Archive for July 6th, 2013

v for van til


The famous Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner has once noted that “despite their orthodox confession of the Trinity, Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere ‘monotheists.’”[1]  While Rahner describes this as the situation specifically among Catholics, similar description could describe the Evangelical landscape as well.  Evangelical academic interests in exploring further depths or discussion of the Trinity has not been significant for much of the last century, but a Trinitarian revival has emerged in the last twenty years among Evangelicals.[2]

One Evangelical theologian who has made a contribution in the area of the Trinity is Cornelius Van Til.  He sees the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as an important element that separates Christianity from all other religions, philosophies and worldviews.  Van Til believes that the Trinity has value in Christian apologetics and a positive construction of Christian philosophy.  Specifically, Van Til even believes that the Trinity solves the problem throughout the history of philosophy of the “One and the Many.”[3]

The response to Van Til’s formulation of the Trinity however, has been mixed.  According to Ralph Smith,

On the one hand, some have misconstrued it as heretical or attacked it as rash and dangerous.  On the other hand, a not insignificant group of theologians and Christian writers has found Van Til’s doctrine of the Trinity to be a fruitful source for serious work to develop a truly Christian worldview.  The contrast between the two groups’ evaluation of Van Til could not be greater.[4]

Van Til’s discussion on the Trinity is perhaps not as familiar to many as it is with his contribution in the area of apologetics and meta-apologetics.[5]  Today, Van Til’s apologetics methodology has spread beyond the confines of the Orthodox Presbyterian church (OPC) denomination and Confessional Presbyterians circles during Van Til’s own lifetime.[6] With the increasing popularization of his thought and with the zeal of some who believe that Van Til’s formulation of the Trinity is dangerous and heretical, it seems that the discussion of Van Til’s Trinity will occur more frequently in the future.[7]  Thus, an essay on Van Til’s doctrine of the Trinity cannot be dismissed simply as an irrelevant discussion of a dead theologian.

The purpose of this essay is to assess the contribution of Van Til in the doctrine of the Trinity and its application in the area of Christian philosophy and apologetics.  Since some have charged Van Til’s view of the Trinity to be heretical, it would be appropriate to evaluate if this is truly the case.  To talk about the positive contribution of Van Til’s formulation in the areas of Christian apologetics and philosophy would suffer from serious limitation if the formulation itself was heretical.  Thus, the first section of this paper will evaluate the arguments that Van Til’s position was heretical.  The second section will explore the application of the Trinity towards the philosophical problem of the One and the Many by Van Til and his followers after him.  In that section, the essay will attempt to point areas of further development in light of a survey of the work that has been done by Van Tillians.

Is Van Til a heretic?

Historical Context

Before sketching Van Til’s doctrine of the Trinity, discussion of Van Til’s Trinitarian controversy needs to be situated in its historical context.  According to Ralph Smith, “John Frame was the first theologian to call attention to Van Til’s formulation ‘one person, three persons,’ and he assumes partial responsibility for the ‘furor’ that arose in response.”[8]  John Frame also believed that he was the first to bring to attention in print Van Til’s position on “God as one person.”[9]  He discussed the manner briefly in his booklet Van Til: The Theologian[10] published in 1976.[11]  According to Frame, due to his publication of Van Til: The Theologian, this caught the attention of the philosopher Gordon Clark, who then began criticizing Van Til in a taped lecture citing Frame’s booklet.[12]  Unfortunately, Frame does not provide the name nor the date of this lecture.  Certainly by Clark’s first edition publication of his book The Trinity in 1985, he was already aware of and responding in print to Van Til’s position.[13]

There is reason to suspect that Clark might have been aware of Van Til’s position prior to Frame’s Van Til: The Theologian.  The source cited by Frame in his booklet of Van Til’s Trinitarian formulation was from Van Til’s An Introduction to Systematic Theology.[14]  Those who believe Van Til’s Trinity is heretical often cite from chapter 17 of this book, which is on the Triunity of God.  As with many of Van Til’s books, they were originally syllabi for his class lectures at Westminster Theological Seminary.[15]  It began as a 247 page syllabus written in 1949, and “written after the Clark controversy.”[16]

What was this controversy with Gordon Clark?  Prior to Clark’s criticism of Van Til’s Trinity, the two first had a controversy during the 1940s when Clark sought ordination to be a minister with the OPC that drew concerns from members of the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary about Clark’s theology and philosophy.  There was apprehension of whether Clark “deviated from the Westminster Standards on such issues as the incomprehensibility of God, the effects of sin and regeneration on the intellect, sovereignty and responsibility, and the free offer of the gospel.”[17]  It is important to note that during this time, none of the issues in the original controversy were over the manner of the Trinity.[18]

Van Til’s An Introduction to Systematic Theology, even in its present form is still “heavily preoccupied with the Clark controversy.”[19]  Knowing the book’s angle, it would seem odd that Clark would not be familiar with An Introduction to Systematic Theology when much of it concerned him, and since the chapter on the Trinity appeared even in the 1949 syllabus[20], it would be unlikely the case that Clark was unaware of Van Til’s Trinitarian view until several decades later, by finding it for the first time in Frame’s booklet.  Whereas Frame’s booklet interacted with the 1961 version of the syllabus form of An Introduction to Systemic Theology[21], Clark’s interacted with the original 1949 syllabus in his criticism of Van Til.[22]  Though not conclusive, this perhaps hints that Clark was not as dependent upon Frame in discovering Van Til’s Trinitarian ideas.  Moreover, in Clark’s written work, he shows familiarity with citations of other works outside of An Introduction to Systemic Theology of Van Til’s Trinitarian views, such as Van Til’s Junior Systematics syllabus written in 1940.[23]  While the last two considerations are circumstantial evidences in showing that Clark knew of Van Til’s statement before Frame’s booklet, at a minimum it does show that Clark was not solely dependent upon Frame’s insight in coming to see Van Til’s view of the Trinity.  Frame most likely is incorrect in supposing “I have to take some responsibility for the furor that my reference created.”[24]  It is plausible that the truth of the matter was that Clark was aware of Van Til’s position before Frame’s booklet.

