If covenantal thinking forms the architecture of Reformed faith and practice, then the doctrine of the Trinity is its foundation. As seen throughout The Christian Faith, this doctrine is not merely one among many, but is proclaimed in the church’s message of salvation and structures all Christian theology, liturgy, prayer, and praise.
Biblical-Theological Development of the Doctrine
Just as faith in Yahweh and no other is the foundation of Old Testament faith and practice (e.g., Deut. 6:4), so New Testament believers affirmed and carried on this faith in the uniqueness of the God of Israel (e.g., Eph. 4:6). At the same time, Jesus called this one God his Father in an exclusive sense and claimed to bear the same divine character and authority. His followers confessed him as Lord and trusted him for salvation, all the while rejecting pagan polytheism. The Bible clearly testifies, in the context of strict monotheism, to both the full divinity and distinct personality of the Son (e.g., John 1:1–3) and the Spirit (e.g., Matt. 28:19; 2 Peter 1:21). Long before the biblical dogma of the Trinity was formally refined, then, believers were trusting in and praying to the triune God whom it describes. We know God as our Father in his one and only Son; the Father directs us to his Son as our Lord; Jesus is the way to the Father and sends his Spirit into our hearts; the Spirit enables us to call on the Father through the Son. Christian worship is Trinitarian as well, reflected in baptism into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and in the New Testament’s liturgical forms and benedictions (e.g., 2 Cor. 13:14).
Though Christian Trinitarianism arose in the context of Jewish monotheism, it’s elaboration and defense came amid encounters with Greek objections.
The Emergence of Christian Trinitarianism
The historical development of Trinitarian dogma is a primary illustration that Christian theology is always done within a specific context, yet with an overriding concern for Scripture as its source and norm. The main cultural problem Trinitarian doctrine encountered was a philosophical privileging of the one (unity) over the many (plurality). Some, like Origen, believed that all plurality is a “fall” from unity and confessed the Son and the Spirit as truly God, but essentially derivative of and inferior to the Father. Others, like Arius, felt that any distinction in properties and names denotes a distinction in natures, and separated the Son and the Spirit from the one God, the Father. Still others, like Sabellius, saw plurality in God as a temporary self-presentation for the purposes of creation and redemption—apart from and above the economy, God is not Trinity. Against each of these ways of privileging unity over plurality in God, teachers like Athanasius and especially the Cappadocians developed increasingly nuanced ways of speaking about the essential unity and the personal plurality in God, so that both may be affirmed according to the integrity of the biblical witness. God is one “essence” in three “persons.” The persons, or “hypostases,” are not simply roles that the one God takes on or aspects of his character, but they are each distinctly and all together the one God. This catholic consensus emerged with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan (Nicene) Creed (381). Differences between Eastern and Western Trinitarian formulations are frequently over exaggerated, but in so central a doctrine every nuance can be significant. The Western, Augustinian tradition has sometimes had trouble maintaining a robust account of the distinct characteristics of all three persons in their individual existence and mutually shared activity. In both traditions, the common Trinitarian faith was affirmed, but with different accents and conceptual frameworks, often leading to tension on important points (such as the filioque).
Essential Attributes and Personal Properties
Calvin and the Reformed tradition received and developed the Trinitarianism of their forebears, against rising neo-Arianism and Unitarianism from the sixteenth century. Reformed theologians, though indebted to Augustine’s emphasis on the divine persons’ essential unity, also emphasized with the Cappadocians the personal distinctions of the divine persons. In this vein, Calvin’s insistence on each person’s essential self-existence (each is “autotheos,” as the one self-existent God), while affirming the Father as the personal source of his only begotten Son and the Spirit who proceeds from both, navigated between tendencies toward subordinationism on one hand and modalism on the other. With some variation in language and explanation, the Reformed after Calvin continued this twofold emphasis on essential unity and personal distinction. Especially significant was Reformed insistence that in every outward activity of the one God (toward creatures), the persons operate in distinct ways to accomplish their unified work, in accord with their intrinsic personal characteristics.
- The beginning of all activity belongs to the Father.
- The counsel or pattern belongs to the Son.
- The efficacy belongs to the Spirit.
The Trinity in Modern Theology
Modern Enlightenment theology largely rejected or ignored classical Trinitarian theology until Hegel appealed to a radically recast view of the Trinity for his philosophy of “Spirit” realizing itself in the process of history. The twentieth century experienced a revival of Trinitarian theology in the wake of Karl Barth’s break with Protestant liberalism, and in many respects contemporary debates in Trinitarian theology still reflect the legacy of Barth and Hegel. Those following Barth’s trajectory tend to privilege the oneness of God, by so stressing the absolute subjectivity of God in self-revelation as Lord, that the genuine distinctiveness and mutuality of the three persons is undermined. Those following Hegel’s trajectory tend to privilege the plurality in God, by so distinguishing Father, Son, and Spirit in their identities, wills, and actions—sometimes even in essences—that the unity of God’s nature is endangered.
