Geerhardus Vos and the Interpretation of Romans 1:3-4

J.V. Fesko
Harriet Barbour Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson

Paul’s epistle to the Romans opens with a proverbial fireworks show as the he wastes no time unleashing theological truth: “Concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:3-4). In the history of interpretation theologians have appealed to this passage to support the claim that Paul was highlighting the two natures of Christ, human and divine. But in recent years some Reformed interpreters have taken a slightly different tack inspired by the exegesis of Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949), among others. Rather than highlight ontological (or vertical) aspects of the text, Vos draws attention to redemptive-historical (or horizontal) features.[1] In past generations exegetes would unhesitatingly appeal to Romans 1:3-4 as evidence of Christ’s deity, whereas now some say that verse 3 does not refer to “Jesus’ deity but to his messianic kingship as the descendant of David.”[2] What makes Vos’s exegesis of Romans 1:3-4 interesting is that he initially held the traditional (vertical-ontological) view but then later changed his mind and promoted the redemptive-historical (or horizontal view). In other words, Vos now believed Paul’s chief interest was tracing the line of redemptive history rather than speaking of the two natures of Christ. There are a number of interesting questions that surround Vos’s change of opinion such as, what made him change his mind? Who were his sources? What did his colleagues think? This essay seeks to answer these questions.

The chief thesis of this essay is that Vos shifted his interpretation because he was interested in pursuing the discipline of biblical theology, which naturally focused his attention upon the redemptive-historical (or horizontal) features of the biblical text. The first step in proving this thesis unfolds in exploring the history of interpretation of Romans 1:3-4 to set the context for Vos’s own changing view. This is an important step in proving the thesis. At the root of Vos’s change of opinion lies the views of sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), who was a likely inspiration for contemporary German New Testament scholarship that informed Vos’s revised exegesis. Moreover, examining the history of exegesis also shows that Vos was not the first exegete to notice horizontal elements in the text. Second, the essay examines Vos’s early and late exegesis and investigates the contemporary German New Testament scholars who inspired his change of opinion. Third, the essay explains the reasons why Vos changed his view and its reception by his fellow Princeton Theological Seminary colleague, B. B. Warfield (1851-1921). This third section also poses the question of whether the early and late Vos are at odds with one another. Does Vos abandon the Old Princeton line on Romans 1:3-4 or add greater redemptive-historical texture to it? Given what Vos has written in both his systematic- and biblical-theological works, one need not choose between Vos the theologian versus the exegete, but rather both peacefully coexist in the same man. The essay concludes with some summary observations about Vos’s exegesis and the irrefragable nature of systematic and biblical theology.

History of Interpretation


Augustine’s unfinished commentary on Romans was one of the earliest works to explain Romans 1:3-4 along vertical lines. He writes: “It was necessary to meet those who, in their impiety, only accept our Lord Jesus Christ in their humanity, assumed by him, but do not recognize his divinity, which distinguishes him and separates him from all creation.” The Word, the eternal Son of God, became incarnate as a descendant of David: “This Word became a man of the lineage of David and dwelt among us (cf. Jn 1,14); but he did not change, becoming flesh, but he clothed himself with flesh to manifest himself in the proper way to carnal men.” To ensure that people knew that Christ’s descent from David did not denote his ontological genesis as merely human, Augustine emphasizes that Paul’s phrase, “according to the flesh,” means that the Son of God was not created by God, but rather his human nature was born.[3]

Conversely, when Paul speaks of Christ being “predestinated with power to the Son of God . . . according to the Spirit,” it reveals the Son’s divinity: “The fact of having died makes reference to being the son of David; on the other hand, his resurrection from the dead refers to his divine filiation, being also Lord of David himself” (2 Cor. 13:4). Augustine zeroes in on the specific meaning of Paul’s statement, i.e., why does he say that Christ was predestined to be the Son of God if was already the Son? Augustine explains:

He was actually predestined to be the Son of God with a certain primacy in the resurrection, since his predestination was from the resurrection of all the dead, that is, he was destined to rise above others and before others. The words Son of God, placed behind it was predestined, are like the confirmation of such high dignity. Only the Son of God could be predestined to this, since he is also the head of the Church, and the same Apostle in another place calls him first-born from the dead (cf. Col. 1:18). It was convenient that the judge of the resurrected was the one who had preceded them as a model. But not as a model of all the resurrected ones, but as an example of those who have to resuscitate to live and reign eternally: he is precisely their head, and they are their body.[4]

Augustine does not restrict Romans 1:4 to the confirmation of the Son’s deity and appointment as head of the church but also notes that “according to the Spirit of sanctification by his resurrection from the dead” means that after Christ’s resurrection believers received the gift of the Spirit. How so? Anyone in union with Christ receives the Spirit.[5]

Thomas Aquinas

In the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) echoes Augustine’s exegesis. He argues that Paul addresses the dual origin of the Son when he writes, concerning his Son, where he reveals the eternal generation of the Son, something that was previously concealed. At his baptism, the Father therefore declared of his Son: “This is my beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17). The Son, argues Aquinas, is the Word and begotten wisdom of God: “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). But Aquinas explains that people have erred in three ways concerning God’s Son. First, some have erroneously argued that Christ was the adopted Son of God. Photinus (d. 376) taught that Christ derived his origin from Mary as a mere man, but because of his profound piety, achieved an exalted state. But Aquinas avers that if this had happened, that Christ would not have testified that he had descended from heaven (John 6:38).

Second, some have mistakenly claimed that Christ’s sonship was in name only, such as Sabellius (fl. ca. 215). Aquinas has modalism in view here, namely, that the Father came down and merely took the name of Son. But, if this were true, Jesus would not have said that his Father sent him (John 6:38). Third, Arius (250-336) wrongly taught that Jesus’ sonship was created—Christ was the most perfect creature. But such a view conflicts with John 1:3, which says that everything was created by the Word.[6] When Paul writes on the Son’s natural origins in Romans 1:3, these three aforementioned errors run into problems. The fact that Paul writes that Jesus was descended from David destroys Photinus’s view, because Jesus was not adopted. This statement also contradicts Arius’s opinion that he was created ex nihilo according to both his divine and human natures. In short, Paul’s statements create obstacles for heretical teaching because they affirm the full humanity of Christ.

Paul turns away from Christ’s origin (Rom. 1:3), and pivots to address his power by three means: predestination, his dignity or power, and his sign or effect. Aquinas’s first point originates from the Latin translation of the Scriptures, which state Christ was “predestined the Son of God in power,” and thus God predetermined to ordain the incarnation of the eternal Son. Aquinas writes: “Just as a man’s union with God through grace of adoption falls under predestination, so also the union with God in person through the grace of union falls under predestination.”[7] But Aquinas clarifies that when God predestined the incarnation, this does not mean that there was a time when the Son did not exist. Rather, “Christ was predestinated, i.e., foreknown, from eternity to be revealed in time as the Son of God in power.”[8] In other words, God the Father predestined the fully divine eternal Son to be revealed both through the incarnation and the resurrection in power, to confirm his character as the Son. This point informs the second issue, namely, the Son’s dignity or power: “Thus from the Son of God he descends to the flesh and from the flesh, by way of predestination, he ascends to the Son of God, in order to show that neither did the glory of the Godhead prevent the weakness of the flesh nor did the weakness of the flesh diminish the majesty of the Godhead.”[9] Aquinas addresses the third point, which pertains to the effect or sign. In this case, the sign or the effect is that the Spirit of holiness wrought the resurrection. God was accustomed to sanctify sinners by means of the Spirit’s anointing (Lev. 20:8; Isa. 42:5). But through Christ God would send the Spirit (John 15:26) and sanctify and justify sinners (1 Cor. 6:11). This does not mean that saints were never sanctified prior to Christ’s resurrection but rather from the time that Christ arose from the dead, the Father poured out a more copious dispensation of the Spirit, which began with Christ’s resurrection from the dead.[10] This manifestation of the Spirit in the resurrection of Christ reveals “that Christ is the Son of God in power.”[11]

