Over at Aomin.org, contributor Colin Smith has put a blurb for his paper addressing Cornelius Van Til's idea of the Trinity, which interacts with Van Til's idea of the one person of the Godhead. As he has written:
In his Introduction to Systematic Theology, Van Til made the following statement:
… It is sometimes asserted that we can prove to men that we are not asserting anything that they ought to consider irrational, inasmuch as we say that God is one in essence and three in person. We therefore claim that we have not asserted unity and trinity of exactly the same thing.
Yet this is not the whole truth of the matter. We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person.
This quote has been used by critics of Van Til to proclaim him a heretic. The orthodox view of the Trinity is, simply stated, that within the one being who is God, there exists three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the quotation above, Van Til appears to be saying "Within the one Person who is God, there are three Persons..." Was Van Til's view of the Trinity orthodox? This is an important question, since if Van Til was guilty of heresy on this point, then we could rightly ignore whatever application he might make of the Trinity to apologetics, since he would not be sharing a view of the Trinity consistent with biblical Christianity.
It is interesting to note that as far as I know, nobody has claimed that Van Til does not claim to believe that there are three persons in the Godhead. Therefore, merely saying that Van Til claims to believe in three persons is a moot point in and of itself.
More pertinent to the point is how Smith spins Van Til's idea of one person. In his opinion, saying that God is one person makes the Godhead personal. In his own words, "the divine essence is not just an impersonal abstraction". In response, one truly wonders who among the orthodox ever thought of the Godhead as being "an impersonal abstraction". If the Godhead is made of up three persons, does not the presence of three persons in the Godhead make the Godhead even more personal, without having the need to adopt a non-confessional and idiosyncratic at best definition of the Trinity?
To bolster his case, Smith quotes theologian John Frame in his discussion of the idea of "doghood". That however is a horrendous analogy. The Godhead does not refer to the "essence of God", whatever that may be (an expression which sounds positively Platonic). The Godhead IS the presence of God in three persons, not some impersonal entity of "god-ness". When we speak of God as being one essence (substantia, hypostatis), we are saying that God is one and works in unity, not that three separate "gods" partake of one divine essence of "God-ness" — which is practically tritheism. How we are to comprehend it fully is none of our business. The three persons of God are distinct but not separate from each other. They have their own "centers of consciousness" (ie what make persons persons) which are however not operating independently of the other two persons (cf perichoresis).
The fact of the matter is that Van Til was and is wrong in his doctrine of the Trinity. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to adopt a one person view of the Trinity, regardless of whether one understands it as a contradiction or speaking in "different ways". The early church for 400+ years has hammered out the vocabulary to understand the orthodox teaching of the Trinity and of Christ for us, and unless what they are saying is wrong, we should not arrogate to ourselves the right to redefine terms for the sake of being innovative. In other words, we should either repudiate Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon, or submit to the teachings of the ecumenical councils. Van Tillians are trying to have their cake and eat it too, and this we should not allow.