Geerhardus Vos vs. Brevard Childs – What’s the Difference?

When I was a student at Toronto Baptist Seminary, the main textbook that we used for our course on Old Testament Biblical Theology (that is, Old Testament theology) was Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments.  Vos was famous for two things at TBS: (1) his extremely difficult writing style (which seems pretty easy now 11 years later and after reading pretty much anything by Ephrem Radner!) and (2) introducing us to a new (at least to us) and exciting way of reading the Old Testament – through the lens of biblical theology.

When people familiar with Geerhardus Vos and Reformed biblical theology in general see Brevard Childs’ works on display at their local Christian bookstore (okay, maybe not the average Christian bookstore!) they often wonder what the difference between the two really is.  So in this post I’m going to look at the main difference that I see between Geerhardus Vos and Brevard Childs.

The main difference between Vos’ Biblical Theology and Childs’ Old Testament Theology is that Vos’ main concern is the events behind the biblical text while Childs is primarily concerned with the text itself.  Take a look at these two quotes:

Geerhard Vos – “ [T]he study of the actual self-disclosures of God in time and space which lie back of even the first committal to writing of any Biblical document, and which for a long time continued to run alongside the inscripturation of revealed material; this last-named procedure is called the study of Biblical Theology.(Biblical Theology, 5, emphasis mine)

Brevard Childs – “The initial point to be made is that the canonical approach to Old Testament theology is unequivocal in asserting that the object of theological reflection is the canonical writing of the Old Testament, that is, the Hebrew scriptures which are the received traditions of Israel.  The materials for theological reflection are not the events or experiences behind the text, or apart from the construal in scripture by a community of faith and practice.” (Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, p. 6)

Now if you’re not very familiar with Old Testament theology outside of the Reformed tradition, you might think that Vos has the most “biblical position” because as evangelicals we believe, for the most part, that the truthfulness of the theology contained in the Old Testament depends on certain events having actually happened.  The quote from Childs seems to go against that – keeping in mind that in the very next sentence he says that “the literature cannot be isolated from its ostensive reference.”

But I would say that Childs has the better position.  Here are a few reasons:

(1) You don’t have to actually know what happened in history to be able to understand what the theology contained in or assumed by the biblical texts is.  What actually happened in history may be important (for some people) in terms of how you evaluate that theology but, in the end, it’s not very important for how you understand that theology.

(2) Not everything in the Bible is based on or reflects on events that actually happened in history.  As I noted in my previous post, the prime example of this is OT wisdom literature, which, for the most part, makes no reference to “God’s saving acts” in redemptive history.  The truthfulness of Proverbs – at least in terms of how we evaluate it – is not based on whether or not certain events happened; it’s based on whether or not its wisdom actually works (at least in its own historical context).  It is no coincidence that Vos only cites OT wisdom 10 times in total.  Compare that with 94 references to Exodus, not including passages that are cited more than once.

(3) From a theological perspective, God gave the church the canon, not the revelatory events behind the canon.  This may seem counterintuitive but the book of Amos has more authority for the Christian than the actual preaching of Amos.  I’m tempted to say the same thing about the gospels but that might be going too far.  But, in the end the gospels are all we have and they have more authority for the Christian than a historian’s reconstruction of the life and teaching of Jesus, regardless of how Wright it might be.  My point is that there is a difference between inspiration and canonicity (not everything that’s inspired made it into the Bible) and that there is a difference between events and how these events are depicted (it’s the depiction of the event that is important from a theological perspective).

(4) The field is called biblical/Old Testament theology, not the actual events or revelatory acts behind the biblical text theology.  Enough said.

There are other differences between the two writers but, for me, this is the main difference.  Childs (in theory) is more focused on the Bible whereas Vos (in theory) is more concerned with what lies behind the text.  I added the words “in theory” because, as is often the case in biblical theology and Old Testament theology, there is a huge difference between how a person articulates their methodology and what they actually do in their own writing.  But (in theory!) Childs’ approach is much more attractive than Vos’.


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