Who Lurks Behind Geerhardus Vos? Sources and Predecessors

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

Over the years Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) has been heralded as the father of Reformed biblical theology.[1] Along with this paternal crown, others have argued that Vos is “the finest Reformed theologian since Calvin” and that “within the boundaries of confessional Reformed theology, he advances that confessional theology with unparalleled insight.”[2] As it relates to Vos’s inaugural lecture as the newly appointed professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Seminary, one author characterizes Vos’s lecture as “exacting in scope and sophistication” and that Vos “offers a distinctive approach to biblical theology.” In the subsequent analysis one of the ideas that he presents is Vos’s idea of word- and fact-revelation: “The Bible is not human reflection on divine activity or divine reflection on merely human events, but divine word about divine work.”[3] In other words, revelation is divine action in history (fact-revelation) and divine commentary upon those actions (word-revelation). In and of themselves, Vos’s comments are sound and insightful, but with the army of adjectival bodyguards that surround Vos, some of the analysis of the significance of his contributions gives the impression that these are Vossian ex nihilo insights.

There is one exception to this adulatory trend, as one commentator notes that Vos does offer footnotes to two sources in his inaugural address but he does not investigate the nature of the citations. He simply notes that Vos, “does not give any real indication of how he is dependent upon others for the position he spells out.”[4] Nevertheless, if Vos is the father of Reformed biblical theology, the finest theologian since Calvin, who offers unparalleled insights and presents a distinctive approach to biblical theology, then he is truly a prodigy and rightly merits these accolades. On the other hand, what if Vos stands in the shadows of theologians from whom he drew ideas to incorporate into his biblical theology? If there are such figures lurking behind Vos, then perhaps words such as “unparalleled,” “distinctive,” and “father,” are unwarranted? Moreover, Vos’s two cited sources in his inaugural address beckon readers to explore what he may have gleaned from others.

This brief essay defends the claim that “father of Reformed biblical theology” is a misleading title and should be set aside, and that biblical theology was not unique to him. The essay substantiates this claim with two lines of argumentation. First, evidence reveals that key insights of Vos’s biblical theology were not his own, as Vos himself hints, but that he drew them from another contemporary theologian who, to my knowledge, is practically unrecognized in current Vos historiography. Second, Vos’s own colleagues did not believe he was the father of Reformed biblical theology and instead looked to another American Reformed theologian.

To prove this thesis the essay will first examine recent claims about Vos’s discipline-defining lecture on biblical theology to weigh the assertions about the supposed distinct nature of his insights. Second, the essay explores a relatively unknown inaugural address by one of Vos’s colleagues, Frances Patton (1843-1932), on theological encyclopediaPatton confirms one of the sources behind Vos’s biblical theology, and he identifies who he believed was the father of Reformed biblical theology. The essay then concludes with some summary observations about Vos’s relative place within the Reformed tradition and the necessity for a dispassionate assessment of his significance. Vos may truly furnish unparalleled and distinct insights that merit accolade, but we must first determine who stands behind Vos before we can weigh the exceptionality of his theological contributions.

Vos’s Unique Contribution?

The impression that some give about Vos’s biblical theology is that he innovates in a way that is faithful to the Reformed confessional tradition and yet nevertheless produces unprecedented insights.[5] Vos’s biographer, Danny Olinger, highlights the fact that one of Vos’s insights was to label biblical theology as the history of special revelation. Olinger notes that Vos published an essay entitled “The Nature and Aims of Biblical Theology,” in 1902, where he copied the concluding statement as part of the preface to his Biblical Theology. Vos writes in his essay:

In the foregoing the question has not been raised in how far the name Biblical theology fits the discipline we have endeavored to describe. It cannot be denied that this name lies open to serious objection, although it may be impossible to displace it, now that it has become almost generally adopted. The appropriation of the adjective “Biblical” would seem to call in question the Biblical character of the other theological disciplines, which, from a Protestant point of view, would be tantamount to denying their right of existence altogether. If the usual division of theology into the four departments of Exegetical, Historical, Systematic, and Practical Theology is to be retained, the designation of a subdivision of one of these four by a phrase constructed on the same principle as the names of the main divisions, must inevitably lead to confusion of thought. These difficulties can all be obviated by substituting for Biblical Theology the name, “History of (Special) Revelation,” which has actually been adopted by some writers.[6]

Olinger then notes that Vos takes this paragraph and expands it with slightly different wording in the preface to his Biblical Theology:

The present volume is entitled Biblical Theology—Old and New Testaments. The term “Biblical Theology” is really unsatisfactory because of its liability to misconstruction. All truly Christian Theology must be Biblical Theology—far apart from General Revelation the Scriptures constitute the sole material with which the science of Theology can deal. A more suitable name would be “History of Special Revelation,” which precisely describes the subject matter of this discipline. Names, however, become fixed by long usage, and the term “Biblical Theology,” in spite of its ambiguity, can hardly be abandoned now.

