Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Van Til and the One person of the Trinity

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.


Joel Tay said...

Comment 1:

Van Til disagreed with the traditional definition because he felt the traditional understanding was impersonal. So the writer is right when he mentions Van Til's reason for departing from the traditional definition.

"John Frame, Van Til’s disciple claims that Van Til is not being heretic as Van Til understood that the One person is not exactly similar in every aspect as the Three persons. But if Van Til really understood that the one person and the three person are different, then one wonders why he insisted on modifying the traditional definition of One Godhead/being in three persons. Frame reasons that the word being implies a non-personal entity, but stops short of demonstrating how this is so. Furthermore, when asked how Van Til’s understanding of one person and three persons differ, Frame “excuses himself from the responsibility to answer” , saying that "Scripture itself often fails to be precise about the mysteries of the faith".

IMHO, Frame's attempt to defend Van Til's view of the Trinity isn't convincing in light of Van Til's opposition to the historical definition. As you pointed out in this article, Cornelius Van Til went as far as to say that God is One Person and Three Persons, and a one-conscious being and tri-conscious being – a position Gordon Clark was quick to call heretical. Therefore, I really cannot see how Frame can defend Van Til's Trinity when faced with what Van Til wrote about the Godhead (one conscious being).

As I concluded in one of my papers in first year... "Despite Frame’s defense, it seems that Van Til has not added much to the historical understanding with his equivocal usage of “one person and three persons” but rather adds unnecessary confusion to the already complicated use of terms."

Again, just as you point out:

Quoting my paper:"Unlike Van Til and Frame, who hide behind the curtain of the “Incomprehensibility of God” as an excuse not to explain how the three differ from the one, we ought to seek to present a convincing case that preserves the three Trinitarian affirmations. For example, just saying that God is three persons and one divine nature, if unqualified, can imply Tritheism, depending on who defines it."

The historical understanding of personhood is not at all similar to what Van Til understands person to be. Rather, the Augustinian view is that the "person" is the mind. As Reymond points out, "this concept of Person as a thinking being was not drawn from Descartes or “Enlightenment Philosophy” as often claimed, but based upon the foundation of Augustinian understanding that the Trinity is three divine persons, within a single being – the mind/the conscious Ego".

Joel Tay said...

Comment 2:

While many have progressed beyond Augustine, it is worth taking a look at what he wrote on the Trinity. The underlying concept of the Trinitarian God, according to Augustine , is love; and love is relational. The Father loves the Son through the Holy Spirit. The relationship within the Trinity can be understood as a loving relationship and communion between the persons of the Trinity. Since God is love, and love is always relational, it requires an object of love other than itself. The Trinity must therefore be a plurality of persons . Likewise, St Basil and the Cappadocians understood the unity of God as a communion of three persons. A. Boethius (circa 475-525 CE) spoke of "an individual substance of a rational nature" (rationalis naturae individua substantia). Thomas Aquinas contends that the term "person" in the Godhead refers to "an individual substance of a rational nature" (rationalis naturae individua substantia) as long as we qualify what is meant by "individual" (i.e. incommunicable) "rational" (non-discursive, but intellectual) and "substance" ('self-grounded existing') – God is ipsum esse: a self-subsistent being. Aquinas even go as far as to link the omnipotence of God to the logical coherency of all truths (which would include the Trinity). Like Augustine’s Trinity, God can have personal relationships, a will, knowledge of Himself, memory, and understanding. However, at its most foundational level, this loving entity must first be a thinking being, if it is to be considered a person. A non-thinking being cannot love.

Van Til rejects this definition of imago Dei, and stemming from this, we can see why he would reject the historical definition of the Trinity. I see the error coming out of his doctrine of imago Dei. His view of the Godhead and personhood of the Trinity is just a logical application of his imago dei to his Trinity.

The Trinity, according to Clark, can be understood as Three subjective thoughts, and one objective knowledge – a term he coined as the “Intellectual Triunity of God”. This, in my opinion is a more complete and orthodox understanding of the Triune Godhead that what Van Til teaches.

PuritanReformed said...


I think the error of Van Till is trying to be "fresh" and "innovative". I don't think he was specifically trying to be unorthodox. I don't think he anticipates the kind of mess his paradoxical theology (which it seems only he and those who can follow his train of thought can understand) will create.

While qualification is necessary, I don't think a lack of qualification necessarily imply tritheism.

Similarly, while the mind is most certainly part of a person, I don't think we can reduce a person to a mind. A person is made up of an intellectual center, an ethical center and a spiritual center. This is after all what the WCF deduced from Scripture.

After God had made all other creatures, He created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after His own image; ... (WCF, Chapt 4, Para 2)

Joel Tay said...

How is calling the Godhead a one conscious being not unorthodox but only "fresh"?

On the personhood, imago Dei, Clark says that it can be more than just the mind but not less (It can include morality, etc. But all these first require rationality/mind). Van Til rejects this.

PuritanReformed said...


It is most certainly unorthodox. But I do not think Van Til was trying to be unorthodox.

Roberto G said...

I consider myself soemone who appreciates the thrust and direction of VT's apologetic and theology. But it must be admitted honestly that the way he spoke of the Trinity in certain contexts was just plain wrong and misleading. I don't attribute to him malicious, heretical intent in doing so. I think it may have been due to a combination of his pedagogy and his bilingual/bicultural thinking patterns. What he said/wrote may not have always matched his desire to communicate a specific thing.
Christian teachers should never assert that God is a Person in the interests of conveying He is personal (as opposed to impersonal). I have no doubt VT subscribed to WCF on The Trinity. However, the way he spoke of the Christian conception of God left much to be desired in terms of preserving the rationality of the orthodox doctrine of the tri-personal God as revealed in Scriptures.

PuritanReformed said...


I agree, it indeed leaves much to be desired.

Anonymous said...

As the history of Christianity goes, even the most orthodox of Christians sometimes use unfortunate terms or analogies to express something hard to explain. A blunder in one statement does not disqualify Van Til's orthodoxy. The most charitable reading of his statement in the light of his other works should give us no problems. The least charitable interpretation is that he was simply being careless in his expression.

If the truth be known, I'm sure each of us have written or said something highly suspect if not outright wrong about God, but only due to a weakness and not a heretical spirit.

Roberto G said...

In VT's case, even on the most charitable reading, the blunder in his representation of the doctrine of the trinity certainly does result in undermining its rational coherence. As a Christian teacher, he should be judged on a higher standard than the average believer in how he represented orthodox doctrine.
As deep into trinitarian theology as we may want to go, the theological or apologetic payoff is zero if we follow VT's lead in merely representing trinitarianism this way. That's what's puzzling about the aomin.org article. Why even depend on VT here for anything profitable? More is gained and rationality preserved if doctrine of trinity is explained along traditional, confessional lines.

PuritanReformed said...


I agree with you that nothing is to be gained by adopting Van Til's formula.

PuritanReformed said...


I would say that saying Van Til was careless is actually the most charitable reading. As far as I remember, Van Til did not retract that statement despite opposition.