In the spring of 2003, Rev. Brian Vos, pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church, Caledonia, Michigan, located the autobiographical sketch of Geerhardus Vos that follows. Appearing in a Dutch periodical in January 1933, Vos was responding to the editor's (Dr. Albertus Eekhof) request for four contributions: (1) an autobiographical sketch; (2) a photograph; (3) some of his poetry; (4) a contribution to the periodical.1 Eekhof was known personally to Vosin fact, they had met during Eekhof's visits to America (Vos's letter to Eekhof, October 28, 1932).
When Vos retired from Princeton Theological Seminary in the spring of 1932, he was recovering from severe, even life-threatening, illness. He summered in his mountain retreat at Roaring Branch, Pennsylvania, before embarking with his wife on the long, cross-country trip by car to Santa Ana, California. That journey consumed about two weeks in late September 1932. Wearied by the long road trip, still depleted by his springtime illness, Vos apologetically writes to Eekhof that he is finally able to fulfill the latter's requests.
When Eekhof printed the autobiographical sketch, he wrote his own introduction ("Prof. Dr. Geerhardus Vos") to the piece and featured the photograph that Vos had forwarded. The picture of Vos in profile portrays a nattily attired professor in a checkered formal or semi-formal jacket and bow tie. Vos indicated the likeness was taken in 1913 when he was 51 years old.
This autobiographical sketch is remarkable as much for what it does say as for what it does not. Here is the only personal reflection upon his life extantand that in a Dutch periodical from the Old World which he had abandoned more than a half century before. And yet, in this sketch, that half-century is virtually ignored. The magisterial career of the biblical theologian is barely mentioned and that only in the abbreviated summary at the end. The preoccupation of the sketch is with poetry. True, Vos had sent some of his own poems to Eekhof (perhaps in the spring of 1932)hence the emphasis on poetry. But why the de-emphasis on his theological career?
We remain in the dark about Vos's personal reflections on his Princeton career, his ecclesiastical life at Princeton (and beyond), even his family life. He shuts the door against our curiosity over the precise area in which he affects us as biblical theologians. To what may we attribute this diffidence, this anonymity? The answer is as elusive as what he omits from his autobiography. The informed reader will note that he even fails to list three of his published books: The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes (1886); The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church (1903); Grace and Glory. Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary (1922). He hides the full extent of his theological writing career even as he hides the full extent of his biography. Allowing for a genuine measure of reticence (something Vos attributes to his Oldreformed German pietistic roots; Letter to Eekhof, October 28, 1932), Vos's humble self-effacement only tantalizes us with the lines printed below. Tell us more, we cry. Let us see your mind, your heart, your persona as it interfaces with 1894 to 1932 (as you did in your 19th century letters to Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck and B.B. Warfield). But Vos veils himself, retreats from useven as he retreated from Princeton summer after summer to Roaring Branch.
Our forthcoming biography of Vos and annotated edition of more than 80 of his letters2 will attempt to pull back the veil on the enigmatic persona of Geerhardus Vos. But even then, he will in part continue to elude us, veiling his personal emotions and thoughts behind the eschatological canopy. Perhaps, in the end, it is enough for him that he is hidden with Christ in God; and that, in Christ, he is known even as he now knows.
James T. Dennison, Jr.
1 Fulfilled as "Dutch: The Withering of a Language," Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary 19/2 (September 2004): 6-10.
