On Distinctions in God’s One Will

Theologians frequently make distinctions within the one will of God. Some of these distinctions are valid, but others are invalid; erring in attributing to God contradictory desires.

One valid distinction in God’s will is that between his revealed will and his hidden or secret will. This distinction merely states that there are some things which God has willed to reveal (in the Scriptures, but also in “sundry times and diverse manners” to His prophets in the Old Testament) and other things which God has willed to keep hidden/secret. This distinction, the validity of which is not typically a matter of debate among theologians, is seen in such passages as Deuteronomy 29:29 – “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

A commonly used, but in some ways erroneous, distinction in God’s will, however, is that of a decretive will and a preceptive will. By God’s actual will—His decretive will—all things come to pass as He has decreed. Nothing resists God’s will. The apostle Paul speaks of this in Ephesians 1:11 when he writes, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” God’s so-called “preceptive will,” on the other hand, is misnamed. It refers to the precepts, the commands, of God and not his ultimate will. In these precepts God commands man to do certain things and not to do other things. But man regularly disobey’s God’s commands. Though God works all things according to the counsel of his own will, Man’s actions are often contrary to God’s commands. God, therefore, it must be said, does not will that man obey His commands, otherwise man would obey His commands.

To equate God’s commands with His will is to put his “preceptive will” in direct opposition to his decretive will. To give God both a decretive will and a “preceptive will” is to say God “wills event x to occur” and that “God does not will event x to occur.” This, being a contradiction, is opposed to God’s rational nature.

Gordon Clark aptly summarizes the situation:

I wish very frankly and pointedly to assert that if a man gets drunk and shoots his family, it was the will of God that he should do so. The Scriptures leave no room for doubt, as was made plain before, that it was God’s will for Herod, Pilate, and the Jews to crucify Christ. In Ephesians 1:11 Paul tells us that God works all things, not some things only, after the counsel of his own will. … The opponents may at this point claim that Calvinism introduces a self-contradiction into the will of God. Is not murder contrary to the will of God? He then can God will it? Very easily. The term will is ambiguous. The Ten Commandments are God’s preceptive will. They command men to do this and to refrain from that. They state what ought to be done; but they neither state nor cause what is done. God’s decretive will, however, as contrasted with his precepts, causes every event. It would be conducive to clarity if the term will were not applied to the precepts. Call the requirements of morality commands, precepts, or laws; and reserve the term will for the divine decree. These are two different things, and what looks like an opposition between them is not a self-contradiction. … When the term will is used loosely there is also a second distinction that must be made. One may speak of the secret will of God, and one may speak of the revealed will of God. … It was God’s secret will that Abraham should not sacrifice his son Isaac; but it was his revealed will (for a time), his command, that he should do so. Superficially this seems like a contradiction. But it is not. The statement of command, “Abraham, sacrifice Isaac,” does not contradict the statement, at that moment known only to God, “I have decreed that Abraham shall not sacrifice his son.” (Religion, Reason, and Revelation p. 222-223. Reproduced in God and Evil: Problem Solved)

The distinction between a decretive will and a preceptive will, like the similar distinction between an active will (what God actualizes, i.e. his decretive will) and a permissive will (what God allows to happen via some supposed power outside of his influence) is an invented device to attempt to solve the problem of evil. The problem of evil, however, is not solved by such a distinction. God is not “off the hook” of being responsible for sin because He passively let’s it happen. The idea of permission is not applicable to all-powerful God. The problem of evil is rather solved in the fact that God is sovereign. As Clark writes, “God created the good and the evil for his own glory, to bestow his love on the good and his wrath on the evil.” (See The Presbyterian Philosopher, p. 193-194.) The problem of evil being thus solved, there is no need for decretive/preceptive and active/passive distinctions in God’s will.

I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure.” – Isaiah 46:9-10

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The Trinity, Part 2/2: Unity

[For Part I see here: https://douglasdouma.wordpress.com/2017/10/04/the-trinity-part-12-various-interpretations/]

If we reject Van Til’s “one person and three persons” language regarding the Trinity (and I suggest we do) and hold to some distinction between the sense(s) in which God is one and the sense(s) in which God is three, then we should positively identity those senses and note the difference(s).

To do so it might be helpful to look at two terms which are commonly noted in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity: numerical unity and generic unity.

An example of numerical unity is that “Socrates,” “The Athenian Philosopher,” and “Aristocles” (Socrates’ birth name) are three names that refer to the same subject, the man Socrates.

An example of generic unity is that “Socrates,” “Plato,” and “Aristotle” are three individuals that are all men. The unity of the three is the genus (a word related to the word “generic”) in which the individuals are members. In this example, though each person also has their own accidental attributes, all the members have in common all the essential attributes of Man.

So then, are the persons of the Trinity—The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit—united as numerical unity or generic unity? (Or are they united in some other way?)

The Unity of the Trinity as Numerical

The first option—numerical unity—might seem (at least at first sight) to fall into the error of Sabellianism (a.k.a. modalism, Patripassionism); the view that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not distinct persons but merely modes or aspects of the one God. While this is the result of a “numerical unity of the persons” where “The Father,” The Son,” and “The Holy Spirit” are three names that refer to the same subject, it is not so clearly the result of a separate view of “numerical unity of the essence” where “the essence of The Father,” “the essence of The Son,” and “the essence of the Holy Spirit” each refer to the same subject. These two views must be distinguished. It seems that defenders of “numerical unity” usually or exclusively mean “numerical unity of the essence.”

Though “numerical unity of the essence” might avoid Sabellianism, one major problem still exists: it does not answer the question. That is, it alone does not contribute towards answering the question “how does God’s threeness differ from his oneness?”

James Anderson, who definitely opposes the unity of the Trinity as generic, is an example of one who holds to numeric unity. He believes that “God is essentially one being who subsists in three distinct persons. Each person of the Trinity is numerically identical to God, but numerically distinct from the other two persons.” (See: http://www.proginosko.com/2008/12/wesleyan-trinitarianism/) This, as common to proponents of numerical unity, provides little more than terms (person and being) to refer to the oneness and threeness of God.

Rather than explaining any difference between the oneness and threeness of God, Anderson resolves to call it, in good Van Tillian fashion, an apparent paradox. His “solution” is paradox—that is, he doesn’t have a solution. Anderson contends that anything else would be heresy. He writes, “Rejecting outright appeal to mystery in the face of apparent contradiction, the anti-trinitarian must opt for either oneness over threeness (modalism) or threeness over oneness (tritheism).” (Paradox in Christian Theology, p. 281)

Admitting to not know the solution to any particular problem is understandable enough. The claim to know that no man can know the solution is, however, a much stronger claim that requires justification. Where John Frame admits that the Scriptures do not provide the solution, Anderson claims that man cannot know the answer because of man’s finitude. But why would man be able to know the answer to any problem at all then? It is not clear why man’s finitude would prevent him from understanding some difference between the oneness and the threeness of the Trinity but would not prevent him from understanding something of the substitutionary atonement, the Pythagorean theorem, or of the difference between a cat and a dog.

The Unity of the Trinity as Generic

The second option—generic unity—might seem (at least at first sight) to fall into the error of Tri-theism where there are three Gods, not one. That is, if “Socrates,” “Plato,” and “Aristotle” are united as members of the genus Man and they are three men, would not also “The Father,” The Son,” and “The Holy Spirit” united as members of the genus God be three Gods?

Despite the danger of tritheism, a number of theologians in church history—including most prominently Gregory of Nyssa—have held to some form of generic unity. But for any remaining chance at brevity we will skip a more detailed history of the doctrine and move on to Gordon Clark’s view.

First, an improvement Clark makes over nearly all other theologians in his treatment of the Trinity is that he explicitly provides a definition of “person” and explains something about the meaning of the term “essence.”

As for defining “person,” Clark writes,

“Accordingly the proposal is that a man is a congeries, a system, sometimes an agglomeration of miscellany, but at any rate a collection of thoughts. A man is what he thinks, and no two men are precisely the same combination.” – The Trinity, p. 106.

And for “essence” Clark notes,

“The real reason for hesitating on the latter word [homoousius, of the same essence] is that it is a meaningless pseudo-concept. Ousia doubtless means “reality.” But no only are trees and rocks “real,” dreams are “real” too. They are real dreams. The number three is real. Everything is real, and thus the term has no meaning.” – The Trinity, p. 67-68.


“This treatise has already suggested that the attributes are the essence, and that it would be better to drop the word essence and use the word definition. The attributes constitute the definition of God.” – The Trinity, p. 77.

