The Trinity and the Problem of the One and the Many

We may contrast this doctrine of the Trinity with Plato’s thought by calling attention to the fact that for Augustine the Trinity furnished the basis of the principles of unity and diversity in human knowledge. In other words the Trinity is for Augustine as for all orthodox Christians a conception without which knowledge were impossible to man. That there is plurality which man must seek to relate to some underlying unity, is patent to all men. From the earliest dawn of reflective thinking it has been the effort of man to find unity in multiplicity. But the difficulties that meet one when trying to speculate upon the question of unity and plurality are that if one begins with an ultimate plurality in the world, or we may say by regarding plurality as ultimate, there is no way of ever coming to an equally fundamental unity. On the other hand, if one should begin with the assumption of an ultimate abstract, impersonal unity, one cannot account for the fact of plurality. No system of thought can escape this dilemma. No system of thought has escaped this dilemma. Many systems of thought have denied one of the horns of the dilemma, but all that they have accomplished by doing this is to find relief in the policy of the ostrich.

What Augustine and all theistic thinkers after him have done is to say that in God, and more specifically in the triune God, lies the solution of this difficulty.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p. 47

Presuppositions Accepted by Faith

That is to say, Kant’s supposed advance upon earlier forms of philosophy is found merely in the fact that he has combined an abstract rationalism such as that of Parmenides or Spinoza with that of an equally abstract brute factualism such as that of the most extreme process philosophers of history. This is all that anyone who does not start his thinking on the presupposition of the God of Christianity and his revelation through Christ speaking in Scripture can do. All men do their thinking on the basis of a position accepted by faith. If your faith is not one which has God in Christ speaking infallibly in Scripture for its object, then your faith is in man as autonomous. All of one’s reasoning is controlled by either of these presuppositions.

. . . Only if one presupposes God as the one in whom rationality and being are coterminous and coextensive can he use the laws of logic at all. And if he does this, he knows better than to attempt to determine what is possible or impossible in reality by means of these laws. The Christian has a God whom he as a creature cannot fully comprehend. God says I am and is able to fully justify this assertion. He is able to make it stand because only on the basis of this assertion does the thinking and willing activity of man have any possible meaning at all. The Christian gladly accepts the idea that he cannot logically penetrate the idea of man’s responsibility and his place in the plan of God. But Kant has brought God as well as himself down into utter darkness. He has no foundation on which he can make any assertion stand.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Case for Calvinism p.128-129

The Concrete Universal

It may be profitable at this juncture to introduce the notion of a concrete universal. In seeking for an answer to the one-and-many question, philosophers have admittedly experienced great difficulty. The many must be brought into contact with one another. But how do we know that they can be brought into contact with one another? How do we know that the many do not simply exist as unrelated particulars? The answer given is that in such a case we should know nothing of them; they would be abstracted from the body of knowledge that we have; they would be abstract particulars. On the other hand, how is it possible that we should obtain a unity that does not destroy the particulars? We seem to get our unity by generalizing, by abstracting from the particulars in order to include them into larger unities. If we keep up this process of generalization till we exclude all particulars, granted they can all be excluded, have we then not stripped these particulars of their particularity? Have we then obtained anything but an abstract universal?

As Christians we hold that there is no answer to these problems from a non-Christian point of view. We shall argue this point later; for the nonce we introduce this matter in order to set forth the meaning of the notion of the concrete universal. The notion of the concrete universal has been offered by idealist philosophy in order to escape the reductio ad absurdum of the abstract particular and the abstract universal. It is only in the Christian doctrine of the triune God, as we are bound to believe, that we really have a concrete universal. In God’s being there are no particulars not related to the universal and there is nothing universal that is not fully expressed in the particulars.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith p.48-49

Philosophers who Crucify Reason

Non-christian thinkers have for centuries usurped the term philosophy. They claimed to be the only ones that followed the facts and operated by principles of reason. They pretended and still pretend to do that which every honest man who opens his eyes and uses his intellect ought to do. As a matter of fact on any but the Christian, and more specifically the Calvinist view, facts are meaningless and reason operates in a vacuum. On any but the Christian basis man, using this reason, is a product of Chance and the facts which he supposedly orders by the “law of contradiction” are also products of Chance. Why should a “law of contradiction” resting on Chance be better than a revolving door moving nothing out of nowhere into no place? Only on the presupposition that the self-contained God of Scripture controls all things, can man know himself or anything else. But on this presupposition the whole of his experience makes good sense. Thus a truly Christian philosophy is the only possible philosophy. Other philosophies are or should be called such by courtesy. Those who crucify reason while worshipping it; those who kill the facts as they gather them, ought not really to be called philosophers.

