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.

5 comments

  1. Why did you delete my comment? Do your terms of service prohibit disagreement or vigorous challenges to your stated views? Or is it your policy to not allow dissenting views until you can get a reply on board to follow it up?

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  2. I haven’t deleted your comment- my guess would be there was some kind of error and it didn’t ever post. I can’t see any sign of it, on this post. You left a few on another article, and they’re all still there. I generally only delete spam.

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  3. The author of this column writes:

    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.

    This “divine nature” is a “nature considered in abstract.” Taken in normal theological terms, the author is asserting that the divine nature is a genus whereas the “persons” are species instantiating the genus. Thus, each person participates in the divine essence. If that is what the author is saying, that is tritheism by definition.

    Three instantiations of the apple essence yield three apples. Three instantiations of the car essence yield three cars. And three instantiations of the God essence yield three Gods. The gods of the Pantheon share the same immortal human essence, so were the Greeks monotheists? Of course not. To insist that one divine essence equals monotheism is no different than saying one apple essence equals monoappleism. As you stated, our intellects abstract from existents those things common to other things into a type. The genus doesn’t exist in some abstract realm. It is rather seen in its instantiations. Multiples of the genus are to be expected due to the distinction between essence and existence. This makes participation possible. A genus can be multiplied, a species cannot. Hence, your version of the “Trinity” is tritheistic, albeit unintentionally.

    Moreover, whatever participates in genus holds the genus in common with other participants. It then follows that what is common among the persons cannot be what makes them distinct. We call this the principle of commonality. What makes apples distinct is their separate portions of matter, or in other words, their particular act of existence. This is the principle of distinction. Thus, the act of existence is distinct from the essence that underlies it. If the Father is an instantiation of the divine essence, then it follows that his act of existence is distinct from the underlying genus that defines him (and is thus required in order to be distinguished from the other persons). The Father is thus a composite of act and existence. Whatever is composite is logically posterior to its components and thus dependent upon something less than the composite for both its definition and existence. If the Father or any other divine person is dependent, he cannot be God by definition.

    Again, if the principle of commonality is the divine essence, then what is the principle of distinction? What, precisely, is it that makes one person different from the other persons? The divine essence cannot be that principle, for then one would be forced to say that what makes them common is what makes them distinct—a straight contradiction. One is then left to assert that the principle of distinction is something other than the divine essence. So, what is this “something other?” If it’s not the divine essence, then it has to be outside the divine essence. But if the distinction between each person isn’t in the divine essence, then each person is fractionally God and fractionally a creature. This of course violates God’s aseity. If one insists that the distinction is in the essence itself due to the composite nature of the essence, then the essence itself would need an explanation for its existence. Not only does this violate divine aseity, it fails to tell us just what it is that makes God, God.

    In sum, your version of the “Trinity” is unintelligible for it entails logical contradictions. Regardless the status of modalism, a rational person cannot affirm your Trinity because one has to know what one is affirming in order to express faith in it.

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