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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.

Presuppositional Apologetics and the Trinity: A Review

   Before digging into Van Til’s teaching on the Trinity and how it applies to his argumentation for the existence of God, it will do us well to review the fundamental principles of Presuppositional Apologetics. Okay, I know you have heard a lot about PA recently, but you know the old teaching addage: the more you hear something, the more likely you are to remember it. So, once again, ladies and gentlemen, let’s take a look at what PA is about at its core.
   The popular model of apologetics today is one where you present evidence, and use logic and reason to argue for the existence of God, the truthfulness of the Bible, the historicity of Christ and the resurrection, etc. This model assumes that everyone, no matter what their religious or philosophical viewpoint, agrees on principles of logic and reason, and can use these to evaluate evidence. In other words, on these principles we all share “common ground,” since these are assumed to be neutral standards by which all claims can be weighed.
   Van Til objected to this saying that to set anything above God and His Word, whether it be a man, a false god, or a set of principles, is a violation of Scripture and an undermining of the ultimate authority of God and His revelation. God’s Word, if it is has supreme authority, cannot be held accountable to a higher authority. If we believe the Bible is “God-breathed,” that it is God speaking to us, then to subject it to evidence, reason, and logic to validate it is to say that it really has no authority on its own, and requires an external authority to verify it. Not only this, but it is to say that it needs man to apply this external authority and use it to verify what God has said, whether or not it is true. Since when does man have the right to tell God whether He is speaking truth? How we know Scripture is true without engaging in circular reasoning is, perhaps, a subject for another time. But for now, suffice to say that the Christian can do no other than to hold Scripture in the highest regard. In fact, Van Til would argue that we need Scripture, God’s special revelation to us, to be able to properly apply logic, reason, and evidence.
   When God originally created man, He gave him natural revelation (the world around him, its complexity and order, etc.) as a demonstration of His existence, and special revelation (instructions, commands, etc.) so he would know how to properly live in the universe God had made with the rules that govern it, and know how to honor and serve his Creator in a way that most pleases Him. However, in Genesis 3 we are told that man disobeyed God and fell into sin (Romans 5:12-14). From that time on, man has been suppressing natural revelation (Romans 1:18-32), and unable to receive and accept special revelation due to his spiritual estrangement from his Creator. To this day, man is in a state of denial regarding God’s existence and truth, and is trying to live in this world according to his own understanding. God, in His mercy, permits man to understand certain truths: morality, ethics, laws, justice, etc. that come from being made in His image. Without these, man would not survive long in this world; his life would be intolerable (as would life for those around him). Yet, given man’s natural understanding, unaided by that understanding that comes from either natural or special revelation, these truths are not consistent with his understanding of the world. And it is his understanding of the world, or his presuppositions that will always ultimately lead him to the conclusions he makes, which will invariably be wrong or misguided.
   If the unbeliever is looking at the world through different presuppositions than the believer, it stands to reason that, apart from the work of the Spirit giving him eyes to see, he will not come to the same conclusions as the believer regarding evidence, no matter how good and sound that evidence is. He does not share “common ground” with the believer, because the unbeliever and the believer are operating on diametrically opposed presuppositions. Knowing that the unbeliever is suppressing the knowledge of God, however, the Christian apologist can appeal to that knowledge of God to call the unbeliever to repentance so he can see the world as God intended it to be seen. The apologist could even take the approach of having the unbeliever assume Christian presuppositions (for the sake of argument), and he assume non-Christian presuppositions (again, for the sake of argument) to help the unbeliever see which is consistent with the universe as we know it–which of them makes the world around us and its laws intelligible.
   That’s PA in a nutshell. One point that Van Til was insistent on was that any defense of the Christian faith cannot simply be a defense of one aspect of it. In other words, it is not simply a defense of the fact of God’s existence, or the fact of Christ’s divinity, or the fact of the resurrection. Christian apologetics is a defense of the entire Christian worldview. Hopefully, from the foregoing it is clear why this is the case. Without a Christian worldview, the evidence is meaningless. The unbeliever can accept the bare evidence for the resurrection saying, “Okay, so something strange happened,” without ever proclaiming saving faith in Christ as a result. That conclusion requires seeing the evidence for the resurrection with Christian presuppositions; only then can it have any meaning.
   This is where Van Til’s teaching on the Trinity comes in. He argues that we are not presenting mere theism, but we are presenting Christian theism, and we have to. To present any other kind of theism is to argue for a God that doesn’t exist, and, in fact, undermines everything you then say to affirm the truth of the Christian worldview. We will explore this in the next installment.

Don’t forget, if you want to read the entire article upon which this series is based, you can do so at my website, under the “Papers” section.

Presuppositional Apologetics and the Trinity

   If you have been following the blog over the past month, you will have seen Jamin Hubner’s series of posts on apologetic methodology and particularly on Presuppositional Apologetics. Hopefully, as a result of Jamin’s sterling work, you are all now fully conversant with Presuppositional Apologetics (or the “Transcendental” argument as Van Til preferred to call it) such that you are freely discussing presuppositionalism vs. evidentialism with your neighbors, and you plan to give a copy of Van Til’s Christian Apologetics to all your relatives for Christmas. Well done, Jamin!
   One aspect of presuppositionalism that Van Til (and those that followed him) was quite insistent on was the fact that when arguing for the existence of God, it is insufficient to simply argue that there is such a thing as a divine being. Most apologists start here, and then have an uphill battle once this premise is assumed to then jump from deism or theism to the Christian God. For Van Til, it was pointless even beginning to discuss God, His existence, His nature, His works, etc. if you are not prepared to argue for the Christian God. In his famous debate against Gordon Stein, Greg Bahnsen in his opening statement made it plain that he was not there to discuss the existence of any other deity–it would be pointless because he would agree with Stein regarding their non-existence. Rather, the point of the argument begins with Christians on the Christian God.
   Naturally, one of–if not the–key doctrines of Christian theism is that of the Trinity. It is the doctrine of the Trinity above all other doctrines pertaining to God that sets Christianity apart from other religions. It has often been said, and as far as I can tell this is generally true, that all heretical offsprings of Christianity share a denial or a perversion of this central teaching. For Van Til, however, the Trinity was also important to his apologetic argument. Over the next few blog articles, I plan to sketch what Van Til taught regarding the Trinity (which has often been misunderstood, opening him up to charges of heresy), and how he understood the Trinity to figure into the presuppositional argument for God’s existence.
   These blog articles are based on a paper I wrote a while back on the subject “Van Til and the Trinity: The Centrality of the Christian View of God in the Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til.” If you want to read this paper as a pdf, you can do so by going to the “Papers” section on my website. What will follow in these blogs will not be a simple cut-and-paste of the paper. I will attempt to present the basic arguments in a blog-friendly format. For some people, that’s as much as you want or need. For others who want more, read the paper, or check out Jamin’s Van Til/Presuppositional Apologetics Reading Recommendations.

PS: If you have been hunting around for my blog articles on the Islamic concept of Predestination (Qadar), you can now find that as a single article in pdf format on my website, along with an overview of the Qur’an.