Geerhardus Vos’s Thomistic Doctrine of Creation

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


The recent translation of Geerhardus Vos’s (1862-1949) Reformed Dogmatics has created great excitement among devotees to Vos’s biblical theology.[1] People have lauded Vos as the father of Reformed biblical theology and thus they have high expectations for Vos’s lectures on systematic theology.[2] What new insights might we glean from one of the Reformed tradition’s greatest minds? Some believe that Vos is one of the finest Reformed theologians since John Calvin (1509-64) and that he presents unparalleled insights in his lectures on systematic theology. While this characterization of Vos’s lectures might be true, such lofty claims indubitably invite scrutiny. This essay argues that Vos is certainly an astute theologian, but his lectures on systematic theology do not support the claim that he is one of the finest theologians since Calvin or that he presents unparalleled insights. Rather, the more likely scenario is that when Vos took up his professorship at the Theological School (now Calvin Theological Seminary) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he operated like many new professors who find themselves pressed by the demands of writing lectures on a topic that is outside their main field of study; in this case Vos’s field was biblical studies.[3] Vos drew upon existing textbooks and resources to write his own lectures. In this particular case Vos likely used Heinrich Heppe’s (1820-79) Reformed Dogmatics to inform his lectures. Drawing on Heppe is within the bounds of academic propriety, but it raises doubt regarding Vos’s supposed “unparalleled insights” and labeling him as one of the finest Reformed theologians since Calvin.

In order to demonstrate this thesis, this essay first examines the claims of Vos’s supposed unparalleled theological genius particularly as it pertains to his doctrine of creation. The second section explores what Vos stated regarding the doctrine of creation vis-à-vis God’s immutability. The third section investigates the Reformed Orthodox and ultimately Thomistic and Aristotelian roots of Vos’s doctrine of creation to prove that his insights were unoriginal and drawn from the Reformed and catholic tradition. The fourth section determines the implications of Vos’s Thomistic doctrine of creation concerning his supposed status as an unparalleled theologian. The essay then concludes with some summary observations.

The Claim

In a recent brief article Westminster Theological Seminary professor of systematic theology, Lane Tipton, tries to prove several claims about Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics. First, he claims that the recent translation of Vos’s work “has brought to light yet another theological treasure from perhaps the finest Reformed theologian since Calvin.”[4] Second, Vos engages in creedal doctrinal retrieval while at the same time “reforming that creedal doctrine in the formulation of a confessionally constructive, Reformed theology, tethered to its preceding creedal and confessional expressions, yet advancing organically beyond both, through biblical and systematic theological methods of interpreting the inerrant Scriptures.” In Tipton’s estimation, Vos remains within confessional boundaries while at the same time advancing “that confessional theology with unparalleled insight.”[5] In order to prove these two claims, Tipton points to two aspects of Vos’s theology, “the proper relation between the absolute and unchanging triune Creator and an eschatologically oriented creation, focused specifically on man as the image of God.”[6] This essay focuses on the first of these areas: the relationship between the immutable God and his act of creation.

Tipton begins his explanation of Vos’s doctrine of creation by drawing attention to the Dutchman’s claim that creation is a transitive act, which is set qualitatively and ontologically over and against the triune God who is absolute and for whom time does not exist. Because of this ontological difference, God’s act of creation does not constitute a change in God. Rather, his act of creation expresses the willing agency of the absolute and immutable God. Tipton then presents an extract from Vos and acknowledges that Vos quotes Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676): “Creation, actively considered, is not a real change because by it God is not changed by the act; it only requires a new relationship of Creator to what is created. And this new relation, which is not real in God, can therefore not effect a real change in Him.”[7] God remains absolute both behind and in the new relation (ad intra et ad extra), but this is a logical rather than a real distinction. There is no change in God as he creates, which Vos emphasizes when he states that there is “no real change” in God. This understanding of creation is one of Tipton’s pieces of evidence to support his claims about the supposed unparalleled insights of Vos’s lectures on systematic theology.