John Calvin

During the Reformation John Calvin (1509-64) walked in the well-worn path hewn by earlier theologians and exegetes by contending that two things can be found in Christ: his divinity and humanity. His divinity possesses power, righteousness, and life, which he conveys to sinners by means of his humanity. Paul reminds readers, however, that Jesus descended from David. Christ’s Davidic lineage harkens to God’s promises concerning the Messiah, which highlights that Jesus was truly human. Calvin takes this opportunity to mention the “impious ravings of Servetus” (d. 1553), who claimed that Christ’s human nature was composed of three uncreated elements.[12] Conversely, Christ was declared to be the Son of God in power by his resurrection, which has roots in Psalm 2:7. The resurrection was the definitive testimony and celestial power of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who regenerates sinners and raises them from death to life. But the resurrection was also a demonstration of Christ’s divine power, which he confirmed by his testimony that he would raise himself from the dead (John 2:19; 10:18).[13] Other Reformers interpret the text similarly, including Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563).[14]

Martin Luther

Outside the Reformed tradition Luther’s 1515 lectures on the book of Romans offer another point of view. According to Luther, “This passage has, as far as I know, never been explained correctly or sufficiently by anyone.”[15] Luther believed that patristic exegetes inadequately explained the text and medieval theologians lacked the Spirit. In a nutshell, Luther argues: “The contents, or object, of the Gospel, or—as others [Nicholas of Lyra] say—its subject, is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of the seed of David according to the flesh and now appointed King and Lord over all things in power, and this according to the Holy Spirit, who has raised Him from the dead.”[16] Luther analyzes Paul’s Greek, though he relies upon Lorenzo Valla’s (c. 1407-57) Adnotationes that translate ὁρισθέντος (“declared”) as definitus, which means “chosen, or designated, declared, ordained, to be the Son of God in power.”[17] He also notes that the Son of God became incarnate “by emptying himself.” He emptied himself when he became the Son of David, but on the heels of his resurrection he has “been established and designated the Son of God in all power and glory.”[18] Luther sees the Son’s descent and ascent in Romans 1:3-4—the Son’s descent into weakness through the incarnation and his ascent to the revelation of the fullness of his deity in his resurrection. Luther characterizes this pattern as, “This God is the Son of David, and this Man is the Son of God.” He even writes of the Son’s humanity being “completed and translated to divine being.”[19]

Unlike earlier interpretations of Romans 1:3-4, Luther looked at these verses as explaining the redemptive-historical sweep of the Son’s incarnation and ministry. Luther writes:

But even though it is true that He was not made the Son of God, but only the Son of Man, nevertheless, one and the same Person has always been the Son and is the Son of God even then. But this fact was not chosen, declared, and ordained so far as man were concerned. He had already received power over all things and was the Son of God, but as yet He was not exercising that power and was not recognized as that Son of God. This was brought about only through the Spirit of sanctification. The Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet been glorified…. This Man, the Son of David according to the flesh, is now publicly declared the Son of God in power, that is, over all things. For as the Son of David He was weak and subject to all things. All this was done according to the Spirit of sanctification. To Him is attributed the glorification of Christ, as stated above. But the Holy Spirit did this only after the resurrection of Christ. Therefore he adds by the resurrection from the dead, because the Spirit was not given before the resurrection of Christ.[20]

In short, Paul traces the lines of Christ’s incarnation to his exaltation, a theme that also appears in Philippians 2:5-11. Romans 1:3-4 is not, therefore, primarily about the humanity and divinity of Christ but about the sweep of redemptive history. The resurrection of Christ by the power of the Spirit declares his sonship: “Before the resurrection this was not revealed and manifest but hidden in the flesh of Christ.”[21] In contemporary nomenclature, Romans 1:3-4 is not about the Son’s ontology but about the historia salutis, eschatology, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the exaltation of the Son. Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) presents a similar interpretation, though unlike Luther, he says that Paul is also interested in highlighting the Son’s two natures.[22]

Post-Reformation Theologians

The Annotations of the Westminster Assembly fall into the vertical category. The Annotations explain that when Paul states that Christ was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3), that the apostle highlights the Son of God assumed a human nature in the unity of his person—that is, he was of the substance of Mary, who was a descendant of David and that Paul’s reference to flesh refers to his human nature.[23] Conversely, when Paul says that he “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4), that Paul does not mean that he was made the Son of God in the same way that he was incarnate. Rather, God declared him to be the Son of God by means of a definitive judgment and sentence, which they connect to Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” The fact that this declaration occurs by the power of the Spirit means that God declares his Son to possess a divine nature.[24] The Synod of Dort (1618-19) in its whole-Bible commentary presents the same exegesis, as do other Reformed orthodox theologians, including Moïses Amyraut (1596-1664), David Dickson (1583-1663), David Pareus (1548-1622), and John Brown of Wamphray (ca. 1610-79). [25] In fact, Wamphray’s explanation mirrors the scope and extent of Aquinas’s detailed theological exegesis concerning the two natures of Christ.

There are some outliers and slight variations among post-Reformation interpreters, such as Johannes Cocceius’s (1603-69) exegesis. Like earlier interpreters, Cocceius addresses the question of Christ’s two natures, but unlike earlier theologians, he traces Christ’s human nature through redemptive history as the promised seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), the seed of Abraham (Gen. 22:18), and the universal scope of blessing that came through them, which appears in Psalm 8:6—the Son of Man. This redemptive historical line lies behind the phrase that Jesus “descended from David according to the flesh,” which pulls other significant biblical texts in its wake (Gen. 49:10; 2 Sam. 7:11-14; Psalm 132:17; Matt. 1; Luke 3).[26] Cocceius offers an equally expansive horizontal explanation of verse 4’s statement about Christ’s resurrection. Like Calvin’s earlier exegesis, God raised Christ from the dead as a confirmation of divine promises (Psa. 16:9-10; Isa. 53:10; Acts 17:31).[27] But the resurrection also confirmed the outpouring of the Spirit (1 Cor. 15:4-8, 25, 32-36) first announced by the prophets, and the fact that Jesus is Lord (Rev. 5:12, John 3:35; Heb. 1:1-2; Psa. 2:8; Heb. 2:10; 5:8-9; Isa. 41:14; Gen. 48:16; John 17:10; 1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Pet. 1:18-19).[28] So while Cocceius follows the common track of the vertical interpretation, he also explores the horizontal lines of the text by tracing promise and fulfillment from Old Testament to New.

