Systematic Theology vol 1 (Kelly)

Kelly, Douglas F.  Systematic Theology: The God who is: The Holy Trinity. Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2008.

It is hard to explain how one feels about this volume from the highly-revered Douglas Kelly.  In many ways, this is not a normal systematic theology textbook. Some of Kelly’s chapters seem oddly placed.  Following every chapter, moreover, is an appendix (or appendices) that is highly technical and seems to detract from the flow of the book.  That is my one criticism of the book.  On the other hand, Kelly knows more about theological method and the Trinity than most professors, Reformed or otherwise, ever will.  

How do we Know?

Reality Comes First, and the mind second (Kelly ST I:41ff).  The question before us: how do you form beliefs in your mind? To which Kelly responds, there is a real world that imposes itself on your mind.  In other words, and with the historic Reformed (and classic) tradition, the order of knowing follows the order of being.  And the order of being is God himself.

As it stands, that paragraph is standard Reformed prolegomena.  Kelly takes it a step further. Kelly is one of the few Reformed theologians to include a section on how the mind, particularly the redeemed mind within the covenant community, forms beliefs. First, truth causes belief (17). “God’s reality imposes itself upon those whom He has made to know him” (17-18).

There is almost a “reflex-action” in the mind.  As Clement of Alexandria said, “Knowledge is excited by outwardly existing objects” (quoted in Kelly, 18). Faith, and here Torrance draws heavily from his mentor, Thomas Torrance, “involves a conceptual assent to the unseen reality.” Faith is the obedient response to truth.

Following the Stoics, though not blindly, Kelly remarks that the basis of the system “is the assumption that the real world imposes itself upon the recipient mind of man.”  An “outer reality presses in on the mind.”  This is “apprehensive presentation” (41).  Indeed, within the mind are “class concepts, which serve to give the mind clues into the objectivities of reality” (44). One can call them “proleptic pointers” that allow the mind to jump from clues to conclusion

Applied to theology, faith is the heart response to the aforementioned proleptic assent (46).

Kelly has several chapters on the Trinity, but no one chapter on the Trinity that neatly corresponds to standard treatments. At this point in the book (chapter four) he does not give a clear presentation.  What he does do, however, is press the meaning of the term “person” as it relates to the Trinity.  This represents a clear advance in modern systematic theology.  The key point is that the being of God leads itself to the concept of “person.”  That is good.  What is not so good, however, is Kelly’s use of John Zizioulas’s idea “being as communion.”  I think I know what Zizioulas means: being is being as communion.  It seems it means “the being of God” is the being as persons in communion.  Maybe.  The problem is Zizioulas will take the Person of the Father as the monarchy of the Trinity.  Kelly rightly rejects this move.  Athanasius (and for what it’s worth, Augustine) sees the being of the Father as the monarchy. This is much better, for it allows one to say that with the being of the Father, we automatically get the Son.  If we follow the Easter route of the Father as Cause, then we have introduced a sequence of causes in the Trinity.

I cannot go into detail here, but Kelly has a wonderful section on person and “modes of being” and why we prefer the former and not the latter (503ff). A person is inherently relational.  A mode of being is not. “The personal distinctions within God are constituted by eternal relations, as indicated by Father, Son and Spirit; or, by begetting and proceeding” (521).  With Didymus the Blind, we say the persons refer to the order of relations (kata schezein) rather than to the essence (521-522).

The later Cappadocians, excepting Gregory Nazianzus, account for the persons by the Father as cause or monarchy. They do not intend any latent Arianism by the word cause (since it happens before time), but, nonetheless, a person is now part of a causal sequence in the Godhead.


By no means is this a beginner’s textbook.  Kelly’s ordering of topics does not always follow the standard accounts.  Moreover, the reader risks getting lost in some of his appendices.  On the other hand, few Reformed authors today demonstrate Kelly’s grasp of Nicene Trinitarianism and the idea of person in the Godhead, and for that reason this volume is highly recommended to the intermediate student.


T. F. Torrance as Missional Theologian

Sherrard, Joseph.  T. F. Torrance as Missional Theologian: the Ascended Christ and the Ministry of the Church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsityPress Academic, 2021.

