Thinking Trinity with Van Till and Bosserman, part 3: Van Til’s Trinitarian Answers


The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox

Well, readers, if you’ve made it this far, I thank you for your patience.  I also thank superfan Brett Chase, who provided me the book and provides, time and time again, encouragement to the Christian Humanist Radio Network that’s hard to match.

In this final part of the blog series, I’m going to engage Bosserman’s material exploring the implications of the Trinitarian logic and philosophy he lays down in the book’s middle section.  I recommend that you take a look at the first and the second posts before you proceed here.

Creation as Eternal Deliberation

Once again taking a stand against Hegel’s philosophical deity who unfolds as time passes and history progresses, Van Til holds that time does not constitute God as a body but rather clothes God, for the sake of temporal beings, as a garment (200).  On the other hand, because Trinity allows Christian philosophy to envelop contradictions and render them benign or even generative paradoxes, Van Til presents Trinity as an answer to Kant’s cosmological antinomies (203-204).  Kant notes and demonstrates that the claim that material is infinitely divisible must be true, and its logic is valid.  Across the column (in a literal sense–this is one of the charms of Critique of Pure Reason), he demonstrates that the material world cannot be infinitely divisible, that some atomic particle (in the philosophical sense, so that there are by definition no sub-atomic particles) must be the limit beyond which nobody can divide.  Both of these are true logically, yet neither can be true if the other is true.

Kant’s solution to this antinomy is to locate infinite divisibility in the realm of mental categories, which can always imagine a further division, and quantum particles are likewise the furniture of mental activity, which can conceive of the totality of matter, which must be finite, even as anyone’s sensory experience of the world will necessarily reach limits that fall short of her imagination’s limits.  For Kant, these two conflicting ideas demonstrate that, while human reason can construct coherent visions of material reality, no single vision can comprehend the whole, meaning that knowledge of the totality of the world is by definition beyond reason’s reach and beyond the scope of sensory experience.

Bosserman’s take differs somewhat.  As opposed to choosing between a finite number of quanta constituting the universe or infinite division without atomic particles, Bosserman suggests a “finite and complex” universe, one in which a limited number of entities are themselves constituted by a plurality of parts (207).  Because this finite number of divisible parts does not stand as self-contained but always exists in relationship with God, Bosserman argues, there is no contradiction here but merely apparent conflict, an example of his productive paradox.  My sense is that Bosserman’s proviso here does not resolve the antinomy so much as it situates it within a narrative of faith and tells the unbelieving thinker not to worry so much about it.  There might be a place for such a move, I’ll grant, but it just doesn’t seem to be doing the same work that Kant does.

The Problem of Evil

Bosserman’s brief discussion of evil is the last part of the book, but I’m saving the ultimate part of this post for the question that left me more unsettled.  As far as the problem of evil goes, Bosserman grants that traditional views of theodicy, including those like his own that insist on divine omnicausality, pose decided problems for the believing thinker (232).  The contradiction (which, as you might anticipate, Bosserman will treat as a merely-apparent contradiction) is that, for such theologies, evil must be foreordained by God, and God must not bear any moral guilt for it (233).

Bosserman begins to navigate this (apparent?) contradiction by pointing to the capacity to do evil (he locates this capacity in an Adam whose history is continuous with the history of Nathan Gilmour and B.A. Bosserman, but I think the argument works either way) not as a defect in an otherwise-flawless being but as a capacity for a being to arrange complex desires, wills, thoughts, and acts in ways that in greater and in lesser ways reflect the goodness of the Creator (234).  The greater the complexity of a being’s capacities, the greater the possibility that an arrangement that we post-facto recognize as evil might emerge.  As I read this section I certainly remembered similar arguments in the Eastern Orthodox theology of David B. Hart and the Anglo-Catholic theology of John Milbank.  Within this paradigm, sin enters the world as “the self-inspired product of an originally good creature” (246), and yet the hope for an eschatological, complete sinlessness remains intelligible (240).

I put this section out in front of the section on moral act and moral responsibility because, within a system that acknowledges the contradiction between divine knowledge and human responsibility, this arrangement still makes sense.  And since this concept of evil, as I see it, does better philosophical work than Bosserman’s (in terms of book chapters) previous work on divine sovereignty and human responsibility, I wanted to note this good work before I turned to the more problem-laden work that he does on that question.

Sovereignty and Responsibility: Contradiction or Paradox?

Bosserman actually devotes two chapters to the relationships between divine power and human agency, but in the interest of space (and so that you’ll have some more incentive to read the book), I’m going to condense my response to one section here.  Since at this point Bosserman is largely articulating implications of Van Til’s apologetic, I’ll use his name primarily when I attribute points to the source.

Bosserman’s examination begins with the utter contingency of creation.  Because Trinitarian God is self-contained and exists in relationship with or without creation, eternal creation is incompatible with the doctrine; creation is a free act of God (140).  Moreover, what God creates is not only the real world of molecules and magnetic fields but also all of the ideals, the intellectual realities that Plato thought eternal but Christian theology knows as undying but created (142).  Furthermore, “[s]ince man, his faculties, his motives and powers [sic] are exhaustively empowered by and dependent on the Absolute Creator, it follows that they must be equally subject to God’s continued governance, such that they cannot deviate from His eternal plan at any point” (143).  I quote Bosserman directly here to show that his version of divine power is as stark as one could imagine: the plan is eternal and unchanging, and no being does anything except what God has planned for that being to do.