Another outlier is the commentary of Andrew Willet (1562-1621), who offers somewhat unique comments given that he surveys the history of interpretation. Christ was descended from David according to the flesh, which points to the Spirit’s work in the incarnation and Christ’s human nature, features noted by interpreters such as Chrysostom (ca. 347 – 407), Origen (ca. 184 – c. 253), and Theodore Beza (1519-1605). More specifically, Augustine argues that this phrase addresses the virgin birth of Christ. Willet also searches through other commentators such as Ambrose of Milan (ca. 340 – 397), who recognizes that Christ’s genealogy was traced back to Joseph and Mary, both of whom were descendants of David.[29] When Paul says that Christ was declared to be the Son of God by the power of the Spirit’s resurrection, interpreters usually appeal to three elements to prove the Son’s divine nature: the power of miracles, the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s claims that he would raise himself—points raised by Chrysostom, Andreas Hyperius (1511-64), and Benedict Aretius (1522-74), among others. But Willet avers that a slightly better path of interpretation addresses that the resurrection proclaims his divine nature by the Spirit of sanctification, whereby he sanctified his own flesh and that of his mystical body, the church.[30] Willet surveys a number of interpretations that seek to explain Paul’s reference to the Holy Spirit and argues that the “Spirit of sanctification” refers not to the Holy Spirit but to Christ’s divine nature. He believes this is the case because of two other statements in Scripture, namely, that Christ was “justified in the Spirit” (1 Tim. 3:16) and that he offered himself up in sacrifice “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14). That is, by the power of his divine spirit he sanctifies his own body, his own hypostasis, and consequently his mystical body, the church. Willet mines this interpretation from Beza, Pareus, and Ambrose.[31]

Matthew Henry and Robert Haldane

In the eighteenth-century Matthew Henry (1662-1714) follows the broad contours of earlier exegetes by arguing that Paul’s statements show Christ’s two natures.[32] Among nineteenth-century commentators, Robert Haldane (1764-1842) travels the beaten path by explaining that Romans 1:3 refers to the Son’s human nature. He quickly notes that Christ’s divine nature was begotten, not made (John 1:4; Gal. 4:4), to stipulate that the Son is fully God.[33] He traces the seed of David back to Abraham and Judah and the Shiloh prophecy (Gen. 49:8-10). Through the incarnation Paul demonstrates the willingness of the Son to humble himself. Haldane contends that Paul’s statement, “descended from David according to the flesh,” both reveals his divinity and humanity.

Romans 1:4 conveys the idea that the Son was not born but declared to be God’s Son by the resurrection. Haldane argues that the Son’s resurrection is distinct from his descent from David:

This expression, the Son of God, definitely imports Deity, as applied to Jesus Christ. It properly denotes participation of the Divine nature, as the contrasted expression, Son of Man, denotes participation of the human nature. As Jesus Christ is called the Son of Man in the proper sense to assert His humanity, so, when in contrast with his deity He is called the Son of God, the phrase must be understood in its proper sense as asserting His Deity.[34]

On the heels of this statement Haldane embarks on a defense of the full deity of Christ for several pages.[35] According to Haldane, the subsequent phrase, “with power,” refers both to the Spirit’s activity in raising Christ from the dead as well as Christ’s giving of the Spirit when he ascended to the Father. Before his resurrection Christ was covered in a veil of humility but after his resurrection he was invested with all power: “For He who thus sends forth this glorious Spirit must be possessed of sovereign and infinite power, and consequently must be the Son of God.”[36] Haldane, therefore, does not cease with pointing out the Son’s deity, but draws connections to redemptive history and his outpouring of the Spirit. Granted, he shows that only someone who is God could pour out the Spirit, thus this horizontal activity is yet more evidence of the Son’s deity.

Haldane reinforces the links between the Son and Spirit when he explains the phrase, “according to the Spirit of holiness.” Again, this refers to the deity of Christ and stands in contrast to his humanity. But more specifically, the “Spirit of holiness,” refers to the Holy Spirit. In this case, the Son pours out the Spirit on the heels of his resurrection and baptizes the church, thereby communicating spirit and life to all its members. This is why Paul, according to Haldane, calls Christ “a quickening Spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). In Haldane’s judgment, Paul begins his epistle by showing that the foundation of redemption rests upon the union of the divine and human natures of Christ.[37]

The final piece of the puzzle is Christ’s resurrection from the dead, which constituted an authentic judgment by God by which he declared Jesus to be his Son, a truth prophesied in Psalm 2:7 and confirmed in Acts 13:33, “When the Son of God was raised from the dead, His eternal dignity, which was before concealed, was brought to light. His Divine power, being infinite and unchangeable, could receive no augmentation of dignity or majesty.” In short, “By His resurrection, God proclaimed to the universe that Christ was His only-begotten Son.”[38] Haldane thus summarizes Romans 1:3-4 in the following manner:

By His incarnation, Jesus Christ received in His human nature the fulness of His Spirit; but He received it covered with the veil of His flesh. By His death He merited the Spirit to sanctify His people; but still this was only a right which He had acquired, without its execution. By His resurrection He entered into the full exercise of this right; He received the full dispensation of the Spirit, to communicate it to them; and it was then He was declared to be the Son of God with power.[39]

Haldane labored in Europe, largely in Scotland and in Geneva, Switzerland, but another nineteenth-century theologian offered a slightly different interpretation of Romans 1:3-4.

Charles Hodge

Charles Hodge (1797-1878) is of special interest because he labored at Princeton Theological Seminary where Vos eventually studied. Vos never took any classes from Hodge since he had died before Vos enrolled, but Vos took classes from Caspar Wistar Hodge (1830-91), Hodge’s grandson. The elder Hodge’s influence was undoubtedly significant at Old Princeton. Early in his career Hodge wrote of three leading interpretations of the verses in question: (1) Jesus was the Son of David according to his human nature and the Son of God according to his divine nature, a fact proven by his resurrection from the dead; (2) Christ was in a state of humiliation as the Son of David but was constituted as the Son of God in his state of exaltation by his resurrection; and (3) Christ was the Son of David according to his human nature but was declared to be the Son of God by the resurrection, in accordance with the Scriptures.[40] Hodge opts for the first view, which as this survey has shown, was a common interpretation. Hodge believed that this view was commended by several considerations.

First, Christ “was made of the seed of David according to the flesh,” means that he was born (Gal. 4:4; John 8:41; 1 Pet. 3:6). More specifically, the phrase “according to the flesh,” has reference to Christ’s human nature. The term flesh is often used for men as the expression “all flesh” suggests, and as the term appears elsewhere in the New Testament (John 1:14; 1 Tim. 3:16; 1 John 4:2; Rom. 9:5).[41] Like earlier commentators, Hodge then breaks down Romans 1:4 into three parts: (1) declared to be the Son of God with power, (2) according to the Spirit of holiness, and (3) by the resurrection from the dead. Hodge references both Chrysostom and Theodoret (ca. 393 – 457) to prove that declared means to reveal a thing’s true nature. This means that the resurrection was the means by which God revealed Christ’s true nature, i.e., he was “clearly declared to be the Son of God.”[42]

Second, the Scriptures refer to Christ’s divine nature as “spirit” (Heb. 9:14; 1 Tim. 3:16; 1 Pet. 3:18). That is, when the Jewish authorities crucified Christ they put him to death as to his flesh but when he was raised, he lived “as to the Spirit,” which according to Peter’s usage this refers to Christ’s divine nature, the means by which Christ preached to the spirits in prison.[43] Third, “the resurrection of the dead,” was the “great decisive evidence that he was the Son of God; it was the public acknowledgement by God of the validity of all the claims of which Christ had made.”[44] Hodge believed in the accuracy of his exegesis because Paul also says that Jesus is the “Son of God,” which is a title that applies to Jesus in a unique way.[45]

