Opening critique of Van Til

Smith, Ralph. Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity.

NOTE: In the first few paragraphs I accidentally typed “divine essay” instead of “divine essence.” It should read “divine essence.”

The beginning of this essay will review Ralph Smith’s work on Cornelius Van Til as it relates to the Trinity.  As the essay progresses, more attention will be paid to Van Til’s Trinitarianism.  My critique seeks to be different for several reasons.  Most people who criticize Van Til focus on his apologetic method.  I really have nothing new to add in that department.

Smith’s goal is to compare and contrast the recent arguments of “social Trinitarian” Cornelius Plantinga with the unique approach of Cornelius Van Til. Supposedly, traditional Trinitarianism is stagnant and the insights of these two can revive it.

The introduction is somewhat humorous because Smith (rightly) bemoans the fact that Evangelicals have ignored the Trinity for essentially of their history, and if you take away the doctrine of the Trinity for Evangelicals, nothing will change in their day-to-day lives. At this point Smith begins reviewing Plantinga’s now-famous essay “The Threeness/Oneness Problem of the Trinity” along with a very brief survey of recent Evangelical developments of Trinitarianism. Smith wonders why none of these writers (Plantinga, Stanley Grenz, James Sire) discuss the work of Cornelius Van Til or even John Calvin. What Smith does not realize is nobody outside a microscopic subset of the Reformed world (which itself is already microscopic) has even heard of Van Til or let alone even cares. As for Calvin, contrary to what people might think, Calvin really didn’t say all that much on the Trinity. He simply repeated some conclusions while thinking he meant what the Fathers have always meant (a dubious proposition). Smith does rightly note that Van Til “stands in utter contrast to this tendency” (Smith, 2002, 18). We shall see. One suspects the irony is that Van Til will offer a solid critique of this failure but inevitably commit the same mistakes.

Before we begin we will quote a section from the falsely-named “Athanasian Creed,” which is referred to in this book:

“The Father is the Divine Essence; the Son is the Divine Essence, and the Holy Spirit is the Divine Essence, yet there are not three divine essences—but only one.”

Smith’s first chapter deals with Plantinga’s essay on the Trinity. Plantinga, following many recent moves in theology, suggests the West is fundamentally “modalist,” or something similar. Smith then reviews Plantinga’s charge by examining Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth. In short: Augustine, due to his strong neo-Platonism and view of divine simplicity, said each person is synonymous with the divine essay. The conclusion is not hard to draw: if each person is identical with the divine essay, and the divine essay is absolutely simple and admitting of no distinctions, then each person is identical with the other. Ergo, modalism (24-26). Thomas Aquinas essentially hardens Augustine’s position. Each person is identical with the whole divine essence, yet we distinguish them by “relations of opposition,” with each person identical with his “relation.” Plantinga remarks, “If the Father, Son, and Spirit are taken as mere names for the divine essence…then this is modalism. If the statement means the Father, Son, and Spirit are taken as names of Persons, then the statement reduces persons to essences, which are abstract. Each person would be a set of properties and the three sets of properties are identical. The persons themselves would disappear” (27).

In some ways chapter two is the heart of the book: what did Van Til really mean about the trinity? Many of his critics, and not a few of his followers, have charged him with being innovative about the Trinity, with some saying he denies Nicea. As is always the case in intra-Reformed polemics, there is more heat than light and nobody knows what anyone is talking about. In some ways the discussion of this chapter will go beyond the scope of the book, since it is Smith’s most important chapter (his other chapters seek to avoid the absurdity of identifying all of God’s attributes with one another and the book ends with a call to a practical Reformed worldview. More on that later.).

I will go ahead and say that Van Til was not innovative on the Trinity, but rather restated the exact same thing Augustine said in close to the same language.i Remember, Augustine said that each of the persons was identical to the essence: the essence is identical to the attribute, and the attribute is identical to the person; ergo, the person is identical to the essence (Plantinga, quoted by Smith, 25). Van Til draws the Augustinian conclusion: the Trinity is one Person. Of course, Van Til realizes that the Trinity is also three persons, so he says that, too. Did Van Til contradict himself?  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he didn’t.

I am quoting Introduction to Systematic Theology from memory for this next part, but I think it is fairly accurate.   Van Til goes on to say that the persons of the Trinity mutually exhaust one another.  Normally, Christian theologians would have said that the persons mutually exhaust the essence (e.g., fully posses the essence).  Van Til takes it to mean that they take on the characteristics of the other persons.  This is fundamentally wrong.  The Father does not take on the hypostatic characteristics of the Son, for the Father is not begotten!  Interestingly, this is precisely the critique Eastern Orthodox theologians make of the Filioque, and this is what critics of Van Til, who were correct to point out the error of his theology, failed to note (for they, too, held to the Filioque).

