[K:NWTS 25/2 (Sep 2010) 3-8]

Vos Reviews William Henry Green

The intrepid Benjamin Swinburnson has uncovered, once more, a previously unknown document by Gerhardus (notice how his name is spelled at the end of the review) Vos written in 1896 as part of a tribute to his beloved former professor’s long career at Princeton Theological Seminary.[1] We are reprinting it here in the interest of the distinctive Vosian critique and emphases. (1) The devotion to Biblical supernaturalism, ever the bane of Deistic, Rationalistic, Idealistic, Existentialistic, Linguistic and post-Modernistic approaches to the Bible (these are always essentially pagan when reduced to their base principles). (2) The unmasking of liberal, higher-critical fundamentalism which has ruled OT and NT studies for more than 200 years. Vos (with Green) skillfully reduces their major presuppositions to turning the Bible on its head, i.e., the Pentateuch is a late addition to Jewish religion because the whirling dervish prophets stand first in Israelite religious evolution—that is, ‘madness’ before ‘legalism’ (Vatke, Wellhausen, Van Seters, Thompson and a host of ‘moderns’ since the turn of the 19th century). (3) The rejection of any organic unity to the OT, since all the minute, disparate layers (documents such as J, E, D, P, trito-Isaiah, pseudo-Zechariah, etc.) are hopelessly endeavoring to smooth out a hodge-podge of religious notions—all of which requires more and more redactors (editors). And you thought your Bible was written by Moses and Isaiah, etc. No, No, the ‘modern’ interpreter of the ancient text informs you (and he/she has a Ph.D., so shut up and listen, hear!), Moses is a ‘myth’ and Isaiah didn’t write more than the first 39 chapters of his book (if even that). It’s all redacted, don’t you see?! Anonymous editors worked over these hoary texts and invented their own religion of the Jews. Organic continuity? Impossible! Contradiction (which, you will recall Emil Brunner, Neo-Orthodox colleague of Karl Barth, said was “the hallmark of truth”), opposition, tension, hallucination, fabrication—that is what we have in the OT, say the critical fundamentalists. From this morass of sewer sludge, Vos reminds us that the unfolding message of the OT is from God (eschatological revelation) who graciously invites his readers/hearers to enter his supernatural arena by means of listening to and believing on his Word—written and living (cf. John 1:1ff.). And that message still stands, as the critical fundamentalist theories of deconstructing and reconstructing the Bible fade in and out—fadish scions of mimesis, i.e., these fundies only see the mirror of themselves in the text of the Bible. Thus these modern interpreters of the ancient text must make the Bible fit their worldview, so they concoct yet one more anti-supernatural theory of how the Bible fits and reflects their own unsupernatural (pagan) world. Always, always making God in their own image. “And Jesus crouched against a wall and cried for Calvary”.

We have made a few stylistic changes in the review below which appeared in The Princeton College Bulletin 8/3 (October 1896): 77-79.


The Higher Criticism Of The Pentateuch. By William Henry Green, D.D., LL.D., Professor of Oriental and Old Testament Literature in Princeton Theological Seminary. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895. pp. vii, 178.

The Unity Of The Book Of Genesis. By William Henry Green, D.D., LL.D., Professor of Oriental and Old Testament Literature in Princeton Theological Seminary. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895. pp. x, 583.

The two latest publications of Dr. Green, though companion-volumes, differ considerably in aim and character. The Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch is a brief popular treatise in which the history, methods, conclusions, the religious and theological tendencies of the prevailing criticism are lucidly set forth in their most general outlines. It addresses itself to the public at large and requires no scientific acquaintance with the subject to be understood. At the same time, the reader will feel at each step that the discussion is in the hands of a master, and that only thorough familiarity with the minutest details could have produced the ease and assurance with which the subject is handled. In The Unity of the Book of Genesis, on the other hand, the author exhibits by patient study of section after section and by a careful testing of the critical views in regard to each, the solid basis of facts on which the generalizations of the briefer volume rests.