One and Many: Systematic-Theological Development: The following sections offer two guidelines for theological reflection on the Trinity.
We Should Recognize that All of Our Definitions of Person in Relation to the Godhead Are Analogies. If traditional analogies for the Trinity—such as Peter, James, and John sharing in humanity—are taken univocally, they lead to either tritheism or modalism. But classical Trinitarians were very careful to make clear the analogical nature of all our knowledge of God’s being and to counter the partial potentially misleading aspects of Trinitarian analogies by appealing to the fullness of the revealed character of the triune God. We should neither accept or reject such important Trinitarian concepts as “person” by directly applying to God any existing human definitions. We must avoid univocity of concepts and language, both between our notions and God’s being and between God as he has revealed himself and God in his hidden majesty.
Our Formulations Should Acknowledge that the Three Persons Are Not Simply Relations but Distinct Subsistences with Their Own Incommunicable Attributes. While the Father, the Son, and the Spirit do not differ with respect to the divine essence and attributes they share, they possess personal characteristics that they do not share. Only the Father is unbegotten; only the Son is begotten; only the Spirit is spirated (breathed). In every external work of the Godhead, the Father is always source, the Son always mediator, and the Spirit always perfecter. The divine persons are not merely relations but persons in relation. It is not simply that the relations of begetting, being begotten, and being spirated are essential to the personal identities of Father, Son, and Spirit but also that the persons themselves are essential to each other’s identity. Each is an unsubstitutable agent who lives, wills, and acts in a distinct way that is never separated from the others. The covenant of redemption is the primary illustration of these points.
The variation between the East and the West became a formal schism (in 1054) with a debate that started in the sixth century and still continues, over whether the Spirit proceeds only from the Father or from the Father “and the Son” (filioque), as the West inserted into the Nicene Creed. Advocates of the Western position argue for the filioque from such texts as John 14:16 and Romans 8:9, where the Spirit is identified as “the Spirit of God” and “of Christ,” sent by the Son as well as the Father. Eastern advocates say that the Spirit is only ever explicitly said to “proceed” from the Father (in John 15:26 ESV, wording that is echoed in the unaltered Nicene Creed). The Reformed tradition has historically followed the Western view. Though this controversy deals with significant questions of the character of God’s unity and the relationship between the immanent Trinity (God in himself) and the economic Trinity (God in relation to us), the filioque question does not of itself threaten the ecumenical consensus on the Trinity.
(HT: A summary of Michael Horton’s, The Christian Faith, Chapter Eight)
God’s communicable attributes are those that belong to God alone but are also predicable of creatures in an analogical sense.
I. Omniscience and Omnipotence: God’s Knowledge, Wisdom, and Power
God is all-knowing. Our knowledge is partial, ectypal, composite, and learned, but God’s is complete, archetypal, simple, and innate. God’s knowledge and wisdom are true (logically as well as ethically) because God is truth. God’s knowledge is consistent with all his other attributes; he knows independently, eternally, and unchangeably, in harmony with his wisdom, power, and faithfulness. God’s knowledge of creaturely existence and history is exhaustive because he has decreed all things from the beginning and works all things according to his will (Eph. 1:11).
A. Free Agents and the Infinite-Qualitative Distinction
Debates over divine and human freedom often share a problematic assumption that “freedom” is the same sort of reality for God and for humans. Hyper-Calvinists and Arminians (especially open theists) are both wrong in supposing there is only one “freedom pie” that must be apportioned between God and us. “Freedom” is analogically rather than univocally applied to God and humans: God has all the freedom appropriate to him as God, and we have all the freedom appropriate to us as (fallen) creatures who live and move and have our being in God and his sovereign, good purposes Just as in the paradigmatic examples of Joseph’s slavery in Egypt (Gen. 50:20) and the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23), God’s free decree does not take away human freedom or moral responsibility but establishes it.
B. Sovereignty and Omniscience
God knows our thoughts completely, but his are inaccessible to us apart from accommodated revelation—and his way of knowing transcends us entirely. On one hand, Scripture teaches that God has predestined the free acts of human beings; on the other hand, God manifests himself as a genuine partner in human history. God genuinely invites the whole world to salvation in his Son yet effectually calls and gives faith to all and only those whom he has elected from eternity. Though God’s revealed purposes are sometimes thwarted or changed, his unchanging purposes (the “secret things” of God, Deut. 29:29) cannot fail.
C. Sovereignty and Omnipresence
Because God is Trinity, he acts not only upon creation externally but also with and in it—not only causing but winning and effecting real creaturely willing and consent. A biblical view of God’s sovereignty must recognize the following three correlatives.
- Only when we see that God is qualitatively distinct from creation can we see that he is free to be the Creator and Redeemer, while we are free to be creatures and the redeemed.
- Only when we understand God’s sovereignty in light of his simplicity can we avoid the notion of divine despot, with an absolute will unconditioned by his intrinsic character.