Today, most of those who charge Van Til with heresy are influenced by the works of Gordon Clark.  The late John Robbins, an important follower of Clark had worked hard to promote Clarkian apologetics, theology and philosophy and went on to form The Trinity Foundation which remains today as the flagship organization publishing the works of Clark and others who adopt Clark’s outlook.  These publications include materials that are critical of Van Til and charge him with being unorthodox.

God as One Person

Frequently cited by those concerned with Van Til’s Trinitarian formulation is the following quote lifted from An Introduction to Systematic Theology: “We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person.”[25]  On the basis of this quotation much ink has been spilled defending and contending with Van Til’s concept that God is in some sense, one person.

Setting the precedence that was eventually followed by his admirers, Clark believed that Van Til “has asserted that the Godhead is three and one in precisely the same sense.”[26]  The key phrase here in Clark’s interpretation of Van Til is that person is used “in precisely the same sense” in both instances of the one and the three.

Continuing in the same vein, Gary Crampton, a contributor in The Trinity Foundation’s publication, understood that “Van Til believed that God is at the same time both one person and three persons.”[27]  Crampton raises the question, asking “is Van Til really orthodox in this area of Christian theism?”  His answer? “This, to be sure, is not the teaching of orthodox Christianity, which maintains that God is one in essence (or substance) and three in persons.”[28]  Much has been made over the issue of God being one person, and some have come to see the possibility of Van Til committing the heresy of Sabellianism.  Interestingly, unlike his disciples, Clark criticism was much more restraint, which even in the midst of his criticisms of Van Til’s Trinity, writes, “This is not to suggest that Van Til is a Sabellian.”[29]  One can only wish that some of Clark’s followers would share a bit of reservation as Clark did.

Apart from Clark’s charity, the truth of the matter is that Van Til could not have embraced Sabellianism.  Sabellianism is more commonly known as modalism.[30]  This is the view that there is really only one person in the Godhead, who manifests Himself in three different modes or “masks” known as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.[31]  In Van Til’s survey of the historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity, he directly condemns this teaching as heresy and ought to be rejected.[32] Furthermore, even in Van Til’s position that God is a person, he is explicit throughout his writing in affirming that there are three persons within 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 a genuine distinction between the persons.[33]

Thus it would be incorrect to categorize Van Til as a modalist.  Van Til believed that the persons within the Godhead are real persons.

Frame believed that “The heart of Clark’s and Robbin’s complaint, however, has little to do with creedal subscription.  Their serious point is that Van Til’s formulation is logically contradictory.”[34]  This evaluation seems accurate.  The bulk of Clark’s criticism of Van Til in The Trinity focused on the issue with the law of non-contradiction.[35]  Directly commenting on Van Til’s statement “We speak of God as a person,”[36] Clark commented that Van Til “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 utterly irrational.”[37]

One must be cautious in handling a doctrine that certainly has been confessed to be mysterious throughout church history.  In light of what seems like a contradiction on the part of Van Til, Smith writes, “Rather than attempting to relieve the paradox or point the way for reconciliation, Van Til emphasizes it further by using language that is, at first glance, patently contradictory.”[38]  Smith’s comment here is an appropriate caution to those who might get too quick to relieve theological tension when it comes to the Trinity and those who at a superficial glance believe that Van Til was contradictory in his theology.

A fundamental problem in the Clark’s argument against Van Til’s position is the assumption that Van Til understood “person” in the same sense when he speaks of God as one person and also the Godhead consisting of three persons.  In order to charge Van Til with a contradictory formulation of the Trinity, this assumption has to be true.  And if the critics are going to insist on their claim that Van Til’s Trinitarian view is self-contradictory, it is necessary for them to demonstrate that it was in the same sense that “Van Til believed that God is at the same time both one person and three persons.”[39]  The burden of proof is upon them to substantiate this claim that is significant for the argument.

Another problem in the arguments of Clark and his cohort is the claim that Van Til denies God is one essence in three persons.  Recall earlier how Clark believed that Van Til asserts “not one substance and three Persons, but one Person and three Persons,”[40] and Crampton’s claim that Van Til’s position “is not the teaching of orthodox Christianity, which maintains that God is one in essence (or substance) and three in persons.”[41] No actual citation from Van Til has been marshaled by his critics to show his denial of the traditional statement of God as one substance and three persons.[42]  Reading Van Til’s work suggests that Clark and Crampton might be incorrect.  Van Til believes that the Westminster Confession is a positive addition to the historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity, and quotes portions of it that contain language of God as one substance and three Persons.[43]

Frame adds that Van Til did not deny God is one essence and three persons but “his only qualification of this statement is that it ‘is not the whole truth of the manner.’  He understands his formulation to be an addition, a supplement, to the traditional one, not a denial of or replacement for it.”[44]  Frame goes on to write,

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.[45]

How can the formulation ‘one person and three persons’ of Van Til not be contradictory?  When it comes to proving or disproving an alleged contradiction, context is key.  Statements in isolation might appear to be contradictory but revealed to be otherwise when the context in which the statements are situated in is considered. In considering the context of Van Til’s formulation, one must ask what was it that drove Van Til to state God is also one person?   What was Van Til’s perception (and whether it is correct or incorrect) about traditional formulation of the Trinity that he found to be “not the whole truth of the matter?”  In asking these questions, one should seek to identify the concern which gave way for Van Til to emphasize the terminology of “person” in describing the oneness of God.