He then relates persons and essence through a theory of generic unity. Clark explains his view:

“Now, when we face the subject of the Trinity – the common unity in the three Persons – may we not say that the three Persons share or communicate the common characteristics of omnipotence, omniscience, and so forth, and so constitute one essence? The Platonic point of view makes this essence a reality, as truly as Man and Beauty are real. Were the essence not a reality, and the Persons therefore the only realities, we should have tritheism instead of monotheism.” – “The Trinity” in The Trinity Review, 1979.

We’ll come to a better understanding of Clark’s view as we look at a number of challenges to it.

Challenge 1. God is not an abstraction.

Repeating a John Frame quote from earlier, but now for the purpose of focusing on objection to God as an abstraction, we see that he writes,

Philosophers have sometimes said that we should distinguish between essence and individuality as follows: Fido, Rover, and Spot are three individuals with a common essence, namely the essence of “dogness” or “doghood.” But “doghood” is an abstraction. You can put Fido on a leash, but you cannot so restrain doghood. Now is it legitimate to understand the Trinity (to be sure, a reality exalted far above the canine realm) according to this model? If so, the persons, Father, Son, and Spirit would be the individuals, and the divine essence, God, would be an abstraction. But of course this model is entirely inadequate for the Trinity. God is not an abstraction. Nor is he a mere society of three gods, united by common abstract properties. (Cornelius Van Til, An Analysis of His Thought, p. 67)

James Anderson is similarly opposed to God being abstract. He writes,

“It would be misguided to object that Athanasius could be speaking here of only a generic unity, since this would suggest that the Godhead is a third entity, an abstract nature distinct from the Father and the Son in which both participate.” – Footnote 34, Paradox in Christian Theology, p. 22.

So, both Frame’s and Anderson’s denial of generic unity in the Godhead is, at minimum, based on opposition to God being abstract. But Clark’s view—a type of Realism—avoids this problem because he denies the possibility of abstraction.

Clark writes,

“The idea of abstraction exemplifies the great complexity of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is a point that only the most advanced student would be much inclined to investigate. Yet from a systematic standpoints it is actually essential. To make matters worse for the reader, the present writer may seen to agree with those he is about to criticize, for he too rejects abstract ideas; but for a different reason. … The two philosophers best known for their theory of abstraction are Aristotle and Locke. Briefly Aristotle begins with sensory impressions. These motions initiate subsequent motions after the sense object no long is present. These subsequent motions are sensory images. From these images, by a process which Aristotle never clearly describes, we construct abstract idea. Thus instead of having the individual sensation of this one pussy, Timothy Ticklepitchers by name, we have the abstract idea of cat. Abstraction therefore presupposes an empirical epistemology. Theologians who are not empiricists, Shedd for example, have no place for abstract ideas. Calvin also, if we stress the first chapter of the Institutes, cannot admit the possibility of abstract idea. The present treatise, strongly anti-empirical, denies the possibility of abstraction in its traditional meaning. If theologians wish to redefine abstraction, and if therefore they mean something different from what Aristotle and Locke meant, they should make their redefinition explicit and even emphatic. If any of them has done this, I have failed to find it. (p. 100-101)


“Furthermore, as has been hinted, Augustinianism differs from Platonism. Plato had ideas. Augustine has truths or propositions. In reading what Augustine wrote, most people fail to note what he did not write; namely they fail to note that he has no theory of abstraction. Instead of abstract ideas, he has truths. The present treatise follows Augustine on this point: There are no such things as abstraction and abstract ideas.” (p. 108)

So we find that opposition to God being abstract is an argument without force against Clark’s position because Clark doesn’t hold that God is abstract.

Challenge 2: The Bible refers to God with singular personal pronouns showing that God is one person.

The argument that “because God is referred to with singular personal pronouns (including I, me, my, he and him) that he must be one person” is a standard argument employed by Unitarians who hold that God is one person and only one person.

It is doubtful that Van Til was making such an argument when he wrote, “We speak of God as a person.” That he wasn’t arguing from the use of singular personal pronouns in the Bible is shown in that he immediately followed with the clause “yet we speak also of three persons in the Godhead.” This seems to imply that by “speaking” he means a more general “speaking in a theological manner,” and not a reference to any particular Biblical content.

Even so James Anderson writes, “But what positive reasons did Van Til have for wanting to say that God is ‘one person’? … In the first place …Van Til found prima facie justification in the language of Scripture itself. There’s no denying it: the Bible often use singular personal terms when describing God qua God. This is a basic revelational datum which trinitarian theorizers (let alone critics of Van Til) cannot simply ignore.” (http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2005/08/van-tils-serious-trinitarian-theology.html)

The unitarian argument is proven false though, not only because Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 11:17 and Isaiah 6:8 refer to God with the plural personal pronouns us and our, but also in understanding that singular personal pronouns in some places refer to one of the persons of God— usually the Father—or to the being of God, just as they can personify other non-persons like the nation of Israel which is referred to with “thou” in Isaiah 41:8.

If the unitarian argument were true there would be as much trouble for view of Van Til in the Frame/Anderson/Keister interpretation as for any Trinitarian view. That is, if God is one person because God is referred to with singular person pronouns, then the sense in which God is one would be the same as the sense in which God is three (if indeed God would be three at all in such a view). Only Tipton might be glad for this conclusion. Anderson’s response is to claim that “person” in the oneness of God and “person” in the threeness of God are not being used in the same sense but are “analogically related.” This, like “mystery” and “paradox” is merely another way to say “there is a difference, but I don’t know what it is, and you can’t know either.”

One more argument of interest might be noted. If the use of a singular personal pronoun makes for a single person, then when Jesus says in Luke 22:42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done,” and the common understanding is that “my will” is referring to Christ’s human will, then the personal pronoun “my” would necessitate a human person for that human will to be associated with. This might be Clark’s view, but it probably isn’t a view any of his critics. If personal pronouns necessitate persons, then, to be consistent, this must apply to Christology as much as to the Trinity.

Challenge 3: Generic unity results in modalism.

Historically, Trinitarian models have had to navigate the narrow waters between the Scylla of tritheism and the Charybdis of modalism. Whereas numerical unity models of the Trinity have typically been challenged in regards to avoiding modalism, the concern with generic unity models has usually been how to avoid tritheism. Thus while it is no surprise to find one critiquing Clark’s view of generic unity on the error of tritheism, a critique of his view on the error of modalism is unexpected. But this very critique has been made by both Steve Hays (http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2005/07/why-im-not-cramptonian.html) and James Anderson. (http://www.proginosko.com/2010/03/gordon-clarks-paradoxical-view-of-the-trinity/)

Anderson, for example, argues,

“In his book The Incarnation he [Clark] attempts to give an account of the plurality within the Godhead by arguing that what distinguishes the three persons is just the different first-person indexical propositions that constitute them. … These propositions are contingent truths that concern the different economic roles of the divine persons in which case the persons would be only contingently distinct. This, of course, is the hallmark of modalism: the relations between the persons of the Trinity are nothing more than contingent economic relations.”

But in The Trinity Clark denies any contingency in the mind of God, arguing for necessitarianism. He writes,

“The second type of necessitarianism may be called logical rather than factual, and absolute rather than hypothetical. On this view of things no other conditions than the actual conditions are possible. This is not “the best of all possible worlds,” as Leibniz claimed: It is the only possible world, as Spinoza claimed. … Now, Spinoza is in ill repute among orthodox theologians … but it does not follow that every idea he suggests is wrong, for otherwise geometry would be false. … We must ask therefore whether or not this world is logically necessitated. The answer must take into consideration that God is truth and truth is rational. Does this mean that the universe is not a voluntary creation? Does it mean that the generation of the Son is not voluntary? Of course not. Both these items are both voluntary and necessary. … Given them the immutability of God’s mind and the eternity of truth, so-called philosophical necessitarianism seems to be quite scriptural and with respect to the creation of the world conflicts in no way with the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. Since God’s mind is immutable, since his decree is eternal, it follows that no other world than this is possible or imaginable..” (p. 118-119)

Furthermore, Clark distinguishes the divine persons not only by their economic roles and subjective knowledge of those roles, but also by their relational properties; eternal generation and eternal procession. These doctrines, which provide ontological distinctions among the persons of the Trinity, are incompatible with function-only distinctions of modalism.

Challenge 4: Generic Unity of the Trinity results in Tritheism

If three humans persons united under the genus Man are three men, why are the three divine persons united under the genus God not three Gods?

