Reformed Dogmatics Five Volumes Geerhardus Vos

Reformed Dogmatics Five Volumes A Review by Jack Kettler

Reformed Dogmatics Five Volumes 

Geerhardus Vos, Gaffin, Richard B., Translator and Editor

Publisher: Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA

Author’s Bio:

Theologian, author, and Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, Geerhardus Johannes Vos, was born in March 1862 at Heerenveen, Netherlands. A prolific author, Vos’s published writings include articles, essays, reviews, poems, and biblical-theological studies on both Old and New Testament topics. The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God (1903) and his analysis of Pauline theology, The Pauline Eschatology (1930), remain two of his most important works. Vos’s approach to the theology of the Old and New Testaments was published in 1948 as ‘Biblical Theology.’ John Murray, the professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, considered Geerhardus Vos to be the most incisive exegete in the English-speaking world of the twentieth century.

What others are saying:

“This translation of Vos’ Dogmatick is the last link in access to his magnificent oeuvre. English readers will now be able to match the Princetonian’s commitment to historic Reformed doctrinal orthodoxy with his pioneering work in redemptive–historical biblical theology. The interaction is refreshing as well as pace–setting. Kudos to publisher and translator alike for undertaking this project.” James T. Dennison Jr., Academic Dean and Professor of Church History and Biblical Theology, Northwest Theological Seminary

“Like books, people can become classics. Great in their day, but richer and more fulfilling with time. Not yet a classic, Vos never-before-published Reformed Dogmatics is more like a lost Shakespeare play recently discovered. There seems to have been a flurry in recent years of systematic theologians writing with an eye for biblical theology. With this series we now have a biblical theologian writing a systematic theology. Thanks to Lexham Press for giving us such a long-awaited but impressive access to this much-discussed gem.” Michael Horton, Professor of Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California

Other works by Vos:

·         Biblical Theology

·         Pauline Eschatology

·         The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews

·         Grace and Glory

·         Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation  

·         The Kingdom of God and the Church

A Review:

The Volume titles are essential to understand the scope of this work:

Volume One: Theology Proper

Volume Two: Anthropology

Volume Three: Christology

Volume Four: Soteriology

Volume Five: Ecclesiology, The Means of Grace, Eschatology

To repeat John Murry’s comments that Geerhardus Vos one of the most incisive exegetes in the English-speaking world of the twentieth century. It can also be said that the same is true of Vos’ Five Volume Reformed Dogmatics. It is a towering work of theology, and worthy of being called a systematic theology. Even for the lay reader, Vos’ work in the Reformed Dogmatics is comprehensible. The layout of this work is brilliant, with numbered sections and lettered subsections make working through the material very easy. In addition, Vos uses a catechetical method of questions and answers in his Reformed Dogmatics, making the work unique.     

In Volume One on Theology Proper, Vos grounds the knowability of God in Scripture:
“1. The Knowability of God

1. Is God knowable?

Yes, Scripture teaches this: “that we may know the One who is true” (1 John 5:20), although it also reminds us of the limited character of our knowledge (Matt 11:25).

2. In what sense do Reformed theologians maintain that God cannot be known?

a)   Insofar as we can have only an incomplete understanding of an infinite being.

b)   Insofar as we cannot give a definition of God but only a description.

3. On what ground do others deny God’s knowability?

On the ground that God is All-Being. They have a pantheistic view of God. Now, knowing presumes that the object known is not all there is, since it always remains distinct from the subject doing the knowing. Making God the object of knowledge, one reasons, is equivalent to saying that He is not all there is, that He is limited.

