The Insider Movement and the Word-Concept Fallacy

Debate was rather heated in the PCA General Assembly this year over a motion to include a statement to the effect of saying that the Muslims and the Christians worship the same God. It is usually felt by people who believe this that such a statement can be an effective bridge for evangelism to Muslims. They will also usually state the obvious, that the Arabic word for God is Allah, and so Arabic translations have the word “Allah” in the Bible. Therefore they have the same God that we do.

There are a number of serious problems with this line of reasoning. Firstly, the implication of such a statement is that the Trinity is not central to the Christian idea of God, but is an optional add-on. Folks, are we really willing to say that about the Trinity? That it is optional? I would think Athanasius would be rolling in his grave at the suggestion.

Secondly, the argument from the word “Allah” commits the word-concept fallacy. This fallacy happens when someone claims that because a word is present, therefore a particular concept is also present. In this case, the argument states that because we both use the same word for God in Arabic, that therefore we both pour the same meaning into the word. This is not a legitimate move. I can use the word “lie” to mean a falsehood. Just because someone else uses the word “lie” to mean recline does not mean that we have the same definition of the word “lie.” Now, it is a little more complicated than that with the example of “God,” because some things that Muslims believe about God resemble some things that Christians believe about God, whereas there is no overlap at all between “falsehood” and “recline.” Still, it remains true that Muslims and Christians mean something very different by the name “God.” I have no problem at all with Arabic translations using the name “Allah” for “God.” We do not argue about words, but about the meaning of those words.

I would argue that this very difference is an evangelistic tool. Why tell a Muslim something that we are just going to have to retract later on? The situation reminds me of the mentality of the seeker-sensitive movement, which winds up dumbing down the message of Christianity in the interests of getting them in the door. The problem is that they don’t stay in the door, because there is nothing very different between the church and the world. It is the worship that is extremely different from anything the world has that actually perks up people’s interest, to the point of them saying, “Why is this different? What do they have that I don’t have?” Similarly with Muslims, I do not believe it is helpful to start out by saying something that is grossly misleading at best, and heretical at worst. It is far better to tell them of the love of Jesus Christ, and to keep on directing them there. The love of God and the grace that Christianity offers in the Gospel is a far more effective evangelism tool.

East and West on Spiration

When discussing the doctrine of the Trinity, something that comes up very quickly is the difference between the Eastern churches and the Western churches on how the Holy Spirit is spirated (or breathed out, or processing). The West added a small modifier to the Nicene Creed (this happened at the third Council of Toledo in 589). The original ran “We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father.” The Council of Toledo added the phrase “and from the Son,” indicating that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son. This clause is called “the Filioque clause.” The Latin “Filioque” means “and from the Son.” This procession, of course, happens in eternity, not in time, in parallel to the Son’s eternal begottenness from the Father. The East objected to this phrase, since they believed that the Father was the only fount (Latin, fons) of divinity. They equated “fons” with the person of the Father. The West believed that, aside from unbegottenness, everything that the Father has He gave to the Son. If that is true, then the Father also gave the power of spiration to the Son. Attempts have been made recently to try to reconcile the two positions. The usual formulation is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. This does not entirely solve the problem, since it could be interpreted to mean that the Son is a mere conduit through which spiration passes. It seems to me that there is a better way, and that is simply to make a logical distinction (not a distinction of essence, mind you) between the character of the Father’s spiration and that of the Son’s spiration. For it must be acknowledged, even by the most die-hard Westerner, that the Son’s ability to spirate the Spirit comes from the Father. So, why not simply say that the Father’s spiration is original, while the Son’s spiration of the Spirit is derived (eternally, of course, not in time, since we are speaking of a communication of essence)? That would preserve the East’s concern about the Father being the fount of divinity, while preserving the West’s concern that the spiration of the Spirit does not leave the Son “out in the cold,” so to speak. Spiration cannot be an attribute of the personhood of the Father, then, because, it is something that He communicates to His Son. The personal attributes are those that belong only to one of the three Persons. What do you think?

Ferguson’s Address

This address is entitled “Losing My Religion.” The text is Psalm 119:97-100. The goal of this address is two-fold: to increase our desire to read the Word of God, and then to read good books.

Christianity today is definitely a mile wide and possibly less than an inch deep. We need to be delivered from the notion that we have got it right in our churches. The real work of the church is to worship God, and seek His glory and majesty. We need to devote ourselves to intercessory prayer. We need to devote ourselves to the Word. At the end of Hebrews 5 (which deals with a very high Christology), it becomes evident that we have become hard of hearing.

