Van Til's "Trinity Heresy"

Discussion in 'Defending the Faith' started by B.J., May 20, 2008.

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  1. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    I'll be honest with you. I don't read long quotations from Clark/Robbins/anyone. I simply don't have time for it. Many theology message boards don't allow it since it is too easy when one should be able to summarize in a few words the gist of the passage. Being said, I will respond to some earlier concerns. I realize, in apparent disjunction with my above statement, the following is sort of lengthy. But that's okay. This ground has been covered numerous times on PB, with the same old charges being brought against CVT and the same orthodox rebuttals.

    Also, in Defense of the Faith and in the Intro to Systematic Theology, where the quote Robbins, Clark, et al, use to make this charge, Van Til endorses the statements of Nicea, Constantinople and Chalcedon, and the Westminster Confession. Since he specifically endorsed the orthodox formulation, critics should be cautious and charitable when they try to make a charge of inconsistency or heresy. One thing all scholars know, and what we ask of atheologians when they read the Bible, is the principle of charity. You assume the author wasn't insane or retarded, and so you try as hard as you can to read them in the best light or resolve any apparent tensions you find in their work.

    Furthermore, the claim: one in essence three in person is fine to render the doctrine *formally* consistent, but when we seek to understand the metaphysical affirmations expressed by the orthodox statement, that's when problems arise. One absolute, unified God. The Father, Son, and Spirit are *identical* to God. The Father, Son, and Spirit are *distinct* from each other. What is the relation of this "identity?" Is it numerical or generic? Orthodoxy leans toward the former, tri-theism leans toward the latter, viz., three humans who all share or are identical with, a generic, impersonal human nature. But numerical identity is transitive such that: A = B, B = C, A = C. How do we maintain both rationality and orthodoxy in our *metaphysical affirmations*. *No one* claims that Christians cannot present a *formally consistent* statement of the Trinity. That is easy: One is essence, three in person. But that *bare* claim can be used to support social trinitarianism, relative identity trinitarianism, WCF trinitarianism, etc. So it is helpful as far as it goes, but the simplistic rest in it. As if merely asserting "One in essence, three in person" rescues one from all the trinitarian questions and problems.

    Christian theists need to move away from being content with cliches and platitudes and face and address, in Old Princeton and Westerminster fashion, the problems of the day. To think that the mere assertion: one in person, three in essence is enough to rescue you from the ins and outs of trinitarian debates is to live in a padded room, where mom brings you milk and cookies every night
  2. a mere housewife

    a mere housewife Not your cup of tea

    Just wanted to say thanks for expressing that. I think sometimes we tend to think that 'charity' only extends to people standing in front of us (or otherwise manifested in the flesh)-- or only to the tone in which we speak -- not to the way we handle ideas and interact with authors.
  3. k.seymore

    k.seymore Puritan Board Freshman

    Here is a good place in scripture where it uses language like the confession does as well, and God appears to be described as one "he" in contrast to the "them" of the other gods (at least in our English Bibles, I can't read Hebrew):

    "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one... It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods" (Deut 6).

    So scripture weems to speak of God as being in some sence a "he" and three "hes."

    I think maybe this particular Clark/Van Til Heresy smackdown is just a problem with language. We could use Clark's reasoning to charge anyone with Heresy because words in of themselves are so relative. For instance, right above you said, "This does not make him one person." Since him is a personal pronoun, it stands in the place of an unamed person. So what you are literally saying is, "This does not make him one him," or "This does not make this person one person." Illogical! You just said God is one person and three persons! Unorthodox! (kidding of course.)

    We can do this with the author of the book you quoted as well, since words and sentences can be read with more than one meaning. I do remember reading one of Van Til's books where he said God was one person and three persons. The author of the book you quoted made an interpretion of why this is: "In saying this, Van Til sought to evade the charge of anti-trinitarians that the doctrine is self-contradictory because something cannot be both three and one at the same time." Notice that I can read this author's words literally as saying that this author's interpretation as to why Van Til said "God is one person and three persons" is because he believes Van Til was seeking to evade the charge of anti-trinitarians that something can not be both one and three at the same time. And what happens if I read the author in this way? The author ends up being the one who is irrational! The author believes someone would take a statement like "one in essense, three in person" and, in order to evade the charge of anti-trinitarians that God cannot be both one and three at the same time, changed the phrase to "one person and three persons at the same time." Of course I don't think the author intended those particular words to be read in that way, and at least so far I don't think Van Til meant his own words to be read in exactly the way Clark himself was reading them when he said Van Til was irrational.
  4. kalawine

    kalawine Puritan Board Junior

    LOL! You got me! I really meant to say, "This does not make God one person."
  5. brandonadams

    brandonadams Puritan Board Freshman

    This is a very interesting conversation. There is a website called Van Til FEM (Frequently Encountered Misconceptions) in which the author seeks to succinctly address various objections raised against Van Til.
    Van Til FEM

