Published as a book in 1886, The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes was what propelled Vos into the academic scene. A great paper, it received publishing the same year he went overseas.[1] In the book, Vos wrote against the modern theologians of his day, arguing that the laws of Moses were not from religious-historical development, but from supernatural and redemptive work. An outstanding contribution to the field of Old Testament and a superb rebuttal of the anti-supernatural theology of many German theologians, Old Testament Scholar William Henry Green[2] even wrote an introduction to it. However, as Vos is now known and acknowledged by many as the father of Reformed biblical theology[3], (1) why publish in the field of Old Testament? and (2), what were his motives for writing this paper/book? Solid questions, this paper will give reason as to why Vos wrote The Pentateuchal Codes, in addition to seeking how it influenced his overall development as a theologian and scholar. Though Vos is known for his contributions to the Reformed faith, he contributed to a variety of fields in the realm of the Reformed, biblical-theological tradition.

Vos and the Old Testament Field

With Vos known for his magnum opus: The Pauline Eschatology and great books and volumes like Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments and Reformed Dogmatics, he did—as any normal academic would—have interest in Old Testament studies[4]. Yet, was Vos wanting to go into Old Testament before deciding on reconstructing the liberally constructed biblical theology?[5] I would argue no, with two propositions.

First, while it may be true that Vos was offered the job of Old Testament Exegesis at the Free University of Amsterdam by Dr. Kuyper, and that he majored in Semitic languages at Strasbourg, and that he wrote his senior paper in Old Testament, I still say that Vos had his interests set on biblical theology during this time. The real reason why he wanted to study Old Testament was due to him seeing the preparatory nature of the Old Covenant and the typology of the Old Testament, which has quite the significance in what he would define as the history of special revelation. Types in the Old Testament and the Old Covenant were important for what was to come, and for also understanding the scriptures as one big historical-redemptive narrative.

The second proposition I want to make is that Vos did not write the paper to propel himself into the Old Testament field. While—as mentioned—true, Kuyper did him a job in Old Testament at 24 years old (!), I would argue that it is because he saw the unbelievable gifting of the young Vos, not because his focus was in Old Testament. Now that this is settled, I want to show Vos’ motives for writing this, and the paper in its historical context.

The Motives of Vos

Since Vos was not looking to go into Old Testament, the reasoning behind why he wrote the paper was to interact and exploit the critical school’s methodology. With modern theologians like Karl Heinrich Graf, Abraham Kuenen, Julius Wellhausen and others pursuing a “rationalistic interpretation”,[6] the question that Vos was interacting with was “fundamentally that between rationalism and supernatural religion”.[7] While the critical school argued that the laws were not from Moses and were from religious development in Israel, Vos argued for the supernatural, stating that the laws were for the purpose of many generations, given by the Prophet par excellence, Moses[8]. Yet, with his paper, what was Vos attempting to accomplish?

Using his later thoughts, I would argue that Vos was defending what he saw as a problem intruding the Christian Church: liberalism. While the Christian faith had always been under attack, it was nothing like it experienced during this time. Liberal theologians were attacking and revising the Westminster Confession of Faith, making it less “offensive” and “appealing” as they would have called it[9]. Vos’ reaction was like his fellow colleagues, seeking to not revise the Confession as it was redefining doctrines like the love of God.[10] Therefore, using Vos’ reaction here, it is safe to say that the motive of the paper was to go against the German liberal theology that had been growing for many years before. Vos had sought to defend the Mosaic authorship of the laws. Not just this, but he stood beside the supernatural religion, over and against the anti-supernatural. Therefore, the paper did not function as a normal senior paper for anyone; no, it stood as a defense of true Christian supernaturalism. Vos was writing in a broader context where rationalism was attempting to take over, not that he was wanting to go into Old Testament.

The Paper in the Context of His Theological Development

Establishing the former two points, I lastly want to examine and analyze how his senior paper affected his theological development as a whole, especially his early theological development.[11] With Vos not preparing to teach biblical theology until 1893–as detailed in a letter to friend Herman Bavinck[12]—The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes primarily functioned as a start in his interest and development of biblical theology. Vos sees how both Testaments specifically have their part in the history of revelation.[13] Not just this, but he sees the unity and continuity in scripture, saying for example how “the Levitical Code, though forming a unit in its own compass, is nevertheless but a single link in the great chain: as we hope to show, it takes up the development of the Theocracy where Exodus left off, and carries it onward”[14]. From the outset of his senior paper, Vos was always interested in biblical theology. Though his interest in the covenant did not arguably come until his time first started at Princeton, this paper was the starting point of his idea and foundation for biblical theology. He knew revelation would have a key part in it, and expounded on it since the beginning of his career.


