The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til

The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til, by Lane G. Tipton. Libertyville, IL: Reformed Forum, 2022. Pp. xiii + 181, $34.99, hardcover.

I comment often in class, “I am Van Tilian . . . with a smile.” Tipton, a former longtime professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and now a Fellow of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Reformed Forum and an Orthodox Presbyterian Church pastor, is also very pro-Van Til. Given that we both appreciate Van Til, I expected to agree with much in this book. I was not disappointed.

Tipton usefully culls from Van Til’s writings the somewhat sparse explicit discussions of the Trinity per se and what authors and creeds Van Til quotes in these discussions. He concludes that Van Til has “classic Reformed” or “confessionally Reformed” views of the Trinity (pp. xi, 16), and this is presupposed everywhere in Van Til. But much more than that, Tipton wants to show that these traditional Trinitarian views form the backbone of many of Van Til’s emphases, e.g., “creator-creature distinction.” Further, Tipton argues that Van Til combined his Trinitarian emphases with traditional Reformed federalism/covenant-theology to fend off theological errors such as, for example, non-immutability and non-simplicity of God, and the traditional Roman Catholic view of donum superadditum. That is, Van Til rejects all forms of “correlativism”—any view that maintains that “God changes in relation to creation” (p. 17). Thus, the “self-contained triune God does not exist in a correlative relation to the universe, with each side characterized by mutual change” (p. 17).

Tipton summarizes much of his book:

The theological foundations of the confessional Trinitarianism summarized by A. A. Hodge, the conception of the absolute personality of the triune God set forth by Herman Bavinck, the autothean doctrine of absolute Trinitarian persons developed by John Calvin, the living Trinitarian persons who exhaustively indwell one another in relations of coinherence as set forth by Francis Turretin and Charles Hodge, and “the deeper Protestant conception” of the image of God and the doctrine of the covenant of works expounded by Geerhardus Vos all converge to forge what Van Til termed the “representative principle.” (pp. 20–21)

Tipton has a lot to say in this book, but for purposes of this review, I will only consider four areas, somewhat rearranged from Tipton’s presentation. Given space limitations, I am more concentrating on Van Til and the Trinity rather than the covenantal implications that defend the traditional Reformed view of Adam made in the image of God (i.e., “deeper Protestant conception”) against the Roman Catholic donum superadditum. I will give my own summary of Van Til in these four areas, more-or-less from my perspective before I read this book, and then comment on Tipton’s handling of them.

First area: To put it in philosophical language, as Van Til often does, God is an “absolute” (WCF 2.1 uses “most absolute”). This is another way of saying God is immutable and simple following traditional “classical theism.” This then dovetails with Van Til’s significant emphasis on the “creator-creature distinction.”

Here, Tipton well presents Van Til’s arguments, including showing Van Til’s use of Scripture, creeds and confessions, and Reformed theologians. Tipton also includes many examples of Van Til’s critique of views that he considered defective due to correlativism.

Second area: According to Van Til, the Godhead is not just an “absolute,” he is a “personal absolute” or “absolute personality.” Primarily, Van Til emphasizes this in contrast to an impersonal god. Thus, Christians may properly say that God’s law is personal, God’s providence is personal, etc. Christians do not believe in abstract laws or non-personal providence. As is well known, Van Til provocatively says that God is “one person,” while at the same time strongly agreeing that God is three persons. In other contexts, however, he states this less provocatively. The “ultimate personality of God is a triune personality” (A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 1977, p. 78) and “the Godhead . . . exists tri-personally” (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 1974, p. 230).

Tipton has a good discussion of this issue. He makes clear that Van Til is not arguing for a quasi “fourth” person in the Trinity. Very helpful for me is his discussion of the “Boston Personalist tradition” and other “personalist” philosophical/theological traditions existing in the first half of the twentieth century. Van Til was exposed to these non-orthodox views while in his doctoral program at Princeton University. This gives some context as to why Van Til might use this term “personal absolute” and whom he was aiming at by using it. Tipton also notes that Bavinck has a section entitled “‘Personality’ in God,” where Bavinck states “the divine being is tripersonal, precisely because it is the absolute divine personality” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:301–4, esp. 302). Similar views to Van Til are cautiously discussed in A. A. Hodge (Evangelical Theology, 1976, pp. 101–7). Tipton concedes, and I agree, that Van Til’s “one person” terminology risks “unnecessary misunderstanding” (p. 85). Tipton recommends “the absolute tripersonal God” or “the absolute triune personality” (p. 85). In fact, I often say that providence is “tripersonal.”

