Review: Geerhardus Vos

Chad B. Van Dixhoorn

Danny Olinger’s recent book on beloved teacher Geerhardus Vos offers the first full account of the theologian’s long life and is the best introduction to date to Vos’s key biblical and theological insights.

The book opens with a helpful summary of the complex church-world from which Vos emerged. The best of recent scholarship is tapped to help the reader understand the dynamics among Reformed churches in the Netherlands, as well as the background to Vos’s friendships and tensions with other major Dutch theologians of the day, including Abraham Kuyper and especially Herman Bavinck. Vos became increasingly convinced that he was a man living in the last times, but he was also a man between two worlds, one Dutch and the other American.

The narrative twists of an immigrant-academic at the turn of the twentieth century are all here: the Vos family move to the United States, a provincial education in a Grand Rapids Christian school, and eventual instruction by American presbyterians and German liberals. So too are the painful decisions: Vos was torn between family and friends, the Netherlands and America, university and seminary, Michigan and New Jersey, and, in his mature years, the choice to stay at Princeton or move to Westminster.

Along the way unexpected relationships are briefly illumined: the curious family friendship with the political doyen of the progressives, President Woodrow Wilson (first president of Princeton University, later of the United States); the warm relations with Mrs. Anne Warfield, wife of B. B. War-field, who was usually thought to be too much an invalid to socialize at all; and the reciprocal respect for J. Gresham Machen, who worked to see Vos’s The Self Disclosure of Jesus (1926) find a publisher.

As the subtitle, Reformed Biblical Theologian and Confessional Presbyterian, suggests, this is clearly an intellectual biography. Thus, as one would expect, the book is structured more by the arrival of books than babies. In my judgment, it is the story of Vos’s writings that is most compellingly told in Geerhardus Vos. Olinger artfully traces Vos’s own progression as a theologian from early reflections on the divine decrees, to considerations about covenant theology, to the persistence of eschatology in Vos’s more developed writings. Works are put in their historical context, which was often a polemical context. And then for each piece produced by Vos, the biography offers an incisive summary—“Olinger Notes,” if you will—that overworked seminary students and forgetful pastors alike will treasure as helpful guides to Vos.

Vos with dog
Vos with dog

For those accustomed to seeing Vos’s books published by Eerdmans, Presbyterian and Reformed, Banner of Truth, and more recently Lexham, one of the surprises in Olinger’s book is the revelation that The Pauline Eschatology (1930) was first privately printed. Of course, influential authors from John Locke to Julia Child have brought books into the world without the midwifery of a publisher. Nonetheless, self-publication is no author’s dream. It comes as no surprise that Geerhardus Vos’s wife, Catherine Vos, was the more popular author in the marriage, as her Child’s Story Bible was warmly received by Reformed readers around the world.

The final third of the book outlines positions that Vos held with respect to seminary politics. He was never very involved in the courts of the church. The book ends quietly, as did the life of Vos himself. Vos chose to finish his teaching career at Princeton—his wife Catherine chose to attend Westminster Theological Seminary’s opening event, but he did not. The Voses retired to California, where he wrote poetry, a small sampling of which makes its way into Olinger’s biography.

Geerhardus Vos contains remarkably few typographical errors or redundancies. On some occasions there are curious uses of secondary sources where primary sources would have served equally well. And the publisher would be kind to increase the size of the punctuation marks for readers experiencing the adventure of declining eyesight. But the very pettiness of these comments only serves to highlight how successful Olinger’s endeavor truly is. For those wishing to move on from reading Grace and Glory (1922) to a deeper conception of Vos, Olinger’s biography is easily the best guide. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I commend it heartily.

The reviewer is professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary and an Orthodox Presbyterian minister.

Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian, by Danny E. Olinger. Reformed Forum, 2018. Hardcover, 344 pages, $29.99.