Geerhardus Vos on Natural Theology: A Review

Natural Theology by Geerhardus Vos. Translated by Albert Gootjes. Introduction by J. V. Fesko. Foreword by Richard A. Muller (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2022), $25, 106 pp.

In the early 1900s, Karl Barth (1886-1969) and Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) made waves by rejecting, for various reasons, the historic Christian understanding of natural theology. Some have thought that Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949), most well-known for his monumental work in biblical theology, was in substantial agreement with Van Til on this subject. In recent years, in part due to the recent publication of his Reformed Dogmatics, there has been an increased interest in Vos’s work. The publication, therefore, of Natural Theology (Reformation Heritage Books, 2022), which collects lecture notes from his courses on natural theology with a substantial introduction by J.V. Fesko, is of great interest–both to those interested in Vos’s potential agreement with Van Til, and to those interested more generally in the contemporary Protestant debates concerning natural theology.

Fesko begins by noting that there is more continuity between medieval and Reformation theology than discontinuity, with the subject of natural knowledge of God being an area of continuity. He then provides us with an overview of the development of natural theology, briefly discussing Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. He then mentions the ways in which Scotus and Ockham cast doubt upon the possibility of natural knowledge of God, and concludes with a discussion of the way in which Raymond of Sabunde (c.1385-1436) developed Augustine’s “two book” theme (the books of nature and of Scripture). Turning to the Reformation, Fesko points out how Calvin integrated the Ciceronian understanding of natural theology into his discussion of man’s knowledge of God as creator. He then turns to the major Reformed Confessions, then to Franciscus Junius, Johann Heinrich Alsted, the Westminster Confession, Francis Turretin, and concludes with a discussion of how later Reformed Orthodox theologians began to show the influence of Descartes in their articulation of this natural knowledge of God. Fesko claims that there are two key differences between high (c. 1640-1720s) and late (c. post-1725) Reformed Orthodox theologians in relation to natural theology: (1) that high orthodox theologians saw natural theology as essentially for the regenerate, not serving “as a locus for theology”, being non-salvific, and (2) that high orthodox theologians saw natural theology as possible only because of supernatural theology, and not as foundational for it (xxxi).

Fesko’s overview is, largely, a helpful one, and he is most certainly right to suggest that natural theology was not seen as a branch of theology, but rather of philosophy, and that these Reformed theologians consistently maintained that natural knowledge of God was not salvific. However, there are some ambiguous elements in Fesko’s observations which, depending on their meaning, may force us to say that the high Reformed Orthodox different significantly from both their successors and predecessors on natural theology–something which is simply untrue. In relation to point (1) above, it is, at best, unclear what Fesko means by the claim that “natural theology was ultimately a natural theology of the regenerate” (xxxi). If he means that it was primarily discovered by, used by, and useful for the regenerate, then, I would argue, he is misconstruing the views of many high Reformed Orthodox theologians (e.g. Edward Reynolds, Edward Leigh, Stephen Charnock, Francis Turretin, etc.), who thought both that unregenerate pagans had discovered many truths about God’s existence and nature, and that one of the main purposes of natural theology was to serve as a preparation for the gospel. Natural theology was also said to be useful for the regenerate, for informing worship, motivating to sanctification, refuting heretics etc. This would seem to imply that natural theology is ultimately common to both the regenerate and the unregenerate (as Calvin suggests in the Institutes). It is not properly a “natural theology of the regenerate”, but a natural theology common to all men, consistently pointing them (regardless of what they do with this knowledge) to the one true God. If this is not what Fesko means by this first point, then his first observation would be helped by further clarification.

In relation to point (2), when Fesko says “natural theology exists only because of supernatural theology; it does not serve as its foundation or basis,” he seems to be claiming that natural theology is only possible because of supernatural revelation (xxxi). As with the first observation, his exact meaning is unclear. Based upon his interpretation of Turretin, it would appear that the term “supernatural revelation” must be taken to refer to “special revelation” in Scripture (xxix). If so, then he would appear to be claiming that the high Reformed Orthodox theologians thought that natural knowledge of God (natural theology) was only possible if one first had access to, and knowledge of, special revelation. If this is the case, then Fesko is misconstruing their claims. According to the theologians mentioned above, many pagans, with no knowledge of special revelation in Scripture, knew both that God exists, and something of the divine nature which is consonant with Christian belief. Natural theology, then, does not exist because of supernatural theology.