    In regards to Van Til's statements on the Trinity he says:
    Yet, we reply, how could God be both one person and three persons? Isn't that a blatant violation of the law of non-contradiction? In seeking an answer, we must acknowledge that Van Til considered this an apparent contradiction and not a real one (see Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 9). A contradiction is said to occur when something is asserted to be both A and not-A at the same time and in the same sense. Since Van Til held to the traditional doctrine of God's timelessness, we can disregard the 'same time' condition. We must therefore conclude that, since Van Til emphatically rejected the idea that Christian truth involves real contradictions, he held that God is one person and three person in different senses.

    The author, a defender of Van Til, seems here to resort to saying that to us it is a contradiction, but to God it is not. This would seem to be perfectly in line with Van Til's view of the incomprehensibility of God, and thus it would imply that Clark is not being dishonest in his comments about the issue. Rather, Clark is critiquing Van Til's view of the incomprehensibilty of God via his comments in regards to the Trinity.

    The author continues:
    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. Still, God comprehends the distinction and there is no irresolvable contradiction in his mind.
  6. kalawine

    kalawine Puritan Board Junior

    Did you mean "One in Essence, three in persons?" However, I would say that calling God "one person who is three persons" avoids logic and throws the problem to the supposed "incomprehensibility" of God.
  7. brandonadams

    brandonadams Puritan Board Freshman

    Also, in regards to the defense that the OPC didn't object to Van Til's view of the Trinity, therefore it must have been fine, the following quote is relevant:

    one of Van Til’s biographers, William White, Jr., recounts the proceedings of a banquet at Westminster Seminary: “...the master of ceremonies was presenting the good-natured Dutchman. ‘There is a controversy today as to who is the greatest intellect of this segment of the twentieth century,’ the m. c. said. ‘Probably most thinking people would vote for the learned Dr. Einstein. Not me. I wish to put forth as my candidate for the honor, Dr. Cornelius Van Til.’ (Loud applause.) ‘My reason for doing so is this: Only eleven people in the world understand Albert Einstein ...Nobody-but nobody in the world-understands Cornelius Van Til’ “
    (take from here Trinity Foundation: Explaining God, man, Bible, salvation, philosophy, theology.)

    It seems clearly possible that if Van Til was questioned on the issue, and he explained, and people didn't understand, they would simply assume they were too stupid, that they were at fault, not Van Til.
    Last edited: Jun 6, 2008
  8. kalawine

    kalawine Puritan Board Junior

    And this is where I must stand with Clark. How many subjects of theology would be settled today if we had looked at them and decided that we must "rest content with an apparent contradiction?" If "merely asserting "One in essence, three in person" rescues one from all the trinitarian questions and problems," how much of a dodge must be the idea that we may "rest content with an apparent contradiction?"
  9. kalawine

    kalawine Puritan Board Junior

    Yes, this logical fallacy is called, "argumentum ad verecundiam" which in short and modern terms might be phrased, "What in the world does the OPC have to do with the logic of this situation?" Because they are the OPC are we to accept their decisions?
  10. timmopussycat

    timmopussycat Puritan Board Junior

    Having suffered from imprecise and erring criticism early in the Theonomy debate, Greg Bahnsen had some cogent words to say on this matter. Referring to such "criticism" he wrote:

    "This has forced me as an educated
    believer to stand back and look more generally at what is
    transpiring in the Christian community as a whole with respect to
    its scholarly integrity. And I am heart broken. It is difficult
    enough for us to gain a hearing in the unbelieving world because
    of its hostility to the Lord Jesus Christ and its preconception of the
    lowly intelligence of His followers. The difficulty is magnified
    many times over when believers offer public, obvious evidence of
    their inability to treat each other’s opinions with careful accuracy.
    Our “scholarship” is justly ridiculed by those who have been educated
    in institutions which have no commitment to Christ or His
    Word, but who have the ethical integrity to demand as a prerequisite
    to acceptable scholarship that a student represent his opponent
    fairly before’ proceeding to criticize or refute him. To use a
    Pauline expression, “even the Gentiles” know better than to permit
    imprecision and erroneous portrayals in a serious intellectual discussion.
    Yet Christians (I include all of us) often seem to care little
    for that minimal standard of scholarly respectability. How, then,
    can we be taken seriously? How can we take ourselves seriously?
    That holy and inspired Word of God, to which all of us swear
    allegiance as followers of Christ (whether Presbyterians or Baptists
    or charismatic or dispensationalists or Reconstructionists or
    whatever), is projtable to us “for correction, for instruction in
    righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). From it we should learn not to
    speak carelessly: “See a man who is hasty in his words? There is
    more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20). We should
    learn to speak cautiously about others (e.g., Matthew 5:22; Psalm
    116:11; James 3:5-18), not wresting people’s words or reviling them
    (Psalm 50:20; 56:5; 1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:10). We should interpret
    them in the best light afforded by the facts (cf. Acts 24:8), rather
    than with evil suspicion (1 Timothy 6:4). “He who would love life
    and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil and his lips
    that they speak no guile” (1 Peter 3:10).

    God’s Word directs us to study a matter before we presume to
    speak critically regarding it: “He who gives an answer before he
    hears, it is a folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13). Scripture
    teaches us to avoid slander, if we would dwell with Jehovah
    (Psalm 15:3). We must then be scrupulous to speak the truth
    about others, even those we would criticize. “A man who bears
    false witness against his neighbor is a maul, and a sword, and a
    sharp arrow” (Proverbs 25: 18). When we witness against our
    neighbors “without a cause ,“ we become guilty of “deceiving” with
    our lips (Proverbs 24: 28). The exhortation of Paul is inescapably
    clear: “Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth each
    one with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians
    4:25). All of this is an extended commentary on the fundamental
    command of God’s law: “You shall not bear false witness
    against your neighbor” (Exodus 20: 16) — reiterated by Christ
    (Matthew 19:18), who indicts us further by showing that false witness
    comes from the heart and defiles us (Matthew 15:19-20).
    When we engage in theological debate with each other as fellow
    believers, then, it is ethically imperative that we honor our
    common Lord (who is the Truth, John 14:6) by being cautious to
    speak the truth about each other’s positions. We are “members”
    together of the body of Christ.

    Theological correction, of course, must be given where necessary;
    there is no disputing that. However, before presuming to
    correct one another, we must give the intellectual and personal
    effort necessary to portraying each other’s views correctly. Only
    then are we ethically qualified to offer a critique. Only then will
    our critiques bring theological health and unity to the Christian
    community. If we refuse to speak accurately of each other, we
    have settled for uncharitable prejudices and party-spirit, and a
    watching world has little reason to take seriously our claims to being
    born again with hearts enabled to love each other as God intends"
    (Bahnsen, "Foreword" The Debate Over Christian Reconstruction. pp. xiv - xvi)

    Of all I have read by Bahnsen, this is my favourite passage.

    Bahnsen also wrote:

    "Criticism which is properly grounded and communicated can cultivate each
    other’s goodness as Christians and be edifying (Rem. 15:14; Eph. 4:29); it is often required in order to be faithful to God (Rem. 16:17; Titus 1:9; Rev. 2:2, 6, etc.).
    However, such criticism must be tethered to objective evidence (e. g., eye-witnessed facts, documented statements) and cogent reasoning (e. g., pinning on an author what his words actually infer by good and necessary consequence.)" (Bahnsen & Gentry House Divided p. 53 n22).
  11. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    Hello, I have been gone a few days.

    My reply: Right, and here is where you show the divide in the two mindsets. As a Van Tillian, I am content with paradox and orthodoxy. I don't opt for heterodoxy so long as I have fully explicated logical consistency.

    My reply: Because as I said above, this only renders the doctrine *formally* consistent. *All* sides admit to this. Van Tillians who hold to paradox don't have a problem with "one in essence, three in person," and we recognize that this shows that the doctrine is *formally* consistent. We also claim that there is no *explicit* paradox. The problem arises with *implicit* consistency. With how our *metaphysical affirmations* can be rendered fully consistent by us. So, as I said above, chanting "one in essence, three in person" is to show that you're not prepared to engage what the *real* arguments in the debate are. Not even atheists say that we have an *explicit* or *formal* contradiction. So, the mantra doesn't move the discussion forward and shows how unstudied we are about where the debate is at
  12. brandonadams

    brandonadams Puritan Board Freshman


    If you are still looking for confirmation regarding the Clark quote, here is the essay that he is analyzing:
    Reformed Apologetics

    In it, Frame says:
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