The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til (Tipton)

Tipton, Lane G. The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til. Libertyville, IL: Reformed Forum, 2022.

Greg Bahnsen explained Van Til’s apologetic method.  John Frame touched on broader theological issues.  Lane Tipton gives us something quite new: a whole book on Van Til’s Trinitarian theology.  He clears up misunderstandings and explains some of Van Til’s rather unique phrases. Tipton’s thesis is that every error concerning God comes from either having God participate in man or man in God (Tipton 16).

Self-Contained Trinity

When Van Til uses words like “self-contained God,” he means that “God does not exist in correlation to the universe, with each side of the relation characterized by mutual change” (17).  This is excellently put.  In other words, he means that God is a se.  One minor theme in the book is that creation does not participate in the substance of the Godhead.  I agree.  I would like to point out, however, that there is an ambiguity here that neither Tipton nor some Thomists seem to be aware of.  What does “participation” actually mean?  No one really defines it. Even when I finished reading through all of Plato, I had only a vague idea of what the word meant.  This means there are two errors to avoid.  One is to define participation in such a thick way that one becomes part of the substance of the Godhead.  The other is to weaken it where 2 Peter 1:4 is all but meaningless.

Whatever participation means, Van Til posits, not a participation of the divine essence, but a finite replication of it to covenant man (19). This leads to another key point of Tipton’s: Rome’s view of the analogia entis entails theistic mutualism.  Theistic mutualism says that God and creation are in a correlative relationship. We will return to that claim later.

Tipton’s chapter on the Triune Creator is a fine presentation of some of God’s attributes.  He even suggests how these attributes, some of them anyway, safeguard our understanding of God and the universe.  Immutability, for example, precludes any form of pantheism (25). On this point Tipton rightly rebuts John Frame.  Frame, by contrast, “advocates for a species of theistic mutualism when he posits two modes of existence in God” (32 n.21; cf John Frame, Doctrine of God, 572).

The heart of this book, maybe surprisingly, is not Van Til on the Trinity, but Van Til on the image of God.  Van Til simply expounds the standard Protestant view that man was created in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. Adam was already disposed for communion with God.  Rome, by contrast, says something is needed to raise man above his created nature.  This means that man’s position is already defective before the fall.  Scripture, by contrast, says that any conflict in the being of man is a result of sin (44).

The Trinity

This is where problems arise, all of them self-inflicted for Van Til. I note up front that I do not believe Van Til was a heretic on the Trinity.  I know what he was trying to say (see below).  Rather, he simply chose the absolute worst way to express his views on the Trinity.  Tipton says Van Til is misunderstood on this point.  He alludes to Keith Mathison, R. C. Sproul, and John Gerstner. There are two problems with that.  One, those men did not really attack Van Til on the Trinity. They attacked him on apologetics and his reading of Reformed sources.  Two, it is not clear that they actually misunderstood what he was saying.  When someone says the Trinity is both One Person and Three Persons, it is not the critic’s fault that he misunderstands what you are saying.  

So what is Van Til saying?  He begins well.  Tipton notes that the “divine essence has no existence outside of each Trinitarian person” (63). Moreover, the unity in the Trinity is a numeric, not a generic unity.  The persons of the Trinity are not members of a genus called “Godhead.” And in one area where I think Van Til did make a valuable advance in Trinitarian theology, he says that each person “exhausts” the divine essence.  Whatever it means to be God, a divine person is it.  Each person is “interior” to the other persons.

One Person and Three Persons

Following Bavinck, there is “absolute personality” in the Trinity (74; cf Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, 304). This absolute personality entails self-consciousness and self-determination.  This absolute personality “opens itself up organically in a threefold existence.”  God’s being is a “personal unity” (Tipton 76). It works like this:

Absolute personality → threefold, self-differentiated existence (77)

Now we can proceed to Van Til’s infamous claim. When he says “one person” and “three persons,” what he means is “absolute personal being/personality” and “three persons.”  The word person shifts in meaning. At this point he is simply guilty of the fallacy of equivocation, not heresy.  Tipton tries to rescue the phrasing, saying “the terms ‘person’ and ‘personality’ [are used interchangeably] to refer to God in his unity” (83). This does not sit right with me.  If we front load divine unity with personality, then we muddle the distinction between nature and person. To this Van Til would reply that we cannot, ala Gordon Clark, make the divine essence a “mute” essence. I agree.  The older fathers noted that the concept person can already do that.  A person is a mode of subsistence.  As a mode it modifies the divine essence.  It is a mode of existence (tropos hyparxeos). The divine essence is never free-floating in the abstract.

The book ends with a good discussion of perichoresis and autotheos.  We will spend some time on the latter term. Autotheos means the Son’s essence exists of himself and not with reference to the Father (112). The Father communicates the person, not the essence to the Son. In fact, “one subsistent person is not sustained in his essence by another Trinitarian person, since all persons subsist equally as the entire underived essence of God” (117).

Van Til ties all of this together with the idea of “mutual representation.” Tipton explains that “each person represents the whole of the divine essence (in the relations of subsistence) and the other Trinitarian persons (in the relations of coinherence” in the Godhead” (132). In fact, mutual exhaustion correlates with mutual representation (133).


