Van Til: Yet This Is Not The Whole Truth

Yet this is not the whole truth of the matter. We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person…. 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.”

…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. 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.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (1971).


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  1. Well that’s odd. I never figured Van Til to be one to contradict the Athanasian Creed: “For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit… and in this Trinity none is afore, nor after another; none is greater, or less than another, but the whole three persons are co-eternal, and co-equal…”

    • Van Til is denying no such thing. He is embracing what he sees to be a necessary paradox- that God is three persons and one person. This quote is often brought out to beat Van Til over the head with, but to say he is denying the AC is not true. You may think he is implicitly denying it, but that doesn’t reckon with his theology of paradox.

    • Sorry, misremembered your comment, you didn’t say he was denying it. But the substantive point remains the case- you aren’t reckoning with his view of paradox. Apologies for the error though.

    • Steve,

      There are multiple issues and questions here.

      1. The proposition “God is one person” should be highly controversial to anyone with the slightest knowledge of the history of Christian theology.

      2. An electronic search of 969 Reformed documents from the 16th and 17th centuries finds the expression “God is one person” only once and that in a refutation of a sort of crypto-Unitarianism from 1695. To be clear the phrase and the doctrine, in that case, was rejected as heretical.

      3. A search for the Latin equivalent (Deus una persona est) reveals not a single instance in 969 texts. The search string “Deus una persona” brings up one hit, Theodore Beza’s Little Book of Questions and Answers (1570) where he uses the expression “una persona” to describe the unity of Christ’s person. The phrase does not occur in his account of the Trinity.

      4. To the best of my knowledge only 1 Western writer has spoken this (there may be one other) and that was Abelard, whose first work of theology was condemned twice in the 12th century for using expressions like this.

      5. Not a single one of the Reformed confessions speaks this way. Nothing in them would lead anyone ever to say “God is one person.”

      6. The absence of such language in the Christian tradition and in the Reformed writers and ecclesiastical confessions should make every sensible Christian profoundly wary about using such language.

      7. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, following the great Western tradition, wrote of God as “personal” but never as “one person” or “unipersonal.” Neither of them ever implied that God is one person or unipersonal or that we should think of God as one person. They both argued that God’s tri-personality, which is what we mean when we say “personal,” was gradually revealed in the history of revelation and redemption. It was with this truth in mind that Calvin taught the extra (beyond) aspect of the Son’s ministry in the world before the incarnation, in types and shadows (e.g., the Angel of the Lord in some instances), during the incarnation and after the ascension. In other words, the Son was operating “beyond” his humanity—therefore there is no need to speculate about the alleged ubiquity of his humanity, a notion that needlessly jeopardizes his true humanity. In Calvin’s reading of redemptive history, the God who gradually, progressively revealed himself is one in three persons. He is never said to be “one person.” There were unitarians about in Calvin’s day (from the 1530s) and he was in contact and combat with them. Only the Unitarians have ever spoke thus.

      8. 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. The doctrine of the trinity is not a second blessing. It is essential to our understanding of God.

      Here’s an introductory essay on the doctrine of the Trinity.

      Ps. The string “una persona” returns 430 hits in 969 documents. Scanning the occurrences suggests that the reference seems to be to the one person (una persona) of Christ. In other words, it’s a Christological formula in Reformed theology but not a Trinitarian formula. E.g., Beza used it 10 times contra the Lutheran Brenz re Christology. Vermigli used it 9 times in a Christological context. It gets used once in a large number of general works and judging by what I see it is used relative to Christology not the Trinity.

  2. If your point on quoting this without commentary is to give the impression that Van Til denied the classic doctrine of the Trinity, you do him great injustice. In context the “yet this is not the whole truth” is what comes after a discussion and affirmative of the historic 1 being in 3 persons formula. In many, many places Van Til affirms the “equal ultimacy” of the unity and plurality within the godhead.

