Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Colin Smith's response, and my reponse

Colin Smith has kindly responded to my brief post addressing the idea of Van Til's idea of the one person in the Trinity. It may indeed be true that for many people "occupying pews in evangelicalism", the idea that the one essence of the Godhead is personal is a novelty to them. Such would indeed be sad if true. My experience so far has not been that evangelicals think that the Godhead is impersonal, but that they don't even understand the Trinity at all. In other words, they cannot even tell you what the Trinity means except the most elementary basics that 1) God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are three persons, 2) there is only one God. One would probably be greeted by blank stares just mentioning the word "essence".

Van Til's motives on this issue, if true, is indeed commendable. However, I fail to see how creating a novel definition of "person" will help the argument regarding the Trinity. If the Chalcedonian formula works for the church for the last 1500 years without it generating confusion in the church, how exactly is a novel definition, which is a seeming antinomy, clarify our understanding of the issue further? Instead, after Van Til propose the formula, people like Gordon Clark have denounced it as heretical. Assuming that Van Til was orthodox, which we have no reason to doubt, of what benefit therefore is his confusing formulation of the Trinity? One could hardly think of a quicker way for a Reformed theologian to destroy his reputation than to do what Van Til did in creating his own idiosyncratic definition of the word "Person". Left to a lesser pastor or theologian, the guy who make such a proposal would probably be charged for heresy and excommunicated by the Church. After all, they excommunicated Nestorius who may not have actually believed what we come to know as Nestorianism!

Regardless, we can certainly agree with Smith that God is His essence is a personal being. Indeed, if all Van Till said was that God in His essence is personal, I sincerely doubt anyone will have a big problem with that. Why Van Til did not see fit to use that phrase is something we probably will not know this side of eternity.

Since that is so, it would certainly be interesting to follow Smith in his explication of the implications of the personal nature of God in the area of apologetics. Readers can also peruse his paper in advance. Just substitute the word "person" with "personal", and I think all would be fine.


Anonymous said...

I do not understand how anyone can deny that Van Til meant exactly what he wrote when he asserted that God is both one person and three persons ... although I can fully understand why they would want try and make him say something he didn't.

Consider this from VT's Intro to Systematic Theology:

We turn from our consideration of the incommunicable attributes of God to that of his triunity. The fact that God exists as concrete self-sufficient being appears clearly in the doctrine of the Trinity. Here the God who is numerically and not merely specifically one when compared with any other form of being, now appears to have within himself a distinction of specific and numerical existence. We speak of the essence of God in contrast to the three persons of the Godhead. We speak of God as a person; yet we speak also of three persons in the Godhead. As we say that each of the attributes of God is to be identified with the being of God, while yet we are justified in making a distinction between them, so we say that each of the persons of the Trinity is exhaustive of divinity itself, while yet there is a genuine distinction between the persons. Unity and plurality are equally ultimate in the Godhead. The persons of the Godhead are mutually exhaustive of one another, and therefore of the essence of the Godhead. God is a one-conscious being, and yet he is also a tri-conscious being.

When Scripture ascribes certain works specifically to the Father, others specifically to the Son, and still others specifically to the Holy Spirit, we are compelled to presuppose a genuine distinction within the Godhead back of that ascription. On the other hand, the work ascribed to any of the persons is the work of one absolute person . . . 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 . . .We need both the absolute cotermineity of each attribute and each person with the whole being of God, and the genuine significance of the distinctions of the attributes and the persons. “Each person,” says Bavinck, “is equal to the whole essence of God and coterminous with both other persons and with all three”. . . Over against all other beings, that is, over against created beings, we must therefore hold that God’s being presents an absolute numerical identity. And even within the ontological Trinity we must maintain that God is numerically one. He is one person. (Introduction to Systematic Theology, 220-229)

Concerning the above passage John Robbins observers in his booklet, Cornelius Van Til: The Man and the Myth:

Professor Van Til asserts that God is one person eight times in this one lengthy quotation: “God . . . is numerically . . . one;” “We speak of God as a person;” “God is one-conscious being;” “the work of one absolute person;” “We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person;” “God’s being presents an absolute numerical identity;” “God is numerically one;” “He is one person.” He takes great pains to make it clear that he rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, one God in three persons, as “not the whole truth of the matter.” God is both one person and three persons, just as his existence can and cannot be proved.

Daniel C said...


well, I leave the question open. I will only say that the formula is wrong and borders on heresy.

Joel Tay said...

Good article Sean.

Agree with you fully on this.

I can certainly understand why some people want to deny that Van Til meant what he wrote.

The implications is that if Van Til is proven to be a heretic, then what would they (i.e. Van Tillians) do with the rest of his theology? What would they do with the veneration they have for him? There is a trend in much of so-called reformed theology and reformed-baptist movement that follow Van Til as if he was one of the greatest Theologian in the last century. Many strongly defend his presuppositionalism (which isn't presuppositional). If it is shown that he denies the Trinity, Van Tillians are going to find themself in a tight spot. And in case we forget the rivalry between Clark and Van Til; Van Tillians have for some time now claimed that Van Til won the battle against Clark (as if) on doctrinal matters. But if Van Til could not even get the formulation of the Trinity right, well... that would open up a whole Pandora box of questions for them. I have spoken to many Van Tillians who in their respect for Van Til refuse to admit that this is what their hero, Van Til believed in.

Michael said...

Just to clarify one minor point....all human beings are presuppositionalists. Not all human beings are scripturalists. Van Til was not a scripturalist.

Daniel C said...


you are right. But I believe presuppositionalism means more than merely having presuppositions.