Is Thomas Aquinas a theistic mutualist?  He might be.  Tipton, like Van Til, does not engage in actual analysis with primary sources.  To be sure, he references learned works by Thomists on this topic, but we still do not know what Thomas actually said.  There are problems with Thomas’s account in places, and I agree with Tipton on the donum. I admit that some Thomists do indeed speak of a sharing (or at least, seeing) the essence of God.  If Thomas said something like that, we would need to see where and to see what he means by it.  We see neither. Thomas probably held to the chain of being ontology, but did he mean that there is just one being and God has more of it than we do?  That seems more of a criticism of Scotus. My own reading of Thomas, no doubt largely shaped by men like Norman Geisler and Mortimer Adler, suggests something like the following: God and man have being analogically, not univocally. We can say our concepts of being are univocal, but our judgments of it are analogical.  

Following Norman Geisler, I would say that unless we have something like an analogy of being, we will not be able to escape Parmenides’s challenge. Parmenides said if we think being is univocal, then all being is one.  If we say it is equivocal, then we would differ from other objects and God by not-being, or nothing.  In which case, being is still one.  The solution, then, is that we have our being analogically of God.

That’s not crucial to this review, though. What is crucial is that we are still not sure of what Thomas said.  I can even grant Tipton’s claim for the sake of argument, but we would at least need to see it.

Notwithstanding the above criticism, the book is excellent. Tipton has done what Van Tillians normally do not do: he explains some of Van Til’s unique phrases. I do wish he would tell us what “concrete universal” meant for Van Til.  I do not think anyone should criticize Van Til on the Trinity without at least reading that section in this book.  It may not necessarily convince you, but you will at least have seen what Van Til does and does not mean.

(Disclaimer: I was given a complimentary copy by the publisher. I was under no obligation for a favorable review.  My thoughts are entirely my own.)

The Trinity: The Mystery of the One God (White)

White, Thomas Joseph. The Trinity: On the Nature and Mystery of the One God. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2021.

This is the best book ever written on the Trinity.  Not only is it intellectually superior to everything else, it illustrates how doctrines like divine simplicity increase our adoration. As parts of this review can get quite technical, I will place the key points below and the reader can work through the rest accordingly.

1. immaterial processions in the Godhead form the basis for the economic missions.
2. the internal procession of the Son from the Father does not logically demand a separation of essence.
3. Eternal generation is a relation of origin.
4. persons are subsistent modes of being and relate to each other by way of origin.
5. Relation lets one affirm a distinction of persons without threatening the essence.

Like most accounts of the Trinity, White begins with the revelation of the one God in Israel. God established his identity in sacred history.  We encounter a problem, however, as we examine how his covenant people reflected upon him.  Some terms for God are metaphorical and some analogical.  How do we tell the difference?

White notes five philosophical moments in Israel’s history (prior to the New Testament).  We cannot play off metaphysical speculation against divine revelation.  Divine revelation will not allow it.

  1. A form of Wisdom literature developed in Israel’s history.
  2. Isaiah’s use of ontological categories for the divine name: Isaiah 45:14-25 can be seen as a reflection upon Exodus 3:14.
  3. The LXX gave these passages a distinct metaphysical reading.
  4. Sirach and Wisdom, while not Scripture for Protestants, develop ideas of the afterlife and the soul’s immortality.
  5. 2nd Temple Judaism spoke clearly of protology and eschatology.

To be sure, the above does not prove the Trinity, but we see anticipations.  God creates all things in his Wisdom.  Is this wisdom analogical or metaphorical?  If it is analogical, then it can be seen as a generation of a personal agent.  There is evidence that it is.  God’s Word is active in creation and prophecy; He is the principal of God’s action.

The rest of the first part follows the standard accounts of biblical evidence for the Trinity.  For the sake of space, we will move to the Nicene and post-Nicene developments. The key idea for Trinitarian reflection is that the immaterial processions in the Godhead form the basis for the economic, if we even want to use that word, missions (129).

With Athanasius we see an important development in the concept of eternal generation: it is analogous to the intellect.  For example, substance is not multiplied in the case of a thought from the mind.  So it is with the Trinity: the internal procession of the Son from the Father does not logically demand a separation of essence.

Eternal generation is a relation of origin.  The Cappadocian Fathers clarify this language. Gregory of Nazianzus says that terms like “Father” or “Son” designate a relationship, not an essence or activity (Gregory, Oration 29, quoted in White, 144). There is a connection between the difference of mutual relations and the difference of names (Oration 31).

So then, how do persons relate to the divine essence? The Cappadocians give us another phrase: persons are subsistent modes of being and relate to each other by way of origin (White 146). That is the most important sentence in the book.  To the degree one is heretical or orthodoxy depends on whether one affirms that statement.

From personal relations of origin we now discuss personal or hypostatic characteristics: ingenerateness (or unbegotten), generation, and procession.  You identify the persons of the Trinity by their relations of origin and the terms (above) that flow from them.

The main focus of the book, not surprisingly, is Thomas Aquinas.  White begins this section by covering the standard arguments for the existence of God, but the main point for him, as it was for Thomas, was how they function in metaphysics.  We reason quia, not propter quid; from effect, not from cause.  We cannot reason quia because we do not know the essence of God.

