Van Til and the Trinity: God as a Person

   As we have seen in the previous article, Van Til, and all apologists of the presuppositional camp, hold that Christian theism is the only theism worth defending. If, as Christians, we believe in the God who is revealed in the pages of the Old and New Testament, we are believing in a very specific God: one who creates, sustains, loves, judges, and, perhaps most distinctively, has revealed Himself as Trinity. To argue for the existence of any less of a God is to argue for a God that the Christian denies. Does that mean that every apologetic encounter needs to begin with a full presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity? Indeed, does this mean that every evangelistic discussion needs to incorporate every aspect of Christian theism? Van Til conceded that this is not the case, but it remains so that the Christian should not “water down” his presentation of God in an effort to find “reasonable common ground” with an atheist, agnostic, or even someone of another religion. We should not avoid speaking of God as Trinity for fear that we will lose our debate opponent/witnessing opportunity. Our God is a triune God, and not only is this the most distinctive aspect of Christian theism, but, according to Van Til, it is this fact that demonstrates the truth of Christian theism. Because God is Trinity, the world and all its laws and “facts” make sense.
   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. To answer that question we can review statements Van Til made elsewhere in his writings where he addresses the doctrine of the Trinity. I have provided a number of quotations in the original paper (see pages 10-11), but here is one of them for you:

God exists in himself as a triune self-consciously active being. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are each a personality and together constitute the exhaustively personal God… Each is as much God as are the other two.

This particular quote gives evidence that Van Til understood God to be a being consisting of three Persons: “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” But notice that this quotation also emphasizes the point that the being of God is personal. This is the point that Van Til was trying to make in the previous quote: not only are the three Persons of the Trinity persons, but God as a being in His essence is personal. In this sense, God can be said to be a “Person.” If you are still struggling with this concept, stop and think about the orthodox statement of the Trinity given earlier: “Within the one being who is God, there exists three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Note that I didn’t say “Within the one being that is God…” I used a personal relative pronoun, “who.” If you have no objection to personal pronouns of any kind (“he” “who”) being used of the being of God, not impersonal pronouns (“it” “that”), then you would agree with Van Til that God in His essence, as a being, has personality, and in this sense can be said to be a “Person.” If you equate the being of God with “the Force” in Star Wars–an impersonal energy source–then you will continue to have problems with Van Til, and, I would argue, orthodox Christian theology. And we can take that up another time… 🙂
   Van Til pointed out that God is often spoken of in personal terms, especially in the Old Testament. While it is true that we could assign some, or many, of these references to various Persons of the Trinity, that should not take away from the fact that God in His being is personal. Otherwise we would have to say that God is only personal when He is clearly spoken of as either Father, Son, or Holy Spirit; when the term “God” is used without reference to one of the three Persons, then we are talking about an impersonal “divine essence.” When we speak of God, however, we are not talking about an impersonal abstraction. We are talking about a personal being. John Frame uses the illustration of “doghood,” which is an impersonal abstraction. “Doghood” doesn’t jump on your lap and lick your face, and you can’t put a leash on “doghood” and take it for a walk. God, however, is loving, merciful, just, and righteous. And Scripture does not attribute these things to any one Person of the Trinity: they are part of God’s essence, and they are personal attributes.
   Van Til has also been accused of being irrational in his statement that God is one Person consisting of three Persons: how can God be one Person and three Persons? The answer to this, as you might already have seen, is that Van Til is using the term “Person” in a different way in this statement. We understand that “Person” as applied to each of the three Persons of the Trinity is used to denote the fact that they each have personality, and that they are each separate from each other. When applied to God as a being, Van Til clearly intends the former (personality) but not the latter (an independent Person along with the other three Persons of the Trinity). In this case, I think the worst that Van Til could be accused of is equivocation, by utilizing the same word to mean two different things in the same context.
   Understood correctly, then, I think it is clear that Van Til was not trying to be unorthodox; he was simply attempting to bring out an aspect of our understanding of the Trinity that is often overlooked, and which is important to using the doctrine of the Trinity in our apologetic. How does the “Personhood” of God help us in demonstrating the necessity of Christian theism and the Christian worldview for comprehending reality? That will be the subject of the next part. Stay tuned!

Again, if you want to read the original paper from which this series is based, go to my website (colindsmith.com) and look in the “Papers” section.