I initially approached this book with some skepticism.  Whenever someone uses the term “missional,” it is often to baptize some new, edgy idea.  Moreover, Thomas Torrance does not make one think of “missional theology.”  I was intrigued.  This book far surpassed my expectations.  The problem with missional theology is not that it tries to be missional.  Its problem is that it largely ignored the Trinity.  To be sure, some astute readers might point out Barth’s phrase of the “Mission Dei.”  Understanding what Barth meant by that might be a more daunting task.  

Whatever else Sherrard might say about missional theology, this book is a fine primer to Torrance’s theology.  As any reader of Torrance knows, the chief culprit is dualism. Dualism infected the Western world by Plato through Newton.  It was halted by James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein.

The hero of this story, as is the case with all of Torrance’s works, is Athanasius.  Athanasius was primarily influenced by the Markan tradition in Alexandria and the way of science in Alexandria.  This way of science is “kataphysical,” to use Torrance’s phrase.  We know a thing by submitting our minds to its inherent rationality.  According to Torrance, Athanasius employed this in his understanding of the Father-Son relationship.

Pre-Nicean Dualisms

Origen, Clement, and Alexandria understood the problem of dualism.  Unfortunately, they addressed dualism by reinforcing its basic assumptions.  Athanasius countered this, according to Torrance, with the claim that the revelation of Christ “exerted its own inner logic upon the term logos.”  Logos was no longer a Middle Platonic concept; it was now the Ha-Debar.  Logos did not mediate between God’s being and man’s being.  Rather, it was enousia logos; the logos internally inheres in the ousia of God (Contra Arianos II.1).  The relation between God and the logos is an internal relation.

Torrance and Calvin

Calvin was able to move somewhat beyond Augustine’s dualism of the mundus intelligibilis and the mundus unintelligibilis. This is best seen (though, to be sure, this is probably more illustrative of Torrance than of Calvin) with the fact that one cannot detach grace from God and make it inhere in a creature, such as we see in Roman Catholicism.  Grace is identical with Christ.


For the most part I do not care about this section because I do not care about Barth.  There are some perceptive comments on liberalism that are worth mentioning, though. Older liberalism upheld the same pernicious dualism.  Only now it was a dualism of correspondence between the divine and subjective structures in man’s self-consciousness.

At this point Sherrard pivots from the doctrine of God to the ministry of the ascended Christ to his church, as per the subtitle. In line with good Reformed theology, Sherrard points us to the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. It is this framework that is “determinative” for “the church’s participation in Christ’s ministry.” Torrance does modify the traditional Reformed schemata in several ways. Torrance sees Christ’s offices as already embedded in the narrative of Israel by three Hebrew words: paddah, kipper, and Go’el. 

Torrance tends toward a “munus duplex” in some places, as the prophetic office is subsumed into the priestly one. If “homoousios” function as a cipher for his doctrine of God, the vicarious priesthood has a similar role for his Christology. Even if his account is overstated at points, he makes a number of important gains: his take on the vicarious humanity emphasizes the role of man to God in the mediator. Moreover, the humanity of Christ safeguards the reality of divine revelation.

Unlike some missional accounts, Torrance links the ascension of Christ with the Church’s ministry.  The church does not need to be “incarnational” for the sole reason that Jesus has ascended and give His Spirit.

The final chapters of the book contain some technical discussions about anhypostasia and enhypostasia and how they relate to the ministry of the church. As hinted at above, any discussion of “being incarnational” runs aground on the terms an/enhypostasis.


This book is a fine primer to the theology of Torrance.  Many of us who began our study of Torrance did so on the doctrine of God.  Sherrard’s work reminds us of other riches in Torrance’s corpus.

Is there a Meaning in this Text (Vanhoozer)

 Kevin Vanhoozer focuses on the metaphysical implications of “meaning.”  His work surveys the collapse of foundationalisms, their postmodern alternatives, and his own speech-act hermeneutics that paves the way forward from the postmodern morass, albeit sympathetic to some of Jacques Derrida’s criticisms.  

