Church.

Vos wrote Bavinck on October 20, 1893, that enthusiasm around Princeton for the critical views of Scripture had cooled down after Briggs had been found guilty. In Vos’s judgment, Princeton was growing stronger in defending Calvinism. “I have to say that the Calvinistic sympathies in Princeton are much stronger than they were during my stay as a student here. Particularly Warfield is very decided but others also feel his influence.”[52]

Four months later, Vos wrote Abraham Kuyper that while Princeton continued to exert a good influence in the Presbyterian Church, he was not encouraged about the outlook for the churches at large. In particular, he lamented what had become of church discipline. “In the churches at large things look miserable. Church discipline is fallen very much into disuse and what is more the realization that it must be exerted dutifully has been lost.”[53] To illustrate his point, Vos raised the discipline of Briggs. “Even in an extreme case as that of Dr. Briggs, it was very difficult to move into action. They allow opinions to be expressed and spread unhindered. Opinions which, without any doubt, not only assail the Reformed doctrine but also the army of Christianity.”[54]

A month later in writing to Bavinck, Vos raised the same themes that he had with Kuyper. In fact, so similar were the remarks at points that it appeared that he had a copy of his letter to Kuyper to draw from. Regarding the outlook for the future, he said, “I am not sure if we are making much progress. The German theology and criticism is imported with full zeal, and the worst is that that practice of doctrinal discipline in almost all American churches has gotten almost totally lost.”[55] He again turned to Briggs to prove his point. “Even in an extreme case as that of Briggs, it required the greatest effort to take action. Now that Briggs is suspended, no one wants to do anything else and the accomplices of Briggs are left unhindered.”[56]

What Vos added for Bavinck, and withheld from Kuyper who Vos knew refused to take sides between the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church, was a rebuke of the Reformed Church in America. John De Witt, a ministerial member of the Reformed Church in America and a professor at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, had supported Briggs in the controversy. “It appears that that Reformed Church will not do anything about John De Witt, who fully took sides with Briggs.”[57]

Two years later, Vos publicly engaged Brigg’s views in the Presbyterian and Reformed Review with a joint review of Brigg’s books, The Messiah of the Gospels and the Messiah of the Apostles. Vos noted that Briggs was not backing down from his attack on historic Christianity despite his well-known trial.

Dr. Briggs goes on to remark: “The Christian Church of Western Europe, under the influence of the Augustinian theology, has been looking backward and downward instead of upward and forward. In the doctrine of God it has been grubbing in the eternal decree. In the doctrine of man it has been dissecting the corpse of the first Adam and searching for the germs of the disease of original sin which slew him and all our race. Accordingly, religion has been sad, gloomy and sour. In the doctrine of Christ it has been living in Passion week, following the stations of the cross, and bowing in penitence before the crucifix.”[58]

Vos for his part, however, was also not backing down. After listing Brigg’s criticism, Vos commented,

Such wholesale condemnation of historic Christianity we have long been accustomed to from certain quarters where the contempt of so-called tradition is equaled by the lack of historic information, but in the case of a scholar and student of history like Dr. Briggs it is inexcusable.[59]

In his dismantling of Briggs’s position, Vos openly questioned Briggs’s ability as a biblical-theologian. Briggs, in his extreme dread of systematizing, had systematized the biblical contents according to his own principles, which had the result of sacrificing the final aim of all biblical-theological discussion. Briggs was unable to connect the lines of thought of the biblical writers.

Vos next took Briggs to task for claiming a view of inspiration that did not include the historical accuracy of the text. Briggs had argued that the chronology at the start of the Gospel of Luke was wrong at points. He also believed the songs at the beginning of that Gospel were put into the mouths of the singers by Christian poets of a later time. In Briggs’s judgment, these factors did not impact the inspiration of the text. What mattered was the inspiration experienced by the author of the canonical Luke, making the biblical text appropriate and sufficiently accurate.

Vos responded, “What justifies us in including within the responsibility of an inspired writer the appropriateness and sufficient accuracy of a passage for a definite practical purpose, and in excluding from it the correctness of the historical situation in which he has placed it?”[60] Secondly, Vos asked whether inspiration “with no higher results than to make a writing generally appropriate and sufficiently accurate for its purpose”[61] could be said to be supernatural? To pick and choose as Briggs had done and yet maintain that the Scripture was inspired was to run away from the struggle inherent to the faith.