- We must always bear in mind that in every exercise of will and power, God is not a solitary monad but Father, Son, and Spirit; sovereignty is not brute force or unmediated control.
II. Goodness, Love, and Mercy
God’s knowledge, wisdom, and power are inseparable from his goodness, love, and mercy. God is independent in his goodness and love and thus is free to be good to all he has made and to love even his enemies. We can never pit God’s love against his other attributes, idolizing “love” in a way that marginalizes God’s sovereignty or goodness (including his righteousness, holiness, and so on). The clearest witness to the complete consistency between all God’s attributes is the cross. If God’s love could trump his other moral attributes, the cross represents the cruelest waste. Rather, what makes God’s love so comforting is that it is unconditioned by anything in us, expressed out of satisfied abundance rather than lack or fear. While God is not free to be unmerciful, he is free to decide whether he will have mercy on some rather than others—this is, after all, the opposite of every sinner’s just deserts. Indeed, grace is not something (else) that God gives but God’s own redeeming favor shown to the undeserving on account of Christ.
III. Holiness, Righteousness, and Justice
At the same time that God is good, loving, and merciful, he is holy—distinct from all creatures in his being, majesty, and ethical purity. The merciful character of God’s holiness reveals his movement toward impure creatures in covenant love, setting apart a holy people for himself. In the Old Testament righteousness is both a forensic and relational term—a “right relationship.” Although God’s righteousness is intrinsically related to his mercy (since he is just and the justifier of the ungodly), his righteousness cannot be collapsed into his mercy. As the revelation of his moral will (law), God is perfectly righteous to condemn all as transgressors; as the revelation of his will to save (gospel), God is perfectly just to forgive and redeem through faith in Christ. In both cases, God upholds his righteousness.
IV. Jealousy and Wrath
Like his mercy and grace, God’s jealousy and wrath are displayed only in response to an offense. God does not need to show mercy or wrath in order to be who he is, but these are the responses we should expect from God who is good, holy, and just. The doctrine of analogy again proves fruitful in considering God’s jealousy and wrath, which carry almost entirely negative connotations in our human experience. Instead of denying these clearly biblical attributes of God, we must reinterpret our understanding of according to how God has described himself to us. God’s wrath always expresses his wisdom and love, which have been spurned and transgressed by those whom he created to love. God who is holy, righteous, and loving must exercise wrath against sin, injustice, and hate. The unique lordship of YHWH is a constant theme in Scripture, as is God’s jealousy for his name, his glory, and his people’s covenantal allegiance. God’s jealousy must be understood in light of his exclusivity: God is God alone. In us, jealousy is often a form of coveting that which is not really ours; in God, jealousy is a form of protecting his character and his people, which are both precious to him.
(HT: A summary of Michael Horton’s, The Christian Faith, Chapter Seven)
God’s incommunicable attributes are most often criticized as being a philosophical or metaphysical corruption of the biblical understanding of God. But whenever such metaphysical claims have been rejected, they are replaced by others no less metaphysical. While we should never assume that the God of the Bible is identical with the “God” of classical philosophy, we must also recognize that every doctrinal account of God’s identity and character will include metaphysical claims. The question is not whether we have an ontology of God’s being and attributes but whether our ontology is biblically faithful.
God is noncomposite: he is simultaneously all that his attributes reveal. This does not mean that his attributes cannot be distinguished from one another, but that none of them are separable from God or carry a greater or lesser importance for his character. God is eternal even when he acts in time. He is not more holy than merciful, or more loving at some times than he is righteous at other times. He is holy even in showing mercy, and righteous in demonstrating his love. All that God is, is what he will always be; and in all his activity God is self-consistent.
B. Self-Existence (Aseity)
God exists and acts apart from any external dependence. While God is perfect without us, he freely and generously creates and relates this creation to himself. Creatures exist in constant dependence on our relation to him. Independent of creaturely limitations, he can be trusted to bring about his sovereign purposes on behalf of his people (Ex. 3:14–15). Some—like open theists—criticize this doctrine as a Stoic ideal of detached self-sufficiency, lacking the mutual drama between God and the world seen in the Bible. Many want to deny any difference between God in himself and God as he reveals himself to us. In such ontologies of “overcoming estrangement,” God and the world are inherently related and mutually dependent. Yet God’s freedom from creation does not preclude but undergirds the very possibility of his true freedom for creation. God’s aseity marks the fundamental divide between biblical faith and all forms of pan(en)theism. At the same time, the (Stoic) deism characteristic of an ontology of “the stranger we never meet” is overturned by God’s free decision to enter into relationship with the world he has made. While the Stoic sage desires to sever his dependence on the world of which he is necessarily a part, the independent God desires to bring dependent (and sinful) creatures into communion with himself.
