Monday, October 30, 2006

The Letters of Geerhardus Vos, A Review

Letters of Geerhardus Vos , ed. James T. Dennison
(P&R Publishing, 2005), hb., 274 pp.

This is an interesting book. Before reading it I knew of Vos as a key figure in the development of biblical theology, but I knew little else. I was drawn to the book precisely because I knew little about him, because letters tend to reveal the man more than anything else, and because I saw that it included some of his poems (I had not known he had written poetry). I enjoyed reading the book.

The title of the book may mislead you because the contents are actually both more and less than what one might anticipate. It is more in that the book contains significantly more than letters. It includes a 75 page biography, a 20+ page bibliography, and 10 pages of poetry. It is less in that most of the letters contained in it are not that profound. You do not find here the sort of thing you find in Luther’s Letters of Spiritual Counsel, or Rutherford’s Letters, or Newton’s Letters for example. These are not typically letters of counsel but just regular correspondence. The letters still contain interesting material, but probably not much to hold the attention of the average theological reader.

Probably the most useful part of the book is the biographical sketch. The Preface states, “This volume contains the most thorough account of the life of Geerhardus Vos published to date” (11). I am not in the position to judge this claim, but this would make the sketch significant. Apparently, not much has been known about Vos personally. Dennison refers to Vos as “the mysterious premier Reformed biblical theologian of the twentieth century” (11). It becomes apparent fairly soon that one significant reason for interest in Vos has to do with his place in the split within the PCUSA and the exodus of some Princeton faculty to found Westminster. Vos had been the teacher of Machen, Van Til, Murray and others but he did not leave Princeton himself. Vos expressed his appreciation of and support for Machen and the others but did not follow them. Apparently this has puzzled some and various speculations have arisen to explain. Dennison clearly seeks to argue the view that Vos could see through the power agenda that truly underlay some of the pastors who were supporting Machen. According to Dennison, Vos could see this though Machen could not. Vos agreed with Machen theologically but could not support the worldly motives and objectives of these others. According to Dennison, the power agenda of these other pastors eventually came out.

Now, I must first admit that I do not know enough about this episode of Presbyterian life to adjudicate between these opinions. I can though make two observations. First, whether or not Dennison is right he certainly overplays his data at places. Various times he slides from simply suggesting possible motives of various people to asserting the motives as clear fact. At one point he even posits what Machen may have been thinking while laying on his deathbed! Of course this neither means that Dennison’s analysis is right nor wrong. It does mean that this is not a real objective analysis.

My second observation, is that if Dennison is just basically on track, there are significant parallels (and thus lessons) for other denominations, particularly my own- the SBC. The warning that work for theological fidelity will typically be mixed with lesser motives is a sane, realistic reminder. Vos then emerges as a reminder that our allegiance is to the gospel not any other agenda- even a conservative one. He is also a reminder that we cannot defend the gospel by acting in anti-gospel ways.

I found the biographical sketch interesting reading. The writing ranges from hagiographic, to melodramatic, to rousing prose. The best parts, in my opinion, are where Dennison shows Vos articulating the centrality of the gospel and the ways in which we so easily accommodate to another, cultural message. For example Dennison reports, “…it was the tepid, indeed vacuous, preaching that distressed him more. The gospel was crowded out from the pulpit and Sunday school in the interest of cultural relevance and contemporary moralizing” (59, in footnote 164). Surely this is true in far too many churches today as well. A key theme that emerges is the way in which a culturally or politically conservative message easily passes for the gospel. We need this warning in our day.

Well, this review is already too long by bloging standards. I have already posted one quote from this book and will plan to post a few more separately. Let me simply conclude by listing in summary what I think are the benefits of this book for people in my circle:
- Strong reminder of the centrality of the gospel and the danger of mere moralism
- warnings about accommodation with culture, particularly on the conservative side of things
- warnings about denominational politics and the compromises which allure so
- greater awareness of a key figure in the history of biblical interpretation
- A picture of handling oneself in dialogue with others


Mark Traphagen said...

Thanks for the review. This book has been a slow but steady seller for us at Westminster Bookstore (, but I hadn't had a chance to really look at it. Sounds like the mini-bio is worth the price of the book alone, flawed though it may be in some respects

Ray Van Neste said...

Wow! I really like your bookstore. You have great selection and great prices. I'm honored to hear from you.
Yes, I would say it is worth the price- especially if you are close to the issues involved. The letters do have good material as well, particularly if you are not expecting the sort of letters I had in mind.

Mark Traphagen said...

Glad you liked the store, Ray. If you place an order, give me a shout out in the Customer Comment box, and maybe I'll do something nice for you ;-)