Thomas then explains how we can name God analogically. Negative theology is not simply some New Age denying of everything in God, leaving us only with some vague essence to worship. Rather, we understand that God’s perfections are negative perfections.  As White notes, every negation is a mental act upon the prior admission of something existent (221).  We are denying the finite mode of our understanding of an attribute, not the attribute itself.  This is the difference between the modus significandi, the term analogically applied, and the res ipsa significata, the reality signified.

Divine Simplicity

If we are going to deny composition in God, we need to embrace the other metaphysical issues which this entails. God is not dependent on anything else.  So far, so good.  He is Pure Act. Potentiality is a source of imperfection. God cannot have any potency in him.  An actuation of potency implies a transformation.  With this in mind, we can explore his attributes

Divine perfection: Matter is a source of potentiality and indeterminateness (261).  This makes sense if you think about it.  Matter needs shape.  Matter by itself is potency.  It needs something to form it. This, among other reasons, is why God cannot be material.  This is why God is perfect.

Immutability: As God is infinite, he cannot acquire any new perfections.

Unity: a property of being (316).  It is the absence of division.  It follows from simplicity and perfection.

Prologue to a Thomistic Trinitarianism

There were three medieval Trinitarian models: the Franciscan or emanationist, the relationalist, and the nominalist.  The Franciscans, so reads White’s analysis, began with the Father as principle and then moved to the begetting of the Son.  The Father exists eternally in himself.  The problem is this is a very close resemblance to a human person.

The relationalist model is the Thomist one. Relation lets one affirm a distinction of persons without threatening the essence (386).  To wit, the Father is always “relative” to the Son by eternal generation.  Moreover, God’s simplicity demands these relations be subsistent.

Hearkening back to the Cappadocian model, Thomas notes the processions in God are immanent to him. They are relations of origin. They are correlative terms that are opposite to one another. It makes sense how this works with Father and Son.  It is not immediately clear how the Spirit can be “opposite” to two terms. Thomas uses the analogy of the human mind.  The Son as intellect or Logos moves from the Father. The Son loves the Father (and the Father, the Son). The intellect precedes love.  The love is the movement back. This is how the Father and Son spirate the Spirit (421).

From here White gives an excellent defense of the Filioque:

1) The Father emanates the Spirit as Father of the Son.  The Son is “always already” there.

2) We can only know the persons by relations of origin.

3) The Son’s relation of origin is “from the Father.”

4) If the Spirit’s relation of origin is only from the Father, then he is identical to the Son.

5) Ergo, the Spirit proceeds from the Son.

This is the best book written on the Trinity.  White also deals with modern Trinitarianism (Barth, Rahner, Bulgakov, Pannenberg). The modern Trinitarian movement reduces ontology to history and plays Hegel and Kant against one another (while using both).  That is why we should look to the classical model.

Introduction to Philosophy (Geisler and Feinberg)

This is a systematic philosophy text.  Like a systematic theology, it explains and evaluates the loci of philosophy.  It is probably the best intro text on the market, at least from a Christian perspective.

A good philosophical system will achieve three things: (1) internal consistency, (2) external comprehensiveness, and (3) correspondence (Geisler and Feinberg, 72).

The authors do a fine job rebutting the pietistic charge that studying philosophy violates Colossians 2:8.  For one, Paul is warning against false knowledge, not all knowledge.  Moreover, the definite article could actually indicate a specific teaching at Colosse (i.e., most likely gnostic angel-worship).  Even more, one cannot beware of false philosophy unless he is first aware of it (73).  And though Geisler does not mention it, these same pietists themselves give a logos about theos and have no problem with using Aristotelian concepts like being, quality, quantity, and motion.

The first locus the authors cover is knowledge and the various options with justifying belief.  My only concern is that I wish they had spent more time on foundationalism.

What is Knowledge?

Problems with skepticism:

1) Skepticism is rationally inconsistent.  Assertions that we cannot know anything are themselves claims of knowledge (94ff).

2) Skepticism is practically inconsistent: skeptics trust their sense perceptions when they cross the road.


Foundationalism is the view that there is a structure of knowledge “whose foundations, though they support all the rest, are themselves in need of no support” (152). We have directly justified beliefs “and they are topped with indirectly justified beliefs.”

In response to criticisms, the foundationalist maintains his position does not end in an infinite regress. It is possible that there are immediately grounded propositions.


Coherentism is one alternative to foundationalism.  Geisler notes a distinction between coherentist theories of truth and coherentist justification for truth (161). The coherentist justification asserts that there are no basic beliefs, only webs of belief. 

What is Reality?

Is reality One or Many?  Geisler does a fine job explaining the power of Parmenides’ argument for monism (168). It looks like this:

1) Reality is either one or many.

2) If reality is many, then then many things must differ from each other.

3) But there are only two ways things can differ: either by being (something) or by non-being (nothing).

4) However, two (or more) things cannot differ by nothing, for to differ by nothing means not to differ at all.

5) Neither can things differ by being (or something), because being is the only thing that everything has in common, and things cannot differ in the very respect in which they are all the same.

