[K:NWTS 2/1 (May 1987) 33-41]

What is Biblical Theology?
Reflections on the Inaugural Address of Geerhardus Vos

James T. Dennison, Jr.

When Geerhardus Vos mounted the podium of First Presbyterian Church, Princeton, New Jersey on May 8, 1894, he faced an audience expecting an address with a unique focus on the relationship of biblical theology to the theological enterprise from the perspective of orthodox Reformed theology. The memory of the Briggs heresy trial was only a year old. The morass of liberal and radical biblical theology was evident not only to the more astute among them, but to the "man in the pew." By the last decade of the nineteenth century, so-called biblical theology of the critical stripe had eviscerated the theology from the Bible. In fact, the forward march of the liberal/critical biblical-theological enterprise had succeeded in displacing theology from the church in order to lodge it in the centers of scholarly sophistication. Liberalism–always gnostic, antiegalitarian and bigoted–had replaced theology with the history of religion (Religionsgeschichte). When Karl Barth would rebel in 1918/19, the ecclesiastical world would be shocked to attention. But when Vos delivered his inaugural, few rushed to realize the monumental character of his remarks. Perhaps old Princeton's impact was already waning. Perhaps the post-Civil War Evangelical Empire had rushed past Reformed orthodoxy. Perhaps the tyranny of "practical Christianity" made it impossible for the general church to hear. But that audience of May 8 heard a remarkable address on first principles–the nature and method of biblical theology.

Geerhardus Vos assumed the first chair of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1893. The choice of Vos was the choice of a Calvinist who was: (1) committed to the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith; and (2) thoroughly familiar with German higher criticism, 18th and 19th century biblical theologies, and the exegetical scholarship on both sides of the Atlantic. A more felicitous choice cannot be imagined. Vos was fluent in German and Dutch and spent three postgraduate years in Germany under such notable critics as August Dillmann, Herman Strack and Bernhard Weiss. Yet his orthodoxy emerged unscathed. In fact, his firsthand acquaintance with the historical-critical school reinforced his confidence in the Scriptures as an objective, supernatural self-disclosure of God.

Biblical Theology as Theology
of Supernatural Revelation

It is the supernatural character of revelation which dominates Vos's inaugural address. And it is his conviction of this quality of Scripture which distinguishes Vos's biblical theology from the "Heinz 57 varieties" of the discipline both before and since. For Vos, genuine biblical theology is derived from the conviction that the Scriptures are "objective revelation." We do not meet a mere witness to revelation in the Scriptures, nor do we find a record of religious inspiration, nor do we study to remove the temporal from the eternal. We receive the "oracles of God" and from them derive our biblical theology.

Vos's inaugural was a well-conceived introduction to the science of biblical theology. The principles elaborated in this address were to form the basis of his teaching until his retirement from Princeton in 1932. In his articles, books, sermons and in the classroom notes left by his students, Vos simply fleshes out the foundational principles of biblical theology as set forth in this address.

Biblical theology is first of all theology. And theology presupposes an active self-disclosure of God. This active divine principle sets genuine theology apart from all forms of anthropocentric liberalism which reduce theology to religion. Religion is a subjective, not an objective science. It represents man's grasp of the noumenal; it delineates man's psychical nature. In sum, religion is human religious experience arising from within man. It is anthropology, not theology. Vos was boldly distinguishing his method from that prevalent in his day. Biblical theology arises from an objective self-disclosure of God, not a species of the human religious consciousness.

Biblical Theology as Soteriological Revelation

Vos applies the active character of God's self-disclosure to a profound analysis of the postlapsarian world. To fallen man, God discloses himself as Redeemer and in that soteriological manifestation "a new order of things is called into being." Understanding this new order of things is the function of exegetical theology. Again, the data upon which the exegete labors is the record of God's self-disclosure, i.e., the Bible. Hence "Biblical Theology is that part of Exegetical Theology which deals with the revelation of God." But this would not distinguish biblical theology sufficiently from Systematic Theology. Indeed in some circles, a biblical theology is but a species of systematic theology, i.e., a theology (systematically) derived from the Bible. Vos defines biblical theology as divine self-disclosure in the active sense, i.e., in the act of God’s revealing himself. This means that revelation is considered historically and progressively. In other words, biblical theology is a historico-genetic discipline.

