“The Letters of Geerhardus Vos” – A Review

The Letters of Geerhardus Vos, edited with an Introduction by  James T. Dennison, Jr., Phillipsburg, NJ, P&R, 2005, 274 pages.

Geerhardus Vos, first Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary (1892-1932), was one of the most important Reformed scholars of the Twentieth Century.  His works, including, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments and The Self-Disclosure of Jesus are classics on their respective subjects.  Indeed, Vos has been rightly dubbed “the Father of Reformed Biblical Theology.”  He was a man of great learning and profound thought, and his work, including an outstanding anthology of articles entitled Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (ed. Richard B. Gaffin) ought to be studied by everyone who is interested in the best Reformed thinking on the Bible.  It is therefore of real interest that these “Letters” of Vos have now been published by P&R Publishers.

That said, the very first thing that strikes the reader of this volume is its unsatisfactory title.  Letters there are, and some poetry too.  But there is also a marvelous 72 page “Life” of Vos, plus a full Bibliography of his writings.  Shoppers who might not be inclined to pick up a volume of Vos’s correspondence, might well think twice if they knew they would also be getting these attractive additions.  In fact, to me this short but immensely informative biographical and bibliographical introduction was worth the price of the book.

Geerhardus Vos was a complicated character (66).  Shy and retiring, with a mystical streak, yet robust in setting forth his views  (as when he tells B.B. Warfield he favors a supralapsarian doctrine of predestination on exegetical grounds (162)).  Dennison notices his subject’s susceptibility to health problems (23, 71), probably linked with an anxious disposition (see Vos’s mention of troublesome insomnia in the last letter (247).  He also notices a distance between Vos and Machen which may have contributed to the former’s unwillingness to leave Princeton and join Machen’s new Westminster faculty (71-73, 79).

A marked characteristic of the biography is Dennison’s attention to the eschatological thrust of Vos’s work (27, 49-57).  This feature of Vos is what makes him such an important thinker and his books such fertile soil for evangelical thinkers.  The method is attractively summarized by Dennison: “revelation was theocentric; redemptive history was Christocentric.  And both were pneumatically and eschatologically oriented.” (39).  The fact that Vos was an erudite Systematic Theologian, as evidenced by his 1,892 page handwritten “Compendium” (26), lends theological rigor to his exegesis.  It is to be all the more regretted that he has been all but ignored even within his own Reformed constituency (67-68, 81).  But Dennison whets the appetite!

The letters themselves are of varied interest.  His correspondences with Kuyper and Bavinck reveal both his status as scholar and his persuasiveness as friend.  For it is largely owing to Vos’s tenacity that these great Dutch theologians delivered their famous Stone lectures at Princeton on Calvinism and Revelation respectively.

One letter to Bavinck, dated July 3, 1893 complains about the poor academic performances of his students at Grand Rapids (175).  His allegiance to “the covenant” [of grace] as an organizing principle is mentioned in a number of letters.  In a letter to Arthur Machen upon hearing of the death of his brother Vos wrote how he learned more from Dr Machen than he ever imparted to him as teacher (238).  The volume closes with a number of Vos’s poems.

In sum, the book is most welcome as a short portrait of an important Bible scholar.  The letters by themselves are of relatively incidental value, but the editor’s biography and bibliography make the book a worthwhile purchase.

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