Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Van Til's Serious Trinitarian Theology

Some time ago, Steve expertly dissected Gary Crampton’s critique of Van Til. I sent a private note to Steve, registering my appreciation for his rebuttal, while noting a point of disagreement with the following two paragraphs (concerning Van Til’s controversial claim that there is a sense in which God is ‘one person’ as well as ‘three persons’):
Clarkians never tire of exhuming the moldering bones of this old canard. And it’s true that, in this one instance, Van Til’s formulation had a modalistic cast to it. Since modalism is a heresy, modalistic formulations, whether intentional or not, should be studiously eschewed.

Not only is this formulation unorthodox, it is also contrary to Van Til’s fundamental commitment to the equal ultimacy of the one and the many, grounded in the ontological Trinity. So this is an odd lapse on Van Til’s part.
Now, I entirely agreed with Steve that the heresy of modalism is quite at odds with Van Til’s trademark emphasis on the equal ultimacy of the One and the Many in the ontological Trinity. But I also suggested that Van Til’s remarks about the uni-personality of God, rather than contradicting this point, were in fact motivated by it.

Steve, reasonably enough, invited me to post an argument for this claim on Triablogue. Over a month later, I’ve finally found some time to do that! But I’m also going to make some comments on why the charge of modalism against Van Til is utterly misguided, as well as taking some gratuitous pot-shots at Clark’s own view of the Trinity.

Let me begin by reviewing Van Til’s actual words. The remarks in question come near the end of Chapter 17 of An Introduction to Systematic Theology. (Ideally, one should review the whole chapter since Van Til’s comments on divine uni-personality can only be fully understood in light of the preceding discussion and historical review. However, even Steve ‘Wordy’ Hays might raise an eyebrow at my reproducing all thirteen pages for the sake of a blog post.)

Van Til has just surveyed the history of the doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated first in the early creeds and latterly in the Westminster Confession. He rightly notes that orthodoxy must acknowledge both the unity and the diversity of the Godhead, whilst avoiding the errors of overemphasising one at the expense of the other (thus falling into modalism, tritheism, or subordinationism):
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. Bavinck has pointed out that, in the doctrine of the Trinity, we have the heart of the Christian religion (Dogmatiek, II, p. 293). We are always in danger, he says, of turning in the direction of Sabellianism by allowing the absolute unity of the being of God to do despite to the genuine personal distinctions in the Godhead, or of turning to Arianism by allowing the distinctions of the persons in the Godhead to do despite to the absolute unity of the being of God (Idem, p. 293).
Van Til recognizes that this is a difficult line to walk and that the Christian will likely be charged with irrationality for holding to both the absolute unity and the genuine diversity within the Godhead. So what should the Christian’s response be? Van Til warns against two errors: (1) that of trying to squeeze the doctrine neatly into the categories of immanent human thought in an attempt to satisfy the non-Christian’s epistemic demands, but thereby veering off into one of the ditches of trinitarian heterodoxy; and (2) that of simply conceding the charge of irrationality. He writes:
If we reason thus univocally [where ‘univocally’ means, roughly, reasoning with human conceptual intuitions as our epistemic starting point and standard rather than God’s self-revelation in Scripture] we cannot help falling into either of two errors. We either maintain that the Trinity can be shown to the non-Christian man to be a rational doctrine upon his own assumptions, or we maintain that the Trinity is a mystery in the sense that it is irrational. Let us look for a moment at these errors.

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 have noted how each attribute is coextensive with the being of God. We are compelled to maintain this in order to avoid the notion of an uninterpreted being of some sort. In other words, we are bound to maintain the identity of the attributes of God with the being of God in order to avoid the specter of brute fact. In a similar manner we have noted how theologians insist that each of the persons of the Godhead is co-terminous with the being of the Godhead. But all this is not to say that the distinctions of the attributes are merely nominal. Nor is it to say that the distinctions of the persons are merely nominal. 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” (Vol. II, p. 311). (“Elk persoon is daarom gelyk aan het gansche wezen en evenveel als de beide andere of als alle drie saam.”). 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. When we say that we believe in a personal God, we do not merely mean that we believe in a God to whom the adjective “personality” may be attached. God is not an essence that has personality; He is absolute personality. Yet, within the being of the one person we are permitted and compelled by Scripture to make the distinction between a specific or generic type of being, and three personal subsistences.
Van Til then concedes that this understanding of the Trinity is ‘mysterious’, but he vehemently denies that this is to admit irrationalism. On the contrary, he argues, the mystery of the ontological Trinity is the very presupposition of human rationality, insofar as supplies the ontological basis for the equal ultimacy of unity and plurality. (For more on Van Til’s argument from the One and the Many, see: John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (P&R, 1995), 71-78; also my own paper, ‘If Knowledge Then God’, Calvin Theological Journal 40:1 (2005), 61-64.)