Risking some oversimplification, Vanhoozer sees the three eras as the Age of the Author (we can know the author’s meaning in a text), the Age of the Text (e.g., late Modernity; we can’t know the author’s psychological intentions, but we can find meaning by focusing on the structure of the text), and the Age of the Reader (there is no transcendent meaning in the text; we create meaning).

Vanhoozer characterizes postmoderns as either “Undoers” (Derrida, deconstruction) or “Users” (Rorty, pragmatism).  Vanhoozer goes to great pains to understand postmodernism, even if he doesn’t affirm it.  Derrida is correct there is no pure realm of meaning and presence of which we have hermetic access.  All such knowings and readings are situated knowings and readings.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t know.  Derrida himself admits he is not a relativist.  He simply says if all meanings are situated meanings and that there is no Transcendental Signifier, what privileges one reading over another?

Vanhoozer’s answer is along the lines of the Trinity.  God is first and foremost a communicative agent. Being and Speech is not reduced to a monad.  It is indeed deferred.  There is differance (though not ontological difference) but not violence in the Trinity.  His very being is a self-communicative act.  Trinitarian hermeneutics affirms both the One and the Many.  There is meaning and unity in the text, but arrived by a plurality of literary methods.

With Paul Ricouer Vanhoozer agrees that metaphor is not simply literary window-dressing.  It has ontological significance.  The goal of Matthew is not to get to Romans.  Metaphors can actually “break” deconstruction: they are determinate enough to convey stable meaning without being exhaustively specifiable (130).  With Derrida we agree that all language is ultimately metaphorical (and thus problematic for metaphysics). But with Ricoeur and against Derrida, we believe that metaphors are meaningful and do communicate truth, even if they don’t exhaust the truth.


This book is magnificent.  I sing its praises.  Aside from the brilliant crash course in continental philosophy, Vanhoozer introduces readers to speech-act philosophy. He has a sensitive reading of sola scriptura which nicely rebuts communitarian claims.


Many of the chapters were excessively long (several were 300+ endnotes).  

Derrida and Deconstruction

  1. Derrida is a good example of the relation of literary theory to theology (Death of God = Death of Author).  
  2. Derrida tries to “un-loose” (gr.  analusis; analyze) the structures, usually those made of binary oppositions (hot/cold, good/evil).
    1. Logocentrism:  a preoccupation with meaning, rationality, and truth. Privileging presence (speech) over absence (writing).
      1. pharmakon: poison or cure.  Writing is both poison and cure.  It is poison because it threatens presence,  but is necessary for the transmission of thought.
    2. nihilism: nothing real in the world.  Only human creations.  No real correspondence.  Only immanence.  
  3. Signs: for Derrida signs are sideways.  It is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and sound patterns.
    1. differance.  signs acquire meaning only in difference to other signs.  
    2. Deferral: meaning is only deferred.  The play of signs goes all the way down
      1. Defers presence.
      2. Metaphysics is the science of presence.  Derrida, argues, by contrast, that that presence is always already mediated by the play of signs.  Thus, there is no pure presence.

Masters of Suspicion: The Turn from the Subject

  1. Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche all argue that the human subject is neither self-conscious nor self-present
    1. our “self” is subject to numerous social and psychological factors outside our control.
    2. The self does not stand behind language but in the thick of it (Lacan).  
  2. Lessening the suspicious blow:  against totalizing
    1. totalizing is trying to achieve a unified perspective.  Reducing difference to the One.

Towards a Christian Response

  1. Jesus is God’s Sign of God’s Being and Presence.  

Undoing Metaphysics

  1. Demeaning Meaning
    1. Aristotle saw words as signs that point to a determinate reference beyond themselves.  A true idea is when the form is present to the mind’s eye.
  2. Grammatology:  writing is the site of differance.
    1. Textuality means that there is no knowledge that is not mediated by some signifying system.
    2. To affirm textuality is to affirm the text as incomplete in itself. 
  3. Ricoeur and Metaphor (129).
    1. Metaphors are not window dressings to the real truth that is propositions.
    2. Metaphors are irreducible.
    3. Metaphors can actually “break” deconstruction: they are determinate enough to convey stable meaning without being exhaustively specifiable (130).
      1. With Derrida we agree that all language is ultimately metaphorical (and thus problematic for metaphysics).
      2. But with Ricoeur and against Derrida, we believe that metaphors are meaningful.
    4. Metaphors are intertextual.
      1. this (Israel’s history) means that (Jesus’s history).
      2. This means texts are open.
  4. Levinas and the Other
    1. “other” :  that which the self encounters.  
    2. Ethics should resist the attempt to reduce the Other to the Same. 
    3. Transcendence and Immanence:

The Text as Communicative Action

The text moves in terms of parole, not langue.  