4. What response is to be made against this view?

a)   The objection that this view presents stems entirely from a philosophical view of God, as if He were All-Being. This view is wrong. God is certainly infinite, but God is not the All. There are things that exist, whose existence is not identical with God.

b)   It is certainly true that we cannot make a visible representation of God because He is a purely spiritual being. But we also cannot do that of our own soul. Yet we believe that we know it.

c)   It is also true that we do not have an in-depth and comprehensive knowledge of God. All our knowledge, even with regard to created things, is in part. This is even truer of God. We only know Him insofar as He reveals Himself, that is, has turned His being outwardly for us. God alone possesses ideal knowledge of Himself and of the whole world, since He pervades everything with His omniscience.

d)   That we are able to know God truly rests on the fact that God has made us in His own image, thus an impression of Himself, albeit from the greatest distance. Because we ourselves are spirit, possess a mind, will, etc., we know what it means when in His Word God ascribes these things to Himself” (1)

 The catechetical nature of Vos’ work is seen right at the beginning of his work. Each volume has a helpful question page number index. Because of this among many reasons makes Vos’ dogmatics immensely useful.

 In Volume Two, Vos, in a systematic approach, delves into the nature of man. But, unfortunately, many Christians buy into a view of humanity known as trichotomy. Vos exposes this as an example of Greek philosophical paganism infiltrating Christian theology and refutes it decisively.

 In Volume two on Anthropology, again one sees the catechetical nature of Vos’ work:  “1. The Nature of Man

1. According to Holy Scripture, of what does the nature of man consist?

The Scripture teaches:

a)   That man consists of two parts, body and soul.

b)   That the soul is a substance.

c)   That it is a substance distinct from the body.

2. How does Scripture teach these truths?

Not so much explicitly as by assuming and presupposing them everywhere. More specifically:

a)   In places like Gen 3:19; Eccl 12:7.

b)   In places that depict the body as clothing, a tabernacle (2 Cor 5:1).

c)   In all the places that teach that the soul exists and acts after death.

3. What does God’s word teach concerning the relationship between soul and body?

This is a mystery. The following, however, is certain beyond all doubt:

a)   The union between them is a life-unity. The organic life of the body and the life of the soul are not in parallel. Only on the presence of the soul in the body does the possibility rest that the organic bond of the latter is maintained.

b)   Certain conditions of the body are dependent on the self-conscious acting of the spirit; others are independent of this.

c)   Some functions of the soul are bound to the body; others can be done independently of the body.

d)   In antithesis to Materialism, Idealism, occasionalism, etc., one may call this realistic dualism. It is most closely connected with some of the principal doctrines of the Bible.

4. What does one mean by trichotomy?

The doctrine that man does not consist of two but of three specifically different parts, namely:

a)   πνεῦμα, animus, the principal and most noble part; “the spirit” to which the capacities of reason, will, and conscience belong.

b)   ψυχή, anima, the soul, the principle of animal, bodily life that ceases to exist with death. Animals also have a ψυχή.

c)   The body, σῶμα, considered solely as matter.

5. What are the principal objections against this trichotomy?

a)   It is philosophical in origin (Pythagoreans, Plato) and rests on a disparaging of the body and a one-sided elevation of the nonmaterial existence of man. Because one fails to appreciate the organic bond between body and soul, the functions with which the soul works within the body must be detached from the soul and viewed as a third, independent principle. This motif is completely unbiblical and anti-Christian. Christianity wants a redemption of the body as well as of the soul.

b)   Genesis 2:7 shows how God created man consisting of two parts: dust of the earth that was first inanimate, and spirit blown into it, through which man became a living soul.

c)   Scripture nowhere uses the terms רוּחַ and נֶפֶשׁ, πνεῦμα and ψυχή, arbitrarily, but where they are in contrast that contrast is not the trichotomic one given above but an entirely different one. רוּחַ, πνεῦμα, spirit, is the principle of life and movement in man, and is that insofar as it enlivens and moves the body. That, according to philosophical terminology, should be called ψυχή. Hence, according to Scripture, the animals have that just as well as man. This, of course, in no way means that there is no specific difference between a human spirit and an animal soul but simply informs that by רוּחַ the principal feature is expressed that is the higher principle common to man and animals, namely the enlivening and moving of the body. To indicate the distinction between the animals and the human soul, the Scripture has used other words (“heart,” etc.). So, one sees how Scripture and philosophical terminology are diametrically opposed to each other.” (2)

 As seen from the above citation and repeating a previous comment slightly differently, the Hellenistic philosophy behind trichotomy is demolished by Vos as he uses Biblical, logical arguments effectively.  