Three reasons why we should pursue a greater knowledge of God. 1. This (the pursuit of a greater knowledge of God) is the reason for which God regenerated us. 2. Christ has specifically taught us about this. See Mark 12:28-34. Jesus adds to the Shema the phrase “with all your mind.” We are not in a culture that associates “love” with the mind. We will not have any affection for God without love of God in the mind. Psalm 119 emphasizes that we love the Word of God. In John 13-17, while the disciples need help because they are frightened and beleaguered, what does Jesus do but teach them about the Trinity? Jesus is saying that if they are going to get through this hardship and other hardships in the future, then they need to know who God is on a much deeper level. Far from being speculative and irrelevant, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most unspeculative, and one of the most relevant. But we won’t know this unless we dig into the Word of God. 3. Because this has life-transforming power. See especially Romans 12:1-2. John Stott said that the secret of holy living lies in the mind. Colossians 3:1 is important here as well. What do you think about when you have nothing else to think about? This question has a tendency to reveal our utterly carnality. It is always a challenge to fill our minds with the things of Philippians 4:8.

There are three strategies for pursuing a greater knowledge of God. 1. We need to place our lives under the living ministry of the Word of God in a church. This is God’s central instrument that He uses to shape our lives. This is an argument for the regular means of grace. Some might say “But the preacher is no better than I am.” Calvin’s Institutes, however, would say that this is precisely the point. We sit under Christ. The minister is just an instrument. The Word does its own work. See Acts 6:7. The question should not be “What are we doing?” It should rather be, “What is the Word doing?” 1 Thess. 2:13 is also important. 2. We dig deeply into the Word for ourselves. Bible studies are not the same thing as digging for ourselves. 3. Learn together with all the saints (reading good books). There are great central books of Christian literature. Two great books is Calvin’s Institutes, and John Owen’s On Communion with God. Calvin taught Ferguson how to think Trinitarianly, and Owen taught Ferguson how to live Trinitarianly.

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.

The Trinity, Revisited

I have answered Doug’s previous post on his own blog. I am waiting for an answer to those comments. Meanwhile, we can move on to the Trinity.

My previous thoughts on the first major section are to be found here. I don’t have a whole lot to add. I wish to reaffirm the covenant of redemption as being the archetype of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. I believe that the articles in CJPM and BFA have established this position not only as exegetically tenable, but confessionally compelling. However, there is one massive caveat that must be issued with all such attempts at grounding covenantal theology in Trinitarian theology. We must be exceedingly careful to guard against a social Trinitarian doctrine in our formulations. In other words, we must say that there is One God, and that the intra-Trinitarian covenant of redemption does not mean that the three persons of the Trinity somehow exist independently of each other and somehow need covenant in order to be considered one God. The Nicene formulation on this is clear: they have the same essence. They do not need covenant in order to be considered one God. They are one ontologically, even though the persons are distinct persons. This is a distinction that the aforementioned books have done very well. I do not think Ralph Smith has succeeded in this quite so admirably. I’m sure that if you were to ask Ralph Smith whether he believed in a social doctrine of the Trinity, he would say no. However, it does not seem to me to be apparent that he has sufficiently guarded against the social Trinitarianism implications. It should be fairly obvious, by the way, that this section on the Trinity is highly indebted to Ralph Smith’s books on the Trinity.  

Some Important Books on the Trinity

As some of you may know, I have been studying the Trinity rather extensively recently, and not just because it is important in the FV discussions. I have always loved this doctrine with my entire soul. So, I thought I’d put together a list of some of the more important books on the Trinity. In my opinion, the two most important are this book (volume 4 of the set) and this book. They complement each other very well, since one is a general historical, doctrinal study that does not pay much of any attention to the post-Reformation tradition, and the other fills that gap magnificently. So, if you read those two together, you will quite likely have a very adequte understanding of the Trinity, both in the Bible, and in church history (not to mention modern studies, as well!). For rounding out a yet more fully orbed study, I would recommend Augustine, Torrance, this book, which is a very nice collection of essays, and Aquinas. Yes, we should not neglect the Roman Catholics on the doctrine of the Trinity, because this is something we hold in common with them, and some of the more important theological reflection on the Trinity recently has been by Catholics (such as Rahner). For understanding the Trinity in the discussion of the FV, you need to start with Ralph Smith’s books here, here, and here. For modern feminist understandings of the Trinity, one could go with Lacugna. One cannot leave out Moltmann in modern discussion, or Pannenberg.

