Colin D. Smith is a Reformed Baptist writer and blogger at (http://www.colindsmith.com/blog). He holds a B.A. in Theology from the University of Hull in England and an M. Div. from Columbia Evangelical Seminary. Along with his various fiction writing projects, Colin has written a number of academic theological papers, one of which, “Van Til and the Trinity: The Centrality of the Christian View of God in the Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til“, explains Van Til’s approach to defending the faith and the centrality of the Trinity to his apologetic. In this written interview, we will be exploring various topics that Colin raises in his paper.
We hope that the material that is provided will assist you in your own apologetic endeavors!
Thanks Patrick for this opportunity to address questions on Van Til and the Trinity. I think Van Til did a great service to Christian apologetics by shining a spotlight on the Trinity. Too often, we don’t like to talk about such doctrines when witnessing to unbelievers. We think of them as obscure, or controversial, perhaps even unnecessary in the context of an apologetic encounter, especially with atheists. If nothing else, I hope the following discussion helps us see how this revelation from God of His nature is, in fact, one of the greatest apologetic tools He has given His church.
What is the Ontological Trinity and what importance and implications does it have for apologetics?
When Van Til speaks of the “Ontological Trinity,” he’s referring to God as He actually is, as opposed to God as we see Him working within history (that is, the “Economic Trinity,” which we see reflected in passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:3 and John 14:26, where the emphasis is on the function of the three Persons, and how they relate to one another). So we can define the Ontological Trinity in the same terms as the classic creedal Trinitarian statements: God is one Being who exists in three separate, co-equal, co-eternal Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They each share the same Being, but they are separate and distinct Persons.
As a key doctrine of the Christian faith, the Trinity is apologetically critical. There’s a tendency in modern evangelical apologetics to avoid distinctly Christian doctrines when talking to the lost. The idea is that we must find “common ground” with the unbeliever, and argue for the faith from some neutral area, based on information we all accept as fact. This is not only unbiblical, but it’s naïve. As Van Til (correctly) argued, there is no such thing as “common ground” philosophically between the Christian and the non-Christian. We both see the world through distinctive worldview lenses. Our understanding of the “facts” of the universe are colored by our worldview, so even those facts we consider to be true for everyone are interpreted by our own philosophical framework. To the Christian, morality is anchored in the Word of God; to the unbeliever, it’s anchored in social norms, or one’s personal predisposition. To the Christian, law has meaning as a reflection of the just and righteous God who created us with a sense justice; to the unbeliever, law is simply agreed-upon conventions designed to promote an orderly society.
Recognizing this difference in worldview, it’s pointless for the Christian to try to argue for God’s existence from neutral ground. There is no neutral ground. Any evidence the Christian raises for the existence of God, or the truth of Christianity, will be interpreted by the unbeliever according to his worldview. Jesus’s miracles? To the unbeliever, these are simply fables, exaggerations of the disciples to elevate Jesus’s character, or the impressions of simple-minded people when presented with clever tricks. The Resurrection? Again, even if the unbeliever can be persuaded to accept the historical probability that it happened, he need go no further than to say “strange things happen.” After all, it was a one-off event, and we know from the newspapers, even the most improbable events happen from time to time. It doesn’t prove anything, nor does it necessarily mean anything.
This is why the Christian apologist’s job is to present Christianity as the only worldview that adequately explains the universe. The only way we can truly understand law, logic, and morality is if we recognize these as gifts of God to His creation. And by “God” we don’t just mean any deity. The unbeliever’s worldview problems are not addressed by accepting mere theism. Rather, it’s the triune God of the Bible who alone can explain the nature of life and the universe. This is why the job of the Christian apologist is not to defend theism, or make a case for the probability that a god exists. Our commission is to give an account for Christian theism. It’s vitally important, therefore, that we begin any apologetic encounter by arguing for the Christian, triune God.
Can you explain what Van Til meant by saying God is one person and three persons?