 Volume Three on Christology is rich in content concerning the person, nature, and role of Christ:  “3. Person and Natures

1. As a result of the meaning of these different names, what can already be established provisionally concerning the person of the Mediator and His natures?

a)   That He is truly God. We found that included:

1.   in His name Jesus;

2.   in the name Lord and the absolute sovereignty expressed by that;

3.   in the name “Son of God,” insofar as that also has an official meaning and is synonymous with Messiah.

b)   That He is truly man. This is implied:

1.   in the official name Christ, since at least equipping for an office can only take place in His human nature;

2.   in the name “Son of Man.”

c)   That in these two natures He is anointed to three offices, as is clear from the name Christ.

d)   That for exercising His work as Mediator, He had to pass through a state of humiliation as well as a state of exaltation, as is to be derived from the names “Servant of the Lord,” ‘Son of David.’” (3)

 In this short citation, one sees Christ magnified, and the two natures of Christ explained and defended.

 In Chapter Five of Volume Four on Soteriology. In forty-four numbered sections, Vos’ explanation and defense of the Protestant doctrine of Justification is one of the best to found anywhere.

 As an example, the reader will be treated to section one:    “5. Justification

1. What words are used in Scripture for the concept of “justification,” and what can be derived from this usage for the doctrine to be treated now?

a) The Hebrew term is hitsdiq, hitsdiq, which in by far the most cases means “to declare judicially that someone’s status is in agreement with the demands of justice.” “For I will not justify the godless” (Exod 23:7). “If there is a dispute between men and they come for judgment that the judges decide between them, they shall declare righteous the one who is righteous and condemn the one who is unrighteous” (Deut 25:1). “Those who justify the godless for a gift and deprive the righteous of their righteousness” (Isa 5:23). “He who justifies me is near” (Isa 50:8). The pi‘el forms of the verb can have the same meaning, tseddeq, tseddeq (cf. Jer 3:11; Ezek 16:50–51). That the meaning of the word is strictly judicial and nothing else appears most clearly from Proverbs 17:15: “The one who justifies the godless and the one who condemns the righteous are both indeed an abomination to the LORD.” Were one now to maintain that here “justify” means “to change someone into an upright person by infusing good qualities,” one would then get the result that to make an evil person into a good one is an abomination to God.

When, in a few places, the concept includes more than “to declare just,” these are exceptions to the rule. And even then, the meaning is not simply synonymous with “to make good, holy” but means, rather, “to place in such a condition that a judgment of justification can be pronounced.” That is, it is not the changing of disposition in itself that is designated “to justify,” but rather the changing of disposition with an eye to a judicial pronouncement, whereby that change is taken into consideration and credited. This is the case in Daniel 12:3: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above, and those who justify many like the stars forever and ever.” Here the term is used of the instrumentality of the ministers of the gospel by which those who hear them come to be in a state of justification, that is, believing, whereupon God can pronounce on them His verdict of justification. Similarly, Isaiah 53:11: “By his knowledge shall my servant, the righteous one, make many righteous, for he shall bear their iniquities.” Here “justify” is certainly more than “declare just.” It means to bring about everything that is necessary to make possible such a declaration of righteousness. The Servant of the Lord does this by His suretyship, and in doing that, He justifies. Usually, however, it is God the Father as judge, who, pronouncing the verdict, justifies; who, taking note of a status of righteousness—whether as one’s own or by imputation—announces the corresponding status.

b) The New Testament word is dikaioun. This also means “to let justice take place by a formal declaration,” “to declare just or righteous.” For example, “the tax collectors justified God” (Luke 7:29)—that is, they acknowledged God to be righteous, as having the right that was due Him. “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29). The meaning here is, “to present someone as dikaios [righteous, just].” The passive has the meaning of “to be presented or known as dikaios.” “For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt 12:37). In extrabiblical Greek dikaioun can mean “to pronounce a just verdict on someone,” both in a good as well as a bad sense: (1) for the evildoer, punishment; (2) for the one who does good, reward. In the New Testament, however, the word is used exclusively for acquittal—thus, in a good sense, never in a bad sense for condemnation to punishment. This is also already the case in the Septuagint.