One important passage from Van Til that shed some light as to why Van Til would state that God is person is found in the following:

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 mean that we believe in a God to whom the adjective “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.[46]

Van Til had a deep concern that the oneness of God is not just an impersonal oneness of God.  Van Til found it important to stress that this oneness of God is personal.  The oneness of God is typically referred to as “being,” “nature” and “substance”.  These are the terms used to translate and capture the idea of the Greek word ousia, which was the term used in the history of the church to describe God’s oneness.

Studying the usage of the term ousia in discussing the doctrine of the Trinity reveals that it can be quite an impersonal term used to describe the oneness of God. Thus, Van Til had a legitimate concern to protect the personal aspect of the oneness of God by qualifying traditional terms used to describe that oneness.  The term “ousia” in Trinitarian theology does not necessarily carry the same meaning as it is found in its Christological usage.[47]  But similar with its Christological usage, the term ousia refers to some common reality while ‘hypostasis’ indicates the individual.[48]  In the Creed of Chalcedon, ousia is commonly translated as “co-substantial”, where Jesus is described as co-substantial with the Father.  Biblically speaking, the Bible teaches that Jesus has the exact nature as God the Father (Hebrews 1:3).  This similar nature is their Divinity.  In describing this Divineness of Jesus which He shared in common with God the Father, a term was needed to describe this reality and the extra-biblical phrase that was used by the church was the term ousia.  Cyril was a significant church father who used that term, and those who followed him would use employ it more frequency than he did.[49]  Loon, an authority on Cyril, believed that Cyril’s usage of “ousia” is largely determined by the logical tradition of the Greeks.[50]  Given that the semantic range of ousia was “essence, substance, being, genus, or nature”[51], the term was seen at that time to be an appropriate short-hand to indicate what the “thing” (for lack of better word) was that Christ shared with the Father.  There is “something” Divine about Jesus which is similar to the Father.

However, the oneness of God is more than just an impersonal essence, substance, being, nature or “stuff”.  Consideration of the Scripture reveals that even when God is referred to in His oneness, He is still described in personal terms.  Surrounding the Great declaration in the Shema, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, theLORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), we see that this pluralistic “One” Yahweh is hinted within the chapter as being personal: Yahweh commands (v.1), promises (v.3) and leads (v.10).  These are functions of persons, and yet the verb for all of these function are singular in person.  It refers to this pluralistic “One” Yahweh’s action as that of one singular personal being.

Using an impersonal term to describe the oneness of God can give the false impression that God’s oneness is impersonal.  This was what Van Til was trying to protect the traditional formulation of the Trinity from.  He was also protecting the oneness of the Trinity from the idea that an impersonal “substance” of God has ontological priority of existence prior to any personal element within God.  The personal aspect of God is not an accidental attribute, but a necessary aspect of who He is.  God is Himself fully personal, and the full idea of personhood is contained within God.[52] That is, the whole Godhead is a “who” and not a “what”.  It is from this vantage point that one can appreciate Van Til’s statement:  “When we say that we believe in a personal God, we do not merely mean that we believe in a God to whom the adjective “personality” may be attached.”[53]  The whole Godhead, God in His entirety, is personal, and to capture that truth the term “person” is used by Van Til to capture this truth.[54]

Frame offers a much better explanation than what this essay covers.  Though it is lengthy, it significantly captures Van Til’s motive:

Now the question becomes, is that one being personal or impersonal? 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.[55]

To avoid this abstraction and error from taking place, the term person carry more nuances in capturing the personal character of that oneness of God.  Given how much controversy and misunderstanding that has been generated with the word person in describing God’s oneness, the future of Van Tillian movement might need to come up with another term to differentiate the two senses of persons in order to avoid the univocal tendency of some in understanding Van Til’s use of the term.  Realistically, the task does not seem easy and any new term must be subject to qualification to fully capture the personality of the oneness in God that differs from the personalities in the three-ness of God.  This amount to the same task Van Tillians are already doing in explaining God as one person and God in three persons.

As seen earlier in this essay, Clark and Crampton protested Van Til’s formulation of the Trinity because they perceive Van Til’s denied the “one substance” of God when Van Til wishes to qualify the term “substance”.  It is important to remember that the term itself is not an infallible biblical term.  It is a theological term such as the Trinity that is used to try to capture biblical concepts.  Van Til’s concern was not the biblical concept but the adequacy of the term used to capture the truth.  Substance, which is translated from the Greek ousia appears in the Creed from the council of Chalcedon.  It appears that in the reasoning of the Clarkians, the term ousia and it’s derived translation found in the word being, nature and substance are terms no longer subject to scrutiny when it attains creedal status.  Certainly, it is easy today for theologians to discard historic articulation of the Christian faith without appreciating what they were trying to accomplish.  This was probably why Van Til never rejected the historical terminology but sought to improve and add upon it.  Sometimes being careless to the historical development and re-wording of classic terminology proves problematic, but Evangelicals need to remember that it is Scripture that is infallible and not the creeds and council.  Thus, it is not wrong per se to examine again critically the historic presentation of the faith and improve upon it.  This is an essential task of those practicing theology.  Clarkians object to Van Til, wishing the theological vocabulary to remain as they are, believing that the tampering with the terms to capture the meaning to account more fully aspects would imply being outside of orthodoxy.