Biblical Theology occupies a position between Exegesis and Systematic Theology in the encyclopedia of theological disciplines. It differs from Systematic Theology, not in being more Biblical, or adhering more closely to the truths of the Scriptures, but in that its principle of organizing the Biblical material is historical rather than logical. Whereas Systematic Theology takes the Bible as a completed whole and endeavors to exhibit its total teaching in an orderly, systematic form, Biblical Theology deals with the material from the historical standpoint, seeking to exhibit the organic growth or development of the truths of Special Revelation from the primitive pre-redemptive Special Revelation given in Eden to the close of the New Testament canon.[7]

There are two noteworthy observations regarding the analysis of Vos’s preference of terms, namely, history of special revelation versus biblical theology. First, Olinger presents these passages as if this were something unique to Vos. There is no documented effort to determine whether Vos’s preference has precedence in the work of other theologians. This is not necessarily a shortcoming, as Olinger is more interested in the idea that Vos propounds rather than its source. Second, in these quotations Vos presents his idea as if they were largely his own, though he makes the passing remark that the “History of (Special) Revelation” has been “adopted by some writers,” but he fails to mention names. Thus Olinger, and Vos himself, give the impression that this is a distinctive contribution to the discipline of biblical theology.

While Vos gives the impression that his preference for the term history of special revelation is his own insight, one should note that his Biblical Theology began life as his classroom lectures. The notes were collected, edited, and indexed by Vos’s son, J. G. Vos (1903-83), and subsequently reviewed by Vos himself.[8] The fact that his book began life as class notes should cast a shadow of circumspection and caution over any claims regarding the insightful, exceptional, or unique character of Vos’s lectures. In and of itself Vos’s Biblical Theology is an edifying and valuable book. But to esteem a book as useful is one thing; characterizing the book as uniquely insightful is entirely another. A book need not be peerless in order to be edifying for its readers. Moreover, few theologians write in a vacuum; all theologians learn from someone else. Thus, who served as conversation partners, spurs, and sources for Vos’s biblical theology?

Patton’s Address

An initial clue regarding Vos’s source comes from his published inaugural lecture that Vos delivered when he assumed the newly created chair of biblical theology at Princeton Seminary. As one writer has noted, Vos cites two sources in the lecture, Anglican theologian Thomas D. Bernard (1815-1904) and German New Testament scholar, Karl Friedrich Nösgen (1835-1913).[9] About a year after Vos arrived at Princeton Seminary, Francis Patton delivered a lecture on 14 October 1903 entitled, “Theological Encyclopedia,” which provides a second clue.[10] Given the topic of his address Patton naturally mentions biblical theology. In his lecture Patton makes two revealing comments. First, regarding Vos, Patton states: “My friend and colleague, Dr. Vos, following Nösgen, makes the happy suggestion that this department be called The History of Revelation.”[11] The second comment is: “I think I do not err in saying that, at least so far as we in America are concerned, Jonathan Edwards is the father of Biblical Theology.” These are two significant revelations that relate directly to Vos.

The first statement discloses that Vos did not independently develop the idea that biblical theology should be called the history of revelation, as Vos’s own citation suggests. Patton notes that Vos was following the idea of Nösgen, who had just recently published his book entitled, The History of New Testament Revelation in 1893. A main theme of Nösgen’s work is Offenbarungsgeschicte (“the history of revelation”). Thus, Vos’s admission that “some writers” had adopted the idea and the footnote in his lecture at least demonstrates that he was not alone in promoting this concept.[12] But Nösgen’s influence does not cease with determining the best label for the discipline of biblical theology.

In the foreword to his work, Nösgen writes of “word revelation” (Wortoffenbarung) and “deed revelation” (Thatoffenbarung).[13] This is another key aspect of Vos’s conception of biblical theology. In his published lectures Vos employs the twofold category: “Act-revelations are never entirely left to speak for themselves; they are preceded and followed by word-revelation. The usual order is: first word, then the fact, then again the interpretive word. The Old Testament brings the predictive preparatory word, the Gospels record the redemptive-revelatory fact, the Epistles supply the subsequent final interpretation.”[14] This is the same pattern that Nösgen explains in his History of New Testament Revelation. He writes, for example, about Paul: “What Paul had experienced before Damascus was, as he sees it himself (1 Cor. 15:8), an act-revelation by the exalted one, of which the explanatory word-revelation in Damascus and even later had to follow.”[15]  Vos was not, therefore, forging biblical theology de novo. He was harvesting the views of others and putting them to use in his own biblical theology.