What Vos Wrote

Tipton’s exegesis of Vos’s doctrine of creation is theologically accurate insofar as he grasps the significance of Vos’s point: God remains immutable even in his act of creation, which Vos defines as a “new relation.” Nonetheless, there is a piece of evidence that Tipton passes over, Vos’s quotation of Voetius. This quotation alone might not automatically disqualify Vos from presenting unparalleled theological insights, but it certainly raises the question, How unparalleled can Vos’s claim be if he quotes an early modern Reformed theologian to make it? Does not the quotation itself prove that there is at least one parallel? In his defense, Tipton’s article is brief, a mere three pages written for a popular audience. Thus, one should not expect in-depth historical-theological analysis of Vos’s doctrine. At the same time, Vos’s Voetius quotation invites further investigation to see what else Vos has to say on the subject.

Vos addresses the question of God’s relationship to the creation under the question, “Does not the creation of the universe detract from the immutability of God?” Vos’s short answer is, no. He argues that Scripture only appears to speak of successive moments of time in God but that such language is a human accommodation; Vos does not use the specific term, but it is an anthropopathism.[8] Vos appeals to Psalm 90 to support his claim because the passage teaches the absolute eternity of God, “Before the mountains were born and You had brought forth the earth and the world, yes, from everlasting to everlasting You are God” (v. 2). Vos argues that the word “before” appears to introduce time into eternity, but this merely reveals the limitations of human language.[9] Vos buttresses his argument by appealing to the distinction between active and passive creation (creatio activa et passiva).[10] Active creation has the act of creating in God and passive creation refers to the universe as created.[11] From this context Vos appeals to Voetius: “Of the former [active creation] Voetius says, ‘Creation actively considered, is not a real change because by it God is not changed by that act; it only requires a new relationship of the Creator to what is created. And this new relation, which is not real in God, can therefore not effect a real change in Him.’” Vos presents a second quotation by Johannes Wollebius (1589-1629): “The creation is not a change in the Creator, but a change in the creature, a change from potential being to actual being.”[12] Vos does not provide citations for his quotations, so one cannot immediately identify the precise sources. Did Vos interact directly with primary sources or did he use secondary sources?

The Thomistic and Aristotelian Roots of Vos’s Doctrine

Identifying Vos’s sources will assist with two aspects of proving this essay’s thesis: (1) it can reveal how original or unoriginal Vos’s theology is at this point, and (2) it proves whether Vos presents distinctly unique Reformed insights or that he promoted common catholic theology. Once we can identify Vos’s source we can then explore the theological roots of what Voetius and Wollebius argue.

Vos’s Sources

First, there is the distinct possibility that Vos directly engaged primary sources for Voetius and Wollebius. Vos’s essay on the Reformed doctrine of the covenant appears to indicate that Vos was well-read in early modern primary sources. On the other hand, the absence of specific citations may point in another direction. There is evidence, for example, that Vos employed Heinrich Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics for both historical and theological purposes.[13] When one examines Heppe’s chapter on the doctrine of creation, there are several signs that point to the fact that Vos used this book as a source for his lectures.

There are four parallels between Vos and Heppe in their explanation of God’s immutability to his act of creation. (a) In the immediate context Heppe introduces the distinction of creatio activa et passiva: “Hence creatio activa is nothing but the effectiveness of the divine will in relation to its definite purpose; where as creatio passiva is the coming of the world into existence.”[14] This set of definitions parallels Vos’s definitions of the same terms. (b) Within this same context Heppe makes the same point as Vos regarding the anthropopathic language of time as a human accommodation, though Heppe appeals to Psalm 115:3 whereas Vos cites Psalm 90.[15] (c) Heppe has the same quotation from Wollebius that Vos uses: “Creation is a transition not of the Creator but of the creature from potency to actuality.”[16] And (d), Heppe also quotes Voetius, though it is not the same quotation that Vos uses: “There are no outward impelling causes (if one may indeed use this expression of God). The divine goodness is inward; the good diffuses and communicates itself.”[17] These parallels point in the direction that one of Vos’s sources was probably Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics.[18]

Given the difference between the Voetius quotations, signs indicate that Vos appealed directly to Voetius as a primary source. Vos did not use Abraham Kuyper’s (1837-1920) edited volume of select disputations by Voetius, as this book does not contain a disputation on creation.[19] Instead, Vos may have read Voetius’s disputations on creation, but the lone quotation provides scant information as to how extensively Vos may have read through the numerous disputations that fill more than three hundred pages.[20] The specific quote that Vos presents, however, appears several pages after the quote that Heppe employs.[21] In other words, one possible scenario is that Vos read Heppe, which pointed Vos to Voetius’s disputations. But there are further considerations regarding the Voetius quotation. Within this context Voetius appeals to several sources, two of whom include Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) and Jesuit Francisco Suarez (1548-1617).[22] The point that Voetius makes regarding the “new relation” all the while maintaining God’s immutability comes from Aquinas, hence we will focus upon his explanations of the doctrine of creation.

