Is Van Til Orthodox on the Trinity?

This question has been a debated question in the blogosphere as well as in print. Van Til makes some startling statements in his An Introduction to Systematic Theology. In chapter 17 of that volume he makes the assertion that “God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person” (p. 363). This is not merely the same thing as saying that God’s essence has personality. Van Til says that “God is not an essence that has personality; he is absolute personality” (p. 364). In order to determine, therefore, whether Van Til is contradicting Trinitarian orthodoxy, the question that must be answered is this: does Van Til use the word “person” in the same sense in these statements of the uni-personality of God as he does in those statements concerning the tri-personality of God? If he uses them in the same sense, then he is unorthodox. If not, then he is merely guilty of difficult and confusing language (which is probably true regardless; I’ve never found VT easy reading!). Ultimately, I think Van Til is orthodox on this point, though I wish he had phrased himself more felicitously. My evidence is the following contextual clue that “person” does not mean the same thing in both contexts: “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” (p. 364). 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.

What is Van Til trying to safeguard here? The difficulty with traditional formulations is not that they are wrong, but that they can be understood wrongly to separate the essence of God from personality. It is not as if we can say that the essence of God happens to be personal, as if personality were an afterthought. I think the best way to say this is that God’s essence is absolutely personal. God is personal as His essence is divine personality. This is true in a generic sense, therefore using the adjective “personal” in a different way than in the tri-personality of the three distinct persons, although, by definition, the three persons are “personal” as well (not in the same sense).

The problem with Van Til’s language here is the confusion that can result from using “person” in these two different ways. He didn’t exactly make it clear that he was using the term in two different ways. Only by a judgment of charity can we come to that conclusion. Some are not willing to extend that judgment of charity to Van Til’s thought. I will close by quoting Bill Edgar’s footnote on Van Til’s statement, a helpful reminder of what VT was trying to do:

This is one of Van Til’s most original contributions to theology proper. As he said at the beginning of the chapter, to speak of God as one is to speak of God as a person. This fits our ordinary experience, as, for instance, when we pray, we pray to one person. It also fits biblical data that constantly refers to God as a person. By this reminder Van Til avoids two errors. The first is the tendency, found mostly in Western theology, of separating God’s essence, which becomes a remote inaccessible being, from the persons. The other is the neoorthodox error of reducing personality to relationship, rather than regarding it as the foundation of ontological consciousness.