Vos continued to target Briggs the next year in his review of Ph. J. Hoedemaker’s De Mozaische oorsprong van de wetten in de boeken Exodus, Leviticus en Numeri (The Mosaic Origin of the Laws in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers). Vos applauded Hoedemaker’s contention that certain so-called “orthodox critics” like Briggs and Wildeboer were not being honest given their presuppositions. They claimed to be employing purely historical arguments and drawing logical inferences form the facts. But, the truth was that a philosophical factor entered at the very beginning of the process where it was determined what was possible and what was not possible through the laws of natural causation. He wrote,

It is not so much men like Kuenen and Wellhausen and their avowed naturalism that [Hoedemaker’s] accusation of a priorism is directed against, but men of the type of Briggs and Wildeboer, i.e., adherents of the modern view who lay claim to being supernaturalists and evangelicals.[62]

Vos’s lack of respect for Briggs and his methodology hinged on this point. Briggs did not admit to the existence of an antithesis between naturalism and supernaturalism, not merely in the results, but likewise in the principle of investigation. Unlike critics such as Abraham Kuenen and Julius Wellhausen, with whom Vos thoroughly disagreed with but still respected, Briggs had produced an artificial construction, which failed to harmonized the details of history, to replace the living organism of revelation as contained in the historical Scriptures. In Vos’s judgment, the apologetical duty of revelation-based biblical theology was to expose the inadequacy of such an attempt when compared to the inner-testimony of God’s Word.

The Prophets

In a five-part series that appeared in the Presbyterian and Reformed Review, “The Modern Hypothesis and Recent Criticism of the Early Prophets,” Vos turned to an analysis of the modern hypothesis that undergirded Briggs’s hermeneutic. Briggs and other critics believed that an examination of the teaching of the prophets of the Old Testament discredited the antiquated notion of objective supernatural revelation. Vos countered that the views believed to be post-exilic redactions by the critics, and thus untrustworthy, were in most cases identical with the conservative standpoint. To rule out the testimony of the traditional position on the prophets, as the critics had done, was a begging of the question on a grand scale. It resembled a judicial process where the desired verdict was used by one party as the test for the admitting and excluding of evidence in the trial itself. Vos concluded that the critics were no longer engaged in demonstrating their hypothesis; they were at work applying their thesis despite the scriptural evidence otherwise.

Although the critics had a priori determined what the message of the prophets must be, Vos urged conservatives to fight against the modern hypothesis displacement of Scripture. It was not merely showing that the disputed teachings were right there, but also that that they cannot be removed without doing harm to the inner organism of prophetic teaching.

At the center of Vos’s argument that the critics had done injury to the inner testimony of the prophets was an extended evaluation of the critic’s dissection of the book of Isaiah. After the critics gutted the highly developed Messianic ideal of Isaiah, all that was left of the prophet’s message was a cold moralism. Previously, Isaiah’s teaching soared high above such an ethical construction, but now with the alternations it moved within this construction for no other reason than the critics’ a priori idea of what a prophet should be. Vos declared:

The pronounced Universalism, the highly developed Messianic ideal, the sweet rich note of promise so peculiarly alternating with the harsh tones of judgment, the sublime faith in the sacrosanct character of Jerusalem and Zion in the Assyrian crisis, all that has hitherto been counted specifically Isaianic must be given up; and what we keep is a stern preacher of righteousness and national destruction, the chief exponent of that cold, supremely ethical spirit which is supposed to mark the highest development of prophetism.[63]

Major portions of the prophecy such as Isaiah 2:2–4, 8:22–9:6 and 11:1–9 were declared non-genuine because the portions in question did not agree with the premises of the critical syllogism. In Isaiah 2:2–4 the critics objected to the appearance of the temple, the attraction of the nations, and the longing for peace. Vos noted that it was Jehovah’s exaltation, symbolized by the temple mountain, that attracts the nations. Further, if Isaiah did not long for peace, he would have been devoid of pity. The burden of Isaiah’s ministry, as summarized in Isaiah 28:12, was to give rest to the weary.