God is unchangeable. Perfect and complete in himself from all eternity, he has no “potential” to be realized; any change would be toward imperfection. This does not mean God is static or inert; rather, he is wholly active in the fullness and completeness of his own being and cannot become more or less who he is. God is unchangeable, and so he is reliable in his judgments and promises. While his being and character do not change, his activity (energies) is manifold and freely determined. Many modern theologians who understand God’s being as “becoming” in history have challenged God’s immutability by appealing to the incarnation: “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). But the eternal Son’s assumption of human nature in the unity of his person in no way constitutes or diminishes the character of his divine nature. It is crucial to avoid two extremes: either that God is detached, unfeeling, unresponsive, or that he acts and feels and responds in the very same ways we do. Though God genuinely responds, he cannot be overwhelmed by surprise; though he truly experiences opposition, he is not overcome; and so on. The total witness of the Bible requires that we affirm both: there is real change, partnership, and conflict between God and human beings, but not within God’s inner being.
Unlike the caricature of much contemporary criticism, God’s impassibility is not unresponsiveness or emotional apathy but immunity to suffering. God’s emotional experience and responsiveness in free relation to the world are always analogical. On one hand, we must deny that God is untouched or unaffected by creaturely suffering, experiencing neither joy nor sorrow, love nor hate; on the other hand, we must affirm that God is Lord—never the passive victim, but always the free and active Judge and Justifier. To avoid the extremes of utter detachment and mutual dependence, we should keep in mind the following five points regarding God’s immunity to suffering.
- We must avoid a false choice between either God’s necessary relatedness to the world or the world’s unrelatedness to God.
- It is crucial that impassibility is an essential attribute of the triune God; though the persons engage in relationships with the world, their divine nature is not by itself the subject of action and response.
- We must recognize that God speaks to us analogically—in terms adequate to our understanding rather than adequate to his being.
- A Christian doctrine of God should supplement causal categories with (Trinitarian) communicative analogies; God is not simply Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, but the Father who speaks to us in his Son by the Spirit.
- We must beware of allowing a theology of the cross to become a theology of glory; a theology of “the suffering God” may inadvertently lead to a legitimization of suffering and evil, since these are said to be an integral part of God’s very being.
E. Eternity and Omnipresence
Eternity and omnipresence refer to God’s transcendence of time and space, respectively. God’s eternity is his existence above or beyond time, simultaneously possessing the fullness of his boundless life and eternally encompassing the whole of creaturely (temporal) life. Some hold that God is sempiternal, existing within time but without any beginning or end. Biblically, however, it seems time itself is a creaturely category—like space—attributable to God only in an analogical sense referring to his transcendence of it (e.g., Ps. 90:1–4). Properly understanding God’s eternity (and the limits of our understanding in the face of this mystery) is related to the meaning of his omnipresence: it is God’s transcendence of space that brings the deepest assurance of God’s presence in all places (e.g., Ps. 139:7–8). God’s presence with his people indicates, not his spatial absence somewhere else, but his covenantal commitment to be with us to save and to bless. God is “omnitemporal” in the same way; he comprehends all times and is active within time, because he is not contained by it.
(HT: A summary of Michael Horton’s, The Christian Faith, Chapter Six)
God is there and He is not silent. The very existence of man presupposes God, and there is no escape from, and there is no chance of man being autonomous. The recent trend of heretics is nothing new. Ever since the Fall of mankind in Paradise Satan has been attacking man the same way. He gets them to question the truth of God and thereby exchange it for a lie.
God is known because He first revealed himself and if we are to know anything we must know it in the context in which God has revealed Himself. The theological idea that there are multiple truths is completely absurd. To say such a thing is the equivalent of saying there are multiple gods. In like manner, it is equally absurd for postmoderns to redefine Christ in the attempt make Him cool in a contemporary culture thereby raping Him of His divine nature. To do such a thing is nothing more than trying to redefine truth. It is like saying all A is not A.
The Word of God is like fire to the unregenerate and they will do anything to alleviate the suffocating effect of the law which looms over their heads. Those that are blessed submit to God and confess their sins then use the law to as a crutch to walk with. Other’s become resentful, and set out to redefine the truth of God’s Word. By doing so they inevitably minimize the effects of the Fall, and thus, strip the atonement of its value.
Man was created as an antecedent being and all of his knowledge is derived from God. Man is completely and utterly dependant upon God in every facet of his being. Thus, when man fell from Paradise he perverted the image of God and the Holy Spirit no longer resides in him outside of the effects of regeneration. This means that man is no longer able to discern the will of God though he is still endowed with his created capacities. So although man is a being with mental, volitional, and emotional capacities his only desire is to use those capacities to glorify man, not God. Thus, natural man desires the things of which he can never have outside of God. Man was created for a purpose and that purpose is to glorify God through the right use of his capacities. Outside of the redeeming blood of Christ breaking fallen, wretched sinners there is no hope for man. He will forever be miserable.
The whole idea of the seeker sensitive church movement is completely ridiculous. The only thing that nature man seeks is to glorify himself. This has become evident in the trends in worship as of late. It is hard to tell the difference between most churches and the Mall of America. Sound systems have all but replaced sound worship. Today it would seem as though more are concerned with conquering up emotions and having religious experiences, whatever that may be.
