Somebody please contact Reformed Theological Seminary Assistant Professor, James Anderson, and tell him to please remove his book, Paradox in Christian Theology, from bookstores and to stop using it in his classroom immediately.
According to Vantilian Lane Keister over at the Greenbaggins blog, when speaking of the Trinity Cornelius Van Til didn’t really mean it when he said that God is both one person and three persons after all. Van Til was not asserting anything like the strict numerical identity between the unity and plurality of the Godhead that is so critical to the central thesis of his book and Christian orthodoxy in general. After all, and according to Anderson, Van Til’s well known assertion that “the whole Godhead, is one person” is not only permissible, it is the sine qua non of Trinitarian orthodoxy and is, at least in Anderson’s mind, positively “Augustinian.” Now it appears that both Van Til’s critics and supporters have been wrong all along. It has all been one great big misunderstanding.
Consider the following from Van Til’s “Introduction to Systematic Theology”:
Unity and plurality are equally ultimate in the Godhead. The persons of the Godhead are mutually exhaustive of one another, and therefore of the essence of the Godhead. God is a one-conscious being, and yet he is also a tri-conscious being.
As a unitary conscious being and a tri-conscious being God is both one and three in the same sense. But that’s not all . . .
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 . . .We need both the absolute cotermineity of each attribute and each person with the whole being of God, and the genuine significance of the distinctions of the attributes and the persons. “Each person,” says Bavinck, “is equal to the whole essence of God and coterminous with both other persons and with all three”. . . 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 ontological Trinity we must maintain that God is numerically one. He is one person.
Notice, God is not one in any generic sense. God is numerically one. And, if there can be any doubt what he means Van Til asserts; “He is one person.”
Now, pay close attention, Van Til continues:
When 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.
Did you catch that? The reason Van Til cannot be charged with teaching heterodoxy or anything so crass as God is both one person and three persons is because Van Til draws a distinction between God as a person in the generic sense as opposed to God consisting of “three personal subsistences.” Keister writes:
I believe that what Van Til means here is that the “specific or generic type of being” corresponds to the phrase “God is one person,” and that the phrase “three personal subsistences” refers to the tri-personality of the three persons. In other words, the distinction between “God is a person” and “God is three persons” is a distinction between a generic type of being (and therefore personality) as contrasted with the three relational persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Consequently, when Van Til said God is one person he really means a “specific or generic type of being.” Van Til, along with Gordon Clark, Richard Swineburn, Thomas Morris and others, really holds to a form of generic unity sometimes associated with social trinitarianism. According to Keister, this is the only conclusion we can reach if we are to read him “charitably.” However, as a viable solution to the problem of the one and the many and one that solves the apparent contradiction inherent in the Trinity, Anderson rejects the idea of a generic unity as heterodox in toto and is a solution that he believes necessitates tritheism:
Indeed, I suggest…the essential inadequacy of *all* social trinitarian interpretations, that is, all trinitarian models in which the divine persons are numerically distinct from the divine substance (however that latter is construed). Such interpretations weaken the ontological unity within the Godhead to the point where a collapse into tritheism is unavoidable. Paradox in Christian Theology, 45-46.
And, on Anderson’s website, Van Til FEM (or Frequently Encountered Misconceptions, ya think), he writes:
Van Til’s concern was that we should avoid any implication that the unity of the Godhead is an impersonal unity, that the Being who is the ground of all being is ultimately impersonal in nature…This, then, was Van Til’s basic motivation for stating that God must be one person as well as three persons…What exactly are these different senses? Where or how is the distinction to be made? Van Til, of course, didn’t specify; his point was that we cannot specify the distinction, as finite creatures, and thus we must rest content with an apparent contradiction (at least for now). Although we can rationally infer that there is a distinction to be made, we are not in a position to specify what that distinction is.
Now, no one that I know of who holds to a generic form of unity believes that God is “ultimately impersonal in nature.” But then, as Gordon Clark notes in his treatise on the Trinity “a genus is not one of its included individuals” and therefore God is not one person. In fact, Daniel Chew, who has recently interacted on his blog with a couple of Vantilians on this very question (including a recent exchange with the Vantilian pit-bull, Paul Manata) observes:
… one truly wonders who among the orthodox ever thought of the Godhead as being “an impersonal abstraction”. If the Godhead is made of up three persons, does not the presence of three persons in the Godhead make the Godhead even more personal, without having the need to adopt a non-confessional and idiosyncratic at best definition of the Trinity?
…The Godhead IS the presence of God in three persons, not some impersonal entity of “god-ness”. When we speak of God as being one essence (substantia, hypostatis), we are saying that God is one and works in unity, not that three separate “gods” partake of one divine essence of “God-ness” — which is practically tritheism. How we are to comprehend it fully is none of our business. The three persons of God are distinct but not separate from each other. They have their own “centers of consciousness” (ie what make persons persons) which are however not operating independently of the other two persons (cf perichoresis).
However, all this is moot if Keister is correct and to read Van Til “charitably” is to read the idea of a generic unity into his assertion that “God is one person.” Of course, Keister being a uniter not a divider previously claimed that on matters of epistemology Clark and Van Til were in fact in total agreement and that the Clark/Van Til controversy was really the Clark/John Murray controversy and that Clark and Van Til had enormous respect for each other, heck, they even recommended each other’s books and used them in the classroom. Van Til’s only crime, according to Keister, is that he should have “phrased himself more felicitously.” More felicitously? How about more clearly so that he wouldn’t have been so broadly and universally misunderstood as he butchered the doctrine of the Trinity rendering it not just incomprehensible and in the sense of being unintelligible (something I believe he intended to do), but positively irrational.
So, before Anderson returns all the proceeds from his book to his publisher, and before we conclude that Van Til has been seriously misunderstood by all of his supporters and critics alike prior to Keister, I hope there is one thing we all can agree on: Van Til had a penchant for making difficult ideas and doctrines positively obscure. Clark never needed a cadre of apologists and revisionists throughout the years trying desperately to make him appear to say what he apparently did not say or do what he did not do. Thankfully the records of some men can stand on their own.