The newer critics, knowing that the older critical exegesis of Isaiah 2 could not be sustained, declared the passage suspect simply by its reference in verse 2 to “many nations.” Vos expressed his exasperation in dealing with the ever changing nature of critical thought in its attempt to avoid affirming the orthodox meaning of a text. “All the ‘weak, flimsy arguments’ advanced to lend some sort of external justification to this proceeding cannot conceal the fact that criticism is here moving in a circle.”[64]

In looking at Isaiah 8:22–9:6 and 11:1–9, Vos explained again how the critics and the actual testimony of Isaiah disagreed. The critics, who limited the prophets to ethical aspirations, found the passages to be inconsistent because of the inclusion of the righteousness and judgment attributed to the Messiah’s work. Vos believed such an approach stripped the prophet of his central message. Isaiah believed he was the herald and interpreter of the divine plan of a sure eschatological hope, one to be effected by the pouring out of the Spirit from upon high. The Messiah, through the righteousness conferred upon him by the Spirit, and the judgment established by him, was the only one who could bring about a perfect state of affairs. The modern theory, however, had no place in the prophetic consciousness for such an eschatological hope detached from the issues of the present. Instead of recognizing that Isaiah had an inspired philosophy of history which led to a consistency of purpose, the critics created textual confusion and contradiction.[65]

1898 Stone Lectures: Abraham Kuyper

As the decade closed, Vos’s attention turned back to his Dutch roots. In 1898 Abraham Kuyper probably stayed with the Vos family during the two weeks from October 10–21 when he was delivering the Stone lectures on “Calvinism” at Miller Chapel.[66] Princeton had awarded Kuyper the honor two years earlier in 1896, but travel arrangements could not be made that year. In the fall of 1897, Kuyper sent a copy of his handwritten lectures to Vos and a team of Dutch-American translators. With Vos taking the lead, Henry Dosker, J.H. DeVries, A.H. Huizinga, and Nicholas Steffens worked on converting the talks from Dutch into English.[67] Kuyper worked on his own English translation, which he brought with him, but Vos and DeVries, both Princeton residents, were able to supply Kuyper with the team’s completed translation when he arrived in Princeton a week before the lectures began.[68]

Despite the fact that the attendance at Miller Chapel was sparse, less than 50 people at a time,[69] the lectures were heralded as a tremendous success. Kuyper proclaimed the superiority of Calvinism as a world view for all fields of life, including politics, history, science, art, religion, and the future. On Saturday, October 22, the day after the conclusion of the lecture series, Princeton University conferred upon Kuyper an honorary Doctorate of Laws. Kuyper was aglow that the ceremony took place in Nassau Hall, named in honor of the House of Orange, with ex-President and Presbyterian Grover Cleveland in attendance.[70]

In many ways Kuyper’s appearance in Princeton marked the high point of Vos’s role as Kuyper’s advocate for a “positive Calvinism” in America. George Harinck writes,

Seen from the Dutch side, it was a success that Vos introduced Kuyper in one of the centers of American religion of the turn of the century. The mood of this success is reflected in Kuyper’s self-confident Stone lectures, presenting a radiant Neo-Calvinism, glorified in the United States.[71]

The Americans were charmed, but Harinck did not believe that was the case for Vos, whom Harinck believed doubted the possibilities for Neo-Calvinism in the new world.[72]

Although Vos joined the General Dutch Alliance that Kuyper established, even serving as the secretary of the New York City branch,[73] the close correspondence in letters that the two men had enjoyed since the mid-1880s reached an end after the Stone lectures. Vos was becoming more Presbyterian; Kuyper was becoming more enamored with politics. Less than three years after his triumph at Princeton, Kuyper’s Antirevolutionary Party swept the 1901 general elections in the Netherlands. For the next four years, he served as prime minister of the Netherlands.

Vos concentrated on this own writings, no longer spending the countless hours translating Kuyper (or Bavinck’s) Dutch works into English. Vos’s writings also reflected an increased focus upon biblical-theological themes (such as the kingdom of God) and less of a focus upon the themes raised by Kuyper’s Neo-Calvinism. If the life and thought of the nineteenth-century Vos was dominated by his Dutch Reformed upbringing, in the twentieth-century, his friendships and the focus of his scholarly works would be connected to Princeton, Presbyterianism, and Reformed biblical theology.


