[K:NWTS 24/1 (May 2009) 17-25]

Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology and Preaching

James T. Dennison, Jr.

On May 8, 1894, Geerhardus Vos took the podium at First Presbyterian Church, Princeton, New Jersey, to deliver his Inaugural Address as the first Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. The heresy trial of the infamous Charles Augustus Briggs was fresh in the mind of his auditors. Briggs, Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York, had been suspended by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America the previous year. Vos’s address, entitled “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” was a programmatic essay. It defined Biblical Theology as he would teach it for 39 years at Old Princeton. Vos’s last book—his magnum opus, The Pauline Eschatology—published 36 years later, would only deepen and enrich the Biblical Theological program laid down in 1894.

Early in that Inaugural Address, Vos articulated the principium of his approach:  “By the objective self-manifestation of God as the Redeemer, a new order of things is called into being” (the address is reprinted in Richard Gaffin, ed., Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 5). This new order of being is coterminous with God’s revelation in word and deed. And because it is God’s revelation, this new order intrudes the person and work of the Triune God into the created order. Vos would later define this new order as the eschatological arena. As the priority belongs to God himself, so the priority belongs to his arena breaking into creation. Eschatology is prior to soteriology. Said Vos, “The eschatological is an older strand in revelation than the soteric”(Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, 140). “The eschatological outlook is the mother soil out of which the tree of the whole redemptive organism has sprung” (The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, 2l-22). “Insofar as the covenant of works posited for mankind an absolute goal and unchangeable future, the eschatological may be even said to have preceded soteric religion” (“The Eschatology of the Psalter,” in The Pauline Eschatology, 325). “The believer has been translated into a state which while falling short of the consummated life of eternity, yet may be truly characterized as semi-eschatological. In view of this, it can cause no surprise . . . when the mind of the New Testament writers in its attempt to grasp the content of the Christian salvation makes the future the interpreter of the present, eschatology the norm . . . of soteriological experience” (“The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 92). “The eschatological strand is the most systematic in the entire fabric of the Pauline thought-world. For it now appears that the closely interwoven soteric tissue derives its pattern from the eschatological scheme, which bears all the marks of having had precedence in his mind” (The Pauline Eschatology, 60). “Romans 2:6, 7 . . . proves that the eschatological principle is so deeply embedded in the structure of the biblical religion as to precede and underlie everything else” (The Pauline Eschatology, 60).

These quotations contain the Vosian genius in nuce. The priority of the eschatological is as the priority of the Triune God. Hence every soteric revelation is eschatologically oriented. The soteric grace is heaven-originated, heaven-intruded and heaven-bound. The Lord of heaven reveals himself to his creatures in order to bring them to himself—in order to bring them to heaven. The Mediator of that soteric grace is none other than the Eschatological Son. God himself undertakes, in the person of his own Son, the pilgrimage which will bring many sons and daughters to glory—to the eschaton. His presence is no less real and actual under the types and shadows of the Old Testament as it is in the fullness of time accomplished under the New Testament. He is the lamb behind Abel’s lamb; he is the self-maledicted one who passes between the divided pieces of Abram’s covenantal sacrifice; he is the Paschal victim by whose blood Israel goes free; he is the Joshua who brings his people into Beulah land; he is the Davidide whose kingdom shall have no end; he is the banished Exile whose return is nothing less than a resurrection from the dead. He is the eschatological son of Adam; he is the eschatological son of Abraham; he is the eschatological son of David; he is the eschatological son of Zerubbabel—whose advent marks the fulfilling of all righteousness (Lk. 3:38; Mt. l:l-17; 3:15). He is the eschatologically elect and predestined one in whom we have become the eschatologically elect of God—chosen in Christ Jesus from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). He is the eschatologically called and summoned one in whom we have received the eschatological vocation— called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). He is the one eschatologically justified—made to be sin who knew no sin (2 Cor.5:21), justified in the Spirit (1 Tim. 3:16) by the resurrection from the dead (Rom. l:4)—in whom we have received eschatological justification, for he was raised up for our justification (Rom. 4:25). He is the one eschatologically glorified who has entered into the doxa of heaven—in whom we are all changed from glory to glory (2 Cor.3:18). Historia salutis and ordo salutis kiss one another in the Son. For his historia is the recapitulation of the ordo and in his historia our ordo is fulfilled.

