Thinking Trinity with Van Til and Bosserman, part 2: Van Til’s Big Trinitarian Questions


The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox

For those who just tuned in, this series of blog posts is courtesy of listener Brett Chase, who heard me express my distaste for Reformed apologist Cornelius Van Til and wanted me to consider a recent book, B.A. Bosserman’s The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til and respond to it with a blog posts.

Well, it’s going to take three, as it turns out.  I want to thank Brett again for being one of our most active and supportive listeners and for providing me the copy of the book that I’m using to write this series.

The Necessity of the Trinity

Bosserman, following Van Til’s lead, sees the problem of the One and the Many as the core problem of philosophy (86).  Hegel’s approach to that question, contra Plato, is to make all things, Spirit included, part of the process of contradiction and surmounting contradiction that progresses towards absolute freedom.  Van Til’s project is to demonstrate that temporal change, contradiction, and novelty is only intelligible if they take their place in relationship with a strictly eternal Trinity (87).  So the distinctive character of Van Til’s apologetics, against Old Amsterdam and against Old Princeton, is that apologetic reasoning proceeds best not when it tries to be neutral but when it acknowledges its own axioms in the revealed doctrine of the Trinity and to present a case from inside that rich system (90).

The line of reasoning goes roughly this way: For a unitarian Creator (one god, one person) to interact with creation, some impersonal context that is neither Creator nor Creation must surround the two so that their interactions can happen within some system (178).  A deity with two persons runs into a similar problem, as any interactions between the two persons, but not with creation, must also have some uncreated and thus co-eternal but impersonal context to happen.  Only with three persons does the normal operation of logic become possible, as any of the three persons can interact with creation in the context of another, co-eternal, personal reality; and any two of the persons can be in relationship in the context of the third, co-eternal person.  My one-paragraph summary here, I should note, is no substitute for Bosserman’s careful reasoning in this book, and I certainly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in a closely reasoned, careful treatment of the implications of Trinity for Christian thought.

Where Van Til’s approach differs from my own is that, instead of simply offering a view of a Trinitarian system for the sake of rhetorical and aesthetic appeal (a la John Milbank), Van Til sets out to demonstrate that all possible systems of thought that do not start with Trinity are inherently irrational (94).  Because every claim to know assumes conditions within which knowing is possible, every claim about knowledge, including agnosticism’s claim that knowledge is impossible, assumes certain things about the knowledge-that-is-not-possible (93).  Thus the burden of proof for systems of thought that do not start with Trinity, as they borrow from Trinitarian logic the conditions that allow for intelligible syllogisms (95).  After unfolding this line of thought in some detail Bosserman summarizes in what he calls Van Til’s transcendental syllogism:

(1) Every inference and act of predication presupposes the existence of the absolute and personal harmony of unity and diversity, within the Triune God.

(2) Denials that the Trinity exists are acts of predication.


(3) The Triune God exists. (96)

Bosserman further claims that this syllogism, and the process that it represents, does not fall victim to charges of circular reasoning, a charge that some critics have levelled, because this particular revelation is necessary for predication, thus making the charge of circular reasoning itself dependent upon the Trinity (98).  Because logical predication proceeds from the nature of God, not vice versa (100), revelation alone has the ability to account for the possibility of logic, and any use of logic to assert that God does not exist or exists in some manner other than Trinity will necessarily take as a(n unstated) major premise its antithesis.

I’ll pause here to note that Bosserman is doing the work that a good book does, as far as I’m concerned: it’s raising questions that I would not raise unless I came into contact with Bosserman’s (and by extension Van Til’s) argument.  Usually, when I’m thinking about categorical and hypothetical and disjunctive syllogisms (those are the three classes that I teach in introductory philosophy classes as well as in core-curriculum writing classes), I think of them simply as characteristics of language, as structures that are roughly analogous to tools, more useful for some jobs and less so for others.  What Bosserman (along with Van Til) shows me that theology can conceive of logic as itself a structure of created reality, following Hegel’s lead in that respect more than Kant’s, which would lead us to think about logic as an activity of mind that relates to but does not stand in systematic, intelligible, rule-governed relationship with things in the world.  Reading this argument, I realize that my working assumption, no doubt under the influence of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein as much as Kant, is that when I’m doing logic I’m using tools, not investigating deep structures of reality.

On the other hand, if pressed, I would likely say that logic, as a discipline, has the capacity to do its job better or worse, and if pressed again to answer how that’s possible, I’d likely say that the more adequate system of logic is connecting with reality more than the less adequate system of logic is doing.  So I have to confess that Bosserman is raising questions here that normally I would not be posing.  I do still wonder, though–and most of my concerns with this book are on the level of wondering rather than of direct critique–whether this way of thinking of logic would cut off possibilities to learn from Islamic or agnostic or other logicians because we assume, at the outset, that they’re not really doing logic because they’re not Trinitarians.  I suppose one could say that they’re approaching, in ignorance, what a Trinitarian logician would approach from a position of real but non-comprehensive knowledge.  Such a position seems valid, and I’m still chewing on it, so consider me open to being convinced.

Such a view of the Trinity, one that assumes that all valid predication relies upon it, allows Van Til to say as well that unitarian views of God do not allow for any predication about God (101) and that the faithful in the generations before Jesus could claim true knowledge of God even as they had no categories or vocabulary to talk about a Trinitarian God (102).  Further, unlike Karl Barth, within Van Til’s philosophy believers in the Christian era can likewise claim true but non-comprehensive knowledge not only of the economic but of the ontological Trinity (103).