There is a double standard on the test of orthodoxy on the acceptance of traditional Trinitarian terms.  What is ironic is that in his last work that he died in the middle of finishing, Clark found some of the terminology in the Chalcedonian Creed to be vague, and he went so far as to urge ousia and it’s subsequent translation of substance, nature and being to be discarded.[56]  Yet, dedicated Clarkians would not go to the extent that they have with Van Til to brand Clark as being outside the pale of Orthodoxy.

It is quite unfortunate that the writings of Clark, Robbins and Crampton fail to show to their readers the concern and the reasoning that drives Van Til’s formulation that there is a sense the entire Godhead is a person.  Crampton, who has reviewed Frame’s book on the work of Van Til, failed to interact with his counter-arguments of Clarkian criticisms.  Instead, the discussion of Van Til’s Trinity resort to several lines restating the same charge Clark make all the while ignoring Frame’s rebuttal and new things being said.

Section Summary

Understanding the historical background of the original Clark and Van Til controversy sheds light in explaining the deeply partisan nature of the debate on the Orthodox status of Van Til’s Trinitarian formulation that can color one’s perception of Van Til’s theology proper.  However, part of the virtue of a Christian thinker is to examine the manner fairly and accurately represent the position and arguments of the opposing side.  It is a travesty that nearly seventy years after the first conflict between Van Til and Clark, the battle between their adherents still wages on, sometimes with more heat (emotions) than light (clarity), and with more serious allegation against the other side with the passage of time.  In examining some of the written personal correspondences between Carl Henry and other presuppositionalists, Al Mohler have described some of this phenomenon to be characteristics of a “tribal” and even “cultic” Presuppositionalism.[57]  This portrayal, if there are ingredients of truth to it, is certainly disheartening.  One must conduct themselves holy even in the manner of Christian debates.

As to the charge that Van Til was outside the bound of orthodoxy, it suffers from various difficulties that make the claim dubious.  Certain necessary claims to demonstrate his unorthodoxy offered by Van Til’s interlocutor are questionable.  While one might not accept Van Til’s formulation and reject the usage of the term person to describe the oneness of God, this does not imply that Van Til’s position was self-contradictory when his view is properly understood.  Paradox does not imply real contradictions.[58]

The Trinity applied to the One and the Many

Having demonstrated that Van Til’s doctrine is not heretical, this section will now explore another unique contribution he made in Trinitarian theology.  What is unique here is not so much his formulation of the Trinity as the original application of the Trinity to a new area theologically.  His conscious attempt to ground the Trinity as the center of a Christian worldview deserve some attention and learning lessons, even if one’s assess he did not accomplish this task.  Studying Van Til’s creative application of the Trinity is a fascinating exploration of what implication a biblically driven theology proper might have in the area of philosophy and a Christian worldview.  Smith writes,

“What could be more significant than a view of the Trinity which places the doctrine not only in the center of the entire theological enterprise, but also every academic and practical discipline, a view of the Trinity which sets forth the triune God as the very heart of the entire Christian worldview?  Van Til may or may not have succeeded, but he attempted nothing less.  His view deserves attention, and those who decide that he did not succeed have the opportunity to take up the challenge to offer a better approach.  For whether or not Van Til was correct in the way he expounded the doctrine of the Trinity and its place in the Christian worldview, can any Christian doubt that God Himself, as the triune Creator, Redeemer, and Lord of all, must be the foundation, the center and the aim of all Christian thought?[59]

Van Til believed that the move to make the Trinity the center of one’s entire theological, academic and practical endeavor was to propose the Trinity is the solution to the philosophical problem of the One and the Many.  An explanation of what that problem entails shall come first, followed by an exploration of the application of the Trinity to this problem by Van Til and those who are building upon Van Til.

What is the Problem of the One and the Many?

What is the philosophical problem of the One and the Many?  Awareness of this philosophical problem in the history of philosophy goes as far back to the days of Parmenides, who believed that all of reality is One, while the appearances of the many are in reality illusory.[60]  One cannot go far in describing the problem of the One and the Many without first defining what the One and the Many is:

The one refers not to a number but to unity and oneness; in metaphysics, it has usually meant the absolute, the supreme Idea for Plato, the universe for Parmenides, Being as Such for Plotinus, and so on.  The one can be a separate whole, or it can be the sum of things in their analytic or synthetic wholeness; that is, it can be a transcendent one, which is the ground of all being, or it can be an immanent one.  The many refers to the particularity or individuality of things.[61]

Defined as such, it would seem that the terms universals and unity can be used interchangeably with the One, while the terms particulars is interchangeable with the many.