God’s Word is something God says, something God does, Something God Is.

Austin and Serle on Speech acts

Locutionary (The speaker)

Illocutionary (what is spoken)

Perlocutionary (the effects of the speech)

This triad collapses Rortian pragmatism.  Texts aren’t just something we operate on, but rather are themselves acts which have continuing effects. 

Paul Ricouer says texts create a world.  Discourse refers to the World of the Text.  

A formula (226)

M = F(p) 

Meaning = Illocutionary Force AND proposition

M = F(p) + x

x = author’s ulterior purpose.

A text is a communicatory act with matter (propositional content), energy (illocutionary force), and purpose (perlocutionary effect), 228).

“meaning”–like mind–is an emergent property.

  • a property that characterizes a higher-order phenomenon (like the brain) that has attained such a level of organizational complexity that it displays new properties (e.g., consciousness, mental rather than physical) and requires new categories (e.g., mind) to explain them (249).  
  • There is some level of discontinuity between meaning and text (though not total).
  • meaning supervenes on the written marks. 

“I believe in the reality of the author’s intention, for without it I cannot explain the emergence of meaning, that is to say, how meaning supervenes on written marks” (249). 

Sola Scriptura

  • textual meaning is independent of our interpretive schemes and independent of our communities.
  • If the community is what gives meaning to a text, then how can the community ever err in interpreting the text?  Who is to challenge them?  By definition, any such individual challenge will be wrong, even sinful.  
  • The canon functions as an instrument of ideological critique and a check against totalizing communities.  

Trinitarian Hermeneutics

Do texts have singular or plural meanings?

  • Monists: Only one meaning
  • Pluralists: many meanings
    • plurality of authorial intentions
    • plurality on the level of the text
    • plurality of readers and readers’ contexts
    • plurality of reading methods

God is first and foremost a communicative agent.  His very being is a self-communicative act.  Trinitarian hermeneutics affirms both the One and the Many.  There is meaning and unity in the text, but arrived by a plurality of literary methods.

The Ground and Grammar of Theology (Torrance)

Torrance, Thomas F. The Ground and Grammar of Theology. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Man, the Priest of Creation

Herman Weyl: “since all things, bodies in motion and space and time, are ultimately defined by reference to light, light occupies a metaphysical place in the universe” (Torrance 3-4).

Thesis: space and time are the bearers of all rational order in the universe (6). These set the boundary markers for us and represent the way “we know things in accordance with their natures” (8). These things impress themselves upon our minds. Theology works the same way, though we do not always know a thing in one field by the same rational mode in another.

The Being of God in His Acts

Science is moving beyond the old structures of determinism and mechanism towards an “open-structured order” (12).  Instead of either a flat mechanism (modernity) or Neo-Platonic emanations, we see the universe as a hierarchy of levels, “a stratified structure, so that our science takes the form of an ascending hierarchy of relations of thought that are open upward in a deeper and deeper dimension of depth” (13).  This is a huge point that Torrance expounds elsewhere in his works on the Trinity.  I wish he would have given examples.

Emerging from the Cultural Spirit

Thesis of chapter: examine the move from a dualist to a unitary outlook on the universe (15).  Torrance’s enemy in this chapter is the “old mechanistic system, or a closed continuum of cause and effect, characterized throughout by a hard determinism” (18). This is at odds with a kataphatic view of reality, where the very structures of reality impress themselves upon our minds.  The closed continuum view, by contrast, rules out possibilities before the very investigation.


The first dualism was from the Greeks, that of the sharp contrast of “rectilinear motion in terrestrial mechanics and circular motion in celestial mechanics” (21).  This points to a deeper dualism between “the empirical and the theoretical, the physical and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal, the mortal and divine.”

