Van Til and the Trinity: Correlativism, Aseity, and the Trinity

   The Bible teaches that God is love (e.g., 1 John 4:8). Love is something that needs to be directed toward an object, so in what way does God love? One might say that God loves His creation, and in this way He is able to express love. However, God loves His creation in the same way that a man might love his dog in the sense that it is the love of a greater being to a lesser; and just as the dog cannot reciprocate with a love equal to that which his master is able to bestow, mere mortals cannot hope to return to God the same degree of love the immortal and infinite God is able to give. This actually creates a bit of a problem, because human beings are able to give and receive love mutually, whether it’s between a married couple, or between siblings, or between friends. People are quite capable of loving one another in an equal and mutually beneficial way. Can it be that humans possess an important dimension of love that God does not? Indeed, if God is unique, peerless thoughout the entire universe, then how can He express love toward an equal? And if we are made in the image of God, where did this capacity to love our peers come from if it is not an attribute of God?
   The problem goes deeper. One of God’s “incommunicable attributes”–that is, an attribute of God that He does not pass on to humans–is his “aseity.” God’s aseity is simply His absolute independence from His creation. In order for God to exist, He doesn’t require anything from anyone outside of Himself. He doesn’t need food, oxygen, heat, cold, even our love and worship. God is totally self-sufficient. He created all things, but did not need to create anything. By contrast, God’s creation is totally dependent first on the Creator to give and sustain life, and then on its constituent parts. Fish need water, people need food and oxygen, the earth needs the sun and the moon–I could go on. But I think you get the point. There is nothing in the universe that is self-sustaining, whether you talk about the ecosystem, or you talk about economic systems, or you talk about the mutual love expressed between people–everything depends upon something else. This concept is called “correlativity.” If, as we just stated, God is unique in terms of His aseity, then the concept of correlativity is alien to Him. But, if we are made in God’s image, how can something so fundamental to our existence not be something we derive from our Creator? Where did it come from?
   One solution to this problem is to deny God’s aseity and insist that He does in fact need His creation. I have heard people express the view that God created us out of His need to express love, to provide an outlet for His love. The problem with denying God’s aseity is that you create a situation where God becomes dependent upon His creation. He is then no longer able to rule sovereignly because His every decision will be contingent upon that relationship, opening Him up to manipulation. Indeed, His very existence would depend upon his creation: if heaven and earth passed away, so would God!
   Van Til argued that the biblical answer to this problem lies in the Trinity. As we saw in the previous installment, God is a personal being consisting of three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As such, God is able to express fully all that it means to be a person, that is to be “personal,” and all the attributes of personality that we as humans possess derive from our being created in the image of a personal God–even down to the way we are able to express mutual love, and be dependent upon one another. How is this possible for a God who is self-sufficient? Christian theism holds that each Person of the Trinity is co-equal. While there is an economical hierarchy within the Trinity (in other words, the Son obeys the Father, and the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son–see Jesus’ discussion in John 14), each Person in the Trinity is equal: they are each the same God. This means that within the personal being of God, mutual love and dependency can be expressed between the Persons of the Trinity. It is this aspect of God’s character that is passed on to His creation. Because there is correlativity between the Persons of the Trinity, there is correlativity within creation, while at the same time the aseity of God remains intact: he is still independent of His creation and totally self-sufficient.
   God has all the attributes of personality, including, by virtue of Trinitarian correlativity, love, and hence is personal. Moreover, since God does not have to look outside His own being to express those attributes, or find fulfillment of those attributes, He can be regarded as absolutely personal. And because God is personal, so it follows that His creation reflects aspects of personality, the apex being man who, of all creation, most fully displays God’s personal attributes.

In the Trinity there is completely personal relationship without residue. And for that reason it may be said that all man’s actions are personal too. Man’s surroundings are shot through with personality because all things are related to the infinitely personal God (Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Philadelphia, Pa: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1969), pp. 78-79.)

   The existence of logic, reason, and meaning in the universe hangs on the universe being created by an absolutely personal God. Impersonal forces can’t make decisions, plan, purpose, and give meaning to things; but a personal God can. If God was dependent in any way on His creation, His sovereignty would be violated because He would be subject to something outside of Himself, becoming an extension of His own creation. Because of this, only the Christian triune God can truly be the creator and sovereign Lord of His creation, who is absolutely personal, who bears perfectly all aspects of personality, but remains separate from His creation. Therefore, if man is to truly understand the world in which he lives, he must do so through this revelation of the triune God. We will explore this some more next time, where we will start to see the force of this discussion in terms of the argument for the existence of the Christian God. Stay tuned!

Note: To read the paper from which this series is taken, go to the “Papers” section of my website: www.colindsmith.com.