Johann Peter Lange and John Albrecht Bengel

Johann Peter Lange (1802-84) wrote commentaries on the whole Bible, including Romans.[46] Lange makes specific observations regarding the structure of the text, namely, that Paul presents an antithetical parallelism. Lange notes that John Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752) first observed this feature of Paul’s text.[47] Bengel’s interpretation largely colors within the lines of earlier explanations, as he expounds that when the Bible mentions the human nature of Christ, it comes first, because the resurrection proved his divine nature.[48] Like earlier commentators, he points out that the Son’s resurrection was a declaration, and not the ontological genesis, of his sonship (Psa. 2:7; Acts 2:22), and that the “Spirit of holiness,” refers to Christ, and not the Holy Spirit. But Bengel notes that Paul places flesh and spirit in antithesis, and thus that flesh and Godhead stand opposed to one another. They stand opposed to each other to highlight the efficacy of the holiness or divinity of the Savior’s resurrection both as a revelation and consequence of his resurrection. But Paul’s use of prepositions, ἐκ … κατὰ σάρκα and κατὰ … ἐξ ἀναστάσεως, present an antithesis, or antithetical parallelism.[49] Bengel’s observation is likely one of the first times an exegete has drawn attention to this feature of Paul’s text and Lange took notice, though Lange also credits John Forbes with making the same observation about Paul’s statement. Noteworthy is that the subtitle of Forbes’s work draws attention to a key feature of his exegesis: “Tracing the Train of Thought by the Aid of Parallelism.”[50]

Lange sets out the antithetical parallelism to show the structure of Paul’s statement:

γενομένου ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυὶδ κατὰ σάρκα
ὁρισθέντος υἱοῦ θεοῦ ἐν δυνάμει ἐξ ἀναστάσεως κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης

Lange argues that Paul’s antithetical parallelism conveys the following meaning:

Concerning His Son

Who was born [Son of Man in weakness]

from the seed of David,

as to the flesh,

Who was installed Son of God in power

from the resurrection of the dead,

as to the Spirit of holiness.

Even Jesus Christ our Lord.[51]

Earlier interpreters have always taken note of horizontal aspects of the statement, such as Aquinas or Calvin arguing that references to the seed of David draws readers’ attention to God’s past promises; this is especially true of Cocceius’s interpretation. But in this particular case, Lange stresses both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the text by highlighting Paul’s use of the antithetical parallelism.

Lange picks up the horizontal dimensions of Romans 1:3-4 through Forbes’s earlier work, who comments on the text’s structure:

a Concerning His Son,

b Which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh,

c And ordained the Son of God with power,

According to the Spirit of holiness,

By the resurrection of the dead

Even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Forbes explains:

There is a beautiful gradation in the original; a, v. 3, ‘concerning His Son,’ refers to the incommunicable Sonship of the Only-Begotten in his pre-existent state; b and c, to that Sonship, which in its two stages, at the incarnation and resurrection, He assumed that He might communicate it to ‘many brethren’ – b referring to His state of humiliation; c, of exaltation—by which He became ‘Jesus (Matt. i.21)—the Christour Lord (Acts ii.36).[52]

Forbes and Lange draw attention to Christ’s states of humiliation and exaltation, which was an interpretation of which Hodge was aware but nevertheless set aside for the more common explanation of Paul referring to Christ’s two natures. Hodge saw the two interpretations as mutually exclusive, and while Lange places more emphasis upon the horizontal plane, he does not do so to the detriment of the vertical plane.

When Lange, for example, explains the nature of flesh (σάρξ), like Aquinas before him, he rejects Apollinarian interpretations, i.e., Christ did not merely assume a human body with an animal but not a rational soul, which was replaced by the Logos. Rather σάρξ, argues Lange, refers to an entire human nature, body and soul, sin excepted.[53] Moreover, like earlier interpreters who stressed Christ’s communication of the Spirit by means of his resurrection, Lange observes:

Kατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης is evidently the antithesis or counterpart of κατὰ σάρκα, and as σάρξ here means the human nature of Christ, πνεῦμα must mean His divine nature, which is all Spirit, and intrinsically holy; ἁγιωσύνης is the genitive of qualification, showing that holiness is the essential characteristic of Christ’s Spirit, and yet it distinguishes this from the πνεῦμα ἅγιον, which is the teaching designation of the third person of the Trinity.[54]

Lange, therefore, neither sets aside ontological considerations in favor of economic features, nor ignores doctrinal categories such as the trinity or full humanity of Christ. Rather, he highlights the vertical and horizontal aspects.

William Plummer

William Plummer (1873-1943) provides a helpful summary of the different interpretive opinions that have appeared throughout the ages. Plummer first explains the uncontested point that reflects the opinion of most commentators, namely, that because Paul says that Christ was descended from David according to the flesh that this refers to the Son’s humanity (2 Sam. 7:16; Isa. 11:1).[55] Second, when he crosses the threshold of verse 4, he notes the varied opinions concerning the different clauses. Despite differences of opinion regarding the meaning of declared to be the Son of God, whether declared (Chrysostom, Theodoret, William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer, Calvin, Beza, Giovani Diodati, John Brown of Wamphray, August Tholuck, and Hodge), determined (the Westminster Assembly’s Annotations, and John Owen), marked out (Le Clerc, Elsner, Doddridge, Conybeare, and Howson), proved (Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, and Boothroyd), demonstrated (Macknight, Freme, Burkitt, Whitby, and Cox), or made known as (Peshitta), Plummer believes that they more or less intend the same thing. The two meanings he rejects are predestined (by Irenaeus, Augustine, Vulgate, Doway and Rheims) and constituted (Stuart).[56]

According to the Spirit of holiness has had a number of different interpretations, which some connect to the Holy Spirit as a sanctifying agent (Tyndale, Wycliff, Cranmer, Calvin, Rheims, the Peshitta, Beza). Others argue that it refers to Christ’s own spirit (Ferme, Stuart). Among these different variants, Plummer identifies three different versions where the phrase refers to: (1) Christ’s personal sanctity as a man, but Plummer immediately dismisses this as untenable; (2) the Holy Spirit, the third person of the trinity (so Calvin, Burkitt, Doddridge, Scott, Williams, et al.); or (3) a reference to the Son’s divine nature (so Diodati, Beza, Pool, Hammond, Ferme, Guyse, the Dutch Annotations, the Assembly’s Annotations, Locke, Alford, Olshausen, Stuart, Haldane, and Hodge).[57] Plummer explains that the attraction to the third view (reference to Christ’s divine nature) appears in the antithesis between flesh and spirit (Matt. 12:32; Rom. 4:4; 8:1, 4-5), and thus he opts for this view.[58]

By the resurrection from the dead has competing interpretations like the previous two clauses. Plummer notes that most commentators agree with the Authorized Version, namely, that it refers to Christ’s own resurrection. The latter phrase is literally the resurrection of the dead (cf. 1 Cor. 15:43; Heb. 6:2). The resurrection of Christ “settles his divine sonship in the clearest manner,” writes Plummer. He presents five ways that confirm his status as God’s Son through the resurrection:

  1. It was a remarkable display of God’s power (Eph. 1:19-20).
  2. Jesus foretold he would rise by his own power, which proves he possess the power of omnipotence with the Father.
  3. Jesus was the surety for his people, thus eternal justice would not release him from the bonds of death until his state of humiliation was completed.
  4. He said and did many things where he established the highest claims of reverence, worship, and obedience from people. If he were not truly divine, confirmed by his resurrection from the dead, then he would have been proven a deceiver.
  5. His resurrection is connected with our justification to the extent that the whole of our salvation depends upon it (Rom. 4:25; 1 Pet. 1:3).