Newton never fully broke with these dualisms.  He identified absolute time and space with the mind of God, thus positing an eternal, inertial frame. Kant took this absolute time and space from the mind of God to the mind of the human knower (26).

But if Einstein is correct that there is a unity of form and being, the theoretical and empirical factors in knowledge, then we can no longer follow Kant (30).  If there is indeed a unity of form and being, structure and substance, then we can be confident that “reality discloses of itself” (31). The same unity, we will see, also obtains in theology.  

Response: I like this. It echoes my thoughts. I do wonder, however, if Torrance overcooked the evidence.

Nicene Theological Geometry (my phrase)

Nicea rejects the Greek dualisms in knowledge.  As Torrance says, “If Jesus Christ is in his own being what he is as God’s revealing word and saving act towards us…then through Christ and in one Spirit we are given access to God…(40).  The enousion energia are the internal relations of God (cf. Athanasius, Discourse on the Arians, II.14.2).  The anchor of homoousion allows us to see “the meditation of knowledge of God in his intrinsic reality and intelligibility” (40).

Creation and Science

Thesis: We know the intrinsic structures of the universe “in such a way that its basic design becomes disclosed” (45). When we seek to know both God and the world in such a way that they force the structures on our minds, we have “what Cyril of Alexandria (or maybe Clement of Alexandria) called dogmatike epistime, ‘dogmatic science’” (50). We know God and the world in the way that “our minds fall under the power of what we hear and find there.”  Professor Torrance helpfully outlines what he means:

[1] There is a rational unity of the universe. If God created all things, then we cannot posit a hard and fast dichotomy in the universe.

[2] There is a contingent rationality or intelligibility of the universe (53). Indeed, we might not be able to posit eternal forms in creation.  (For all his recent lapses in theology, William Lane Craig at least saw this clearly in his rejection of Platonism.) Space and time now have a relation to God, a created relation.  This means we must reject the Aristotelian notion of space as a container and the Newtonian view of time as absolute.

[3] The freedom of the universe is a contingent freedom.

Torrance suggests that Athanasian theology and non-Aristotelian, indeed anti-Aristotelian, science meet in the person of John Philoponus.  Philoponus was condemned as a monophysite because nature, according to Western readings, was interpreted in an Aristotelian way.  Philoponus, working with relational views of space and time, saw nature as more akin to “reality,” which led him to say there was only one reality of the Logos–no schizoid Christ (61).

Theological summary of the book: “Since the act and Word of God we meet in Jesus Christ are eternally inherent in the Being of God, and since none other than the very Being of God himself is mediated to us through the incarnation of his love in Act and Word in Jesus Christ, God’s Being is revealed to be his Being in his Act and Word” (67).

The Transformation of Natural Theology

We hold to a natural theology, but not one of simply identifying various causes.  Rather with Athanasius’s De Gentes we “let our minds tune in to the rational order that pervades the universe…a way of communing with the regulative and providential activity of God in the rational order of the universe” (76).  When this work is paired with Athanasius’s more popular De Incarnatione we see a field of “God/man/world or God/world/man interconnections.”  This allows the structure of reality to “throw light upon the whole manifold of connections with which we are concerned in the knowledge of God in his interaction with creation” (77).

Unity of Form and Being

This unity finds an analogue in the Word/Act and Being of God.  The unity of form and being is the “indivisibility of the intelligible and the ontological” (96).  The patristic analogue is the inherent of logos and act in being.  This means that objects “must be known and understood objectively in their distinctive modes of being and modes of self-disclosure.”  As a result, these “things” will impress upon us objective forms of thought “correlated with the ultimate openness of being and its semantic reference beyond itself” (97).

Conclusion and Grammar of Theology

[1] There is a Trinitarian character in our knowing that corresponds to the trinity of relations in God himself.  “We grasp things in our though, and hold them in our thought, only if we can grasp them in their internal relations” (149-150).  We take our cue from Athanasius’s concepts of enousios logos and enousios energeia.

[1.1] If the Logos is inherent into the being of God, then we have access to divine intelligibility.  We are able to access intrinsic structures.

[1.2] If God’s energeia or act inheres in his being, and that Act is Jesus in the Incarnation, then we know God “in his activity in disclosing himself to us” (152). A created analogue is our relation and knowing to the dynamic structure of the universe (as opposed to a medieval model of final causes).

[2] Our first and basic level of this experience is in worship, “in which we encounter the revealing God.” The next level is the theological level where we meet up with the so-called Economic Trinity.  This throws us upon a “higher theological and scientific level,” the internal relations of God.  While we know the economic reality first, it is the ontological reality that grounds our knowing.  This is true episteme dogmatike. 

Like all of Torrance’s books, this one is exciting, explosive, and probably underdeveloped in key areas.  I think the problem is that Torrance likely memorized many of Athanasius’s passages in the original Greek and instead of translating them from memory, I think he is summarizing the Greek into English from memory.  I went back and checked some of these in Contra Arianos.  The idea is close enough, but not word-for-word.

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.

One Being, Three Persons (Torrance)

Torrance, Thomas.

The homoousion is a decisive step in the life of the church.  It guarantees how we understand the internal relations in the Trinity.  Not only are the persons homoousion, but so are the relations.

“Only in Christ is God’s self-revelation identical with himself” (Torrance 1).  In Christ God has communicated his Word to us and imparted his Spirit.  

God’s three-fold revelation and self-communication to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (7).

The mutual relationship between knowing and being between God and the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9-12) has been embodied in Jesus.

Since the proof of an unknown reality is its own evidence, and the conceptual mode of relating to it there must be a breaking through to a new realm of truth, and this calls for faith (19).

Knowledge of new realities calls for new ways of thinking–new concepts and new thought patterns (Contra Arianos, 1:23; 4:27; De Synodis 42).

The difficulty the early church overcame was in acquiring knowledge of something yet unknown (20).

Being and Act

God reveals himself out of himself.

God gives himself as a whole. In knowing God we do not know God as a part, but we apprehend the Whole.  But in apprehending the whole, we know that full comprehension eludes us (26). We know God as Totum, but not en toto.

In the Communion of the Spirit our own way of knowing is lifted up into the transcendent life (33).  By our indwelling the Scriptures our minds form a structural kinship.

Personal Knowledge

We interiorize what we seek to know and rely not just on external evidence (38).  The object naturally integrates into us and we let it disclose its depths of meaning to us.

Knowledge of the father, Son, and HS are locked into each other.

The Trinitarian Mind

The mystery of Godliness means thinking about God in a  Trinitarian way.

“The Son is the knowledge of the Father, but the knowledge of the Son is in the father and has been revealed through the Son” (Irenaeus 4.14.5).  

Homoousion: God’s revelation of himself as Father, Son, and HS in the economy of salvation is grounded in and derived from the eternal being of God” (80).

P1: Our conceptual statements must be open-ended and point beyond themselves.

Top Level: More refined scientific theory/Trinitarian relations in God


Middle Level: Theory/ Economy of Christ

Ground level: day to day experience/ Evangelical apprehension and experience

Each level is open to the others.  When we move from one level to another, we seek to order the basic concepts from the lower level to the higher.

The intuitive mind takes its first principle at once and as a whole, naturally and tacitly (84).

Since the Act and Word of God are internal to his being, we may know God through the Act and Word in the inner reality of his being (Contra Ar. 1:9ff).

Since the Spirit is not embodied in space and time, we cannot know him in the concrete modalities.  Our knowledge of him rests directly on the objectivity of God, unmediated.  

One Being/Three Persons

Ousia–not a static being but the living and speaking being (116). Athanasius preferred to use verbs when speaking of God (De Synodis 34).  Ousia is to be understood in terms of the divine “I am.” Being-in-Act and Act-in-Being.

God’s being is a being-for-others. 

Monarchy and Taxis

The monarchy means there is a specific order to the divine Persons.  It is the order manifested in the history and revealing of God’s saving acts (176). The Son is begotten of the Father, not the other way around.

Cappadocian Developments

If one presses the cappadocian distinctions too far, then we are left with the claim that the person of the Father causes, deifies, and personalizes the Being of the Son, Spirit, and even Godhead!