Vos’s Inaugural Address laid down the blueprint for the semi-eschatological program. Biblical Theology regards supernatural revelation in its historical progress. Vos’s famous illustration of the flower from bud to blossom indicates the beautiful unfolding of God’s gracious words and deeds down through redemptive history. The history of redemption is an organism, every part of which is intimately united genetically. The historico-genetic character of Biblical Theology is both analeptic and proleptic—organically related retrospectively and prospectively. If we consider the Biblical Theological organism linearly, we discover typological analepsis and prolepsis. But Vos is deeper than mere typology—for revelation itself is richer than the bare horizontal. Like the Algebra II X-Y axis, the horizontal line is intersected by the vertical line. For Vos, the vertical line intruding on to the plane of linear redemptive history is the eschatological vector. Not only is the historico-genetic character of Biblical Theology oriented linearly; it is also oriented vertically—the eschatological penetrates into the temporal revealing the wonders of God’s person, God’s arena, God’s grace. Bare typology is a denial of the drama of the eschatological interface with the historical. The intrusion of the eschaton is as essential to a proper Biblical Theology as the typology of Scripture. By grace through faith, the believer is brought into this drama—the participation in the history of what God has done (time past) and the identification with what God continues to do in Christ Jesus (time present) with the assurance that he will continue to do in Christ what he has begun (time future). It is to this drama that Paul testifies when he says, under the infallible inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “God has raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6). The drama of the historico-genetic and eschatologically intrusionary biblical theological history of redemption is that my life is hidden with Christ in God in the text of his revealed word (Col. 3:3). It is not for me to extract from the text; rather it is for me to live in the text—to find myself a part of the beautiful organism unfolding by the grace of God to that perfect day.

Second, Biblical Theology, though historical in character, is not antithetical to the revealed character of truth. Vos is well aware of critical reductionism—attempts by critics of the word of God to reduce revelation to “rational truths” (l8th century), to idealistic dialectics (19th century), and, we may continue, to existential self-authentication (20th century). The truth of revelation is not subject to the latest critical theories. The historic unfolding of revelation is not an evolution of philosophical enlightenment. All higher criticism is unbiblical in that it reduces truth to prevailing philosophy. For Vos, the Bible is revealed truth historically unfolding.

Third, Biblical Theology is not a bare chronicle of events in sequence. When the Bible as a whole is considered biblically-theologically, we discover a philosophy of the history of redemption. This wholistic stance of Vos—integrally related to the historico-genetic character of revelation—underscores the fact that every point is part of the whole book. Atomistic treatment of texts is a removal of the part from the whole. As the severing of the head from the body, atomistic reductionism renders the Scripture a dead letter. Vos’s most profound and stimulating discussion of the philosophy of revelation and redemption is found in the remarkable third chapter of The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Vos concludes his Inaugural Address by directing remarks to the student of the Word of God. The Professor is giving an apologia pro munere meo professoris. In other words, here is how I will teach Biblical Theology. First, the organic scope of revelation in relation to the supernatural whole; the alternative is atomism and reductionism. Second, an antidote to destructive critical views. How well Vos knew these views! He had studied under August Dillman, Bernhard Weiss and Hermann Strack at Berlin—H. J. Holtzmann, Wilhelm Nowack and Wilhelm Windelband at Strasbourg. His masterful reviews of Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus and Bousset’s Kyrios Christos demonstrate that indeed an orthodox Biblical Theology is the one sufficient antidote to an apocalyptic Jesus and a Jesus reduced to religionsgeschichte. An eschatological perspective is the apologetic warp and woof of supernatural revelation. Third, Biblical Theology brings freshness and vitality to the study of the Word of God. Old truths are vividly reborn with the reality of the semi-eschatological perspective. There is drama between the pages of the Bible—a drama which beckons the believer to step inside and live the life of the age to come—even now! Finally, Biblical Theology “is of greatest importance and value for the study of Systematic Theology” (23). Both Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology resort to the same well—the same principium—namely, the Bible. Both mutually enrich one another. Though methodologically distinct, like the Trinity, they are not separate with respect to displaying the whole counsel of God.