6) Therefore, things cannot differ at all; everything is one.

It’s clear that the problem is his univocal use of the term “being.”  The solution can’t be an equivocal use of the word “being,” for then our knowledge of reality is now suspect.  The only solution, and one Aristotle and Aquinas would later formulate, is an analogical use of being.

The pluralist options are as follows:

Atomism: “Things Differ by Absolute Non-Being” (170ff).

Platonism: Things differ by relative non-being

Aristotle: Things Differ in their Being (Which is Simple)

Aquinas: Things Differ in their Being (which is composed of Form and Matter)

Trinity, One, and Many

Can the Trinity solve the problem of the One and Many?  Short answer: No. The Trinity does not address Parmenides’ concern.  Parmenides wants to know how things can differ in their being.  The Trinity, however, only seeks to posit plurality in the persons, precisely not in the being.

God and the Ultimate

We must not confuse “belief in” with “belief that” (269). I do not need a reason for faith in God.  It is entirely legitimate, though, to stress reasons for belief that God exist.

Some Thoughts on Deism

The Deists’ line that miracles are a violation of natural law no longer works.  Science today is as likely to speak of “models” and “maps” than laws (277).  Moreover, natural physical law does not actually “cause” anything.  It merely explains it.

Problems with Panentheism and Finite Godism

Panentheism cannot claim an infinite god with “finite poles.” It does not make sense to speak of a contingent and necessary God.  Even more problematic, “can God actualize his own potential?” This problem is even more damaging for finite godism.  As Geisler notes, “A finite god needs a cause.”  That new cause is now God (or at least has a better claim to be God).

Paul Tillich’s Symbolic Language

It does not do to say that God is the ground of ultimate Being and that language about God is symbolic. Such a person believes there is at least non-symbolic entity, being.

Analogical God-Talk

1) There is only a basis for “analogy when there is an intrinsic causal relation” (314). For example, as Geisler notes, hot water has an extrinsic relation to the hardness in the boiled egg, but it has an intrinsic relation to the heat in the egg.

2) The effect does not need to resemble the instrumental cause, only the principal efficient cause (315).

3) Likewise, the effect need not resemble the material cause, only the efficient one.

4) Terms like “being” are univocally defined, but analogically applied (317).

What is Good or Right?

Kantianism: will it to be a universalizable law.  Existentialists have asked why should we prioritize the universal over the particular?

Utilitarianism: greatest good for the greatest number.  There are numerous problems with this claim. Only God can be utilitarian, since only he has the foresight to know which actions will be the best for the greatest number (393).  There is another problem: the utilitarian subtly analyzes results in terms of ‘the Good,” which means results cannot be the deciding factor.  Perhaps the greatest practical problem: how long-range must the results be in order for them to be good?  If it is only short-range, then this justifies a number of evils.  Too long a range, on the other hand, makes it worthless.

Classical theistic ethics: the Good is self-evident. The main difficulty with the classical view is whether it can overcome the “is-ought” fallacy. There are several lines of response.  “If ‘ought’ is a basic category that cannot be reduced to ‘is’ or anything else, then one must understand it intuitionally, since there is no way to break it down further” (383). We still haven’t justified natural law ethics.  We have, however, provided a source about what we believe.  We should point out, though, that concepts like “The Good” cannot be analyzed in terms of a higher concept.


This book was a joy to read.  Geisler provided us with an accessible, yet rigorous text for the introductory to mid-level college student.  

Reforming Apologetics (Fesko)

Fesko, J. V. Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019.

There is no way to write a review of this book that minimizes the potential for a literary bloodbath. I will start by stating the thesis in the most minimal of terms.  This allows me to divide the review in three parts: 1) how the Reformed orthodox viewed prolegomena and natural theology; 2) overlap between classic Reformed and Van Tillian methods; 3) disagreements with Van Til.

Side bar: I’ve read James Anderson’s series of reviews on this book.  Anderson agrees with much of Fesko’s presentation of natural law and common notions.  He does a good job outlining Fesko’s position.

The hero of this book is the Puritan Anthony Burgess. From Burgess, Fesko presents an eloquent and compelling account of the importance of the book of nature and “common notions.” The law of nature is the common notions which are on our hearts (Fesko 15). For Burgess, the boundary of the law of nature is “the moral law delivered by Moses at Sinai” (16).  

Aquinas: the principles of natural law are the same for all people.  The conclusions they draw are not (Aquinas, ST Ia-IIae, qu. 94, quoted in Fesko 34). As Fesko, commenting elsewhere on Turretin, notes, “Immediate principles admit, but the noetic effects of sin due to the fall corrupt mediate principles” (43).

Although the chapter on Calvin explains Calvin’s views, it serves an equally important function: it rebuts the “Christological monism” that tempted  historians and apologists for the last 200 years. That’s where people seek a unifying principle and deduce the rest of doctrine from it. This really only works with German idealism. In short, Calvin did not see Christ as the unifying principle of all theology and then deduced everything from him.

Following Richard Muller and others, Fesko notes that scholasticism was simply a method.  It involved lectio, meditatio, and quaestio/disputatio.  It was a classroom format.  You can find elements of it in Calvin.  Contrast the Beveridge translation of 1.16.9 with the Battles translation and you can see Calvin use scholastic terminology and methods.

