Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics

May 22, 2018

by Lane Tipton

Richard B. Gaffin Jr.’s editorial oversight of the translation of Geerhardus Vos’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek has brought to light yet another theological treasure from perhaps the finest Reformed theologian since Calvin. The sustained depth of penetration of the traditional loci of systematic theological discussion is coupled with the warmth of a theological reflection pursued in vital communion with the absolute, triune God through Spirit-gifted, faith-union with Christ. This renders it ideal for both seminary instruction and devotional reading.

On the one side, Vos’s work displays the proper, and it seems to me necessary, task of retrieving creedal doctrine in the preservation of Christian theology. On the other side, his work displays the proper, and it seems to me equally necessary, task of reforming that creedal doctrine in the formulation of a confessionally constructive, Reformed theology, tethered to its preceding creedal and confessional expressions, yet advancing organically beyond both, through biblical and systematic theological methods of interpreting the inerrant Scriptures. Vos not only expounds orthodox creedal theology in a faithful way, but, within the boundaries of confessionally Reformed theology, he advances that confessional theology with unparalleled insight. His work presents us with an orthodox, yet constructive, expression of the truth of the Scriptures that faithfully serves to instruct the church in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

God remains immutably absolute and triune precisely in his relation to creation.

To show the depth of Vos’s theological insight, I will focus on two sections of the Reformed Dogmatics that bring into view what, in Vos’s theology, is the proper relation between the absolute and unchanging triune Creator and an eschatologically oriented creation, focused specifically on man as the image of God.

Vos argues that creation is a “transitive act” that occurs “in time” (1:177). That transitive act must be set qualitatively and ontologically over against the absolute, triune God in whom, as the Creator, “no time distinction exists.” For this reason, creation does not occasion a change in God. Rather, creation expresses the willing agency of the absolute and unchanging, triune God, who remains absolute as the Creator in relation to the world. Vos, quoting Voetius, says, “Creation, actively considered, is not a real change because by it God is not changed by that act; it only requires a new relationship of the Creator to what is created. And this new relation, which is not real in God, can therefore not effect a real change in him” (1:178). Thus, the absolute God remains absolute both behind (ad intra) and in (ad extra) the “new relation” brought to pass by God’s free act of creation. This is the substance of what we term a logical, but not real, change in the God-world relation. That there is no change in God as he creates—which is what the language of “no real change” is designed to safeguard—is a deeply creedal and confessional strand of orthodoxy. God freely wills a “new relation” that introduces no change in God as he wills that “new relation.” Hence, while not introducing change in God, either ad intra or ad extra, the absolute God freely wills a bona fide “new relation” in the act of creation, yet undergoes no change himself. Hence, God relates to the world as the absolute, triune Creator.

What, more precisely, can we say about the nature of that “new relation” into which God freely enters, while remaining absolute and triune? Put negatively, the “new relation” does not introduce into being a freely willed, contingently temporal, interactive feature somehow “in” God ad extra, yet not “in” God ad intra. Put positively, God remains immutably absolute and triune precisely in his relation to creation.

Creation expresses the willing agency of the absolute and unchanging, triune God.

This critical formulation provides the theological and creational backdrop for Vos’s discussion of the God-world relationship in general. Yet, at the same time, the discussion also provides the context for developing the approach of God to man, the image of God, that constitutes the religious essence of the “new relation” freely willed by the absolute Creator.

Vos amplifies this discussion under the topic of anthropology, specifically, man (male and female) created as the image of God. The religious and eschatological character of man as he is the image of God adds clarity to the nature of the “new relation” to creation willed by the absolute, triune Creator.

Vos quickly focuses this “new relation” when he says that, “In the idea that one forms of the image is reflected one’s idea of the religious state of man and of the essence of religion itself” (2:12). What, precisely, is the “essence of religion itself,” or “the religious state of man” on which true religion depends? Quite simply, it is that image bearers are created for “life in communion with God” (2:13). The image of God means, according to Vos, “above all that he is disposed for communion with God, that all the capacities of his soul can act in a way that corresponds to their destiny only if they rest in God” (2:13). That “destiny” is movement from life in communion with God in earthly Eden (innocency) to the consummation of that life in communion with God in heaven (glory). Intrinsic to the image of God, essential to its nature, is this dynamic, eschatologically oriented, communion bond that consists in life in fellowship with the absolute, triune God.

To make clear his “deeper Protestant conception” (2:13) about the religious and eschatological essence of man as the image of God, Vos makes explicit that Rome’s view cannot supply the theological categories that account for the religious and eschatological character of man as the image of God. In particular, Vos argues that Rome’s deficient understanding of the image of God, coupled with a weakened doctrine of original sin, conspire to render its theology incapable of offering to man the essence of religion in fellowship with God.

. . . continue reading at New Horizons.




Lane Tipton

Dr. Tipton (PhD, Westminster) is professor of systematic theology at WTS.

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