Voetius, Aquinas, and Aristotle

Voetius specifically cites Aquinas’s discussion of creation to support his claims that creation does not involve a change in God.[23] Within context, Thomas argues from Scripture that God created all things (Gen. 1:1).[24] But then he responds to the specific objection that to create something requires a change in the creator, Aquinas argues:

Creation is not change, except according to a mode of understanding. For change means that the same something should be different now from what it was previously. Sometimes, indeed, the same actual thing is different now from what it was before, as in motion according to quantity, quality and place; but sometimes it is the same being only in potentiality, as in substantial change, the subject of which is matter. But in creation, by which the whole substance of a thing is produced, the same thing can be taken as different now and before only according to our way of understanding, so that a thing is understood as first not existing at all, and afterwards as existing. But as action and passion coincide as to the substance of motion, and differ only according to diverse relations (Phys. iii, text 20, 21), it must follow that when motion is withdrawn, only diverse relations remain in the Creator and in the creature. But because the mode of signification follows the mode of understanding as was said above (q. 13 art. 1), creation is signified by mode of change; and on this account it is said that to create is to make something from nothing. And yet ‘to make’ and ‘to be made’ are more suitable expressions here than ‘to change’ and ‘to be changed,’ because ‘to make’ and ‘to be made’ import a relation of cause to the effect, and of effect to the cause, and imply change only as a consequence.[25]

When God creates, this act does not represent a change in him. Because, strictly speaking, God does not change but rather creates ex nihilo. Thus, it is incorrect to speak of change but instead preferable to say that God makes. Aquinas notably draws this distinction from Aristotle’s Physics.

In the subsequent article Aquinas deals with the specific question of whether creation requires a change in God and he invokes the distinction between creatio activa et passiva, which is virtually the same point that Vos makes through his quotation of Voetius:


Aquinas Vos’s Voetius Quotation

Creation signified actively means the divine action, which is God’s essence, with a relation to the creature. But in God relation to the creature is not a real relation, but only a relation of reason; whereas the relation of the creature to God is a real relation.[26]



Of the former [active creation] Voetius says, ‘Creation actively considered, is not a real change because by it God is not changed by that act; it only requires a new relationship of the Creator to what is created. And this new relation, which is not real in God, can therefore not effect a real change in Him.’[27]


Voetius appeals to Aquinas because he persuasively defended the immutability of God but at the same time maintained creatio ex nihilo. He believed that Aquinas faithfully exposited the biblical doctrine of creation.

Vos’s second quotation of Wollebius may come from Heppe, as both theologians use the same statement: “The creation is not a change in the Creator, but a change in the creature, a change from potential being to actual being.”[28] Although, Vos may have directly read Wollebius. In order to understand this statement, we must go back to Wollebius’s original because both Vos and the translator (Gaffin) of Vos’s Dogmatics have obscured technical language:


Wollebius, Compendium (1633). Vos, Dogmatiek (1910). Vos, Reformed Dogmatics Wollebius, Compendium (Beardslee)

Creatio, non creatoris, sed creatura est à potentia ad actum transitio.[29]



De schepping is niet een overgang in den schepper, maar een overgang in het schepsel, een overgang van potentieel zijn tot werkelijk-zijn.[30]



The creation is not a change in the Creator, but a change in the creature, a change from potential being to actual being.[31]


For creatures, but not for the creator, creation is the transition from potency to act.[32]


What Vos and Gaffin shade in their translations of Wollebius’s statement are the technical terms: potentia and actus, or potency and act. Both would have done better to leave the technical Latin terms untranslated to alert the reader to their use. Why is this significant?