 Correct Beliefs, True Beliefs, and Why the Difference Matters

Again responding to Hegel’s systematic ways of doing philosophy, Van Til insists at every step that “mind” as creatures manifest mind and “mind” as Creator manifest mind are always related analogically (112).  Within this unified but analogical system, creatures can always know God truly, because creatures are part of a system genuinely connected to Creator, yet such knowledge will always be partial and without revelation will always be a distortion because created mind is never of the same order of existence as Creator mind.  Knowledge of God thus always comes from God, never from beyond God so that it becomes comprehensive (114), and the knowledge of any human being is always and necessarily imprecise, even when it is not genuinely false (116).  Once again, because I don’t spend a whole lot of time, on most days, thinking about theological epistemology, I can see here that Bosserman is raising questions that one should attempt to answer.  I’m more accustomed to Erasmus’s (and before him medieval Christians’) distinction between reason and revelation than I am to the more Protestant categories general-revelation and special-revelation, but I’m inclined to see them as serving similar roles within their respective systems.

One implication of this distinction is that two things can be true of a claim that seem contradictory: it can be factually correct, by virtue of the common that constrains some wrong for all rational creatures; and it can be ultimately untrue because situated in an idolatrous system (117).  Because sin has the capacity not only to invent falsehood but also to render true and false indistinguishable, only divine grace, whether common grace or saving grace, can account for any kind of truth at which humanity arrives (118).  Thus attempts to locate a universal, non-committed foundation of knowledge, or to locate truth simply in the coherence of a given system of thinking, must ultimately be inadequate, missing either a super-creaturely source for the foundation’s reliability or some place where the system actually connects to a world shared even by those who disagree with the system (119-20).

Perhaps the most compelling benefit of this philosophy of knowledge, reason, and revelation (sorry–I just can’t get accustomed to the other vocabulary) is that Christian conversion means something for the new believer’s knowledge but does not have to make comic-book claims that simply do not bear out in lived experience.  As Bosserman relates Van Til’s position, truths that a person holds correctly before conversion don’t need to be expelled, as if baptism were some sort of science-fiction mind-wipe.  (It just occurred to me that Presbyterians usually don’t baptize adults.  Substitute whatever moment fits here.)  Instead, the new believer’s former truths are liberated at conversion, retaining their correctness but allowed to shine forth within a renewed creation that has the freedom to explore its own fullness (123).  That picture of things makes a good deal more sense to me than either of the alternatives that I can easily imagine.  This is a conversion that does something and does something to a person who really exists as a contingent, historical being.  I dig that.

When Contradiction Becomes Paradox

Bosserman does want to leave room for Christian philosophy to acknowledge the possibility of growth and even challenges that we meet not with guns blazing but with something like humility.  But ultimately, he writes, a Christian philosophy cannot allow for presuppositional contradictions (127).  But that rule needs some background, namely some working notion of what makes two claims or one claim and its unstated presupposition contradictory.  First, Bosserman notes, contradictions can only be contradictions within a system (130).  Since the classic Aristotelian definition of contradiction is x and not-x in the same sense, some ground rules must already be in place before a thinker can even detect a contradiction, some sense of what makes x a certain kind of claim and not another kind of claim.

So within a system, contradictions are possible, and by definition a coherent system excludes those contradictions.  However, if Hegel is right that a new thought subsumes a contradiction and uses its energy to generate new thoughts not possible before, something has to happen to the previously-contradictory.  And this is what Bosserman means by paradox.  A contradiction that remains contradictory leaves a logical system unable to make new moves.  Once the system surmounts the contradiction and makes use of it, that contradiction becomes a paradox, a constructive conflict of now-only-apparently-contradictory claims (132).  Thus within the human activity called logic, paradoxes can only arise after the fact, only given the thought that arises after what seemed to be a contradiction.

When a system of logic does progress, when contradiction becomes paradox, the system will always favor one side over the other (134).  So, to use one of Bosserman’s examples, when evolutionary accounts of human origins give rise to alternatives to stories that the man and the woman of Genesis 2 were historical the way that Teddy Roosevelt was historical, the ensuing account is going to favor either the side of continuous history (the modern origin stories must accommodate a singular human ancestor) or the side of non-continuity (the Genesis account is a valid moment in a history of ideas but not in a strictly biological genealogy).  Van Til and Bosserman prefer the former possibility and I the latter, but structurally his point remains valid either way.

As I hope you’ve seen in this post, I think that Van Til’s logic, as Bosserman presents it, raises some valid and interesting questions that I hadn’t really taken the time to work out for myself.  Going forward, I’m not sure that I’d frame my answers in the same vocabulary that Bosserman does, largely because I remain convinced that the word “revelation,” when it becomes too much of a catch-all, loses its ability to name a more precise range of things, but I still see why the questions, even if not in Bosserman’s Reformed vocabulary, are worth considering and answering, even if provisionally.

Going into the third part of this series, I find more places where I’d follow the implications of these contradictions/paradoxes different directions from the ones Van Til and Bosserman take, but before we get to those more contentious questions, I do want to pause here and note that, at the very least, this book has put before me questions worth answering, and as I’ve said before, that’s the mark of a good book.