In his book The Atonement Clark notes this question and admits that generic unity cannot be the full story; it cannot be the full explanation of the unity in the Godhead. He writes,

Naturally the Persons of the Trinity are one in the sense that all men are one, and all horses; but it does not follow that the three Persons are one only in that sense. For example, three human beings have three wills; but the three Persons of the Trinity have but one will. Hence the diversification of human beings is not identical to the diversification of the Persons, for which reason we cannot assert that the two unities are completely identical. (p. 117)

Similarly in his article on the Trinity, Clark wrote,

“But it must be made likewise clear, in the interest of sound logic, that the failure of Hodge’s arguments do not prove the identity of the type of unity among men with the type of unity among the three Persons of the Trinity. It remains an unrefuted plausible option. It seems to be the best solution ever proposed. But it still may be and undoubtedly is inadequate.”

This is why he must note, as he did in the same article,

A more substantial objection is that unity in the Godhead cannot be the unity of a species or a genus. The three Persons are one in a stricter, deeper, more inexplicable sense than the sense in which three or thirty men are one. Whether this objection is plausibly true or not depends on the sense in which men are one and the sense in which the Trinity is one. Those who make this objection should define the two senses (if indeed they are two) and point out the distinction. Unless we know how the Persons are one and how men are one, we cannot tell whether the unity is the same or different. But the objectors hardly define specific unity and disclaim ability to define divine unity.”

But since he had said himself that generic unity is inadequate, Clark is to an extent his own critic. Given that he admits that generic unity is inadequate, HE should define a different or additional sense in which the three person are united.

Clark does note that one difference between three human persons and three divine persons is that the former have three wills but the latter have just one will. He explores this further in The Trinity where he notes Gregory of Nyssa’s focus on the single will of God (what Clark here calls there “one operation” or “conjoint action”) as that which forms a unity among the divine person unlike that of human persons. Clark writes,

“he [Gregory] raises the question why, if Peter, James, and John are one human nature, but three men, why are not the Three Persons, of the same nature, three Gods? With unintentional understatement he remarks that this is a difficult question. All men, he continues, have the same nature. Similarly an army has a nature, and though each solider has an individual name, the nature cannot be divided. However, in the case of God, the matter is more complicated Gregory’s answer seems to be that God’s nature is unnameable and unspeakable. God is indeed incorruptible, but this word does not express God’s nature in essence. When we say that God is incorruptible, we say that his nature suffers no corruptions, but we do not say what that nature is. Yet, Gregory admits, this does not solve the problem: if there is one common nature, why are there not three Gods? The Godhead signifies and operation, not a nature. Philosophy is an operation, but there are three philosophers. Gregory replies, perhaps lamely, that although the Godhead is an operation, like shoemaking or philosophy, and not a nature, the men operate independently, but the Three Persons always act conjointly, and their operation is one, not three operations. (p. 39)

Yet the fact that God has one will does not seem to answer the question, “why are the three divine persons united under the genus God not three Gods?” When three men act conjointly in running a relay race or winning at tug-of-war they do not cease to be three men. That Clark noted Gregory’s answer to be “perhaps lame” seems to indicate that Clark didn’t see Gregory’s answer as sufficient either.

The question of tritheism and the necessity of finding a unity beyond that of generic unity is also noted by Joel Parkinson who writes,

Now the simplistic answer to those who assert it is a contradiction to say God is both three and one is to respond that he is three in a different sense than he is one. However, if we desire to be convincing, we should also try to define the senses in which God is three and one and do so in a way that preserves all three Trinitarian affirmations. For instance, one could say that God is three Persons with one divine nature. But though this is true, if it is left unqualified it implies tritheism. Three men clearly share a common human nature but are not indivisible. One man could be killed without necessarily endangering the existence and identities of the other two. So there must be something unique to the divine nature precluding such divisibility. (“The Intellectual Triunity of God”, The Trinity Review, January 1992)

As a solution, Parkinson contends,

shared and identical objective knowledge possessed by the three maintains a unity that is unique within the Godhead and negates tritheism.” (“The Intellectual Triunity of God”, The Trinity Review, January 1992)

It is not yet clear to me, however, how either an identical will or identical objective knowledge (or both) being shared among the three divine persons is sufficient to “negate tritheism.”

Looking back to Parkinson’s previous quote might help send us in the right direction for an answer. He noted, “Three men clearly share a common human nature but are not indivisible. One man could be killed without necessarily endangering the existence and identities of the other two.” This seems to imply that his view (like Clark’s who he is basing his view on) is that the divine persons are mutually dependent upon each other unlike how any human persons are. This is the solution we will now investigate.

There are relational distinctions among the divine persons that are essential to who they are. (1) It is essential to who the Second Person of the Trinity is that he is eternally generated of the First Person of the Trinity. (2) It is essential to who the First Person of the Trinity is that he eternally generates the Second Person of the Trinity. (3) It is essential to who the Third Person of the Trinity is that he eternally proceeds from the First Person of the Trinity (and the Second Person of the Trinity according to the Western Church’s Filioque). (4) It is essential to the First Person of the Trinity (and to the Second Person of the Trinity) that the Third Person of the Trinity eternally proceeds from him.

Because these relational attributes of the Persons of the Trinity are essential to who they each are, the divine persons cannot exist independently (separately) of each other. This is not the case, however, with human beings. There are no essential relations between humans making them who they are; only accidental relations. Adam may be “married to Eve,” but he would still be Adam if he were not; just as he was Adam before he married Eve.

So, to supplement the generic unity of the divine persons we have identified 3 additional forms of unity; not the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt, and Heidelberg Catechism, but the sharing of a single will, the possessing of identical knowledge, and essential relational attributes of mutual interdependence among the persons. It is particularly the last of these three points that might show promise for negating tritheism. The three divine persons are distinct from each other but ultimately are who they are in virtue of their relations to one other and thus cannot be separated.



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The Trinity, Part 1/2: Various Interpretations

I’m glad to have in my collection an original copy of Dr. Cornelius Van Til’s An Introduction to Systematic Theology, printed in 1949. On the title page of this class syllabus, Van Til notes that it is “not to regarded as a published book.” I take it that he means that it hasn’t had a thorough edit for grammar and spelling; not that his views in the syllabus are to be regarded as less than less fully-formed. Regardless of the meaning of that statement, the syllabus defines the positions taught in courses where it was used at Westminster Theological Seminary.

One of the positions defined by this text is Van Til’s view of the Trinity as both “three persons” and “one person.” Van Til writes,

The fact that God exists as [a] concrete self-sufficient being and not merely specifically one when compared with any other form of being now appears to have within himself a distinction of specific and numerical existence. We speak of the essence of God in contrast to the three persons of the Godhead. We speak of God as a person; yet we speak also of three persons in the Godhead. As we say that each of the attributes of God is to be identified with the being of God, while yet we are justified in making a distinction between them, so we say that each of the persons of the Trinity is exhaustive of divinity itself, while yet there is genuine distinction between the persons. Unity and plurality are equally ultimate in the Godhead. The persons of the Godhead are mutually exhaustive of one another, and therefore of the essence of the Godhead. God is a one-conscious being, and yet he is also a tri-conscious being. (p. 215)

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 claim therefore 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. We have noted how each attribute is co-extensive with the being of God. We are compelled to maintain this in order to avoid the notion of an uninterpreted being of some sort. In other words we are bound to maintain the identity of the attributes of God with the being of God in order to avoid the specter of brute fact. In a similar manner we have noted how theologians insist that each of the persons of the Godhead is co-terminous with the being of the Godhead. But all of this is not to say that the distinctions of the attributes are merely nominal. Nor is it to say that the distinctions of the persons are merely nominal. We need both the absolute cotermineity of each attribute and each person with the whole being of God, and the genuine significance of the distinctions of the attributes and the persons. “Each person,” says Bavink, “is equal to the whole essence of God and coterminous with both other persons and with all three.” (Vol. II, p. 311) (“Elk persoon is daarom gelyk aan het gansche wezen en evenveel als de beide andere of als alle drie naam.”) Over against all other beings, that is, over against created beings, we must therefore hold that God’s being presents an absolute numerical identity. And even within the ontological Trinity we must maintain that God is numerically one. He is one person. When we say that we believe in a personal God, we do not merely maintain that we believe in a God to whom the adjectives “personality” may be attached. God is not an essence that has personality: He is absolute personality. Yet, within the being of the one person we are permitted and compelled by Scripture to make the distinction between a specific or generic type of being, and three personal subsistences. (p. 224-5)

This is actually the second syllabus in which Van Til’s peculiar doctrine of the Trinity arises. Similar wording is found earlier in his Junior Systematics from 1940. (An original copy of which is in Gordon Clark’s personal library now the Gordon H. Clark Collection in the Clark Library at Sangre de Cristo Seminary)

But it is not only in syllabi that Van Til explicates his doctrine of the Trinity. He also writes of it in his published book, The Defense of the Faith, originally published in 1955. I have a third edition, Revised, 1967. There Van Til writes,

Fourthly, we speak of the unity of God. We distinguish between the unity of singularity (singularitatis) and the unity of simplicity (simplicitatis). The unity of singularity has reference to the numerical oneness. There is and can be only one God. The unity of simplicity signifies that God is in no sense composed of parts or aspects that existed prior to himself (Jer. 10:10, I John 1:5).

