The Failure of the One & Many Argument of Van Til

By: Jay The so-called argument from the one and the many is a hallmark aspect of classical Van Tillian apologetics. Having studied this school for the last ten years, I am very acquainted with its methodology and published works. However, once one moves into patristics and Catholic and Orthodox theology, and then into other religious philosophies, the argument as constructed in writers like Van Til, Rushdoony and Bahnsen no longer works. This is not to say, however, that the argument has no relevance: on the contrary, in my estimation, it still retains its strength as a powerful signpost pointing to the Personal God of the Bible. However, I don't think it proves the Trinity.  There are two reasons the one and many argument doesn't to prove the Trinity. For one, Van Til wasn't the first to reason in this regard: many earlier Christian thinkers and church fathers had argued along similar lines, such as Origen, Irenaeus, Basil and the Cappadocian, Maximus the Confessor, and others even in other religions, as we see in the Coomaraswamy article on Vedic Exemplarism. What is interesting in Maximus though, is that from the created one and many we experience, it does not prove or point to a single divine ousia and three Persons, but rather a single rational Principle of God - the Logos, the second Person of the Trinity, in whom all the many logoi, or rational principles/meanings of things are united. So for Maximus, drawing on Origen, the many logoi are one in the one Logos of God. This argument arose historically in the context of Hellenic Christianity borrowing the Logos idea, and was transformed into an argument for the necessity of creation through the Logos. In other words, the one and many argument is an argument centered in divine exemplarism.


As noted, this argument is utilized in the Vedas of Hinduism, as exemplarism has a very ancient forte. It is also mentioned in the Jewish Encyclopedia under “Logos” and in Jewish theologian David Ariel’s “What Do Jews Believe?” as an example of the fact that all that exists, exists by God’s own word. Everything is, in certain strands of Jewish thought, a reflection of Torah, the divine wisdom. So the argument is not something new to Van Til, as is clear. It is directly connected with divine exemplarism, and in fact, in Van Til’s Lectures in Christian Epistemology, he affirms his acceptance of Augustine’s version of divine exemplarism. But further difficulties arise in these thinkers, since even in the Eastern Fathers, so prized for their “necessary distinctions” in God, we find statements where the Logos is identified with the “mind of the Father” and that the Son “is the will of the Father,” as Athanasius and Nyssa say, for example. How this can be in strict Eastern theology is unclear, since it’s obviously anthropomorphic.

This brings me to the other reason the Van Tillian version of this argument doesn’t work – it identifies an ultimate principle of oneness with the divine essence. In the reformed presuppositional version of this argument, the supposed ultimate many is subsumed in the three Persons, while the ultimate unity of reality is subsumed in the single divine nature. Thus the argument for the so-called “equal ultimacy of the one and the many.” But the divine nature is not the equivalent of some ultimate “oneness.” The divine nature is not like anything else, has no “definition,” and is fully indescribable. There is no summing up of all things into an ultimate unity that is the divine nature. 

It is fine to say that the sum total of all reality – ultimate created oneness – is subsumed in God, but this doesn’t mean “one” has any real defining power by which we can, through rational inquiry, equate it with God’s essence, and set it over against the “threeness” of the Persons. Further, this ignores the historic Christian position that the Father is the source of the Godhead; not abstract “oneness.” Further, the argument as posed by Maximus shows that it’s perfectly resolved in one divine Person – in his case, the Logos. But were a Jewish or Muslim theologian, for example, to argue that since it can be resolved in one divine Person, and not three, it’s a non sequitur to say we need three, I would have to concede the argument. Therefore, the argument as formulated by Van Til as a proof for the Trinity doesn’t work.

9 Comments on The Failure of the One & Many Argument of Van Til

  1. Van Til is notoriously difficult to understand. His “one-many argument” is actually much more powerful than you think, but you are looking at it backwards. Van Til was addressing the issue of how God can have knowledge. From there he moves on to how man can have knowledge. His one-many argument does not apply directly to man’s epistemology—it only indirectly addresses the issue of human epistemology. This particular argument addresses God’s knowledge (not man’s knowledge). It is God’s epistemology that Van Til is talking about. Knowledge (as I am sure you already know) requires for there to be both unity and diversity or singularity and multiplicity (i.e. the one and the many). Now imagine God existing prior to creation. He existed alone, in a void. There is nothing but Himself. Unless there were a unity of the one and the many in the Godhead, He could not have attained knowledge. This is what they are talking about when the Presuppositionalists refer to “the Trinitarian nature of God’s knowledge”. Then, Van Til asserts that human knowledge is “analogous” to God’s knowledge and that our knowledge is “derivative”. Our knowledge is like God’s but both qualitatively and quantitatively limited. We know things derivatively through divine revelation. God has revealed things to us through natural revelation. And if human knowledge is derived from God’s knowledge, then it follows that divine epistemology has implications on human epistemology due to human knowledge’s nature as derivative of it. I don’t know if that clarifies it at all.

    • I’ve read Van Til since 1999, have a shelf of his stuff, and been a presuppositionalist that long. It does appeal directly to man’s epistemology and he says this in numerous places, as does Bahnsen in Van Til’s Apologetic. You’re way off.

      • Look at some of Van Til’s references to the one and the many in context.
        Van Til writes:
        “First, independence or aseity of God. By this is meant that God is in no sense correlative to or dependent upon anything beside his own being… Of the whole matter we may say that the unity and the diversity in God are equally basic and mutually dependent upon one another. The importance of this doctrine for apologetics may be seen from the fact that the whole problem of philosophy may be summed up in the question of the relation of unity to diversity; the so-called problem of the one and the many receives a definite answer from the doctrine of the simplicity of God…. God knows his own being to its very depths in one eternal act of knowledge. There are no hidden depths in the being of God that he has not explored. God’s knowledge of himself may best be said to be ‘analytical.’ This does not mean that God by a slow progress must analyze himself, but it emphasizes that which needs most emphasis, namely that God does not need to look beyond himself for additions to his knowledge.”(The Defense of the Faith, Ch. 1 [under the heading “1. The Doctrine of God”])
        Again Van Til writes: “As Christians, we hold that in this universe we deal with a derivative one and many, which can be brought into fruitful relation with one another because, back of both, we have in God the original One and Many. If we are to have coherence in our experiences, there must be a correspondence of our experience to the eternally coherent experience of God. Human knowledge ultimately rests upon the internal coherence within the Godhead; our knowledge rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition.”(An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 23)
        And there is at least one Van Tillian Presuppositionalist that agrees with my interpretation of Van Til. James Anderson writes: “Furthermore, the creation reflects the unity and the plurality of its Creator in a derivative way. The epistemological pay-off, as Van Til sees things, is not that such a scheme makes a comprehensive grasp of the universe possible for us, but rather makes it possible for God, who in turn can furnish us with a partial and derivative understanding of the universe.”(If Knowledge Then God)

      • I’ve found a few better quotes from Van Til himself:
        “God, as we have contended, is self-determinative. He has no nonbeing over against himself in terms of which he needs, or can to any extent, to interpret himself…. If knowledge and being are not identical in God, as pertaining to himself, he is made dependent upon something that exists beside himself. In that case the consciousness of God is made to depend upon temporal reality…”(Defense of the Faith, Chapter 3, Section 1 [“God’s Knowledge of Himself”])
        Then, he goes on to add: “As far as God’s own person is concerned the subject is the object of knowledge. His knowledge of himself is therefore entirely analytical…. Analytic knowledge, in distinction from synthetic knowledge, means knowledge that is not gained by reference to something that exists without the knower. God knows himself not by comparing and contrasting himself with anything, not even nonbeing, outside himself. He knows himself by one simple act of eternal vision.”(ibid.)
        But this is just Van Til’s groundwork of Theistic epistemology. He doesn’t go very in depth in the Defense of the Faith. The definitive proof that my interpretation is correct comes from his Systematic Theology. In Systematic Theology, Van Til specifically relates the one-many to God’s knowledge of Himself:
        “God’s knowledge is, therefore, exclusively analytic, that is, self-dependent. There never were any facts existing independent of God that he had to investigate. God is the one and only ultimate fact…. [etc. etc. etc. this part’s important, but I don’t feel like typing it all up] In distinction to this, Christianity says there once was no a posteriori aspect to knowledge at all. When God existed alone, there was no time universe, and there were no new facts arising. The only knowledge activity that existed was completed in the circuit of the mutually exhaustive personalities of the triune God.”(An Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch. 2, under heading “God as the Principium Essendi of Knowledge”)
        I don’t know what theological tradition you’re coming from (I assume Roman Catholic). But I believe in Eastern Orthodoxy and think that the Van Tillian method serves as a great apologetic for Orthodoxy. Firstly, the one-many argument (as I have interpreted it) demonstrates that the Western Trinitarian formula w/ absolute simplicity as the basis of the unity in God is untenable. Aquinas saw “fatherhood as the essence of the Godhead”, which lead him to crypto-Sabellianism. So the God of Catholics and most Protestants cannot have self-knowledge apart from creation because there is no differentiation within him. The Eastern doctrine of the Trinity differs and is therefore tenable. But Van Til also argued that in order for knowledge to exist, God must be omniscient (because whatever knowledge he lacked could potentially refute the rest of his knowledge), but since Calvinists are crypto-Nestorians their God cannot be omniscient. Calvinists, like Nestorians, hold that God did not suffer and die by way of the incarnation. God did not experience humanity. But if God does not have experience of humanity, then he must lack experiential knowledge of humanity in particular and creation in general. Therefore, the Calvinistic God cannot be omniscient. So if one applies the Van Tillian methodology and arguments more consistently than Van Til himself did, one is led to the Eastern Orthodox faith.
        Nearly all of Van Tillianism (except Calvinism) is found also in Orthodox writers. All reasoning is circular in Bulgakov. That all non-Christian worldviews amount to “rationalizing the irrational” is also in Bulgakov. (Cf. Philosophy of Economy) That there is no non-being over against God that he can contrast himself against is in Vladimir Lossky. (Cf. Orthodox Theology: An Introduction) That the Platonic notions of an “analogy of being” and a “continuity of being” must be rejected is found in John Romanides (An Introduction to Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics), John Zizioulas (The One and The Many), and in Lossky again (Orthodoxy Theology: an Introduction). On so many points I find the Orthodox writers to be in agreement with Van Til and both to be at odds with all the rest of Christendom. I don’t think you could make good use of Van Til within a Roman Catholic framework because you don’t have nearly as much in common. Orthodox differ from Calvinists because Calvinists are crypto-Nestorians in Christology, almost Gnostic/Marcionite in their view of the Old and New Testaments (in Calvin’s Institutes he speaks of an “antithesis” between the Old and New Testaments, which parallels the Marcionites’ doctrine). And in all these respects, the Calvinists are heretics in my view, as are the Romanists ine their erroneous Trinitarian formula and Eucharistology (since they teach Eucharistic Monophysitism, in contrast to Calvinists’ Eucharistic Nestorianism)….I don’t know how much of what I’ve just said makes sense to you. But I think that Van Til’s methodology and arguments can be adapted and modified for a Patristic framework….the problem is that only Orthodoxy is patristic in the full sense of the term.

  2. Usually when criticizing an argument it is standard procedure (and helpful) to articulate the argument you’re wanting to criticize. You don’t do that. And so you’re reader is left wondering WHICH argument has just (supposedly) been defeated.

    Neither will replying “well I wrote this for those who know of the argument I’m criticizing, so it wasn’t necessary.”

    Given the swirl of controversy about just WHAT and WHERE the arguments are in Van Til’s work, that won’t do here.

    Also, you actually say that the fact that “the” argument is found elsewhere (i.e. besides Van Til) is a “reason” that the argument doesn’t work.

    Obviously you’re confused here. The fact that more than one person gives an argument (no matter what it is) is utterly irrelevant to that argument’s validity. Yet you actually say “There are two reasons the one and many argument doesn’t to prove the Trinity. For one, Van Til wasn’t the first to reason in this regard…”.

    That doesn’t make one whit of sense.

  3. Extraordinarily well written blog

  4. Austen Gringham // December 14, 2013 at 7:23 pm // Reply

    Though Van Til wanted to reconcile Reformed theology with his apologetic, he and his followers’ primary concern was that their apologetic be rooted in and consistent with Scripture. John Frame, one of Van Til’s students, indicates in his introduction to Apologetics to the Glory of God that he sees the need to go “to Scripture itself to ask in some detail concerning the norms for apologetics” (xii). Frame looks to the following verses from 1 Peter 3 as a “mandate” (1) for apologetics:
    But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (New International Version, I Pet. 3: 15-16)
    Frame explains that these verses function not just as a mandate for apologetics in general, but for a particular type, presuppositional apologetics. Frame argues that traditional apologetics fails to properly honor “Christ as Lord.” Rather, traditional apologists act as though their field is an “exception” to the commitment to the lordship of Christ (Frame 4). Frame’s reasoning behind this statement is that by reaching out to non-Christians on the “neutral ground” of human reason, traditional apologists are going outside the lordship of Christ. Furthermore, because this “neutral ground” is in fact not neutral but is actually reasoning based on non-Christian presuppositions, traditional apologists are actually reasoning from anti-Christian presuppositions.
    From Frame’s perspective, the verses in I Peter teach that a truly biblical apologetic must view the lordship of Christ as its “ultimate presupposition” (Frame 6). Frame explains that accepting Christ’s lordship involves believing “his words above the words of anyone else.” And Christ’s words are to be found in the Bible. Thus for the presuppositionalist, the Bible or special revelation must be the most fundamental belief.
    Another passage that presuppositionalists cite in support of their apologetic is from Romans 1. From 1:18 to 3:20, Paul describes the “universality of sin and condemnation” (Murray 34). In this context, 1:18-12 are describing the effects of sin on the Gentiles in particular:
    For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (New American Standard Bible, Rom. 1:18-21)
    According to David Turner, Van Til derived what is called “sensus deitatis” from these verses (45). The term sensus deitatis literally means sense of deity. Van Til believed that human beings were born with the knowledge of God already in their hearts. However, in their rebellion against God, they suppressed this knowledge of him. Van Til’s view was that the “truth” being suppressed refers to knowledge of God that was “evident within them.” Moreover, Van Til understood the rejection of God in favor of creation as replacing special revelation with human autonomy as rebellious man’s ultimate presupposition (Turner 48-49).
    Van Til believed that this sensus deitatis, rather than unbelieving man’s reason, was the starting point for apologetics. Traditional apologists had always appealed to man’s reason as the starting point. In Van Til’s view however, there was no Scriptural basis for appealing to man’s reasoning. He saw the absence of Scriptural examples of this sort of apologetic as proof that this position was unwarranted (The Defense of the Faith 306).
    Van Til also sometimes referred to I Corithians 1:20-21 in his writings (A Christian Theory of Knowledge 24). When read in conjunction with the passage from Romans 1, this passage can be read to support presuppositionalism:
    Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. (King James Version 1:20-21)
    According to this passage, the world does not know God through its wisdom. Rather, by its wisdom, it suppressed the knowledge of God and “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God an image in the form” of the creatures. God used preaching, which is foolishness to the world, to bring people to belief.
    Assuming Van Til’s interpretation of the Romans passage, man’s reasoning, or wisdom, does not lead to the knowledge of God. Restated, reasoning from unregenerate man’s presuppositions leads to “wisdom” that denies God. Traditional apologetics attempts to find common ground in these presuppositions. Traditional apologists, after being saved through “the foolishness of preaching,” in effect returns to the wisdom of the world in attempt to persuade others who already have rejected God according to this wisdom.
    On the other hand, presuppositional apologetics seems to fit with this passage. Presuppositional apologetics rejects the presupposition of human autonomy, which leads to unbelief and suppression of the sensus deitatis. In place of reasoning based on human ultimacy, the presuppositional apologist presents the Christian worldview, with its presupposition of a sovereign God who reveals himself in the Scriptures. This is the essence of preaching which from the world’s perspective is “foolishness.”
    In the pamphlet Paul at Athens, Van Til sees the application of the presuppositional method in Paul’s sermon at the Areopogas. Van Til begins the booklet with a quote from Acts 14. In Acts 14, Paul stops the people of Lystra from worshiping him and Barnabas. In his speech, Paul called on the people to turn unto God, who was the creator and sustainer of the universe. Van Til explains that Paul’s approach was no different at Athens where he was speaking to more educated people. “So then we conclude that even at Athens Paul did virtually the same thing that he had done in Lystra; he challenged the wisdom of the world” (Paul at Athens 14). So Van Til sees a pattern in Paul’s preaching to non-believers, a method that did not start on some kind of common ground to which both pagans and Christians could relate. Rather, Paul’s method began and ended with presuppositions from the Bible that assumed the truth and authority of Scripture. In doing so, Paul presents an approach to apologetics that is universally applied.
    This is what Van Til meant by “the same thing” (Paul at Athens 14). The following quote shines light on the matter:
    Paul knows only two classes of people, those who worship and serve the Creator and those who worship and serve the creature more than the Creator … Creature worshipers he found everywhere he went, in the synagogues, in the market place, in the temples; among the religious and among the irreligious; among the educated and among the non-educated; among the Epicureans and Stoics as well as among the men of the street; among the naturalists and the supernaturalists alike. (Paul at Athens 2)
    Van Til is saying that from Paul’s perspective, the similarity between the people at Athens and the people at Lystra was a shared problem: they were both creature worshipers. So, while there may be no common ground with for the apologist and the non-believer, there is a “common ground” for every kind of non-believer in that they are all, in the end, creature worshipers in some sense. As a result, Paul’s method at both cities was the same.
    As the problem involved creature worship, so the solution was to attack the creature worship. As Van Til sees it, Paul’s method for preaching (which involves apologetics) consisted of calling on the people to “repent from the vanity of creature worship to the fruitfulness of the worship of the ‘living God’” (Paul at Athens 3). According to Van Til, preaching this gospel did not merely involve preaching Christ and the resurrection. Nor did Paul preach Christ and his resurrection within the framework of the pagan philosophies that he encountered at Athens. He did not appeal to their concepts about the universe. “Jesus and the resurrection presupposed the doctrine of creation. Jesus and the resurrection implied the doctrine of judgment to come” (Paul at Athens 13).
    Van Til concludes that Paul’s method involved replacing the framework of pagan philosophies with a biblical one.
    We must surely do what Paul did, tear our garments when men would weave our message into the systems of thought which men have themselves devised. We must set the message of the cross into the framework into which Paul set it … The facts of Jesus and the resurrection are what they are only in the framework of the doctrines of creation, providence and the consummation of history in the final judgment. (Paul at Athens 14)
    Van Til’s argument is that Paul’s dramatic reaction illustrated a rejection of the By rejecting the presuppositions of the pagan philosophies and preaching Christ within a biblical framework, Paul was practicing presuppositionalism.

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