Plummer lists all of these reasons as the explanation of the significance of Christ’s resurrection, though he does not attach any theologian to the various points. Given the above survey, Plummer’s list reads almost like a summation of the history of exegesis for the latter part of Romans 1:4, “by the resurrection of the dead.”[59]


In this brief sketch of the history of the interpretation of Romans 1:3-4, we can place interpreters in one of three chief categories: (1) ontological (or vertical), (2) redemptive-historical (or horizontal), or (3) both ontological and redemptive-historical:

Redemptive-Historical (Horizontal)

   Ontological (Vertical) Ontological and Redemptive-Historical Redemptive-Historical (Horizontal)



Westminster Annotations

Synod of Dort


















This taxonomy reveals that up to Vos, the majority of surveyed commentators believed that Paul highlighted the two natures of Christ and, conversely, only Luther argued that the passage was exclusively about the unfolding redemptive-historical narrative. At the same time, a number of commentators point to both the vertical and horizontal elements of Romans 1:3-4. This is not to say that they emphasize the horizontal to the same degree that they do the vertical but that they nevertheless draw attention to it. The taxonomy also shows that Vos is not the first to argue that Paul addresses redemptive-historical rather than ontological truths. This survey sets the stage for unpacking Vos’s view.

Vos’s Exegesis

At the outset of Vos’s tenure at the Theological School in Grand Rapids, he lectured on a number of subjects including theology. He lectured on systematic theology from 1888 – 1893, and his lectures were published in limited form in his Reformed Dogmatics. These lectures represent his earliest recorded thought on a host of topics including his understanding of Romans 1:3-4. In his explanation and exegesis of the descensus (1 Pet. 3:18-19), Vos appeals to Romans 1:3-4 and argues that Paul’s text refers to the human and divine natures of Christ. Like Hodge before him, he appeals to Romans 9:5, “From which is Christ, as far as the flesh is concerned, who is God over all to be praised forever.” He also appeals to John 1:14, “the Word became flesh.” Vos notes, “Here ‘flesh’ always means the whole of human nature, inclusive of soul and body.”[60] At this point in Vos’s career, he echoed the Old Princeton line on Romans 1:3-4, but he later changed his view.

Vos left the Theological School in 1893 to start his teaching post for the newly created chair of Biblical Theology at Princeton Seminary. During this time, he shifted his labors to this new discipline and in 1912 published an essay entitled, “The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit,” which represents a shift in his thought. Vos moved away from the Old Princeton line and advocated a different understanding of Romans 1:3-4.[61] The overall thrust of Vos’s essay is to show to what extent Paul connects the work of the Spirit with eschatology.[62] Vos sees this link in the New Testament because the Spirit is the dominant part of the eschatological world.[63] Vos traces the themes of Spirit and eschatology back to the Old Testament through four observations.

First, is the promised effusion of the Spirit in Joel 2:28-32. Second, the Spirit serves as the “official equipment of the Messiah,” his “permanent possession” (Isa. 11.2; 28:5; 42:1; 49:21; 61:1). Third, the Spirit is the source of Israel’s future life, especially noteworthy in the prophets (Isa. 33:15-17; 44:3; 49:21; Ezek. 36:27; 37:14; 39:29). And fourth, the Spirit is the “comprehensive formula for the transcendental, the supernatural.”[64] Important to note, however, is a source with which Vos interacts. He does not create insights de novo from the biblical text but engages contemporary German New Testament scholars. He cites Paul Volz’s (1871-1941) work on the Spirit in the Old Testament, though he takes issue with some of his conclusions.[65] Vos was not, it seems, in dialogue with the history of the interpretation of Romans 1:3-4 but only wrestling with its contemporary understanding from the perspective of recent German New Testament scholarship. His published essay neither shows signs of interaction with English New Testament scholarship, such as Lange, Forbes, Bengal, Henry, or Plummer, nor historical sources such as Augustine, Aquinas, or Calvin, among others.

Nevertheless, Vos continues his survey and examines Rabbinic understandings of the work of the Spirit, accessed through the work of Volz, as well as several passages from the gospels until he finally arrives at the letters of Paul. [66] Vos observes that Paul specifically links the Christian’s possession of the Spirit to the Old Testament promises of the Spirit’s last days effusion (Acts 28:25; Rom. 7:14; 1 Cor. 1:3-4; Gal. 4:29; 1 Tim. 4:1). From this Pauline platform Vos first approaches Romans 1:3-4.[67] Like Hodge’s earlier exegesis, Vos argues that the Messianic Person, κατὰ σάρκα and κατὰ πνεῦμα is part of the promise of the Scriptures.[68] As he walks through the aforementioned Pauline texts, he again comes back to Romans 1:3-4 where he exegetes the Greek text and notes the parallelism:

γενομένος ὁρισθείς
κατὰ σάρκα κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης
ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυὶδ ἐξ ἀναστάσεως νεκρῶν

Recall, Vos is not the first exegete to observe the parallelism in Romans 1:3-4, as Lange drew upon the earlier work of Forbes and Bengel. Nonetheless, Vos does not cite any sources here, which means this might be his own observation.

Paul’s parallelism leads Vos to a different interpretation than Hodge and earlier exegetes, when he writes: “The reference is not to two coexisting sides in the constitution of the Saviour, but to two successive stages in his life . . . the two prepositional phrases have adverbial force: they describe the mode of the process, yet so as to throw emphasis rather on the result than on the initial act: Christ came into being as to his sarkic existence, and he was introduced by ὁρισμος into this pneumatic existence.” Vos contends that the twofold κατὰ and the mode of each existence is contrasted by the twofold ἐκ, which indicates origin. Christ’s resurrection is the beginning of a new status of sonship.[69] Vos writes: “From resurrection-beginnings, from an eschatological genesis dates the pneumatic state of Christ’s glory which is described as sonship of God ἐν δυνάμει.”[70] Vos’s exegesis to a degree echoes the earlier interpretations of Luther and Cocceius, but he does not cite either theologian. Rather, he positively cites the work of two contemporary German New Testament scholars, Johannes Gloël (1857-91) and Emil Georg Hermann Sokolowski (1819-69).[71]

Between the two sources, Sokolowski presents the more detailed exegesis for his interpretation, and his spadework informs Vos’s own exegesis.[72] Sokolowski notes Paul’s parallelism, the governing nature of Paul’s use of κατὰ, the Old Testament roots of the Spirit’s work, the significance of the respective use of ἐκ, and the differences between γενομένου (“descended”) and ὁρισθέντος (“declared”). The κατὰ contrasts the two modes of Christ’s existence, and does not address Christ’s two natures; Gloël makes the same point.[73] Where do the interpretations of Sokolowski and Gloël originate? That is, both exegete Romans 1:3-4, but who guides them in the process? Gloël and Sokolowski guided Vos, but who were their guides? Both Gloël and Sokolowski cite a number of contemporary sources, but of interest is that both reference Bernhard Weiss’s (1827-1918) commentary on Romans.[74] Weiss’s commentary engages in deeper historical work on Romans 1:3-4 than Gloël and Sokolowski. Weiss, for example, cites Calvin, Bengel, and Luther, among others.[75] Weiss was familiar with the history of interpretation of this verse; what pushed Weiss to look at Romans 1:3-4 horizontally was an insight drawn from Luther.[76] Vos was interacting with his contemporaries, but the taproot of his reconceived exegesis of Romans 1:3-4 rested first in the mind of Luther.


There are several questions that naturally arise in the wake of uncovering Vos’s sources. First, what caused Vos’s change of opinion? Second, how was Vos’s new view received? Third, is the difference between the ontological (vertical) versus redemptive-historical (horizontal) position genuinely a shift in Vos’s view, or do they actually complement one another? In other words, is it a false dichotomy to choose either the ontological or the redemptive historical interpretation?