[1] Letter, Geerhardus Vos to Herman Bavinck, July 3, 1893, in James T. Dennison Jr., ed., The Letters of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 175. When Bavinck relayed Vos’s reasons for leaving to Kuyper, Kuyper replied that Vos did well to leave Grand Rapids because remaining there would have meant “academic murder.” He did not share the same sentiment for Vos becoming Presbyterian, telling Bavinck in doing so Vos had gone too far. See, Letter, Abraham Kuyper to Herman Bavinck, January 24, 1894, in R. H. Breemer, Herman Bavinck en zijn tijdgenoten (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1966), 81, 291.

[2] Letter, J. Van der Mey to Abraham Kuyper, February 18, 1896, 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), 250.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, trans. and ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., et al., 5 vols. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2014–2016).

[5] Letter, Henry E. Dosker to Herman Bavinck, February 25, 1893, in George Harinck, “Geerhardus Vos as Introducer of Kuyper,” 258.

[6] Dennison, Letters, 41.

[7] Letter, Bernardus Vos to Roger Nicole, July 3, 1967, Archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Upon his retirement from Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida, Mr. Nicole gave John Muether, historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, this letter.

[8] Ibid. Marianne Vos Radius’s recollection of how her parents first met matched that of her brother. She stated that her mother “was reference librarian at the library downtown and he met her there naturally enough.” Interview, Marianne Vos Radius by Charles G. Dennison, February 27, 1992, at the Raybrook Assisted Living Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Letter, Bernardus Vos to Roger Nicole, Archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[12] Letter, Geerhardus Vos to Herman Bavinck, October 20, 1893, in Dennison, Letters, 179.

[13] Letter, Geerhardus Vos to Herman Bavinck, July 3, 1893, in Dennison, Letters, 176.

[14] Ibid. In his article “The Reformed Doctrine of the Covenant,” Vos argued against the view that covenant theology in the Reformed faith proceeded primarily from the Dutch theologian Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669). Vos demonstrated that the older theologians, particularly in England, manifested the covenant doctrine in Reformed theology. See, Geerhardus Vos, “The Reformed Doctrine of the Covenant,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 234–241.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Letter, Geerhardus Vos to Herman Bavinck, November 21, 1893, in Dennison, Letters, 181.

[17] Letter, Geerhardus Vos to Herman Bavinck, February 1, 1894, in Dennison, Letters, 183. Gustav F. Oehler (1812–1872) was the author of Theology of the Old Testament.

[18] Geerhardus Vos, Review of E.H. van Leeuwen’s Prolegomena van Bijbelsche Godgeleerdheid in Presbyterian and Reformed Review 4 (1893): 143.

[19] Ibid., 144.

[20] These themes would be at the heart of Vos’s 1912 article, “The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit,” and his 1930 book, The Pauline Eschatology.

[21] Gaffin, “Introduction,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, xiv.

[22] Ibid., xiv–xv.

[23] Ibid., 7.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 11.

[26] Ibid., 12

[27] Ibid., 15.

[28] Ibid., 19.

[29] Ibid., 20.

[30] Ibid., 22.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 23.

[33] Ibid., 24.

[34] Letter, Geerhardus Vos to Herman Bavinck, December 22, 1894, in Dennison, Letters, 187.

[35] David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, vol. 2, The Majestic Testimony, 1869–1929 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 173.

[36] Letter, Bernardus Vos to Roger Nicole, Archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[37] The porringer, a small bowl with a decorative handle, is now the possession of Johannes’s son, Raymond Vos. Email correspondence, Raymond Vos to Danny Olinger, December 12, 2016.

[38] Interview, Mrs. Johannes (Marian) Vos, née Milligan, by Charles Dennison, January 28, 1993, in Beaver Falls, PA, Archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[39] Interview, Marianne Radius, Archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[40] Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, 174.

[41] Ibid. Calhoun notes that the Princeton seminary graduates would also receive a preacher’s suit provided by the ladies of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.

[42] Review of Hermann Schultz’s Old Testament Theology by Geerhardus Vos in the Presbyterian and Reformed Review 5 (1894): 132.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Review of Willibald Beyschlag’s New Testament Theology by Geerhardus Vos in Presbyterian and Reformed Review 6 (1895): 757.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid., 758.

[49] Ibid., 759–60.

[50] For a discussion of Briggs’s opposition to Princeton and his subsequent trial in the Presbyterian Church for doctrinal error, see James H. Moorhead’s Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 246–51; David B. Calhoun’s Princeton Seminary, 2:131–36; and Lefferts A. Loetscher’s The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church since 1869 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1957), 48–62.

