Van Til and the Trinity: Man’s Quest for Truth

   In the previous article we looked at how God can be truly personal, exhibiting all the attributes of true personality–including love–yet without being dependent on His creation. In this, the last part of the series, we shall briefly explore how Van Til saw in man’s quest for ultimate truth an example of the necessity of the triune God of Christianity to make sense of the universe.
   Philosophy has long grappled with the problem of “the one and the many.” This problem, simply stated, is concerned with how we attain knowledge of things, whether by abstraction or by analysis. Abstraction takes a broad view of the thing in question, seeing that thing in the context of other things like it (e.g., a cat in terms of other felines, mammals, animals, and so on). Analysis breaks the thing down into its constituent parts and examines them to try to understand how they function together to make the thing. Both are forms of understanding, but do they give us true knowledge of the thing? Just because I know the context of the thing, or I understand how the thing is constructed, does that mean I truly know it? All we gain from either abstraction or analysis are sensory impressions that give us an experience of the thing, but these sensory impressions are themselves abstractions–either abstract unity or abstract particularity–and, Van Til argued, ultimately meaningless. Both abstract unity and abstract particularity demonstrate the futility of man’s quest for a standard of truth outside of God. They are not personal; they do not compell belief; they are merely sensory impressions that give a subjective experience.
   Van Til believed that the Trinity holds the key to the problem of “the one and the many.” As Trinity, God is both one being consisting of three co-equal Persons, and hence in His being is found the resolution of all unity and diversity in the universe. The triune God is able to comprehend the entire universe in terms of particulars, relate those particulars together, and also see them in terms of the universal–the big picture. In the Trinity, all abstract particulars are related to the one universal, and the one universal is expressed in terms of particulars. As Van Til put it, in God, “unity… is no more fundamental than diversity, and diversity… is no more fundamental than unity.” Since the Trinity consists of three co-equal and yet distinct Persons, the Trinity is ontologically (i.e., in terms of being) one and many. Because the universe was created by a Trinitarian God, therefore, it stands to reason that the universe is replete with examples of unity and diversity, one and many, all finding their origin and purpose in that one true God. It is the triune Christian God who organizes all aspects of reality in the universe; they are not just abstractions, but they all are correlative to God who institutes laws by which they all function together in an orderly universe. Furthermore, God is at liberty to take any of these particulars and re-order them within the context of the laws He has established. This is what we know as a “miracle”–not a peculiar but statistically possible event in a random universe, but the purposeful placing of a particular fact within a different context by a God who has created and established all things, both the universal and the particular, according to His sovereign plan.
   Along the same lines of man striving for ultimate truth, Van Til recognized that unbelievers frequently utilized rationalism and irrationalism, or vacillated between the two extremes. For Van Til, this is common to all non-Christian forms of thought since they either deny any form of ultimacy in the universe and ascribe it all to mystery or chance (irrationalism), or they assume for themselves the mantle of authoritative interpreter and seek to understand the universe in terms of their own reason and experience (rationalism). Irrationalism looks to “brute” facts, abstract principles not interpreted by either man or God. Rationalism looks to the abstract particular, the constituent items that make up the thing as noted earlier. Van Til saw in the Garden of Eden an example of the interplay between irrationality and rationality. Man exercised irrationality by questioning the fact that God had spoken authoritatively, and by doubting the effects of eating the fruit. When man then reasoned with himself what God might do, and took God’s rightful authority for himself, he exercised rationality.
   It is true to say, however, that the non-Christian can equally level charges of irrationalism and rationalism at the Christian. He may regard the Christian view of a self-contained, all-knowing God who controls all things by His sovereign will as rationalism, and the idea that man is not at liberty to pass judgment on God’s thoughts and must be subject to Him as pure irrationalism. In any case, it is clear that the Christian and non-Christian viewpoints are diametrically opposed. Non-Christian irrationality, where the universe is arbitrary, is in contrast to Christian rationality, where the universe is created, sustained, and ordered by a sovereign God. Non-Christian rationality, where all things are knowable to man, who does not need God to be able to correctly interpret facts and discern laws, is opposed to Christian irrationality, where God’s thoughts overrule man’s, man is subject to God in all things, and man depends upon God to truly know anything.
   The apologetic value in recognizing this difference is that it allows the Christian to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian worldview by, for the sake of argument, assuming the non-Christian worldview and showing, as noted earlier, that within the non-Christian worldview, you cannot make sense of any fact–nothing truly has meaning. It is only within the Christian worldview that all facts, whether particulars or universals, come together and have meaning because they are all reflections and creations of a personal triune God who sovereignly controls all things for His glory and the good of His people.
   This has been a very brief presentation of deep and important ideas. I encourage you to take a look at the original paper upon which this series has been based for references to source material where you can read further on the topic. You can find the paper on my website, under the “Papers” section.