When Vos stepped down from the Chair of Biblical Theology in 1932—at the age of 70—he could look back at 39 years of labor in which his inaugural sketch had been fulfilled in the classroom and in the study—with rhetorical flourish and the pen. He practiced what he preached. Machen was awed; Van Til, Murray, Stonehouse were affected; and B. B. Warfield, with whom Vos walked, often arm in arm, about the quadrangle at Princeton—B. B. Warfield was a dear friend

The crowning achievement of this remarkable career was The Pauline Eschatology, self-published first in 1930. It contains Vos’s mature reflection on the greatest apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. And that greatness arose from the marvellous transformation which occurred in a Jewish Pharisee trained at the feet of Gamaliel. Saul of Tarsus, Pharisee, became Paul of Arabia, Christian. On a dusty road outside of Damascus, this linear Jew looked full in the face of the eschatological Christ. Resurrection blazed upon Paul on the Damascus Road and that Pharisee knew that the eschaton had arrived in principle in the risen Lord Jesus. The centrality of the resurrection is the key to Paul’s conversion, the key to his missionary zeal, the key to his theology. Without it, one understands neither Paul nor Vos.

Pages 36-71 of The Pauline Eschatology contain a wonderful—indeed a lovely—prospectus of the semi-eschatological drama which has arrived in the resurrection of Christ. Here is where the death on the cross is confirmed as eschatologically final—a once-and-for-all sacrifice never to be repeated, fully sufficient for the sins of God’s people from the blood of Abel to the blood of the last martyr. Here—in the risen Lord Jesus—is where the vindication of God’s righteousness is evidenced once-and-for-all; no more death to those in the risen Christ—he is the resurrection and the life. Here—in the risen Lord Jesus—is the open conquest of the principalities and powers, the maledictory forces who dominate through the curse; no more bondage to the elemental powers for those risen with Christ, no more curse to those whose curse has been removed once-and-for-all in the risen Christ. The resurrection of Christ is the turning point of the ages, the moment in which the two ages—the present age and the age to come—overlap (see the famous diagram on page 38 of The Pauline Eschatology). We have been raised up now together with Christ Jesus, though we are not yet consummately raised in the body to behold him as he is. But as surely as we have been raised up together with him even now, we shall be raised up in the body at the day of his appearing and the now/not yet will be swallowed up in the never-ending forever and forever. For Vos, this semi-eschatological perspective was what characterized the burning hearts of the early Christians. As with Paul on the Damascus Road, the future had been brought forward into the present and their lives, as his life, had been transformed—changed from death to life—from darkness to light—from God-haters to lovers of God, the Father, God, the Son and God the Holy Spirit—from walking according to the flesh to walking by the Spirit. The life of the age to come had taken possession of them as Christ had taken possession of them; Christ, in whom is the life of the age to come. The light of the age to come had taken possession of them as Christ had taken possession of them; Christ, in whom is the light of the age to come. The love of God of the age to come had taken possession of them, as the Christ of God had taken possession of them; Christ, the well-beloved of the Father and the Spirit in whom the love of God was shed abroad in their hearts. The Spirit of God had taken possession of them as the Lord, the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18) had taken possession of them; Christ the Lord in whom the Spirit dwells, world without end.