Thus, our times should weigh heavy on the hearts of believers. We should take no comfort in knowing many are digging their graves deeper and deeper every Sunday morning. Every generation is defined by the way in which they confront the heresy of their day. This is no time to be lackadaisical. Christ’s return is certain. We should go to bed every night wondering whether or not we have planted enough seed. Christ is truth and when truth is attacked so to is Christ.
Therefore, as Christians we should not only defend the truth of God but we should attack the strong holds of Satan in this world. This means we must be diligent to preach and teach the overwhelming weight of sin and the overwhelming glory of Christ. It is Christ alone who is our way unto salvation. It is Christ alone who is the truth. It is Christ alone who can give life, and it is Christ alone who can attest to Himself. Let us not make hast then in proclaiming the revealed Word of God.
Application in Evangelism and Apologetics
Understanding the authority and self-revelatory character of God as well as understanding the effects of sin on man is absolutely critical with respect to the unregenerate. We know that God is there and He is not silent. Man is, because God first spoke. When man was sinless God the Son could speak directly to him and the indwelt presence of God the Holy Spirit could discern the Son’s revelation. Thus, we can see by this that God is and always has been self-revelatory, and self-discerning. Man cannot discern the things of God unless God enables him to.
When man fell into sin God the Holy Spirit left man thereby leaving man unto himself. Man can no longer discern the things of God because he no longer has a sinless character even though he is surrounded by God’s revelation in nature. God also no longer speaks directly to man, but speaks through the Holy Scriptures. Van Til writes, “Before the fall of Adam, man walked and talked with God in intimate fellowship. Then no Bible was required. Man was not alienated from God. No Christ was needed for man’s redemption. But shall we add that therefore no supernatural authoritative revelation was necessary for him? Shall we say that man could originally identify himself and the facts of the universe without supernatural thought communication on the part of his Creator? The answer must be in the negative.”
The fall of man necessitates the need for the Scriptures, and it is the Scriptures which reveal God’s other forms of revelation through nature and the incarnation. It is the incarnation which gives us the Christ. Christ’s birth, death, burial and resurrection atones for the sins of those whom God the Father has drawn unto Himself. Thus, God the Father sent the Christ to atone for the sins of His elect. The atonement is then a moral atonement. Then God the Son sends God the Holy Spirit to illumine the inspired written revelation of God so that the elect may know God in an experiential way. Thus, redeemed man may know God with certainty because it is God who is revealing Himself.
Man cannot know God apart from the way in which God has chosen to reveal Himself. God’s revelation through nature and through the incarnation are revealed through the Scriptures. Thus, man is utterly dependent upon the Scriptures. The unregenerate are dead in their sins and trespasses and there is nothing they can do save themselves from their state of depravity. They need the perfect blood of Christ applied to their account in order to be made right before the judgment seat of God. The only way the atonement can be rightly understood is through God’s revelation which we have in the Scriptures. It is then the Holy Spirit which uses the Scriptures to illumine the heart and mind of the dead sinner to reveal to them the nature of God which cannot be understood apart for God. Therefore, God the Father’s calling, God the Son’s redeeming, and God the Holy Spirit revealing illumines the nature and character of God to the dead sinner giving him the desire to repent of their sins thereby restoring them to a proper knowledge of God. Thus, redeemed man can again will the will of God because man is no longer the final point of predication. Man has decreased and Christ has increased.
What does this then mean for evangelism and apologetics? Those who have had the blood of Christ applied to them, and the Holy Spirit remain in them are obligated to will the will of God by proclaiming His revelation through the incarnation (birth, death, burial, and resurrection) of the Christ. This can only be done through the Scriptures because only God can reveal and attest to Himself. Thus, it is God and God alone that can save lost sinners.
Why then share the Word at all? Because God works through means and redeemed man is the means whereby God has chosen to work thus re-instating man to his position as steward of creation. Because he has been enabled by God he is able to do God’s work. It is then the responsibility of the redeemed to share the Word with all men not knowing whom God has called and whom He hasn’t. It is regenerate man’s responsibility to plant the seed, but it is God the Holy Spirit who will germinate that seed. Thus, the work of creation and re-creation are entirely dependent upon the triune character of a self-sufficient God who is there and is not silent.
The Effects of Sin
When God created man he was created in a state of creaturely perfection. This does not mean that man had exhaustive knowledge. Man was created perfect in God’s good creation, but this does not imply an unchangeable creation. If man used his capacities properly he would grow in creaturely perfection by willing God’s will with joy and spontaneity. Thus, man had an ability to grow in his capacities the more he grew in knowledge of God. As long as man was without sin he would be able to grow throughout eternity because God is eternal and inexhaustible in His Being.
