Book Write-Up: Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics, volume 1, Theology Proper

Geerhardus Vos.  Reformed Dogmatics, Volume One: Theology Proper.  Translated and edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr, with Kim Batteau, Annemie Godbehere, and Roelof von Ijken.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-2014.  See here to purchase the book.

Geerhardus Vos lived from 1862-1849.  According to the back flap of this book’s cover, Vos was a “Dutch American theologian.”  He “is considered by many to be the father of modern Reformed biblical theology,” and he “held Princeton’s new Chair of Biblical Theology from 1893 until his retirement in 1932.”  Plus, his “thinking and scholarship deeply influenced the biblical and theological work of Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, Herman Ridderbos, and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.”

Volume 1 of Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics concerns “Theology Proper.”  The book’s format is one in which Vos responds to questions.  Some of the answers are brief, and some contain lengthy paragraphs.

Chapter 1 is the briefest chapter in the book, and it concerns God’s knowability.  Vos disputes a pantheistic view that God is unknowable, maintaining instead that we can know God from God’s revelation to us, even if that knowledge is not comprehensive.  Chapter 2 is entitled “Names, Being, and Attributes of God.”  In this chapter, Vos discusses God’s incommunicable and communicable attributes.  Among the attributes that Vos discusses are God’s infinity, immutability, simplicity, eternity, love, righteousness, freedom, holiness, and wrath.  Vos also addresses the reasons for God’s punishment: are they punitive, or educative?  Chapter 3 is about the Trinity.  Vos depicts the Son as dependent on the Father for his existence, and the Holy Spirit as dependent on the Father and the Son.  Yet, Vos still maintains that the Son and the Spirit are eternal and possess the same divine substance as the Father.  Vos holds that there is still subordinationism within the Trinity, however, as the Son is subordinate to the Father in terms of work and function, and the Spirit is functionally subordinate to the Father and the Son.

Chapter 4 is about “God’s Decrees in General.”  In this chapter, Vos elaborates on sentiments that he has expressed elsewhere in the book.  Vos rejects the notion that anything can occur outside of God’s decree, as if such a notion compromises God’s sovereignty and posits a “second deity” (page 83).  Vos then has to wrestle with the question of whether God decreed evil, and is thus the author of evil, a question that he continually revisits throughout the book.  Vos believes that God decreed evil for God’s wise purposes but is not its author, and he calls God’s decree of evil a “permissive decree.”  Vos also maintains that God is free: God did not have to decree things as God did and could have decreed them differently.  At the same time, Vos denies that God is arbitrary in God’s decree, for God is righteous, ethical, wise, and rational.  Chapter 5 concerns “The Doctrine of Predestination.”  Vos in this chapter addresses whether divine foreknowledge in Scripture means that God merely foresees who will be saved rather than predestining the saved individuals.  Vos also goes through Romans 9 and pieces of Romans 11, addresses whether Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 1:20 present the salvation of angels, and discusses the differences between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism.

Chapter 6 is about “Creation.”  Vos in this chapter addresses details about Genesis 1, disputes the idea that the creation is an eternal emanation from God, and discusses the role of each person of the Trinity in creation.  Chapter 7 is entitled “Providence.”  Here, Vos appears to argue from Scripture that God is intricately involved in the sustenance and functioning of every detail of creation, and yet that God respects secondary causes and the natural powers that God has given to the aspects of creation.  Vos realizes that he is walking a fine line between deism and pantheism: Vos does not believe that God wound up the natural clock and walked away to let the clock work on its own, but neither does Vos want to make God’s involvement in nature so overbearing that natural laws are irrelevant, non-existent, or unnecessary.

This book has many positives.  First of all, while many might expect a Reformed Dogmatics to be predictable, this book was not.  The prose was not too difficult, and yet I had to follow Vos’ reasoning very closely, as I took notes in the margin.  I could not simply take for granted that Vos would argue according to my stereotype of what Reformed people believe.  To cite some examples, Vos wrestles at length with the part of Romans 9 about God forming some lumps of clay for honor and other parts for dishonor, and Vos even goes so far as to say that the analogy itself has limits.  While Vos does say at one point that God owes nobody salvation, a point that Reformed people often make, Vos still wants to see God as ethical rather than cruel and arbitrary; Vos, in fact, critiques certain views (i.e., pantheism, suffering being educative) on the ground that they make God look cruel, promote pessimism rather than optimism (in the case of pantheism), or disregard the value of human beings by treating them as means to an end (as treating people’s punishments as educative for other people arguably does).  (NOTE: This is not to imply that I think Reformed people view God as cruel or arbitrary.)  Moreover, Vos defined supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism in ways that overlapped somewhat with my understanding of them, but also differed dramatically.

