K: JNWTS 30/2 (September 2015): 3-8

Voices for the Supernatural and Revealed Word of God:  John William Burgon and Geerhardus Vos

Jeanie C. Crain

A growing and increasingly accepted liberalism in biblical interpretation has become a cancer threatening to destroy faith in the inspired and providentially preserved Word of God. John William Burgon diagnosed the onset of the disease when he responded in detail to the five essays and two reviews contained in Essays and Reviews (1860)—these written by clergymen in the Church of England in response to challenges to orthodox religion—in his Inspiration and Interpretation: Being an Answer to a Volume entitled "Essays and Reviews" (1861). Burgon immediately identified the bizarre and cancerous nuclei threatening its aggressive spread within the orthodox body as disbelief in the inspired Word of God. Such disbelief leads quickly to a view that the Bible is only an ordinary book.

In The Self-Disclosure of Jesus: The Modern Debate About the Messianic Consciousness  (1953), Geerhardus Vos notes that the modern search for what is of permanent value in Christianity has settled upon the question of the identity of Jesus, discovering in the Messianic character of Jesus a "great rock of offense…, a rock not easy to remove" ( "Preface"). The Messianic question, Vos insists, "has meaning only within the limits of a strict Biblical supernaturalism; it presupposes the recognition of the supernatural provenience of both prophecy and the fulfillment of prophecy" (13). He says, "Anyone who lacks the sensorium for the supernatural cannot but walk through them [the figurative language of the Old Testament] as the rationalist would walk through the scenes of a wonder-land" (23). History, prophecy, typology, and miracle, however, must all be excised from a book that is no longer viewed as "entirely sui generis; and claiming to be the work of Inspiration" (Burgon clxii). Likewise, Vos calls "perverse" the modern mind habituated to rejecting Jesus’ Messianic consciousness (16). "How halting and inwardly disrupted a religious approach to Jesus must be which feels bound to stop short of accepting and receiving Him at the face value of his own central self-estimate!" (16).

In Inspiration and Interpretation, Burgon answered what he considered heretical and false statements by seven writers, six of the authors being ministers of the Church of England. The problem with Frederick Temple’s ideas are that they reflect a belief in progress and a mature humanity, influenced by developments in physical science and history, which dethrones God and sets up Self (conscience) in his place (xvii). Biblical revelation gives way to natural revelation. Rowland Williams attacks the traditional notion of predictive prophecy. Burgon characterizes Williams as "a man who explains away Miracles, denies Prophecy, and idealizes Scripture; the man who disparages the formulæ he uses daily, mutilates the Canon, and evacuates the most solemn doctrines of the Church!" (xlv). Baden Powell attacks the miracles of Scripture, largely based on their being contrary to the uniformity of Nature (xlviii). Henry Bristow Wilson makes the claim that the National Church should be regarded as a purely secular institution concerned with ethics, not divinity, and that people should be freed from intellectual bondage to traditional doctrines and creeds (lxv). Charles Goodwin’s intent finds Moses, the author of Genesis, absurd and ignorant and argues a literal interpretation of Genesis should not bear a moment’s serious discussion (civ). Mark Pattison wants a free-handling of religious and moral truths in keeping with current knowledge (cxiii). Benjamin Jowett, in the seventh and last essay, makes explicit his disbelief that the Bible is the word of God and insists it should be interpreted like any other book (cxli). Burgon describes  a concerted effort on the part of the seven writers in Essays and Reviews to destroy traditional faith by advancing interpretation without inspiration—and thereby reducing the Bible to a "ghostly phantom" (ccxxiv). Burgon concludes these writers have conspired to free-handle God’s divine truth.

