Flashback • Geerhardus Vos, Calvin's first Ph.D.
Alum returned to teach in English at alma mater
by Richard H. Harms, Archivist

Geerhardus Vos
Geerhardus Vos holds the distinction of being both the first alumnus to earn a doctorate and the first Calvin College faculty member with any advanced degree.

Born in Heerenveen, the Netherlands, Geerhardus Vos holds the distinction of being both the first alumnus to earn a doctorate and the first Calvin College faculty member with any advanced degree. He was one of four children born to Jan Hindrik Vos and Aaltje Beuker (of Huguenot ancestry via Bentheim, Germany) who came to Grand Rapids when the elder Vos accepted the call to pastor the First Christian Reformed Church congregation.

A graduate with honors of the gymnasium in Amsterdam, Geerhardus entered the Theological School (now Calvin College) in 1881, graduating in 1883. In his last year he both studied and taught younger students.

Although he was offered a continuation of his part-time teaching appointment, Vos went to Princeton Seminary to do post-graduate work. Next, he studied for one year at the University of Berlin, followed by two years at the University of Strasburg, where he earned his doctorate. Upon graduation, he was the first choice for the chair in Old Testament theology at the newly formed Free University in Amsterdam; he declined, having already accepted an appointment in systematic theology and exegesis at his alma mater.

He returned to Grand Rapids in 1888 and began teaching classes 25 hours per week. His assignment included teaching English to the entirely Dutch-speaking student body, teaching some of his courses in English and preaching in English at least once every Sunday. It was the beginning of a successful teaching career, although initially some of his students bridled at having to take instruction in English, a language they did not readily understand.

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All but one member of the Board of Trustees (then called the Curatorium) thought highly of Vos. The dissenting voice was from a leading Christian Reformed minister in Grand Rapids, Lammert J. Hulst. Hulst claimed that Vos was teaching supralapsarianism, the doctrine that predestination was for uncreated and un-fallen humanity. Most in the Reformed tradition held the infralapsarian view that predestination was for created and fallen humanity. In 1892 Princeton Seminary offered Vos a position, which he declined when the Calvin board (save Hulst) implored him to stay. Since Hulst’s criticism continued unabated, the next year Vos accepted Princeton’s offer of the professorship in biblical theology.

Because of his familiarity with Arabic and Hebrew, Vos spent 38 productive years establishing biblical theology as a science and a discipline. A staunch conservative and Reformed voice in the Presbyterian Church, he was also a prolific author. Among his best known books are Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments and The Pauline Eschatology. Also a student of art and a poet, Vos wrote poetry in both English and Dutch.

Vos and his wife Catherine (Smith) retired to California in 1932. They had four children: Marianne, Johannes, Bernardus and Geerhardus, Jr. Vos died in 1949 in the home of his daughter and son-in-law, Marianne and William Radius.