    As one commenter notes, VT’s point is to affirm the “ultimacy” of personalize in the Christian worldview. What lies “behind” the personal distinctions in the godhead isn’t a more ultimate, impersonal ousia. Yes, perhaps we can charge VT with not being clearer in making the point that he’s using the term “person” slightly difference when he applies it to the unity and then the plurality within the godhead, but it strikes me as fairly clear in the fuller context that he does not deny Nicene orthodoxy.

    • Joseph,

      I believe CVT was essentially orthodox on the Trinity but I also think that this expression was highly problematic and we need to face it. It does no good for the Reformed confession to twist ourselves into pretzels in order to defend what is at best a highly problematic statement. It is true that there no abstract “personality” behind God but, ironically, that is what CVT’s formulation unintentionally creates. The “one person” of whom he wrote is nothing if not a speculative abstraction. The only personality of which we know is the progressively revealed tri-personality of the one God of Scripture.

  3. I don’t know the context of this particular Van Tillianism, but if he is not contradicting the Athanasian Creed, then it seems more like mush. On the other hand, perhaps I’m not bright enough to understand Van Tillian paradox. I’m hoping Mr. Clark would not have raised the topic if he weren’t prepared to give an answer.

    • Hudson,

      I want people to be aware of this since there is an attempt to regularize and, if you will, baptize it. Where, in previous generations and years it lay more or less hidden in what was regarded technically as an “unpublished” syllabus, that was printed by P&R and read by a few sem students, there seems now to be a growing movement to make CVT’s formula orthodox. That’s problematic. What was once an embarrassment should not quietly become the new orthodoxy.

      It’s important for us to realize that occasionally Homer nods. Our heroes have clay feet. They err. Calvin erred—quite possibly in refusing to affirm the eternal begotteness of the Son, I’m still working on that one and it’s recently been suggested that Calvin’s federalism was not as robust as it could have been even for his time period—and so did others of our writers. That’s okay. It happens but let’s acknowledge it. Calvin isn’t the be all and end all of Reformed theology, piety, and practice. CVT isn’t either. None of our guys are perfect. That’s an important thing to learn from this sort of mistake. God’s Word is perfect and the confession is the language of the church.

  4. Ah, never mind. I see SC has already answered, and I am very relieved that this is not another Van Tillian paradox that goes over my head.

    • Hudson,

      There is paradox in Christian theology. God is sovereign and humans are nonetheless morally liable for their uncoerced (and in that sense, free) choices and yet those choices are included in the providence of God which he decreed from all eternity. How can that be? To understate things, it’s a mystery. There is great mystery in the Trinity but we are not authorized to invent new paradoxes. The doctrine of the Trinity is not a playground for theologians. There are boundaries established by the creeds and the confessions.

  5. “Yet this is not the whole truth of the matter. We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person…. 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.”

    It might be worth noting why Van Til came up with this conception of the trinity – to preserve his apologetic system in which there may not be brute facts. Perhaps German idealism is not an “ideal” perspective from which to construct Christian philosophy?

  6. MM,

    I think your point on Van Til’s conceptual reliance on German Idealism is important. It seems to me that CVT was trying to frame his arguments in terms that addressed the concerns of his day – certainly Idealism had massive effects on both liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, and it appears that he was trying to beat his opponents on their own turf

    While I can appreciate what CVT was trying to do within his own place in history, I am not sure that his approach is most helpful to Reformed orthodoxy moving forward. With the resurgence of the study of Reformed orthodoxy, especially the 16th and 17th centuries, it seems to me that some of the historical theological concerns of our Reformed forebearers might be helpful in contemporary apologetics. For instance, following CVT here on “God as one person” would probably have negative impacts in our witness to historic trinitarianism.

  7. It seems that Van Til had to try awfully hard to make the transition from ‘one substance and three persons’ to one person and “three personal subsistencies”. I don’t yet understand his motivation. Why specifically did he think it necessary to adopt this particular unorthodox configuration? If the answer is ‘paradox’, then why didn’t he think the orthodox paradox would serve just as well as the unorthodox one? What is the reference to German idealism?