The attributes of God are not to be thought of otherwise than as aspects of the one simple original being; the whole is identical with the parts. On the other hand the attributes of God are not characteristics that God has developed gradually; they are fundamental to his being; the parts together form the whole. Of the whole matter we may say that unity and the diversity in God are equally basic and mutually dependent upon one another. The importance of this doctrine for Apologetics may be seen from the fact that the whole problem of philosophy may be summed up in the question of the relation of unity to diversity; the so-called problem of the one and the many receives a definite answer from the doctrine of the simplicity of God.

What we have discussed under the attributes of God may also be summed up by saying that God is absolute personality. The attributes themselves speak of self-conscious and moral activity on the part of God. Recognizing that for this intellectual and moral activity God is dependent upon nothing beyond his own being we see that we have the Reformed doctrine of the personality of God. There were no principles of truth, goodness or beauty that were next to or above God according to which he patterned the world. The principles of truth, goodness, and beauty are to be thought of as identical with God’s being; they are the attributes of God. Non-Christian systems of philosophy do not deny personality to God, at least some of them do not, but, in effect, they all agree in denying absolute personality to God. As Christians we say that we can be like God and must be like God in that we are persons but that we must always be unlike God in that he is an absolute person while we are finite persons. Non-theists on the other hand, maintain that though God may be a greater person than we can ever hope to be yet we must not maintain this distinction between absolute and finite personality to be a qualitative one.

Another point in the Christian doctrine of God that needs to be mentioned here is the trinity. We hold that God exists as tri-personality. “The trinity is the heart of Christianity.” (H. Bavink: Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, II, 289.) The three persons of the trinity are co-substantial; no one is derived in his substance from either or both of the others. Yet there are three distinct persons in this unity; the diversity and the identity are equally underived. – The Defense of the Faith, p. 10-12.

When it comes to interpreting Van Til on this point there are two main camps. The first camp is exemplified by John Frame, James Anderson, and Lane Keister. They believe that Van Til did not intend to use the term “person” (or “personality”) in the same sense for both the oneness and the three-ness of God. The second camp, exemplified by Gordon Clark, John Robbins, Robert Reymond, and R. Scott Clark, believes that Van Til did intend to use the term “person” or “personality” in the same sense for both the one-ness and three-ness of God, and in doing so erred grievously.

John Frame

Starting with the first camp, we find that John Frame believes Van Til was using “person” in two different senses but that he (Frame) is unable to to explain the difference “precisely and exhaustively.” He writes,

How, then, do we relate the “one person” to the “three persons”? Van Til asserts that “this is a mystery that is beyond our comprehension.” Indeed! But he does not say that the two assertions are contradictory. Are they in fact contradictory? That may seem obvious, but in fact it is not necessarily the case. Anybody who has studied logic knows that something can be both A and not-A if the two A’s have different sense. In this case, God can clearly be both one person and not-one person, if the meaning of “person” changes somewhat between the two senses.

The traditional language, “one in essence, three in person” (which, again, Van Til does not reject), brings out more clearly, of course, that the oneness and the threeness are in different respects. But the formulation “one person and three persons” does not deny that difference of respect. It is simply an alternative formulation that makes a point somewhat different from the point of the traditional language.

How is the word person used in different senses or respect? Obviously, there is some difference between the sense of “person” applied to the oneness of God and the sense applied to the three members of the Trinity. Van Til would agree, for example, with the creedal statements that the Father is the begetter, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit is the one who proceeds; the whole Godhead is neither begetter, begotten, nor proceeder. But neither Van Til nor I would claim to be able to state, precisely and exhaustively, the difference between God’s essence and the individual persons of the Godhead. Doubtless the Clarkite critics of Van Til will find this a damaging admission, for they insist that all theological statements be perfectly precise. Never mind that Scripture itself often fails to be precise about the mysteries of the faith. – Cornelius Van Til, An Analysis of His Thought, p. 68-69.

While Frame says that he is not able to state “precisely and exhaustively the difference between God’s essence and the individual persons of the God,” his only attempt at providing a difference is to say that Godhead is not any of the Persons. But this is the very conclusion that needs to be reached, not an argument for the conclusion. It must be noted, therefore, that he states no differences at all—and therefore not even imprecisely. His claim seems to be that Scripture itself does not provide the difference.

James Anderson

James Anderson also believes that Van Til held there to be a difference between “person” in the sense of the oneness of God and “person” in the sense of the three-ness of God but that we can’t know what the difference is. For Anderson, however, it is not Scripture that limits our ability to know what the difference is, but the fact that we are finite creatures. He writes,

Yet, we reply, how could God be both one person and three persons? Isn’t that a blatant violation of the law of non-contradiction? In seeking an answer, we must acknowledge that Van Til considered this an apparent contradiction and not a real one (see Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 9). A contradiction is said to occur when something is asserted to be both A and not-A at the same time and in the same sense. Since Van Til held to the traditional doctrine of God’s timelessness, we can disregard the ‘same time’ condition. We must therefore conclude that, since Van Til emphatically rejected the idea that Christian truth involves real contradictions, he held that God is one person and three person in different senses.

What exactly are these different senses? Where or how is the distinction to be made? Van Til, of course, didn’t specify; his point was that we cannot specify the distinction, as finite creatures, and thus we must rest content with an apparent contradiction (at least for now). Although we can rationally infer that there is a distinction to be made, we are not in a position to specify what that distinction is. Still, God comprehends the distinction and there is no irresolvable contradiction in his mind. (http://www.vantil.info/articles/vtfem.html)

Lane Keister

Though Frame believes that stating any distinction between the two ways in which Van Til used the term “person” is not attainable because Scripture doesn’t provide the answer (much like how Van Til said that “stating clearly” a definition of the term “content” as used in the Clark – Van Til Controversy would be to “deny their basic contention with respect to the Christian concept of revelation”) and Anderson believes man’s finitude is the preventing factor, Van Tillian Lane Keister attempts the impossible; he attempts an explanation. Keister writes,

In order to determine, therefore, whether Van Til is contradicting Trinitarian orthodoxy, the question that must be answered is this: does Van Til use the word “person” in the same sense in these statements of the uni-personality of God as he does in those statements concerning the tri-personality of God? If he uses them in the same sense, then he is unorthodox. If not, then he is merely guilty of difficult and confusing language … My evidence is the following contextual clue that “person” does not mean the same thing in both contexts: “Yet, within the being of the one person we are permitted and compelled by Scripture to make the distinction between a specific or generic type of being and three personal subsistences” (p. 364). I believe that what Van Til means here is that the “specific or generic type of being” corresponds to the phrase “God is one person,” and that the phrase “three personal subsistences” refers to the tri-personality of the three persons. In other words, the distinction between “God is a person” and “God is three persons” is a distinction between a generic type of being (and therefore personality) as contrasted with the three relational persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (https://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2010/11/25/is-van-til-orthodox-on-the-trinity/)

Keister agrees with Frame and Anderson that Van Til is using the term “person” in two different senses when applied to each the oneness and three-ness of God, respectively. But unlike them, he attempts to explain the difference. Keister’s solution is that the oneness Van Til is referring to is that of a generic type of being. (See part II for an explanation of generic unity)

This solution, however, is at odds with both Frame and Anderson who write in opposition to God’s oneness being of generic unity. Frame writes against generic unity:

Philosophers have sometimes said that we should distinguish between essence and individuality as follows: Fido, Rover, and Spot are three individuals with a common essence, namely the essence of “dogness” or “doghood.” But “doghood” is an abstraction. You can put Fido on a leash, but you cannot so restrain doghood. Now is it legitimate to understand the Trinity (to be sure, a reality exalted far above the canine realm) according to this model? If so, the persons, Father, Son, and Spirit would be the individuals, and the divine essence, God, would be an abstraction. But of course this model is entirely inadequate for the Trinity. God is not an abstraction. Nor is he a mere society of three gods, united by common abstract properties. – Cornelius Van Til, An Analysis of His Thought, p. 67.

And likewise, Anderson writes,

Indeed, I suggest…the essential inadequacy of all social trinitarian interpretations, that is, all trinitarian models in which the divine persons are numerically distinct from the divine substance (however that latter is construed). Such interpretations weaken the ontological unity within the Godhead to the point where a collapse into tritheism is unavoidable. – Paradox in Christian Theology, 45-46.