[51] Explaining how general assembly approval for Union professors came to be needed, Moorhead writes, “Prior to the reunion of 1870, Union, although a de facto New School institution, had remained independent of formal ecclesiastical control. At the time of the reunion, the board of directors as a gesture of good faith agreed to submit future faculty appointments to the General Assembly for approval or rejection.” Moorhead, Princeton Seminary, 249.

[52] Letter, Geerhardus Vos to Herman Bavinck, October 20, 1893, in Dennison, Letters, 179.

[53] Letter, Geerhardus Vos to Abraham Kuyper, February 26, 1894, in Dennison, Letters, 184.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Letter, Geerhardus Vos to Herman Bavinck, March 28, 1894, in Dennison, Letters, 185–86.

[56] Ibid., 186.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Review of Charles Augustus Briggs’s The Messiah of the Gospels and The Messiah of the Apostles by Geerhardus Vos in Presbyterian and Reformed Review 7, no. 28 (1896): 719.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid., 720.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Review of Ph. J. Hoedemaker’s De Mozaische oorsprong van de wetten in de boeken Exodus, Leviticus en Numeri by Geerhardus Vos in Presbyterian and Reformed Review 8, no. 29 (1897): 107.

[63] Geerhardus Vos, “The Modern Hypothesis and Recent Criticism in the Early Prophets,” Presbyterian and Reformed Review 9, no. 35 (1898): 413.

[64] In using the words, “weak, flimsy arguments” Vos indicated in a footnote that he was using what the esteemed critic Abraham Kuenen thought of Bernhard Stade’s declaring Isaiah 2 to be suspicious by the presence of “many nations.” Ibid.

[65] Vos’s research into the prophecy of Isaiah in the late 1890s also resulted in his excellent standalone article, “Some Doctrinal Features of the Early Prophecies of Isaiah.” In the article, Vos painted a picture of Isaiah as theologian. Isaiah was not placed as a stranger in the midst of a mass of unassimilated material, but made at home in a world of truth where he explored on all sides the supreme thought of God’s majesty that filled his soul. In this regard, a comparison can be made that Isaiah was the Old Testament Paul, and Paul the New Testament Isaiah. In both there was a deep impression of the sovereign majesty of God, a conviction of the awfulness of the divine justice, a sense of the unworthiness and helplessness of sinful man, a trust in the grace of God and insistence that the work of salvation was God’s alone. Both also shared the same eschatological hope. Isaiah prophesized judgment for Israel’s sin, but he confidently expected a new beginning after the judgment. At the end of Isaiah 4, the prophetic vision of the new order of things gazes upon the final glory where perfect religion will be realized. In Mount Zion, changed into a sanctuary with the divine presence hovering over it, the worship of God reigns supreme without interruption of day or night, heat or cold. See, Geerhardus Vos, “Some Doctrinal Features in the Early Prophecies of Isaiah,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 271–88.

[66] Marianne Radius believed this was the case, although certain details in her account are historically inaccurate. She stated that she was present when Kuyper was staying at their home, but Kuyper’s Stone Lectures took place in 1898, eight years before she was born. In all probability, it was Herman Bavinck in 1908 who she remembered personally being at the house. See, Interview, Marianne Radius, Archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[67] Harinck, “Vos as Introducer of Kuyper,” 256.

[68] Jan De Bruijn, Abraham Kuyper: A Pictorial Biography, trans. Dagmare Houniet (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 241.

[69] James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 262.

[70] Ibid., 264.

[71] Harinck, “Vos as Introducer,” 257.

[72] Charles Dennison also believed that Vos was not as positive as some were with Kuyper’s program of Neo-Calvinism, particularly as Vos began to write on the eschatological aspects of Paul’s theology. Kuyper’s focus was on this creation, Vos’s focus was increasingly on new creation. In Dennison’s words, “For Kuyper, you expound on meaning by expounding creation. For Vos, you expound on meaning by expounding re-creation.” Vos’s emphasis was not a denial of the importance of creation, but an understanding that creation was to the end of consummation. Comments to author, January 2, 1994, Coraopolis, Pennsylvania.

[73] Dennison, Letters, 43.

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. Ordained Servant Online, February 2017.

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