Second, Vos’ Scriptural interpretations were good, at least overall.  Vos argues that God’s foreknowledge of the elect is consistent with predestination and means that God looked on those whom God predestined to salvation with love, not that God merely foresaw that they would believe and be saved.  As Vos notes, I Peter 1:20 states that Christ was foreknown, and certainly God did more than merely foresee that Christ would come and die for people’s sins!  God actually planned it!  Vos’ Scriptural support for God being intricately involved in nature seemed to be sound.  Vos interacted with the question of whether the days of Genesis 1 were literal days, as Vos judiciously presented both sides of the issue and offered his own opinion.  Vos also addresses the question of whether God changed God’s mind when God told King Hezekiah that he would die soon, and Hezekiah then went on to live a while longer.  According to Vos, God did not change God’s mind but rather was highlighting that Hezekiah’s disease was deadly.  That is not entirely convincing, but it is a nice try!  One interpretation that was unconvincing was Vos’ discussion about whether the warning to Gentile Christians in Romans 11 that they could be broken off if they become too proud means that Christians can lose their salvation, which Reformed Christians deny is even possible.  Vos argues that Paul is talking about the Gentiles as a race or nation, not as saved individuals.  What does that mean, exactly?  That God will stop reaching out to non-Jews and including them in God’s church, if they become too proud?  That Christianity would revert back to being a Jewish movement?  Vos should have elaborated on his interpretation.

Third, Vos engages difficult questions.  How could Adam be good and yet sin, when it will be impossible for the perfected saints in the eschaton to sin?  If God is infinite, does that imply that all is God (pantheism), and that there is nothing distinct from God?  How can God be outside of time and yet create a world that exists within time?  In many cases, Vos says that the answer is a mystery!  That may sound like a cop-out, but Vos often extensively wrestles with the questions before he takes that route.

Fourth, Vos referred to other Christian thinkers.  He disagrees with Augustine’s view that God foreknew but did not decree evil.  He disagrees with Calvin’s apparent rejection of the eternal generation of the Son.  He rejects Jerome’s view that God would not degrade God’s majesty by being concerned about mosquitoes.  Vos also expresses agreement with historic Christian thinkers.  This aspect of the book was informative and educational, and it added more nuance to the book.

In terms of criticisms, there were places in which Vos could be rather elliptical.  Vos’ chapter on God’s attributes could have been clearer, and he should have defined the meaning of communicable and incommunicable.  Moreover, even after looking up those terms on the Internet, I still am unclear about how some of those attributes that Vos lists as incommunicable are incommunicable.  Vos asserts that God’s eternity is incommunicable—-which means (I think) that God alone possesses it and does not impart it to others.  But does not God impart eternal life to believers, which would make eternity communicable?  Or is God’s eternity incommunicable in the sense that it is inherent to God alone?  Here, my knowledge is incomplete.

There were times when Vos seemed rather contradictory.  He seemed open to saying that the “us” who create in Genesis 1 is a plural of majesty, then he disputed that shortly thereafter.  He contended that one can only know of creation ex nihilo from revelation, rather than from nature or reason, but later he appeared to be saying that one could deduce from nature that the Trinitarian God created the cosmos.

Vos supported many of his views with Scripture, but there were occasions when he did not.  While his model of the roles that each person of the Trinity played in creation appeared sensible and may be helpful, he did not offer Scriptural support for that.

In some cases, Vos was more sensitive to the diversity of Scripture than in other cases.  Vos astutely noted that God as Father means a lot of different things in the Bible, not just God’s Fatherhood in the Trinity.  Yet, Vos seemed to think that Jesus being the Son of God means the same thing throughout the New Testament: that it relates to Jesus being eternally begotten.  This, even though there are a variety of meanings of “son of God” in the Bible (i.e., the Davidic king as God’s son, etc.).  How can Vos be so sensitive to nuance in one area, and apparently oblivious to it in another?

Vos could have demonstrated more knowledge about evolution and the reasons scientists were accepting that view, as opposed to casually dismissing it.

Finally, Vos struck me as rather absolutist, in areas.  Does God have to decree every little thing to be sovereign?  Is there no middle ground here?

Overall, though, this is a thought-provoking book.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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