Paradox and Truth
Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity
by Comparing Van Til, Plantinga, and Kuyper
by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith
Cornelius Van Til's doctrine of the Trinity has been variously viewed.
On the one hand, it has been misconstrued as heretical or attacked as
rash and dangerous by some. On the other hand, however, a not insignificant
group of theologians and Christian writers has found Van Til's doctrine
of the Trinity to be a fruitful source for serious work to develop a truly
Christian worldview. The contrast between the two groups' evaluation of
Van Til could not be greater. Evaluating Van Til is something of a theological
problem, which has now become further complicated by recent studies of
the doctrine of the Trinity which have been critical of Augustine's formulation
-- the foundation of Van Til's approach. A Reformed representative of
those critical of Augustine is Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.1 who offers, in
the place of the traditional statements of the doctrine, a social view
of the Trinity.
This recent study of the Trinity invites reconsideration of Van Til's
view. Does Plantinga's social view of the Trinity and recent critique
of Augustine require a revision of Van Til's approach? What about Van
Til's use of non-traditional language? Is it legitimate or is it a "novelty"
that causes confusion? What are the worldview implications of Van Til's
view of the Trinity and does Plantinga's view significantly alter these?
To consider these and similar questions, we introduce and evaluate Cornelius
Plantinga's social view of the Trinity, briefly explain and attempt to
defend certain aspects of Van Til's view and compare it with Plantinga's,
and, finally, suggest a revision of Van Til's view that sets the doctrine
of the Trinity more clearly at the center of systematic and Biblical theology
and the Christian worldview. It is my purpose to help bring Van Til's
profound exposition of the Trinity back into the discussion of this doctrine
and, in that connection, to help stimulate further consideration of the
worldview implications of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Relative Neglect of Van Til
One reason for this paper is the relative neglect of Van Til by evangelicals.
Considering the literature produced by his followers, one would think
that even theologians who did not favor Van Til's views would have much
to say about him, but this is not the case. Evangelical theologian Stanley
Grenz, for example, who has recently written a systematic theology centered
in the doctrine of the Trinity, writes as if not only Van Til, but
even John Calvin -- who provided the most sententious discussion of the
Trinity in the entire Reformation era  -- did not exist. For Grenz,
Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Jurgen Moltmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg are
the twentieth century theologians who have made contributions which deserve
our attention. Not Van Til. The leading Evangelical theologian of the
second half of the century, Carl F. H. Henry, writing in 1982, when Van
Tillians were in the process of publishing a rapidly growing body of literature
which related the Trinity to academic and everyday life, went so far as
Louis Berkhof, Cornelius Van Til, J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., Gordon H.
Clark, and Samuel Mikolaski support the orthodox view in their theological
writings. But American evangelical theology has not on the whole contributed
significant literature to the current revival of trinitarian interest.
Was Henry ignorant of the fact that Van Til taught the doctrine of the
Trinity as the Biblical solution to the problem of the one and the many
and therefore as relevant to every academic or philosophical problem?
What could be more significant than a view of the Trinity which places
the doctrine not only in the center of the entire theological enterprise,
but also every academic and practical discipline, a view of the Trinity
which sets forth the Triune God as the very heart of the entire Christian
Van Til may or may not have been successful, but it is nothing less than
this which Van Til attempted. His view deserves attention and those who
decide that he did not succeed have the opportunity to take up the challenge
to offer a better approach. For whether or not Van Til was correct in
the way he expounded the doctrine of the Trinity and its place in the
Christian worldview, can any Christian doubt that God Himself, as the
Triune Creator, Redeemer, and Lord of all, must be the foundation, the
center, and the aim of all Christian thought?
The Evangelical Worldview and the Trinity
Contrary to what one might expect, among evangelical Christians the doctrine
of the Trinity seems not to be considered an important part of the Christian
worldview -- if, that is, we are to judge their faith by the place the
doctrine of the Trinity holds in published studies of the Christian worldview.
A brief survey of some of the major evangelical writers suggests that
the Trinity is secondary at best. Francis Schaeffer, a student of Van
Til and the evangelical writer who popularized the idea of the (IR(BChristian
worldview," did give attention to the Trinity, but unlike Van
Til, Schaeffer did not make the doctrine of the Trinity a central concern.
