Geerhardus Vos on the doctrine of God
May 26, 2015
Over the weekend I had the opportunity to work through the first volume of Geerhardus Vos's Reformed Dogmatics, which is devoted to theology proper (i.e., God's being, attributes, and triunity; God's decrees; and God's "natural works" [naturae opera] of creation and providence). I confess to being a bit skeptical that Vos's catechetical-style dogmatics would compare very well with the majestic work of Vos's contemporary, Herman Bavinck, which goes by the same title. Vos, after all, gained his reputation as a biblical theologian, not a dogmatician, and he produced his Reformed Dogmatics very early on in his teaching career, proleptically breaking Kevin Vanhoozer's rule that one should not write a systematic theology before reaching the age of fifty. I am happy to report, however, that my skepticism was unwarranted.
Vos's Reformed Dogmatics is a work of theological consequence. It exhibits deep familiarity with nearly four centuries of Reformed theological wisdom while exercising independent and often compelling powers of theological judgment. Vos not only brings Reformed theological principles to bear upon contemporary scientific and philosophical viewpoints (e.g., evolutionary theory, mechanistic philosophy). He also engages in intramural debate (sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly) with Reformed theological giants such as Charles Hodge and Jonathan Edwards, concluding, for example, that the latter "brought the sovereignty of God dangerously close to the borders of pantheism." Above all, Vos's Reformed Dogmatics is profoundly biblical. Vos the systematic theologian offers a healthy combination of sober proof-texting and extended theological commentary (e.g., he devotes seventeen pages to Romans 9 in his discussion of predestination), always cognizant that being biblical requires discerning and displaying the internal logic of special revelation, not simply collating a series of texts.
A number of Vos's dogmatic moves caught my attention. These include:
(1) His description of "holiness" as fundamentally a metaphysical attribute: "God is . . . called, 'the Holy One,' because he exists in himself and nothing can be compared to him." This fundamental sense of holiness entails two further senses: that God "also knows himself, seeks himself, and loves himself as the supreme embodiment of rational perfection. And . . . that he also makes the creature subservient to himself and separates it for himself." Divine holiness, for Vos, involves divine uniqueness, divine self-regard, and divine consecration of the creature to his service.
(2) His identification of "love" as God's principal moral attribute: According to Vos, goodness, grace, lovingkindness, mercy, and longsuffering are all expressions of God's love toward creatures. As it turns out, Vos's categorization here is not merely heuristic. In his treatment of predestination, Vos insists that God's love for elect sinners--an eminently personal relation--functions as the foundation of all the grace and mercy he pours out upon them through Christ and the Spirit.
(3) His adoption of the Reformed "minority report" on the doctrine of eternal generation: Although most Reformed theologians have argued that the Father's eternal begetting of the Son involves an eternal communication of their common divine essence, a notable minority of Reformed thinkers going back to John Calvin have argued that it does not. Vos takes the minority view for reasons often cited in the tradition, though his advocacy of this position is not without its own ambiguities.
(4) His defense of the classical Reformed view of God's freedom in relation to creatures (over against Edwardsean modifications): For Vos, God's free decree to create, redeem, and sanctify creatures includes three features. First, God's decree is free in that there are no grounds outside of God that compel him to decree what he decrees. Indeed, even God's internal grounds or reasons for decreeing what he decrees "do not compel him but give direction to his own perfect will." Second, God's decree is free in that, given his absolute self-sufficiency and bliss, he could have refrained from decreeing altogether. And, third, God's decree is free in that God could decree otherwise than he actually decrees (and thus, by implication, this is not the "best of all possible worlds").
(5) His sober treatment of "creation days": Vos is aware that the history of theology is not unified when it comes to interpreting the "creation days" of Genesis 1. He traces four arguments for taking these days in a nonliteral manner and then offers six arguments for interpreting them as literal days. To the question of whether one who adopts the nonliteral view should be "regarded a heretic," Vos responds: "No, in this sense the question is not an essential one. It would only become so if it provided the occasion for granting priority in principle over the Word of God to the so-called results of science." In other words, a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis 1 does not in and of itself threaten Reformed orthodoxy. A nonliteral interpretation of Genesis 1 becomes a threat to orthodoxy only when it accompanies a theological method that would make extra-biblical reasoning the canon of scriptural meaning.
I don't necessarily agree with every one of Vos's judgments on these important issues. But his judgments are evidence of the faithful and fertile theological mind that is at work in his Reformed Dogmatics.
So, students of Reformed theology, you know what to do...