Gordon Clark

For the second camp of Van Til interpreters— those who believe that Van Til was (however unwittingly) using the term “person” in just one sense—we turn first to Gordon Clark. Clark’s critique of Van Til’s view is found in his book The Trinity (published in 1985, but originating from Clark’s unpublished systematic theology written in the 1970s). As far as I am aware of, Clark was the first to contend against Van Til’s doctrine of the Trinity. Clark writes,

Note the situation. When opponents have objected that the doctrine of the Trinity is logically self-contradictory because it makes three equal to one, Christians have usually replied that there are many examples of situations that are three in one sense and one in a different sense. Hence there is no contradiction. Here Van Til rejects this defense of the Trinity and asserts that the Trinity is both one and three in the same sense: not one substance and three Persons, but one Person and three Persons. This is indeed contradictory and irrational. Look at his words again; ‘We do assert that God, that is the whole Godhead, is one person.’ He defends this irrationalism on the ground that ‘each attribute is co-extensive with the Being of God.’ Now, some attributes apply equally to all three Persons; for example omnipotence and omniscience. But the attribute of Fatherhood and Sonship are not ‘co-extensive with the Being of God.’ Sonship is not attributable to the Father, nor to the Spirit. (p. 91)

Also, in an audio lecture in 1981, Clark said,

Van Til’s theology, I suppose you could say mainly or basically, that it is Reformed, but not all is quite the same. He has a view of the Trinity that no theologian that I know, no orthodox theologian I know of, has ever come up with at all. He holds that God is not only three persons in one substance to use that horrible Latin word that doesn’t mean anything. He holds that God is both three persons and one person. And he explicitly denounces the usual apologetic defending the doctrine of the Trinity which is that God is three in one sense, and one in another sense, and hence there is no contradiction because there are lots of things that are three in one sense and one in another. You can get all sorts of examples. The easiest one to think of is a business corporation that has three officers. President, Vice-President, and Secretary Treasurer. And here the corporation is one corporation but three officers. And you can have one godhead and three persons. Or all sorts of combinations where you have three in one, but in different senses. And that is the standard orthodox position all the way back from Athanasius. Van Til denounces this. And says that the Trinity is both one person and three persons. And he calls this a paradox. Which is putting it mildly. – “John Frame and Cornelius Van Til,” audio lecture.

Followers of Gordon Clark

Followers of Gordon Clark have also interpreted Van Til to be using “person” in just one sense. This list include John Robbins who called the view “The Van Tillian Heresy” and a “unitarian heresy” (Cornelius Van Til The Man and the Myth, p. 20, 21); Gary Crampton, who noted that Van Tillian James Jordan extended the view to accept that God is in fact “one essence and three essences” (“Why I am Not a Van Tillian” The Trinity Review, 1993); and Robert Reymond who wrote that “no orthodox creed has ever so represented the doctrine” (A New Systematic Theology of The Christian Faith, p. 109.)

R. Scott Clark

The divide then would appear to be just another Clark – Van Til split with Robbins/Crampton/Reymond on Clark’s side and Frame/Anderson/Keister on Van Til’s side. (Ignoring for the moment the differences of interpretation between Keister and Frame/Anderson on Van Til’s view of God’s unity)

But this Clark – Van Til paradigm is broken by R. Scott Clark (no relation to Gordon Clark) who, while otherwise a Van Tillian, believes Van Til did in fact use “person” in only one sense, and erred in doing so. (See the comments here: https://heidelblog.net/2013/03/van-til-yet-this-is-not-the-whole-truth/, and comment 75 here: https://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2008/08/20/john-frames-newest-tome/#comment-53727)

R. Scott Clark argues that we must discard Van Til’s doctrine of the Trinity noting that the phrase “God is one person” is virtually absent from the literature of the Reformation and the church in general. He comments,

“The expression ‘one person’ adds nothing to our understanding of the Trinity. One is hard pressed to see how it is in any sense a true account of the biblical teaching or how it is theologically true. God is not ‘one person.’ He is three persons. The only personality he has is tri-personality.”

My favorite laugh-out-loud quote of R. Scott Clark here is, “If CVT cannot be said to have erred when he said ‘one person, three persons’ what exactly could he have done to have made an error?” In this case R. Scott Clark’s strong Reformed history studies have been a corrector to his following of Van Til.

Though R. Scott Clark rejects Van Til’s doctrine of the Trinity, he also rejects “social trinitarianism” by which I assume he is including Gordon Clark’s view of the generic unity of God.

Lane Tipton

While Clarkians agree with substantial uniformity on their interpretation and critique of Van Til on the point at hand, Van Tillians vary widely. Frame and Anderson, as seen, interpret Van Til to be using “person” in two different senses and say that this justifies Van Til’s doctrine. Keister also interprets Van Til to be justified in using “person” in two different senses, but in a manner of generic unity not accepted by Frame and Anderson. Thirdly, R. Scott Clark believes Van Til used “person” in only one sense and that Van Til is not justified in doing so. Yet another—a 4th—interpretation comes from Lane Tipton who, like R. Scott Clark, believes Van Til did use “person” in only one sense but, unlike him, believes that Van Til is justified in doing so.

Tipton’s main argument is that Van Til was merely repeating the 19th century American Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge who spoke of God as having “one mind” and who said that God can be called “a person” because of the doctrine of perichoresis—the mutual indwelling of the persons. (“The Function of Perichoresis and the Divine Incomprehensibility.” Westminster Theological Journal 64, 2002, 289-306)

Responding to Tipton, R. Scott Clark argues, “Claims to contrary not withstanding, neither Charles Hodge (1797–1878) nor B. B. Warfield (1851–1921) taught that God is one person. They taught that God is personal but that adjective cannot be equated with the expression ‘one person.’” (https://heidelblog.net/2013/12/should-i-buy-it-1/)

Tipton’s view—that there is 1 consciousness in God shared among the 3 persons—doesn’t account for any distinctions among the persons. Though he claims there are distinctions, nowhere does he identify any that are ontological; only noting that Van Til held to functional distinctions; the “certain works” ascribed to each of the persons in the Bible. Noting, as Tipton does a number of times, that Van Til opposes Sabellianism isn’t the same as demonstrating that Van Ti’s positive view of the Trinity differs in some definite way from Sabellianism or Unitarianism. And, as John Murray writes, “One can hardly avoid the suspicion of a unitarian bias in the failure to appreciate distinguishing self-consciousness in the three persons of the Godhead.” (Collected Writings, 4:278-79)

Summary so far.

To summarize the various interpretations of Van Til this chart may be of some help:

2 x 2

Interpreting Van Til

When I look at Van Til’s writings I am apt to give him the benefit of the doubt. Often he is just unclear, and so it is difficult to know what he means. Van Tillians, as we have seen, even disagree among themselves at times as to how to interpret him.

There is in the present case however one statement in Van Til that might bring clarity to what his view was. He writes, “God is a one-conscious being, and yet he is also a tri-conscious being.” This seems to be the key statement in interpreting his doctrine of the Trinity. Unless a Van Tillian wants to argue that here too Van Til is using the term “conscious” in two different (yet undefined and undefinable) senses, they must abandon the idea that Van Til is using the term “person” in two different (yet undefined and undefinable) senses. This not only indicates that Van Til is using the term “person” in one sense, but that he actually provided a definition (though not “precise and exhaustive”) of the term: a person is a conscious being.

God, for Van Til, is both a one-conscious being and also a tri-conscious being. How he can therefore say, “We claim therefore that we have not asserted unity and trinity of exactly the same thing” is truly incomprehensible, for in calling God one person and three persons, and a one-conscious being and a tri-conscious being, he is asserting exactly what he claims not to be asserting in the very same passage. This contradiction in Van Til helps to explain how varying interpretations of his doctrine would develop.

For Part II we’ll look at “numeric unity” and “generic unity” and challenges to these respective positions in an attempt to understand something of the difference between the oneness of God the threeness of God.

For Part II see here: https://douglasdouma.wordpress.com/2017/10/07/the-trinity-part-22-unity/

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An Alliterative Account

A partial play-by-play of Presbyterianism’s past.

The 20th century:

1922 – Fosdick fights fundamentalist forces.

1923 – Machen’s manifest makes mincemeat of modernism.

1924 – Herman Hoeksema heads honorable Hollander hullabaloo.

1937 – Buswell’s BPC bans booze.

1944 – Cornelius complains concerning Clark’s comprehensibility conclusions.

1955 – Schaeffer starts Swiss chalet sheltering seeking souls.

1959 – Rushdoony writes Reconstruction’s rule.

1966 – RTS renews Reformed reverend rearing.

1971. – Ligonier launches learning lessons.