    • Hudson,

      The reference to idealism is more of a broad criticism of CVT. MM and I have both speculated on how much CVT reworked Kantian notions in his broader theological approach, but those conversations have been on other blogs for the most part.

      MM’s speculation, if I am reading him correctly was how CVT might have blurred the boundaries of essence and subsistence in the Trinity as a component of his larger apologetic project, which appears to be heavily indebted to German idealism of the Kantian variety even where he seeks to refute its intellectual abuses. Whether or not this can be more than speculation would be valuable to explore.

      Idealism aside, it is somewhat odd for CVT to describe the trinity in this manner, given how staunch of an advocate he was on other doctrine of God matters, namely the Creator/creature distinction.

    • Here’s a dab of relevant material:

      The influence of Kant on Van Til can be seen in two ways. First, there is the focusing of attention on epistemological problems, which became common in philosophy after Kant. In that sense, Van Til was himself a post-Kantian thinker.76 However, the more profound influence can be seen in Van Til’s adoption of a transcendental argument for his apologetics.77 Kant had sought in the first critique to find what conditions must be presupposed in order for us to have experience and knowledge of that experience. He first assumed that we do have such knowledge, but then the question was how such knowledge is possible. The answer, as he worked through his transcendental deductions, was space and time and the categories, not as properties of “things-in-themselves,” but as the a priori forms of all our intuitions. This, of course, involved his controversial notion of “things in themselves,” with the concomitant phenomenal/noumenal distinction. For Van Til, Kant’s fundamental error was excluding God from the outset and not making God the basic presupposition of predication. As Van Til employed the transcendental argument, the eternal triune God revealed by Scripture must be presupposed in order for experience to have any intelligibility.78 This approach resembled the argument of the Idealists for the Absolute, so he made an effort to distinguish his position from theirs.79

  8. Jed and Mikelmann. So you’re saying that this particular error exposes Van Til’s felt need to wrestle with German philosophy on its own terms, such that he wanted to cause Truth to lose its brutal (eternal) factuality, like Kant who insisted that “all knowledge begins with the senses…”, or like Von Harnack who wanted to denude the Gospel of its historical narrative, or like Schleiermacher who considered Truth more in reference to art than science.

    I’m not sure the theory makes sense. If VT wanted to distinguish Christian Truth as having ultimacy and personality rather than a mere philosophical construct, like the Germans, wouldn’t it be better to describe Truth as having a singular real substance consisting in three eternal Persons rather than in one eternal Person with three temporal or apprehensible “subsistencies”? I’m not inclined to call Van Til a heretic. It seems to me that the error must be due simply to an illogical leap of a muddled mind.

    • Hudson,

      I think the proximate source of CVT’s formulation here was Bavinck. I’ll check his RD when I get into the office.

      Contrary to the claims of some of his defenders, it’s clear that he was influenced, in some way, by idealism, if only in his vocabulary. He did not engage the Reformed tradition between Calvin and Hodge very closely. If he did the evidence does not appear in his syllabi or books. He seems to have taken Kuyper and Bavinck as a sort of baseline. He was not alone. A number of Dutchmen did the same thing in the early 20th century. That telescoping of the tradition led, to continue the metaphor, to a certain myopia.

      On your earlier comment, there’s nothing wrong with saying “three subsistences.” That’s very historic language. Calvin used it. The medievals used it and perhaps even the fathers. Calvin preferred subsistences to persona because the latter can be misunderstood.

      Ironically, by saying that God is “one person” CVT unintentionally created an abstraction. If “personal” = the tri-personal God and if there are only three persons, then what could “person” mean used in another way? Which “person” is God? To answer that question is heresy. God isn’t any of the persons. See the Athanasian Creed. What then does “one person,” in this context mean? It’s an abstraction. It’s certainly not catholic language, i.e., it’s not creedal language. It’s not confessional/Reformation language. It’s not the language of the post-Reformation Reformed theologians. It’s not helpful language. Anything that requires us Van Tillians (of whom I am most happily one and anyone who says other wise is violating the 9th commandment—I say this because I once was told by a leading Van Tillian (LVT),

      LVT: “You’re not a Van Tillian.”

