We live in an age that has lost the plot. In this case it is not the world at large, but rather the broadly Protestant/evangelical world in the West—many things taken almost for granted by previous generations of Christians are met with bewilderment or even scorn by modern American believers. Take this statement as an example:
Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith: Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity; Neither confounding the persons: nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father: another of the Son: and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Deity of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.1
So begins the Athanasian Creed from the late 5th century. These words may shock Christians who grew up in a broadly evangelical context where the doctrine of the Trinity was either downplayed or presupposed, if not outright ignored. As one might expect, this has led to theological systems that range from being lopsided (at best) to being heterodox or even heretical (at worst). Such is the background for Lane Tipton’s recent book, The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til. Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) is well-known for his views on apologetics, but his Trinitarian theology (and his theology proper in general) is underdeveloped in the secondary literature.2 This reviewer hopes Tipton’s book will begin to correct that problem.
In order to set the context, Tipton begins by identifying the two main temptations in theology proper, according to Van Til: thinking that the creature (namely, man) partakes of the Creator’s divine essence, or thinking the Creator participates in the creature.3Indeed, “[t]he Creator-creature distinction must be maintained at every point in the Creator-creature relation.”4 Without this distinction, theology can only grow in the wrong direction: “In Van Til’s estimation, all heresies in the history of Christian theology derive in one way or another from a doctrine of Trinitarian subordinationism.”5 In opposition to these perennial temptations, Tipton argues that “Van Til developed classical Reformed Trinitarianism and federalism” by using the “representational principle,” which simultaneously guards God’s intra-Trinitarian life from all forms of subordinationism and also guards his relation to Creation from all mutualism or divine mutability.6 Tipton argues for this by outlining Van Til’s influences, polemical opponents, and his positions themselves.
Tipton introduces Van Til’s concept of the representational principle by arguing that it is “the programmatic response of confessional Reformed Trinitarianism and federalism to various expressions of correlativism and mutualism.”7 This is quite a claim, and Tipton spends the rest of the book arguing for such a conclusion. He gives his own helpful definition of Van Til’s representational principle:
each Trinitarian person represents the whole of the divine essence (in the relations of subsistence) and the other Trinitarian persons (in the relations of coinherence) in the Godhead. Growing organically from this conception of the Trinity, all of created reality by general and special revelation represents in revelation the absolute and living triune God and suggests a definite conception of image-bearing Adam in covenant with God.8
Van Til’s Trinitarianism is certainly less well-known than his apologetic method, but if one knows anything about Van Til’s doctrine of the Trinity it is probably his idea that God is one person and three persons. That is how it is often understood, anyway. Tipton’s book may be most helpful here: reading it will give the reader a better understanding of Van Til’s motives and intent in phrasing things in this way. Tipton explains and contextualizes the language in question, beginning by orienting the reader to Van Til’s Trinitarian theology.9 Ultimately, as noted above, Van Til opposed two main problems: “either conceiving of God as a participant in the becoming of the image-bearing creature or conceiving of the image-bearing creature as a partaker of the substance of the Godhead.”10 Or to put it differently, “front-door” and “back-door mutualism.”11 Tipton then moves to the importance of the Creator-creature distinction for Van Til as well as Van Til’s idea of the “deeper Protestant conception,” a term borrowed from Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949).12 This is critical for Van Til’s theology generally and his Trinitarianism specifically.13 This section leads to a very important point: “the triune God does not engage in voluntary self-modification in his works ad extra.”14
Another question must be answered at this time: was Adam created in a covenantal relationship with the promise of eschatological advancement, or was he given a donum superadditum as a supernatural supplement?15 This question indicates whether one is comfortable with notions of mutualism. In other words, was Adam’s fellowship with his Creator a natural fellowship or a supernatural fellowship? Van Til held that the Roman Catholic view of the donum led to a denial of the possibility man’s fellowship with God unless it is through the mediation of a quasi-divine supernatural addition to man’s nature.
