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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.

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.

Covenant Theology Papers

Before I get the reputation of being a Van Til controversialist, I have posted some new papers on my site pertaining to Covenant Theology. The first is a presentation of Covenant Theology from a credobaptist (i.e., believer’s baptist) position. While I most certainly fly my Reformed Baptist colors on this paper, I hasten to add that our paedobaptist brethren would probably agree with upwards of 80% of this paper, so I think everyone can find something of use from it. As for our Dispensationalist brethren… well, okay, you can’t please everyone! 🙂 The second paper is a historical survey of Covenant Theology. This paper seeks to explore the historical roots of Covenant Theology, recognizing that while we believe the system of belief to be biblical, we acknowledge that, like many other biblical doctrines, it developed and underwent refining over a period of many years. There are probably many people out there that hold to Covenant Theology but have never considered when it was first systematized, or which, if any, ancient fathers of the church believed as they do. Hopefully this paper will answer questions and provide a springboard for further study.

To find these and other papers, go to the “Papers” section of my website: www.colindsmith.com.

Van Til and the Trinity: A Quick Response to PuritanReformed

   “PuritanReformed” has posted a critique of my article on Van Til and “God as a Person.” First, I would like to say I appreciate that he took the time to read the article and to respond to it. Dialog and interaction is good and positive–iron sharpens iron, etc. Next, I note that this is a quick response, because I don’t think much more than that kind of response is necessary. I agree with him that for most who have studied theology to any degree, the idea that God is personal is not a blinding revelation. However, for most occupying pews in evangelicalism, especially those outside the walls of academia–some of whom I know do tend to see God as an impersonal force that, with the right incantations and behavior, can be manipulated to do their will–this concept needs to receive attention.
   I used the term “essence of God” to describe the divinity shared between the three Persons of the Trinity. The point is that this “divine essence” is not impersonal, but it is by virtue of this shared divinity that the Persons share attributes of the divine, and these attributes are personal. If I may spell it out, the being of God has divine attributes that are personal, and these attributes are shared between the three Persons of the Trinity. As far as I understand, there is nothing heretical about that. Perhaps this point may be a little obvious for a Westminster Seminary student (and I mean no disrespect by that), but I daresay this is not a thought that has occupied much attention in the thinking of most evangelicals.
   I would also venture to say that one of the reasons Van Til is represented as being “wrong in his doctrine of the Trinity” is because he is being quoted in a context that has more to do with apologetic approach than formal teaching on the Trinity. The reason I quoted Van Til specifically on the Trinity (and there are further quotes in the original paper) was to show that when speaking of the Trinity, his view was in line with orthodox belief. In this context, however, Van Til was addressing the personality of God in His being, not just in His Persons, and how that can be used to apologetic effect. This will be covered more in the next installment of the series. Again, I don’t think Van Til was trying to say something new about the Trinity (maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I read Van Til); I believe he was simply drawing attention to the fact that God is personal, not just in His Persons, but in His being, and he made that point for a purpose, which, again, will be the subject of the next part of the series. Those who were left at the end of the article scratching their heads saying “Well, if all Van Til was saying is that God is a personal being, then big woop!”–hold on! Read the rest of the series, or read the original paper. I’m not done yet! 🙂
   I hope this helps to clarify things. If you still disagree with me, or Van Til, PuritanReformed, then that’s fine. I would ask that you be sure you are being fair to Van Til and you are not reading his comments on the Trinity in the context of apologetics and assuming they are the sum total of his belief regarding the Trinity. Yes, there must be consistency in our beliefs, and what we believe about the Trinity in our systematic theology must be the same as in our apologetics. However, when speaking in an apologetic context, we might make statements not inconsistent with our theology as a whole, but certainly not representative of our entire belief. It is my contention that this is what has happened to Van Til on this topic, and hence the controversy. Van Til may have found the traditional Trinitarian formulations inadequate, but that doesn’t mean he disagreed with them. He simply sought to make a point regarding the personality of the Godhead that may, in the view of some, be unnecessary, but to Van Til needed to be made, again, for apologetic reasons.
   I do hope, however, that this doesn’t detract from the point to be made in the next installment. If we can all agree that God is personal, in His being and in His Persons, then we are ready to move on. And I think that’s a point that we all–Van Til included–can agree upon.

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.