Trinity, Infinity, and Person

I am continuing to read volume four of Muller’s immensely important work, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume four deals with the Trinity. I came across this incredibly insightful and devastating analysis of Socinian theology (known today as Open Theism). Muller is talking about the definition of Person when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity. The definition of Person has always been a description of one of the three subsistences within the Trinity. The Socinians objected to this, equating Person with Essence, such that if there was one essence, then there had to be only one Person.

As for the Socinian objection that a single essence implies a single person, Owen responds, “that in one essence there can be but one person may be true where the substance is finite and limited, but hath no place in that which is infinite.” This latter point is significant to the Socinian definition, inasmuch as the Socinian doctrine of God assumed a limited God… (Muller, PRRD IV, pg. 179)

Carl Trueman once told us in class that an error with regard to God’s sovereignty such as Open Theism would always lead back to a Trinitarian error. Now, I see why. Owen argued that the problem with the Socinian definition of person was that it assumed a limited substance. A limited substance obviously cannot have absolute authority over humanity. Therefore, a limited God such as the Socinian/Open Theistic God would be something less than a fully Trinitarian God.

Posted by Lane Keister

Baptism and the Trinity

I found a fascinating thought about baptism and the Trinity while reading a’Brakel last night. In the section in question, a’Brakel is laying out the reasons why the Christian needs to meditate on the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is so important that a’Brakel says “the entire spiritual life of a Christian consists in being exercised concerning this mystery, and is thus distinguished from the practice of civil virtue and natural religion” (vol. 1, pg. 176). Now, a’Brakel defines the doctrine of the Trinity in such a way that it implies or points to the entirety of soteriology. And this is true. The Father plans our salvation, the Son accomplishes our salvation, and the Holy Spirit applies our salvation to us. So, a’Brakel is right. n this context, a’Brakel also gives reasons why the Christian needs to meditate on this doctrine. Here is what he says about baptism: “Baptism also obligates us to worshjip these three Persons and to seek to be blessed by each of them” (vol. 1, pg. 177). The reason for this, of course, is that we are baptized into the name (notice the singular here!) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So, in addition to all the other things baptism obligates us to do, it also obligates us to the study and meditation of the Trinity.

Richard of St. Victor on the Trinity

We only know for sure his death date, it seems (neither Letham nor Muller give a birth-date for him). He died in 1173. He was a Scottish theologian. Both Muller and Letham indicate that he was a rationalist. However, he did have some helpful things to say on the Trinity. His influences include Augustine and Anselm (Letham, pg. 225).

Richard’s greatest Trinitarian dictum, to my mind, is this: “Love, by definition, is directed toward another. Therefore, love cannot exist where there is not a plurality of persons. Supreme love is not directed toward creation, since a created person is not worthy of supreme love” (Letham, pg. 225). He argues also that there cannot be merely two persons in the Godhead, otherwise love could not be shared (Letham, pg. 227). Letham’s assessment of this argumentation is as follows: Richard cannot prove why there shouldn’t be more than four persons in the Godhead. However, it is a very fine argument against a monistic God (such as the God Muslims have). See pg. 228. 

Muller notes a further refinement to Richard’s argument, however, which might just answer Letham’s (small) criticism. Richard argues that the Father gives but does not receive (within the Godhead). The Son receives and gives, whereas the Spirit only receives. This is not to establish any kind of ontological inferiority, but only to establish what the lines of relationship look like within the Godhead. He argues that, with this setup, the Trinity is complete as three. “The only possibility remaining is a person who neither gives nor receives-but such a person is solitary, not a part of the common life of the three, so that a quaternity is excluded” (pg. 34). I think this more than adquately answers Letham’s criticism.

It is a great pity that Letham’s book was already in the final editing stage when Muller came out, thus precluding any chance of Letham interacting with Muller. However, the two balance each other out quite nicely. Letham is a bit thin on Reformation Trinitarianism (only deals in depth with Calvin). Muller fills in that gap nicely.

Augustine and biblical interpretation

Augustine says this in Book 1, chapter 2: “The purpose of all the Catholic commentators I have been able to read on the divine books of both testaments, who have written before me on the trinity which God is…”

The version I have is translated by Edmund Hill, who has a footnote here which I find extremely to the point: “It is worth noting that Augustine takes it for granted that to write on the Trinity was to interpret the Scriptures. There was no question of dogmatic writers and bible commentators belonging to different species.” I couldn’t agree more. It is a fun quote, is it not?

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