We can say, however, that the monarchia of the Father is cause not of their being, but of their mode of enhypostatic differentiation (179).

Torrance wants to see the monarchia referring to the Being of the Father, rather than strictly the Person.  For him this points back to the intrinsic relations of the Being: The Being of the Father as Father means the Being of the Son of the Father.

Perichoresis reinforces that the Holy Trinity may be known only as a whole.

Augustine (Lewis Ayres)

Ayres, Lewis.  Augustine and the Trinity

Continuing the argument in his Nicea and its Legacy, Ayres wants to posit Augustine as a faithful exponent of the “pro-Nicene” tradition.  In order to do so, he must rescue Augustine from the charge that Augustine simply framed Trinitarian theology around explicitly neo-Platonic categories.    Thus, Ayres argues that Augustine used a number of non-Christian sources ranging from Platonic to neo-Platonism; therefore, a 1:1 parallel between Augustine and Plotinus is unwarranted, or so Ayres argues.  Ayres continues with a Latin context for Augustine, and here we are treated to some excellent expositions of Hilary and Ambrose.  

Pro-Nicene, but…

I grant Ayres’ argument that Augustine was not a full-orbed neo-Platonist.  Further, I can even agree with him that Augustine did not use the idea of “hypostases” in the Plotinian sense (he may well have, but I lack the ability to judge that topic).  Notwithstanding, though, Augustine did say he was heavily influenced by Platonists and did admit he framed his doctrine of simplicity around Platonic categories (City of God, books 8 and 11).  Elsewhere in the book, Ayres routinely says that Augustine’s models often follow Platonic categories (Ayres: 209, 314, 316).  So, do we see Augustine as a neo-Platonist or not?  Why not?  Ayres has certainly advanced the scholarship on Augustine and neo-Platonism, but he has come nowhere close to overturning the earlier scholarly consensus.  Earlier scholars, therefore, are not off-base for seeing Augustine within at least some category of neo-Platonism.  

Ayres also wants to argue that Augustine held to a robust view of the irreducibility of the divine persons:  in other words, an emphasis on the “three-ness” of the Trinity.  A few questions arise, though:  if the persons are irreducible, how can they subsist in the essence relatively?  It seems the concepts of “relative subsistence” and “irreducibility” are mutually exclusive, especially given the fact that Augustine didn’t even like the term “persons!”  Secondly, if the Holy Spirit is the love between Father and Son, or the love of the Father and Son, then one must immediately ask, “Is the Holy Spirit now an attribute of the other persons, or is he an irreducibly divine person?”  

The book ends with a thorough discussion of how Augustine used the Trinitarian analogies.  This book is quite fine in many ways.   Ayres gives us careful arguments and advances much recent scholarship.  I do not think his “pro-Nicene” thesis is as strong as he presents it, nor do I think he successfully disengages Augustine from the neo-Platonic model.  

Basil on the Holy Spirit

The Neo-Aetian challenge on prepositions:

Basil said ‘Glory be to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit’ (instead of the usual formula: ‘Glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit’).  Did Basil’s use of different prepositions suggest different natures?

The Hellenistic mindset, especially in its hardened Arian form, said that a given style of language indicates a specific metaphysical reality.  As Basil used different prepositions, he must have meant different natures.  Therefore,

Of whom = Creator

Through whom = Demiurge (think the god of Freemasony)

In whom = Holy Spirit in Place and Time.

Basil has several lines of response:

a) The different prepositions indicate not different natures, but Economy and Theology.  Basil also says that the Aetian construction derives from heathen (read: Hellenistic) sources (III.6).

b) second refutation:  The different prepositions indicate distinct hypostases.   Therefore, hypostasis doesn’t mean what later writers would call nature.  Again, he has broken with Hellenism.   Further, by distinguishing the hypostases, yet maintaining the co-equality, Basil has negated the Hellenic principle that distinction = opposition or declension of nature.

c) third refutation: St Paul applies different prepositions to the same hypostasis (p.7).