1973 – Smith serves as stated clerk of seceding Southern saints.

1974 – Professor Plantinga publishes perceptive position.

1984 – Sproul settles in sunshine state.

The whole century – Various Van Tillians venture vague views.

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Gordon Clark on Divine Simplicity

A List of Places where Gordon Clark favorably notes Divine Simplicity.

[Note that in some of these instances Clark might just be relaying the view of the theologian he’s writing about, and not necessarily accepting the doctrine himself. But in other instances approval of Divine Simplicity is clearly his view.]

  1. 1937. A letter from Gordon H. Clark to J. Oliver Buswell, April 3, 1937.

Even in the human being I cannot persuade myself that there is a radical distinction between intellect and will – nor do I mean to be an anti-intellectual. But the activity of the intellect seems to involve volition (a good deal on the part of the students). And reciprocally a thought is an incipient impulse. In the case of God, the simplicity of his reality should favor still more such a identification, rather than a development of divine faculty psychology. If a view like this can be worked out in detail the result might be that God’s nature is his will and the original question, if not answered, might be to that extent clarified. It would then be possible to speak of the nature of God’s will, but no longer of a ‘nature’ independent of and distinct from the will of God. This attracts me because God is a living God, not a Plotinic One or a Spinozistic axiom.

  1. 1957. Thales to Dewey, p. 204-205.

The mystic view is that the doctrines are really false, colloquial accommodations to human limitations. But Anselm believed that God has revealed the truth and that this truth itself, not some ethereal negation of it, could be demonstrated. This must not be taken to imply that certain attributes cannot be denied of God. John Scotus had called God Sun, Star, Breath, and Water, only to empty them of all significance. Anselm keeps the significance and denies that these are attributes of God. But other attributes which are better than these belong to God. He is living, just, wise, powerful, and eternal. At the same time, Anselm is careful to point out that God is not wise or just by participation in a superior Idea. God himself is justice. That is what he is. As this line of reasoning applies to all attributes, so by them we know not merely what sort of being God is, but what God is. And is this not to know his essence, which the negative theologians said was unknowable? However, this concession, if it be a concession, must be made to negativism. Since God is one, without any composition, it follows that Justice is Life, Power is Eternity, and all attributes are the same. Obviously if Justice is God’s essence, and if God’s essence is Power, Just and Power are identical. Each attribute exhausts every other, “because whatever God is essentially in any way, this is all of what he is.”

  1. 1960. “Divine Attributes” in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology.

The unity of the attributes therefore is a thesis that cannot be thoughtlessly dismissed. … The short account above might suggest that the attributes are not only the same in God, but with a little thought they appear to be the same to us too.

  1. 1964. “Thomas Aquinas” In Encyclopedia of Christianity.

With respect to man, the term wise signifies a quality distinct both from the man’s strength, from his essence, and from his existence. But with God, essence and existence are identical, and all His attributes merge.

  1. 1968. “Existence of God” in Encyclopedia of Christianity.

The simplicity of God’s being requires His essence to be identical with His existence

  1. 1972. The Johannine Logos. p. 64.

Power, wisdom, and word are identical, for in the simplicity of the divine essence all attributes merge.

  1. c. 1980. First Lessons in Theology.

Are All Attributes One? … A few pages back comments were made on a list of verses, relating to the eternity of God, with the exception of one. That verse was, “I AM THAT I AM.” It is hard to say how much can be drawn from this name, or how much can be read into it. Probably one cannot validly infer from this verse alone that God is pure simple being, and that his essence and attributes are all one reality; but it would be harder to show that this verse ruled out Charnock’s position. It rather supports it.

  1. c. 1980. First Lessons in Theology.

At this juncture the point in question is not the doctrine of the Trinity, which was of course Athanasius’ main interest, but the identification of God with the substance of God. God is not a compound of substance and attributes, the substance standing under the attributes, supporting them lest they fall to earth; nor are the attributes some addition to the substance, completing it. God therefore is his substance; his substance is his attributes; all his attributes are one; and this One is God.

  1. 1982. “The Sovereignty of God.” The Trinity Review Nov.-Dec.

Augustus Toplady wrote, among other things, “Observations on the Divine Attributes.” 3 The simplicity of God and the identity of all the divine attributes, used above to settle the relation between justice and sovereignty, Toplady expresses in the following words. “Although the great and ever blessed God is a Being absolutely simple … he is, nevertheless, in condescension to our weak and contracted faculties, represented in Scripture as possessed of divers properties, or attributes, which though seemingly different from his essence, are in reality essential to him, and constitutive of his very nature” (p. 675, col. 1). Toplady, then, specifies “his eternal wisdom, the absolute freedom and liberty of his will, the perpetuity and unchangeableness, both of himself and his decrees, his omnipotence, justice, and mercy.” The material is so good that it demands great restraint not to quote the entire article, twelve pages of long double columns. Fear not, modern reader, I shall give only a few short paragraphs.

  1. 1985. The Trinity. p. 76

The Biblical data, as it seems to me, adequately support Berkhof’s assertion that “God and his attributes are one.”

  1. 1985. The Trinity. p. 77.

This treatise has already suggested that the attributes are the essence, and that it would be better to drop the word essence and use the word definition. The attributes constitute the definition of God.

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Sermon on Romans 2:1-4

The Hypocrite and the Just Judge

Scripture reading: Romans 1:26 — 2:1-4
Sermon text: Romans 2:1-4

[Rom 1:26 — 2:1-4 ESV] 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man–you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself–that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?



“Judge not lest ye be judged.”

This statement of Jesus in the Gospels is perhaps the most frequently mis-applied quote from the New Testament.

The person defending their own sins resorts to mis-applying this quote in an attempt to get his accuser off his back. “You can’t tell me what to do!” “You’re judging me!” “Didn’t Jesus say not to do that!?”

Even if one has hardly read any of the Bible, they seems to know this retort, “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

In today’s passage, Paul, like Jesus, speaks out against judging. And it is important on this subject that we do not misunderstand Paul just as is it important that we do not misunderstand Jesus.

Paul has much the same message as Jesus when it comes to judging. We want to understand what this message is. This message from God’s Word. And so, in doing so, we will look at two main points from the text:

1: Man’s judgments are hypocritical. (REPEAT)

2: God’s judgments are just. (REPEAT)

The text today, from Romans 2:1-4, continues Paul’s longer argument that all men are unrighteous; all men are sinners. In the last section Paul listed particular sins (envy, murder, strife, deceit, etc.) And he contended that these sins reveal God’s wrath upon the unrighteous. But here in our passage today he transitions from condemning those who blatantly practice such sins outwardly (the Gentiles) to those who judge the Gentiles while committing the same sins (that is, the Jews / early Christians).

A Jewish reader of Paul’s letter might be nodding his head in agreement with Paul against all those sins listed. But, if the reader thinks he himself is perfect, he is quite mistaken.

Point 1: Man’s judgments are hypocritical. (vs. 1)

So Paul writes,

“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

In seminary, we were trained, whenever we read the word “therefore” in the Bible we should ask “What is the ‘therefore’ there for?”

Usually, in standard argument form you list your premises first and then your conclusion which follows. And in between your premises and you conclusion you say “therefore,” connecting the two.

But Paul here appears to reverse the order; he lists his conclusion first and then his premise. Working backwards like this, John Calvin says is a Hebraicism, a Hebrew way of saying things. Paul, of course, was a Hebrew so it is not surprising that even in this letter written in Greek that he would think like a Hebrew.

So what is the “therefore” there for? What is Paul’s argument? What is Paul connecting when he says “therefore”?

Paul’s conclusion is “everyone who judges has no excuse.” The premise, which actually follows his conclusion, is “when you judge others, you judge yourself, because you sin in the same ways.”

So, if we are reverse this order, to straighten out Paul’s words so that they are not in a reverse Hebraicism, but in a regular way of speaking, we’d get a more standard argument form. Paul’s meaning straightened out is “when you judge others, you judge yourself because you sin in the same ways” and THEREFORE “everyone who judges has no excuse.” Or, to say it another way, the judge is no better than the accused because the judge is also guilty of sin.

So, this is our first point of the sermon, “Man’s judgments are hypocritical.” (REPEAT) Man is the hypocrite.

To be hypocritical is “to pretend to have virtues that you do not actually possess.” The word itself, “hypocrite” comes from the Greek, ὑποκρίνομαι (hupokrínomai) meaning “to play a part on stage.” So a hypocrite is an actor, a pretender. But, as Paul is pointing out, we cannot pretend to be without sin when we are in fact sinners. Rather, because we are sinners, if we then condemn others for being sinners, we are only condemning ourselves who also sin.

