By J. Angus Harley
Why would NCTers read about a Reformed theologian? Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) was a bog-standard Covenant Theology (CT) scholar, but not even super special at Systematic Theology, so we are told. In spite of his CT background, however, he has particular value to NCT and to its hermeneutic (interpretive model, interpretive key). How is this possible? Partly because he is commonly recognized as the ‘father’ of modern evangelical Biblical Theology (BT), so that his work on BT influences all modern evangelical BT in some way or other. Specifically, there are aspects of his BT system that NCT employs without knowing it, and others again that it can harness and develop to promote a healthier and stronger NCT hermeneutic.
Hopefully, there will be three articles in this series. This article traces a broad outline of how Reformed theology, in my opinion, has been split into two camps- one which is traditional, and the other that focuses on BT. I will argue that this divide kicked in with Vos’ appearance and his BT theology. The second article develops this division, but as it plays out in Vos’ own system. I will argue that Vos’ linear BT model was in some ways in contrast to his emphasis upon Pauline, or NT, eschatology. In other words, he essentially had two BT hermeneutics operating at the same time, and he was not always able to make them fit together. The third article explores Vos for us in NCT today, especially how his eschatological approach can help NCT develop its own hermeneutic that argues that the NT has interpretive priority.
I am fully aware that no one in CT will agree with my take on Vos, and that his BT model marked the beginning of a division in CT. Vos is revered by all in CT. Similarly, I already know that CT itself is brimming over with shades of opinion on almost every theological issue. Of course, my articles generalize, but do so for the NCT community’s sake.
ST vs BT
The rise of BT. In Vos’ day and before, theological Liberalism was running rampant, and redemptive revelation in Scripture, its history, and the bible’s unity were being assailed at every turn. The assumptions and dominance of evangelical Systematic Theology (ST) were cast away. Bear in mind that ST was ‘the’ theology of the day, and BT did not exist, properly speaking. The Liberal Protestant scholars were reorganizing and re-programming Scripture to facilitate their rationalistic ideas of Scripture, its history, and its content. The resultant theology was called ‘Biblical Theology’. Vos was not by any means the first to hit back against Liberalism, nor was he the first to develop a theology of the bible that followed historical lines from Genesis to Revelation. But he was the first to create what we evangelicals today recognize as modern BT with its emphasis upon history, revelation, redemption, and its center in Christ. He himself summarizes BT’s birth, “From the end of the preceding century, when our science first appears as distinct from Dogmatic Theology, until now, she has stood under the spell of un-Biblical principles. Her very birth took place under an evil star.”
BT distinct to ST. Vos took BT on a different route to ST. ST followed after BT, said Vos, so that ST organized BT’s data into various topics and dogmatic themes. BT consciously organized the biblical data in a historical fashion from Genesis to Revelation by centering on Jesus Christ. BT was therefore linear (from A to Z, Genesis to Revelation), and it was Christocentric. Secondly, BT was, what Vos called, ‘organic’: each period of biblical history not only built upon one another, but there was growth and maturation from a seed (Genesis) to its mature expression in the NT and the historical revelation of Jesus Christ. And as a good CT theologian, Vos pursued this linear-organic model via the progress of the divine covenants, beginning with what CT called the ‘Covenant of Works’ and ending with the New Covenant as the fulfillment of the greater, so-called, ‘Covenant of Grace’.
Sea change. If one looks at Princeton Seminary’s legacy of theology, it was built around the ‘queen of the sciences’, Systematic Theology. It was dogmatic, often philosophical-like, and leaned heavily upon a proof-texting method. One just needs to read any of Charles Hodges’ volumes on ST to see this model. Going hand-in-glove with ST was CT’s confessionalism. In the Princeton/Westminster tradition, it was thought that the Westminster Standards contained “the system of doctrine in the Holy Scriptures.” Indeed, it would be accurate to say that the Princeton ST expressed Reformed confessional theology.
With the introduction of BT, confessionalism was immediately put on the back foot. Vos himself struggles. There are two covenants alone in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF): the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. There is not a single mention of any other covenant in its theological statements. Vos the confessional theologian adhered to this theology, even though it was destitute of biblical covenants. However, Vos’ work on BT gives proper attention to the actual biblical covenants in their redemptive-historical setting, and expresses the ‘organic’ growth of these covenants.