Key point:  Different names represent different energies, not different natures (8.17). Names do not define the essence, but reveal it.  Persons who exhibit common operations (energies) share the same essence.

Simplicity of essence.  For Basil it functions like homoousion.  It is a theological symbol, not a philosophical construct.

The numbers used in the Trinity are qualitative, not quantitative.  We do not “count” in God, since that implies addition and partition (18.44).  “We do not count by way of addition” (45).  What does Basil mean by “monarchy?”  We speak of a king, and a king’s image, but not two kings. We do not divide the glory.  “Honor paid to the image passes to the prototype.”

Positive Description of the Spirit

He distributes his energy according to the proportion of faith (9.22). His essence is simple, yet he is impassively divided.  Psalm 33.6: “The Lord gives the order, the Word creates, and the Spirit confirms” (16.38).

Nonfallen angels receive a grace from the Holy Spirit that confirms the perfection of their essence (16.38).

The Spirit’s operations were present before the ages: “What were his operations before that creation whereof we can conceive” (19.49). Therefore, God’s energies are eternal.

Hard Sayings of Basil

“We were regenerate through the grace given to us in baptism” (10.26).

Simply Trinity (Barrett)

Barrett, Matthew. Simply Trinity

It’s hard to imagine a near-perfect book. This is one. I wanted to highlight every single word. I cannot imagine a better book on the Trinity. I am going to say something that isn’t commonly said in these debates: if you are manipulating the Trinity to back up a social program or second-order teaching, you need to be deposed from ministry. This book is a crash course in Trinitarian grammar. I cannot imagine a better intro to the Trinity.

Social readings of the Trinity cannot affirm one will in the Trinity or inseparable operations. That puts them outside of orthodoxy. Most cannot affirm eternal generation. That puts them outside Nicea.

Basic Trinitarian Grammar

It is not enough to say 1 essence/3 persons. It will not do to find proof texts that may or may not say that. Rather, you have to have a grammar that weaves these thoughts together. First, how do we identify the persons? We do so by their origins of relation. Full stop.

The three persons are subsistences of the one essence. Upon that sentence hinges the essence (no pun) of all Trinitarian grammar.

The immanent Trinity is ontology. The economic Trinity is God’s plan of salvation. The danger is identifying the two. What the Great Tradition does is see how one reflects the other. Barrett has a helpful chart:

The doctrine of simplicity keeps the Trinity from collapsing into modalism or tritheism. There is one simple essence that has three modes of subsistence. God is not simply just three persons. The one undivided essence subsists in three persons. This rules out multiple wills in the Trinity and demands the doctrine of eternal generation.

Eternal generation means from all eternity “God communicates the one simple, undivided essence to the Son.” This is a spiritual, not physical generation. Barrett lists how John Gill identified the marks of a wrong type of generation:

Some more grammar:

The Enemy: Social Trinitarianism

Barrett helpfully identifies the marks of social trinitarianism.

Eternal Functional Subordination

We will camp out here. As those who posit the Son is eternally functionally subordinate to the Father, they not surprisingly say, “To the Father belongs ultimate praise and glory” (Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 67). To Jesus, logically, belongs a lesser glory. That sentence should bother you. Barrett then points out a number of fatal problems to EFS/ESS.

Even more, EFS cannot simultaneously speak of ontology and function. They want to say that the Son is ontologically equal to the Father, though functionally subordinate. That cannot work. As Barrett notes, “As subsistences of the essence, the persons are ontological through and through.” You can’t simply add the category “functional” to this. While I am not a Van Tillian, he is right here: the persons of the Trinity equally exhaust the divine essence. If they fully exhaust the divine essence, function goes out the window.

Barrett goes on to say that they can’t appeal to homoousios to strengthen their position. You can’t simply say the persons are homoousios. Homoousios works in a specific context. That context, at least for the Son, is eternal generation. “The Son subsists from the same essence as the Father because he is eternally generated from the Father.” That’s it. Simply Trinity.

Hebrews and Jesus’ Obedience

Jesus couldn’t have been eternally obedient to the Father for one simple reason: he became incarnate to learn obedience. If EFS is true, then the contrast in Hebrews 5:8 is gone.


I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a book this much. It was pure delight.