A. Does this mean we should make no judgments at all?

But does this mean that we should make no judgments at all? Is it wrong always and everyone to judge?

By the nature of things we have to make general judgments all of the time. We judge a particular car to be a better choice for us than another car when we purchase it. We judge what we put on our plate at the buffet. We judge what work we undertake and how to use our free time. We make judgements every day. These are unavoidable and these are obviously not what Paul is arguing against. Judging, in the very broadest sense, is not universally wrong.

We also, especially as Christians, JUDGE SIN TO BE SIN.

Is it wrong to make this kind of judgment? To judge sin to be sin? Surely not. We must raise our children to judge sins to be sins. If anything, we need to be better tuned in to what God tells us in the Bible about what is sinful. We need to be better at judging sin to be sin so that we can avoid it; so we can use that judgment to help lead us not to sin.

If we didn’t judge sin to be sin, we would harm ourselves in that sin. Only a fool would oppose judging dangerous things as dangerous.

So, we may and we must judge sin to be sin.

Paul, in fact, in this very text judges some things to be sinful. That is, he has already listed some visible outward sins in chapter 1, and continues here in chapter 2 to condemn — to judge — this behavior currently under question. Paul judges (rightly) that some other type of judging is wrong. So what is this wrong type of judgment?

It is not judging in general that is wrong. Nor is it judging sin to be sin that Paul is opposing. What type of “judging” then does he oppose?

The “judging” Paul is speaking against is “passing judgment on one another”; that is, he is speaking against wrongly judging yourself to be better than another. (REPEAT)

It is wrong to think that others are sinful and you are without sin.

B. The Jews judging the Gentiles.

In the passage there is a transition in the pronouns. In the last section Paul was speaking about “them.” “They” commit sins. “They,” “other people” are sinners. But now, Paul speaks about “You.” It is not just others that are sinful, but it is you also! (What a hard message to hear! But what a necessary message to hear)

If this passage is referring primarily to the Jews, which most commentators believe it is, then Paul is saying that the Jews judge the Gentiles for their sinfulness, but do so hypocritically because they also sin. Paul is saying, “we Jews (for Paul himself was a Jew) are no better than the Gentiles.”

Judging others for their sins, when you are a sinner, is like the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. Or like a sewer worker calling a garbageman stinky.

Or, even better, this is perhaps a bit like sitting on a large tree branch, while cutting the base of the branch with a saw. In fact, the safety manual that came with my chainsaw has such a picture on it showing a person sitting on a tree branch and cutting the thick side of the branch. And over this picture is a circle and a diagonal line indicating “don’t do this.” In cutting off the branch you are going to fall. Desiring the branch to fall, while sitting on that same plane, you cause yourself to fall.

Many of the first century Jews did not see themselves as sinners. Sinners were those outside of Israel, those who didn’t attempt to follow the Torah, the Old Testament laws. And since these Jews didn’t see themselves as sinful, they were not on the lookout for a moral messiah. They didn’t think they needed a Christ to die for their sins if they didn’t have any sins for someone to die for. Rather, the Jews were looking for a political messiah. The enemy, in their eyes, was not their own sins. The enemy, they thought, was the oppression of the Romans. So a messiah, some of them thought, would save them from the Romans.

Paul explains, however, how everyone — even the Jews, or especially the Jews — is sinful and in need of a moral messiah; in need of Jesus.

C. Condemning themselves.

When the Jews condemned the Gentiles for being sinners, they were condemning themselves as well because they too are sinners. They were cutting the very branch they were sitting on, condemning themselves to the same fall as the branch.

But not only were the Jews also sinners, but they were sinning again when judging themselves not to be sinners! They were guilty of a double wickedness – not only doing those same things, but passing judgment on those who do. If we want to keep our analogy with the tree branch, we might say “they are not only going to fall with the branch” and break a leg on the fall, they are going to be scolded for (by their employer) for not following safety directions.”

There is an irony here in that the judgment of hypocrites is in fact a just judgment. That is, they rightly judge sin to be sin, but they fail to realize that they are condemning themselves in the process.

There is an instructive story in the Old Testament about this topic; condemning oneself.

It comes from 2 Samuel 12:1-7

[2Sa 12:1-7 ESV] 1 And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds, 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, 6 and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” 7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man!

The text then explains:

Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. 8 And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.

So David was the rich man in Nathan’s story, unsatisfied with his own gifts from the Lord and taking Bathsheba as his wife after arranging for her first husband Uriah the Hittite to be killed. David’s anger is greatly kindled against the rich man in Nathan’s story, not realizing that HE IS THAT MAN.


How can we apply this today?

Are you that man?

Do you rage in anger against others who have sinned, not recognizing your own sins?

The example that comes immediately to mind is homosexuality and other deviant sexual practices. It is right, as I noted previously, to judge THAT these practices are sins, for God himself makes that judgment revealed in Scripture.

But, to apply the text today,

Do not think that you are better than they are. For what sexual sins have you committed? And what others sins have you committed?

Or do you think what you have done is not as bad?

In the Gospels, Jesus (with so much power behind his words) emphasizes that all are sinners. He sets the bar higher than man can achieve.

His words are,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)

So even if you haven’t committed grossly immoral sexual sins in action, you have certainly committed sexual sins in your mind; in your lust.

Realizing your own sinfulness in areas such as this, it is important that you do not think yourself better than those who practice homosexuality or prostitution, or other sinful sexual practices. You, like them, are sinners in the need of God’s forgiveness.

The Scripture readings today, both from Romans and from 2 Samuel are there, at least in part, to humble your pride.

D. Paul and Jesus

The parallels between Paul’s teaching and Jesus’ teaching are evident. Both Paul and Jesus speak against the hypocritical judge.

In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7, verses 1-5, Jesus says,

[Mat 7:1-5 ESV] 1 “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

As I noted earlier, it hard to imagine that any Scriptural passage has been more misused than this one. “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

This statement should NEVER be used to defend a sin, as if to say “YOU can’t judge my sin to be a sin, because you too are a sinner.” This is not the intent of Jesus. And it is not the intent of Paul either. Those things which God has revealed to us in the Scriptures to be sinful are things which we can, and should, rightly judge to be sinful. But, again, we should never judge that only others commit these sins, and not ourselves. That is why both Paul and Jesus refer to the judge as a hypocrite; the one who judges himself to be better when in fact he, like all men everywhere, is a sinner.

Though men’s judgments, apart from God’s revealed will, are hypocritical, God’s judgments are always just. (Repeat) And so this is our second point, God’s judgments are always just.

Point 2: God’s judgments are just. (vs 2.)

Paul writes, “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”

Man judges hypocritically because man commits the same sins that he condemns. But God judges justly, committing no sins, and being and setting the very standard by which man is to live.

God’s judgment falls rightly. His judgments are just.

There is not some higher level of justice to which God looks to. He doesn’t consult someone else. He sets the standard for right and wrong, and tells us in His Word.

The punishment for sin is always separation from God. It is death and hell, for God is most holy and cannot tolerate wickedness in His presence. All men deserve this judgment, for all men have sinned.

Paul writes with his mind to possible objections that might come up against these points. (That man is a hypocrite, but God is a just judge) He then answers his imagined critic. He typically introduces one of the objections of the critic by saying “What shall we say then?”And he answers in his own words with the response, “By no means.”

A. Rhetorical Question 1

The first of two rhetorical questions set up against his teaching is this:

Do you suppose, O man–you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself–that you will escape the judgment of God? (vs. 3)

He seems to be referring to the false security that some Jews had. That is, some Jews thought they would escape God’s judgment just because they were Jews. (REPEAT)

Do you suppose, O man–you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself–that you will escape the judgment of God? (vs. 3)

By no means! By no means is the right answer. You should not expect to escape God’s judgment just because of your status.


This should be a warning to you, not to think your status in life saves you.

There are statuses that people falsely hang on to, hoping in them for salvation.

Do you think you are saved because you are baptized? By no means!
Do you think you are a saved because you attend church? By no means!
Do you elevate yourself saying “I have good doctrine?” Will you learning save you? By no means!

Being baptized will not allow you to escape the just judgment of God. Attending church will not allow you to escape the just judgement of God. And having good doctrine will not allow you to escape the just judgement of God.

I especially want to focus on this last point. We have great doctrine here in the Reformed Presbyterian church. Pastor Hicks is one of the most learned scholars of the Faith I have come across. But don’t let this be a crutch to you. Do not think that you are saved because you have good doctrine, or a good pastor, or good elders, or good deacons.

Good doctrine is extremely important, but you are not saved by your doctrine. You are saved by God’s grace through Faith in Jesus Christ. And those in churches with less emphasis on doctrine are also only saved by God’s grace through Faith in Jesus Christ.