Unfortunately, our first parents did not remain sinless. Sin is an act of disobedience against God. Thus, we can say that the Fall of man was an ethical fall. But we can also say that the Fall was an epistemological fall. Van Til writes, “In paradise, Eve went to as many as possible of those who were reputed to have knowledge. God and Satan both had a reputation for knowledge. Apparently God did not think well of Satan’s knowledge and Satan did not think well of God’s knowledge but each thought well of his own knowledge. So Eve had to weigh these reputations. It was for her a question as to, How do we know?”
In deciding to commit the sin act Van Til points out that Eve answered two epistemological question: What do we know and How do we know:
We should observe particularly that in doing what she did Eve did not really avoid the question of What do we know? She gave by implication a very definite answer to that question. She made a negation with respect to God’s Being. She denied God’s Being as ultimate being. She affirmed therewith in effect that all being is essential on one level. At the same time she also gave a definite answer to the question How do we know? She said we know independently of God. She said that God’s authority was to be tested by herself. Thus she came to take the place of ultimate authority. She was no doubt going to test God’s authority by experience and reflection upon experience. Yet it would be she, herself, who should be the final authority.
We know that our Lord is Truth. We also know that sin is an open defiance to the Truth. Therefore it stands that sin is non-truth. It is perverted, distorted and twisted truth. Again, Van Til points out, “Sin will reveal itself in the field of knowledge in the fact that man makes himself the ultimate court of appeal in the matter of all interpretation. He will refuse to recognize God’s authority.”
Adam was appointed as the first representative of mankind. When he sinned he cursed the human race. All of his progeny are now born in a state of sin. Does this mean that man changed upon the first sin? Yes and no. Man did not change in the metaphysical sense. When he sinned he still had his being. Man did not go from man to non-man. So in the metaphysical sense man did not change.
The Fall did, however, change man’s disposition. Man was created to will the will of God. Adam made the choice to will his own will, or to make himself the final point of predication. Therefore, all of Adam’s progeny also seek to make themselves the final point of predication. Thus, man can be said to be dead in his sins because natural man has no desire to will the will of God. In fact, he hates God, and desires to be free from God. Natural man has been struggling to establish his autonomy ever sense the Fall suppressing the truth of God for a lie. Van Til writes of natural man:
His inability to see the facts as they are and to reason about them as he ought to reason about them is, at bottom, a matter of sin. He has the God-centered ability of reasoning within him. He is made in the image of God. God’s revelation is before him and within him. He is in his own constitution a manifestation of the revelation and therefore of the requirement of God. God made a covenant with him through Adam (Rom. 5:12). He is therefore now, in Adam, a covenant-breaker. He is also against God and therefore against the revelation of God (Rom. 8:6-8). This revelation of God constantly and inescapably reminds him of his creatural responsibility. As a sinner he has, in Adam, declared himself autonomous.
Fallen man now seeks to use his created capacities for himself. Hence, total depravity does not mean that man is as bad as he could be. It simply means that the effects of the Fall are comprehensive upon man, every aspect of man was affected. There is no capacity that was given to man that exists in a vacuum. His intellect as well as his will are directed towards self. Thus, man left unto himself does not have the desire or will to save himself because he does not believe he needs to be saved.
If this was the end of God’s interactions with man the end for man would be pretty bleak indeed. But, thankfully, our great King and Savior has not left us without hope, and it is this hope that drives the Christian onward. It is also this hope that is the foundation for evangelism and apologetics.
As Cornelius Van Til brilliantly pointed out all knowledge is derivative. Thus, in order for man to know anything it necessitates God. Without God man must have exhaustive knowledge within himself. Van Til goes on to write, “If one does not make human knowledge wholly dependant upon the original self-knowledge and consequent revelation of God to man, then man will have to seek knowledge within himself as the final reference point. Then he will have to seek an exhaustive understanding of reality. Then he will have to hold that if he cannot attain to such an exhaustive understanding of reality, he has no true knowledge of anything at all. Either man knows everything or he knows nothing.”
In order to truly understand what has been said thus far we must go back to the time of man’s creation. The very first words in the Book of Life are, “In the beginning God” (Gen. 1:1), and the New Testament counterpart, “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). “In the beginning God,” this means that God is self-determinative. “He has no non-being over against himself in terms of which he needs or can to any extent interpret himself. He is omniscient. He is omniscient because of what he is as a self-sufficient Being. On the other hand we must add that the nature of God’s being requires complete exhaustive self-consciousness. God’s Being is coterminous with his self-consciousness.”
The Westminster Confession of Faith 2:2 tells us, “God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself; and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting His own glory in, by, unto them: He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever Himself pleaseth.”
Though God in His triune perfection derives nothing from outside of Himself and finds all perfection within Himself it pleased Him to create by His eternal power and wisdom all things. On the sixth day of God’s creative acts He created man as a separate and distinct creature. The Westminster Confession of Faith (4:2) goes on to concisely say, “After God had made all other creatures, He created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after His own image; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it: and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change.”
Man being created in the image of God is an antecedent being. This means that God is man’s necessary antecedent. God not only created, but also sustains life for man. Thus, man has his existence because God exists, and because of this man is completely and utterly dependant upon God for his existence.