Dikaioun is a term whose soteriological meaning comes to its full rights in Paul. From Romans 4:5, it is evident that we have to do here with a judicial pronouncement and not with a transforming act. “But to him who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” This is no less evident from the terms that are the antithesis of “justify.” For example, Romans 8:33–34: “It is God who justifies. Who is the one who condemns?” From Romans 4:5, it is also evident that justification does not depend on the condition of the person himself, but on what is imputed to him by grace.

Here, too, a few texts are produced that appear to deviate from this normal usage. These are principally Revelation 22:11, “The one who does wrong, let him still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, let him still be filthy; and the one who is righteous, let him still be justified; and the one who is holy, let him still be sanctified.”1 For “let him still be justified,” the Textus Receptus has dikaiōthētō. Since Bengel it is fairly common to read dikaiosynēn poiēsatō eti, “let him do more righteousness” (so, too, Wescott and Hort). Here, then, justification is not spoken of as a transforming action by which a person gradually makes himself more and more righteous, but of the exercise of righteousness in life.

First Corinthians 6:11 is also a passage to which appeal is made to prove the ethical meaning of dikaioun. There we read, “Such were some of you; but you are washed, you are sanctified, you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” It is said that here justification is presented as occurring through the Spirit of God, and from this it should then be evident how “justify” is synonymous with “sanctify.” But that here, too, that justification cannot simply be equivalent to “sanctify” is apparent from the fact that this concept immediately precedes, and the apostle cannot have wanted to say the same thing twice. Nor does the fact that the Spirit justifies prove anything, for besides the fact that He is certainly the creator of justifying faith and the one who applies justification to the conscience, one need not have “by the Spirit of our God” refer to justification. It can refer exclusively to “you are washed, you are sanctified.” The apostle apparently alludes in this text to baptism, in which justification is signified and sealed “in the name of Christ.”

A third passage appealed to is Titus 3:5–7: “He has saved us, not because of works of righteousness that we had done but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he has poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we, being justified by his grace, might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” It is said that here the rich outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which effects regeneration and renewal, is presented as the cause of justification because “so that” is in the text. We respond: Here, “so that” ought not to be connected with “poured out,” but with the preceding, “he has saved us.” And furthermore, the clause does not have in view “being justified,” but reads, “so that after having been justified [that is, after having received the right of inheritance], we [actually] would become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (4)

 Keep in mind, the above citation is just the start of Vos’ defense of Justification.

 Volume 5: Ecclesiology, The Means of Grace, Eschatology is the final volume in this set. The following citation is from chapter three on “The Means of Grace,” in which Vos’ continues his masterful exposition of central theological issues that set the Reformed Faith apart from other branches of Christianity.   “3. Word and Sacraments

1. In how many senses can one speak of grace?

In three senses:

a) As an attribute of God. Then in a broader sense grace is unmerited favor and in a more specific sense, that favor toward sinners. This grace has no means by which it is induced or brought about. It chooses and creates its own means. The entire plan of salvation, not excluding the Mediator, is a fruit of this grace.

b) As an objective gift in Christ. In Him as the exalted Mediator is found the basis of all manifestations of favor granted to the sinner. From His fullness we have all received grace for grace [John 1:16]. The means by which this grace was obtained and brought about are found in the satisfaction of the Savior.

c) As a subjective action in us. Everything that happens in us or to us as the outworking of the attribute of God and the gift of grace in Christ is called grace in the specific sense of the word. And this third grace is in view when we speak of the means of grace. There are certain instruments by which God wills for us to come to know and to apply His favor residing in Christ. These are means connected with the communication of grace. Grace is hereby taken in its widest sense, so that it is not limited to effectual, seeking, or regenerating grace, but includes everything that happens subjectively in or below our consciousness.