Though many view Vos’ senior paper as nothing more than an exit of his Princetonian work, it is much more than such an idea. Vos’ paper—which was later fashioned as a book—sought to defend the historic Christian faith from rationalistic, critical, and anti-supernatural camps of his day. A long paper—a whole 263 pages!—it defended the tradition that Moses was at least a contributor to the Pentateuch[15], and that the laws came directly from Yahweh’s revelation, not historical and religious development. In addition, The Pentateuchal Codes acted as the first spark of his idea of biblical theology, influencing the rest of his theological development until the final ends of his life, with his final book composed by his son called: Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments[16]. With Vos known for his legacy in the practice of biblical theology, all should pay more attention to his earlier work and theological development, as such holds great help for interpreting and understanding his work from 1893 and onward. His earlier work contains bits and pieces of his later theology, a theology that sought to understand God’s revelation in each part of redemptive history.

[1] As I wrote in my previous article on Vos, he first went to the University of Berlin, then switching to Strasbourg after a year. Vos said about his choice that “it would have been desirable for me if I had chosen Strassburg right away and had not visited Berlin” (Dennison Jr., James The Letters of Geerhardus Vos [Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company, 2005], 124). Will now be referred to as Letters.
[2] See Calhoun, David Princeton Seminary: Faith and Learning & The Majestic Testimony (New Baskerville: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 358-361; 149-170 for more information on William Henry Green.
[3] Though people also give rightful contribution to John Owen as a founder of Reformed biblical theology as well, I choose to argue that Vos is the ultimate founder of the sub-practice of exegetical theology
[4] This is probably due to his time at the Theologische School in Grand Rapids, in which he learned and studied topics like Hebrew, biblical history, natural theology, introduction in religion, biblical geography, and Hebrew antiquities (Olinger, Danny Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian [Philadelphia: Reformed Forum, 2018], 16).
[5] According to Vos, biblical theology can be defined as the history of special revelation, or how God has revealed Himself throughout history.
[6] Ibid., 18.
[7] Ibid., 18.
[8] Ibid., 19
[9] Ibid., 99-116
[10] This is not all they revised. They revised doctrines like the doctrine of predestination and election, emphasizing the love of God. Of course, this is (as I would call it) theological bogus, since it elevates one attribute of God over another, as well as causing discord within the attributes of God
[11] Considering that I have already wrote an article called The Early Theological Development of Geerhardus Vos, I would highly recommend checking it out on or It speaks on how his historical circumstances influenced his own eschatology, and how
[12] He writes to Bavinck: “I have reflected long on the question of how to deal with the subject [of biblical theology] so that justice will be done to both the demand of the unity and the historical development and to both the theoretical and practical character of revelation, while at the same time deducing the principle of how to deal with the subject from the Scriptures. I have come to the conclusion that the covenant idea fulfills the requirements the best of all and so I think I will start from that. At the same time I remain grounded on Reformed theology. When Dr. Kuyper says that Cocceius, by bringing the covenant idea itself into prominence, already inflicted losses on the claims of Reformed principles, I cannot go along with that view. Please write me what you think about that. It seems to me that when the covenant represents an archetypical covenant in eternity the absolute and unchangeable, that then also the different covenant gifts as they historically follow each other can represent the development of revelation. Moreover the covenant idea is neither purely theoretical, nor purely practical, so that it contains in itself word as a well as deed revelation. Finally it presents this benefit that each following covenant development resolves organically from the preceding, while in Scripture the new covenant every time occurs as a benefit in a former covenant. You can sense how I think about all this in a rough outline. Therefore I would greatly appreciate your opinion. The circumstances have just inspired in the covenant idea. I would like to view it, as earlier dogmatic, now also historical (Letters, 175-176). In addition, Vos writes that “naturally it was not my intention to take the covenant idea as a guiding principle in Biblical Theology to the exclusion of Revelation. I also give the latter priority. Biblical Theology is for me History of Revelation. But beneath that I place the covenant concept, because God has revealed Himself in the covenant” (Ibid., 181).
[13] He specifically writes that “A third reason for our statement that this Code occupies a fitting place in the history of revelation, is that it is so general in its character” (The Pentateuchal Codes, 65)
[14] The Pentateuchal Codes, 65.
[15] See Ibid., 263 for his opinion on the matter
[16] This book was a combination of notes from Vos’ course at Old Princeton, not a composed and written book