Geerhardus Vos’ Answer to the Question “What is Biblical Theology?”

Geerhardus Vos is viewed by many as the father of modern Biblical Theology because he held the first chair of Biblical Theology at Princeton and later Westminster Theological Seminary and because he insisted that Biblical Theology should not be abandoned to the German liberals but should instead be re-appropriated back into Evangelical theology. Then he set out to accomplish this re-appropriation by teaching ministers how to do Biblical Theology properly.
Here is Vos’ definition of Biblical Theology as stated in his inaugural address entitled “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline” (p. 15; see the end for bibliographic information).

“Biblical Theology, rightly defined, is nothing else than the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity.”

Note several things about Vos’ definition that are meaningful to us as we study the Bible:
Biblical Theology (hereafter simply BT) deals with the organic process of God’s revelation. This means that each passage must be viewed in light of not only its context in the book but in its place in salvation (or redemptive) history. For example, we cannot look at the building of the Tabernacle in terms of its place toward the end of the book of Exodus, but also examine it in terms of where it falls in the history of God’s dealings with his people. We must look backwards to see how this connects with God’s dealings with mankind from the creation, but also what role it plays looking forward, not only into the wilderness wanderings or way ahead to its fulfillment in Jesus, but also is connection to the time of the Judges, David, the Divided Kingdom and everything in between there and Christ and even the New Heavens and New Earth.
Notice that BT has to do with supernatural revelation. Vos points out (this touches on my earlier post here) that the historical act or miracle cannot be separated from the revelation that accompanies it.
“We must remember that the revealing acts of God never appear separated from His verbal communication of truth. Word and Act always accompany each other, and in their interdependence strikingly illustrate our former statement, to the effect that revelation is organically connected with the introduction of a new order of things into this sinful world. […] without God’s acts the words would be empty, without His words the acts would be blind” (Ibid., p. 10).
The acts and actions of history are not mere events, but events that display God’s interacting in the human sphere to accomplish his redemptive purposes for his people.
Vos mentions historic continuity and multiformity. Discussion of these points could open the door for disputes between those who hold to varying degrees of continuity between OT and NT (Covenant Theology) and those who hold to varying degrees of discontinuity (Dispensationalism) and those who fall in between (and there is much overlap between these two positions, though few of either like to admit it).
Suffice it to say that since the same God is both the God of the OT and the God of the NT, we should presuppose that God, despite the differences between worship and organization (and other things) of God’s people in both testaments, is ordering these things according to plan. There is no “Plan B” (as Dispensationalists are often accused of believing) nor is there an abrupt and dramatic reversal of God’s covenants connections except in certain areas (as Covenant Theology often espouses).
There is continuity but there is also multiformity in that God works in a variety of ways in history to accomplish his redemptive purposes. We might actually expect things to be different at various points in history simply because God uses many ways not only to accomplish his purposes but to reveal himself.
This is one reason why it is important to remember the objective nature of revelation as opposed to the “what this passage means to me” form of Bible study so prevalent in some circles today. Vos himself will go on in this lecture to describe and explain the importance of remembering the objective nature of revelation in answer to the German Higher critics of his day (the address was given in 1894) but his comments may be applied to the post-modern outlook of the emerging church as well as the subjective readings many believers employ during Bible studies and their personal Bible reading.
Vos concludes his address with these words:
“Let us not forget, however, that as of all theology, so of Biblical Theology, the highest aim cannot lie in man, or in anything that serves the creature. Its most excellent practical use is surely this, that it grants us a new vision of the glory of Him who has made all things to the praise of His own wonderful name” (ibid., p. 24).
All quotes are from this address as published in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard Gaffin. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980.
The address may be found online here and you can download a pdf from this site which features many of Vos’ articles, sermons and other writings.

About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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