Man’s created functional purpose is to will the will of God over all of God’s creation with joy and spontaneity. Man was created as a steward, a vicegerent. Given this, man must know the will of his King in order to rule adequately and will His will. Thus, man was given several capacities upon his creation. These capacities include man’s mental, volitional, and emotional abilities. There are multiple aspects to man being created in the image of God which could be covered, but for purposes of this paper I will be brief.
Because man bears God’s image God is able to reveal Himself to man and man is in turn able to discern this revelation through his created capacities. The question then arises, how can man know God if God is incomprehensible? Even if man was given certain capacities to discern God’s revealing of Himself man is still finite. So, how is it possible for the finite to know the infinite? John Frame addresses this question as follows, “So God is knowable and known, and yet mysterious, wondrous, and incomprehensible. How can God be both knowable and incomprehensible? Like the problems discussed earlier – divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the problem of evil – the biblical writers don’t treat this as a problem. Indeed, most believers have no trouble rejoicing in what God has revealed of himself, while worshipping in awe and wonder.” Frame goes on to conclude, “We should think of God’s incomprehensibility, then, not as a ‘wholly otherness,’ but as the result of transcendence in the biblical sense: God has control and authority over creaturely knowledge. So his thoughts are not our thoughts, and his mystery permeates our knowledge. This kind of incomprehensibility does not compromise God’s knowability. Rather, God’s incomprehensible nature becomes immanent in his revelation of himself.”
So, although God is incomprehensible man can still know God. This does not mean that man knows God comprehensibly, but it does mean that man knows God truly. Cornelius Van Til writes, “God alone knows himself and all things of the created universe exhaustively. He has revealed himself to man. But he did not reveal himself exhaustively to man. Neither the created universe nor the Bible exhaustively reveals God to man. Nor has man the capacity to receive such as exhaustive revelation. God reveals himself to man according to his ability to receive revelation. All revelation is anthropomorphic.”
Given man’s created capacities and the absence of sin God was able to speak to man directly. Thus, God’s act of speaking, creating, and blessing are all one and the same. As soon as man came into existence he was utterly dependant upon very word that came from his Father’s mouth. Man was not born with a tabula rosa. Never at any point in man’s existence has he been autonomous. There was never a point when man was to use his capacities to discern truth for himself. Rather, his capacities were given to discern God’s revelation of Himself (truth). Therefore, the only place man can find meaning and right use of his capacities is when he wills the wills of God, and he cannot will the will of God unless he knows what that will is. Francis A. Schaeffer writes, “All the way back to the Greeks, we have for 2,000 years the cleverest men who have ever lived trying to find a way to have meaning and certainty of knowledge; but man, beginning with himself with no other knowledge outside of himself, has totally failed.”
If man has been trying to find meaning and certainty of knowledge, but has never found it we should then ask the question, why? We know that God is perfect within Himself and is incomprehensible to man though man can truly know Him. Given that God must be perfect, and that man is to will God’s will after Him, we must then conclude that meaning and certainty of knowledge can only be found when man wills God’s will. Thus, when there is no meaning and uncertainty we must then conclude that we are not willing God’s will.
He is There and He is Not Silent: Self-Revelatory Character of God
Obviously, the title for this paper and for this section come from the late great Francis A. Schaeffer’s book bearing the same title. In this wonderful work Schaeffer came up with the title in response to the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work. Wittgenstein basically said, “you have propositions of natural science. This is all that can be said; it is all that you can put into language. This is the limit of language and the limit of logic. ‘Downstairs’ we can speak, but all that can be spoken is the mathematical propositions of natural science. Language is limited to the ‘downstairs’ of reason, and that ends up with mathematical formulations.”
Wittgenstein saw no meaning in life. He said that there is only silence. So although man desperately needs values, ethics, and meaning he can never understand nor obtain such things. All he is left with is nothing, only silence. This thought led Wittgenstein into linguistic analysis which in many ways he helped to popularize, but as Schaeffer aptly points out, “Although it [linguistic analysis] defines words using reason, finally language leads to neither value nor facts. Language leads to language, and that is all. It is not only the certainty or values that is gone, but the certainty of knowing.”
In order to combat the lostness and emptiness of the silence that natural man sees in God’s good creation Schaeffer declared that God is there and He is not silent. Schaeffer was a prophet, and a titan before his time, and his cry to fallen man is needed even more so today. Thus, my goal here is to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before me (though only briefly), and proclaim that God is here and He is not silent.
The fact that God is there and He is not silent is not only the reason for man’s existence, but it the reason man can find meaning in that existence. Francis Schaeffer explains:
Evangelicals often make a mistake today. Without knowing it, they slip over into a weak position. They thank God in their prayers for the revelation we have of God in Christ. This is good as far as it goes, and it is wonderful that we do have a factual revelation of God in Christ. But I hear very little thanks from the lips of evangelicals today for the propositional revelation in verbalized form which we have in the Scriptures. He must indeed not only be there, but He must have spoken. And He must have spoken in a way which is more than simply a quarry for emotional, upper-story experiences. We need prepositional facts. We need to know who He is, and what His character is, because His character is the law of the universe. He has told us what His character is, and this becomes our moral law, our moral standard. It is not arbitrary, for it is fixed in God Himself, in what has always been. It is the very opposite of what is revelativistic. It is either this, morals are not morals.