The cause of Vos’s change of opinion

We should assume that an interpreter of Scripture does his best to explain what the text of Scripture says. At the same time, there are different contextual and circumstantial factors that account for how and why a theologian arrives at or changes his position. In Vos’s case, the initial context of his first interpretation of Romans 1:3-4 shaped his view. First, he was a graduate of Old Princeton and sat under the tutelage of Charles Hodge’s grandson, Caspar Wistar. Moreover, the Hodges’ ontological interpretation stood as a common view among historic Reformed interpreters such as Calvin, Musculus, the Westminster Annotations, and the Synod of Dort. Second, Vos was at the beginning stages of his teaching career and did not have opportunity to plumb the depths of every passage of Scripture to which he appealed in his lectures. Third, given that he was lecturing in systematic theology, he was likely inclined to look for ontological categories. Vos’s initial exegesis of Romans 1:3-4 appears, for example, in his lectures on Christology. So, what caused the shift?

As Vos explains the discipline of biblical theology, he indicated that he preferred the term history of special revelation.[77] This means that as he prosecuted his discipline, Vos was focused upon the horizontal rather than the vertical plane of ontology. This does not mean that Vos ignored ontological categories, as he was keen on distinguishing his own version of biblical theology from its rationalist sibling. Rationalist biblical theologians sought to neutralize the revelatory principle of Scripture with appeal to history.[78] Nevertheless, because Vos shifted his vantage point from which he spied out the text naturally opened his line of sight to see other aspects. Such a shift appears, for example, in the subtitles of the two sources Vos cites. The subtitle of Sokolowski’s Spirit and Life in Paul is, Eine exegetisch-religionsgeshichtliche Untersuchung (“an exegetical history of religions investigation”). And the subtitle of Gloël’s The Holy Spirit in the Redemptive Preaching of Paul is Eine biblisch-theologishe Untersuchung (“a biblical theological investigation”). Both Sokolowski and Gloël have their sights set on the horizontal plane. This changed perspective therefore impelled Vos to situate Paul’s statement in its horizontal context—within the unfolding plan of redemption.

The reception of Vos’s view

Given Vos’s shift in opinion, how was his new view received? There is no immediate evidence regarding the reception of Vos’s new interpretation, but there is one significant piece of circumstantial evidence from his Princeton colleague B. B. Warfield. Recall that Vos published his essay on “The Eschatological Aspect of the Spirit,” in 1912; Warfield published an essay entitled, “The Christ that Paul Preached,” in 1918 where he defends Hodge’s interpretation. In his essay, Warfield argued that Paul preached the historical Christ as the long-awaited Messiah who was also the very Son of God, and Romans 1:3-4 confirms this point.[79] The life-history of the Christ Paul preached was none other than the seed of David at his birth and by his birth. Christ’s resurrection confirmed that he was also the very Son of God, but the juxtaposition of these two aspects of the Son’s character do not indicate a temporal succession; rather, Paul’s ordering is logical rather than temporal. These two sayings are simply the greatest things that Paul can say about Jesus and his historical manifestation.[80] Warfield notes nature of Paul’s word choices. That he says that Jesus “came,” or “became,” is related to verse 2’s “promised afore,” which is the same point that Hodge argues. That is, Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophetic Old Testament, but at the same time that he became the seed of David also hints at his preexistence, which is a point that J. B. Lightfoot (1828-89) observes.[81] Jesus, however, came into the world as the promised Messiah and he went out of the world as the demonstrated Son of God. This does not mean that Christ shed his messiahship when he ascended, but that he passed from one glory to another. Christ did not therefore cease to be of the seed of David when he rose from the dead; conversely, when he became the seed of David, he did not cease to be the Son of God; Paul does not say that the resurrection made him the Son of God. Rather, he was “defined,” or “marked out,” as the Son of God by the resurrection.[82] Again, this is virtually the same point that Hodge made earlier in his Romans commentary.

Warfield clearly states that Paul’s two clauses do not refer to two different modes of being through which Christ passed:

We could think at most only of two successive stages of manifestation of the Son of God. At most we could see in it a declaration that He who always was and continues always to be the Son of God was manifested to men first as the Son of David, and then, after His resurrection, as also the exalted Lord. He always was in the essence of His being the Son of God; this Son of God became the seed of David and was installed as—what He always was—the Son of God, though now in his Proper power, by the resurrection of the dead.[83]

These verses do not, therefore, indicate a temporal succession. But what, specifically does Paul mean by “according to the flesh” and “marked out as the Son of God in power ‘according to the Spirit of holiness’”? Paul did not restrict Christ’s messiahship only with his earthly ministry and his divine Sonship only with his post-resurrection existence.[84]

In Warfield’s assessment, Paul was not contrasting Christ’s pre- and post-resurrection modes of being by the juxtaposition of terms, flesh and spirit; he was also not using these terms according to their ethical connotations. Warfield does not identify his interlocutor, but he also rejects the idea that Paul was contrasting the sin cursed flesh with the spirit of holiness, and that through the resurrection of the dead Christ was set free from the “likeness of (weak and sinful) flesh.” This interpretation is a reductio ad absurdum according to Warfield. Rather, Paul distinguishes between elements of Christ’s constitution; in other words, Paul distinguishes between the human and divine natures of Christ: “He is at one and the same time both the Messiah and the Son of God. He became the seed of David with respect to the flesh, and by the resurrection of the dead was mightily proven to be also the Son of God with respect to the Spirit of holiness.”[85] Moreover, “according to the flesh,” refers to Christ’s entire humanity (body and soul), and “according to the Spirit of holiness,” refers to the means by which he was declared to be the Son of God, a “metaphysical designation asserting equality with God” (cf. Rom. 9:5).[86] Once again, Warfield’s interpretation closely follows Hodge’s. And even though Warfield writes of the “Spirit of holiness,” which stands in contrast to Hodge’s “spirit of holiness,” he still makes the same point that the phrase refers to Christ’s spirit and not the Holy Spirit—a spirit of intrinsic holiness that Christ always possessed.[87] One of the reasons Warfield was likely keen on defending Hodge’s view was he was one of Warfield’s professors.[88]

There are three notable observations about Warfield’s essay that speak to the question of the reception of Vos’s new interpretation. First, Warfield and Vos were good friends and colleagues; they took walks together at Princeton.[89] Given that Warfield’s essay appeared six years after Vos’s essay means that they probably discussed this particular text. Second, even though Warfield does not mention or cite Vos’s view, it seems that he has it in view when he rejects the idea that Paul was writing of two successive stages in Christ’s ministry.[90] Warfield, therefore, was unpersuaded by Vos’s exegesis. Third, even though Warfield disagreed with Vos, he was charitable enough not to draw explicit attention to his dissent given that he neither mentioned Vos nor any of his sources (i.e., Sokowlowski and Gloël). He nevertheless wanted to record his dissent and defend the view of his professor.

A false dichotomy?

Given the difference between Vos and Warfield, should readers of Paul’s letter be forced to choose between the two titans of modern Reformed theology? While some have certainly chosen between the two, the image of Vos and Warfield walking together visually suggests that the two positions are not irreconcilable. If Vos the biblical theologian and Warfield the systematic theologian could walk side by side as good friends, is it not possible that their interpretations of Romans 1:3-4 are not incommensurable? The answer to this question is not to try to reconcile the irreconcilable but rather to appeal to the rest of Vos’s theology. If one assumes the presuppositions of rationalistic biblical theology, then history neutralizes ontology and revelation and Paul’s statements are purely historical. Vos, of course, does not take things to this extreme, but to suggest that either Paul is speaking of redemptive history or the Son’s ontology foists a false dilemma upon the text. Vos is right to trace the redemptive-historical flow of Paul’s sarxpneuma antithetical parallelism. At the same time, that Paul calls Jesus the son of David and the son of God speak to his person and natures.