Within that absolute a sense of divine omnicausality, human freedom seems at best to be an illusion and at worst, yet Bosserman insists that compatibilism, which holds both that vision of sovereignty and human responsibility for human acts, both to be fully true, to be the only possibility within Biblical revelation (222).  And to be fair, when he discusses human freedom, Bosserman’s account fully celebrates the human: human persons are not merely objects that God manipulates, even within the schema of airtight sovereignty, but free agents whose acts are both continuous with long-forged human character and free because of the discontinuity between any human being’s past and the open moment ahead (144).

To reconcile these contradictory claims, Bosserman claims that “human freedom necessitates divine determination as its ground” (225).  He then goes on to say that, since every human action emerges from a truly free being, the act is always free, making human acts ontologically distinct from the reactions of chemical reactions or the movements of atomic particles (226).  However, because the mind of the creator relates only analogously to the mind of creatures, Bosserman says that the contradiction between iron-clad divine determination and the human responsibility that comes with freedom is only apparent; this is one of the paradoxes that Bosserman asserts but, because it lies in the realm of apparent contradiction, does not argue for.  God causes all things, and human beings desire to act precisely as God makes them act, and thus human beings are responsible for what God makes them do (229).

For Bosserman, human beings’ capacity (he consistently says “man’s,” but I’m pretty sure he means women too) to envision possible outcomes, to desire the better outcome, and to act accordingly both amount to the true predicate “free will” and to the right blaming of human beings for doing what they must do and have been destined to do eternally.  At every step God makes everything happen, and every moment in every place involving every agent’s every motive unfolds precisely as God decrees from eternity, and none can do anything other than what God decreed, yet because God made them desire what they do, they’re to blame.

As my prose has no doubt betrayed, I’m not convinced that this is mere paradox, something that merely favors one side of an only-apparent impasse.  As I’ve said on the podcast and in classes, I’ve come to think of the problem of free will and divine knowledge (I’m not even sure I would claim omnicausality as Bosserman does) is a genuine contradiction, a relationship between impossible-to-reconcile claims that truly defies not only human comprehension but even human knowing.

I realize I’m being more Kantian than Hegelian here (and really I’m drawing this more from Boethius than from any modern thinker), but discourses of human ethics require that we live in, speak of, and conceive of a world in which human beings could have done other than they did, both for the sake of praise and for the sake of blame.  And when we talk of God’s influence in the world, we talk about a capacity (sorry, my Process people) to influence anything happening, at any level, in any way.  To say less of God is to make some power beyond God the real God and the person we meet in the Bible some being that stands subordinate to a being who is actually God.  Both are true, and neither can be true if the other is.  Thus what we end up with is true contradiction, as I imagine things.

Closing Thoughts

As I’ve said a few times through these posts and countless times to students of mine, the mark of a good book is that it raises questions that I would not have raised, by my own intellectual power, had I not read the book.  The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox is certainly, by those standards, a good book.  As I turn from this book to the stack of books I have yet to read for Christian Humanist Profiles, I know that these questions are not likely to go away: is my instrumentalism, when it comes to logic, a valid tactical choice when it comes to where I expend my mental energy?  Is it a too-easy acquiescence to Wittgenstein’s disdain for metaphysics?  Is it some other disposition of the intellect?  I don’t have a good answer yet, but I know it’s a question worth dwelling with.  Likewise I’ve got a greater sense, in the wake of Bosserman’s book, that I need to pay more attention to the places where I’m being post-Kantian, where post-Hegelian, and where I can genuinely say (and not just as a matter of maintaining my personal “brand” as a postmodern medievalist) that I’m more Boethian than either.

As I contend with these questions, once again I want to thank Brett Chase for sending me this book, and I want to thank those of you who traveled these 5000 words with me through these rough questions.  As you wrestle with the possibility of paradox and the phantom of persistent contradiction, please comment below the posts, and let us reason together!


Dr. Gilmour - thank you, so very much, for your time and energy in reading the book and applying your synthesis and critique to what Bosserman (and Van Til) have to say on the ideas explored and questions they attempt to answer.  I delight in the work that you and your colleagues in the CHRN bring to the Church and to the world-at-large.  I particularly enjoy hearing your non-Reformed mind exploring and interacting with some of the important individuals and ideas in my own (Reformed and Presbyterian) tradition.

I sympathize with your take on sovereignty vs. free will.  Sometimes our categories in our systematic theology force some intellectual moves that scripture doesn't require, and I think God's eternal decree, his creation, and  his providence in relationship to human history requires some unresolved mystery.  I like how the 17th-century divines in London described this relationship in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 5, Paragraph 2: "Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently."  The divines follow up that statement with this one in Paragraph 3: "God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure."  Ch. 5 Para. 3 is my favorite sentence in the entire WCF.  I read in those two paragraphs a desire to be careful when trying to articulate something profound about the nature of God and how he works, and allowing for mystery and (actual or apparent) contradiction to continue to exist without apology.

Lastly, two verses that I believe captures some of the spirit and the mission of the CRHN: "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another." (Prov. 27:17) and "Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!" (Psalm 133:1).