Vos sets forth Paul’s theology by the remarkable statement: “to set forth the Apostle’s eschatology means to set forth his theology as a whole” (The Pauline Eschatology, 11). Paul’s soteriology (his theology of salvation) is therefore eschatologically (or better, semi-eschatologically) oriented. Four elements are reviewed: resurrection, salvation, justification, the Holy Spirit. The resurrection, which Jewish eschatology reserved to the end of history, has, through the resurrection of Christ, been revealed in the midst of history. Those united to Christ by grace through faith are incorporated into a new order—a new reality—a resurrection arena—in Christo coram Deo—interadventually positioned in resurrection-life through the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Salvation, in the Jewish eschatology, a linear drama awaiting the averting of the wrath to come on the last day, is now understood to be present—the believer even now delivered from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10), as well as assured at the consummation—no more wrath! Interadventually positioned in the life of salvation, the believer by grace through faith is not now under wrath nor will he ever be in the future, any more than Christ, in whom the believer exists—any more than Christ, who has borne the wrath of God, can at some future time become an object of the Father’s wrath. Justification, in the linear Jewish eschatology a declaration awaiting the final weighing of the scales of merit and demerit at the end of history, is now declared to be present in the justification of Jesus by resurrection on the ground of his all-sufficient merit covering all our demerits, whereby he earns the declaration, “Not Guilty,” “Acquitted,” “Right with God.” The death and resurrection of Christ, in the midst of time, becomes for the believer by grace through faith nothing less than “the last judgment anticipated” (The Pauline Eschatology, 55). Justification is an eschatological reality—justified freely now, justified freely not yet—nevermore to be unjustified. Vos gives short shrift to the fourth element—the Holy Spirit in his eschatological aspect because he had written a full article on the topic for the centennial celebration of Princeton Seminary. That article, “The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit,” first published in 1912, is the most profound, the most challenging, the most difficult of all Vos’s writings. In essence, the Holy Spirit becomes, through the resurrection of Christ, the αρραβών of the arena in which he has dwelt from all eternity. Now flowing in all his pneumatic fullness because of the resurrection of Christ in and by the Spirit, he indwells all who are united to Christ, as he indwells the risen Lord Jesus. Where the atmosphere of the age to come is wanted, the Spirit incorporates believers by grace through faith into the age of the Spirit—in whom, by whom and through whom they walk—no longer according to the flesh. It is now the inaugural fullness of the realm of the Spirit which has been poured out upon the believer through the Spirit of the risen Christ; that consummate fullness not yet enjoyed is none the less certainly pledged and assured to those destined for the realm where the Spirit dwells forever.

The eschatological perspective impacts the ethical life. Paul’s orientation to the heavenly places undergirds his imperatives for godly living. Quite simply, if one exists coram Deo—semi-eschatologically seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus—his ethical motivation is eschatologized. His chief delight is to live out of the arena of his Savior, his heavenly Father, the Spirit of holiness. The deeds of the flesh cannot exist in the heavenly arena. Since my life is hidden with Christ in God, my behavior and actions are to reflect that heavenly glory. While I never perfectly or consistently live as it were out of heaven, nonetheless my perspective on what pleases my heavenly Father proceeds from that eschatological dimension. As eschatology is prior to soteriology, so eschatology is prior to ethics. I can no more abandon myself to the works of the flesh, than Christ can abandon himself to the works of the flesh. And in my weakness, as I seek my strength from above, I plead, Abba, Father—let my actions be a mirror of the life of heaven itself. Soli Deo Gloria!

With respect to the preaching moment, Biblical-Theological preaching is semi-eschatologically oriented. Any less would be a betrayal of what we have learned from Geerhardus Vos. The hearer finds himself at the interface of the vertical and the horizontal—the eschatological and the temporal. And the task of the preacher is to draw the hearer’s life into the text. All Biblical-Theological preaching is textual preaching—the Biblical text in its context—the Biblical text in its redemptive-historical context—the Biblical text in its semi-eschatological context. All Biblical-Theological preaching in Christocentric preaching because for Paul, and all the New Testament writers, Christ is the center of the semi-eschatological drama. In Christ, we are seated in heavenly places—in Christ, we shall be raised up at the last day. Zwischen den Zeiten, we live ev Christo (“in Christ”). Paul’s favorite phrase for identification and union with Christ is ev Christo.

We preach so as to draw the hearer into Christ; to encourage the hearer to live in Christ; to pray that the Holy Spirit will even more sweetly enrich the hearer’s walk in and with Christ. The semi-eschatological Pauline theology—semi-eschatological Vosian Biblical Theology—means sweet glory for the believer because like Paul, Biblical-Theological preaching is content with nothing less than the preeminence of Jesus Christ—to make Christ known and the power of his resurrection: all else is counted as dung for the sake of the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus. The proclamation of the life of heaven provisionally now in the believer through Jesus Christ; the proclamation of the life of heaven consummately assured not yet to the believer through Jesus Christ. Sic sentio; sic praedico!