At the basis of his criticism of the modern view, Dr. Green lays a positive argument in favor of the unity of the Pentateuch. This argument takes for its point of departure a rapid survey of the history of O. T. revelation. It is shown that the organic structure of the Old Testament, as it offers itself to us, presupposes the Mosaic legislation, and that the historical framework of the Pentateuch is so inseparable therefrom as to compel the assumption of a common origin. Dr. Green further explains how all the component parts of the Testament are strictly subordinated to and in harmony with its place and purpose within the Biblical organism. The choice of this position for a point of attack upon the critical hypothesis offers a double advantage. In the first place, it furnishes the key to the solution of by far the greater part of the literary and historical difficulties with which the critics claim the traditional view of the Testament is beset. Dr. Green is able to show that, his theory of revelation being accepted and consistently applied, the difficulties disappear and all the facts fall into line. And secondly, the fascination which the latest phase of criticism seems to possess, is undoubtedly due to its bold attempt to press all the phenomena of the O. T. into the service of one great constructive idea. By only emphasizing and carrying out the conception of an organic revelation, to the needs of which all parts of the Scriptures are harmoniously subservient, the charm of the critical hypothesis may be offset by that of a scheme even more attractive in its grandeur and simplicity.

Next the arguments in favor of the Mosaic authorship are formulated succinctly but with great force and clearness. The critics are accustomed to refer to these under the comprehensive and somewhat depreciating title of tradition. Tradition in this case includes the testimony of the whole O. T., the N. T. and, in the latter, of none less than Christ, of a large part of the Pentateuch itself, as well as of the Jewish and the Christian church, and this by no means according to conservative claims merely but, to a large extent, on the admission of the critics themselves. The objections that will invalidate this mass of the most weighty testimony must surely be insurmountable. Dr. Green groups them under four heads: (1) anachronisms, inconsistencies, incongruities; (2) obviously composite origin; (3) clearly recognizable development of the law passing through several stages; (4) disregard of the law in preexilic history. Of these four the second group is examined at some length in the fourth chapter, which may be safely pronounced a model of critical discussion and which for keenness, cogency and exhaustiveness within such narrow limits, surpasses everything yet written on the subject on the conservative side. The author shows how all the phenomena on which the claim of composite authorship is based admit of satisfactory explanation. But he goes further than this by applying a sort of immanent criticism to the modern theory, and contending that, notwithstanding the utmost license enjoyed by the critics in adjusting their own criteria, in choosing their own division, in neutralizing contrary-evidence by inferences from their own hypothesis, and in thus making out the best possible case for themselves, they nevertheless have not been able to build up a consistent theory. Even to the finest manipulation the material will not yield everywhere. In numerous instances the divisive critics are forced to unreasonable assumptions. Especially the Redactor refuses to be made an intelligent agent. The numerous operations which the critics are compelled to ascribe to him do not reveal any plan or principle. The various sets of criteria, by aid of which the documents have been disentangled, are far from concurrent. The literary characteristics of the assumed writers, though originally obtained on the basis of the alternate use of the names Elohim and Jehovah in certain long sections, are yet found to clash with the use of these names in other sections. The resultant documents are not continuous notwithstanding the fact that in numerous instances the critics reason from isolated clauses as if no lost material had been connected with them originally.

In the Unity of the Book of Genesis these inner defects of the critical hypothesis are exposed in detail, each section being examined in regard to the first two groups of alleged evidence of composite authorship mentioned above. It would be a mistake to think that Dr. Green’s argument in this part of the discussion is of force only to those who, with us, believe in the Mosaic origin of the Pentateuch. We discredit the critical theory, whatever one may be inclined to accept in its place. We do not see how an unprejudiced reader can fail to perceive that the critical structure rests on altogether too precarious ground to be accepted even as approximately probable. One might be tempted to go further than this and draw from Dr. Green’s reasoning the conclusion, that, if the Pentateuch actually originated as the critics suppose, the very conditions of its origin render every attempted analysis of its component parts highly problematic. The much-vaunted agreement of the critics among themselves is no evidence to the contrary. As Dr. Green well says: “The consensus of divisive critics settles not the truth of the hypothesis, but what they consider its most plausible and defensible form. The partition of the Pentateuch is a definite problem with certain data, to which any solution that is offered must adapt itself. Experiments without number have been made to ascertain the practicability of this partition and what lines of division offer the best chance of success…And the present agreement of critics, so far as it goes, indicates what is believed to be the most practicable mode of carrying out the hypothesis that has yet been devised.” (Unity of the Pentateuch, p. 130.)

