Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pauline Eschatology & Geerhardus Vos

Lawrence Semel summarizes in a nutshell the eschatology of the New Testament that Geerhardus Vos wants to help us understand in the first sentence of his excellent article "Geerhardus Vos and Eschatology":
"Ephesians 1:3: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ." 
Geerhardus' exotic background as the son of a German (Bentheim ostfriesland) pastor who had studied in Kampen (descendent of French Huguenote family that immigrated/fled to the Netherlands after the revocation of the Edit de Nantes in 1685) in the north of the Netherlands.  He immigrated to Grand Rapids in 1881 when he was 19.  He received  a doctorate in Arabic Studies from the Philosophy Faculty of Strassburg University in 1888 provides important context for Vos' understanding of Pauline Eschatology. One other important detail was that he studied in Berlin under Bernhard Weiss (author of the revolutionary Biblical Theology of the New Testament), August Dillmann (a critical Bible commentator), Herman Strack (of the justly famous Strack-Billerbeck Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Midrash. In Strassburg he sat under the feet  of the premier liberal critic and reconstructor of the Pauline Theology: H. J. Holtzmann. Dennison writes:
"Vos's two worlds—the orthodox and the critical were in collision and that at first hand"
Hard to not think of Vos' own background, and that of many other Dutch immigrants in Grand Rapids, when he quotes Paul:
"The Christian has his citizenship in heaven, not upon earth, and therefore should not mind earthly things (Phil. 3:19, 20)."
Why did he choose Arabic Studies and what dissertation did he write? Answer that question and you know a lot about Geerhardus Vos I suspect!
Sure enough, James Dennison, who had Geerhardus Vos son Johannes as College bible teacher at Geneva College, Beaver Falls Pa, in his youth, provides half of the answer:
"He realized that he could not live in the critical world of Holtzmann, Wellhausen, even Dillmann and Weiss. He also realized that the Dutch pietistic world expected predictable things from him on his return to Grand Rapids. The Ph. D. was, for the Curators of the Christian Reformed Synod, only a necessary evil. He had been allowed to go abroad on the condition that he return to Calvin Seminary as the young poster boy."
Before accepting a position at Calvin Theological Seminary faculty, Kuyper and Bavinck had offered him a position at the Free University (which was founded in 1880) in 1888, but he had refused. Abraham Kuyper had actually travelled to Berlin to ask Geerhardus Vos for this position (James Dennison does a great job in that article, wow).

In 1892, Vos joined the faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary, where he became its first Professor of Biblical Theology. In his inaugural adress in 1893 in Princeton he marked out the relationship between systematic and biblical theology:
"The fundamental difference between biblical and systematic theology is simply the mode in which the material is organized. Biblical theology organizes the material in a historical framework, whereas systematic theology organizes its material in a thematic or topical fashion. However, Vos went on to argue that systematic theology ought to be structurally dependent on biblical theology"
Lints quote's Vos:
"The Bible is, as it were, conscious of its own organism; it feels, what we cannot always say of ourselves, its own anatomy"
 Lints summarizes his own understanding of Vos' approach:
"The facts of Scripture ought not to be construed in isolation from one another or as inventions of the mind but rather as truths found clearly within the great eschatological framework of Scripture."
His background made him less indebted to the reigning "Scottish Common Sense Realist" philosophy, writes Richard Lints, who adds how astonishing it is that Vos has received scant attention in comparison to Warfield and Hodge. Lints thinks Vos:
"didn't fit into the usual neat categories usually associated with the philosophical positions of the seminary in that period. His approach to theology also looks different in form from that of hodge and Warfield, and this too may account for his being excluded from summary accounts of this very influential conservative ninenteenth-century seminary" 
Geerhardus Vos seems to have also steered clear of the common grace, Barth and fundamentalism controversies, unlike his friend Van Til who left to found Westminster Seminary at some point. However, van Til's views were controversial also among those at Westminster. J. Oliver Buswell wrote a very critical review of Van Til's Common Grace in his publication The Bible Today, which gives us an idea of the discussion on Abraham Kuyper's "common grace" in the US at that time. Buswell's article confirms my previous observation that Jonathan Edwards is closer to Klaas Schilder then to Hepp, Berkouwer, Ridderbos concerning election and covenant. Buswell:

"Students of the history of philosophy will need only to have the Hegelianism of this doctrine pointed out. They will see clearly and at once, that a good and sincere man (Cornelis van Til) has carelessly tracked in mud from the pagan streets."
"One has the impression of a priest giving a Christian name to a pagan idol."
And a quote in same article by Buswell that immediately reminds us of Klaas Schilder and Jonathan Edwards:
"But for God’s righteous indignation to be vindicated and His grace extended thru the atonement, certainly expresses a change of attitude in God which is more than a figure of speech"
Van Til's book on common grace clearly creates misunderstandings of what was going on among Dutch Reformed Christians in the Netherlands and the views of Klaas Schilder. Van Til clearly hurt Schilder's reputation among presbyterians.