The second of Patton’s remarks suggests similar conclusions. In our day a number of writers have heralded Vos as the father of Reformed biblical theology. Despite the popularity of the claim, Patton believed that the father of biblical theology was Jonathan Edwards (1703-58). In other words, Patton did not see Vos as forging a new discipline, or that he was a forerunner, but that he was following in the footsteps of others like Edwards, and that he was culling useful and orthodox ideas from other scholars like Nösgen. Patton, and others, likely christened Edwards the father of biblical theology for at least two reasons. First, they wanted to distinguish Princeton’s contribution to biblical theology from its more liberal-minded counterparts, such as the higher critical biblical theology of Charles Augustus Briggs (1841-1913).[16] Vos himself noted that biblical theology was born under the dark star of rationalism, a verbal jab probably directed at Briggs. Second, Patton therefore wanted to anchor Princeton’s biblical theology to a well-known American luminary, such as Edwards. The New England theologian, recall, had written A History of the Work of Redemption (1774). Edwards’s son, Jonathan Edwards Jr., describes his father’s work in these words:

Mr. Edwards had planned a body of divinity, in a new method, and in the form of a history; in which he was first to show how the most remarkable events in all ages from the Fall to the present times, recorded in sacred and profane history, were adapted to promote the work of redemption; and then to trace, by the light of Scripture prophecy, how the same work should be yet further carried on even to the end of the world.[17]

To be sure, Edwards’s work extends beyond the Old and New Testaments into church history, which would thus mix divine revelation with fallible human reflection. Nevertheless, what is of particular interest to us is the way in which he expounds the unfolding revelation of God in Christ as he traces it through redemptive history.

Edwards begins the work by interpreting the significance of Isaiah 51:8, “For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but my righteousness will be forever, and my salvation to all generations.”  Edwards explains that ultimately God’s righteousness and salvation relate to the covenant of grace: “For salvation is the sum of all those works of God by which the benefits that are by the covenant of grace are procured and bestowed.”[18] Edwards also explains that the term redemption not only refers to the specific work of Christ, but also more broadly to everything that God has done to bring about Christ’s work throughout redemptive history.[19] And, like other Reformed theologians before him, Edwards acknowledged that the revelation of God’s redemption in Christ was progressive. Edwards recognizes the progressive nature of the revelation of redemption in the types that foreshadow Christ. Examples include the animal skins that God clothed Adam and Eve as a type of the righteousness of Christ that clothes the naked soul, and the translation of Enoch as a typical manifestation of the bodily resurrection of believers, and how Joseph’s descent into humiliation and ascent to exaltation as a type of the humiliation and exaltation of Christ. Edwards uses language evocative of progression when he writes that the redemption through Christ “began to dawn in the types of it.”[20]

This is not to say that Edwards and Vos have identical methods, but Patton’s comments reveal that Vos was not the first to ply the idea of the history of revelation. Edwards’s comments in a letter to the Trustees of the College of New Jersey regarding the plan of his work bear this conclusion out:

I have had on my mind and heart, (which I long ago began, not with any view to publication,) a great work, which I call a History of the Work of Redemption, a body of divinity in an entire new method, being thrown into the form of a history; considering the affair of Christian Theology, as the whole of it, in each part, stands in reference to the great work of redemption by Jesus Christ; which I suppose to be, of all others, the grand design of God, and the summum and ultimum of all the divine operations and decrees; particularly considering all parts of the grand scheme, in their historical order.[21]

Edwards’s plan was to trace the line of revelation through history, which is the essence of Vos’s method. In fact, one historian has described Edwards’s procedure as showing how revelation is progressive, organic, and finds its eschatological realization in Christ; themes that resonate in Vos’s own method.[22] Patton, therefore, believed that Edwards in some respects was the first and thus merited the title of the father of biblical theology.


Patton’s comments raise some important points about the way in which contemporary historians and theologians assess the work of Vos. First, we must be cautious in how we describe his work because a good portion of his corpus comes from unpublished classroom lecture notes. As his lectures on biblical theology, dogmatics, and Old Testament eschatology reveal, Vos does not provide footnotes; he identifies very few sources. Given the fragmentary nature of his lecture notes, we do not know precisely where Vos’s own original insights and contributions begin and end; we are ignorant of many of the sources for Vos’s work.

