The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til, by Lane G. Tipton: A Review Article

Nathan P. Strom

The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til, by Lane G. Tipton. Libertyville, IL: Reformed Forum, 2022, 218 pages, $34.99.

A book’s significance is found at the intersection of its content and its context. Lane Tipton’s latest book is no exception. Regarding content, consider the subject. The most foundational theological beliefs of, arguably, the second most influential figure in our denomination. Love him or not—Cornelius Van Til shaped the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in undeniable ways. He is, therefore, unavoidable for those entrusted with carrying on our church’s spiritual heritage and theological identity.

Dr. Tipton’s goals are ambitious for a one-hundred-and-fifty page book. Some may find the densely packed prose chewy—difficult to digest but filled with nutrients. Pastors will have the easiest time grasping the content, but the book is accessible to engaged elders and lay people. So, why yet one more book on Cornelius Van Til? Dr. Tipton explains. First, Dr. Tipton sets out to reassess Van Til’s image as a dangerous innovator. Tipton desires to illustrate that Van Til was a faithful synthesizer of figures like Athanasius, Augustine, Calvin, the Hodges, and Bavinck (xii). Second, Tipton offers Van Til’s theology as the best hope for an intellectually honest confession that God does not change, “For I the LORD do not change” (Mal. 3:6); nor is he “served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:25, xi). It is one thing to nod at those statements, but how do we hold them alongside claims like “God created the world” and “He entered a ‘new relation’ with Adam”? Tipton offers Van Til as our quartermaster in the struggle for intellectual integrity. Third, Tipton aims to lay bare the true foundations of Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic project. If that is the job, what tool has he wielded?

The tool is both simple and infinitely mysterious. Simply put, it is an idea or a proposition. Now the mysterious part: God exists as three persons (who are themselves self-conscious, inhabit one another, and yet remain distinct, totally coincident with the divine essence) and as one divine substance or essence (who is eternal, dynamic, and absolute personality; fully possessed by each trinitarian person). The words outside the parenthesis represent a simple statement of the oldest and simplest Trinitarian beliefs in Christ’s church: one God, three persons. The words inside the parenthesis are Van Til’s distinctive development of the Nicaean tradition, building on Vos before him. We now turn to those distinctive contributions.

First, Van Til teaches that the persons are in some sense conscious in a unique way (72–73). That is, the Son is conscious that he is not the Father. So too, the Father is conscious that he is not the Son (73, fn 32). Second, Van Til, as Tipton summarizes him, claims that God is absolute personality (75–86). To fully grasp what is meant by “absolute personality” one needs to read the full section. However, key to Van Til’s idea is that the one is also self-conscious. It is being “conscious” that seems central to the idea of the one as “absolute personality.” Here then is the tool that Van Til, and Tipton, offer to account for God’s relating to his creation without changing. There is no change in the being of God to enter into dynamic (i.e. interpersonal) religious fellowship with his creature because his eternal being is inter-personal religious fellowship. Additionally, the heart of Van Til’s apologetic is his construal of the Triune God as one absolutely personal (self-conscious) essence and three (also self-conscious) persons. With this construct in view, Van Til can assert “the impossibility of the contrary,” since, for Van Til, this construct has resolved the main problem of philosophy. According to Van Til, the one and the many are equally ultimate in classical Nicaean and Reformed theology.

How might we evaluate this volume? Tipton has served us well, providing the clearest summary of Van Til’s distinctiveness as a theologian and, therefore, as a defender of the faith. This small volume may join Bahnsen’s and Frame’s volumes to form a triumvirate of authorities on Van Til’s theology and apologetic. The book fills an important gap in the secondary literature on Van Til.

Van Til’s legacy has looked tenuous in recent years. Rising interest in older theologies has given the sense that scholastic sources are better suited for defending the faith. Controversial statements from Van Til’s most well-known publicists have also caused many to wonder, “Has the well been poisoned?” Tipton’s book offers promise as a timely elixir, stabilizing a movement nearing life support. As officers charged with maintaining the purity of Christ’s church, we must not ignore these matters. Tipton’s book is significant for understanding our past and for building a healthy future.

