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

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

The Presupposition of the Triune God

prpbooks-images-covers-md-9781596389236We may as well say, therefore, that we are seeking to defend Christian theism as a fact. And this is really the same thing as to say that we believe the facts of the universe are unaccounted for except upon the Christian theistic basis. In other words, facts and interpretation of facts cannot be separated. It is impossible even to discuss any particular fact except in relation to some principle of interpretation. The real question about facts is, therefore, what kind of universal can give the best account of the facts. Or rather, the real question is, which universal can state or give meaning to any fact.

Are there, then, several universals that may possibly give meaning to facts? We believe there are not. We hold that there is only one such universal, namely, the triune God of Christianity. We hold that without the presupposition of the triune God we cannot even interpret one fact correctly. Facts without the triune God of Scripture would be brute facts. They would have no intelligible relation to one another. As such they could not be known by man.

– Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Evidences p. 2


God is the Source of Universals

The final question, then, when considering the object of knowledge, is whether the spatial-temporal universe exists by itself or whether we must presuppose the existence of God in order to think intelligently of the spatial-temporal world. We found that, according to Christian theism, every individual object of knowledge to be known at all must be known in its relation to God. Then if one spatial object is to be known in its relation to another spatial object, the connection must be thought of as made by God. In other words, the universals of knowledge have their source in God. Similarly, if one object of knowledge is to be known in its relation to other objects of knowledge that have existed or will exist at another period of time, we must think of the connection as being made by the plan of God.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.183


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

God is back of them both

We hold that God has so created the objects in relationship to one another that they exist not as particulars only, but that they exist as particulars that are related to universals. God has created not only the facts but also the laws of physical existence. And the two are meaningless except as correlatives of one another. Moreover, God has adapted the objects to the subjects of knowledge; that the laws of our minds and the laws of the facts come into fruitful contact with one another is due to God’s creative work and to God’s providence, by which all things are maintained in their existence and in their operation in relation to one another.

… Now since we think of nothing as having existence and meaning independently of God, it is impossible to think of the object and the subject standing in the fruitful relation to one another that they actually do unless God is back of them both. Hence, the knowledge that we have of the simplest objects of the physical universe is still based upon the revelational activity of God.

– Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology p.122-123

Our knowledge must depend on God’s knowledge

A corollary from the doctrine of the Trinity is that human knowledge is analogical. Human knowledge must always depend upon divine knowledge. Anything that a human being knows must first have been known to God. Anything a human being knows he knows only because he knows God. For that reason too man can never know anything as well and as exhaustively as God knows it.

The fact that man’s knowledge must always remain analogical is applicable to his knowledge of God as well as to his knowledge of the universe. God will never be exhaustively understood in his essence by man. If he were, he would no longer be God. In that case there would be no solution for the problem of knowledge.

A third corollary from the doctrine of the Trinity is that man’s knowledge though analogical is nevertheless true. Or to put it more specifically, man’s knowledge is true because it is analogical. It is analogical because God’s being unites within itself the ultimate unity and the ultimate plurality spoken of above. And it is true because there is such a God who unites this ultimate unity and plurality. Hence we may also say that only analogical knowledge can be true knowledge.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p. 48

Christian and Non-Christian Views: Facts

Christian and Non-Christian Views:
1. Reality
2. Epistemology
3. Facts
4. Logic

Both Christian and non-Christian claim that their position is “in accord with the facts of experience.”

a. The Christian claims this because he interprets the facts and his experience of them in terms of his presupposition. The “uniformity of nature” and his knowledge of that uniformity both rest for him upon the plan of God. The coherence which he sees in his experience he takes to be analogical to, and indeed, the result of, the absolute coherence of God.

b. The non-Christian also interprets the facts in terms of his presuppositions. On the one hand is the presupposition of ultimate non-rationality. On such a basis, any fact would be different in all respects from all other facts. There could be no “uniformity,” the foundation of all science. Here is “Chaos and Old Night” with a vengeance. On the other hand is the presupposition that all reality is rational in terms of the reach of logic as manipulated by man. On such a basis the nature of any fact would be identical with the nature of every other fact, or, in short, only one big universal fact. There then could be no experience, because there could be no change. All would be a static unity. The non-Christian tries somehow to balance these contradictions. While in the first place he tells us he can never as much as discover any fact, or know anything of its nature, he in the second place after he has discovered what he cannot discover, turns around and tells us everything about it. On his principles he knows everything if he knows anything, though at the same time he cannot know anything; but he does know something, which means he knows everything.


– Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought
   (Variations in The Defense of the Faith p.304-305, and Jerusalem and Athens p.20)


Everything would be utterly unintelligible

How could unbelievers, unbelievers just because they have already rejected God’s revelation in the universe about them and within them by a philosophy of chance and of human autonomy, ever concede that the claims of the New Testament writers with respect to their inspiration by God is true? The criterion they employ will compel them to deny it. It is their criterion that must be shown to involve a metaphysics of chance. Then, if the Spirit opens their eyes, they will see the truth.

… Christ does ask the natural man to judge with respect to the truth of his claims. But then he asks them to admit that their own wisdom has been made foolishness with God. Only the Christian theory of knowledge, based as it is upon the absolute authority of the Word of God speaking in Scripture, makes communication of any sort possible anywhere between men. Without this presupposition men would have no integrated selves and the world would be a vacuum. Without this presupposition of the Christian theory of being there would be no defensible position with respect to the relation of men and things. Neither men nor things would have discernible identity. There would be no science and no philosophy or theology, for there would be no order. History would be utterly unintelligible. Finally, without the presupposition of the Christian theory of morality there would be no intelligible view of the difference between good and evil. Why should any action be thought to be better than any other except on the supposition that it is or is not what God approves or disapproves? Except on the Christian basis there is no intelligible distinction between good and evil.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture p.61-62

  (Bahnsen p.116-117)

Beginning from above

[The Reformed method] begins frankly ‘from above.’ It would ‘presuppose’ God. But in presupposing God it cannot place itself at any point on a neutral basis with the non-Christian. Before seeking to prove that Christianity is in accord with reason and in accord with fact, it would ask what is meant by ‘reason’ and what is meant by ‘fact.’ It would argue that unless reason and fact are themselves interpreted in terms of God they are unintelligible. If God is not presupposed, reason is a pure abstraction that has no contact with fact, and fact is a pure abstraction that has no contact with reason. Reason and fact cannot be brought into fruitful union with one another except upon the presupposition of the existence of God and his control over the universe.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge p.18