This brief essay has only scratched the surface of the connections, for example, between Vos and Nösgen. This essay has documented that Vos gleaned at least two ideas from Nösgen: defining biblical theology as the history of revelation and word-act revelation. What else in Vos’s biblical theology owes its origins to Nösgen or other unnamed theologians? Who else other than Nösgen and Edwards stand behind Vos? This is not to say that Vos’s work is not edifying or useful, or that Vos is guilty of plagiarism. Scores of professors prepare lectures by taking notes from their reading and do not bother to document their sources because they assume that their notes will not be published. Second, this means that, however much we might admire Vos and appreciate his work, we should set aside adjectives that describe Vos as the father of Reformed biblical theology, or that his insights are unparalleled. We must table such language until more work can be done to excavate Vos’s writings, examine his historical context, and discover clues about Vos’s sources, such as Patton’s address. Once we can contextualize Vos, we can have a better understanding of where his genuine and unique contribution to the Reformed tradition truly lies.

[1] This title has been applied to Vos by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “The Vitality of Reformed Dogmatics,” in The Vitality of Reformed Theology: Proceedings of the International Theological Congress, ed. J. M. Batteau (Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok, 1994), 21; For a similar characterization of Vos, see Richard Lints, “Two Theologies or One?  Warfield and Vos on the Nature of Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 54 (1992), 236, 243; Richard Barcellos, The Family Tree of Reformed Biblical Theology: Geerhardus Vos and John Owen—Their Methods of and Contributions to the Articulation of Redemptive History (Owensboro, KY: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2010), 1.

[2] Lane G. Tipton, “Review: Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics,” New Horizons 39/4 (April 2018): 9-11, here 9.

[3] David Garner, “Vos 121,” at https://www.alliancenet.org/placefortruth/column/sine-qua-non/vos-121 accessed 2 December 2020.

[4] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 38/3 (1976): 281-99, here 284.

[5] Danny Olinger, Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theology, Confessional Presbyterian (Philadelphia, PA: Reformed Forum, 2018), 143-44; Tipton, “Review: Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics,” 9-11.

[6] Geerhardus Vos, “The Nature and Aims of Biblical Theology,” Union Seminary Magazine 13/1 (1902): 194-99, here 199.

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

[8] Olinger, Geerhardus Vos, 143.

[9] Gaffin, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” 284 n. 6. Gaffin cites, Geerhardus Vos, The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline (New York, NY: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1894), 19, 35. The published lecture also appears in 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, NJ: P & R, 1980), 3-24, here 12 and 21; cf. Thomas Dehany Bernard, The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Sheldon & Co., 1877), 44; Karl F. Nösgen, Geschichte der neutestamentlichen Offenbarung (Münich: C. H. Bedische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1893).

[10] Francis Patton, “Theological Encyclopedia,” The Princeton Theological Review 2 (1904): 110-36.

[11] Patton, “Theological Encyclopedia,” 118.

[12] Vos, “The Nature and Aims of Biblical Theology,” 199.

[13] Nösgen, Geschichte der neutestamentlichen Offenbarung, vii-viii.

[14] Vos, Biblical Theology, 7.

[15] Nösgen, Geschichte der neutestamentlichen Offenbarung, 173: “Was Paulus vor Damaskus erlebt hatte, war, wie er es selber ansieht (1 Kor. 15,8), eine Thatoffenbarung des Erhöhten, welcher die erläuternde Wortoffenbarung in Damaskus und noch später zu folgen hatte” (trans. mine). I am grateful to my colleague, Guy Waters, for assisting me with the translation of this quote.

[16] See, e.g., Charles Augustus Briggs, The Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical Theology in the Union Theological Seminary, New York (New York, NY: The Union Theological Seminary, 1891); cf. J. V. Fesko, “Charles Briggs, Revelation, and Worshippers of the Sacred Fire: Nineteenth-Century Objections to Inerrancy,” Presbyterion 45/1 (2019): 70-82; idem, The Spirit of the Age: The 19th Century Debate Over the Holy Spirit and the Westminster Confession (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).

[17] Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption Containing the Outlines of a Body of Divinity, in a Method Entirely New (Edinburgh: M. Gray, 1788), iv.

[18] Edwards, History, 3.

[19] Edwards, History, 6-7; see also J. V. Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” in Resurrection & Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church. Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin Jr., ed. Lane G. Tipton and Jeffrey C. Waddington (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2008), 443-77, here 471-73.

[20] E.g., Edwards, History, 28-29.

[21] As cited in Stephen M. Clark, “Jonathan Edwards: The History of the Work of Redemption,” Westminster Theological Journal 56 (1994): 45-58, here 45.

[22] Clark, “History of the Work of Redemption,” 50.