Vos notes that the titles son of Man and son of David conceptually overlap. According to Vos, son of Man is a title that originates in Daniel 7, and especially verses 13-14 have the Messiah in view since Daniel’s Son of Man will supersede the earlier world-kingdoms; he is the ruler over and representative of Israel.[91] Son of David both alludes to Jesus’ lineage as well as his role as the Davidic successor, the Messiah.[92] Vos explains that the title Son of God speaks to the “eternal-essential constitutive relationship between Father and Son—thus within the Triune Being—that exists entirely apart from the work of the Mediator and does not first flow from it.”[93] Vos then asks the question, “As a result of the meaning of these different names, what can already be established provisionally concerning the person of the Mediator and His natures?” Vos gives an answer in four parts. First, the names reveal that the Son is truly God, which is especially evident in the name Son of God. Second, that he is truly man, which is evident in the name Son of Man. Third, that in his two natures he was anointed to three offices as prophet, priest, and king. And fourth, that as the Mediator he had to pass through a state of humiliation as well as a state of exaltation.[94]

Given what Vos says about the titles Son of David and Son of God, does he therefore abandon Hodge’s earlier ontological interpretation of Romans 1:3-4 or add greater texture to it by factoring its redemptive historical context and flow? While Warfield defended the interpretation of Hodge and Luther boldly announced that earlier interpreters misunderstood Paul’s statement, given Vos’s commitment to the relationship between biblical and systematic theology, it seems that, if pressed, he would acknowledge that the redemptive historical aspects complement and inform the ontological aspects of the text. Or in Vos’s own explanation of the relationship between biblical and systematic theology, the biblical-theological line that Paul traces with the sarxpneuma antithetical parallelism is not contrary to the systematic-theological circle observations regarding Christ’s two natures.[95] The line and the circle that one draws with the biblical text rest on the same exegetical data. In other words, the God-man, the Son of David according to the flesh, was inaugurated into his eschatological state as the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead by the Holy Spirit, which was also evidence that he was no mere man but truly divine. Vos’s newer interpretation does not contradict Hodge’s earlier view but rather completes and fills it out. At the same time, Vos himself likely believed that his newer redemptive-historical interpretation differed from his and Hodge’s earlier ontological interpretation.

In Vos’s understanding of biblical and systematic theology he argues that the constructive principle of systematic theology is “systematic and logical,” and thus “systematic theology endeavors to construct a circle.” Biblical theology, on the other hand, “seeks to reproduce a line.”[96] As John Webster (1955-2016) observes, “Something has gone awry here.”[97] Webster identifies two problems. Vos has separated the historical-discursive (or horizontal) from the analytical intelligence (or vertical) and distributes them between two distinct theological disciplines, biblical versus systematic theology. The first problem is: systematic theology (categorizing and systematizing according to logical principles) moves from a subordinate to primary place. The second problem is: a major part of systematic theology (presenting revelation in its canonical and historical form and context) is moved to biblical theology.[98] Taken to extremes, systematic theology drifts from Scripture and devolves into a logical analysis of the text. While Vos argues that the same scriptural data comprises both the circle and the line, the impression one gets is that he must categorize various biblical texts as either fitting in circles or lines, thus either Warfield or Vos, but not both.[99]

Instead, Webster rightly counters, “Scripture must be the terminus ad quem of systematic theological analysis, not merely its terminus a quo.”[100] In other words, Scripture is both the starting point and goal for systematic theology. Or, systematic theology is both ontological and redemptive-historical; conversely, biblical theology is both historical and systematic-theological. We should not choose between Warfield or Vos but need both. The eternal Son of God enters the world and is inaugurated as the mediator in redemptive history. While one may use Vos’s circle versus line analogy to distinguish the systematic from the redemptive-historical, he must not press the analogy too far. We can wonder if part of the reason why Vos and Warfield did not see eye-to-eye on Romans 1:3-4 is that they were looking at Paul’s text refracted through the lens of the recently created discipline of biblical versus systematic theology and thus pressed their interpretations to different ends. To avoid this false dilemma, we must recognize that Scripture is doing the theological work and not merely providing raw data to construct proofs for doctrines in a non-scriptural idiom.[101] Rather, the same Word who was with God and was God, is also the same Word who became flesh in the midst of history and tabernacled among us (John 1:1, 14).


Placing Vos within the wider and narrower contexts of the history of interpretation and Princeton Seminary provides the background to assess properly the evolution of his exegesis of Romans 1:3-4. Vos was not the first exegete to highlight the redemptive historical aspects of Paul’s text, as Luther was arguably one of the first and who also informed the German scholars that Vos consulted. At the same time, one need not choose between an ontological versus biblical-theological reading of Romans 1:3-4 based on two factors: the significance of Paul’s terms, i.e., Christ as the son of David and son of God, and the history of exegesis. Aquinas, Melanchthon, Cocceius, Lange, Bengel, and Forbes all underscored horizontal aspects of Romans 1:3-4, and Vos’s own explanation of the terms Son of Man and Son of God point to the fact that, if pressed, Vos would have likely held both together. Thus, this essay proves that one need not choose between Vos the systematic versus biblical theologian, as he is both.

[1] See, e.g., Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Resurrection and Redemption (1978; Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1987), 100-10; John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 5-12. This is not to say that Gaffin, or Murray for that matter, deny the “underlying ontological element,” nevertheless maintains that Vos’s “newer interpretation” as the “more satisfactory alternative” instead of the older ontological view (Gaffin, Resurrection, 100-01).

[2] Thomas Schreiner, Romans, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 42. Note, there are many different interpretive options for Romans 1:3-4. This essay does not seek to exhaust every single option but rather focuses upon Vos’s change of opinion and whether his early and late positions are irreconcilable. For a survey of the various interpretive positions, see Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 63-77.

[3] Augustine, Augustine on Romans: Propositions from the Epistle to the Romans and Unfinished Commentary on the Epistles to the Romans, trans. Paul Fredrickson Landes (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1982), comm. Rom. 1:3.

[4] Augustine, Romans, comm. Rom. 1:4.

[5] Augustine, Romans, prop. Rom. 1:4.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, trans. F. R. Larcher (Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute, 2012), comm. Rom. 1:3-4, §§30-32 (pp. 11-12).

[7] Aquinas, Romans, comm. Rom. 1:4, §46 (p. 17).

[8] Aquinas, Romans, comm. Rom. 1:4, §50 (p. 18).

[9] Aquinas, Romans, comm. Rom. 1:4, §52 (p. 19).

[10] Aquinas, Romans, comm. 1:4, §58 (pp. 20-21).

[11] Aquinas, Romans, comm. 1:4, §59 (p. 21).

[12] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, trans. John Owen, CTS (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1849), comm. Rom. 1:3 (p. 44).

[13] Calvin, Romans, comm. Rom. 1:4 (pp. 45-46).

[14] Wolfgang Musculus, In Epistolam Apostoli Pauli ad Romanos, Commentarii (Basel: Heragius, 1555), 2-3.

[15] Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, Luther’s Works, vol. 25 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1972), 146.

[16] Luther, Romans, 146.

[17] Luther, Romans, 146n. 23; cf. Lorenzo Valla, Latinam Novi Testamenti Interpretationem ex Collatione Grecorum Exemplarium Adnotationes Apprime Utiles (Paris: Leone Argentius, 1505), fol. XXVIIver.

[18] Luther, Romans, 146-47.

[19] Luther, Romans, 147.

[20] Luther, Romans, 147.

[21] Luther, Romans, 148.

[22] Philip Melanchthon, Commentary on Romans, trans. Fred Kramer (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1992), 63-64.