      Clark: “Really?” says I, “why not?”

      LVT: Because you criticized Van Til.

      Clark: Well, I criticize Calvin but I’m still a Calvinist.

      Two hours later he finally conceded that I am a Van Tillian but notice the instinct. It’s not a healthy instinct. Only God and his Word are beyond criticism. The churches confess the Word together but that confession is always subject to the Word and where the confession departs from the Word it should be revised to conform to the Word.

      Van Til cannot be beyond criticism.

    • Hudson,

      Just to clarify. I am not saying that CVT’s trinitarian formulation cited above is proof positive of of his reliance on German idealism. I was responding to MM’s point. However, his reliance on idealism is not exactly a novel concept. But MM’s speculation about CVT’s difficulties with factual/evidentiary models might lend some sort of credibility to the speculation. Speculation isn’t bad, but it doesn’t prove anything whether or not CVT’s position on the trinity was influneced by his idealist tendencies. So, I wouldn’t make too much of the comment. But if you have some evidence that his novel formulation of the Trinity was owing to some other theological or apoligetic motivation, that would be great just the same.

    • I was simply taking CVT at his word: his re-interpretation of the trinity was necessary to uphold his denial of the existence of brute facts. It’s an idealist move to alter ontology to make it conform to the writer’s consistent system of thought.

      Given when CVT did his work, his appropriation of Kantian vocabulary, his employment of a transcendtal critique, his employment of a Conpernican Revolution in apologetics (my description), and the above quote, I think its a fairly mundane observation that idealist philosophy had a substantial impact on his work.

    • MM,

      Thanks for the source, I haven’t read that article yet, so I am looking forward to it. There is also a source worth reading on the topic – “A Critique of Cornelius Van Til” by D.R. Trethewie (easily found on a web search). There are times when I think Trethewie is too hard on CVT, and does not acknowledge positive contributions that CVT has made, but his case for CVT’s reliance on idealism is hard to refute.

  9. I hope I’m not breaking the blog rules by recommending an article on this topic which defends Van Til if this is considered to be an unconfessional position, but there is an article on this very quote called “Van Til’s Serious Trinitarian theology” written by James Anderson and posted on Triablogue which defends VT’s formulation. I think it’s worth a read.

    • Thomas,

      That’s fine. Does it bother you, however, that there are those who cannot say the words, “Van Til was wrong” or “Van Til made a mistake here”? I have the same problem with (Gordon) Clarkians.

      CVT himself did not want to be the measure of orthodoxy. The Word confessed by the churches is our standard.

  10. Scott. I had feared that Van Til’s “three subsistences” were more or less the same thing as “three substances.” That of course would have made another heresy out of his statements, but the fear was unfounded. As did Calvin, he is not asking for Truth abstractions to be drawn from the “Person” of God, but rather the opposite, that a “subsistence” is a person (in the same sense as the Creeds), and that there are three of them. What a relief, but also what a muddle that his “Person” means “substance”, and his “subsistence” means “person.”

    • Hudson,

      No, it’s an ancient way of saying that God subsists in three persons. It isn’t three substances. That would be heresy.

      God subsists in three persons so his essence is tri-personal but it isn’t unipersonal. That is part of the confusion of CVT’s formulation. God is one substance, one essence, in three persons or subsistences.

      I really don’t think that this question is that difficult.

      I fear that some are seeking a sort of gnostic secret, that others don’t have on the Trinity. It’s sort of like joining a secret club. “We know something you don’t.” I’m not accusing you of this but I get the sense from some defenders of CVT that there is a QIRC-y aspect to their defense of CVT. Part of their identity is tied up in knowing something about the Trinity that makes separates them from the great mass of ordinary, catholic (lower case c = universal) Christians.