As content greets context, this volume’s significance is seen in three ways. First, the long-term stability of Van Til’s, and therefore Tipton’s, proposal is questionable. Professor Tipton is highly capable, wielding the technical vocabulary and avoiding pitfalls as he writes. For example, Tipton eschews the word “person(s)” when speaking of the one, opting for words like “personality,” “personhood,” etc., (one exception is p. 66) instead. His awareness of technical pitfalls is clearly seen in the section titled “Divine Simplicity and Trinitarian Personality” (72–74).

Tipton understands the shifts in the cluster of terms historically used in the history of doctrine—פָנִים (paniym), πρόσωπον (prosōpon), ὑπόστασις (hypostasis), persona. These terms were debated, and their specific meaning shifted throughout the Trinitarian and Christological debates of the ancient church. The concept of “person” undergoes additional redefinition in nineteenth- and twentieth-century theology. The English word “person” and its inflected forms cannot fully communicate the nuances inherent in the genealogy of this term.[1] If very capable hands strain to wield these terms appropriately, what will happen when wielded by less capable ones?

Van Til’s ideas seem to swim against the tide of the ancient fathers who gave us our creedal form—one essence and three persons. For Van Til’s apologetic to work, the oneness and threeness of God must be said of the same “thing.” Hence, it becomes vital that “consciousness” and “personality” can be predicated of both the one and the three. The fathers worked to make a sharp, clear boundary; eager to say the one was a different kind of “thing” than the three. They bled to preserve this distinction. I fear Van Til’s construction will diminish the essence-person distinction if taken up at a popular level.[2] The development of further technical terms could help. New vocabulary is unlikely to command adherence, however, given the differences between fourth- and twenty-first-century Christianity.

Secondly, and decisively more positive, Van Til’s trinitarian theology is the healthiest version of the social-turn characteristic of much modern reflection on the Trinity. In line with one of Tipton’s stated goals, Van Til has given us an ontology which more safely and securely undergirds the language of modern practical theology, e.g., “. . . he is a social God.”[3] Speaking of the self-consciousness of the persons while avoiding speaking of centers of consciousness puts “social God” talk on a safer, more secure footing (72–73). Van Til’s connection to historic, Nicaean theology makes his thinking safer than the social Trinitarian theology of the last hundred years.

There is yet a third reason this volume is significant for officers in the OPC. It is the product of a developing debate between former colleagues. In a footnote, Tipton estimates that Westminster Theological Seminary professor and fellow OPC minister Scott Oliphint “effectively redefines the notion of voluntary condescension in mutualist terms[4] that are out of accord with the Reformed doctrine of the covenant enshrined in WCF 7.1” (Tipton, 34, fn 28). In other words, Tipton believes Oliphint has departed, perhaps unintentionally, from the theological standards he has vowed to uphold. One can only pray that professors Tipton and Oliphint are continuing to pursue peace and purity at a personal level, even as words like those are printed for all to read.

This short book’s significance may be compared to the brilliance of a light. Tipton’s work certainly is brilliant. However, only time will tell if that brilliance is the life-giving, healing light of a therapy lamp or a foreboding signal of some foreign conflict destructively intruding into more peaceful quarters. Much like eastern European conflicts, Westminster Theological Seminary rivalries have a history of disrupting the peace of others. As undershepherds of Christ, we are obliged to guard the Church’s peace as zealously as we protect her purity. OPC officers will need to read this book to faithfully protect both. Tolle lege!


[1] See Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 298–304. “Now even in the case of humans this concept of personality fails to cut ice. . . . But it is even much less applicable in the doctrine of the Trinity. Here the term “person” has a meaning of its own” (302). See Stephen Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012) for trends in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Trinitarian theology.

[2] This loss in transmission can be seen even in Van Til’s dependence on Vos and Bavinck. Tipton quotes both as foundational for Van Til’s construction, and yet both of them seem to ground the personality of the One in its unfolding in the three. See Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics (single volume edition), 60, where he says ascribing personality to the essence of God is inappropriate. Similarly, Bavinck says our use of the word person falls short of predicating “personality” to God. “The emphasis here in no way lies on the elements of rationality and self-consciousness . . .” (Bavinck, RD, 2: 302).

[3] Paul Tripp and Tim Lane, Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2006), 9.

[4] “Mutualist” is taken to mean that it posits mutually shared categories of being between God and man. Put in more popular terms, mutualists undermine the distinction between Creator and creature.

Nathan P. Strom is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the church planter at Breakwater Church in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Ordained Servant Online, November, 2023.

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