The interaction between Oliver Buswell, Francis Schaeffer and Cornelius Van Til concerning Presuppositional Apologetics, as taught by Van Til, is obviously part of this Dutch Reformed - Old Princeton "Scotch Realism" debate. An anonymous participant to the debate wrote:
Scotch is Scotch,
And Dutch is Dutch,
But Calvin was French, you see,
And died at the age of fifty-five,
Not older than “B” or “VanT.”
Too bad Klaas Schilder's actual point of view was never brought into the equasion. In 2007 a conference in Princeton on "Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism" tried to give the impression van Til singlehandedly created the reticence towards Karl Barth among Presbyterians that left Princeton and started Westminster, Faith and Covenant. It's complete nonsense. Presbyterians without a Dutch reformed background, people like like Buswell, read, respected and spoke highly of Abraham Kuyper and other Dutch reformed theologians. In the above quoted article Buswell even quoted Kuyper to counter van Til's arguments.
Geerhardus Vos is the ideal key to studying the merger of Dutch reformed and Presbyterian theological thought pre-Kuyper (at least pre "common grace") I suspect. How did he do it? That's an immensely interesting question considering Geerhardus Vos' links to both Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed churches and theology.
Geerhardus Vos' intriguing merger could help us understand Jonathan Edwards and Klaas Schilder.  What has been his influence on presbyterian theology at Princeton, Westminster and beyond
Lawrence Semel discusses the book "By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation" by Dr. Richard Gaffin, Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in his article "Paul the Covenant Theologian" which is linked to these questions. A blogpost by Rev. David O. Donovan gives a good overview of Geerhardus Vos' impact on presbyterian thinking and preaching in the US.
James Dennison, Professor of Church History and Biblical Theology and Academic Dean at Northwest Theological Seminary, has brought us:
"a fascinating collection of Vos’s correspondence to Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Benjamin B. Warfield, and J. Gresham Machen (among others), together with a lengthy introduction. His introduction is thorough, though quirky at places."
According to Dennison:
"Vos was a man caught between the Old World and the New World, Amsterdam and Princeton (and Grand Rapids)"
The correspondence tell us the story of all three Reformed communities at once:
 "They mediated these worlds by facilitating conversations between Kuyper and Herman Bavinck of the Netherlands and Warfield of Princeton. Because he lived simultaneously in different worlds, Vos is not easily pigeonholed. He exemplified the tensions in all three Reformed communities at once."
According to Dennison who summarized his findings in the article "life between two worlds":
"he remains an enigma."
Noteworthy quotes from John Halsey Wood's article:
  • Like Kuyper, Vos was a supralapsarian (Klaas Schilder writes in response to Hoeksema that he wanted to be neither supra- nor infra-lapsarian)
  • his questions about Abraham Kuyper’s view that baptized infants ought to be presumed to be regenerate. Vos himself held to "presumptive election" writes John Halsey Wood.
Dennison adds this immensely interesting detail however:
 "Vos was a supralapsarian at least during his years as Professor of Reformed Dogmatics at Grand Rapids. Unlike Kuyper, Vos was more moderate in his supralapsarian expressions. But a significant element in the Dutch community viewed the Canons of Dort as distinctively and uncompromisingly infralapsarian. Vos wrote to Kuyper at Amsterdam and B. B. Warfield at Princeton seeking advice and information. From Kuyper, he requested detailed clarification and elaboration of the views of many of the fathers at the Synod of Dort (1618-19). To Warfield, he registered his disagreements with some of Kuyper's views and requested books and information on the covenant theology of the English Reformers and the members of the Westminster Assembly. The "useless bickering" (as Vos called it) was revealing the insular character of the Dutch community in Grand Rapids. In February 1891, Vos wrote, "There is very little theological development in our little church." In June, he wrote "a lack of historical sense and historical denial can lead to dangerous things." And then he adds, "Lately I have more and more come to the conclusion that in the long run I do not want to stay in my present position." Three years after returning to his new world home, Vos regards himself as a stranger and an alien in Grand Rapids. By 1891, Vos has been forced by circumstances to come to grips with the narrow, provincial character of his ecclesiastical environment.  "
So how did Geerhardus Vos end up at Princeton: William Henry Green.

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