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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About douglasdouma

I am a husband to beautiful wife, an ordained minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church - Hanover Presbytery, and founder of Sola - Appalachian Christian Retreat (www.discoversola.com). In addition to blogging at this site I am the author of The Presbyterian Philosopher - The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark (Wipf&Stock, 2017) and compiling editor of Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark (Trinity Foundation, 2017). I have a bachelor degree in mechanical engineering (University of Michigan), a master's in business administration (Wake Forest University) and a master of divinity (Sangre de Cristo Seminary). I'm an avid hiker, having completed a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian trail in 2013 and the first 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016.
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4 Responses to The Trinity, Part 1/2: Various Interpretations

  1. Pingback: The Trinity, Part 2/2: Unity | A Place for Thoughts

  2. Ma Kuru says:

    Hi Doug,
    Somebody shared this link. I have not read it myself and I do not have the time yet to ponder about this issue now.

    http://www.colindsmith.com/papers/Van%20Til%20and%20the%20Trinity.pdf

  3. Pingback: GHC Review 25: Colossians | A Place for Thoughts

  4. Pingback: GHC Review 38: The Trinity | A Place for Thoughts

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