Twentieth century theologian Cornelius Van Til is a noteworthy figure in the history of theology. Many of his ideas were and continue to be highly controversial, especially in the area of apologetics.
But Cornelius Van Til is lesser known for something perhaps even more remarkable than his apologetic methodology- his views regarding the Trinity. They have, to be sure, garnered some attention- but probably not the amount they deserve. This is because Cornelius Van Til boldly went where other theologians who he is essentially in agreement with never went before- he came out and called the Trinity a “person”.
This significant step can be seen from the following quotations from Van Til:
“… 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 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 the ontological Trinity we must maintain that God is numerically one. He is one person. We 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.”
“God exists in himself as a triune self-consciously active being. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are each a personality and together constitute the exhaustively personal God… Each is as much God as are the other two.”
We see from these three quotations that Van Til did not mince words in declaring that he believed the three real persons of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be together a single person. This is blatantly semi-modalistic, in sharp contrst to the monarchian trinitarianism originaly advocated by the pro-nicene fathers of the early and mid fourth century.
Nicene trinitarianism distinguishes between the persons of the one God, His Son, and His Spirit, and the single divine nature that all three persons share. This divine nature in nicene trinitarianism is not a person, but a nature considered in abstract.
Semi-modalism, which gained popularity in the fifth century, twists this articulation of the Trinity to confess one person who is three persons, instead of one divine nature that exists in the three persons.
Conceptually, semi-modalism and monarchian trinitarianism are worlds apart. But most semi-modalists have equivocated on the terminology of “person” and denied in name that they believe that the Trinity is a person who is the three real persons of the Trinity. But while they deny that we can call the Trinity as a whole a person, they treat the Trinity as a person in every other way, denying it only the name “person”. For instance, they always use singular personal pronouns such as “he” and “you” for the Trinity- terms which grammatically clearly regard the Trinity as a person. They will also pray to “God the Trinity”, ascribe actions to him, and otherwise entirely conceive of him as a person ‘who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’.
But Cornelius Van Til came out and admitted that in his view the Trinity was a person. This is a significant development, one that at once deserves our condemnation and our praise- condemnation of the heretical views he expressed, yet praise for his bold honesty in actually coming out and saying what he believed, especially where so many others have tried to hide their belief by avoiding this frank language. But Van Til came out and admitted that in his mind the Trinity is a person. Those who like Van Til insist on holding to a four-person view of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit + God the Trinity = four persons) ought to take heed of his example and likewise come out and admit what they believe plainly, rather than hiding it.
Those, however, who are unwilling to see the monarchian version of the Trinity traded for this semi-modalistic doctrine must be diligent in opposing Van Til’s heretical teachings here. This does not mean everything Van Til taught in all areas of theology should be dismissed, but his teaching on the Trinity must be recognized to be unorthodox by the standards of the earliest champions of Nicea.