In their introductory text to philosophy from a Christian perspective, Norman Geisler and Paul Feinberg describe what the problem is concerning the One and the Many:

One of the most persistent problems in philosophy is that of the One and the Many.  Is reality one or many or both?  If reality is one, then how do we explain multiplicity?  If reality is really many, then how do we explain the seeming oneness or unity of reality?  Finally, if reality is both one and many, is the one in the many, or is the many in the one?  In other words, which is more basic—the one or the many?[62]

From a Van Tillian vantage point, Rousas John Rushdoony has done the most work in the area of the Trinity and the problem of the One and the Many. [63]  His description of the problem is seen in the following:

The one and many is perhaps the basic question of philosophy.  Is unity or plurality, the one or the many, the basic fact of life, the ultimate truth about being?  If unity is the reality, and the basic nature of reality, then oneness and unity must gain priority over individualism, particulars, or the many.  If the many, or plurality, best describes ultimate reality, then the unit cannot gain priority over the many; then state, church, or society are subordinate to the will of the citizen, the believer, and of man in particular.  If the one is ultimate, then individuals are sacrificed to the group.  If the many be ultimate, then unity is sacrificed to the will of many, and anarchy prevails.[64]

Rushdoony’s summary of the classic dilemma captures an aspect of ultimacy and priority of the One and the Many that Geisler’s and Feinberg’s summary fail to capture.  The priority of the One or the Many will determine either the conformity of all facts to be brought into one, or the forcing of all facts to be separated and unrelated to one another.  There is a meta-normative component to the problem of the One and the Many (For instance, Are all facts obligated to be part of a unified one or not?  Are all facts unrelated and hence ought to be left alone from being grouped with other facts?).  When one realizes the problem of the One and the Many include the question of the priority of the one or the many, one will see that the problem is intertwined with the inescapable issue of authority that controls the relationship of all facts.

This brings us to two more important terms, Nominalism and Realism. These two terms need to be defined and understood:

The universe is full of a multitude of beings; is the truth concerning them inherent in their individuality, or is it in their basic oneness?  If it is their individuality, then the many are ultimate and the proper source of authority, and we have philosophical Nominalism.  If it is their oneness, then the one is ultimate, and we have Realism.  According to realism, universals, which are terms applicable to all the universe and can be called real ‘second substances,’ are aspects of the one idea and exist within it.[65]

Both Nominalism and Realism are inadequate solution to the problem of the One and the Many because they are reductionistic:

It is thus apparent that both ‘Realism’ and ‘Nominalism’ are ultimately destructive of the idea of truth.  ‘Nominalism’ admits no reality in universals[66] other than particularity, and ‘Realism’ ultimately reduces all universals to one, unity, and, especially in nonreligious forms, is quickly hostile to any notion that truth and unity can be in conflict.[67]

There is a dilemma in the problem of the One and the Many that pits Realism against Realism, a pure unity against pure diversity, which affects the possibility and intelligibility of human experiences.

Summarizing what the problem of the One and the Many is, it seems that there are at least four aspect to the problem that are inter-related and how someone answers one will affect how they answer the rest:

(1)   Does unity and plurality exists (Geisler and Feinberg)?

(2)   Is reality ultimately one, many or both (Rushdoony)?

(3)    What/Who is the source of authority determining the relationship or non-relationship of all facts?

(4)   How does resolve the tension between Nominalism and Realism (Rushdoony)?

The Trinity as the solution

Geisler and Feinberg believes that when it comes to the Trinity and the One and the Many, “Since at least the time of Augustine, Christians have seen great explanatory value in the Trinitarian model,” such as dealing with the question of “Was God lonely before He created the world?”[68]  Smith gives some caution though, to those thinking that there is a long history and depth in the application of the Trinity to the problem of the One and the Many: “It seems so natural to relate the philosophical problem of the One and the Many with the biblical doctrine of the Trinity that one would think theologians through the centuries would have addressed the subject frequently and in detail.  Such is not the case.”[69]  For that reason, studying whatever Christian attempts that have been made will be fruitful for future progress.

Consistent with his method of apologetics, Van Til believed that the solution needs to be grounded in God’s self-attesting Word of God.  In the middle of a chapter discussing the Trinity and the One and the Many, Van Til writes, “It is not as though we can first, apart from Scripture, determine the fact that there must be a triune God if there is to be rationality. If we are Christians, all our interpretation is in terms of this God of whom we speak.” [70]  From the same starting point, Smith writes, “Only an epistemology grounded in revelation from the triune God offers an ultimate solution the problem of the One and the Many, and therefore a coherent and meaningful worldview.”[71]  Thus, the truth of Scripture (such as the existence and character of this Triune God) is front and center in Van Til’s answer to the riddle of the One and the Many.

Crucial to Van Til’s application of the Trinity to the problem of the One and the Many is his understanding of the relationship between the oneness of God and the threeness of God.  According to Van Til, “Unity and plurality are equally ultimate in the Godhead.”[72]  That is, neither the oneness of God nor the plurality within God has greater priority over the other such that the oneness of God dominates the plurality of God and vice versa.  If the oneness of God was ultimate, then the plurality within God would be conformed and reduced to the one, or if the plurality of God is ultimate it makes the oneness of God a mere appearance and illusory.  Heresies arise when the equality of the unity and plurality of God is denied, such as Modalism which interprets the plurality of God in light of the ultimacy of the one, and Trithetheism which interprets the oneness of God in light of the ultimacy of the many.  Smith comments on Van Til: “He asserts very clearly that the threeness of God is equally ultimate with the oneness of God”, noting that “Any compromise of the ultimacy of God’s threeness would be utterly destructive of Van Til’s whole project.  It would ruin not only his view of the Trinity, but the application of the Trinity to the Christian worldview which Van Til is attempting to secure.”[73]