  11. Dr Clark,

    I agree that there is definitely a problem with pet theologians/philosophers, and a propensity to defend them to the death rather than admit they could be in error. I’m not sure whether it bothers me or not. Perhaps it should. Certainly I know I’ve done it in the past (though not with CVT).

    I don’t like paradoxical formulations where avoidable. I’m not entirely sure what to think about CVT’s here, but I think that as far as I understand it in the context of his theology it could be understood in a perfectly orthodox way, as Anderson says “intensifying” rather than contradicting ancient formulations. His motives for the formulation seem reasonable at least.

    I think that there is a lot of extremely loose social trinitarianism about, and wonder if CVT isn’t trying to provide a helpful corrective which guards monotheism more safely. Whether it’s successful or not is really hard to judge, given his seeming apophaticism on the subject of what he means by person in these senses.

    • Thomas,

      How does “one person” preserve the Trinity?

      I’m quite opposed to Social Trinitarianism but I don’t think that, when CVT was writing, it was much on his radar. I’m not even sure that when he wrote this that anyone was much talking about it.

  12. Dr Clark,

    Three persons and one person; CVT believed that there was some kind of unvoiced equivocation there, meaning that the two “persons” have different definitions, even if he wasn’t sure how they differed.

    CVT did believe in the Orthodox formulations of the Trinity, as the preamble to that passage suggests. He just thought that to preserve its oneness rather than privileging its “manyness” the principle of unity needed to be more than what he saw as an impersonal essence.

  13. Dr Clark,

    They were probably aware that such language was in danger of being misconstrued as unTrinitarian. But that doesn’t mean that CVT’s reasons for doing so aren’t valid.

    • Thomas, I am not sure how CVT’s formulation is at all helpful in further clarifying the doctrine of the Trinity, or if it either improves upon or more clearly elaborates our creedal and confessional statements on the Trinity. Whatever his motivations were, I am not sure what he actually accomplished by eschewing long agreed upon terminology for his more novel construction.

    • Thomas,

      How can “one person” be construed as Trinitarian?

      How could any one not reasonably construe “one person” not to be contrary to “three persons”?

      How does “one person” help us more than “personal” or tri-personal”?

      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?

    • Mr Paschall: his aim was to account for the way in which the Triune God appears to behave like a person in some parts of Scripture.

      Dr Clark: “One person” in isolation couldn’t. But “One person and three persons” could, conceivably. Someone could reasonably not construe them as contradictory if they were aware of Van Til’s theology of paradox, so it isn’t an idea to be extracted from his writings without being carefully explained. I wouldn’t want to put it in a creed.

      As for how it helps us more than personal, I think that it makes it less abstract. I’m not sure it is necessarily more helpful than “tri-personal” though, indeed I think that would probably be a more helpful formulation.

      CVT could have done many things to have made an error, and am sure that he did. You’re mistaken if you think I am a diehard Van Til apologist, I’m really not, but given the context of the quote, Van Til’s ideas about paradox and his refusal to countenance historical heresies on the Trinity, I think it’s fair to say that CVT is attempting to contribute to the orthodox teaching rather than revise it.

  14. “Does it bother you, however, that there are those who cannot say the words, “Van Til was wrong” or “Van Til made a mistake here”?”

    These two aren’t the same thing, I don’t think. Colin D. Smith has an excellent article on this topic, and several WTS East profs have weighed in on this as well – and on the basis of their argumentation, I came to the conclusion that he had grounds for making this statement. Tipton’s comments go into great detail on various formulations, and Smith addresses the context quite thoroughly. I can say the words “Van Til was wrong” – I have most of Van Til’s published works, and there are various places in them where he is simply wrong. I don’t think that disagreeing with the criticism on this particular point necessarily means that VT is seen as infallible.

    • Does it bother you that no church has EVER said “God is one person”? Does it bother you that no orthodox patristic, medieval, Reformation, post-Reformation theologian has EVER said “God is one person”? Does that give you a moment’s pause?

      Ps. RK, anonymous comments are not ordinarily permitted here.

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