Fesko goes on to discuss the development of natural theology in Reformed circles in the nineteenth century, touching on William Paley, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Bavinck, before turning to Vos. Fesko points out that Vos was heavily dependent upon the approach of his professor Francis L. Patton (and, through Patton, on Hodge). The final two sections of Fesko’s introduction are a comparison of Vos’s views with the Reformed tradition both before and after him. In the first, Fesko notes that Vos is in general continuity with the tradition, grounding the notion of natural theology in Scripture, maintaining the traditional claim that natural theology is insufficient for salvation, and so on. Fesko highlights Vos’s discussion of the relationship between natural theology and metaphysics, and the relationship between natural theology and Christian apologetics. He here notes the disagreement between Warfield and Kuyper on the subject, and Vos’s basic agreement with Warfield and the Princetonian theologians. He also rightly notes that Vos’s assessment of medieval Scholastic and early Reformed articulations of natural theology was not always entirely accurate. In relation to the second subject, later Reformed views of natural theology, Fesko provides helpful summaries of the clear differences between Vos and both Barth and Van Til. Fesko very easily and clearly demonstrates that Van Til and Vos cannot be portrayed as agreeing about the nature and content of natural theology, nor upon the ability of humans to arrive at some natural knowledge of God. He concludes, “even though some might advance the claim that Vos was the Van Tillian morning star, there is no question that Vos’s lectures on natural theology fall in line with the views of Old Princeton and Amsterdam, not those of Van Til” (lxix). The careful reader of the historic Reformed tradition will agree heartily with Fesko on this point. Fesko holds out hope that we will see a return to the orthodox Reformed articulation of the doctrine of natural theology, though it may take some time. My reading of Vos’s understanding of natural theology agrees in large part with Fesko’s analysis of Vos.

The second half of Natural Theology contains an edited manuscript, compiled from what may be notes taken by two or three students, during a course on natural theology given by Vos early in his career. This means that there may be some differences between what Vos actually thought and what is found in this book, and may also explain some of the factually wrong historical claims. The course can be divided into three main subjects: prolegomena to the subject of natural theology, interaction with various approaches to the divine, and the immortality of the soul.

Vos uses a question-and-answer format to develop and teach the subject. Overall, at this point in his career, Vos was clearly more comfortable with modern and post-Kantian thought than with pre-modern thought. He makes many factually false claims about both medieval and early Reformed views on natural theology, and we find almost no helpful interaction with pre-Christian Greco-Roman approaches to natural theology. His interaction with Patristic sources on the subject (restrained almost entirely to broad comments on Fathers in general, and a couple thoughts on Tertullian and Augustine) is cursory and unhelpful. His survey of medieval sources is equally weak, with only general comments made about the Scholastics, and brief discussions of John of Damascus, Anselm, Abelard, Durandus of Saint-Pourçain, and Raymond of Sabunde. His analysis of the Scholastics is factually false on a number of points. For example, he contrasts the Scholastics with the Fathers by portraying the Scholastics in general as motivated by intellectual concerns over against practical concerns of the Fathers, associating semi-Pelagianism with the Scholastics, naming Durandus as the first to clearly distinguish between the three ways of the triplex via, and naming Raymond of Sabunde as the first to distinguish clearly between the book of nature and the book of scripture. In each case, Vos is either wrong, or the student whose notes were used misunderstood Vos’s claims.

In relation to the first case, there are two errors. Most notable is, the subsuming of diverse late-medieval theologians and theological schools of thought under the single name “Scholastics”, and then treating the “Scholastics” as one. This would be like saying, “professors” are all more concerned with X and than with Y. Now, it is true that the Scholastics tended to emphasize an intellectual understanding of the faith, but this is because the “Scholastics” were, by and large, university professors writing books for their students.

In the second case: it is false to say that the Scholastics were more motivated by intellectual concerns than practical concerns, over against the Fathers. For instance, almost two-thirds of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae have to do with practical concerns (i.e. virtues, vices, church practice and polity). He also wrote many sermons which draw out the practical consequences of biblical truths. Secondly, the Fathers were also very motivated by intellectual concerns. Justin Martyr and Aristides, the first Christian apologists, wrote to defend the truth of the faith. The two main works of Irenaeus of Lyons have to do with refuting heresy (Against Heresies), and positively articulating and defending orthodoxy (On the Apostolic Faith). One could also point to the Cappadocian Fathers, John Chrysotom, Augustine, and many others, whose writings are as motivated by intellectual concerns as the writings of the Scholastics.