As I’ve said, Van Til considered it of the utmost importance that the Christian apologist seek to defend the one true God of the Bible, not just mere theism. In light of this, we can understand why it was important for him to underscore the personal nature of the Christian God, since only the triune God of Christianity can account for His personal nature. Unitarians and polytheists may claim their gods are personal, but, as we have seen, they cannot reasonably explain how they can express personality and maintain aseity. I think it was this desire to emphasize God’s personality that led Van Til to make this rather controversial statement. As I understand it, he was simply trying to state—perhaps in deliberately provocative terms—the fact that God is not an impersonal force, and to stress how important it is for the Christian apologist to keep the fundamental person-hood of God in mind.
Van Til did not in any way deny the traditional creedal definition of the Trinity (one Being with three co-equal, co-eternal Persons). His point was that when we move from speaking of God in His particulars (i.e., the three Persons of the Trinity), to speaking of God as an absolute Being, He doesn’t cease to be personal. When we speak of three cats, we recognize each of them individually as particular felines with attributes and characteristics. However, while each feline is a distinct animal, they are all cats. The term “cat” is not a reference to a particular, but it is an abstraction. Abstractions are not personal: they merely describe the particular. When we speak of God, we speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as particulars—Persons—but we don’t refer to God as an abstraction. God is not a force, or an abstraction consisting of three Persons. He is a personal being consisting of three co-equal, co-eternal Persons.
One criticism leveled against Van Til is that this presents, at best, an equivocation (using the term “person” in two different ways in the same sentence), and at worst, a contradiction: how can God be both one person and three persons? Surely, logically, He must be either one or the other—He can’t be both. But as John Frame, a former student of Van Til, points out, we derive what we know of the Trinity by revelation given in Scripture. We have to be humble enough to admit the limitations of our understanding, and accept what Scripture says, even if it seems to us contradictory. It is only contradictory because we cannot comprehend the truth. Scripture shows us a triune God made up of three entities who are Personal. This God as a being is also shown to be personal. Hence we can say that God as a being is personal, and the being of God consists of three Persons. To try to fathom this is to speculate beyond revelation, which is always dangerous. The important point for Van Til was not so much how God can be personal in both His absolute being, and in His particular Persons, but that Scripture reveals this fact to us, and within the triune nature of God as revealed by Scripture, it is both reasonable, and evident that God is thoroughly personal.
What are some philosophical problems that arise for Unitarians and polytheists?
If the Ontological Trinity is truly the nature of God, then any denial of that, whether in Unitarianism, or in the various polytheistic faiths (Hinduism and Mormonism, for example) is a denial of the true God. That is ultimately the main issue where the gospel is concerned, because there is no salvation outside of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. It’s only through the once-for-all sacrifice of the perfect God-man that our sin is dealt with; trusting in any other god or any other system will not satisfy divine justice.
The Unitarian god is simply absolute being, separate and distinct from creation. For some Unitarians, this god may be nothing more than a nameless “power” operating behind the scenes. It might be a good power, or it might be neutral, like The Force in “Star Wars,” subject to manipulation by both good and evil. Others will give personality to this god, and we see this perhaps most graphically in Islam. Muslims are Unitarian, and consider the Unitarian nature of Allah to be at the heart of the Islamic faith such that any denial of this brings eternal punishment (and perhaps even temporal punishment!). Yet Muslims speak of Allah as just, forgiving, wise, and a host of other things that befit a personal being. The problem for the Unitarian, Muslim or otherwise, is not so much whether they believe their god is personal, but whether a Unitarian god really can be personal. I may like to believe my cat understands everything I say, but reason and observation indicate very plainly this is not the case.
When a Unitarian declares his god to be wise, good, and just, who defines these attributes? The fact is, the Unitarian god is dependent upon his creation for his personal attributes. Love, reason, and will are his as an extension of us. Since there is no other being or person for the Unitarian god to commune with, or to express personality with, he relies upon his creation to express his personality. No matter how much the Unitarian may protest otherwise, the Unitarian’s god needs his creation in order for him to express personality. This strikes at the heart of what it is for God to be God: there must be aseity—that is, independence from His creation—such that He is truly self-sufficient. God was not obliged to make us, and if we ceased to exist, God would continue to live without us. We weren’t created to fulfill some existential need that God had for fellowship: He already had that, and will continue to have fellowship within Himself for all eternity. The Muslim may make the same claim, but his claim cannot stand: without his creation, the Muslim god is no more than a nameless power, like “The Force” or electricity.