[23] Annotations Upon All the Books of the Old and New Testament (London: Evan Tyler, 1657), comm. Rom. 1:3.

[24] Annotations, comm. Rom. 1:4.

[25] Theodore Haak, ed., The Dutch Annotations Upon the New Testament, or all the Books of the New Covenant (London: Henry Hills, 1657), comm. Rom. 1:3-4; Moïses Amyraut, Paraphrase sure L’Epistre de S. Paul aux Romains (Saumur: Kean Lesnier, 1644), 9-10; David Dickson, An Exposition of All St. Pauls Epistles (London: R. I. for Francis Eglesfield, 1659), 2; David Pareus, In Divinam ad Romans S. Pauli Apostoli Eiostoal Commentarius (Frankfort: John Lancellot, 1608), 54-59; John Brown of Wamphray, An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, with Large Practical Observations (Edinburgh: David Paterson, 1767), 9-13.

[26] Johannes Cocceius, S. Pauli Apostoli Epistola ad Romanos (Leiden: Arnold Doude, 1668), 14.

[27] Cocceius, 17.

[28] Cocceius, 18.

[29] Andrew Willet, Hexapla: that is, a Sixfold Commentarie upon the Most Divine Epistle of the Holy Apostle S. Paul to the Romanes, vol. 1 (London: Leonard Greene, 1620), 39-40.

[30] Willet, Hexapla, 40.

[31] Willet, Hexapla, 41-42.

[32] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Holy Bible: Romans to Revelation (London: The Religious Tract society, 1835), 4.

[33] Robert Haldane, Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans with Remarks, 9th ed. (Edinburgh: William Oliphant and Co., 1874), 21 n. 1.

[34] Haldane, Romans, 23.

[35] Haldane, Romans, 26.

[36] Haldane, Romans, 26.

[37] Haldane, Romans, 27.

[38] Haldane, Romans, 28.

[39] Haldane, Romans, 30.

[40] Charles Hodge, Epistle to the Romans (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1837).

[41] Hodge, Romans, 5.

[42] Hodge, Romans, 6.

[43] Hodge, Romans, 7.

[44] Hodge, Romans, 7.

[45] Hodge, Romans, 8.

[46] Johann Peter Lange, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, trans. J. F. Hurst, ed. P. Schaff (New York: Scribner, Armstrong, & Co., 1872).

[47] Lange, Romans, 60.

[48] Johann Albrecht Bengel, Gnomon or the New Testament, vol. 3, ed. Andrew R. Fausset (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1877), 5.

[49] Bengel, Gnomon, 7. See also William Plummer, Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., 1870), 36.

[50] John Forbes, Analytical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans: Tracing the Train of Thought by the Aid of Parallelism (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1868).

[51] Lange, Romans, 60.

[52] Forbes, Analytical Commentary on Romans, 2.

[53] Lange, Romans, 61.

[54] Lange, Romans, 62.

[55] William S. Plummer, Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (New York, NY: Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., 1870), 34.

[56] Plummer, Romans, 35.

[57] Plummer, Romans, 35-36.

[58] Plummer, Romans, 36.

[59] Plummer, Romans, 36.

[60] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, Christology, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 212.

[61] Geerhardus Vos, “The Eschatological Aspect of the Spirit,” in Biblical and Theological Studies by the Members of the Faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 211-59.

[62] Vos, “Eschatological Aspect,” 215.

[63] Vos, “Eschatological Aspect,” 216.

[64] Vos, “Eschatological Aspect,” 217-19.

[65] Paul Vols, Der Geist Gottes und die verwandten Erscheinungen im Alten Testament und im anschliedssenden Judenthum (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1910), 93, 87; cf. Vos, “Eschatological Aspect,” 218nn. 4-5.

[66] Vos, “Eschatological Aspect,” 221-23.

[67] Vos, “Eschatological Aspect,” 224.

[68] Vos, “Eschatological Aspect,” 224.

[69] Vos, “Eschatological Aspect,” 229.

[70] Vos, “Eschatological Aspect,” 230.

[71] Emil Sokolowski, Die Befriffe Geist und Leven bei Paulus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1903), 56-62; Johannes Gloël, De heilige Geist in der heilsverkündigung des Paulus (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1888), 113-17; Vos, “Eschatological Aspect,” 230n. 27.

[72] I am thankful to my TA, Levi Berntson, for translating the relevant portions from both Sokolowski’s and Gloël’s works.

[73]  Sokolowski, Die Befriffe, 57-58; Gloël, De heilige Geist, 115.

[74] Bernhard Weiss, Der Brief an di Römer (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1899); cf. Sokolowski, Die Begriffe, 60; Gloël, De heilige Geist, 115.

[75] Weiss, Der Brief an di Römer, 46.

[76] Weiss, Der Brief an di Römer, 49; see also Bernhard Weiss, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, vol. 1, 3rd ed., trans. David Eaton (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1882), 402-09, esp. 408-09.

[77] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (1985; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014), v-vi.

[78] Geerhardus Vos, “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1980), 15.

[79] B. B. Warfield, “The Christ that Paul Preached,” in The Person and Work of Christ (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1950), 73-93, here 78. The essay originally appeared in The Expositor, 8/15 (1918): 90-110.

[80] Warfield, “The Christ that Paul Preached,” 79.

[81] Warfield, “The Christ that Paul Preached,” 79.

[82] Warfield, “The Christ that Paul Preached,” 80-81.

[83] Warfield, “The Christ that Paul Preached,” 81-82.

[84] Warfield, “The Christ that Paul Preached,” 83.

[85] Warfield, “The Christ that Paul Preached,” 84.

[86] Warfield, “The Christ that Paul Preached,” 85-86.

[87] Warfield, “The Christ that Paul Preached,” 87.

[88] Fred G. Zaspel, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 29.

[89] Danny Olinger, Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian (Philadelphia, PA: Reformed Forum, 2018), 119.

[90] Warfield, “The Christ that Paul Preached,” 81-82.

[91] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, III:17.

[92] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, III:19.

[93] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, III:15.

[94] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, III:20.

[95] Vos, “Idea of Biblical Theology,” 23.

[96] Vos, “Idea of Biblical Theology,” 23.

[97] John Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11/1 (2009): 56-71, here 70; also Michael Allen, “Toward Theological Theology: Tracing the Methodological Principles of John Webster,” Themelios 41/2 (2020): 217-37, here 230.

[98] Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” 70.

[99] E.g., Gaffin readily accepts the two natures of Christ but insists this is not in view in Paul’s statement: “A proper interpretation of these verses must appreciate the centrality of the temporal factor minimized by Warfield” (Gaffin, Resurrection, 105). Gaffin believes that the horizontal is central and the ontological is present but in the background. And so Gaffin presses his point: “Romans 1:3 and 4 do not contrast two coexisting aspects (the two natures) in the make-up of Christ’s person. The insuperable obstacles for this view are the ‘aeonic’ nature of the πνεῦμα – σάρξ antithesis and the economic rather than purely ontological character of the designation ‘Son of God’ (v. 4). Instead, the contrast is between two successive phases in Christ’s history, implying two successive modes of incarnate existence. The contrast is antithesis and progressive, in the language of dogmatics, a contrast between the states of humiliation and exaltation” (Gaffin, Resurrection, 112). Gaffin pits economic against ontological categories and yet invokes ontological language of “existence.” What is the ontology of the Christ who progresses through two successive phases of history? Why must the economic be central? Are not ontology and economy intertwined? Moreover, does not ontology dictate economy? I.e., the intra-trinitarian processions determine the historical missions?

[100] Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” 70.

[101] Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” 70.