The reason that Van Til says the Trinity is one Person on one level is because he cannot fathom that the divine nature exists in “brute factuality,” and so posits the divine persons as what/who conditions the divine essence. In short, he wants to say that the “essence” is “personal.” More on that later.

The Covenant as the Missing Link

Smith suggests that covenant theology provides the missing link in Reformed Trinitarianism (73). He rightly suspects that Augustinian Triadology is at an impasse, and while he appreciates Van Til’s reworking of the Trinity, he notes it is still inadequate. He takes his definition of covenant from Jim Jordan (!!!!!!) as a “personal structural bond which joins the three persons of God in a life-giving community” (73). In one sense Reformed theology has always followed this principle in its doctrine of the Pactum Salutis, but Smith, following Abraham Kuyper, takes it even further.

Smith notes that traditional Reformed theology “proposes something Van Til objects to” (84), the idea that the essence of God is an impersonal substratum (it’s hard to follow the discussion at this point, since Van Til fully subscribes to the Augustinian view of divine simplicity). Without fully acknowledging the problem his definition of divine simplicity entails, Smith, in order to speak meaningfully about the attributes of God in a way that doesn’t simply reduce each to the other (and thereby make any talk of the attributes irrelevant, which is apparently the case), suggests that the “covenant” allows these words to really come into their expressive nature (85).

Following this framework, Smith goes on suggest that attributes like “love,” even the idea of “love,” make sense only in the context of “covenant,” a suggestion, which if flawed in the sense of placing an analogical limit on the Trinity, is fundamentally correct: love’s definition must come from the Bible, not from cheap, American culture.

Criticism and Conclusion

This book is both useful and frustrating. Smith has done an able job surveying and simply (no pun intended) explaining many difficulties in modern Trinitarianism. His discussion of Augustine’s unique revision of divine simplicity is remarkably helpful and succinct (even if Smith is unaware of his own presupposition). The book’s section on covenant has many helpful insights that detach “justification” from its forensic setting within Reformed theology (or better, to show that the forensic category is itself relational and covenantal). Smith utilizes humor where appropriate (the footnote response to Norman Geisler’s (and evangelicalism in general) neutered view of God and Politics is almost worth the price of the book!).

The book is frustrating because Smith (1) fully realizes the difficulty Augustine’s take on simplicity entails, but (2) never challenges it and assumes—without argumentation—that this is always what the Church has believed. With these two points he tries to resuscitate Van Til’s Trinitarianism: in other words, he/Van Til identifies Augustine’s problem, yet posit an equally problematic response and call the whole thing “a paradox.”

So, can one call the divine essence “personal?” St John of Damascus said that every heresy deconstructed on the same point: they all identify person and nature. What would a personal essence look like? Would it be ascribing personal attributes to the essence? Or rather, would it simply be tha that the essence has some abstract notion of “personality?” If the former then Van Til has added another person to the Trinity. If the latter, then he is back at the very thing he set out to reject: abstract notions of the Trinity.

While one should be very careful in reading modern notions of “personality/personalism” back into ancient expressions (a mistake Van Til appears to be making), there is a point of similarity, though: personality implies a person doing the acting/self-expressing/whatever, which leads us back to the main problem: it adds another person to the Trinity.

The next part of the criticism is the hardest to write: The Van Tillian project, if the above few paragraps are true, has failed and failed at the most fundamental level. If you err on the Trinity, while you may be personally holy person, your theology necessarily will be flawed in every point. Indeed, is not Smith’s claim that the Trinity should not only affect, but effect every other aspect of our theology? Indeed it should. I say this having spent seven years trying to orient my entire mental outlook around Van Tillian epistemology.
Smith seems to miss this point. He notes Van Til was innovative in saying that the persons of the Trinity “mutually exhaust one another” (whatever that means), but that’s not the point his critics charged him on: they thought Van Til was innovative in identifying the Trinity as one person—but that is precisely what Western Triadology has been tempted to, and sometimes explicitly says that!

J. B. Aitken

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2 comments on “Opening critique of Van Til

  1. DCF says:

    “in other words, he/Van Til identifies Augustine’s problem, yet posit an equally problematic response and call the whole thing “a paradox.””

    —Sounds Lutheran.

    What was the impetus behind VanTil’s innovation? What was lacking in reformed triadology that he felt it was necessary to apply his theories?

  2. According to Van Til’s followers, Van Til posited the Trinity in such a way to solve the so-called problem of the “one and the many.” I don’t think it was actually a problem, nor do I think he solved it. I do think he read Augustine correctly, though.

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