Insisting upon “reason” as the test of truth they have completely divorced the operation of “reason” from the turmoil of fact. They cannot find coherence in anything on their principle. Fear, nothing but fear in the dark, remains.

– Cornelius Van Til, Christian Philosophy

Plato and the Sophists


Naturally, Plato was “helpful” when he pointed out to the Sophists that, if reality were subject to universal flux, then human predication would cease to have meaning, and that relativistic theories were generally proposed with a claim of absolute truthfulness. But then, having said this, it would have been well to investigate the other half, namely, that the Sophists were, of course, equally capable of refuting Plato. His highest law, the absolute universal, was a purely empty form. Whatever else was to be said of it, it had still to be made correlative to the idea of pure contingency. But by merely speaking, Plato became a relativist; thus, he took pure contingency into his pure absolute. As with the Sophists, he had to, if he spoke at all, contradict himself with every word. For appearances of justification in predicating on any subject, it thus behooved the Platonist and the Sophist to take in each other’s washing. Pure form and pure “matter,” or pure contingency, are correlatives of each other. Possibly, Christians throughout history would have an emotional preference for the idealist thinking of Platonism, as over against all forms of sophism, as well as mechanism, materialism and pragmatism before or since. But, as to logical priority, neither was able to “make peace with the law of contradiction,” i.e., neither one could offer a positive foundation upon which the law of contradiction might have been employed at all. Only the Christian position, with its teachings of the triune God as the creator and redeemer of men, is the true starting-point for all argument without contradiction. Scepticism is defeated only by Christianity.

– Cornelius Van Til, Who Do You Say That I Am? p.17

The See-saw of Autonomous Man

Rationalism - Irrationalism

It is, in fact, thusly quite appropriate that, when apostate man discovers that his purely rationalistic ideal of knowledge—complete adequation of thought and being—leads to the loss of his own identity, he should turn, in desperation, and instinctively, to the idea of pure irrationalism, asserting that no one may know ultimate reality anyway. By claiming to know ultimate reality, or even anything about it, we are then told, would signify bringing this ultimate reality down into the realm of flux.

Such “pure irrationalism,” however, cannot be maintained, except as the dialectical counterpart of “pure rationalism.” To say, with the irrationalist, that no man may know anything about ultimate reality is, in effect, to claim absolute knowledge of absolute reality. Thus it is that the apostate man see-saws back and forth between pure rationalism and pure irrationalism without ever coming to rest.

. . . The fulcrum for both the modern and the Greek dialectical see-saw, between pure rationalism and pure irrationalism, is, as earlier, noted, the would-be autonomous man. If man refuses to see himself as a creature of God, or, more pertinently, as a sinner rescued by Christ, then he will quite naturally continue to go up and down, up and down, on this see-saw. When the rationalist is up, he proposes to have defeated the irrationalist. When the irrationalist is up, it is the reverse. But, if this spectacle were not enough to frighten you, then think of the fact that “the rationalist” and “the irrationalist” are really not separately existing entities at all, but rather, opposite, co-existing aspects of the one and indivisible would-be self-sufficient homo sapiens.

– Cornelius Van Til, Who Do You Say That I Am? p.24

A False Apriorism

It is customary on the part of some orthodox theologians to depreciate the objects of sensation as a source of knowledge. They have become deeply convinced of the scepticism involved in historical empiricism. They would therefore substitute an a priori approach for that of the empiricist, thinking that thus they represent biblical thought.

Two points may be mentioned with respect to this. In the first place, to flee to the arms of an apriorism from those of empiricism is in itself no help at all. It is only if an a priori is self-consciously based upon the conception of the ontological Trinity rather than upon the work of Plato or some other non-Christian philosopher that it can safeguard against scepticism. The a priori of any non-Christian thinker will eventually lead to empiricism. It can keep from doing so only if it keeps within the field of purely formal predication. In the second place, if we do place the ontological Trinity at the foundation of all our predication then there is no need to fear any scepticism through the avenue of sense. Sensation does “deceive us” but so does ratiocination. We have the means for their corruption in both cases. The one without the other is meaningless. Both give us true knowledge on the right presupposition; both lead to scepticism on the wrong presupposition.

– Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology p.123-124

The Omniscient Teacher

It becomes increasingly apparent that the teacher in Dewey’s schools must somehow know that these teachings of Christianity cannot be true. They must protect their pupils from the evil influences of such disintegrating and miseducative doctrines. So they must be sure that these doctrines are not true. They must know that it is impossible that they can be true. They must be able to assure the pupils that there cannot be a judgment coming. They must be able to make universal negative assertions about all future experience. And they must make such assertions on the basis of present experience as it is intelligible without reference to anything beyond itself. In other words Dewey’s teachers must first assert that man knows nothing of a transcendent realm. But they must also assert, in effect, that they know all about it. They must assert that nobody knows anything about it. This means that they who claim to know about it must be mistaken. And then they themselves, nonetheless, presume to know all about it. They must be omniscient in order to know that no one can rightfully claim to know anything about God.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Dilemma of Education p.5

Paul on the Areopagus

In his address on the Areopagus Paul proclaims the name of the resurrected Christ to the Gentile covenant-breakers, would-be fugitives from divine judgment. Paul does not place himself on their level in order with them to investigate the nature of being and knowledge in general, to discover whether the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob might possibly exist. He tells them straight out that what they claim not to know, he knows. He tells them that their so-called ignorance is culpable, for God is as near to them as their own selves. He tells them, therefore, to repent of their worship of idols, to turn to the living God, lest they stand without the robes of righteousness before the resurrected Lord Christ on the day of judgment.

… Paul knew that the Greeks could not identify themselves truly in terms of their philosophy. “Chaos” and “Old Night” were their only substitutes for what Paul told them of the origin and destiny of the world. They tried various combinations of ultimate rationality (unity) and ultimate chance (diversity) in terms such as “form” and “matter” to take the place of creation and providence, but to no satisfaction. Even so, Paul could not prove to the Greeks in their sense of the word “prove,” that what they believed was foolishness and what he believed was “good sense.” Paul could not adopt the principles of the “free” first Adam to “prove” the principles of the Second Adam. Paul recognized, as did his Greek audience, that his ideas were, all of them, foolishness to the non-Christian mind. The Greeks would not believe any single one of them, much less all of them in their proper relation to each other, unless by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit they were given eyes with which to see the whole truth of God in Christ. Paul knew that the natural man, like Xantippe who is said to have kept on clipping her fingers even though these fingers were all that was left of her above the water, will keep on saying that Christ is wrong and that Satan is right so long as he has breath except the Spirit in mercy give him light and life.

– Cornelius Van Til, My Credo (Jerusalem and Athens) p.7-8


The rationalist-irrationalist synthesis

Socrates answers the question whether the holy is holy because it is holy or whether it is holy because God says it is holy, by saying that he does not care what the gods say about the holy. He wants to know what the holy is in itself. In other words, he assumes absolute human autonomy. By saying this he, at the same time, answers the question asked. The Holy is holy not because a god says it is holy; the holy is a concept and a reality that stands above the gods as well as above men. This is rationalism. But involved in this rationalism is the notion that holiness is an idea that is wholly beyond the reach of human definition. This is irrationalism. Instigated by Satan, Adam introduced the notion of human autonomy and with it the rationalist-irrationalist synthesis that has marked all human thought that is not redeemed by Christ. Socrates exemplifies this fact clearly.

There are two purely contradictory statements that must, on this apostate view, be made about reality as a whole. In the first place all reality must be one in the sense that it is a static whole. If this were not so, man would not understand his own freedom. To understand is, on this view, to penetrate exhaustively by logical insight. But, if man understood himself and therefore his freedom exhaustively, then he would not be free any longer. He would not exist at all. For, to understand is, on this view, to be absorbed in being. Being and understanding are one. To understand himself man must, on this view, destroy himself. He must be absorbed into the “wholly other” reality above him. Yet he has no knowledge of a god that is above him. Therefore he cannot, though he must, be absorbed into God.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Sovereignty of Grace p. 10-11