So then, some commentary:

1. Let us note first of all that Van Til unambiguously condemns Sabellianism in the chapter of IST in which this passage appears. So if Van Til’s remarks on the uni-personality of God were to commit him to modalism, that would be utterly contrary to Van Til’s own intentions. At worst, he would be guilty of an unwitting inconsistency. (For some reason, however, Van Til’s critics in the Clarkian camp have not been satisfied even with a charge of manslaughter, but seem intent on pressing for first-degree murder.)

2. Furthermore, no self-respecting modalist would be satisfied with affirming the tri-personality of God (in accordance with the orthodox credal formula) and merely tacking on the uni-personality of God as an addendum. The modalist, driven by an uncompromising commitment to the absolute unity of God, must deny that God really does exist as ‘three persons’ in any ontological sense. As he sees it, the tri-personality of God is a façade, not the reality; it pertains to the economic Trinity, but not to the immanent Trinity. But this is not Van Til’s position at all.

3. Similarly, neither would the modalists of the early centuries have been comfortable with Van Til’s ‘paradoxical’ interpretation of the Trinity. Indeed, what one finds when reviewing the trinitarian controversies in the third and fourth centuries is that one of the primary virtues of modalism, according to its proponents, was its streamlined inner logic. Start with the axiom of the absolute unity and uniqueness of God; simply apply the canons of logic; and out falls a denial that the Son, if truly divine, can be any other divine person than the Father. (It is somewhat ironic then that Clarkians who dismiss Van Til as an ‘irrationalist’ for his acceptance of ‘apparent contradictions’ in Christian theology end up suggesting that his doctrine of the Trinity is evidence against that charge.)

4. So much for a negative defence of Van Til. But what positive reasons did Van Til have for wanting to say that God is ‘one person’? In the first place, as Aquascum already noted in a comment on Steve’s blog post, Van Til found prima facie justification in the language of Scripture itself. There’s no denying it: the Bible often use singular personal terms when describing God qua God. This is a basic revelational datum which trinitarian theorizers (let alone critics of Van Til) cannot simply ignore.

5. However, as I suggested to Steve, motivation for Van Til’s remarks can also be found in his solution to the philosophical problem of the One and the Many. Indeed, this is evident from the very paragraphs quoted above. As I understand it, Van Til’s reasoning runs as follows:

(1) The problem of relating and reconciling the unity and multiplicity within the universe can only be satisfactorily resolved by positing the existence of a being for which (or whom) both unity and multiplicity are equality ultimate. For this reason, Van Til adheres to an unashamedly Augustinian understanding of the Trinity, which upholds divine simplicity and affirms the numerical identity of each divine person with the divine being. (Cf. A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Chapter 4, in which Van Til compares Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity to Plato’s doctrine of the Forms, arguing that only the former adequately addresses the One-Many problem.)

(2) In addition, any ultimate impersonalism in the universe must be consistently eschewed. Notions of rationality and morality are irreducibly personal, according to Van Til, and thus to imply that reality is ultimately impersonal in some respect is to imply that reality is ultimately non-rational and non-moral.

(3) It follows from (1) and (2) that the ultimate unity in the Godhead must be a personal unity; which is just to say that in some sense God must be numerically one person, even if we must also claim that God is three persons. (In Van Til’s thinking, these two senses of personhood are not univocally related, since we must “we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory”, but they are analogically related.) In other words, there must be one absolute consciousness which underwrites a unified interpretation of all reality. (Compare, in this regard, Van Til’s description of Yahweh as the “All-Conditioner” and “All-Conscious One” — note the numerical singularity — in his apologetic pamphlet, Why I Believe in God.) If the unity of the Godhead (i.e. the divine essence) is non-personal, then that which unites the Father, Son, and Spirit (and a fortiori underwrites the unity of the created order) is intrinsically neither rational nor moral. (The suggestion that the tri-personality of the Trinity is sufficient to furnish this personal unity misses the obvious point: tri-personality involves a plurality of personhood, not a singularity of personhood. A triad qua triad is not a unity.)

That Van Til was reasoning along these lines is confirmed by his references to “the notion of an uninterpreted being” and “the spectre of brute fact”, not to mention these comments in the paragraph subsequent:
But if there is one thing that seems clear from Scripture it is that there are no brute uninterpreted facts. In God’s being considered apart from his relation to the world, being and consciousness are coterminous. And because this is so, the facts of the world are created facts, facts brought into existence as the result of a fully self-conscious act on the part of God. So then, though we cannot tell why the Godhead should exist tri-personally, we can understand something of the fact, after we are told that God exists as a triune being, that the unity and the plurality of this world has back of it a God in whom unity and the plurality are equally ultimate. Thus we may say that this world, in some of its aspects at least, shows analogy to the Trinity. This world is made by God and, therefore, to the extent that it is capable of doing so, it may be thought of as revealing God as he exists. And God exists as a triune being.
So then, Van Til’s conviction that the ontological Trinity alone satisfies the need for co-ultimacy of unity and diversity, coupled with his repudiation of any ultimate impersonalism, leads naturally to his contention that that traditional formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity (e.g. “one in essence and three in person”) need to be intensified (not, as his critics would read him, corrected) with the affirmation that God is also a person. As Van Til see matters, this intensification is not occasioned by the recognition of any error in the traditional formulations, but by the need to set forth in every respect the philosophical superiority of trinitarian theism over against competing accounts of the universe’s diversity-in-unity.