Aside from the Scriptural denunciations of false gods, the main problem with polytheism is that of ultimacy: there is no single, final source of all wisdom, knowledge, truth, reason, and so on. The polytheist may be able to claim community and fellowship among the deities, and within that community there may be love and justice, reason and wisdom. But which of these gods is the source of love, justice, reason and wisdom? It must have come from one of them. And if it did, then the god who is the source of these things is set apart from the other gods, making the rest essentially pointless. They become as dependent upon the “greater” god as we would be. This then puts the polytheist into the same position as the Unitarian, with a single god who is the source of all personal attributes, but unable to explain how a Unitarian god can truly be personal. If these attributes come from a source outside the gods, such that these are things to which the gods must aspire and submit, then they are no longer gods. They have lost any sense of aseity, which, as I noted above, is an essential part of deity.
Another consideration with regard to polytheism is the fact that in its denial of ultimacy, it is the very definition of irrationality. But I’ll leave that for now since we’ll be taking up the topic of rationalism and irrationalism below.
How are we as Christians able to account for love, while a Unitarian is not?
This, for me, is one of the most powerful philosophical arguments against Unitarianism. Most Christians, I hope, realize that a major problem for atheism is trying to explain the source of love—and by love, I mean more than just chemical reactions. Love is multi-faceted, expressing itself in many ways: familial love, love between friends, romantic love, and so on. While one’s chemistry certainly plays a part in the feelings we have toward our fellow human beings, there’s a moral dimension to love, in terms of commitment, devotion, loyalty, and other things that run counter to the self-serving disposition of the natural man. Logically, the impetus to sacrifice oneself for one’s friend with no thought of personal gain makes no sense, and yet our culture lauds such displays of selflessness. The problem for the atheist is the fact that outside of the God in whose image we are made and whose character we reflect, he cannot explain why such strong, illogical impulses reside within us.
The Trinitarian and the Unitarian would agree that love is a divine gift. The issue for the Unitarian is the fact that his god, who he claims is unique in the universe, without peer, and without rival, is unable to express the same kind of love we, his creation, expresses. If we know love because we are made in the image of God, and we receive this attribute from Him, then it must be true that God possesses and expresses this same kind of love. One might argue that God expresses it in His love for His creation. But this is hardly the same. When we show love for one another, we are showing love to fellow creatures, others who are similarly made in God’s image. We give and receive love in peer-to-peer relationships. But the Unitarian god is denied such relationships by the fact that he is peerless. He has no-one with which to share love of any kind in the same way.
The God of Scripture—the only true God—doesn’t have this problem. The being of the true God consists of three co-equal, co-eternal Persons. Each of these Persons is distinct, but they share the same divinity. By virtue of their participation in the same being, they are peers. They are each equally divine, sharing the same divine perfections. Yet they are individual Persons, so they can commune with one another. They can plan, reason, and purpose together. And they can share love one with another. When God called Jesus His “beloved Son” on the mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9), this wasn’t just a pleasantry. He was describing a real relationship that exists between the Father and the Son. And we are able to love one another because the triune God who created us can share love within His being in peer-to-peer relationship. This is the only reasonable explanation for why we feel and express love among our peers: only the triune God has the same kind of love to communicate to us in creation. The Unitarian god cannot love this way, and therefore has no such love to share.
What is the Problem of the One and the Many and how is it solved?
The philosophical problem of “the One and the Many” is related to the question of knowledge: how do we truly know something? Is it by appreciation of the thing as a whole, or is it by examination of its constituent parts? You can attempt to know your pet cat by seeing her as a cat with all the attributes of cat-ness, or, stepping back further, you can see her as a mammal, or an animal, or a sentient life form. But in the end, ultimate abstraction is the same as not really knowing anything. Knowing that your cat is an expression of life on Earth isn’t really saying anything about your cat. The same problem exists if we go the other way, examining the cat in terms of particulars: ears, nose, whiskers, fur, claws, eyes, heart—these are constituent parts of a cat. But if you continue down this line of examination to find the ultimate “life particle”—the deepest essence of being, if such a thing exists—you still haven’t really said anything about your cat.