In opposition to the Roman position, Van Til quotes from Westminster Confession of Faith 2.3 in order to give a Reformed view comprised of three foundational propositions.16 First, the three persons of the Trinity are equally God equally possessing the divine essence, perfections, and prerogatives. Second, these three persons are not merely different names for the same person. Third, these three divine persons are distinguished by their personal properties and order of subsistence/operation. This is where Tipton begins to get to the heart of Van Til’s unusual Trinitarian language. Tipton identifies Charles Hodge (1797–1878) and Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) as predecessors of Van Til’s terminology, writing that “Van Til speaks of God’s ‘absolute personality’ as the organic outgrowth of the numerical unity and divine simplicity of God’s triune being.”17 This keeps the idea of ‘personality’ from becoming part of a composition in God; hence “[t]here is no distinction between the absoluteness and unity of the divine being and the absoluteness and unity of God’s personality.”18 Basically, Van Til means ‘absolute personality’ in this same sense when he speaks of God being one person, whereas his statement that God is three persons is the regular, orthodox Trinitarian usage of the term. This absolute personality means, contra Gordon Clark (1902–85), that self-consciousness can be found in the Triune God even while there is a self-differentiated existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thus guarding against the tritheistic notion of three centers of self-consciousness.19 Van Til was reacting to Clark’s notion that in God there are three “distinct bundles of thoughts,” i.e. self-consciousness.20 Van Til’s opponents were broader than merely Gordon Clark, however. Indeed, his primary opponent was a school of thought Tipton identifies as “theistic personalism,”21 and Van Til’s thought was, in large part, a reaction to these views.22
In order to get to his notion of the representational principle, Van Til adopted Calvin’s view of autotheos as a way to maintain that each Trinitarian person is identical with respect to the simple divine essence.23 Adding the doctrine of perichoresis to this “expresses Van Til’s conception of the interior life of the Godhead.”24 This is the archetype upon which divine-creature relations is modeled:
Autotheos forbids the communication of essence to divine persons in the processional relations of origin and participation in the essence to created persons in the new relation of creation. Perichoresis entails that the archetypal personal communion of coinherent Trinitarian persons grounds the natural religious fellowship of image-bearing Adam in covenant with God.25
This leads to one of the more surprising aspects of the book, at least for this reviewer: Adam as the image of God is an important part of Van Til’s argument as Tipton outlines it. This emphasis makes sense in light of Van Til’s concern to avoid divine participation in the creaturely, and vice versa. Tipton gives a helpful summary of the reason behind Van Til’s representational principle:
The representational principle seeks to unpack the bearing of autothean perichoresis on God’s sovereignly willed new relation to Adam in the work of creation and in covenantal condescension… Adam’s personal fellowship with God and its representational significance under the covenant of works replicate on the creaturely level the exhaustively personal relations within the Godhead.”26
There is also a why here: the representational principle is how Van Til takes the notions of simplicity, immutability, autotheos, and perichoresis and relates them to the “sovereignly willed ‘new relation’” God entered into in creation and in the covenant of works.27 This is because the divine processions ad intra “are distinct from and cannot be collapsed into the divine missions ad extra.”28 Such an understanding prevents any thought of God giving himself “new properties by which he undergoes personal change in order to relate to creatures,” which is a clear, recurring polemical point that Tipton makes contra Oliphant.29
The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til has a number of strengths. First, Tipton has successfully accomplished a difficult task: he summarizes key points of Van Til’s thought and theological contributions in a succinct way (fewer than 150 pages, not counting the Preface). This book’s greatest strength may well be Tipton’s examination of Van Til’s setting, particularly the thought of his influences (Hodge, Vos, Bavinck, et al). These towering Reformed figures provided much of the context which Van Til presupposed. It is a historical fact that theology develops in a specific context, and Tipton does an admirable job of outlining Van Til’s theological and philosophical setting. Anyone interested in any aspect of Van Til’s thought will benefit from this information. Second, the subject matter of this book is quite heavy and technical, but some of Tipton’s statements would make good theses in a disputation as succinct and straightforward statements of rather profound theology. Here are just two examples: “The immutable triune God is characterized by a fullness of self-determined and self-contained activity;”30 or “God’s aseity supplies the interior logic for his immutability in relation to creation.”31 Along the same lines, Tipton’s summaries of each chapter are very helpful for the reader. Third, although the Calvin vs. the Calvinists thesis has (thankfully) fallen out of favor, Tipton’s book seems to indicate the reality of a new thesis: Van Til vs. the Van Tillians. Not in all cases, certainly, but there do seem to be some Van Tillians who would greatly benefit from reading this book and then going back to Van Til’s works themselves. Specifically, Tipton occasionally explicitly names or implicitly refers to his former colleague, Scott Oliphant, and his doctrine of covenantal mutability. These references are not positive either in terms of the orthodoxy of Oliphant’s view nor its adherence to Van Til’s system. This insight alone is worth the price of the book for professors, pastors, seminary students, and interested laypeople. Finally, the book ends with a helpful discussion of perichoresis and autotheos. While these terms/concepts are not well-known by many, this reviewer believes Tipton’s treatment of Van Til’s ideas here are worth considering.