Like Voetius, Wollebius’s statement reveals the use of modified Aristotelian metaphysical categories of potency and act.[33] According to the Aristotelian ontological categories that lie at the root of Reformed scholastic language about being, actus, or actuality, refers to that which exists or is actualized. Conversely, potentia, denotes what might exist or has the potential to exist.[34] As Aristotle states in his Metaphysics: “Actuality, then is the existence of a thing not in the way which we express by ‘potentiality’; we say that potentially, for instance, a statue of Hermes is in the block of wood and the half-line is in the whole, because it might be separated out.”[35] Wollebius employs this metaphysical distinction to delineate the differences between the creature and creator. God is pure actuality in whom there is no potency, therefore he cannot transition from potentiality to actuality. This is the same distinction Aquinas employs in his own doctrine of creation evident in the above-cited quotation when he refers to action and passion, or act and potency. Action (such as when fire heats water) versus passion (the water being heated) are the same event but from different perspectives: action (heating) and passion (being heated).[36] In one particular case, Aquinas discusses Aristotle’s example regarding teaching and learning. Teaching and learning are the same motion—the action of teaching and the passion of learning are identical “in subject,” but they differ conceptually or in definition. Or in other words, teaching and learning have the same referent—the same change that occurs in the learner. But they are distinct insofar as the teacher’s action causes the change and the passion expresses the idea that the change occurs in the learner.[37] Aquinas and Wollebius both use this Aristotelian distinction to guard the fact that change results in the creation but not in God.

This entire argument rests on the distinction between a real and conceptual (relationis rationis) relation, which lies at the heart of Vos’s Voetius quote: “This new relation, which is not real in God, can therefore not effect a real change in Him.”[38] What is the difference between a real and conceptual relation? And why are these distinctions necessary? Simply stated, everything that exists stands in relation to something else.[39] Aquinas explains that there are three ways in which a relation is real or logical: (1) when we say that a thing is the same as itself, where reason apprehends the same thing as two distinct things; (2) relations can be real, such as when one compares two things that share a common quality, such as number—there are five oranges and five apples; and (3) relations can be mixed, when one is real and the other is conceptual, such as when two things are of different orders, such as God (who is infinite) and creatures (who belong to the order of finite being).[40] Mixed relations arise when one thing is ordered to another, but the two are not mutually related to each other. For example, when two ships sail side by side but then ship A changes course so that ship B is now aft rather than starboard, then there is a real change in ship A but only a conceptual change in ship B. Ship B has not moved and thus there is no real change to ship B.[41]

Aquinas employs these Aristotelian metaphysical distinctions, real versus conceptual change, to preserve several key scriptural teachings: the immutability of the divine essence and the contingent nature of the creation. First, God and creatures do not belong to the same order, as God has aseity whereas the creation is contingent and creatures only exist by participation. Thus, creatures have a real relation to God but God only has a conceptual relation to the creation.[42] Vos quotes Voetius who cites Aquinas on this very point: “This new relation, which is not real in God.”[43] Although creator only becomes predicable of God when he creates, the fact that we call him creator does not imply a change in God. Rather, it signifies the immutable divine essence insofar as creatures relate to it, as when ship A changed course in relation to ship B; ship B did not move, only ship A changed course.[44] This is the “new relation” that Vos highlights in the Voetius quote.

Second, the real versus conceptual relation operates in tandem with the ideas of active and passive creation, a connection that Vos explicitly drew with his use of this set of terms. The distinction stands against a backdrop of creation from motion. Strictly speaking, creation is not motion, but the easiest way to think about creation is in terms of motion. Creation is unique, or sui generis. Hence, as we can conceptualize motion in terms of action and passion, or act and potency, the same is true mutatis mutandis for creation. Therefore, the distinction between active and passive creation is a way to comprehend creation as motion but with the necessary qualifications. In this case, since God creates ex nihilo active creation can only be predicated of God; conversely, Aquinas applies passive creation to the created order. Vos saw this connection and followed his quotation of Voetius with a quote from Wollebius, who pointed out the difference between act and potency. God is pure actuality and hence no change disrupts his immutability; the change occurs in the creation.

