What We Believe


Review: Geerhardus Vos’s Natural Theology

David VanDrunen

The author of this work, Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949), was never a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, but he had an important influence on it. As a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, he taught many of the original OPC ministers. Many subsequent OPC ministers have also learned from Vos through his writings, especially Biblical Theology and The Pauline Eschatology. Vos has guided generations of OPC and other Reformed ministers in seeing the unity and development of God’s revelation through the biblical canon and in understanding how Scripture is centered in Christ and his everlasting kingdom.

The contents of this book were never previously published. It considers a topic—natural theology—quite different from the biblical studies for which Vos is known. In general, “natural theology” refers to the study of what we know about God through creation itself. That is, it considers knowledge of God attained through natural revelation. Vos himself defines natural theology as “a knowledge of God that takes its content and method from the world as it presents itself to us as governed by fixed laws” (4).

A Selective Treatment

The book’s material dates from Vos’s first and relatively brief teaching post (1888–1893), at the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church, the precursor of Calvin Theological Seminary. He lectured on natural theology there (in Dutch) as part of his teaching responsibilities. Several student manuscripts that transcribed these lectures have survived. The translator has produced what he calls a “best text” (xiv) based on these manuscripts.

The work itself is short—under a hundred pages. It consists of 224 questions and brief answers. If we think of natural theology as the “systematization” of God’s natural revelation, as J. V. Fesko describes it in this book’s introductory essay (xviii), Vos’s manuscript falls far short of this, for it is rather selective in what it treats.

The first section is entitled “Prolegomenon.” It explains what natural theology is, what Scripture says about it, and what its value is. It also provides a historical overview, beginning in the early church, of the importance theologians and philosophers placed on natural theology.

The second and longest section is entitled “The Systems of Religion.” This begins with another historical overview, this time of “the different systems of religion and religious faith,” which include pantheism, deism, monotheism, polytheism, and atheism. It then interacts with theories about how religion arose and developed in the world. The remainder of the section analyzes five types of arguments for God’s existence (ontological, cosmological, teleological, ethical, and religious). Vos expresses a mix of appreciation and criticism of the various arguments.

The brief final section (“The Immortality of the Soul”) first describes theories about the soul’s nature. Vos then gives special attention to the Christian view that the soul is immortal, discussing several natural-theological arguments in support of it.

Narrow Value

The most remarkable thing about this book is that it was published at all. Vos was a young man fresh out of school when he gave these lectures. Natural theology had not been the focus of his doctoral studies. Yet the Christian Reformed theological school at this time was a small place with few instructors, and Vos was assigned a heavy teaching load on a range of different subjects. This raises inevitable questions about how much time Vos could possibly have spent on these lectures and how deeply he had really engaged all the issues and people he discusses. He clearly relied on the work of his own teachers. This isn’t to criticize Vos, who surely did the best he could under the circumstances. But we don’t usually publish the lectures of rookie teachers on subjects that weren’t their specialty. Vos himself never tried to do so.

The value of these lectures (and the reason they’ve been published) is fairly narrow. They show the continuity of Vos’s thought with earlier Reformed theology. They also provide a window on how late-nineteenth-century Reformed ministerial students were trained to engage non-Christian thinkers and philosophies. Finally, they provide evidence for the debate as to whether Vos was a forerunner of twentieth-century presuppositional apologetics (and suggest that the answer is no). Readers interested in these questions may well find Vos’s Natural Theology fascinating. Other readers probably won’t.

Natural Theology, by Geerhardus Vos, translated by Albert Gootjes. Reformation Heritage, 2022. Hardcover, 184 pages, $18.75.

The author is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister and professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Westminster Seminary California.


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