Geerhardus Vos has been called the “father of Reformed biblical theology.” As many readers are aware, he is known for investigating and displaying the organically integrated and historically unfolded character of biblical revelation. In fact, the Bible was, for him, best understood as the revelatory record of “the history of special revelation,” all centered upon God’s accomplishment of redemption for his people, with the work of the incarnate Christ at its core.
Therefore it may surprise some to learn that Vos also developed another, equally grand theme, one that reveals the pastoral heartbeat of his scholarly labors. This theme in no way detracts from his profound excavations of the Christ-centered unity of covenant history and the Scriptures, since he repeatedly shows how it derives from the glorious self-disclosure and activity of God across that history, as well as the Spirit-born witness and interpretation of that redemptive work by the human writers of the Bible. But it is a theme that, to my eye, and at least from a more global perspective, transcends (or better, traverses) the biblical theological exegesis for which Vos is so rightly revered. That theme, in short, is true religion.
“To be a Christian,” Vos declares, “is to live one’s life not merely in obedience to God, nor merely in dependence on God, nor even merely for the sake of God; it is to stand in conscious, reciprocal fellowship with God, to be identified with Him in thought and purpose and work, to receive from Him and give back to Him in the ceaseless interplay of spiritual forces.” (“Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 186). The intimate fellowship of the covenant bond between God and man, secured in the Christ of history for his people, is “the essential character of the Christian religion” (ibid.). This is the crest and climax of all of God’s activity and loving purpose for the religious consciousness of his people throughout the ages. It was promised by divine grace in ancient history, foreshadowed in tabernacle worship, preeminently displayed in Christ’s earthly life, and it now progressively permeates and defines the Christian’s resurrection life in union with the life-giving Savior (cf. 1 Pet 1:3-4; 1 Cor 15:45). Best of all, it will constitute the all-consuming activity of the saints in the everlasting disclosure of God’s glory in a new heaven and new earth that is perfectly suited for that purpose (2 Pet 3:13; cf. Rom 8:21; Rev 21:3, 23-24).
Throughout his writings, Vos urges us to join him in scaling the heights of God’s loving purpose across covenant history in order to survey the beauty and richness of the divine glory before that final Day. But he also calls us to make our sin-killing, rejoicing-in-righteousness, child-like fellowship with the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit the driving principle of our lives, whether as pastors, students, laypeople, daily workers, parents or children.
So what does this have to do with the machinery of church polity? As many denominational bodies gather together in the coming days to pray, oversee, discuss, debate, and strive for the mind of Christ with all manner of issues pressing in and, to be sure, with all sorts of agendas at play, at least this…
“Sometimes it is difficult not to feel that God is reckoned with, chiefly because his name and prestige and resources are indispensable for success in a cause that really transcends him, and that the time may yet come when as a supernumerary he will be set aside. Is it not precisely this that often makes the atmosphere of Christian work so chill and uninspiring? Though we compel the feet to move to the accelerated pace of our modern religious machinery, the heart is atrophied and the lukewarm blood flows sluggishly through our veins. Let each one examine himself whether to any extent he is caught in the whirl of this centrifugal movement. The question, though searching, is an extremely simple one: Do we love God for his own sake and find in this love the inspiration of service, or do we patronize him as an influential partner under whose auspices we can better conduct our manifold activities in the service of the world?” (G. Vos., “The Wonderful Tree,” a sermon on Hos 14:8)