The problem is that particulars depend upon abstraction for meaning, but abstract objects depend upon particulars for meaning—a circularity that ends up not explaining anything. Van Til’s solution is to see the triune God as the source of meaning. God is both one and many, which is why the universe is full of one-and-many relationships. Instead of looking at the created thing to find meaning, whether through examining particulars or abstraction, we should look to the One-and-Many God who made those things. In Him, and in Him alone, they find meaning.
We all see the world in terms of both one and many, and the only reason we are able to see both, and find meaning in them, is because we are all created by a God who is both abstract and particular: one and many. We don’t look to the Trinity to solve the problem of the One and the Many, that is to explain how we see them together, but rather, we recognize that it’s because of the Trinity, we as humans can makes sense of one-and-many relationships. It’s in the context of the God who made all things, who is Himself One-and-Many and personal, that we see the abstract and the particular in the universe. There is no explanation for how the abstract and the particular both make sense and give meaning to anything outside of the triune Creator of the universe. And while the unbeliever may not acknowledge God, when he sees meaning in anything, he is doing so because he is made in God’s image, and is seeing a one-and-many world through eyes created by a one-and-many God.
Why must God be both absolute and personal? What problems result for other deities who are only personal or only absolute?
Far be it from me to say what God must be! I think what you’re saying is that the nature of reality suggests God has to have certain characteristics for reality to make sense. Logically speaking, God must somehow be both absolute and personal. I think this is a sound inference from reason and observation, and it is, I believe, confirmed by Scripture.
We talked above about the fact that within the Trinity, there is peer-to-peer relationship. There is a relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit that God cannot have with anything else in the universe. It is within the Trinity that God expresses true personality. This also means that God is completely independent of His creation. He doesn’t rely on humans for love, acceptance, and fellowship. God is completely satisfied within Himself. It’s true that God communes with His creation, and He expresses love for His creation, but this is hardly the same as the inter-Trinitarian love and fellowship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit experience. How can the love of an infinite God be satisfied by friendship with finite creatures?
Because God is totally self-sufficient, He doesn’t need us. In this way, God is absolute. His sense of fulfillment does not depend upon us in any way. If God relied upon us for communion, or for love, or friendship, we would be able to bribe Him by threatening to withdraw from Him. He would become a respecter of persons, perhaps doing things to maintain our good favor. There would be no independence to His will or His decrees.
An interesting aspect of Van Til’s notion of God’s absoluteness is the fact God is not merely, say, the ultimate good, or the ultimate justice, or the ultimate being. To speak this way is to imply that there is a standard of good, justice, and being outside of God of which He is the most perfect expression. Rather, God is the very definition of these things. He is goodness, justice, and being. God’s absoluteness extends even to the point that if there was nothing else in the universe to which we could compare Him, He would still be good, just, holy, and so on. Indeed, we derive these attribute from Him. We only know what is good and just because we are made in the image of the One who is those very things.
Clearly, if God was merely absolute but not personal, we would have a god who is nothing more than a power source, or some kind of supernatural energy, again, akin to The Force in the “Star Wars” movie saga. Without personality, God would have no purpose, no will, no design. There would be no morality to God: His power could be used equally for good and evil. And if such an impersonal being were able to create (which I think would be impossible, given that the ability to form matter from the dust requires imagination and purpose, both of which are aspects of personality), He would have no attributes to communicate to His creation. In essence, God would become Fate, directing the universe but without any objective, or any design. This is, in fact, very much the picture of God’s sovereignty we get from Islam, which is in stark contrast to the loving, purposeful sovereignty of God we see in Reformed Theology.
If God were merely personal but not absolute, then He would be able to create personal beings, but He would not be able to define Himself outside of His creation, and He would, therefore, be dependent upon forces outside of Himself for His identity. As with the polytheist, the non-absolute god loses aseity, which, as I noted above, is definitional of deity. God has to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining to be free to act and decree according to His own will and good pleasure. The personal deity may be able to will and purpose, but if he is not also independent of his creation, he must always compromise his will according to the needs of his creation.