Now some may object because it appears as if Thomas’s whole conception of relations rests on Aristotelian philosophical and metaphysical assumptions.[45] Yet, Thomas bases some of his argument on Augustine (354-430), who did not have access to the works of Aristotle.[46] Augustine was perhaps one of the first theologians to address the question of the relationship between an immutable God and creation. He writes in book V of De Trinitate:

Wherefore nothing in Him is said in respect to accident, since nothing is accidental to Him, and yet all that is said is not said according to substance. For in created and changeable things, that which is not said according to substance, must, by necessary alternative, be said according to accident. For all things are accidents to them, which can be either lost or diminished, whether magnitudes or qualities; and so also is that which is said in relation to something, as friendships, relationships, services, likenesses, equalities, and anything else of the kind; so also positions and conditions, places and times, acts and passions. But in God nothing is said to be according to accident, because in Him nothing is changeable; and yet everything that is said, is not said, according to substance.[47]

In other words, Augustine recognizes that there are no accidents in God; humans have mutable and thus accidental qualities. Hence, when we speak of God we recognize his immutable essence but the mutability of creatures. God does not change, creatures do.

He argues that when we speak of God in time, we do so only relatively, not accidentally. That is, we do not say that God acquires new accidental qualities or attributes but rather, like Thomas, Voetius, and Vos after him, that he has entered a new relation. Augustine illustrates this point with money:

Money, when it is called a price, is spoken of relatively, and yet it was not changed when it began to be a price; nor, again, when it its called a pledge, or any other thing of the kind. If, therefore, money can so often be spoken of relatively with no change of itself, so that neither when it begins, nor when it ceases to be so spoken of, does any change take place in that nature or form of it, whereby it is money; how much more easily ought we to admit, concerning that unchangeable substance of God, that something may be so predicated relatively in respect to the creature, that although it begin to be so predicated in time, yet nothing shall be understand to have happened to the substance itself of God, but only to that creature in respect to which it is predicated?[48]

In other words, when someone mints a coin it has a value, but the market can fluctuate and the value of the coin rises or falls. The coin’s value may oscillate but the substance of the coin itself does not change. Rather, the coin’s relation to the market value changes; the change occurs in the market, not the coin. If we can predicate this about coins, why not God? This means that Augustine and Thomas tap into common sense observations and employ them as heuristic devices to clarify theological argumentation; Thomas (or Vos for that matter) has not imbibed from pagan philosophy and thus corrupted the integrity of their theology at this point.

Some might object to Aquinas’s arguments, and thus reject Voetius and Vos for that matter, given their heuristic use of Aristotelian metaphysics. How can the creature’s relation to God be real but God’s relation to the creation is only conceptual? Does this not make God the dreaded Aristotelian unmoved mover, the god of the Greeks but not the God of the Bible? Reformed Orthodox theologians found these distinctions useful, as Vos did, because when we say that God does not have a real relation to creatures, we highlight his immutability and aseity. This is a technical way of stating God is God and we are finite creatures. Moreover, such distinctions do not prevent us from saying that God truly loves creatures. Rather, embedded in these distinctions (real vs. conceptual, act and potency, active and passive creation) is that our language about God is analogical and not univocal. We can summarize our language about God in a three-step process: affirmation, negation, and eminence. We first affirm something about God: he loves us. Second, we clarify our statement by clearing away misunderstandings: God loves us but this does not mean he is dependent on creatures. Third, God undoubtedly loves to the highest degree because God is love.[49] In our explanations of God, we must account for the distinction between the creator and the creature, otherwise we run the risk of collapsing one into the other. Hence, the conceptual relation (as opposed to the real relation) preserves God’s transcendence and immutability.[50] For all of these reasons, Vos saw the biblical fidelity and utility of such distinctions and thus employed them in his lectures on systematic theology.