Third area: Van Til strongly affirms that the three persons of the Trinity are “one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (WSC 6). Further, he agrees with Calvin’s affirmation that the Son is autotheos (has self-existence or aseity), and, following Warfield, sees the affirmation of autotheos as a necessary hedge to protect against lingering subordination views concerning the Son’s deity. Thus, in the Godhead there is an equal ultimacy of both the one substance and the three persons, an equal ultimacy of unity and diversity. For Van Til, this then connects to his emphasis on Christianity’s having a solution to the philosophical “one and the many problem.” The “problem” is defining the relationship between a universal cat (“one”) and all particular cats (“many”). Is one more ultimate than another? Is this relationship even real? Plato, Aristotle, and nominalists all have their answers. Van Til argues that only a Christian view of the Triune God has the answer—the reality of a universal cat and particular cats is patterned after and explained by the equal ultimacy of unity and diversity in the Trinity.

Tipton significantly discusses both the Son as autotheos and the equal ultimacy of the divine substance and persons. (Apparently, unless I missed it, for purposes of the book, he does not include a discussion of the “one and the many problem.”) Tipton well explains that for Calvin, Warfield, Vos, and Van Til, autotheos relates to eternal generation in that the Father generates the person of the Son, but does not communicate the substance to the Son, which substance is from the Son himself. It might have been helpful to also include for the reader that not all Reformed theologians agree. For example, Turretin, while also using the term autotheos, concludes that the Father generates the person of the Son and does communicate the substance to the Son (Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:291–94; cf. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 93; Irish Articles 9). I probably side with Calvin, but in this mystery we may be going beyond the “good and necessary consequences” of Scripture. I appreciate that the Westminster Divines did not take sides here and simply affirmed that “the Son is eternally begotten of the Father” (WCF 2.3, cf. WLC 10). I am not sure if Van Til or Tipton would agree, but if one has a high view of the divinity of the Son, no matter the technicalities of autotheos related to eternal generation, he should also affirm some sort of an equal ultimacy of the substance and persons and thus have no barrier to applying this to the “one and many problem.”

Fourth area: Although not using the term “perichoresis,” Van Til fully affirms this concept. He states, “The persons of the Godhead are mutually exhaustive of one another, and therefore, of the divine essence” (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 232). “The persons of the Trinity are mutually representational” (A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 78, emphasis mine). Van Til applies this principle of “representation” in a variety of ways to aspects of God’s created world and his covenantal relationships. For example, as each person of the Trinity represents the other persons, so in an analogous way, Adam is representative of others. This then provides another justification for the traditional Reformed view Adam’s federal headship in the covenant of works.

Tipton gives the reader an overview of the church’s doctrine of perichoresis. He then well expounds various aspects of Van Til’s perichoresis concept, both as it relates to the Trinity per se and a variety of applications. Tipton discusses implications of the representative principle concerning aspects of the covenant of redemption, the covenant of grace, sensus divinitatis, presuppositional apologetics, eternal time versus created time, and several other topics. Occasionally, in these application sections I am not clear whether Tipton is giving his understanding of Van Til’s view, or making implications from Van Til. In any event, for me, the representative principle and its applications (whether Van Til’s or Tipton’s) are the most informative and thought-provoking sections of this book. I do think, however, that a few of these applications are forced, but nevertheless, they are all intriguing.

In conclusion, read Tipton’s book. As one long very interested in Van Til, I profited greatly from reading it. Even if one is not a “Van Tilian,” seeing how Van Til applies orthodox Trinitarian theology to a variety of issues is a stimulating and a worthwhile exercise. Finally, I also recommend, with a smile, that you read a book written by Van Til.

Robert J. Cara
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte