Van Til’s Concrete Universal

Laurence O’Donnell, III, a Cornelius Van Til scholar and critic, has labeled Van Til’s trinitarian theology “idiosyncratic.” He made this remark with respect to Van Til’s conception of the trinity as a concrete universal. In response to O’Donnell’s ascription of idiosyncrasy, I would like to briefly exposit Van Til trinitarian thought and perhaps throw light on its value.

The idea of a concrete universal is a complex concept that originated with the founder of absolute idealism, G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831). Historian of philosophy Robert Stern defines a concrete universal as a property that all individuals have whereby they are “related with one another in a system of mutual interdependence.” Stated simply, a concrete universal is something that connects everything together and thereby gives everything meaning. The absolute idealists identified the Absolute—an all-inclusive mental subject—as their concrete universal.

Van Til was highly critical of absolute idealism. As I alluded to in a previous post, Van Til thought that the absolute idealists’ neglect of the Christian God and his revelation led them to a plethora of philosophical dilemmas for which “there is no answer . . . from a non-Christian point of view.” For example, absolute idealists posited the existence of both an Absolute and a world driven by chance, but they never sufficiently explained how these two can coexist. On the one hand, the world of chance seems like it should reduce the absoluteness of the Absolute. On the other hand, the Absolute seems like it should absorb the world of chance. Absolute idealism’s unifying element (the Absolute) appears to swallow its plural element (the world of chance), and vice versa.

In contrast to absolute idealism, Van Til held on the basis of Scripture that the triune God is the true concrete universal, in time and in eternity.

God is the concrete universal in eternity by virtue of his triune ontology, i.e., via his nature as the self-existent God in three persons. Father, Son, and Spirit fully interpenetrate one another, and therefore share in the same divine essence. The one divine essence does not erode the distinctions between the three divine persons, and the distinctions between the three divine persons do not divide the one divine essence. Father, Son, and Sprit are “one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (Shorter Catechism, Q&A 6).

God is the concrete universal in time by virtue of his triune economy, i.e., via his free eternal decree as worked out by his temporal acts of creation, providence, and redemption. When the triune God created, he gave each object a distinct nature and a covenantal relationship with himself and the rest of the world. God did not provide objects with these natures and relations in abstraction from his design for the rest of history. Rather, objects are created, preserved, and governed by the wise power of God in expectation of his final purpose for the world in Jesus Christ.

Van Til’s Reformed method of philosophy successfully identified a concrete universal that is able to connect everything together and thereby give everything meaning—namely, the triune God in his ontology and economy. Unlike in absolute idealism, there is an equal ultimacy between the unifying elements (the divine essence/covenantal eschatology) and the plural elements (the divine persons/individual created objects) in Van Til’s theory of reality.

Furthermore, Van Til thought that his Christian theory of reality implied a Christian theory of knowledge. Since God created and controls all things according to his triune counsel, we must submit all our thinking to him and his eschatological plan, as culminated in Jesus Christ. Thus, Van Til insisted that Christians must think concretely; we must always remain mindful of the triune God’s great plan of heavenly redemption.

It seems to me that Van Til’s trinitarian understanding of the concrete universal is a promising philosophical integration of Reformed theology. Even if his trinitarian formulations are idiosyncratic in the sense of being personal and unique in some limited respects, they are nonetheless worthy of deep consideration and admiration. In my mind, Van Til’s interaction with absolute idealism’s search for a concrete universal is a wonderful example of how to address philosophical questions with Reformed theological answers.

Sources— The quote in the first paragraph is from Laurence R. O’Donnell, III, “Kees Van Til als Nederlandse-Amerikaanse, Neo-Calvinistisch-Presbyteriaan Apologeticus: An Analysis of Cornelius Van Til’s Presupposition of Reformed Dogmatics with Special Reference to Herman Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek” (Th.M. Thesis, Calvin Theological Seminary, 2011), 157–158. The quote in the second paragraph is from Robert Stern, “Hegel, British Idealism, and the Curious Case of the Concrete Universal,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 15, no. 1 (2007): 122. The quote in the third paragraph is from Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (ed. K. Scott Oliphint; 4th ed.; Phillipsburg, N. J.: P&R, 2008), 49. I also consulted Van Til’s Common Grace and the Gospel (Nutley, N. J.: P&R, 1977) and his “My Credo” (in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til [ed. E. R. Geehan; Phillipsburg, N. J.: P&R, 1980]).

13 Responses

  1. James, I really enjoyed this post and am grateful you are mining this topic. However, I’m confused by your assertion that “God is the concrete universal in time by virtue of his triune economy.” CVT is most insistent–supremely insistent–that it is the ontological trinity, not the economic trinity, which is the Christian concrete universal. He insists this precisely so that the Christian concrete universal (God) remains atemporal, not drawn down into the temporal flux of the creation. Christianity has a true Absolute, who remains self-contained and eternal, whereas the Absolute Idealists either lose the world in eternity, or lose their Absolute in time. Thoughts? I can’t tell if this is a semantic or material point.

    1. James Baird

      Hi Nathan,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I see your point. It is true that Van Til most often predicated concrete universality to the ontological Trinity in his writings. However, if you look at page 64 of Common Grace and the Gospel as well as pages 47-51 of In Defense of the Faith, Van Til makes this predication and then goes on to exposit how the Christian God is the concrete universal (i.e., the source of meaningful unity and plurality) in time through his triune economy. Part of Van Til’s point, it seems to me, is that the Trinity is the Christian concrete universal because he is both eternal in his trinitarian essence and capable of temporal activity, not either or. Does that provide some clarification?

      1. James,
        Thanks for your reply. Can you help me see what you’re seeing in the passages you cite?
        I’m using the 1972 P&R edition of Common Grace and the Gospel and I find no reference to the economic trinity on p. 64. I see only CVT’s characteristic stress upon the ontological trinity as the concrete universal on which all facts and universals depend.
        Turning to the 2008 P&R edition of Defense of the Faith, pp. 47-51, Van Til insists that we distinguish the created one-and-many from the uncreated one-and-many. He says that “It is only in the Christian doctrine of the triune God, as we are bound to believe, that we really have a concrete universal” (49). His point is that the uncreated one-and-many (the ontological trinity) is the principle that alone makes sense of the temporal, created one-and-many. There is no hint of the economic trinity as somehow constituting the concrete universal, or Christian principle of interpretation.
        Furthermore, there may be two distinct points at issue between us. One is, whether God is in any sense temporal (regardless of whether we’re talking the ontological or economic trinity). I think CVT totally denies that God is in any sense temporal. Second is whether CVT ever thinks of the economic trinity as the concrete universal. Again, I don’t think he does (although I think his triperspectivalist followers do frequently use the economic trinity as their principle of interpretation).

        Best wishes

  2. Jamie Duguid

    I think part of the issue here is that interpreters of Van Til some times take him as putting forward a straightforward philosophical account, and miss the polemical context of his work. For someone like Hegel, the concrete universal is concrete precisely because it is relative to sense perception and blurs the distinction between Creator and creature (or, Spirit and the world). Obviously, this concept is not fitting for the Christian God without being radically redefined. What Van Til is really showing is that what idealists looked for in the concrete universal is really only found in the Triune God. But some interpreters took to be applying Hegel’s concept to the Trinity in a more straight-forward way (a similar misunderstanding occurred regarding Van Til’s assertion that only God has “analytic” knowledge).

    Still, Van Til nowhere actually does the clear, systematic defining that would be necessary to make this foundation for further theological-philosophical development. He tends to stay on the polemical level (at which level his work has great value). But we would need to do a lot more work. For instance, can we really conceive of the Divine essence as a universal and the Persons as particulars? Does this work better than genus and species, a category that theologians have traditionally rejected applying to God? How might we develop the formulation of God as concrete universal, and what would be the advantages to Christian theology (beyond merely scoring a point versus the idealists)?

    1. James Baird


      You’ve made some great observations. Still, I think Van Til was much more clear and systematic than many let on, especially in his philosophy. Also: Van Til called God the “concrete universal” to make a philosophically apologetic point, not to set a new theological trajectory for orthodox trinitarianism. Van Til did make some advances in trinitarian theology, but not through introducing this idealist terminology.

  3. James Baird


    I appreciate your follow up. I am out of town until next Sunday at the American Philosophical Association Central Meeting, so I will not be able to look at the relevant texts until early next week. For now, let me make some general points.

    In the passages I mentioned above, the words “economic trinity” are not present, but Van Til does use terminology that points to the idea that the triune God in both his ontology and economy is the concrete universal, not just the ontological trinity. For example, from his syllabus Christian Theistic Evidences, it is plain that Van Til thought that universals and facts are created objects, they are dependent on the Christian God. Thus, in Common Grace and the Gospel, when he says that universals and facts are dependent on the ontological trinity, part of what he means is that universals and facts are created and sustained by the economical trinity (in other words, bound up with Van Tl’s concept of metaphysical dependance is the concepts of creation and providence). I am trying to avoid the term/concept fallacy: the term “economic trinity” is not in this passage, but the concept is. I think the same is true of the second passage I cited from The Defense of the Faith. The ontological trinity makes sense of the temporal one-and-many partly because the economical trinity created and sustains it.

    While I think it is wrong to say that God is temporal, I do not think it is wrong to say that God’s economic acts are (often) temporal acts. God’s being is eternal, but his acts of creation, covenant, redemption, and consummation are temporal. This seems necessary to uphold the meaningfulness of redemptive-history, which in my view is central to Van Til’s whole project.

    I hope this off-the-cuff exposition has shown some light on my interpretation of Van Til.


    1. Nathan Sasser

      Dear James,
      What do you mean by God’s “temporal acts”? If you mean that God, in one eternal (atemporal) act, brings about all temporal events, then I think CVT agrees with you. But if you mean that God, in a temporal succession of acts, brings about temporal events, then I think CVT disagrees with you. And on this point, CVT is simply representative of Reformed orthodoxy and classical Christian theism.
      Also, I agree we shouldn’t make a word/concept fallacy, but I cannot find any evidence that CVT is referencing the economic trinity even by implication. His stress on the ontological trinity is forceful. It seems that you think that any reference to God as the determinative principle of the created one-and-many implies that God is that determinative principle just in terms of the economic trinity. But this begs the question of whether CVT thinks that it is the ontological or economic trinity that is the determinative principle of the created one-and-many.
      But I really would like to hear your interpretation of the texts. Again, I think we should give Frame/Poythress credit for the idea of making the economic trinity the interpretive principle for the created one-and-many—not Van Til.

      1. James Baird


        You seem to be confusing God’s eternal decree and God’s acts of creation and providence whereby God brings about in time what he has eternally decreed (see WCF chapters 3-5 for the differences).

        By God’s “temporal acts” I mean the acts God executes in time, like when he created the world, when he walked with Adam in the Garden, when he guided Israel through the red sea and wilderness, and when he came in the flesh as Jesus Christ–in short, I mean God’s deed revelation. I do not at all see how claiming God acts temporally in this sense is contra the Reformed tradition, and,in fact, I think it is the full set of these temporal acts of God that Van Til referred to when he talked about the story of Scripture.

        This brings me to a question: what do you mean by the “economical trinity”? In Christian Apologetics, Van Til defines it as God’s activity with respect to the created world. This would explain why I interpret any reference Van Til makes to God as the determinative principle of the *created* one-and-many as a reference to the economical trinity. 🙂 Surely, determination is a type of action, and, surely, the created one-and-many is the created world.

        Like I said before, Van Til makes it clear in Christian Theistic Evidences that universals and facts are created, and there is good reason from a survey of Van Til’s writings to think that he used the terms “created” and “dependent” as synonyms. Therefore, in Common Grace and the Gospel, when Van Til says universals and facts are dependent on God, he means that they are created; and since the act of creation is obviously an action of God with respect to the created world, it can be attributed, while remaining faithful to Van Til’s vocabulary (and with the historic usage), to the economic trinity. In sum, Van Til did not mean to exclude the economic trinity from being the Christian concrete universal: he meant to predicate concrete universality to the Christian God, inclusive of his ontology and economy. I do not think more needs to be said on this issue.

        It seems to me that your radical emphasis on the atemporality of God and your strict juxtaposition of the ontological and economical trinity are causing some confusion. Both of these commitments are foreign to Van Til’s thought (and the Reformed tradition), thus they are bad lenses through which to interpret Van Til’s books.

        As always, I hope this is helpful.