There are a few weaknesses, though they do not detract from the overall benefit of the book. First, there are a few terms Tipton uses without giving definitions, most notably “participation” and “Classical Reformed Trinitarianism.” The former is an important term since it is constitutive of both forms of mutualism Van Til opposed, whether God participating in creaturehood or man participating in the divine. Thus, a working definition would be helpful. The latter is a strange term since Tipton speaks of two Reformed “traditions” that need to be “integrated” without defending such a distinction or even outlining the major differences.32 This reviewer doubts whether there’s enough difference between Continental and British Reformed Trinitarian formulations to be considered two separate traditions, and there is not enough in this book to be persuaded in either direction. Second, it is strange that Tipton often uses Reformed theologians to tell us what Rome believes about the Image of God. Surely there is no shortage of Roman theologians who can, themselves, tell us what they believe.33 When Tipton does bring in Roman authors, they are often Thomists used to show the views of Aquinas.34 As far as this reviewer can tell, Aquinas himself is cited only once in this book.35 Tipton does something similar with Karl Barth, who is presented as an influential promoter of theistic mutualism along with Aquinas.36
Beyond these matters, this reviewer also believes that Van Til’s use of confusing Trinitarian language is undesirable, no matter the helpful contextualization provided by Tipton’s work. Tipton introduces the issue especially on page 71, and although his contextualization is quite helpful, the language itself is not. Although Tipton desires to show Van Til as a helpful contributor to the Reformed understanding of the Trinity, he fails to rescue Van Til from the mess of his own creation. Identifying the entire Godhead as one person while affirming that there are three Trinitarian persons adds unnecessary confusion to an already highly mysterious doctrine at the heart of the Christian religion. That Tipton devotes so many pages to explaining what Van Til meant shows how inadequate Van Til’s language truly was. As we learn from Van Til (and there is much good to be gleaned), may we avoid confusing such important and confessionally defined terms as “essence” and “person.”
Tipton has written a book well worth your time if you are at all interested in Van Til and/or Trinitarian theology. It will be a great help to pastors and other theological leaders as they wrestle with some of the Trinitarian errors which are rearing their ugly heads in our day, including those within the broader Van Tillian camp. Tipton desires to examine Van Til sympathetically yet critically.37 May it be so for all of us when we engage the thought of others.
Tipton, Lane G., The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til. Libertyville: Reformed Forum, 2022. xiii + 148 pp. $34.99 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-0-9987487-7-1
1 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Greek and Latin Creeds, with Translations, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890), 66.
2 Lane G. Tipton, The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til (Libertyville: Reformed Forum, 2022), 131; 163.
3 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 16.
4 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 27.
5 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 108.
6 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, xi.
7 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 21.
8 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 132.
9 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 15.
10 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 16.
11 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 18.
12 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 23.
13 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 26–27.
14 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 36.
15 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 36–37, cf. 54.
16 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 61–62.
17 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 81.
18 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 81.
19 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 77.
20 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 104–05.
21 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 92.
22 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 106.
23 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 109; For a helpful treatment of Calvin’s view, see Brannon Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
24 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 120.
25 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 126–27.
26 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 132.
27 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 135.
28 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 143.
29 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 144; See also xi, 25, 34n28, 71; 127. Tipton also explicitly mentions John Frame as a modern Reformed promoter of a type of theistic mutualism: 32n21.
30 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 18.
31 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 33.
32 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 15.
33 For examples of Reformed theologians explaining Roman Catholic positions, see Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 26n7; 36–54. Tipton does include a Robert Bellarmine quote from Strimple: Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 42–43; cf. 43n47
34 For examples of Thomists explaining Thomas, see Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 18n10; 41n41; 42n42; 159–63.
35 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 14n29 (Thomas is also mentioned in 20n16 but none of his works are cited).
36 Barth is directly cited only in the epilogue: Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 160n5; 161n1. For examples of Barthians explaining Barth, see Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 18n9; 19n14; 155n60; 159–63.
37 Tipton, Trinitarian Theology of Van Til, 59.
©Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved.
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