The Implications of Vos’s Thomistic Doctrine of Creation

As well as Vos provides smooth and concise theological exposition in his lectures, his likely reliance on Heppe and engagement with Voetius and Wollebius reveals that his insights regarding the immutability of God and his act of creation were not his own. In this respect, active and passive creation were common to both medieval and early modern Reformed Orthodox theology. Johannes Maccovius (1588-1644), delegate to the Synod of Dort (1618-19) discusses the terms and makes the connection to the Aristotelian metaphysical distinction: “According to the well-known rule, however, words ending on -io and derived from active, signify both action and passion. When the word ‘creation’ is taken in an active and not in a passive sense, we concede that creation is God himself.”[51] Petrus Van Mastricht (1630-1706) also employs the distinction in a similar fashion.[52] Voetius, Wollebius, Maccovius, and Van Mastricht were not, as Tipton claims about Vos, “reforming that creedal doctrine in the formulation of a confessionally constructive, Reformed theology, tethered to its preceding creedal and confessional expressions, yet advancing organically beyond both, through biblical and systematic theological methods of interpreting the inerrant Scriptures.”[53] Rather, the fact that they comfortably employed Aristotelian and Thomistic concepts was because they did not believe that this area of doctrine required reforming. Vos stood in this same tradition evident by his own use of the same distinctions and ideas.

Some might object to the genealogy of Vos’s doctrine of creation given its Thomistic and Aristotelian elements and claim that he later disinfected his theology of such things when he turned his attention to the purer discipline of biblical theology. The historian always has to be open to the possibility that a theologian’s views develop and evolve. At the same time, as common as the claim is that biblical theology is more biblical because it is not encumbered by theological terminology and interloping philosophical concepts like act and potency, any time a human being interprets the biblical text he always brings philosophical baggage, sometimes consciously or unconsciously.[54] Biblical theologians may claim to exegete purely and biblically, but they import their metaphysical commitments to the process whether they acknowledge them or not. In Vos’s case, one has to provide documentation to demonstrate that he eventually discarded his use of Thomist distinctions in his doctrine of creation. It does not appear that Vos employs such concepts or terminology in his Biblical Theology, which constituted the core of the work of his later teaching career. But are such metaphysical distinctions necessary in the task of exegetical theology?

Vos explains the differences between biblical and systematic theology: “The only difference is, that in the one case this constructive principle is systematic and logical, whereas in the other case it is purely historical.” That is, biblical theology is historical—it traces the organic development of revelation through redemptive history, from Genesis to Revelation. Systematic theology seeks to explain how the varied and sundry parts logically cohere. In the former, one traces the old creation to the new, whereas in the latter he must explain how creating the old does not introduce mutability into an immutable God. In Vos’s well-known characterization, “Systematic theology endeavors to construct a circle, Biblical Theology seeks to reproduce a line.”[55] Rather than trying to escape or scuttle the catholic elements in Vos’s theology by claiming that he evolved and shed his vestigial metaphysical limbs as he stood on two feet and walked upright to do biblical theology, there is a more interesting Vosian narrative. Namely, Vos the systematic theologian devoted to historic Reformed Orthodox theology is one and the same as Vos the biblical theologian. There are not two Vosses but rather one Vos in whom both historic Reformed systematic theology with all of its catholic elements happily coexist with all of his biblical theological commitments.


In the end, despite claims of “unparalleled insights,” Vos’s doctrine of creation rests on a quotation of Voetius who is himself quoting Aquinas who employs Aristotelian metaphysics of act and potency to explain how an immutable God can create without becoming mutable. Vos’s “insight” does not qualify as unparalleled given its antecedent parallels in Voetius and Aquinas as well as its use by other Reformed Orthodox theologians. At a minimum, Vos conceptually agreed with this Thomistic form of argumentation and employed it with little concern or knowledge of its origins; its mundane presence in the tradition and theological utility in explaining the doctrine of creation in a biblically faithful manner was sufficient reason to employ the concepts. But if Vos actually read Voetius’s disputations on creation, which his unique citation of Voetius suggests, then he was fully aware of the Thomistic roots, realistic epistemology, and heuristic use of modified Aristotelian metaphysics in the argument. Regardless of Vos’s precise relationship to the Thomistic elements in Voetius’s quote, this much remains true: talk of unparalleled Vosian insights and reforming creedal doctrine within confessional boundaries should be set aside. Vos was doing nothing of the sort. Rather, he was promoting and teaching historic Reformed Orthodox and confessional theology, which tapped into the catholic tradition. In truth, Vos was a young professor teaching outside of his discipline and was thus writing lectures partially cribbed from sources like Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics as well as his own primary source research. This does not warrant the claim that Vos is the finest theologian since Calvin. Such a claim might be true, but students of Vos’s theology must first carefully comb through his lectures and examine his sources. Every time he mentions a name or invokes classic theological terminology, such as creatio activa et passiva, students must delve into early modern Reformed sources, medieval texts, and patristic sources to determine to what degree Vos recapitulates historic Reformed and catholic theology. Only then can one truly measure Vos’s originality and determine how unparalleled his insights might be. Great theologians need not be unparalleled or innovative to be admired. Rather, the more seemingly mundane scriptural and confessional fidelity is the truly admirable trait of Vos’s theology. When there are an infinite number of ways Vos could have abandoned the tradition on God’s immutability, he withstood the temptation to innovate.