  4. Dear James,
    It’s possible that we are misunderstanding each other, but when I ascribe to God one simple, atemporal act, here is what I mean:
    “By one pure and constant act of his will and power, [God] effects what changes he pleases” (Thomas Boston, Works vol. 1 p. 83). “God wills himself and his creatures with one and the same simple act” (Herman Bavinck, RD 1:233). “God wills himself and other things by one act of will” (Aquinas, chapter 76 of Summa Contra Gentiles).
    You said that I was confusing God’s decrees with his acts, but actually, the decrees are God’s acts, insofar as these acts are in God himself at all rather than in the creature. This is why Turretin says that God’s “temporal acts” are “extrinsic and transient acts which are not in God, but from him effectively and in creatures subjectively (as to create, to govern” (Turretin 4.1.4). The decrees are God’s acts insofar as God’s acts are “immanent and intrinsic in God” (Turretin 4.1.4). When we view the decrees on God’s part, internally and subjectively, “God has decreed all things by one single and most simple act” (Turretin 3.7.10). When we view the decrees “extrinsically and relatively with respect to the creature,” that is, in relation to the events which are their objects, the decrees are many and various. But “the manifold relation” in which God’s decree stands to its objects does not “make composition in God” (Turretin 3.7.13).
    Traditional Christian theology proper maintains the simplicity and eternity of God’s act just so as to preserve the simplicity and eternity of God, to preserve the Creator-creature distinction, and to maintain what you call a “radically atemporal” view of God.
    Van Til doesn’t just hold this view; he is fanatical about it. It is of the essence of his entire position to assert that God is absolute, self-contained, eternal, and in no respect temporal.
    I could be misunderstanding you, but it sounds like you’re espousing the kind of “modified theism” which has recently been championed in some circles. According to modified theism, God is partially eternal, but partially temporal—and hence not simple, since he has these two parts. It certainly won’t do to distinguish between God and his acts—as if God “himself” is eternal, while his acts are successive and temporal. This only makes sense if we cash it out like Turretin does—meaning that the extrinsic effects of God’s willing are successive and temporal. But if we mean that God’s acts, insofar as they are immanent and intrinsic in God, are temporal and successive, then we’ve just given up the whole classical doctrine of God. To sum up my point in the common slogan: “God wills changes without changing his will.”

  5. I fully agree with James’ first two paragraphs of his last response. Nathan, have you read Oliphint’s works ‘Reasons for Faith’ or ‘God With Us?’ If so, what do you make of his thesis regarding theology proper and divine condescension?

    1. Nathan Sasser

      Tyler, I don’t want to comment on Oliphint’s thesis specifically. However, I do hold to the Reformed orthodox position on the divine attributes, as I outlined it from the sources above. Do you think Oliphint’s thesis is consistent Reformed orthodoxy?

  6. Ray Wilson


    In case you haven’t seen this yet, James Dolezal offers a number of objections to Oliphint’s Covenantal Properties Thesis here: http://www.reformation21.org/articles/objections-to-k-scott-oliphints-covenantal-properties-thesis.php

    Also, as Dolezal mentions in note 4, Robert LaRocca has a more nuanced response in his paper “Against Covenantal Properties”: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-tJ4x9MkN1XOW9YV3pkZFBlT2M/edit

    Both Dolezal and LaRocca have studied under Oliphint (as I have as well) and I think they do an excellent and fair job of articulating the unfortunate problems that his thesis creates.

    I hope this helps. However, I would be interested to hear your response to Nathan’s question regarding the consistency/inconsistency of Oliphint’s thesis with Reformed orthodoxy.


  7. Ray Wilson


    You wrote above that “God’s being is eternal, but his acts of creation, covenant, redemption, and consummation are temporal. This seems necessary to uphold the meaningfulness of redemptive-history…”

    I’m not quite sure how the meaningfulness of redemptive-history necessitates that God’s acts must be temporal; unless, we follow Nathan’s distinction taken from Turretin that the *extrinsic effects* of God’s actions of creation, covenant, redemption, and consummation must be temporal. Could you clarify this? Are you saying that God’s *intrinsic actions* are temporal or atemporal? And if the former, how does “the meaningfulness of redemptive-history” necessitate God’s temporal intrinsic actions? This, it seems to me, only follows if God’s actions are viewed univocally. And, opposition to univocal predication of God is *central* to Van Til’s whole project: “The distinguishing characteristic between every non-Christian theory of knowledge on the one hand, and the Christian concept of knowledge on the other hand, is, therefore, that in all non-Christian theories men reason univocally, while in Christianity men reason analogically” (Van Til, “An Introduction to Systematic Theology,” p. 31).


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