Other evangelical writers on the Christian worldview, though following
Schaeffer in their concern to relate and contrast Christianity with other
religions and philosophies in the broad strokes of a worldview approach,
either did not catch Schaeffer's emphasis on the Trinity, or decided not
to follow it.
To cite only a few examples, James W. Sire's otherwise excellent book
The Universe Next Door, mentions the doctrine of the Trinity in
passing, but, the doctrine plays no important part at all in his discussion,
apart from that brief mention, in which Sire emphasizes that the Trinity
demonstrates that the Christian worldview is personal. Ronald H. Nash's
reference to the Trinity is no doubt intended to communicate to the reader
that he considers it essential to the Christian position, but once mentioned,
the doctrine of the Trinity is no longer important in the argument.
Nash's "touchstone proposition" -- the proposition that expresses
the fundamental truth of reality in his worldview -- is: "Human beings
and the universe in which they reside are the creation of the God who
has revealed Himself in Scripture." Now the God of the Bible is
certainly the Triune God. But if the fact of God's triunity is essential
to our worldview, that fact needs to be demonstrated and then expounded
so that Christians can see what the doctrine of the Trinity means for
Christian thought and life. Nash makes no attempt to do this. Neither
does R. C. Sproul in his Lifeviews: Understanding the Ideas that Shape
The list of evangelical authors who either ignore the doctrine of the
Trinity or treat it only in passing could be extended. Thus, what
Karl Rahner wrote of Catholics, applies almost equally to evangelicals:
We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity
have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature
could well remain virtually unchanged.
As do also the words of Jurgen Moltmann,
Why are most Christians in the West, whether they be Catholics or Protestants,
really only 'monotheists' where the experience and practice of their
faith is concerned? Whether God is one or triune evidently makes as
little difference to the doctrine of faith as it does to ethics. Consequently
the doctrine of the Trinity hardly occurs at all in modern apologetic
writings which aim to bring the Christian faith home to the modern world
again. Even new approaches made by fundamental theology do not begin
with the Trinity.
Van Til stands in utter contrast to this tendency. He has not only asserted
that the doctrine of the Trinity is important, but has shown how it relates
to other academic disciplines and to the history of theological and philosophical
thought. He challenges both traditional thinking about the problem of
the one and the many and traditional logic. His view that the Bible itself
must be the standard for all human thought is a correlate of his view
of the Trinity. Finally, Van Til's doctrine of the Trinity is grounded
in the Christian doctrine of worship as well as the doctrine of salvation.
With slight revision, Van Til's approach to the doctrine of the Trinity
promises to advance whole idea of distinctly Christian thought.
1. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., "The Threeness/Oneness Problem of the
Trinity," Calvin Theological Journal, 23, no. 1 (April, 1988),
p. 38. Hereinafter referred to TOPT.
2. Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville,
Tn: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1994). Grenz is an exception to the
evangelical trend to neglect the Trinity, but by ignoring Calvin and Van
Til, he has limited his ability to apply it broadly.
3. See the famous essay by Warfield: "Calvin's Doctrine of the Trinity"
in Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine (Philadelphia: Presbyterian
and Reformed, 1956).
4. Grenz studied under Pannenberg.
5. Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 5, "God
Who Stands and Stays, Part One" (Waco, Tx: Word, 1982), p. 212.
6. Schaeffer writes, for example, "Every once and a while in my
discussions someone asks how I can believe in the Trinity. My answer is
always the same. I would still be an agnostic if there were no Trinity,
because there would be no answers. Without the high order of personal
unity and diversity as given in the Trinity, there are no answers."
He Is There and He Is Not Silent (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1972),
7. James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog
(Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 1976), pp. 24-25.
8. Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in
a World of Ideas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), p. 35.
9. Ibid., p. 52.
10. R. C. Sproul, Lifeviews: Understanding the Ideas that Shape Society
Today (Old Tappen, N.J.: Fleming H. Revel, 1973).
11. Even Gary DeMar, a Van Tillian, does not do justice to the centrality
of the Trinity in what is one of the best short introductions to the Christian
worldview, War of the Worldviews: A Christian Defense Manuel (Atlanta,
Ga.: American Vision, 1994.).
12. Karl Rahner, The Trinity (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co.,
1997, reprint of 1970 translation by Joseph Donceel; new introduction
by Catherine Mowry Lacugna), p. 10-11.
13. Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 1981), p. 1. Moltmann, of course, had a different audience
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