I am not going to spend much time on Fesko’s analysis of Calvin.  The literature is overwhelming. I do not think Calvin is a Thomist, yet it is obvious that Calvin is not saying what Van Til thinks he is saying.

Regarding Thomas Aquinas, Fesko’s main complaint is that Van Til gave nearly zero evidence that he actually read Thomas. Perhaps he did.  That does not come out in his writings.   We will cut a few moves off at the pass. According to presuppositionalists, Thomas is wrong for trying to synthesize Aristotle with Christ. However, it is not clear why Thomas is wrong for using concepts from Aristotle, yet it is fine for Van Til to use even more dubious concepts from Kant.  

Regarding some of Thomas’s arguments, Fesko notes they are quia, not propter quid.  In other words, they reason from effect to the cause, not cause to the effect. This is important because we cannot know God in his essence; therefore, we cannot reason from God to the world (78ff).

My favorite chapter is the one on worldview.  There is a sense in which worldview talk is legitimate.  If by it one means a way of viewing the world, then there is no big problem.  That is not how it is used in the literature. Historic worldview theory (what Fesko labels HWT) seeks to deduce our understanding of reality from a single principle and provide an exhaustive (or near enough) explanation of reality (98).

Not surprisingly, Van Til embraces HWT. It provides “the true interpretation of human experience” (Van Til, CA, 38, quoted in Fesko 106).  This aspect of Van Til’s is fairly uncontroversial, so I will forgo the rest of the quotations. The problem is that if HWT is true, then there really cannot be any common notions between believer and unbeliever.

 James Anderson, though, has demonstrated that Van Til held to common notions, at least in theory.  Van Til rejected this later on (My Credo, JA, 21). There he moved to common ground, by which he meant the image of God.

Conclusion of the chapter: if one holds to HWT as defined above, then there is no legitimate place for natural revelation and common notions. Moreover, Scripture itself does not say that men will have unique knowledge regarding creation.  God specifically tells Job there are a number of things that he will not know (Job 40:4).

I am tempted to skip the section on transcendental arguments.  Fesko does not disagree with them in theory.  He says they can be useful when you find the rare unbeliever who has a coherent worldview.  

He includes a chapter on Dooyeweerd.  I predicted in 2005 that there would be a return to Dooyeweerd’s thought in the Reformed world.  It was a strange prediction, as Dooyeweerd is often incomprehensible.  It turned out to be true, though.

To some extent for Van Til, but largely for Dooyeweerd, historic Christian thought has been plagued by the nature-grace dualism.  This occurs when man absolutizes one of the modal spheres, usually the temporal one. Fesko counters this charge by noting a) Dooyeweerd mistakes duality for dualism, b) provides little analysis with the key sources, and c) uses a similar methodology to Adolf von Harnack.

Against this dualism, Dooyeweerd suggests the biblical ground motive of “creation, fall, and redemption.”  Here we run into a problem.  Dooyeweerd had elsewhere criticized Van Til for being too rationalist in getting his ideas from the Bible.  For Dooyeweerd, we cannot use the bible as an object of theology.  The problem, one among many, of which Dooyeweerd seems unaware, is that he got his biblical ground motive from the Bible!

Moreover, it is not true that Thomas Aquinas (and by extension the WCF) held to such a dualism regarding body and soul.  For Thomas, the soul in-forms the body. It is the form of the body.  It is not a ghost in the machine.  It is one organic unity.  Dooyeweerd mistook Thomas for Descartes.

And Dooyeweerd does not apply the same criticism to Calvin.  Calvin specifically praised Plato on the soul (ICR, 1.15.16)! Calvin is not this pure font of only biblical theology.  Even worse, Calvin said it was okay to start with the knowledge of man.  The ordo docendi is not the same as the ordo essendi.

When we say that Dooyeweerd used the same methodology that Harnack did, we are not saying that he was a liberal who held the same beliefs.  Rather, both believed that pure Christiant thought was corrupted by Greek philosophy.  

In his concluding chapter on epistemology, Fesko shows how Van Tillians and classical Reformed can work together. Fesko’s comments on covenant sound very Van Tillian. Man’s covenantal origin allows us to embrace the book of nature.

With Van Tillians, we agree that epistemology is about wisdom (Fesko 198). Man submits to God’s authority, remembers his law, and responds with praise.  We see a good example of this in Psalm 19.  

Forgetting God’s law is the opposite of knowing.  It is the same as disobedience. Van Til could have written this section.

There is one category confusion, though, that many Van Tillians make.They confuse axiology (the theory of value) with epistemology.  An unbeliever will almost always have the wrong axiology.  That does not mean he will have the wrong epistemology.  


This book should not be seen as an attack on Van Til. The chapters on historic Reformed methodology are beyond dispute.  The Reformed used the book of nature and believed in common notions.  Nor is this book uncritical of Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas was wrong on the donum superadditum.  Finally, the real criticisms of Van Til should be appreciated for what they are.  Van Til did not engage in serious historical analysis.  That does not mean the rest of his project is wrong.  Fesko even thinks the Transcendental Argument has its place (although I have my concerns).

Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Feser)

Feser, Edward. Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide.

I do not know if I would call this a “beginner’s guide.”  Parts of it deal with discussions in current analytical philosophy, and some of these discussions would discourage the beginner.  It is an indispensable guide, though. Edward Feser highlights the key elements in Thomas’s thought.  You cannot go wrong in interpreting Thomas with Feser as your guide.

Thomas’s views on causality are well-known, so we will only focus on the basics.  Final causality for Thomas is directional. It is always pointing.


Not surprisingly, we get a good discussion of the essence/existence distinction. For God, essence and existence are the same.  There is not a genus called “God” to which one could apply the category existence.  This makes sense at the creaturely level.  I know what the essence of a unicorn is.  Whether it exists or not, I have a clear idea of its essence. For existent things, their essences have to be conjoined with their existences. Even the angels who are pure form are not identical with their existence. They are an essence conjoined with the act of existence.

Feser gives us a good handle on the act/potency distinction.  God is pure act with no unrealized potencies.   The more act a being has, the higher on the chain of reality it is.  God is at the top.  Prime matter, which is only unrealized potency, is at the bottom.  Similarly, motion is simply a change from a potency to an act.

Natural Theology

The greatest harm ever done to Thomas was by philosophy of religion anthologies.  Thomas never intended for his 5 Ways to be read in isolation from his larger project.  I suppose that cannot be helped, though. Feser helps us avoid the pitfalls of misinterpreting Thomas.  We will focus on his argument from motion.  There are two types of causal serieses. There is a causal series per accidens.  This is where one sequence follows another.  Some apologists argue that every effect has a cause and God must be the ultimate cause.  True, but there are some difficulties. In a causal series per accidens one has trouble transcending that series.  

Thomas’s solution, though, is different. There is another type of causal series. It is a causal series per se. If the former is sequential, this is hierarchical. Every potency is actualized by a prior act.  This allows Thomas to evade the charge that since philosophy cannot disprove the eternity of the universe, then it does not need God as a cause.  Thomas answers that is true for a per accidens series, not a per se one.  Even if the universe were eternal, the potencies in it would need to be actualized.


Thomas is a dualist, but he is not a Cartesian or Platonist.  Feser explains that “soul” for Aquinas simply means the form of a person. It in-forms the matter. For Plato or Descartes, a soul was literally a ghost in the machine, with all the problems that entails. Thomas does not need that ghost.


Natural law is important for Thomas, but not that important.  He devotes surprisingly little space to it.  What is more important and of higher priority is the Good.  Natural law does not make a lot of sense without a previous orientation to the Good.  Moderns since David Hume have attacked natural law for committing the naturalistic fallacy, of deriving an ought from an is or value from facts. That’s a very sharp criticism, but it only works if nominalism is true and all we have is a mechanistic universe.  Thomas would not have understood the fact-value problem because medieval man did not think in terms of value, but of the Good, and the Good is already inherent in reality.


This is an excellent treatment of Thomas’s thoughts. One will not misinterpret Thomas with Feser as a guide. It’s not a beginner’s treatment, though.

Theses on Reformed Natural Law

  1. There is an objective moral order to which we have cognitive access.
  2. Natural law is a participation, however indirectly, in the Divine Mind. (See this chart).
  3. Law is a rule and measure of acts directed towards the common good (Thomas, ST I-II, q.90).
  4. Politics is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life (Althusius).
  5. God willed that each need the service and aid of others in order that friendship would bind all together and no one would consider another to be valueless (Althusius).
  6. Ownership of a realm belongs to the estates and administration of it belongs to the king [or relevant executive figure] (Ibid).
  7. Human law is not identified with natural law. It is practical reason. Human law is directed towards particulars (Thomas, Ibid, q.91).
  8. Natural law is unchangeable in its first principles, but changeable in its proximate conclusions (Ibid, 94).
  9. Thomist natural law employed a grace perfects nature scheme. It is not clear if Reformed natural law needs such a scheme.
  10. Moral virtue of rendering to others their due (ST 2a 2ae. 57.1). It is a balance of equity.

More could be written, but that would make it unwieldy. Early natural law had the state punishing heretics. Is this part of the esse of natural law? Not necessarily. As noted in Thesis 8, punishing heretics is a proximate conclusion and not binding.

Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1. trans. Anton C. Pegis. New York: Hanover House, 1955.

In God there is no passive potency.  With that one sentence one can deduce most of classical theism. Deny that sentence, and one’s theology is fraught with peril, if not outright heretical. Because of that loaded sentence, one should begin the journey here and not with Summa Theologiae.  The latter text is usually too difficult without a prior knowledge of medieval philosophy.

There are places where Thomas is wrong.  This is not one of those places.  If you have a heterodox doctrine of God (EFS, theistic personalism, etc), and when you are corrected on it, it does no good to say, “But Thomas was wrong on x, y, and z.”  Maybe he was, but that is not the issue under discussion.

When Thomas Aquinas uses terms like act, potency, and motion, he does not mean by them what you mean.  For example, when we say God is immobile, we mean that there is no potency in him requiring something other than God to activate God.  Motion is the act the of something that is in potency.  Since there is no potency in God (i.e., no unrealized aspect), then there is no motion in God.