Not a few conservative evangelical scholars, Reformed and non-Reformed, have risen up in recent decades to defend ST and its co-existence with BT. What is sometimes missed in these assessments is the confessional-dogmatic interplay and support system of traditional ST. BT has forced this older model of ST to justify its content and order on the basis of exegesis conducted within the setting of BT and its redemptive-historical model. After Vos, ST was done differently, with far more sensitivity to exegesis and the contribution of the redemptive-historical flow of salvation. John Murray’s work is proof of this; so, too, is the more modern ST of Robert L. Reymond, a Reformed Systematician.
CTers vs BTers
It is no exaggeration to say that, at this current time there is a war going on in the Westminster/Princeton tradition of CT. Mark W. Karlberg writes, “William Dennison, a member of the faculty of Covenant College and Northwest Seminary (a hotbed for anti-Klineans), offers several barbs against the theological position of David VanDrunen, illustrative of the war raging within the broader seminary community.” It is, essentially, a war over two Voses: Vos the CT theologian who used his BT method within CT’s theological parameters, over against Vos the BT theologian who makes CT and traditional ST play second fiddle. Both modern CT groups stress traditional CT teaching; and both used Vos’ BT model. However, the ST/CT model stresses that any BT must conform to traditional teaching; whereas, the BT model acknowledges CT as a baseline but not a touchstone. As a result, those of a BT inclination vary in the intensity of their reliance upon CT, with some paying quite a bit of attention to CT, and others paying lip service.
Modern CTers are strong advocates for the WCF and of Presbyterians being the true heirs of the Reformation- men such as R. Scott Clark, J. V. Fesko, Mark W. Karlberg, David VanDrunen, etc.. A key book is The Law is not Faith.
Modern BTers are, for example, Richard Gaffin, Gregory K. Beale, Vern Poythress, and Edmund Clowney.
Phili vs Cali
Another form of this division is seen in the two Westminster seminaries. Westminster seminary in Philadelphia follows the BT model, and Westminster California promotes the CT hermeneutic. William B. Evans calls the Phili model “The Biblical-Theological Trajectory” and the Cali one “The Repristination Wing”.
This article argued that the introduction of BT by Vos forever split a traditional model of doing theology from a new, BT model. ST was forced to comply with BT, and this has caused chaos in the Westminster group, where BTers are pitted against CTers. Yet, both groups are Vos’ heirs. At times, for the NCTer, reading Vos is like reading the same old stodgy confessionalism of CT; but at other times, he is quite sublime, and the proverbial light years ahead of his generations. In the next chapter, I will probe into some of the theological divisions that have prevailed in Vos and his children. This will set the stage for the third article that shows how NCT relies to an extent on Vos, and how it can develop his BT hermeneutic.
 John V. Fesko, “Geerhardus Vos’s Thomistic Doctrine of Creation,” Reformed Faith & Practice, accessed March 13, 2023, https://journal.rts.edu/article/geerhardus-voss-thomistic-doctrine-of-creation/.
 E.g., James T. Dennison, Jr., “The Father of Reformed Biblical Theology: Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949)”, Credo, September 17, 2012, https://credomag.com/2012/09/the-father-of-reformed-biblical-theology-geerhardus-vos-1862-1949/.
 B. B. Warfield, “The Right of Systematic Theology”, Monergism, accessed March 15, 2023, https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/warfield/warfield_rightsystematic.html.
 Geerhardus Vos, Inauguration of the Reverend Geerhardus Vos as Professor of Biblical Theology (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Company, 1894), 24; “The Prospects of American Theology,” Kerux, accessed March 14, 2023, www.kerux.com/doc/2001A3.asp.
 Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 4-9.
 For example, there is A. A. Hodge’s The Westminster Confession: A Commentary.
 Orthodox Presbyterian Church, “Our Standards. Confessions and Catechism”, OPC, accessed March 17, 2023, https://www.opc.org/confessions.html.
 Mark. W. Karlberg, “Master of Deception and Intrigue”, The Trinity Foundation, accessed March 16, 2023, https://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=304.
 William B. Evans, “De Ja Vu All Over Again? The Contemporary Reformed Soteriological Controversy in Historical Perspective,” in Westminster Theological Journal 72 (2010): 138, 145.