Also crucial matter in Van Til’s solution is his understanding of the relationship between the Triune God and the world.  God is the Creator and the world His creation.  In his contributing chapter on the One and the Many for Van Til’s Festschrift, Rushdoony writes, “To understand Van Til’s position with respect to the One and the Many, it is important to realize that…Creationism is fundamental to Van Til’s philosophy.”[74]  Smith draws the obvious connection between the Triune Creator and His creation: “To state it simply, the world created by God reflects the complexity of God Himself.  There is multiplicity of things in the world, but since these things fall into various categories, we must speak of unities as well.”[75]  This answers the question of whether unity and plurality can exists in God’s created reality.  In fact, it is impossible to deny unity and plurality in God’s created world without destroying the possibility and intelligibility of human experiences such as knowledge itself:

Knowledge of the world depends upon there being unity so that we can relate the diverse things and facts that we encounter.  At the same time, the diverse facts and things themselves must have real meaning, too, lest they become wholly absorbed into theoretical units.  Unity and diversity must both be real and have ultimate meaning in order for anything to have meaning.  Why is the world so?  Because it was created by a God who is both one and many—who is equally one and many, ultimately and unchangeably one and many.  The world is reflecting Him.[76]

Knowing that unity and particularity exists in God’s world is one thing, but how does knowing God is the Creator makes both the One and the Many equal,[77] and avoid the dilemma of either the One or the Many from becoming ultimate and absorbing all facts into Nominalism and Realism?[78]   A difficulty arise when one tackle this dilemma by simply reasoning that (a) God’s oneness and plurality are equally ultimate, (b) God created the world, (c) therefore the World’s One and the Many are equal.[79]  For one thing, there is the factor of the Creator/Creature distinction which should caution someone from automatically assuming that everything about God’s attribute will be present in God’s creation. [80]

The difficulty of grounding the equality of the one and the many within God’s creation can be resolved by affirming the very Creator/Creature distinction which gave rise to the difficulty of the above form of reasoning.  The all determining One and the Many is to be found in God Himself. The created One and the Many of His creation are neither ultimate.  Van Til notes how the two are equal: “Thus the created one and many may in this respect be said to be equal to one another; they are equally derived and equally dependent upon God who sustains them both.”[81]  This “derived” unity and plurality of God’s creation is elsewhere described by Van Til and Rushdoony as a “temporal unity and plurality.”[82] The derived unity and plurality are dependent upon the Triune Creator, and none can be described as being “ultimate” and hence neither creaturely plurality nor creaturely unity can demand the sacrifice of the other to itself.[83]  This solves the answer to the second question of the problem of the One and the Many, that unity and plurality in creation are equal, while at the same time resolving the dilemma of the fourth question, which protects facts from total absorption into Realism or Nominalism.

The relationship of the Triune God and the doctrine of creation have implication for the normative aspect to the problem of the One and the Many as well.  Since the Triune God is the Creator, the authority of setting the order between the temporal One and the Many rests squarely with God.  He is the one who has the prerogative to order the relationship between the One and the Many, in the way He dictates.  So while Van Til does acknowledge that “there is a basic equality between the created one and the created many or between the various aspects of reality,” he is quick to say that “there is a relation of subordination between them as ordained by God.” [84]

The One and the Many along with it’s aspect of authority is an important motif for Christian apologetics.  One’s worldview should have God as the basis for the ordering of the One and the Many rather than someone or something else. To locate that authority elsewhere besides the Triune God of the Bible is to commit idolatry and commit a leap into irrationality.  Van Til encourages his readers to “offer this triune God without apology as the only possible presupposition for the possibility of predication.”[85]  For instance, if the authority of regulating the relationship of the One and the Many is rooted in man, there is the problem of different formulations describing what that relationship of the unity of particulars look like, and it varies from individual to individual.  Sometimes these formulations contradict.  This same position means that unity and plurality are the results of man’s mental construct and it becomes nothing more than an autobiography, in that it tells us more about the person than it does about the nature of reality itself.  In the end, whatever unity imposed is arbitrary.  It is subjectivism.  Ironically, this embrace of subjectivism has allowed Nominalism to creep back in, where the particulars (individual opinions) has priority in determining reality.

On the other hand, if the source that controls the unity and plurality of facts is to be found somewhere in creation apart from God, this approach fails as well.  Some have sought to find the unity of all particular things in creation.  This search brings them to the realm of physics and the discovery that according to string theory, everything is composed of string level particles.  Despite the predicament of finite beings discovering a universal and impersonal fact on their own,[86] the unity achieve by the ultimacy of string theory reduces all particulars (man, bubble gum, rocks, etc) to the level of string level particles.  All particular facts, such as the birth of a child, wet dishes and good brotherly virtues lose its meaning when everything collapses into an explanation of moving strings.  The result is Realism, and the problem of the One and the Many once more, rears it’s ugly head.

The motif of the One and the Many provides the framework to critique Eastern religions and philosophy as well, especially since the criticisms of Nominalism is applicable against the East’s popular pantheistic Monism and the denial of true individuality.  There is much work that needs to be developed in this area by Presuppositional apologists.  Smith has begun doing this work with an article length critique of Zen Buddhism.[87]

Van Til’s desire to protect the Triune God as personal in both His Oneness and His Threeness comes back full circle in the solution to the authority question of the One and the Many.  Both Van Til and Frame believes that Christian apologists should emphasize the issue of Biblical personalism versus impersonalism more in their apologetics.[88]  This approach should pay big dividends for the current topic.  As stated earlier, there is a meta-normative aspect in the issue of the One and the Many. It has to do with who or what has the right to determine the relationship of facts—to prohibit the unity between facts, or obligate associations between certains facts.  The authority that controls the relationship of all facts ultimately has to be personal since “Impersonal facts and laws cannot be ultimate, precisely because they are not personal.  They cannot account for rationality, for moral value, for the causal order of the universe, or for the universal applicability of logic.”[89]


This essay has considered the charge by some Christians that Van Til’s Trinitarian formulation was unorthodox.  The historical context was described, and Van Til’s position was explained in light of the accusation lobbed at him.  Van Til’s formulation clearly was not heretical nor self-contradictory.