[1] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 5 vols, trans. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-14).

[2] So Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “Introduction,” in Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: 1980), xiv.

[3] See, e.g., his thesis presented at Princeton Seminary, Geerhardus Vos, The Mosaic Origins of the Pentateuchal Codes (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1886).

[4] Lane G. Tipton, “Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics,” New Horizons (Apr 2018): 9-11, esp. 9.

[5] Tipton, “Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics,” 9.

[6] Tipton, “Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics,” 9.

[7] Tipton, “Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics,” 9; cf. Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, I:178.

[8] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, I:177.

[9] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, I:178.

[10] A more refined way to define these terms is active creation is the divine act of creating the world ex nihilo whereas the passive creation is the coming to be of the created order (see Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, 2nd ed. [1986; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017], s. v. creation [p. 83]).

[11] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, I:178.

[12] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, I:178.

[13] See, e.g., Geerhardus Vos, Geerhardus Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1980), 264; Heinrich Heppe, Dogmatik der Evangelishe-Reformierten Kirche (Elberfeld: R. S. Friderichs, 1861).

[14] Heppe, Dogmatik, 138, 141; cf. Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics: Set Out and Illustrated from the Sources, ed. Ernst Bizer, trans. G. T. Thomson (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1950), 193. Note, I cite the English translation of Heppe in consultation with the German original.

[15] Heppe, Dogmatik, 141; cf. idem, Reformed Dogmatics, 193.

[16] Heppe, Dogmatik, 138; cf. idem,  Reformed Dogmatics, 194.

[17] Heppe, Dogmatik, 142; cf. Reformed Dogmatics, 195.

[18] There are other potential but less likely scenarios. It does not appear that Vos relied on his theological text book at the Theological School, Aegidius Francken’s Kern der Christelyke Leere, as Francken does not appeal to any sources in his treatment of the doctrine of creation (Aegidius Francken, Kern der Christelyke Leere [Rotterdam: J. Spandaw, 1768], 109-16). It is also unlikely that Vos relied on the work of Foppe Martin Ten Hoor (1855-1934), who taught systematic theology at the Theological School after Vos from 1900-24 and who published his own systematic theology (Foppe Martin Ten Hoor, Compendium der Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Holland: A. Ten Hoor, 1922; J. Mark Beach, “Calvin and the Dual Aspect of Covenant Membership,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 20 [2009] 49-73, esp. 49n. 2). I was unable to consult Ten Hoor’s work to confirm the absence of connections to Vos.

[19] Gisbertus Voetius, Selectarum Disputattionum, ed. Abraham Kuyper (Amsterdam: Johannes Adam Wormser, 1888), vi.

[20] Gisbertus Voetius, Selectarum Disputationum Theologicarum, vol. 1 (Utrecht: Johannes à Wansberge, 1668), 552-881.

[21] Heppe, Dogmatik, 142; idem, Reformed Dogmatics, 195; cf. Gisbertius Voetius, Selectarum Disputationum, 558; versus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, I:178; cf. Voetius, Selecatarum Disputationum, 565: “Quod active sumpta non sit ver inutatio, quia per Deus non mutator, sed tantum acquirit novam relationem createm ad rem creatam; quae relation iam in Deo no sit realis, non efficit realem mutationem.”

[22] Francisco Suarez, On Creation, Conservation, and Concurrence: Metaphysical Disputations 20-22, trans. Alfred J. Fredoso (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002), disp. XX, esp. XX.iv-v (pp. 65-106).

[23] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (rep; Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1948), Ia q. 45 arts. 2-3.

[24] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia q. 45 art. 2 sed contra.

[25] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia q. 45 art. 2 ad 2.

