Friday, December 26, 2014

The Ontological Trinity in Van Til's Apologetic

An important point in Van Til’s theory of epistemic justification is that Christ’s Word in Scripture is self-validating in the sense that all of reality testifies to it when interpreted through its lens.[1] This is not to be confused with the process of beginning with reality and from there, moving to Scripture or perhaps other intermediary steps along the way. It is to say that every interpretation of reality apart from Scripture sooner or later culminates in an inescapable skepticism.

The prickly problem with which philosophy must contend and satisfactorily solve if human predication can be defended in any rational way is the problem of the one and the many. Centuries of work has gone into putting an end to this monster, that has been relentlessly lurking in the shadows, almost mocking every vain attempt to seal his fate. The challenge is to provide for the intelligibility around the relationship between particulars and the unifying principle that brings them together without destroying either the particular or the principle of unity. What is it that makes me, me, while at the same time unifies me with other humans, or even more specifically, other male humans? If we emphasize plurality we run the risk of ending in an infinite regress. The reason for this is that we must ask how the particulars are related to each other and how this relationship itself is related to the particulars and then by what principle that relationship is related and so forth. We cannot help but feel the infinite regress looming in the background. On the other hand, if we place too much emphasis on the prominence of unity, we end up without any distinguishing characteristics by which we may know the particulars. But once again, nothing can be known in principle about such a thing, because there can be nothing from which to distinguish it.[2] The stakes in this game are higher than most apologists appreciate. The very idea of human knowledge rides on our ability to work through the problem of the one and the many. The Christian apologist must bring this demand to bear on the discussion in order to demonstrate that philosophy apart from God is futile and that true knowledge in any scheme where man as independent from God is basically impossible.

The truth of certain empirical propositions belongs to our frame of reference.[3] The aspiration of philosophy is to provide for a comprehensive view of the world in which the diversity of human experience is intelligible. Every worldview operates within a system, or frame of reference. But one has to ask the question of Wittgenstein’s own proposition whether or not it is itself operating within a particular system and, if outside that system, it can be accepted as valid. The point is that worldviews are systems and every claim to knowledge operates within that system. Every test for every claim to knowledge takes place within that system and rests upon certain presuppositions that are part of that system. Hence, apologetics must operate at the level of systems if it is to operate effectively. We do not take the tree down one leaf or twig at a time. We go to the base and take it down with one pass of the chainsaw.

Nothing is more fundamental to human knowledge than the question of the one and the many and nothing is more basic to Christian theism than the self-contained ontological Triune God revealed in Scripture. It was the genius of Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic to demonstrate how the latter helps us deal with the former. Our view of reality or being involves our view of knowledge and ethics even as our view of knowledge and ethics involves and is based on our view of being.[4] To argue for such hard dichotomies between the three major branches of philosophy is more than a little naïve. How we know is indelibly bound up in what we are and vice versa. The question then becomes how does Christian theism, in contradistinction to secular philosophy think about the problem of the one and the many?

Human knowledge ultimately rests upon the internal coherence within the Godhead; our knowledge rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition.[5] All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are deposited in Christ (Col. 2:3). Christ is the true knowledge that all humanity should strive to know (Col. 2:2). It is the regenerate Christian who is being renewed to true knowledge (Col. 3:10). That true knowledge is according to the image of the One Who created him. True knowledge is measure by the degree to which man is a reflection of the image of the ontological Trinity revealed in Scripture. Only if one presupposes the God of Scripture is knowledge possible. Bosserman reminds us, “To recap the dilemma but one more time: abstract principles and brute facts prove to shed all definition when divorced from a concrete system.”[6] When man operates on the presupposition that he is autonomous, and reasons abstractly about so-called brute facts, knowledge becomes impossible. Moreover, it is this system that charges Christian theism with contradiction and abhors the presence of paradox as if such a phenomenon weakens the system. But Christian theism is only weakened by the presence of theological paradox if the secular philosopher’s system is superior in some way. In what world could it ever be rational to subject divine logic, eternal, uncreated, infinite logic to the created logic of the finite? And that is exactly what the non-Christian worldview insists on. Hence we see the importance of operating, proclaiming, and defending the faith at the level of worldview.

It is a well-known fact that all heresies in the history of the church have in some form or other taught subordinationism. Similarly, we believe all “heresies” in apologetic methodology spring from some sort of subordinationism.[7] The challenge before us is to solve the plurality of particulars while preserving the unifying principle of their relationships without destroying their particularity. Van Til says we need the notion of a concrete universal to help us better understand how the physical universe can operate the way it appears to operate. It is only in the Christian doctrine of the triune God, as we are bound to believe, that we really have a concrete universal. In God’s being there are no particulars not related to the universal and there is nothing universal that is not fully expressed in the particulars.[8] Hence, the term concrete universal does not signify the same thing in Van Til that it does in idealist philosophers. Functionally, they [idealists] treated their own intellects as if they were vested with the basic principles which govern the universe.[9] Unavoidably then, the idealist leads us into an in ever-increasing subjectivism that will ultimately end in skepticism and irrationalism. Once more, it seems we are back where we started. In Van Til’s estimation, a Trinitarian worldview is able to deliver where the absolute idealist systems come up dry. This claim turns on the fact that the Triune God represents a self-complete system over and above the temporal universe, and beyond the principles at work in the mind of man.[10]

In Van Til, creation must always mean fiat creation. In the beginning God spoke and the heavens and earth became. Being came from not just non-being, but from absolutely nothing. “Using the language of the One-and-Many question we contend that in God the one and the many are equally ultimate. Unity in God is no more fundamental than diversity, and diversity in God is no more fundamental than unity.”[11] This concept is the natural outworking of a biblical understanding of the nature of the ontological Trinity. And it is not difficult to see how such an understanding impacts one’s metaphysic and subsequently, apologetic methodology. The requirement that Christian theism subject itself to creaturely logic conflicts with this Christian metaphysic which itself creates serious issues in our understanding of the nature of God. The kind of logic we employ is related to our metaphysic, which is related to our understanding of God. At a minimum, if we employ poor logic in apologetic methodology, we find ourselves being inconsistent with the system that we are attempting to defend. Or worse, we elevate this poor use of logic to a place of prominence and end up allowing poor logic to shape our metaphysic as well as inform our doctrine of God. The latter must be avoided at all cost. After all, the former may not be ideal, but unlike the latter, it does not tend toward heresy. Hence, it follows that if one interprets reality through the lens that the reality is the fiat of the self-contained ontological Trinity, the one and the many problem evaporates.

Stated another way, the Trinity solves the one-many problem by being free from it himself, and then enabling believers to reason concretely on the basis of a systematic interpretation of reality so that they are effectively freed from it as well.[12] God exhibits ultimate unity and ultimate plurality: he is one is essence and three in person, as the traditional labels have it.[13] On this model we can understand that the one and the many isn’t really a problem for the Christian because the ontological Trinity serves as the paradigm by which we interpret reality. However, the unbeliever is in a precarious position. He is left without any justification whatsoever when he assigns certain qualities to empirical objects or claims a certain inferential relationship between ideas. The unbeliever cannot escape asserting, in practice, that reality is the very sort of place that, in theory, he denies it to be. Hence, to repeat Van Til’s conclusion, unbelieving thought is fundamentally self-defeating.[14]



[1] B.A. Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox:an Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius van Til (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 124.

[2] James Anderson, If Knowledge Then God. (Analogical Thoughts website)
[3] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, harper Torchbooks ed, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright (New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1972), 12e.
[4] Van Til, Cornelius. The Defense of the Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1985.
[5] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979) 23.
[6] B.A. Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox:an Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius van Til (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 92.

[7] Van Til, Cornelius. The Defense of the Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1985, 25.
[8] Ibid., 26.
[9] B.A. Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox:an Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius van Til (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 78.
[10] Ibid., 79.
[11] Van Til, Cornelius. The Defense of the Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1985, 25.
[12] B.A. Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox:an Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius van Til (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 78.
[13] Anderson, If Knowledge Then God.
[14] Bosserman.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Reblog from Nine Marks: Church Discipline

22 Mistakes Pastors Make in Practicing Church Discipline Article 09.18.2015 Pastors sometimes make the following mistakes regarding ...