Geerhardus Vos explains "the doubt cast upon Jesus’ Messianic consciousness" springs "from an inner dislike of it," with the dislike coming out of an attempt to correlate it with other approaches to the identity of Jesus. He concedes there may be nothing intentional in the process of such critical treatment (16). Vos identifies "a historico-critical" approach as one such impediment to Jesus’ Messianic identity. He further finds the "modern" and "liberal" thought-form as provoking protest to the Messianic. He goes on to observe, "The religious mentality centering in the Messiahship is necessarily one of absolute submission to a rule imposed from above" (17). It is exactly at the point of this vertical and horizontal interface that the modern mind stumbles, denying the vertical and seeking to locate truth in the linear, temporal, and historical plane. For Vos, though, "the Messiah is the incarnate representation of… divine authoritativeness," bodily manifesting eschatological fulfillment. Jesus, as prophesized, represents divine interposition and consummation: "Everywhere in the New Testament the Christ is, even to his humanity, an eternalized figure whose redemptive significance is not subject to eclipse" (18, 19, 20). Concerning this Messianic Jesus, Vos declares, "The conception of the Messiahship is the most pronouncedly supernaturalistic conception in the whole range of Biblical religion" (22). The miracles of the New Testament "are the appropriate supernatural concomitants of the supernatural Christ; they are signs of the times" (23). The appearance of the Messiah serves as the vector and "first act of the great drama of the End" in which God restores the primordial harmonies, which existed at the beginning of the world (22). Redemptive history is both linear and vertical; the temporal, permeated by the Eternal. The denial of the Messianic becomes, finally, a scheme "for bringing Jesus down to the level of a man feeling at home in, and drawing his inspiration from, the purely natural realm" (23).

Dean Burgon and Geerhardus Vos come together in condemning the disbelief that has been eating away at the Bible as the inspired Word of God, excising Supernatural revelation, denying prophecy, typology, the reality of miracles, eschatology and divine plan, and finding offensive any Messianic identity of Jesus. As Vos notes, the question of Messianic consciousness "deals exclusively with the problem of whether or not Jesus believed himself to be, and claimed to be, the Messiah. Those who are inclined to answer in the negative do not, as a rule, occupy the standpoint of supernaturalism" (13). They prefer to see Jesus in a non-supernatural garb—"as a religious genius, an ethical teacher, or a social reformer" (13). The movement of the modern mind may not be, however, so much a "conspiracy against faith," as Burgon describes the results of Essays and Reviews (xi), but a "something warmer," as described by Vos (14). Vos explains, the modern mind prefers "to take its departure from Christ in addressing itself to the world rather than a movement seeking the Person of Christ in order to occupy itself with Him" (37). Eliminating Messianic consciousness from Jesus has taken several important turns: outright denial, agnosticism, a theory of progressive Messiahship, a hypothesis of a gradually developing consciousness of Messiahship, and a view of Messiahship as a merely formal conception. Vos spends significant time examining and dispensing with each of these approaches. He follows these with discussion of the various titles for Jesus: the Christ, the Lord, the Son of God, the Son of Man, and the Savior. With respect to the historical Jesus, he makes a pivotal and significant observation:  "Our Lord’s human nature and all that entered into it of spiritual experience was not something existing for its own sake; it existed and operated for the sake of his Messianic calling" (104). Jesus’ Messianic consciousness holds everything else in "subordination and subservience to . . . regnant purpose" (15). Vos expresses admiration for the theological tradition of the Church, which defines the "threefold office of Christ as that as Prophet, Priest and King" (117).

Naturalism forms the antithesis to Supernaturalism, and this dualistic, dichotomous tension can be found everywhere in the names or titles used in conjunction with the historical Jesus and the Anointed Messianic King and Christ. Vos says that "in present day usage the name of Christ is in danger of suffering neglect, and the name of Jesus, mostly without realization of its etymological import, has almost become the exclusive designation." He goes on to conclude, "this is perhaps a symptom of the generally shifting attitude in the religious appraisal of  our Lord from the official to the merely human" (109). With the early Church and Paul, Vos favors the combination of "Jesus Christ," which expresses "a strong appreciation for the legitimate standing of Jesus in His office of the Christ," this attested from heaven at his baptism and transfiguration (109).

