Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Van Til's Trinitarian formulation

Paul Manata has done a post on Van Til’s controversial one-liner about the Trinity. I’m going to piggyback on his post.

Critics of Van Til come to the issue with their operating definition of “person,” subconsciously attribute their definition of “person” to Van Til, then conclude that Van Til was a heretic.

However, the word “person” is really a cipher. It’s not a self-defining word. And in historical theology, the term “person” has been subject to evolving or conflicting definitions.

This is also complicated by the fact that English theology is using loanwords from Greek and Latin. But loanwords in English usage can lose their original sense, and come to mean whatever they mean in idiomatic English parlance.

There is also a distinction between ordinary language and technical language. What “person” means in ordinary language may differ from what it means in technical language.

For instance, Van Til’s fiercest critics are the Clarkians. However, Clark had a very idiosyncratic definition of “person.” He defined a “person” as a set of propositions.

Now, for the moment, I’m not going to evaluate his definition. I’d simply make the rather obvious point, which is oddly overlooked in these debates, that it’s quite anachronistic for a Clarkian to claim that Van Til’s statement is heretical when the Clarkian is tacitly redefining the key term in a novel way that certainly doesn’t reflect the original meaning of its Greek and Latin counterparts in historical theology.

When, for instance, the Athanasian creed talks about the persons of the Godhead, surely the framers weren’t using Clark’s eccentric definition of personhood. Indeed, Clark was highly critical of the traditional Trinitarian jargon.

Likewise, I don’t know how Van Til was defining the term. For instance, it’s possible that his operating definition of “person” was influenced by certain currents of British and German idealism.

My point is not to defend Van Til’s statement. I don't know enough to say one way or the other, in terms of what he meant. My point, rather, is that critics are skipping over some necessary preliminaries.


  1. Link to Paul's post?

    Word verification: reslis, which I like on my hotdogs.

  2. http://aporeticchristianity.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/van-til-and-the-trinity/