One pastor has said, “The secret hope of the hypocrite is that God will judge by the hypocrites perspective.” (REPEAT)

Like the first century Jews, there are all manner of people today who think they are better than others based on the family in which they were born, the country in which they live, or their ethnic origin.

These groups include racists, kinists, and elitists. They judge others on standards they have invented. Standards that are sinful in the eyes of God. Stay far away from these sinful mindsets. Your status will not save you. By no means!

B. Rhetorical Question 2

Paul then moves on to the second rhetorical question:

“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (vs. 4) (REPEAT)

This is much like his rhetorical question in Romans 6:1 where Paul asks – “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!”

Of course not. We should never presume on the riches of God’s kindness. We should never sin thinking “Oh, God will forgive me anyways.”

So Paul is telling his audience, you are not off the hook just by being a Jew, nor are you off the hook because God is so kind as to forgive you regardless of what your response is to him. God’s forgiveness is not a license to sin as you please.

Rather, God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance. God doesn’t pronounce his judgment and carry out the sentence right now because he is using his kindness to lead His people to repentance; turning away from their sins and following Christ in faith.

Paul’s arguments are not merely made for the Jews of the first 1st century, but are the Word of God to you and me today.

Consider this: We have the tendency to judge the sins of others severely and judge our own sins gently. We ask for forgiveness, but do we forgive others?

The Gospel

The Jews sought outward holiness. They wanted to be seen as holy, devout. Calvin says of this, “God will take an account, not only of their disguised righteousness, but also of their secret motives and feelings.”

Remember also Jesus said that “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

And so all are guilty. Paul extends his point about sinners from the outward sins to inward sins like false judgment. This is in order help support his main point which ranges over multiple chapters. That is, “all men are sinners.” You included!

So what then? So I’m a sinner even if I haven’t sinned outwardly?


What hope then do I have?

There is a solution. There is hope. Not in yourselves, but in Christ.

Despite how heinous your sins are. Even if you are a hypocrite like many 1st century Jews. Even though all people sin, and even though the judgment of God is justly upon you. Even despite all of this, we have hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Your sins are forgiven! You must repent and believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe that he died on the cross for your sins.

What was David’s response when Nathan told him, “You are the man!”? David rightly admitted “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Repent and believe. For it is through faith that the grace of God is given to you and the righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to your account, so that God sees you as pure and holy regardless of any sins you have committed.

And because we have been forgiven in Christ, all the more should we forgive those who have sinned against us, and all the more, knowing that we were saved despite all being sinners, we should not judge ourselves better than anyone else but praise God for his pardon and his great salvation.


So, we will conclude with this.

You are the man. You are the sinner, like David.

God is the just judge, and Christ is our savior.

Trust in him alone for your salvation. Not in your own self, nor in your status.

And through this coming week do not, like hypocrites, look to judge others yourself as superior to others, but be merciful and kind to others as God has been merciful and kind to us.

We thank God for His mercy and His kindness in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Posted in Sermons | 1 Comment

Clark and Van Til on Barth, Part 5.

To what extent is Van Til’s doctrine of God similar to Barth’s “Wholly Other”?

This is part 5 of a 5 part series on “Clark and Van Til on Barth.”
Click here for Part 1.
Click here for Part 2.
Click here for Part 3. 
Click here for Part 4.

A. Van Til’s Creator-creature distinction and skepticism.

The Answer, written by Gordon Clark and other elders, accused The Complaint, written by Cornelius Van Til and other elders, of resulting in skepticism. It reads:

“The Presbytery wishes to suggest that if man does not know at least one truth that God knows, if man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge do not coincide in at least one detail, then man knows nothing at all. God knows all truth, and if man’s mind cannot grasp one truth, then man’s mind grasps no truth. Far from being a test of orthodoxy, this test imposed by The Complaint is nothing else than skepticism and irrationalism.” – The Answer, 21.

Clark himself, in an unpublished paper comes to the same conclusion. He writes,

“The Complaint, on the other hand, makes the truth God has qualitatively different from the ‘truth’ man has. There is not a single point in common. Whatever meaning God has, man cannot have. And since the Bible teaches that God has all truth, it must follow on the theory of the Complaint that man has no truth. The theory of the Complaint is therefore skepticism.” – Gordon H. Clark, “Studies in the Doctrine of the Complaint” in The Presbyterian Philosopher, Douglas J. Douma, Wipf&Stock, 2017. p. 260.

Of interest, and probably of surprise to those who have studied the Clark – Van Til controversy, some of those who wrote The Complaint later themselves came to admit its skeptical character. That is, the conceded that the language was “misleading” and “created the impression” of skepticism. They wrote:

“The second statement [in the original complaint] is also misleading, particularly because of the words, ‘single point.’ The whole clause, taken by itself, is liable to create the impression that our knowledge does not come into contact with the objects of the divine knowledge at any point. This would, of course, be incorrect and would also be skeptical in character.” Fifteenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, meeting minutes (Wildwood, NJ: 13 May 1948), Appendix 21. In The Presbyterian Philosopher, p. 158.

Years after the controversy, Ronald Nash—a voice from outside of the OPC—wrote in agreement that Van Til’s position results in skepticism. Nash said,

“It is well-known that Van Til for years held that a qualitative difference exists between the knowledge God has and that possessed by humans. God’s knowledge and our knowledge do no coincide at a single point. But this implies, of course, that no proposition can mean the same thing to God and to humans. For twenty years or so, as a friendly critic of Van Til’s views, I have maintained that Van Til’s position entails scepticism.” – Ronald Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, P&R, 1982, p. 99-100.


“In conclusion, one can ask how Van Til knows that no proposition can mean the same thing to God and to a human, that our knowledge and God’s knowledge do not coincide at any point. This very knowledge claim says something about what lies beyond the Boundary.” Ronald Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, P&R, 1982, p. 101.

It is clear to me, then, that Van Til’s position in The Complaint did result in skepticism. But, as I noted in The Presbyterian Philosopher (see: p. 161-162), Van Til changed his position (or at least clarified it) near the end of the controversy. To avoid skepticism he began arguing that man’s knowledge is derivative of God’s knowledge; not entirely without coincidence as The Complaint had said. Clarkians (and others, like Nash) have generally critiqued Van Til for his earlier position.

But did Van Til entirely give up his earlier position? It seems not. He continued to argue for an undefined difference in “content” between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge (Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 171-2) and speak of “a two-layer theory of knowledge” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 35). In doing so he continued to make an unbridgeable gap between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge (based on his Creator-creature distinction) and so resulted in skepticism.

Note: It is important to note that what Van Til and his followers speak of as “THE Creator-creature distinction” is not equivalent to what other theologians speaks of using the same term. All Christian theologians hold that God and man are distinct in being. Van Til’s novelty is to extend the Creator-creature distinction from being to knowledge itself (not solely the mode of knowledge, but knowledge itself).

And, if I’m wrong on this, let someone explain why was The Complaint written? Other than the obviously political nature of it, why would Van Til (and others) have filed a complaint against Clark’s epistemology if they merely held that man’s knowledge is derivative of God’s knowledge? I’m convinced that Clark would have had no issue with that wording.

B. Barth’s “wholly other” and skepticism.

In Karl Barth’s Theological Method, Gordon Clark argues that Barth’s doctrine of God as “Wholly Other” results in skepticism. Clark relays that Barth believes, “God cannot be compared to anyone or anything. He is only like himself.” To this Clark contended that, in addition to Barth’s position being unbiblical, “if God is Totally Other then He is totally unknowable.”

Clark writes,

“Although it is such an elementary point, it seems often to be forgotten that object x can be both like and not like object y. It sounds self-contradictory, like saying that a plane figure is both square and not square; and perhaps the form of the words obscures the difference. But just as a cat is like and not like a dog, so God is like and not like a man.” (p. 169)

C. The “Creator-creature distinction” compared to Barth’s “wholly other.”

Karl Barth explains his doctrine of God—the “wholly other”— as “an infinite qualitative different between God and man.” As such, man is “incapable of knowing Him.” This makes for an unbridgeable gap between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge and so results in skepticism. Van Til’s Creator-creature distinction—when made to argue against any coincidence in man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge— also makes for an unbridgeable gap between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge and so ends in skepticism. So, like in part 4 of this series, we must conclude “different doctrines, same result.”

It is interesting to note that as Barth came to reject his doctrine of God as the “Wholly Other” (or “Totally Other”) in his later writings and yet continued to let it influence him, (Karl Barth’s Theological Method, p. 169) so Van Til repudiated his position in The Complaint but yet continued to let it influence his writings.

Posted in Notes on the thought of Gordon H. Clark | 3 Comments