2 Forthcoming from P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
I was born in Heerenveen in Friesland on March 14, 1862. Both my parents came from Graafschap Bentheim,2 where there was great empathy with the religious movement involved with the "Secession" (Afscheiding). They remembered that a prohibition (based on the Napoleonic Code) against secret political gatherings was used to have the dragoons scatter the religious gatherings of small groups who stood in protest against the "Big Church" (Groote Kerk ) in Bentheim. My father's name was Jan Hendrik Vos, my mother's was Aaltje Beuker. More about the earlier ecclesiastical events in "the Graafschap" can be read in a small book published some time ago by my uncle, Rev. [Hendericus] Beuker, titled Tubantia.3
My father received his pastoral training in Kampen. He was pastor in Ulzen4 (in Bentheim), Heerenveen, Katwijk (Zuid Holland), Lutten aan de Dedemsvaart, Pernis (on the island of IJselmonde, across from Schiedam), and Ommen in Overijssel. The latter was the place from where (if I am not mistaken) Rev. [Albertus] Van Raalte left for America, and the memory of him and his work was still vivid when we lived there. My parents traveled from there to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where my father preached for many years until his retirement around 1900.
I received my education in the public schools in Katwijk, Lutten, Pernis, and later at the so-called "French School" in Schiedam. Immediately thereafter I received private tutoring from Rev. Engelbrecht in Spijkenisse (Zuid Holland). Rev. Engelbrecht had spent several years in South Africa (Cape Colony) as a teacher and was thus able to teach me French and English.
After my stay in his house I was enrolled at the gymnasium5 in Amsterdam;6 the rector was Kappeyne van de Coppello (the brother of the "minister"7 of that name). My most vivid memories are those connected with the instruction of Latin, taught at that time by Dr. Speyer (who later became professor of Sanskrit), and the teaching of W. Hofdijk8 in Dutch language and literature. I greatly admired his "Kennemer9 Ballads," especially his reverence (which at times bordered on the religious) for the world of the trees of North Holland north of the IJ River. I still remember one expression he used in a description of that landscape: "Trees, you'd almost kneel before them."10
In 1881 I graduated from the gymnasium in Amsterdam. It was the same year in which my family moved to America.
Apart from Hofdijk and his "Handbook of Dutch Literature",11 I was influenced most by the poetry of ten Kate12 and (from the past) by that of Jan Luiken.13 Da Costa14 also strongly spoke to me. I did not get to know Vondel15 and Bilderdijk16 well until later.
During my stay in Germany as a student (1885-86 in Berlin; 1886-88 in Strassbourg), I became better acquainted with the more recent German literature. I enjoyed most the poetry of Gottfried Keller17 and Conrad Ferdinand Meier,18 both Swiss. I also liked to read Hamerling,19 who was then all the rage. The classical German literature and the Romanticism of the last part of the 18th and the first part of the 19th century remained more in the background.
During my later stay in this country [America], I had great appreciation for Emerson's poetic side (less so for Longfellow, although he was then very much in vogue). Of the contemporary British poets, Tennyson and Swinburne were my ideal.
My career in education:
1881-1883: taught the introductory literary courses20 at the then still very small theological school of the (Dutch) Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan;
1888-1893: professor of systematic theology at the same seminary;
1893-1932: professor of biblical theology at the seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in Princeton, New Jersey.
I spent the years from 1883 to 1893 as a student at Princeton Seminary (1883-1885) and at the above-mentioned universities in Berlin and Strasbourg (1885-1888).
In the area of theology I published two books (in English): The Self-Disclosure of Jesus (1926) and The Pauline Eschatology (1930).
My poetic output consists of the following collections:
Spiegel der Genade (Mirror of Grace, 1922)
Spiegel der Natuur (Mirror of Nature, 1927)
Charis (Grace and Charm) (English verses, 1931)
Spiegel de Doods (Mirror of Death, 1932)
1 Published in Neerlandia 37 (January 1933): 9-10. Translation and footnotes prepared by Mr. Ed M. van der Maas of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
2 Dutch Graafschap = German Grafschaft = English county = an area administered or governed by a count. Graafschap Bentheim shows on the map as a bulge in the border between the Netherlands and Germany that is surrounded on three sides by the Netherlands.
3 Tubantia refers to the eastern part of the province of Overijssel that is also known as Twente. It borders on Graafschap Bentheim, which was apparently also considered part of Tubantia. Today "Tubantia" appears to be used mostly as a name for a variety of sports clubs.