[26] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia q. 45 art. 3 ad 2.

[27] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, I:178.

[28] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, I:178; cf. Heppe, Dogmatik, 138.

[29] Johannes Wollebius, Christianae Theologiae Compendium (Basil: Johannes Jacob Genath, 1633), I.v.3 (p. 43). Heppe’s quotation of Wollebius is the same (Heppe, Dogmatik, 138).

[30] Geerhardus Vos, Dogmatiek, vol. 1, Theologie (Grand Rapids, MI: n. p., 1910), 179.

[31] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, I:178.

[32] Johannes Wollebius, Compendium Theologiae Christianae, I.v.3, in Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John W. Beardslee III (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 54.

[33] On the Reformed Orthodox use of modified Aristotelianism, see Richard A. Muller, “Scholasticism, Reformation, Orthodoxy, and the Persistence of Christian Aristotelianism,” Trinity Journal 19NS (1998): 81-96.

[34] Muller, Dictionary, s. v. actus (p. 7).

[35] Aristotle, Metaphysics,, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 826; Muller, Dictionary, 7.

[36] Michael Rota, “Causation,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, ed. Brian Davies and Eleonore Stump (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 108.

[37] Rota, “Causation,” 109; cf. Aristotle, Physics, III.v.202a.

[38] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, I:178. There is a significant body of literature on relations; see the following and the secondary literature cited therein: Jeffrey Brower, “Medieval Theories of Relations,” accessed 16 October 2018; Mark Gerald Henninger, “Aquinas on the Ontological Status of Relations,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 25/4 (1987): 491-515; David Svoboda, “Aquinas on Real Relation,’ Theologica 6/1 (2016): 147-72, esp. 148n. 5; and Earl Muller, “Real Relations and the Divine: Issues in Thomas’s Understanding of God’s Relation to the World,” Theological Studies 56 (1995): 673-95.

[39] Svoboda, “Aquinas on Real Relation,” 147.

[40] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia q. 13. art. 7; R. J. Matawa, Divine Causality and Human Free Choice: Domingo Báñez, Physical Premotion and the Controversy D Auxiliis Revisited (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 270-71. Thomas’s most extensive discussion of relations appears in Thomas Aquinas, On the Power of God: Three Volumes in One (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1952), qq 7, 9; cf. Svoboda, “Real Relation in Aquinas,” 154.

[41] Matawa, Divine Causality, 271.

[42] Matawa, Divine Causality, 272.

[43] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, I:178.

[44] Matawa, Divine Causality, 272.

[45] Commentators are in agreement regarding the Aristotelian character of Thomas’s theory of relations, though he does cite other sources (Svoboda, “Aquinas on Real Relation, 149-52; Brower, “Medieval Theories,” §§ 1-2).

[46] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia q. 13 art. 7 sed contra; Brower, “Medieval Theories,” §5.

[47] Augustine, On the Holy Trinity, V.v, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series 1, ed. Philip Schaff, et al, vol. 3 (rep.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 89.

[48] Augustine, On the Holy Trinity, V.vii, in Nicene Post-Nicene Fathers, III:96; Brower, “Medieval Theories,” §5.

[49] Svoboda, “Aquinas on Real Relation,” 158n. 54.

[50] Aquinas, On the Power of God, q. 1 art. 10 ad 10; Brower, “Medieval Theories,” §5.1.

[51] Johannes Maccovius, Scholastic Discourse: Johannes Maccovius (1588-1644) on Theological and Philosophical Distinctions and Rules (Apeldoorn: Instituut vor Reformatieonderzoek, 2009), VI.xx (p. 151).

[52] Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretico-Practica Theologia (Utrecht: Thomas Appels, 1698), III.v.5 (p. 313).

[53] Tipton, “Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics,” 9.

[54] For those who claim that biblical theology is biblically purer than systematic theology, see D. A. Carson, “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology,” in Doing Theology in Today’s World: Essays in Honor of Kenneth S. Kantzer, eds. John D. Woodbridge and Thomas Edward McComiskey (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 39-76, esp. 45; Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “Systematic and Biblical Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 38/3 (1976): 281-99, esp. 296-99.

[55] Geerhardus Vos, “The Idea of Biblical Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1980), 23.