Finally, in relation to the other inaccuracies mentioned above, it is not the case that the scholastics were semi-Pelagian (many of them, including Aquinas, openly opposed all forms of Pelagianism), Pseudo-Dionysius clearly articulated the triplex via a long time before Durandus of Saint-Pourçain, and we find a clear distinction between the book of nature and the book of Scripture almost a thousand years prior to Raymond of Sabunde in the writings of Augustine. A final lacuna of his treatment of Patristic and medieval thinkers is that there is no mention of Thomas Aquinas (though Vos’s perspective on natural theology does agree with Aquinas on some points).

Vos’s discussion of Protestant approaches to natural theology (both early and later) is rather short and undeveloped, mentioning only Calvin, Melanchthon, and Alsted. Again we find inexact statements, such as the strange claim that the Reformation was not favorable to the development of natural theology because the Reformation rejected tradition and semi-Pelagianism (10). This statement is, in fact, demonstrably false (as Fesko notes in his introduction, suggesting an alternative interpretation of this point), as almost every Protestant theologian from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries affirmed the historical doctrine of natural theology. The remainder of the prolegomena interacts with Cartesian, Kantian, and post-Kantian approaches to natural theology.

In the second section, when Vos discusses various approaches to the divine, he begins with brief analyses of important approaches to God and religion (monism, pantheism, deism, monotheism or theism, pluralism, dualism, polytheism, and atheism), critiquing all but monotheism or theism. He then discusses a number of theories concerning the rise and development of religion, followed by an analysis of popular modern arguments which seek to demonstrate that God exists. Here, he follows the Kantian analysis of the arguments, beginning with the ontological argument, followed by the cosmological and physico-teleological arguments, and concludes with an analysis of the ethical and religious arguments.

It is interesting to note that Vos interacts almost entirely with modern and contemporary thought, showing very little familiarity with pre-modern approaches to God. With the exception of a couple lines here and there (occasionally mentioning Plato, the Stoics, and Cicero in passing), and a short section dedicated to analysis of Anselm’s ontological argument, the great majority of this second section is dedicated to interaction with modern and contemporary thought. He does not consider the theistic arguments of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Aristides, Gregory Nazianzus, Augustine, Boethius, the medieval Muslim philosophers, Moses Maimonides, or even Aquinas or Scotus. Vos rightly accepts the critiques of the ontological argument, but does not accept the Kantian rejection of the cosmological and physico-teleological arguments. He does, however, see these three arguments as inter-related, and tends to be somewhat positive about the relative success of the two latter arguments (which, again, resembles Kant’s own analysis of these arguments, as found in the Critique of Pure Reason). Though his explanation of the physico-teleological argument is somewhat confused, he does seem to think that it proves that God exists. His approach to the moral and religious arguments are heavily influenced by Kantian and post-Kantian thought.

In the third section, Vos discusses various attempts to demonstrate the immortality of the soul. This is the shortest section of the lectures, providing brief descriptions and critiques of four key theories concerning the nature of the soul: the materialist view, the idealist view, the identity theory, and the dualist theory. Not unsurprisingly, Vos adheres to, and defends, the dualist theory. He then discusses the value of a number of attempts to demonstrate that the soul is immortal.

Throughout this review, we have attempted to address some of the difficulties with Vos’s lectures on natural theology. With the many clear difficulties and inaccuracies which are seen throughout, one might wonder about the relative worth of this book. Yet there are a number of reasons why these notes are important. For one thing, they evidence common mischaracterizations of the history of natural theology, and demonstrate often how not to address the subject. However, the primary worth of Vos’s teaching notes on natural theology is that they testify very clearly–for all his missteps and mischaracterizations of the tradition–to the fact that he clearly affirmed, in step with the majority of that tradition, the belief that all men can know that God exists through the rational observation of the natural world (both the cosmos and man as a part of the cosmos), and also reveal his understanding of the value of the theistic arguments. When it comes to contemporary Protestant debates about natural theology then, this fact places Vos very clearly in opposition to Van Til, and in agreement with the Princetonian theologians that preceded him, meaning that Van Tillian Presuppositionalists cannot claim him as an ally. He sides, rather, with J. Gresham Machen, B. B. Warfield, and the great majority of the Reformed tradition.

Natural Theology by Geerhardus Vos is available now from Reformation Heritage Books.

David Haines (Ph.D Université Laval) is Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Bethlehem College and Seminary. He is the author of Natural Theology: A Biblical and Historical Introduction and Defense (Davenant Press 2021), and co-author of Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (Davenant Press 2017).


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