4 Common modern spelling Ulsen (German: Uelsen).
5 Pre-university high school with classical curriculum, including Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, in addition to the modern languages (French, German, and English).
6 Amsterdam did not begin its explosive growth until late in the nineteenth century, and it is likely (though I have not verified this) that in Vos's day there was only one gymnasium in the city.
7 Vos puts minister in quotation marks. This may be simply a pointer to the fact that he is using minister in a political rather than religious sense. An interesting speculation is that the quotation marks reflect Vos's negative opinion of Johannes Kappeyne van de Coppello, who was in Vos's view not a true minister (one who serves) in any sense. He was the liberal formateur of the coalition cabinet that served from 1877 until 1879. In this cabinet Kappeyne van de Coppello was Minister of the Interior. In that role he managed to get a new law on primary education passed, in spite of fierce opposition from confessional constituencies, which made the standards and requirements for the schools more stringent, but without any government support for the non-public schools. Petitions were signed by 305,000 Protestants (members of the Antirevolutionary party) and 164,000 Catholics, but to no avail. The coalition crumbled in 1879, when Vos was 17.
8 W. J. Hofdijk (1817-1888), poet, prose writer, and playwright. A modern evaluation says: "His plays, as well as other work, are romantic-historically inspired. His unbridled imagination, ambitions/aspirations, and lack of self-criticism kept him from truly unfold his poetic talents; nevertheless, his "Kennemer Balladen" (1850-1852) remain of importance as expressions of the Romantic Movement in the Netherlands."
9 "Kennemer" or "Kennemerland" is the region around and west of Haarlem.
10 The phrase is difficult to translate exactly. The Dutch does not have "almost," but the addition keeps, I think, the phrase from becoming a literal command rather than what is intended: a sense of awe that would make kneeling a not inappropriate response.
11 Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche letterkunde (Amsterdam: Kraay, 1872).
12 J. L. L. ten Kate (1819-1889). "Ten Kate wrote poetry with too much ease, which made his oeuvre enormously large. He became a favorite target of Frederik van Eeden, who wrote a wickedly funny poem called "For J. J. L. ten Kate," in which he skewers ten Kate's easy flowing but often not very remarkable style. In another poem, "Predikantenlied" ("Pastors' Song"), van Eeden pokes fun at the many pastor-poets who were publishing at the time, often with little literary merit. Among the many pastor-poets he mentions and admonishes to quit their literary dilettantism, is also ten Kate. There is, however, one exception: Abraham Kuyper, whom is admonished topleasequit writing his newspaper articles, etc., and to take up poetry, clearly the lesser of two evils. Van Eeden did present an (apparently sincere) apology to ten Kate on the occasion of the latter's hundred birthday, at which point ten Kate had been dead for some thirty years."
13 Jan Luyken (1649-1712)
14 Isaac da Costa (1798-1860). Dutch poet and author who succeeded Willem Bilderdijk as one of the main leaders of the Reveil. His poetry is considered to be more personal, more deeply felt, and more honest than that of Bilderdijk (see below). A work that created much furor was Objections to the Spirit of the Age, a Romantic "manifesto" that does battle with the then-dominant rationalism, with neology and liberalism. Bilderdijk warmly endorsed the work.
15 Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679). Considered the great patriotic poet of the Netherlands.
16 Willem Bilderdijk (1756-1831). Foremost Dutch poet of his era, he became the father of the Reveil. He was "a classic exemplar of reactionary Romanticism who despised rationalists, utilitarians, and revolutionaries of every sort" (cf. James D. Bratt, Dutch Calvinism in Modern America, 10).
17 Gottfried Keller (1819-1890).
18 Conrad Ferdinand Meier (1825-1898).
19 Robert (Rupert) Hammerling (1830-1889). Austrian poet who, as a supporter of Bismarck, strongly supported in his writings the unification of all Germans.
20 It is not clear whether this would be Dutch literature or biblical literature.