Critiquing Van Til’s Triadology
Cornelius Van Til (CVT) was notorious for saying the “Trinity is one person and three persons.” The Clarkian school attacked him for logical inconsistency. I think CVT was wrong, but I don’t think he was violating the laws of logic. Van Til admitted to using “person” in a different sense, which avoids the charge of contradiction. But was Van Til correct? In reviewing CVT I will look at John Frame’s Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought. Frame offers the most charitable and thoughtful reading of Van Til on this point and is much clearer than Van Til could ever be.
Here is the offending passage,
It is sometimes asserted that we can prove to men that we are not asserting anything that they ought to consider irrational, inasmuch as we say that God is one in essence and three in person. We therefore claim that we have not asserted unity and trinity of exactly the same thing. Yet this is not the whole truth of the matter. We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhed, is one person” (CVT, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 222).
Following this passage on page 66 Frame has a couple of paragraphs extolling sola scriptura and the need to call the Creeds to further biblical truth. Frame is doing this because CVT’s quote is at odds with the Westminster Confession and the Athanasian Creed.
Frame/CVT continue on a helpful note acknowledging that each of the persons of the Godhead fully posses the divine nature (67). Frame asks the pertinent question: is God’s “being” personal or impersonal? Frame argues that if God’s nature is impersonal, it risks being an abstraction.
“Van Til’s answer,” as Frame notes, “is that God is absolute personality” (68). It is important to keep in mind that by God CVT (and Frame) do not mean what Nicea and the Cappadocians meant by God—the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whom we communion by the Spirit—but the “being” of God. (This is very important for the following discussion).
Frame goes on, “It cannot be overlooked that Scripture speaks regularly about God acting personally…” (68).
One must respond, however, that natures do not act. Persons act. Even if we say that the nature is personal, if we posit the principle that natures act—which is what Frame is arguing here—and we apply that principle to Christ, then we have two acting subjects in Christ, which is Nestorianism.
Frame argues that when one person of the Trinity acts, all are acting. Yes, but they aren’t acting in the same way. The Spirit didn’t become incarnate, etc…
Frame urges caution in treating Van Til for “this is a mystery beyond our comprehension” and we won’t be able to exhaust God’s essence. That’s true, but CVT painted himself into a corner. If he is saying that God’s nature is a person, then a host of heresies entail.[i] If he means something else by “person” other than what the Church has always confessed, then he is unnecessarily confusing the issue, and it’s best he not say anything at all.
[i] St John of Damascus said all heresies err on the same point: they say person and nature are identical.