What is Van Til’s notion of rationalism and irrationalism? What implications does this have for apologetics?
According to Van Til, “irrationalism” is what happens when people deny ultimacy in the universe. When the serpent sowed the seeds of doubt in Eve’s mind, questioning the truth of what God had said, and doubting the results of eating the fruit of the tree, he was provoking Eve to be irrational. When non-Christians search for what Van Til called “brute facts”—facts that are plain and simple, without spin or interpretation—they are exercising irrationalism.
When man takes upon himself the mantle of authoritative interpreter of reality, and tries to understand the universe in terms of his own reason and experience, he is, according to Van Til, exercising rationalism. When Eve decided that the serpent’s view of the situation was correct, that there was really no harm in eating the delicious fruit, that knowing good and evil really was a blessing and not the curse that God said it would be, and who did God think He was to be giving orders anyway?—rationalism entered Paradise.
When an unbeliever declares that anything is possible, he is utilizing irrationalism. When the unbeliever qualifies this statement by adding that anything except Christianity, or the Christian God, or the Christian Scriptures, is possible, he is adding rationalism to his irrational statement. One moment, the non-Christian speaks of his “freedom” and his ability to think without the constraints of religion. The next moment, he admits that he, and all of creation, are subject to laws of logic and reason, laws that even God Himself must obey. Irrationalism and rationalism.
Unfortunately, much of modern evangelical apologetics fails to exploit the unbeliever’s vacillation between these two poles. Instead, most evangelicals engage in irrationalism when arguing for the existence of God. In order to appeal to the unbeliever, the apologist denies God ultimacy, and claims that knowledge of God can be found in general facts of the universe, by appeal to logic, and so forth. In other words, by asserting God can be known by “brute facts,” the apologist engages in worldly irrationalism, which ultimately succeeds in doing no more than demonstrating a probability that God exists.
A better apologetic is to hold a mirror up to the unbeliever’s worldview. Show him that he is inconsistent, trying to hold to both rationalism and irrationalism, and ending up not really able to make any reasonable sense of the world. The apologist should then introduce the fact of the triune, personal God, from whom all things came about, and in whom all things have purpose and meaning. We don’t need to argue for God’s existence by making Him obedient to the laws of logic. He created the laws of logic. There is no explanation for the laws of logic outside of the fact that they come from a personal Creator who defines reason. To submit to the Lord of the universe is not to enslave one’s mind, rather it is to free one’s mind to see the world as it really is, and to see the unity and diversity within Creation not as a logical conundrum, but as a reflection of the Three-In-One God who made it.
Can you recommend some further reading and resources on the Trinity?
Most good systematic theologies deal with the doctrine (e.g., Berkof’s Systematic Theology, or Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith). For a historical perspective on the Trinity, including the various heretical assertions made against it, books like J. N. D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, and most good church history works are useful.
Of course, with regard to our subject here, we shouldn’t overlook the works of Van Til himself, and his students. In his Defense of the Faith, Van Til discusses the Trinity in particular, but throughout brings up points where the Trinity is relevant to apologetics. There are also sections in the works of Greg Bahnsen (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis), and John Frame (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought) that deal specifically with Van Til’s views on, and use of, the Trinity in his apologetic approach.
There are a couple of volumes I would like to recommend in particular. First, James R. White’s The Forgotten Trinity. There aren’t many books devoted to exploring the doctrine in terms of history, creeds, and apologetics. Dr. White does a masterful job of explaining and defending the Trinity, and also setting the record straight with regard to a number of misconceptions people have regarding the formulation and history of the doctrine.
Another interesting book is God in Patristic Thought, by G. L. Prestige. This is more a work of church history (as the name suggests), but in it, Dr. Prestige explores issues raised within the historical discussion as the church grappled with the way God had revealed Himself in Scripture. Among the topics he discusses are subordinationism, the meaning of “homoousion”—or what it means when Nicea says that Christ is of “the same essence” with the Father, and co-inherence—which is getting more into Christology, but still important and relevant.
Thanks again for this opportunity to answer questions on this interesting and vital topic, Patrick. I hope your readers benefit from our discussion.