Review: The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til

William D. Dennison

“A cedar in Lebanon has fallen” were the words that I immediately heard as I picked up the phone when my brother, Charlie, historian of the OPC, informed me that Dr. Van Til had passed into glory. Since Van Til’s death, a misunderstanding of his thought has characterized his critics outside and inside the Reformed world in the same manner it did while he was alive. It has been most disappointing, however, to discover that such misunderstandings have become a popular voice within the OPC. Thankfully, Lane Tipton has produced a work on Van Til’s Trinitarian theology that is unsurpassed in penetrating Van Til’s foundational premises and their implications for the entire corpus of his thought. Even Frame, Oliphint, and Bahnsen, standard positive voices in articulating Van Til’s thought, have not grasped the depths of Van Til’s Trinitarian theology at the level of Tipton’s contribution. In the judgment of this reviewer, Tipton’s work is so important that no critic who claims they understand Van Til should be heard unless they have penetrated Tipton’s discussion point by point. The days of amateur critical analysis of Van Til must end. Furthermore, any critic of Van Til who ignores Tipton’s work will most likely continue to misunderstand Van Til and, perhaps, lack a consistent understanding of historic Reformed Trinitarian theology and its connection with every loci within orthodox Reformed theology. Tipton’s work is that important!

“Theologically Constructive and Ecumenically Reformed”

The starting point of Van Til’s thought is the ontological Godhead, i.e., the self-
contained Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), with a central focus given in revelational-history to the self-attesting Christ of Scripture. Tipton’s goal is to bring Van Til’s “representational principle” of the Trinity to the life of Christ’s church. To my knowledge, Tipton is alone in providing a concentrated investigation of Van Til’s ad intra personal representation in the ontological Trinity and ad extra personal representation of the Trinity in covenant (24, 132–137, 143–145). Tipton’s study is crucial in expanding our understanding of Van Til’s Trinitarian theology within his own corpus as well as in the historical context of Reformed orthodoxy. By considering the recent translations of Bavinck’s and Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics, Tipton has uncovered historical links to Van Til’s formation that had escaped earlier readers of Van Til (23–25, 28–31). Tipton also explains the genetic connections between Van Til, Vos, and Bavinck with “classical Reformed Trinitarianism,” i.e., B. B. Warfield, A. A. Hodge’s own theological formulation as well as his interpretation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Charles Hodge, Francis Turretin, and the Confession itself. What is intriguing and enlightening is Tipton’s connection between Van Til and John Calvin (138–143). As Tipton states: “Van Til’s formulations are both theologically constructive and ecumenically Reformed” (74). With this historical connection established, Tipton is aware of those who have challenged the orthodoxy of Van Til’s view of the Trinity, e.g., that God is one self-contained “absolute personality,” and that the Trinity are “three personal subsistences [persons]” (82–83). Tipton has clarified Van Til’s language here in which there is absolutely no deviation from the biblical summary of the Trinity found in the WCF 2.2–3. In fact, Tipton notes how Van Til’s formulation is a powerful apologetic defense against Boston personalism (61–62; 79–102). Tipton not only highlights Van Til’s biblical defense against personalism, but he also highlights his apologetic defenses against idealism, rationalism, empiricism, Roman Catholicism, and Karl Barth.

Van Til’s Trinitarian Theology

Tipton also brings to the forefront how Van Til’s Trinitarian theology is communicated to humans. Thus, at the heart of Tipton’s presentation of Van Til’s “representational principle” is the image of God and the triune God’s condescension in covenant (36–55; see WCF 7:1). Simply put, as Tipton reaches the consummation of his discussion, he notes that Van Til’s view of the image of God and the covenant is operating specifically within the Reformed conception of federal theology (131–158). In this context, Tipton applies Vos’s phrase, “the deeper Protestant conception” to Van Til. Tipton unfolds Van Til’s antithetical Reformed position on the image of God from medieval Roman Catholic theology into the present era. Van Til’s opposing position is at the heart of his criticism of Aquinas, Roman Catholic, and natural theological theism. To truly understand federal theology in the Reformed tradition, Van Til maintained that it is imperative to grasp that all “created reality by general and special revelation represents in revelation the absolute and living triune God and suggests a definite conception of image-bearing Adam in covenant with God” (132). Even after the fall, the Trinity anchors the image of God and the sensus divinitatis (138). For Van Til, the Trinity is imperative for any interpretation and exegesis of Romans 1 and Acts 17 (138; 141, n. 29). In this regard, Van Til held that a correct understanding of the biblical teaching about the Trinity does not teach distinct and separate domains for natural and special revelation that are to be viewed as complementing one another (Roman Catholic view). Rather, according to Van Til, humans are created by the triune God and there is one grand covenantal revelation of God to humans so that “general and special revelation ‘must . . . be seen as presupposing and supplementing one another. They are aspects of one general philosophy of history’ ” (147).

Cedar in Lebanon

Tipton has written a definitive study on how Van Til’s Trinitarian theology is connected to the presupposition and inner structures of his thought as well as being loyal to historic Reformed orthodoxy. Tipton’s work has also grasped another crucial principle in Van Til: our theology must never truncate the biblical and Reformed confessional tradition, but we must always commit ourselves to being more consistent to the true infallible religion of the Bible. For our church’s continuing pilgrim journey on earth, Tipton has made a tremendous contribution to enable this cedar in Lebanon to stand upright in the history of biblical Reformed orthodoxy.

The author is pastor of Emmanuel OPC in Kent, Washington, and professor emeritus at Covenant College.

The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til, by Lane G. Tipton. Reformed Forum, 2022. Hardcover, 184 pages, $34.99.