So we can see that ontology and ethics are inextricably linked, but so too are they both inextricably linked to epistemology. Herein lies the distinction between the Protestant doctrine and all others. The distinction lies in the fact that the Protestant concept of God necessarily stands over and above man. Cornelius Van Til writes:
The Protestant doctrine of God requires that it be made foundational to everything else as principle of explanation. If God is self-sufficient, he alone is self-explanatory. And if he alone is self-explanatory, then he must be the final reference point in all human predication. He is then like the sun from which all lights on earth derive their power of illumination. You do not use a candle in order to search for the sun. The idea of a candle is derived from the sun. So the very idea of any fact in the universe is that it is derivative. God has created it. It cannot have come into existence by itself, or by chance. God himself is the source of all possibility, and, therefore, of all space-time factuality.
In John 14:6 our Lord and Savor Jesus Christ responds to His beloved disciple, Thomas who asked the Lord, “how can we know the way?” Jesus responds by saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” Only the One that is God could make such a claim. Christ alone is the way unto salvation, Christ alone is the truth, Christ alone has life, and it is Christ alone that can attest to Himself. O’ how these words of our Lord need to be heard and experienced in this day and age.
We live in a time when questioning truth is commonplace. Not wanting to offend anyone, and with great desire to remain politically correct many have become the lapdogs of Satan. It has always been Satan’s desire to destroy the Church, and he has always been most successful when he strikes from within. Thus, the same holds to be true in our time. Hence today, heretics such as Brian McLaren find mainstream success in an evangelical community seeking to destroy doctrine and throw off the rigors of a time long past. Amongst God’s elect, there will also be the reprobate that spring up from within seeking to betray our Lord and His bride with a holy kiss.
The attack on truth is nothing new. As a matter of fact, it is as old as time. The attack on truth is nothing more than an attack on God Himself. We know very little about the angelic fall and it does us no good to romanticize, or indulge our fantasies. We do know, however, that Satan was a beautiful and magnificent creature who was full of wisdom and perfect in beauty (Ezek. 28:12). We also know that on account of his beauty he corrupted his wisdom (Ezek. 28:17).
Satan rebelled against God because he distorted the truth, and had a perverted view of reality. Unfortunately, sin is only comfortable with company and he not only cursed himself but also, many angels, and the race of man through his corruption. There is no truth in Satan, he is the father of lies, and when he lies he speaks his native tongue (John 8:44).
Though Satan is a roaring lion who desires to devour man made in the image of God, he rarely attacks man in such abrupt ways. He comes to man with a smile on his face and armed with one question he asks over and over again, “did God really say?” His objective is always the same, to get man to question the supreme authority of God. Did God really say, gives man the interpretive rights over God’s revelation, thus, perverting the Creator/creature distinction. Hence, man left unto himself changes the truth of God for a lie and worships and serves the creature rather than the Creator who is forever praised (Rom. 1:25).
How do I know, and how do I know that I know are key questions that Christians must be prepared to answer. My objective in this paper, then, will be epistemological in nature. Thus, it seems to be a logical starting point to begin where God began, that is, with Himself.
 In his book, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything, Brian D. McLaren writes, “Many people don’t realize that the Christian religion – in its Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Pentecostal forms – is the largest, richest, and most powerful religion in the world. If the Christian religion “misunderestimates” the message of Jesus – if it doesn’t know or believe the truth about Jesus and his message – the whole world will suffer from Christian ignorance, confusion, or delusion. But if it discovers, understands, believes, and lives Jesus’ message – if it becomes increasingly faithful to the reality of what Jesus taught in word and example – then everyone could benefit: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, everyone. In an age of global terrorism and rising religious conflict, it’s significant to note that all Muslims regard Jesus as a great prophet, that many Hindus are willing to consider Jesus as a legitimate manifestation of the divine, that many Buddhists see Jesus as one of humanity’s most enlightened people, and that Jesus himself was a Jew, and without understanding his Jewishness, one doesn’t understand Jesus. A shared reappraisal of Jesus’ message could provide a unique space or common ground for urgently needed religious dialogue – and it doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say that the future of our planet may depend on such dialogue. This reappraisal of Jesus’ message may be the only project capable of saving a number of religions, including Christianity, from the number of threats, from being coopted by consumerism or nationalism to the rise of potentially violent fundamentalism in their own ranks.” Brian D. McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything, (Nashville: W. Publishing Group, 2006), 7-8. McLaren and many others do not openly deny the Christ, they just completely redefine who He is in a way that fits their needs and agenda thus masquerading a lie as the truth.