Furthermore, God is eternal.  This appears to be more familiar to today’s readers.  Thomas’s reasoning will not be.  When we say God is eternal, we mean God has no internal motion.[1] If God is not eternal, then he must be brought into being by another.  Again, we are back to the original statement: there is no passive potency in God.  If there were, then God would depend on someone (or thing) beside himself to be God.

This eliminates any form of composition or any denial of divine simplicity. All composites have both act and potency. Moreover, composites are subsequent to components.[2] As James Dolezal has so eloquently stated, “All that is in God is God.”[3]

Even though Thomas has not yet said that all of God’s attributes are identical to his essence, one can see where he is going.  That raises a question, though.  If the divine names signify the essence, then how are the names not synonymous with one another?  Aquinas answers that they do not signify the same notion.[4]

Continuing upon this line of thought, God is his essence. The essence of a thing is either the thing itself, or it is related to it by some cause.  Yet nothing can be the cause of God.  Therefore, God is his essence.[5]

Can there be two perfect Gods?  No.  If two Gods are equally perfect, then there must be some way to distinguish them—something must be added to one or both.  But if something is added to a God, then he (or she) cannot be perfect.[6]

Those of us in the Reformed tradition would do well to pay attention to his remarks on God’s knowledge and will.  God knows all things by his essence. That is fairly standard in Western Christianity. That is God’s natural knowledge.  God also knows all possibles.  That is God’s knowledge of vision.  And since all potencies arise from him, the First Cause, he knows an infinite array of possibilities.

Thomas’s comments on divine willing are very useful for modern discussions of free will and determinism.  Given that God is his willing, and God is a necessary being, does this make everything in the world “necessary”?  No. When God wills something, he wills it to the “ordered end of his goodness.”  I think Thomas is arguing for something like secondary causes.  He uses the example of a doctor and medicine.

On another line of thought, when God wills things, he wills things “insofar as they participate in his goodness.”  Since no created thing’s participation is entire in the essence of God, there is no 1:1 willing.

In conclusion, this text is probably the second place to start one’s journey on Thomas Aquinas.  On Being and Essence is the most accessible, especially the edition by Armand Maurer.  The introduction should give the reader a decent grasp on the issues involved.  With that under the reader’s belt, Summa Contra Gentiles should be no trouble. 

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1, (New York: Hanover House, 1955), sect. 15.

[2] Ibid, sect. 18.

[3] James Dolezal, All that is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Theism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).

[4] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, sect 35.

[5] Ibid, sect 21.

[6] Ibid, sect 42.

God and Philosophy (Gilson)

Gilson, Etienne.  God and Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1946 [2002].

Each discipline has its handful of masters who have redefined the discipline in their own ways.  Etienne Gilson, the French neo-Thomist, is one such master. After Gilson, we now have to speak of “existential Thomism,” and we are much richer for it.  Gilson begins with a survey of Greek philosophy and why the Greeks could not escape their own metaphysics.  That is standard enough.  He then extends it to Augustine and notes that Augustine was hampered by the same metaphysics.  Thomas Aquinas rescued Augustine, only to have Descartes (and Kant) ruin it all.

Did the Greeks really believe in their gods?  That is not so easy to answer as one might suppose.  The problem is linking the Greek gods with the “principles” by which Greek philosophy tried to explain the universe.  Thales said the principle was water, another said it was fire, and so on.  As Gilson notes, “On the one side a man posits a certain natural element as the very stuff this world is made of,” and on the other side “the same man posits as a sort of axiom that all things are full of gods” (Gilson 3).  There is a continuum, then, between nature and the gods.

If one simply sees the gods as “mythological” explanations of nature, then there is no real problem.  Unfortunately, as Gilson notes, that will not work. Greek poets say that both the gods and nature (or natural elements) are living powers that have wills (7-8).  One could still rescue the Greek religion by saying that modern man sometimes personifies nature.  Very true.  Unfortunately, as Hera reminds Zeus, the gods must bow to Fate (11).  We do not speak of mythological natural elements this way.

Regardless of how one glosses the Iliad, the original problem remains: if the world is full of gods, then “either your gods are not principles (e.g., have no explanatory power–JA), or there is no longer one principle as the source of all things” (14). Making the matter even worse, nature seemed to be a self-explanatory fact. The best that Greece could do was Aristotle. The ultimate rational principle must be an Intelligence, not a thing. That is why Plato’s Idea failed. Ideas are not gods, nor are they persons.

Enter Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. Before we ridicule Aristotle, we need to appreciate what he accomplished. He moved beyond Plato’s impasse.  Even better, his Thought is itself an eternal Act of thinking (33). As good as it is, there are problems.  His Thought can only think of Itself. There is no need for it to enter into a relationship with us.  Even worse, there is no connection between Thought and Existence.

Gilson has been criticized for reading Thomas Aquinas back into the Burning Bush, as though the living God of divine revelation were the same as the Unmoved Mover.  Such a criticism is premature, though.  If anything, Augustine and Aquinas introduced dynamism into the equation. There is a world of difference between “Thought thinking Thought” and “I am who is.” As Gilson notes, “Christian revelation was establishing existence as the deepest layer of reality as well as the supreme attribute of divinity” (44).