Beyond the discussion of whether phrases of importance became "petrified into conventional designation" as "the Messiah," the title takes on connotations of both heaven and earth, with current criticism preferring the earthly (Vos, 105). This earthly approach will find in the title a reference to the People of Israel as opposed to the eschatological King, with its backward and forward outlook (106, 21). Vos finds the priestly, prophetic, and kingly functions pertaining to the Messiah as integral and forming "the innermost core of the Saviour’s Messiahship" rather than concomitant to Christhood (117, 112).

In each of the other titles, a similar tension manifests itself in both human and divine interpretive possibilities. "The Lord" bears connotations of the sub-Messianic as well as the Messianic, an ordinary polite address or designation for exalted Savior (Vos 118). To "go before the Lord" can refer to Jesus or Jehovah, or Jesus as God. Vos makes the point, however, that "The early Christians were not so one-sidedly occupied with ‘the historical Jesus’ as certain groups of modern Christians are" (121). Their preoccupation, he says, was "with Christ in heaven" (121). This preoccupation shows itself in the controversy accompanying Wilhelm Bousset’s Kyrios Christos (1913), which argues Jesus never bore the title Kyrios, that Kyrios was a common title for the cult-god of pagan religion, and that Paul adapted the name into Christology (137). Vos identifies Bousset’s real purpose as an attempt "to sever the Pauline form of Christianity, with its deification and worship of Jesus," preferring instead, a historical Jesus as a mere man (138).

With "Son of God," the "manward relations of the Messianic office" reverse into a relationship between God and the Messiah (141). The discussion here pertains to whether: (1) Son of God should be translated "child of God;" (2) understood as Messianic office (with the Messiah the heir and representative of God ); (3) explained as a nativistic usage ascribed to the paternity of God; or (4) refer to a Trinitarian affirmation of sonship existing in eternity (142). Vos devotes three chapters to his exploration of this title, devoting one chapter to the title itself, one to those who used the title in relation to Jesus, and another, to discussing the sonship presented in the gospel of John. It must be remembered that Vos discusses the consciousness of Jesus himself [and he is not happy with the inward, subjective turn suggested by "consciousness"] by which he means "the unifying, comprehensive character" holding everything else into subordination and subservience (15). Vos makes the point that liberal tradition has "ruled out the trinitarian and nativistic," retaining "historical belief only in  the official-Messianic and the ethico-religious," with skepticism to all Messianic claims, leaving finally, only the fact that "Jesus called himself a ‘child of God’" (143).

As for the "Son of Man," Vos holds to prophetic and typological interpretation: "the figure to which it is attached in Daniel 7 was from the outset the figure of the Messiah," thus excluding any interpretation as a solemn title or "simply man" (227). The fact that Jesus alone employs the title to himself and that the Synoptics and John use the title with frequency of occurrence, more than eighty times, "calls for notice" (230). Vos declares, "there must have existed in our Lord’s mind a potent reason why He preferred this way of designating Himself to all others," acknowledging or a least not repudiating other names, but almost eliminating them in his use, except for Son of God, with even this used with less frequency (254). Vos makes the critical point explicit: "the potent reason lay in the fact that the title Son of Man stood farthest removed from every possible Jewish prostitution of the Messianic office" (254). He goes on to explain that in the spirit of Daniel, "it suggested a Messianic career in which, all of a sudden, without human interference or military conflict, through an immediate act of God, the highest dignity and power are conferred" (254). Those who prefer the mere historical will find this most objectionable because "The kingship here portrayed is not only supernatural; it is ‘transcendental’" (254).

