Geerhardus Vos on the need for faithful creeds and confessions

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During the run-up to the 1903 PCUSA revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith, B.B. Warfield wasn’t the only prominent Princetonian expressing concerns about the potential risks to the church. Geerhardus Vos, in an exchange with Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian, during the 1890’s, reveals his opposition to the planned revision.

This exchange — detailed in Danny E. Olinger’s recent biography, Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologican, Confessional Presbyterian (2018), and in James T. Dennison, Jr.’s The Letters of Geerhardus Vos (2006) [both available at our Secondary Sources Bookstore page] — was private, but he also addressed the matter publicly on a few occasions. One was his article on “The Biblical Idea of Preterition” (The Presbyterian, 70, 36 (September 5, 1900): pp. 9-10); another was "The Scriptural Doctrine of the Love of God” (The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, 13, 49 (January 1902): pp. 1-37). In the former article, Vos noted,

One of the gravest symptoms of the revision movement in the Presbyterian Church today consists in the absence of serious appeal to scriptural authority for the changes of confessional statement that are advocated….Consequently there is reason to fear that the spirit in which revision is sought forebodes greater evil to the church than any material modifications of the creed to which revision may lead. Even if the Calvinistic system of doctrine embodied in our standards were seriously mutilated in result of the present movement, so long as the great body of believers feel themselves in conscience bound to yield unquestioning faith to the Bible, there is always hope for a rehabilitation of the principles temporarily abandoned. But when once the sense of allegiance to the Word of God as the only authoritative rule of faith has become weakened, or while still recognized in theory has ceased to be a living force in the minds of believers, then the hope of a return to the truth once forsaken is reduced to a minimum.

See Olinger’s discussion of these articles, ibid., pp. 107-116, for a helpful analysis of the concerns that Vos had.

Furthermore, in 1896, Vos published his handwritten 5-volume Reformed Dogmatics in Dutch. As these volumes have been recently translated (they are not currently on this site), readers will find interesting his remarks from Volume 5, p. 41, on the value of faithful creeds and confessions.

There are many who deny to the church the power and right of making creeds, and think that to do so is in conflict with the sufficiency of Holy Scripture. Hence, too, there are many communions that hold to no confession, such as the Quakers, Darbyists, etc. One should grant that creeds are not absolutely necessary. A church, if one wishes to reason in the abstract, can exist without confessional documents, and has existed without such. These, however, were exceptional situations. It is impossible to guide someone through Scripture in its entirety or to ask him his opinions concerning the whole of Scripture. The essential things must be gathered together in order that the church may show how it understands Scripture in the light of the Spirit. The authority of these creeds is always bound to Scripture; they are susceptible to improvement, but may not be lightly revised, inasmuch as they are not a compendium of theology but the ripe fruits of the spiritual development of the church, sometimes obtained through a long struggle. A true revision does not tear down the old but explains and confirms it and further illumines it in connection with new times and circumstances. But it remains true that the Scripture is the norma normans [norming norm], the confession the norma normata [normed norm].

From these sources we learn both how Vos opposed the movement to amend the Westminster Confession of Faith, which succeeded in its goal in 1903, and why Vos valued sound confessionalism, viewing faithful creeds as a means to aid the church in its affirmation of what Scripture teaches on a systematic basis. It was precisely because of his view that Scripture is the only rule of faith and practice that Vos taught the necessity of creeds as subordinate to Scripture — to guard the exposition of those Scriptures by the church from error — and the danger of revisions when they sprang from preference as opposed to scriptural mandate.

Geerhardus Vos on Heavenly-Mindedness

Geerhardus Vos has a wonderful sermon on “Heavenly-Mindedness,” based on Hebrews 11:9-10, in Grace and Glory that is worth reading in full. This extract should whet the appetite for more:

The other-worldliness of the patriarchs showed itself in this, that they confessed to be strangers and pilgrims on the earth. It found its visible expression in their dwelling in tents. Not strangers and pilgrims outside of Canaan, but strangers and pilgrims in the earth. The writer places all the emphasis on this, that they pursued their tent-life in the very land of promise, which was their own, as in a land not their own. Only in this way is a clear connection be tween the staying in tents and the looking for ward to heaven obtained. For otherwise the tents might have signified merely that they considered themselves not at home when away from the holy land. If even in Canaan they carried within themselves the consciousness of pilgrim age then it becomes strikingly evident that it was a question of fundamental, comprehensive choice between earth and heaven. The adherence to the tent-life in the sight and amidst the scenes of the promised land fixes the aspiration of the patriarchs as aiming at the highest conceivable heavenly goal. It has in it somewhat of the scorn of the relative and of compromise. He who knows that for him a palace is in building does not dally with desires for improvement on a lower scale. Contentment with the lowest becomes in such a case profession of the highest, a badge of spiritual aristocracy with its proud insistence upon the ideal. Only the predestined inhabitants of the eternal city know how to conduct themselves in a simple tent as kings and princes of God.