The second portion of this essay surveyed the contribution of Van Til and his followers in the application of the Trinity as a solution to the philosophical problem of the one and the many.  After a description of what that problem entails, four questions were outlined and Van Tillian’s answer to the question was sketched.

Of the two contribution Van Til deposited in Evangelical Trinitarian theology, this essay concludes with certainty that Van Til was not outside the bound of Orthodoxy in his discussion of the singular personhood of God if understood that it is not in the same sense as the three-ness of God.  However, in the area of the application of the Trinity to the solution of the one and the many, much further work could be done such as exegetical considerations, phrasing of the argument outside of Van Til’s dated philosophical terminology of the Idealists.


Anderson, James. Paradox in Christian Theology.  London, United Kingdom: Paternoster, 2007.

Bahnsen, Greg. Van Til’s Apologetics: Readings And Analysis.Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1998.

Clark, Gordon H.  The Incarnation. Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1988.

––––––. The Trinity. Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1990.

Crampton, Gary. “Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of his thought; Reviewed.” The Trinity Review (July 1996).

Frame, John M. Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thoughts. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995.

––––––. “Theology: The Problem of Theological Paradox.” In Foundations of Christian Scholarship.  Edited by Gary North, 294-330. Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1979.

––––––.  The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1987.

––––––. Van Til: The Theologian. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Pilgrim Publishing Company, 1976.

Geisler, Norman L. and Paul D. Feinberg.  Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective.Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993.

McGuckin, John Anthony.  St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversey. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1994.

Morey, Robert. The Trinity: Evidence and Issues. Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, 1996.

Muether, John. Cornelius Van til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008.

Muller, Richard A.  Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985.

Poythress, Vern S. In the Beginning Was the Word: Language, a God-Centered Approach. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009.

––––––. Symphonic Theology.  Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001.

Rushdoony, Rousas John. One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy.Fairfax, Virginia: Thoburn Press, 1978.

––––––. “The One and the Many: The Contribution of Cornelius Van Til.” In Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til.  Edited by E. R. Geehan, 339-348. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980.

Smith, Ralph. Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity.  Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2002.

––––––. “Zen: A Trinitarian Critique.” Trinitarianism.com.  http://trinitarianism.com/pdf/Zen-A-Trinitarian-Critique.pdf (accessed November 19, 2010).

Van Loon, Hans. The Dyophysite Christology of Cyril of Alexandria. Edited by J. den Boeft, and Bart D. Erhman. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

Van Til, Cornelius. An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974.

––––––. An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Second Edition.  Commentary by William Edgar.  Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2007.

––––––. Common Grace. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1954.

––––––. The Defense of the Faith. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955.

                [1] Karl Rahner, The Trinity, (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 10.

                [2] Ralph Smith, Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity, (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2002).

[3] What this problem entails will be explain later in this essay.

[4] Smith, Paradox, 13.

                [5] Meta-apologetics is the study of the methodology of apologetics.  It is concerned with the starting point, direction and goal of Christian apologetics.

                [6] Two students of Van Til that have contributed heavily to the popularization of Van Til beyond this limited circle has been John Frame and the late Greg Bahnsen.

                [7] My assessment that there will be more discussion of Van Til’s Trinity seems to be correct in light of recent activities on November 2010 on the blogosphere concerning this very topic.  This discussion originated from an essay posted by a contributor at the Alpha Omega ministries under James White named Collin Smith, and continued elsewhere in Choosing Hats, Triablogue and Aporetic Christianity.  All four are popular Van Tillian blogs on the internet.  At this time, I have not read what they and those on the other side have to say, in the hopes of coming to my own conclusion from my own study of the primary and secondary published sources.  This essay will only interact with published written work defending and criticizing Van Til’s Trinity.

                [8] Smith, Paradox, 125.

                [9] John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2007),, 65-66.

                [10] John Frame, Van Til: The Theologian, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Pilgrim Publishing Company, 1976).

                [11] Frame, Cornelius Van Til, 66.  Reading Frame’s account, one will note that Frame alluded to the booklet Van Til: The Theologian as an article.  The same year that the booklet was published, it also appeared as a chapter under a new title (but exactly the same content word for word) in a second Festschrift done in Van Til’s honor: John Frame, “Theology: The Problem of Theological Paradox” in Foundations of Christian Scholarship, edited by Gary North (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 1979), 294-330.  The official Orthodox Presbyterian Church historian John R. Muether provides a fascinating story behind this second “unofficial” Festschrift in John Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008), 216-217.

                [12] Frame, Cornelius Van Til, 66.

                [13] Gordon H. Clark, The Trinity, (Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1990).

                [14] First edition in book form: Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974).

[15] Muether, Cornelius Van Til, 92-94.

                [16] According to a summary in the CD of Van Til’s life’s work: The Works of Cornelius Van Til, (New York: Labels Army Co.) 1997.

                [17] Ibid.

                [18] Herman Hoeksema, The Clark-Van Til Controversy, (Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1990).  This is the account of the controversy from the perspective of a Clarkian, which also provides several entire length primary sources of official documents from the denomination and correspondences.  The Trinity itself was not part of the debate in the records.