2. What follows when we understand the word “grace” in the expression “means of grace” in this way?

A certain indefiniteness that makes it difficult for us at a first glance to delineate sharply the concept of the means of grace. Everything that God uses as a means in order to show me any unmerited favor and by which He acts for my good then becomes a means of grace. There is common grace and special grace. But what serves for receiving and granting the former must also count as a means of grace. What occurs in the sphere of God’s providence cannot be excluded. Through the particular circumstances of life, God can act on me, and it is grace from Him when He does this. However, one senses that we cannot let the expression depend on this indefinite sense. The concept, taken so generally, would lose its theological significance for us.

3. In what way can one place some limits on this generalization?

a) By showing that many of these things that one would like to call means of grace, in the widest sense, are not such in an independent way and by virtue of their own content, but only through the connection into which they are brought with instrumentalities that are the proper means of grace. One or another experience that I have in my life can certainly be used by God to strengthen the life of grace in me, but it could not do this by itself. It does this only because it brings me anew into contact with the Word of God and has as its consequence a new application of that Word to my life. It is therefore not a means of grace in the proper sense.

b) By saying that not every connection with preparatory grace or with common grace makes something a means of grace, but only the specific connection with the regenerating, effectual, converting, justifying, sanctifying grace of God. Said more succinctly: its connection with the beginning and the continuation of special grace. If something is not connected with that in one way or another, it may not be called a means of grace.

c) By saying that something must be linked with the gracious working of God not just incidentally on a single occasion but that it must be the regular, ordained means that accompanies that working. The means of grace are constant, not exceptional.

If we accept these three conditions, then it appears that they only apply to the Word of God and the sacraments. These two are the only means of grace in the narrower sense.

4. Is the concept “means of grace” (media gratiae), so understood, valued equally by all?

No, varying value is attributed to it. There are those who deny all ordered working of grace, who compare it to the blowing of the wind, in which man can discover neither a law nor a norm. Grace is then tied to nothing—neither to the church nor to office, neither to Word nor to sacrament. It comes and it goes, just as God wills it (mystics).

Others go less far but will not acknowledge an organic connection between inward grace and outward means. The former works, according to them, not unrestrained and arbitrarily but nonetheless completely controlled by its own secret law, as life that spreads and proliferates in a certain sphere (the Ethical theologians). Still others will have grace bound completely to the means, and then in different ways. In the first place, one can identify it with the natural significance of the means. The Word of God then works, for example, through its reasonable, moral content, convincing and admonishing (Rationalists). One can also let it flow into the outward means in a supernatural way, so that they actually cease being natural means but change into something higher, so that, for example, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper bread and wine become flesh and blood, or the water of baptism washes away sin ex opere operato, “through the worked work” (Roman Catholics). Finally, one can bind grace completely to its means in a secret manner, so that it does remain distinguished from these means but still occurs nowhere separated from them (Lutherans).

The Reformed doctrine of the means of grace may never be confused with any of these views.” (5)

 The weightiness of the theology seen in the above quotation should spur the reader on, seeking purity and preciseness in understanding the doctrine of the sacraments.

 In conclusion:

 Hopefully, these citations from the Five-Volume set will convince the reader of the value of acquiring the Reformed Dogmatics by Vos. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. most certainly needs to be complimented on his work editing and translating this magnificent work into English. The translation is fresh and immensely readable.        

 Notes:

 1.      Geerhardus Vos, Translated and Edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Reformed Dogmatics, Volume One, (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA), pp. 1-2.

2.      Geerhardus Vos, Translated and Edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Two, (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA), pp. 1-2.

3.      Geerhardus Vos, Translated and Edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three, (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA), p. 20.

4.      Geerhardus Vos, Translated and Edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Four, (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA), pp. 133-136.

5.      Geerhardus Vos, Translated and Edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Five, (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA), pp. 77-79.

 “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

 “To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)

 Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat.
Other books by Mr. Kettler

The Five Points of Scriptural Authority: A Defense of Sola Scriptura

1 Corinthians 15:29 Revisited: A Scriptural based interpretation

Christian Apologetics in the marketplace of ideas

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