Biblical Theology

January 02, 2013

Westminster Chief Administrative Officer, Steven J. Carter, continues his updates on life at the Seminary.  This is the second in a series on what makes Westminster distinct

Biblical theology is the theological discipline concerned with the study of the historic progress of God’s redemptive revelation. 


When I returned to Westminster last year to serve as chief administrative officer, I was struck by a picture of a great teacher that I hadn’t seen on campus while a student in the seventies.  You now see it immediately when you enter the library.  It’s not a portrait of a founder, like those that grace Machen Hall, but a photograph, most likely from the early 20th century, of someone who could be regarded as a founder, but as of one born out of due time: Geerhardus Vos. 

Vos taught at Princeton Seminary with those who would become the actual founders of Westminster.  It’s a vexing question why he didn’t join his colleagues in their exile to form the new seminary.  But his influence on how Westminster teaches the whole counsel of God has been profound.   If the actual founders have their portraits in Machen, maybe it makes sense that Vos stands alone in the library, in a unique place of honor.

Vos is known as the father of reformed biblical theology.  I want to quote several passages from his inaugural address at Princeton as one of the best introductions to the theological discipline that has become a distinctive of Westminster.  It’s impossible to do justice to the value of Vos’s inaugural address, but I’ll settle for highlighting three ways biblical theology impacts Westminster students.

First, the student of biblical theology will be awestruck at the way God’s covenantal and progressive revelation in redemptive history reaches a crescendo in Jesus Christ:

We feel at every point that the last veil is drawn aside and that we stand face to face with the disclosure of the great mystery that was hidden in the divine purpose through the ages.  All salvation, all truth in regard to man, has its eternal foundation in the triune God Himself.  It is this triune God who here reveals Himself as the everlasting reality, from whom all truth proceeds, whom all truth reflects, be it the little streamlet of Paradise or the broad river of the New Testament losing itself again in the ocean of eternity.  After this nothing higher can come.  All the separate lines along which through the ages revelation was carried have converged and met at a single point.  The seed of the woman and the Angel of Jehovah are become one in the Incarnate Word.  And as Christ is glorified once for all, so from the crowning glory and perfection of His revelation in the New Testament nothing can be taken away; nor can anything be added thereunto.

Second, the authority of Scripture rests on the divinely authored Scripture itself as God's own interpretation of His mighty deeds in redemptive history, not the concessions of “neutral” scholarship.  Hence, the perfection of this design of God's revelation, both in Word and deed, supports a bold conviction that the Bible is the very Word of God, despite the attacks of unbelieving criticism:

The Bible contains, besides the simple record of direct revelations, the further interpretation of these immediate disclosures of God by inspired prophets and apostles.  Above all, it contains, if I may so call it, a divine philosophy of the history of redemption and of revelation in general outlines.  And whosoever is convinced in his heart of the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures and reads his Bible as the Word of God, cannot, as a student of Biblical Theology, allow himself to reject this divine philosophy and substitute for it another of his own making…I for one am not ashamed to say that the teachings of Paul concerning the historic organism of the Old Testament economy possess for me greater authority than the reconstructions of the same by modern scholars, however great their learning and critical acumen.

Third, biblical theology inspires students to become preachers who share with God's people the riches of God's progressively revealed, covenantal Word that finds its center and substance in Christ:

It is certainly not without significance that God has embodied the contents of revelation, not in a dogmatic system, but in a book of history, the parallel to which in dramatic interest and simple eloquence is nowhere to be found.  It is this that makes the Scriptures speak and appeal to and touch the hearts and lead the minds of men captive to the truth everywhere.  No one will be able to handle the Word of God more effectually than he to whom the treasure-chambers of its historic meaning have been opened up.  It is this that brings the divine truth so near to us, makes it as it were bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, that humanizes it in the same sense that the highest revelation in Christ was rendered most human by the incarnation.  To this historical character of revelation we owe the fullness and variety which enable the Scriptures to mete out new treasures to all ages without becoming exhausted or even fully explored.  A Biblical Theology imbued with the devout spirit of humble faith in the revealed Word of God, will enrich the student with all this wealth of living truth, making him in the highest sense a householder, bringing forth out of his treasures things new and old.

How would you feel about something that made you worship God more fervently, gave you solid answers to the skeptics who question your faith and inspired preaching that stirred your heart with the glory of Jesus Christ?  Hundreds of Westminster students around the world would point to the distinctive biblical theology as taught by Geerhardus Vos as the primary reason for such good fruit.  It’s not hard to understand their enthusiasm for this distinctive of the Seminary.

So how did the picture of Vos come to its prominent place in the library?  You might expect it to take a committee to convene and try to do something at long last to honor the memory of someone who was so nearly a founder.  Grace Mullen, who has worked in the library for many years, tells the story this way: 

“The picture came through Bob Marsh, a WTS graduate who was then a church planter in an OP work in Williamsport, PA. He had contact with one of Geerhardus Vos’s sons who lived in that area and the son gave him this picture and some items which Vos had kept on his desk. This would have been sometime in the late 80s. Marsh was there from 1986-89. I think we hung it as soon as we received it.”

I find it fitting that this recognition of Vos did not come by way of an administrative process.  It was a spontaneous event and the library staff instinctively knew the correct response – to hang the photo in the library – didn’t even require someone’s permission.  Vos’s place of distinction at Westminster was the culmination of an organic, historical process, the full flowering of a life of faithfulness to the Word of God.


Note:  “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline” is the title of Vos’s inaugural address.  It is in the public domain and can be accessed at http://www.bsmi.org/download/vos/BiblicalTheology.pdf.