In his chapter on "The Saviour," Vos notes an irony: "the half century of toil of the ‘liberal’ theology, instead of rehabilitating the historical Jesus, has only resulted in the construction of a far different figure—a figure which is now being felt unhistorical after all" (272). He says this, in part, is due to a modernizing of the character of Jesus that has "seized upon the Soter idea… because it seems to offer a point of contact with the favorite liberal conception of Him as a humanitarian idealist. The term ‘Saviour’ seems best adapted to mark Him as the Uplifter and Benefactor, bent mainly upon relieving all manner of distress and abnormality among men" (271). Vos concludes, however, "the title and function of Soter prove themselves ill-fitted for incorporation into the philosophy of the life of Jesus" (272). This is so because the Messianic mission, not always attached to his various names, has characteristically been described as "to save" [soter being a noun to go with the verbal form "to save"] without any clear distinction being made in the modern mind between the two meanings of "to deliver" and "to heal" (256). Etymologically, "the latter represents the original concept out of which the former developed as a general term for all deliverance from any kind of evil" (256). The act of healing carries with it a specific background precluding its interpretation in a purely medical or therapeutic way: "The healing purpose is subordinated to a higher purpose," and the higher idea that stands in the background is "that of the transference out of the sphere of death into the sphere of life" (258). To the objection that the conjoining of life and salvation does not have to lead beyond beneficence and philanthropy, Vos says, would be to miss the function faith plays in the matter: such a view overlooks "the distinctly religious nature of the transaction involved: it is not life as such, not physical life, as an ultimate end in itself, but life religiously considered, that is aimed at" (259). 

In the life of Jesus, "the Messiahship was too comprehensive and centralizing a life-category" not to bring the "mystery of His death" and "the consciousness of His Messiahship" into "the closest of unions" (274). "And a death Messianically viewed cannot but acquire the character of absolute necessity with reference to the fulfillment of the Messianic program" (274). Vos discovers Jesus giving utmost care to the "momentous juncture" of eliciting from Peter the confession of Messiahship and the subjoining of it to the idea of his death: "The one protected and balanced the other" (276). For Jesus, his Messianic calling and sense of approaching Messianic death bring no new revelation but fulfill the "pre-existent" will and rational purpose of God expressed beforehand in prophecy (277, 279). In his own self-disclosure, Jesus understands "His approaching death to be an integral part of His Messianic task" (278).

"What really underlies the aversion to the idea of Messiahship… is simply the desire to get rid of the large bulk of supernaturalism the Messiah trails in His wake" (23). Vos traces the desire to its inception: "it is the naturalism of the modern way of thinking that seeks to expel the supernaturalism of the old and, historically considered, the only possible view" (23). In his life, Jesus "lived and moved and had His being in the world of the supernatural. The thought of the world to come was to Him the life-breath of religion," and this mind "cannot be fitted into… humanitarian idealism" (25). The "soteric element," Vos explains, belongs not to ancient Hellenist custom but is indigenous to the Old Testament (25). Salvation was to come through the Messiah. Jesus "was a Saviour…, and into this flowed all the powers of His Messianic life," and "to save" in its spiritual sense means "to rescue from the judgment and to introduce the blessedness of the world to come" (27). It is, nonetheless, this "idea of salvation… [that] has become an offense to the modern mind" (27). Vos says, modern thinking has "attempted to free the Jesus of the Gospels from the antiquated, ‘magical’ idea of salvation" by stripping him of his Messianic character (28). Finally, the Messiah occupies "a specifically religious position… between God and man," and includes "His right to receive worship and His identification with God" (28). Vos makes a final point succinctly: "When faith has taken the infinitely greater leap of affirming the deity of Jesus, it can only by a queer perversity of mind hesitate to take the smaller one of affirming His Messianic character" (29).

Both Burgon and Vos understand the drift of thinking away from any belief in the supernatural, modernists preferring rather to fit the Bible and Jesus into the world of experience, to find in the Bible a set of lessons or general truths or a reference to historical events. In the case of Jesus, modern thinking would drop the Christ and see him as "a teacher, a leader, a point of departure in religion" (30). As Vos describes it, "The whole innate trend of modern religious thinking is against the recognition of Jesus’ Messianic consciousness," and it "produces not only the rejection of the Messiahship, but ultimately the rejection of Jesus Himself" (30). Ironically, though, the way back to the Divine and Supernatural will come through Jesus: "the divine in Jesus plants itself squarely in our pathway when the moment for dealing with Him religiously is upon us" (30). This is the "something warmer" that animates much of the exegetical and historical denial or affirmation of the Messiahship of Jesus (14). "The conception of the Messiahship is the most pronouncedly supernaturalistic conception in the whole range of Biblical religion" (22).

Missouri Western State University
St. Joseph, Missouri