6. It may be objected that even if Van Til’s trinitarianism does not trespass beyond the bounds of orthodoxy, the admission that his view of the Trinity is ‘mysterious’ and ‘apparently contradictory’ is no less damning, since it grants a free pass to theological irrationalism. I cannot delve into the epistemological issues here, but for an indirect defence of the rationality of Van Til’s position, see my paper, ‘In Defence of Mystery’, Religious Studies 41:2 (2005), 145-163. (For a more detailed treatment, see my doctoral thesis: soft-copy available on request. Guaranteed to cure insomnia, if nothing else.)

7. Finally, some comments on the relative orthodoxy of Van Til’s trinitarianism and Clark’s. Steve argued that Clark’s view of the Trinity is modalist, on account of his idiosyncratic analysis of personhood. Now, normally I’d sooner walk barefoot through a nest of tarantulas than take issue with one of Steve’s critiques. But while he makes some good points, on my reading Clark’s view of the Trinity is better categorised as a version of social trinitarianism — and a pretty unsophisticated version at that.

In an article entitled ‘The Trinity’, published in The Trinity Review (November 1979), Clark recommends a modified Platonist solution to the problem of explaining how the one God can exist in three distinct Persons (or rather, as Clark’s approach has it, how the three distinct Persons can constitute one God). As he explains it, the unity of the Godhead consists merely in the three Persons sharing one divine essence or nature: one divinity or godhood. Thus the unity in question is a generic unity (i.e. a common genus) rather than a numerical unity. This is the signature theme of social trinitarianism. Yet anyone familiar with the philosophical debates over the last few decades regarding the coherence of orthodox trinitarianism will be aware that this model is wide open to the charge of tritheism. If the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit consists in nothing more than their common participation in godhood (understood as an abstract essence or nature) then why should they be considered ‘one God’ any than more than Peter, James, and John (who all participate equally in manhood) should be considered ‘one man’?

Other advocates of social trinitarianism acknowledge this problem and attempt to resolve it by suggesting further ways in which the Persons are a unity (without going so far as to affirm numerical unity). Clark, however, does not. He seems to think that merely by positing the real existence of the divine essence (i.e. eschewing nominalism) we can avoid tritheism and save monotheism. But if this were so, then one could equally well claim to be ‘monoanthropist’ rather than ‘trianthropist’ in one’s view of Peter, James, and John, purely on the strength of being a metaphysical realist with respect to universals! Clark’s ‘solution’ is nowhere near sufficient to stave off the spectre of polytheism.

Clark sneakily tries to pass off the burden to the objector at this point, demanding that the objector define and distinguish the senses in which men are ‘one’ and the Persons of the Godhead are ‘one’. But this won’t do at all. It is Clark who appeals to the notion of generic unity to characterise the oneness of the Trinity; thus it is Clark who owes an explanation as to why we are right to speak of Peter, James, and John as ‘three men’ but wrong to speak of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit as ‘three gods’.

8. It is somewhat ironic then that Clark has been dubbed “America’s Augustine”, since it was Van Til, and not Clark, who in fact championed an Augustinian understanding of the Trinity. (This observation is not original to me; a similar point was made by Greg Welty back in June 2000 on the Van Til list.) Clark cannot even find companionship with the Cappadocians, who, although often wrongly claimed as social trinitarians, clearly affirmed the doctrine of divine simplicity and the numerical unity of the Godhead.

9. I reviewed John Frame’s discussion of Van Til on the Trinity while writing this; it turns out that little of what I have said here in defence of Van Til adds anything significant to Frame’s earlier treatment, which is now a decade old. Yet it seems that whenever Clarkians raise the old carnard of Van Til’s ‘heterodox’ trinitarianism, there is little if any recognition that Frame has moved the debate forward substantially with his account of Van Til’s rationale. (Crampton’s fingers-in-the-ears dismissal in his review of Frame’s book is particularly egregious.) Frankly, critics of Van Til who show no concern to interact with Frame on this point do not deserve to be taken seriously.

So there you go, Steve. Are you sorry now that you ever asked?


  1. You could have saved time and just read Plotinus Ennead 6. Talk about Neoplatonism.

  2. Perry,

    Plotinus tells us that VT's formulation of the Trinity was motivated by VT's commitment to the equal ultimacy of the One and the Many? Amazing, I never knew it was in there ;-)

    Are you sure about this? ;-)

  3. interview with Colin D Smith and the centrality of the Trinity in VT's apologetic: