The Heart of Trinitarian Heresy

All heresies with respect to the Trinity may be reduced to the one great heresy of mixing the eternal and the temporal.

— Cornelius Van Til

Cornelius Van Til cut through the densest theological controversies like a hot knife through butter. What some readers dismiss as daft conclusions or graceless criticism, others learn to appreciate as incisive critical synthesis. You might say, some wince at Van Til’s work while others whistle at it. I put myself in the latter group. After years of reading his work, I’m still struck by his theological acumen.

Van Til’s discussion of Trinitarian heresies is a case in point. Throughout his chapter on the Trinity in An Introduction to Systematic Theology, he keeps coming back to the same point: at base all Trinitarian heresies are the result of mixing the eternal and the temporal. This is tied to his emphasis on the Creator-creature distinction. He reminds us that

all non-Christian thought would have us think of God as one aspect of the universe as a whole. In one way or another, all heresies bring in space-time existence as the other aspect of the universe as a whole. … Here, in fact, lies the bond of connection between ancient and modern heresies. For this reason, the church has emphasized the fact that the ontological Trinity, that is, the Trinity as it exists in itself, apart from its relation to the created universe, is self-complete, involving as it does the equal ultimacy of unity and plurality. But it was a long and arduous road by which the church reached its high doctrine of the Trinity.[i]

Indeed, the church is still walking that road, ever vigilant of its feet, for a precipice lies on each side of the doctrine. Every century the church has stamped the dust of dogma and left footprints for the faithful to follow. It was in looking at such footprints, I believe, that Van Til drew out his incisive critique of Trinitarian heresies.


He first takes aim at the Gnostic notion of the Logos (not to be confused with the biblical understanding of the Logos in John’s Gospel). The Gnostics could not see how the eternal God could be self-contained and yet still engage with creation. To solve this problem, they understood the Logos to be “the self-expression for God in the universe.”[ii] In other words, the Logos for them was a middleman between eternity and time, the divine and the human. But their conclusion merely muddied the water by making God dependent on creation. The Gnostics had mixed time and eternity by making the latter inextricable from the former. It was Irenaeus who would step onto the road of orthodoxy to claim that “God did not in any wise need the universe as a medium of self-expression; he was self-expressed in the Trinity.”[iii]

Sabellianism and Arianism 

Van Til next set his sights on Sabellianism and Arianism, showing that they were two sides of the same coin. The Arians refused to let go of the Son as a creature. Put differently, they refused to let the self-contained eternal Trinity engage with the dependent temporal world on God’s own terms. God was, in some sense, made correlative to the world. We might even say that Arianism attempted to force time into eternity by demanding that the Son be understood as a creature.

Sabellianism, too, tried to force Trinitarian doctrine to fit the confines of temporality. In attempting to harmonize God’s threeness with his oneness, Sabellius and his cohort opted to make the three persons temporal manifestations of an eternal unity. For Van Til, this meant that they wanted to have “the temporal world furnish the plurality as a supplement to the eternal world, which furnished the unity of reality as a whole.”[iv] The plurality of persons in the Godhead was thus made correlative to the plurality we find in creation. This is drastically different, mind you, from the eternal unity and plurality of the Trinity being the basis for the temporal unity and plurality of creation.[v]

In both Arianism and Sabellianism, adherents were guilty of “uniting the temporal in a correlative union with the eternal.”[vi] To say that the Son is a creature is to say that God must follow the norms of creaturely reason (Arianism); to say that the divine persons are merely modes of the one God is to say the same thing, really. In both cases, God is denied as the self-contained three-in-one; he cannot house in himself unity and plurality in perfect harmony, apart from creation. But, as Van Til affirmed frequently, he does. That is what the true church came to confess.

Nestorianism and Eutychianism 

Van Til then turns to Nestorianism and Eutychianism, which seem strange victims for a critique of Trinitarian heresy. Yet, Van Til saw these blunders as “no more than modified forms of opposition to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity.”[vii] Nestorius conceived of two persons in Christ (which is linked in a sense to equating time and eternity), while Eutyches argued that Christ only had one, divine nature (not a divine and a human nature), thus segregating eternity (Christ’s divine nature) from time (Christ’s human nature). In both cases, the deity of Christ was not properly related to his humanity and there is a false conception of the relationship between the eternal and the temporal, which in Christ are neither confused nor divided. Mixing up the relationship of the temporal and eternity in Christ is, in essence, an offshoot of mixing up the temporal and eternal in the Trinity.

Deism and Pantheism

But Van Til does not stop here. He moves on to link Nestorianism and Eutychianism to deism and pantheism. “Any doctrine that denies God’s providence (as deism does) or his providence and creation (as Greek thought did) must in the end become a confusion of the eternal and the temporal. Deism and pantheism are no more than two forms of the one basic error of confusion of the eternal and the temporal.”[viii] Van Til’s critique here is a classic example of how what was often obvious to him was not so self-evident to the rest of us. What does he mean here?

Deism supposes that God is outside of and distant from created reality, which runs like a clock thanks to the laws of nature that God himself has instilled within it. God exists, for deists, but only as a hazy figure just within earshot of creation’s ticking clockwork. This belief system allowed deists to clutch a form of theism (which was not by any means Christian) without having to accept the rationally suspect claims of Scripture: that God became incarnate in the person of Christ and continues to work in his people through the power of the Spirit. These claims of the Bible assaulted the rules of human reason, so deists left them behind and supported a clear distinction between the clockmaker God and his gear-grinding world. Deists, in other words, enforced an extreme form of separation between the divine and the human, the eternal and the temporal. Thus, the “confusion of the eternal and the temporal” here is simply the practical removal of the former from the latter. God is stripped of his Trinitarian economy because that economy does not seem to cohere with the standards of temporal (human) reason. For Van Til, this is linked to Nestorianism. Just as the temporal is not divorced from the eternal in God’s economy, neither is the eternal divorced from the temporal in the person of Christ. This may be why Van Til suggested that Nestorianism was “the deistic form of opposition to the true doctrine.”[ix]

The distant heretical step-sister of deism is pantheism. Deism segregates the eternal from the temporal; pantheism blends them together so that we cannot distinguish them anymore. For pantheists, God is in everything. The divine is mixed into the fabric of creation. This mixture thus frustrates all efforts to distinguish between God and the world. In the end, pantheists simply resolve the issue by concluding that creation is divine. This parallels the attempt of Eutyches to show that Christ only had one, divine nature. The human is dissolved into the divine. With Nestorius, the human and divine were set apart; with Eutyches the human is collapsed into the divine. In both cases there is confusion of the relationship between the eternal and the temporal.

Solution: God Exists as Triune

What is the solution to this confusion? It is our recognition of the biblical truth that “God exists as triune. He is therefore self-complete. Yet he created the world. This world has meaning not in spite of, but because of, the self-completeness of the ontological Trinity. This God is the foundation of the created universe and therefore is far above it.”[x] The Trinity is properly understood and worshiped only with a biblical understanding of God’s transcendence and immanence. The ontological Trinity is independent of creation, and yet all of creation has meaning because of God’s independence and sovereignty over it, even as he is present with us in it. The triune God created the world and stands above it, and yet all of reality has meaning because he is involved with it. The Trinity might be likened to a gloveless gardener. He is responsible for planting the rose bushes and the rhododendron, but he is not thereby dependent on them. Yet he also chooses to fill his fingernails with the dirt that hugs the roots of what he has made.

Calvin and Arminius

Modern Trinitarian heresies followed in the same path as the ancient ones. They once again fumbled with a “false conception of the Trinity, the self-contained God of Scripture.”[xi] The issues may have changed over time, but the problem was perennial. In Calvin’s day, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity was distorted by Arminius, who—again, following principles of strict rationalism—tried to resurrect the specter of subordinationism. Like Origen, Arminius wanted to push the taxonomy of the Trinity too far, ultimately reducing the divine to a unity rather than a Trinity. Calvin, in contrast, “was strongly interested in asserting the consubstantiality of the three persons of the Godhead.”[xii] While this was in some senses novel in Calvin’s day, it was really nothing more than a re-articulation of the ancient catholic doctrine that God is both one and three.

Idealism and Unitarianism

Continuing his critique, Van Til chastises Arminius for opening the door to “more radical departures” from the biblical doctrine, which came in with the idealists. “The idealist philosophers have identified the Trinity with the principle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis in reality as a whole.”[xiii] This Hegelian principle, once more, leads to an ultimate unity, not an ultimate Trinity. It leads to Unitarian faith rather than Trinitarian. What’s worse, it binds God to his creation so as to render him dependent. So, Van Til restates his synthetic summary of Trinitarian heresy.

Unitarianism is nothing but a new form of the old error of mixing the eternal and the temporal. Modernism is the happy heir of all heresies, and basic to all its heresies is the denial of the consubstantiality of the Son and the Spirit with the Father; or rather, its error is even deeper than that, since the Father himself is for modernism no more than an aspect of reality. If ever there was need for reaffirming and teaching the true doctrine of the Trinity, it is now.[xiv]

Indeed, the same is true for us today, especially in light of the longstanding liberal push to forsake the immanent Trinity for the economic—to seek God for us rather than God in himself. Such a push could easily be translated into Van Til’s vernacular: we should seek the God in time rather than the God of eternity. But it is exactly at this point that orthodox Christianity must check its feet and follow the straight and narrow. It is only because God is in himself that he is for us. God is for us in time by a loving and gracious decision, and such a decision emerged from the eternal Trinity who is love.


T. S. Eliot once wrote, “Only through time time is conquered.”[xv] I always interpreted this to mean that the God above time entered time in order to redeem time. But time did not always need to be conquered. Indeed, time did not always exist. Seconds were spoken into motion by the voice of the Trinity. Before there was time, before there was such a thing as history, there was simply the Trinity. I end with Fred Sanders’s words.

God’s way of being God is to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simultaneously from all eternity, perfectly complete in a triune fellowship of love. If we don’t take this as our starting point, everything we say about the practical relevance of the Trinity could lead us to one colossal misunderstanding: thinking of God the Trinity as a means to some other end, as if God were the Trinity in order to make himself useful. But God the Trinity is the end, the goal, the telos, the omega. In himself and without any reference to a created world of the plan of salvation, God is that being who exists as the triune love of the Father for the Son in the unity of the Spirit. The boundless life that God lives in himself, at home, within the happy land of the Trinity above all worlds, is perfect. It is complete, inexhaustibly full, and infinitely blessed.[xvi]

In remembering these words, let us continue in the footsteps of orthodoxy, never mixing the eternal and the temporal, the God who is love in himself with the God who is love for us. As Van Til wrote, it has been “a long and arduous road by which the church reached its high doctrine of the Trinity.” Let us continue to walk it, in praise of the self-contained tri-personal God.

[i] Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God, ed. William Edgar, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 353.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., 354.

[iv] Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 356.

[v] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, ed. K. Scott Oliphint, 4th ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 47–51.

[vi] Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 356.

[vii] Ibid., 358.

[viii] Ibid., 359–60.

[ix] Ibid., 360.

[x] Ibid., 359.

[xi] Ibid., 360.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii]  Ibid., 361. This is a reference specifically to Hegel’s dialectic, the notion that history is in the process of moving towards an ultimate unity as a result of the continuous cycle of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

[xiv]  Ibid., 362.

[xv] T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1943), 16.

[xvi]  Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 62.

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