The present reader need not be intimidated by this terminology. Simply stated, Vos is saying that biblical theology thinks about the revelation of God in Scripture as it unfolds or develops through history. Revelation possesses a genetic linkage as it progresses through history. Perhaps a few illustrations will help. The first revelation of the new order of salvation for fallen man is contained in Genesis 3:15 (the so-called protevangelium or "first gospel"). Adam and Eve are told that a human being will bring about a reversal of Satan’s apparent victory over fallen man. As the Scriptures unfold from Genesis to the Gospels, we learn that this man-child will be a Hebrew (from the seed of Abraham), a Judahite (of the tribe of Judah) and a Davidide (son of David). Thus the unfolding picture of the coming deliverer becomes more specific as we approach the incarnation. Or consider the self-disclosure of God in the tabernacle-temple. God condescends or humbles himself; he dwells or abides with his people; he identifies with their condition (a tent in the desert; a building in the promised land). When Jesus affirms that he is the temple (Jn. 2:19), the historic progress displayed from tabernacle to temple finds its accomplishment in him. Jesus is the condescension of God; he is God dwelling in our midst he identifies with our human race.

Perhaps we ought to pause and ask what all this has to do with the task of preaching. Vos's method guarantees that our preaching will be theocentric and Christocentric. Theocentric because what we read in Scripture is God disclosing himself. We must remind our people that they meet God in the preaching moment. God himself has broken into the fallen world and in Scripture he initiates revelation of his very own being, his very own character, his very own transcendent arena. If our preaching is dominated by "self-help" and "how-to" and endless anecdotes, it is because we have forgotten the theocentric character of the Word of God. Moreover, our preaching must be Christocentric for we live on the nether side of the fall, east of Eden. Christ Jesus is our Daysman–our sole redeemer. Our only way to the Father is by him. All Scripture bears witness of him (cpr. Lk. 24:44). Ever since Genesis 3:15, there has been a Christological dimension to the Word of God because ever since Genesis 3:15 God has graciously inaugurated a new order for fallen man–the order of redemption through his Son. If our preaching is dull, moribund and trivial, it is because it has not been organized around the grace of a new order through the Son–Jesus Christ the Lord.

Biblical Theology as Progressive Revelation

The unfolding or progressive character of revelation enables the biblical theologian to trace the increasingly rich display of God's own self-disclosure to sinners. In this way, the Scriptures become more than a proof-text of doctrine; more than a "topic" for the present-day. The Scriptures are seen to be organically linked and historically interconnected. One part of Scripture is integrally united with other parts. Hence the advocate and practitioner of biblical theology is always searching backwards and forwards in the unfolding history of redemption. The crucial question for the interpreter of the Bible becomes: how is this passage organically related to what God has disclosed of himself before, and what he will yet disclose of himself in the future? Indeed, if all Scripture is God-breathed, then every part of revelation is directly related to the plan of the Revealer for the history of redemption. His revelation, given in history, has both a retrospective (looking backward) and prospective (looking forward) dimension. The new order or the new creation which God progressively displays in Scripture, advances toward its fulfillment and consummation.

Illustrative of this organic interrelatedness of the history of redemption is Vos's use of the budding plant analogy. Even as the adult bloom is contained in the flower bud and unfolds from it, so the history of redemption unfolds from Genesis to Revelation as a last Adam is the full blossom. If the first exodus under Moses is the bud, the new exodus in Christ Jesus is the full blossom. Redemptive history is an organism.

The continuity of God's verbal self-disclosure is further integrated by his act revelation. Word and deed complement one another. The great acts of God–especially the exodus, crucifixion and resurrection–are revelatory. Vos does not fall prey to the error of mythologizing the acts of God by means of verbal witness or testimony. He emphatically declares the revelatory character of the mighty acts of God in history. The act is identified with revelation in history. Moreover act is further explicated by word. Hence the mighty acts of God are not abstract moments–they are followed by words of explanation and interpretation. And in the organic continuum of redemptive history, act and word progressively unfold. Acts recapitulate one another; words additionally exegete one another.

