Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (The Forgotten Trinity, 26)
He goes on to talk about how important it is that we distinguish Being from person.
Note immediately that we are not saying there are three Beings that are one Being, or three persons that are one person. Such would be self-contradictory. I emphasize this because, most often, this is the misrepresentation of the doctrine that is commonly found in the literature of various religions that deny the Trinity. (27)
He then paraphrases the teaching of Hank Hanegraaff, who “has often expressed this point in a wonderfully simple and clear way”:
When speaking of the Trinity, we need to realize that we are talking about one what and three who’s. The one what is the Being or essence of God; the three who’s are the Father, Son, and Spirit. We dare not mix up the what’s and who’s regarding the Trinity. (27)
This expression of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is probably the norm among conservative evangelicals, but I have a growing dissatisfaction with it. In my view, it lends itself too easily to the view that the Trinity is merely a society of three divine persons, whose oneness goes no further than the abstract nature they share in common.
Responding to some of the faulty implications to which the traditional expression may lend itself (and defending Van Til’s view against the contention that it is logically contradictory), John Frame helpfully summarizes Van Til’s view of the Trinity this way:
[In his doctrine of the Trinity,] Van Til is considering the implications of another statement, universally recognized as orthodox, that “each of the persons of the Godhead is co-terminous with the being of the Godhead.”1 That is to say, each of the persons is fully God, possessing all divine attributes. The persons are not parts of God, as though one could act without the others acting along with him. “God’s being presents an absolute numerical identity.”2 He is one “being,” not three; the three partake of one “essence.”
Now the question becomes, is that one being personal or impersonal? Philosophers have sometimes said that we should distinguish between essence and individuality as follows: Fido, Rover, and Spot are three individuals with a common essence, namely the essence of “dogness” or “doghood.” But “doghood” is an abstraction. You can put Fido on a leash, but you cannot so restrain doghood. Now is it legitimate to understand the Trinity (to be sure, a reality exalted far above the canine realm) according to this model? If so, the persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, would be the individuals, and the divine essence, God, would be an abstraction. But of course this model is entirely inadequate for the Trinity. God is not an abstraction. Nor is he a mere society of three gods, united by common abstract properties.
What is he, then? As we indicated earlier, Van Til’s answer is that God is an “absolute person.” Abstractions are impersonal. God is a concrete, personal reality. Our word is ruled by a person, not an abstract principle. As Van Til says, when God identified himself to us in revelation, “there was not universal being of which he was a particular instance.”3 If the three persons (individually and collectively) exhaust the divine essence (are “co-terminous” with it), then the divine essence itself must be personal. And if God is an absolute person, and his is one, there must be a sense in which he is one person.
. . .
I do believe that when Van Til’s argument is seriously considered, his formulation will not sound so outlandish. Indeed, I believe that the argument is cogent and that the formulation is true. It is also traditional, for it is clearly implied by the doctrine that the divine persons each contain the fullness of God.
3. How, then, do we relate the “one person” to the “three persons”? Van Til asserts that “this is a mystery beyond our comprehension.”4 Indeed! But he does not say that the two assertions are contradictory. Are they in fact contradictory? That may seem obvious, but in fact it is not necessarily the case. Anybody who has studied logic knows that something can be both A and not-A if the two A’s have different senses. In this case, God can clearly be both one person and not-one person, if the meaning of “person” changes somewhat between the two uses.
The traditional language, “one in essence, three in person” (which, again, Van Til does not reject), brings out more clearly, of course, that the oneness and the threeness are in different respects. But the formulation “one person and three persons” does not deny that difference of respect. It is simply an alternative formulation that makes a point somewhat different from the point of the traditional language.
4. How is the word person used in different senses or respects? Obviously, there is some difference between the sense of “person” applied to the oneness of God and the sense applied to the three members of the Trinity. Van Til would agree, for example, with the creedal statements that the Father is the begetter, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit is the one who proceeds; the whole Godhead is neither begetter, begotten, nor proceeder. But neither Van Til nor I would claim to be able to state, precisely and exhaustively, the difference between God’s essence and the individual person of the Godhead. Doubtless the Clarkite critics of Van Til will find this a damaging admission, for they insist that all theological statements be perfectly precise. Never mind that Scripture itself often fails to be precise about the mysteries of the faith.5
(Cornelius Van Til, 67–69)6
I can appreciate James White’s desire to respond concisely in his apologetic encounters to charges that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is contradictory. Certainly Van Til’s formulation is not the most convenient. However, I’m much more comfortable with being less precise and leaving the mystery of how God can be one and yet three unresolved. Attempts to explain this mystery can have the tendency to paint a picture of God as one whose oneness is impersonal and abstract. In my view, this is an inadequate view of our Triune God.
- [N16] IST, 229. ↩
- [N17] Ibid. ↩
- [N18] Ibid., 232. Certainly God and the world may both be said to “be,” and thus to “partake of being.” But Van Ti’s point is that this is not to say that the basic nature of the universe is abstract (“being”) and that God and man are mere variants of that abstract quality. ↩
- [N19] Ibid., 230. ↩
- [N20] On an orthodox view, Scripture is always true, but it is not always maximally precise. That is an important point when we consider, e.g., biblical uses of round numbers, phenomenal language (“The sun rose”), etc. These are not errors, but they are certainly imprecise. Nor does Scripture give us a precise or comprehensive account of the eternal relations between Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the divine essence. ↩
- The rest of the section, which ends on page 71, is well worth reading. ↩