Though he died 31 years ago, among older folk on campus the merest mention of his name brings warm smiles, good memories, and some funny stories. To his students he was always Dr. Vos. To his friends he was “Jack.” Both forms are shorter and handier than his full given name, Johannes Geerhardus Vos. He usually signed it simply “J.G. Vos.”
J.G. Vos devoted his life to teaching the Bible and classic Reformed theology for the sanctity of the church and the salvation of the lost. An astute thinker, he often disguised his natural brilliance with an equally natural penchant for folksy humor. A number of his published essays display the incisive clarity of his scholarship. Yet unlike his father, J.G. chose not to be a scholar’s scholar. Instead, he saw himself as a “people’s theologian.”
In a time of cultural decline for Reformed Christianity in America, J.G. worked constantly to popularize the Bible’s teachings and those of classic Reformed theology. He received ministerial ordination in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America in 1929. He was a tall and strong 26 years old; he would serve faithfully in the RP denomination for the rest of his mortal life.
Vos talked a plain-spoken talk, a bit folksy, rather like a more godly Harry Truman. His message was usually about the plain meaning of clear biblical texts for ordinary folk to learn, to master, to love, and to obey. When biblical texts seemed to allow different interpretations, he’d give a well-studied account of the textual reasons for the divergence, and perhaps state a plain-spoken preference. Often a corny joke was served up to punctuate the point.
Occasions of non-sequitur reasoning in class invariably produced one of J.G.’s favorites: the story of the inept parachutist who jumped to a conclusion.
On more than one occasion after asking him a question in class, I’d receive a packet in the mail of relevant photocopied articles or published pamphlets, or perhaps a whole book on the subject of my question. Some of my classmates had similar “package” experiences. More often than not, J.G. would turn out to be the author of the given material. Once a package from him contained the jacket I’d mistakenly left behind in class; the return address given was “Sherlock Holmes Detective Agency.” I was hoping for another book.
The “Dr.” of J.G.’s name was an honorary D.D., granted for distinguished service as a professor, writer, RPCNA pastor, and Manchurian missionary.
J.G. Vos was my first professor of Bible. When I met him in 1972, the autumn of my freshman year at Geneva, his face bore several longish scars. Only much later did I learn that these wounds were inflicted by soldiers of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, where he was a missionary for 11 years. He married Marian Milligan in China in 1931, and three out of their four children were born there. J.G. was expelled from China by the Japanese in 1941.
One of J.G. Vos’s important contributions to 20th century Christianity is the legacy of the Reformation Translation Fellowship, which he and Dr. Charles Chao founded. This organization still serves the Chinese church by translating, publishing, and distributing a sizeable body of works in classic Reformed theology, in pastoral ministry, and in the popular study of the Scriptures. Dr. J.G. Vos continued to serve and assist RTF’s work during his professorship and retirement years.
Dr. Vos earned a B.A. in history from Princeton University, class of 1925, and in 1928 a Th.B. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his father had taught since 1894. At Princeton J.G. was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, among the most prestigious academic honors available at that time or any time in North America. Even in his old age, J.G.’s necktie would oft be adorned with his Phi Beta Kappa key.
He also held a Th.M. from Westminster Theological Seminary, class of 1937. His published thesis was entitled, The Scottish Covenanters. The book remains an interesting and useful historical and doctrinal study of his adopted denomination’s background. It is still available from the RPCNA’s Crown & Covenant Publications in Pittsburgh, Pa., where many of his works are being reprinted and sold.
During a “communion Sabbath” weekend stay in Dr. and Mrs. Vos’s home in 1974, I came upon him closing his quite tattered Greek New Testament. He was nearing the completion of his 29th reading of it in its entirety. By the end of his life he had read it 42 times. He knew much of it by memory, with grammatical and exegetical precision, even down to rare participial forms. Even among scholars, not many can claim such detailed knowledge.
And yet, he chose to be a “people’s theologian.”
After his expulsion from China, J.G. took up a stateside pastoral call in 1942 to the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Clay Center, Kan. Four years later, convinced of the enormous need for layman’s-level biblical and theological education throughout the RP denomination, he started the journal entitled Blue Banner Faith and Life. Among the RPs of that time, he wrote, there was “a low level of awareness of true biblical Christianity….The church seemed confused, frustrated, and unable to go ahead with a constructive program of any kind.” “I decided there needed to be a very vocal but simple publication to set forth the true faith of the church,” he said in a dictated letter entitled “Important Notice” sent to friends and subscribers of the Blue Banner Faith and Life in 1979.
The instructive content of Blue Banner proved to be “very vocal but simple.” But for Vos, each issue of Blue Banner Faith and Life required massive work. He served not only as author and editor, but often as publisher and circulation director. Vos wrote most of the articles and book reviews. The earliest issues were printed on what J.G. called “my rickety mimeograph,” a “home-cranked machine.” The Vos family collated the copies by hand, “marching around tables” in the Hebron Church basement. Often it was Vos himself who addressed and stamped the mail-order copies.
From small beginnings and a mere 50 subscribers in 1946, J.G. Vos’s Blue Banner grew to a subscription list of about 1,275, half of them outside the United States. He never made any money from it, and often sent it for free to students, missionaries, and to anyone else who couldn’t pay the modest fees. Late in the journal’s history, my student subscription joined the list of free ones.
It was during those pastoral years in rural Clay Center (1942-1954) that J.G. was able to devote significant time to his other literary calling, bringing his father’s unpublished work into the light of day. After World War II this task became urgent, because his father’s health was now failing.
In 1948 his son’s hard work made it possible for Geerhardus Vos to see the finished copies of his own Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Eerdmans, 1948). Geerhardus Vos died in 1949.
J.G. Vos’s Blue Banner Faith and Life was in part responsible for the revival of confessional Reformed theology within the RPCNA. The journal survived from its 1946 mimeographed founding in Clay Center, endured through Vos’s entire tenure as a professor at Geneva College, and until the last few years of his mortal life. After a severe fall in 1979 that fractured his hip, Dr. Vos decided to discontinue the 33-year-old quarterly. His family, and especially his worried wife, Marian, greeted the decision with relief. The last issue of that year, October, closed out the Blue Banner.
J.G. himself lasted only a little longer. Now ensconced in a wheelchair and in care of the staff at the Reformed Presbyterian Home for the Aged, he felt himself a burden. Frustrated by his all-too-evident failing health, he couldn’t think of much useful to do. He often anguished over the unknown fate of his converts and colleagues in Manchuria. In visits he would tell me that he either wanted to go out “doing something,” or to be taken right away.
The Lord took J.G. Vos on June 8, 1983, at age 80. His body was buried near his son Melvin (1940-71) in the Hebron Church Cemetery, Idana, Kan.