Songs From the Soul: Geerhardus Vos

In 1994, when Banner of Truth republished Geerhardus Vos’ 1922 collection of sermons titled Grace and Glory, which originally contained six sermons, they added 10 more to the reprint. Sinclair Ferguson explains:

In possessing a copy of Grace and Glory the reader has in his or her hands a book of sermons which are almost as rare as they are remarkable. Not only so, but in addition to the six sermons which originally constituted the volume Grace and Glory the present edition includes a further nine sermons which Vos preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary between 1896 and 1913, as well as an undated exposition of Ephesians 2:4-5 translated from Dutch. This additional material has been provided to the publishers by James T. Dennison, the Librarian of Westminster Theological Seminary in California and the editor of the journal Kerux, in which the bulk of has already been published. Mr. Dennison originally uncovered Vos’s personal sermon book in 1971 in the Heritage Hall Archive of Calvin Theological Seminary and transcribed the material. As heirs of his labours the publishers are also indebted to the Heritage Hall Archive of Calvin Seminary for the privilege of reproducing the material in this more permanent form.

One of those additional sermons is titled “Songs From the Soul,” based on Psalm 25:14: “The secret of the LORD is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant.” In this sermon, Vos speaks to the experimental piety of the Psalter in eloquent terms (pp. 169-171).

The Psalter is of all books of the Bible that book which gives expression to the experimental side of religion. In the law and the prophetic writings, it is God who speaks to his people; but in the Psalter we listen to the saints speaking to God. Hence the Psalter has been at all times that part of Scripture to which believers have most readily turned and upon which they have chiefly depended for the nourishment of the inner religious life of the heart. I say that part of Scripture and not merely that part of the Old Testament, for even taking the Old and New Testament together the common experience of the people of God affirms that there is nothing in Holy Writ which in our most spiritual moments — when we feel ourselves nearest to God — so faithfully and naturally expresses what we think and feel in our hearts as these songs of the pious Israelites. Our Lord himself, who had a perfect religious experience and lived and walked with God in absolute adjustment of his thoughts and desires to the Father's mind and will, our Lord himself found his inner life portrayed in the Psalter and in some of the highest moments of his ministry borrowed from it the language in which his soul spoke to God, thus recognizing that a more perfect language for communion with God cannot be framed.

Undoubtedly it is in the Psalter that the specific work of inspiration which the Holy Ghost performs in inditing the Scriptures and the more general task which he carries out in sustaining, directing, stimulating and guiding the religious thoughts and aspirations of believers are most closely united. Inspiration for the disclosure of truth is not always accompanied by the subjective appropriation of the truth in a saintly experience (a Balaam and a Caiaphas were among the prophets); but nevertheless it remains the more natural and ordinary procedure of God that the instrument through which his truth is brought to man should be a mind in intimate touch with his own; a mind responsive to that personal revelation of God himself which lives and throbs in the truth. And consequently we see that the great prophets (like a Moses, an Isaiah or Jeremiah) appear at the same time as the outstanding examples of a wonderfully rich and tender religious intercourse with God. But in the Psalms we can more clearly than anywhere else observe the interaction of these two things: supernatural reception of the truth and spiritual nearness to God. Possibly the fact that in David's case the prophetic disclosures of truth that he received were so vitally connected with his own life and destiny may have something to do with the presence of this feature in the Psalms, whereas the other prophets sometimes stood more or less apart from the development of things to which their words applied. And then the prophets, of course, in many instances spoke to and for the nation collectively, whereas in the Psalter it is the individual soul which comes face to face with God.

Hence the lessons and encouragements which we obtain from other parts of the Old Testament are frequently drawn indirectly by a process of inference, for which we are not always in the right frame of mind and the proper spiritual mood. But the in Psalms, whatever our mood, whether we are exultant or downcast, vigorous or weary, penitent or believing, we can always find our hearts mirrored there. It needs no process of reasoning to make their sentiments our own. Here the language of the Bible comes to meet the very thoughts of our hearts before these can even clothe themselves in language and we recognize that we could not have expressed them better than the Spirit has here expressed them for us. At first sight, this may easily seem strange to us when we remember that the the psalmists lived under the conditions of a typical and preparatory dispensation; that on many points they saw through a glass darkly, whereas we, who live in the full light of the complete gospel, see face to face. But for the very reason that the Psalms reflect that experimental religion of the heart, which is unvarying at all times and under all circumstances, we need not greatly wonder at this. The influx of the divine light, whether more or less strong, must always produce the identical effect of joy, hope and peace in every soul to which it comes. The well at which we drink may flow more abundantly than that at which the psalmists drank, but the experience of thirst, of drinking and of satisfaction must still be the same as it was in the time of David.

Check Out the Writings of Geerhardus Vos at Log College Press

Log College Press has been working to add more literature by Geerhardus Vos to our site. In the past week, we have added around 20 new PDFs, which include some of his shorter writings published in The Princeton Theological Review.

In many of these essays, he examined a number of exegetical and eschatological issues, and these works have been republished under various titles. Here the original works are available to download for free.

It was John Murray who said that "Dr. Vos is, in my judgment, the most penetrating exegete it has been my privilege to know, and I believe, the most incisive exegete that has appeared in the English-speaking world in this century."

Take time to peruse his works at Log College Press. His writings are a treasure that the church can benefit from in the 21st century as it did in the 19th and 20th.

A Thought on Legalism by Geerhardus Vos

Geerhardus Vos wrote much on the epistle to the Hebrews. In one particular essay published in The Princeton Theological Review (Jan. 1916), titled “Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke” (Part 2), Vos makes an insightful observation about the nature of legalism that is worth pondering.

Legalism lacks the supreme sense of worship. It obeys but it does not adore. And no deeper notes of adoration have ever been struck than those inspired by the Reformed Faith, no finer fruit of the lips making confession to God’s name has ever been placed upon the Christian altar.