                [19] Frame, Cornelius Van Til, 66.

                [20] For the 1949 edition, consult the CD: The Works of Cornelius Van Til.

                [21] Frame, The Theologian, 9.

                [22] Clark, The Trinity, 88.

                [23] Ibid, 86.

                [24] Frame, Cornelius Van Til, 66.

                [25] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2007), 363.  This is the second edition in book form.

                [26] Clark, The Trinity, 86.

                [27] Gary Crampton, “Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of his thought; Reviewed,” The Trinity Review (July 1996), 2.

                [28] Ibid.

[29] Clark, The Trinity, 87-88.

                [30] Robert Morey, The Trinity: Evidence and Issues, (Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, 1996), 507.

                [31] Ibid.

                [32] Van Til, Introduction, 362-363.

                [33] Ibid, 348.

                [34] Frame, Cornelius Van Til, 66-67.

                [35] Clark, The Trinity, 88-101.

                [36] Van Til, Introduction, 348.

                [37] Clark, The Trinity, 91.

                [38] Smith, Paradox, 41.

                [39] Crampton, “Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of his thought; Reviewed,” 2.

                [40] Clark, The Trinity, 91.

                [41] Crampton, “Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of his thought; Reviewed,” 2.

                [42] I found that Frame has also made the same observation.  See Frame, Cornelius Van Til, 67.

[43] Van Til, Introduction, 359-360.

                [44] Frame, Cornelius Van Til, 67.

                [45] Ibid, 69.

                [46] Van Til, Introduction, 363.

                [47] Hans Van Loon, The Dyophysite Christology of Cyril of Alexandria, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2009), 123.

                [48] Ibid, 127.

                [49] Ibid, 506.

                [50] Ibid, 505.

            [51] John Anthony McGuckin,  St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversey, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1994), 138.

                [52] In other words, the person who fully captures what a person is, and which other persons derived their personhood from is none other than God Himself.

                [53] Van Til, Introduction, 363.

                [54] Again, this is not to say that the “person” used to describe the oneness of God is the same as describing the threeness of God.

                [55] Frame, Cornelius Van Til, 67-68.

            [56] Gordon H. Clark, The Incarnation, (Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1988), 55.

                [57] Personal correspondence during Shepherd’s Conference 2010.

                [58] For an important discussion on Christian paradox (such as in the area of the Trinity and the doctrine of Incarnation) and it’s epistemic warrant for Christian belief from a Van Tillian perspective in conversation with contemporary Analytic philosophy, see  James Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology, (London, United Kingdom: Paternoster, 2007).

                [59] Smith, Paradox, 15.

                [60] Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993),167-168.

                [61] Rousas John Rushdoony, One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy, (Fairfax, Virginia: Thoburn Press, 1978), 66.

[62] Geisler, Introduction to Philosophy, 167.

                [63] Due to Rushdoony’s stance as the father of Christian Reconstructionism and some of his strong libertarian conspiratorial view, contemporary mainstream Van Tillians  have typically ignored, forgotten or remain unaware of Rushdoony’s contribution in the development and popularization of Presuppositional Apologetics and the positive construction of a Christian worldview.  Rushdoony’s waning influence in the world of Presbyterian and Reformed thought occurred around the 1970s when a strong reaction against Reconstructionism began to take form at Westminster Theological Seminary.  One should not easily dismiss what Rushdoony has to say in the area of Van Til’s Trinity and the problem of the One and the Many.  In the forward for Rushdoony’s Festschrift, John Frame tells the story of how he was introduced to Van Til’s apologetics when as a philosophy student in Princeton someone gave him a book written by Rushdoony, and how decades later, Frame can say that a  lasting contribution Rushdoony made was the implementation of Van Til’s solution to the One and the Many.

[64] Rushdoony, One and the Many, 2.

                [65] Ibid, 2-3.

                [66] That is, general principles.

                [67] Rushdoony, One and the Many, 7.

                [68] Geisler, Introduction to Philosophy, 174.

                [69] Smith, Paradox, 55.

                [70] Van Til, Introduction, 364-365.

                [71] Smith, Paradox, 43.

                [72] Van Til, Introduction, 348.

                [73] Smith, Paradox, 42.

                [74] Rousas John Rushdoony,, “Theology: The Problem of Theological Paradox” in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, edited by E. R. Geehan (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 344.

                [75] Smith, Paradox, 43.

                [76] Ibid.

                [77] Recall the second question of the Problem.

                [78] Recall the fourth question of the Problem.

                [79] This seems to be the reasoning at times in Poythress’ writing.  Cf. Vern Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word: Language—A God-Centered Approach, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009), 17-22, 251-258 and

                [80] To illustrate the point, examples of God’s attributes that he does not share with His creation include His Divinity, omniscience, omnipotence, etc.

                [81]  Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), 44.

                [82] Rushdoony, One and the Many, 10.

                [83] Ibid.

                [84] Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 44.

                [85] Van Til, Introduction, 362-363.

                [86] If the fact is universal, finite beings on their own suffer limitation in discovering the universal scope of the fact.  If the fact is impersonal, it is impossible for it to communicate the universal extent of itself since communication are property of persons rather than impersonal facts.

                [87] Ralph Smith, “Zen: A Trinitarian Critique,” Trinitarianism.com,  http://trinitarianism.com/pdf/Zen-A-Trinitarian-Critique.pdf (accessed November 19, 2010).

                [88] Frame, Cornelius Van Til, 60.

[89] Ibid.

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