Word and deed coalesce in the display of the new order advanced by God for sinful man. The heart of this new order is Christ. From beginning to end, from creation to new creation, the principle by which God makes all things new is the person and work of his Son. Christ Jesus is the central meaning of all revelation–word and deed. He is the one of whom the law and the prophets bear witness. The Christological meaning and structure of revelation is the goal toward which every interpreter of the Word of God must direct his efforts. Christ Jesus in his fullness–by way of anticipation (Old Testament), by way of accomplishment (New Testament), by way of consummation (parousia). Vos heartily endorsed the dictum of Augustine:

The New Testament is in the Old concealed;
The Old Testament is by the New revealed.

Biblical Theology as Linear and Transcendent

The finality of this Christological revelation is both linear and transcendent. It progresses linearly or horizontally through redemptive history from first Adam to second Adam. Yet in addition it continually discloses a transcendent (or vertical) point of contact. We may designate this the eschatological dimension which intrudes from above into the history of redemption. The full disclosure of the incarnation marks the end of the organic development. No further redemptive acts occur; nothing greater than the Christ-event can take place. The record of this accomplishment closes the canon. Beyond the inscripturation of the New Testament, the people of God may expect no further revelation (save perhaps at the parousia).

The nature of this revelatory process is multiform or "much variegated." Not all vehicles of revelation are the same nor are all the forms of revelation identical. There are four gospels (or a four-fold gospel), epistles and apocalyptic in the New Testament. The Old Testament is replete with poetry, lament, narrative history, court chronicle, prophecy, apocalyptic and much more. Vos is suggesting the unity in diversity of biblical revelation. The continuity of redemption is not annulled by its diverse forms–covenant, theocracy, kingdom, church.

Biblical Theology in History

Biblical theology has not always enjoyed acceptance in orthodox circles. The origin of the science during the heyday of rationalism made it suspect at the outset. Johann Solomo Semler's distinction between kernel and husk (the eternally valid from the temporally human) reduced biblical theology to philosophy and its bastard child moralism. Any notion of revelation was repudiated methodologically. Man and his reason sat in judgment of that which was and that which was not divine in Scripture. Such a method could spawn only arbitrariness in exegesis and preaching. Whether rationalism of the 18th century, evolutionary religious idealism of the 19th century or existentialism of the 20th century, the critical Biblical Theology movement has produced curious molds into which the facts and themes of the Bible have been forced. Hence, critical Biblical Theology has generated more eisegesis than exegesis (as modern literary/narrative critics are quick to point out). Tragically, more orthodox evangelicalism has not been immune to these aberrations. The spate of topical and practical sermons gushing from 19th and 20th century evangelical pulpits is, in fact, formally no different from the moralistic reductionism of previous generations of liberals. The lusting after success or relevance so characteristic of modern evangelicalism is in fact the heritage of the Enlightenment, not the Reformation.

Sufficient corrective to these bastard biblical theologies is the principle of organic self-disclosure revealed in the Bible itself. The temptation to resist alien impositions on the Scriptures may be too great for liberal advocates of this science, but those who love the Scriptures as a supernatural revelation must be content to reflect only that which God himself has disclosed in the pages of Holy Writ. It is this principle which is the sufficient apologetic for a truly biblical theology. It is none other than God himself who speaks to us in his word, who manifests himself in the Magnalia Dei ("mighty acts of God"), who displays his own person and work in history–redemptive history.

Biblical Theology and Our Preaching

The insights gathered from Vos's inaugural mean that our preaching can never be the same again. For Vos has alerted us to the Copernican revolution in hermeneutics–eschatology is prior to soteriology; and all soteriology is eschatologically oriented. Through the Scriptures, God has invited us into the very arena which he himself inhabits. With Paul, we are caught up to the "heavenly places." Never again can we isolate or abstract a part of God's Word from its biblical-theological and organic context in the history of redemption. The people of God are hungry and thirsty for Christ Jesus. The poor lambs of Christ yearn for the streams of living water that flow by the throne of God. The vessels of grace long to be lifted to the right hand of the glory on high. Biblical-theological preaching will bring our people to the arms of Jesus. It will direct their gaze toward the crystal sea mirroring the lapis lazuli throne. It will draw them to find their life hidden with Christ in God.

Preaching which does any less is bankrupt. For anything less is not an exaltation of God in his glory, or the Son of God in his mercy, or the Spirit of God in his heavenly motions–anything less is the promotion of the earthly agenda of the preacher.

Westminster Theological Seminary
Escondido, California

Suggestion for further reading:

Geerhardus Vos, "The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline," in Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., ed., Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980): 3-24.