Plotinus, and later Augustine, could only speak in terms of “to be.”  For them, true being was immaterial, eternal, immutable–attributes that just as easily apply to Platonic Ideas as to God. For Aquinas, “to be is the very act whereby an essence is” (64). Previous philosophers had been stuck at the level of essence. Now with existence, we can understand how the existential energies flow to various essences (65).

Bottom line: existence is not a thing but the act that causes a thing (66).

Like many Catholic philosophers, Gilson’s story of later philosophy is one of decline and fall.  Nothing new is here, though his writing is wonderfully lucid and often funny.  Here are some examples:

“Because God is supremely intelligent, he could not fail to do what Descartes would have done, had Descartes been God” (96).

“A most gratifying certitude indeed, at least so long as it lasts, and Voltaire was to see to it that it did not outlive the earthquake of Lisbon” (99).

“All the other positions [i.e., between Thomas Aquinas and Kant] are but halfway houses on the roads which lead to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics.  Philosophical halfway houses have always been pretty crowded” (114).

This might be the best intro to Gilson, if not necessarily the best intro to Thomas Aquinas.  The order of reading should be thus: the present work, Thomas’s Being and Essence, Feser’s work on Aquinas, and then probably Aquinas himself.

On Being and Essence (Thomas Aquinas)

Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence. Trans. Armand Maurier. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1968.

It’s hard to know where to start with Thomas Aquinas. His various Summas are important, but that is a steep learning curve and also demands a good, working knowledge of secondary Thomist literature. I think this current volume might be the best place to start.  It is short and focused, whereas the Summa is close to being a transcript of an oral Master’s thesis. The introduction by Armand Maurier makes this volume doubly good.

The argument at its most basic: being as esse is the actuality of being, the act of existence.  Think of it along more dynamic lines.  Being as ens is the substance that has the actuality of being.  Whatever esse an ens has, the esse structures the ens.

Citations from this book will be by chapter and section.  “1.1” is chapter one, section one.

“Essence must be something common to all the natures through which different beings are placed in different generas and species” (Aquinas 1.3).  Neither form nor matter is an essence.  Matter cannot be an essence because it is not a principle of knowledge (2.1). It can’t be either because both are needed for the being of a substance.

Key ideas: “The genus, then, signifies indeterminately everything in the species and not the matter alone” (2.8). It is the “whole” of a thing without its “this-ness,” or specific form. A genus is proportionate to the whatness of a thing; specifies to its form; and difference to the composite nature (2.9).

Human nature isn’t the form itself or the matter itself, and if we can’t know it through the matter, how do we know it? Human nature has its being in the intellect abstracted “all individuating factors” (3.6).

On Predication

We predicate something when our intellect combines and divides things (3.8).

A form is only intelligible when it is abstracted from matter, and only something immaterial can abstract it.

Key idea: a being is either uncaused, caused by the principles of its being, or receives its being from outside itself. Therefore, everything whose being is distinct from its nature receives its being from another (4.7). Thomas suggests, though doesn’t really develop it, that one could extend this chain to the first cause, pure being.

You don’t have to agree with Thomas Aquinas.  I am more of a Scotist myself when it comes to knowledge of God and the human will.  But if you are unfamiliar with the arguments in this book, and you choose to criticize Thomas Aquinas, then you deserve something like what happened when Ed Feser reviewed Jeffrey Johnson’s book on Aquinas.

A Primer on Ectypal Theology

I first discovered ectypal theology from Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Rather than being an academic topic, ectypal theology unites theological method with Christology. I’ve done pieces on ectypal theology in the past, but the following from Willem Van Asselt’s Introducing Reformed Scholasticism does it better than anyone else.

(1) Archetypal theology: the uncreated knowledge God has of himself. It is the matrix of all forms of theology (Junius).
(2) Ectypal theology: The knowledge of God revealed to humans.

2.1) It is primarily the knowledge that Christ as mediator has of the Father. This is the ectypal theology of union and is the common principle of all other theology (Junius). Muller explains it best: “The Christological problem follows the [epistemological issue]:  if the human nature of Jesus, as finite, is incapable in itself of comprehending the infinite knowledge of the theologia archetypal, then any equation of the theologia unionis with archetypal theology must involve some alteration of the human nature of Jesus” (PRRD I:250).

The following are forms of ectypal theology.
2.2) ectypal theology is communicated to men in a twofold way: Nature and grace
2.2.1) Nature: internal principle of communication
2.2.2) Grace: external principle of communication
2.3) The union of the two two natures is ectypal. This is one of the reasons why the Reformed reject the Lutheran view of the Supper.
2.4) theologia beatorum (theology of the blessed in glory; still ectypal and finite).
2.5) theologia angelorum (theology of angels)

3) This construction, if not the idea, has its origins with Duns Scotus. Scotus distinguished between theoleogia in se (theology in itself) and theologia nostra (our theology).
3.1) This might be an improvement on Aquinas’s principle of analogy. For Scotus God is the only true theologian because only he has knowledge of himself.