The concluding pages of the Unity of the Pentateuch are devoted to an inquiry into the religious and theological bearings of the dispute. Dr. Green proves that the modern view destroys the historic credibility of the Biblical record and presupposes the origin of the O. T. religion from naturalistic sources. He reminds us that in point of fact the most prominent advocates of this style of criticism have been until recently, pronounced anti-supernaturalists. Finally he explains how the tenets of the dominant school rendered the same service against the cause of revealed religion which at one time the now antiquated Deistic and vulgar Rationalistic style of thinking were made to render. The documents are placed at so great a distance from the events that ample room is allowed for the development of those legendary traits which the Biblical records present as miracles, or dated so late that the most extraordinary disclosures of revealed truth can appear as the result of natural growth and the most marvellous instances of prediction as vaticinia ex eventu.[2] To a far larger extent also than is commonly supposed, the naturalistic taint inheres not merely in the results of this criticism, but in its very method and principles of investigation, whence they vitiate the whole process. As Dr. Green tersely expresses it, the pernicious tendencies are inwrought in its whole texture from beginning to end.

There is one point of view from which the conservative theory regarding the O. T. appears at an immense advantage over its modern rival. If both may for a moment, and for argument’s sake, be called hypotheses experimenting with the Biblical material, the conservative view alone accepts and uses this material as it is without reconstruction, whereas the critics are compelled to make it tractable by a manipulation, which is in reality an inference from their hypotheses, and in so far disqualifies it for establishing the same. The critics themselves admit that the traditional theory is firmly embedded in the Biblical records, and that the latter have been shaped into accordance with it by later hands throughout. This virtually amounts to saying that the critical hypothesis is by limitations in its very nature doomed to remain within the sphere of the barely possible, and can never be raised into that of the demonstrably actual. The extent to which it has been compelled to draw the large masses of historical evidence into the range [of] its reconstructive theorizing has hardly left anything unmanipulated available for the purpose of verification. If this circumstance makes it difficult to disprove the theory by historical evidence, it involves for the critics the more serious drawback of rendering their scheme incapable of objective proof. It may be safely left to the sober judgment of intelligent people to determine the claims to scientific acceptance of a theory which proceeds on the principle, that the facts, though at present contradicting it at each stage of experiment, ought not to be admitted as contrary evidence, because on the hypothesis itself the facts have been meddled with. Unfortunately, in the sphere of literary criticism, such a claim is not a-priori excluded, as it is in the province of physical science, by the inviolability of the facts. But nobody will be foolish enough to accept the bare possibility of its truth or the unlimited need of the critics to resort to it as sufficient evidence of its substantiality. On the contrary, each new hypothetical assertion of this kind encumbers and endangers the chief hypothesis which it is intended to bolster up.

Gerhardus Vos


[1] The occasion was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Green’s appointment as Instructor at Princeton on Commencement Day, May 5, 1896; cf. “Professor Green’s Jubilee.” The Princeton College Bulletin 8/3 (October 1896):54-55.

[2] (Ed.) Literally “prophecy after the event”, a favorite higher critical canon, i.e., that there is no predictive prophecy in the Bible because that would require supernatural insight/revelation. Hence all apparent prophecy is ‘history’ written after the event. In other words, the ‘prophets’ of the Bible are liars, fakes and charlatans; modern liberal fundamentalists like to say—this is how we come to experience their “actuality”! More anti-supernatural rot.