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The Trinitarian Basis of Modern Science

By John B. King, Jr.
September 01, 1999

Science is grounded in a Christian theory of knowledge which springs from God's purposeful activity in creation. Science is ultimately dependent upon the properties of God. It is precisely His nature, as expressed through His properties, which makes His purposeful activity possible. However, since God's properties are interdependent, they are mutually conditioning and thus impinge as a unit on His creational activity. Accordingly, the negation of any divine property necessarily implies the denial of all remaining properties and with them the possibility of an ordered creation. Given this fact, this article will show that a denial of God's Triune nature renders His creational activity impossible by negating His properties. To see the significance of the Trinity for human knowledge, it will first be necessary to examine the role of the divine properties in creation.

The Role of Divine Properties
It must be noted, first of all, that God's creational activity is dependent upon His ability both to conceive and to affect an ordered design. This ability depends upon God's transcendence, a property which comes to expression in all of His other properties. God's transcendence means that He is distinct from and thus exalted above His creation. In particular, God and His creation have differing essences. Whereas creation is temporal, finite, and therefore externally determined, God is eternal, infinite, and internally self-determined. Accordingly, God's transcendence over His creation refers to His infinite, self-determined status, which is both necessary to an ordered creation, and is dependent upon His triune nature. God's self-determination, or aseity, forms a theological link relating His triune nature to His creational activity. Consequently, the implications of God's self-determination are key to assessing the scientific import of the Trinity.

God is said to be a se, a Latin term which literally means "of Himself." Thus, the aseity of God simply describes God's self-determined and therefore self-contained nature. In particular, because God is a se, He is the sole ground of His own existence, the sole source of His own knowledge, and the sole determinant of His own action. Accordingly, God's aseity implies a total absence of external conditioning and thus a self-contained nature.

However, since all finite reality is externally conditioned, God's aseity implies the infinitude of His properties. Accordingly, with respect to knowledge and power, God is said to be omniscient (all knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful). Because God's properties are infinite, they exhaustively interpenetrate one another with the result that they are coextensive or coterminous (literally having the same boundaries). Thus, as part of His infinitude, God's aseity further implies what is known as His simplicity, namely the indivisible, non-composite nature of His essence. Given this simplicity, then, God's knowledge and power are co-terminous precisely aligned with God's being and hence with one another. Being omniscient, God is exhaustively conscious of His being and actions. Being omnipotent, He is in control of His being and knowledge. Thus, God's actions are exhaustively purposeful: they are exactly what He intends even as His purposes are exhaustively actual: what He determines to do, He does.

Since God infallibly knows and controls His own being and actions, and since all external reality is solely dependent upon Him, there is nothing either within God or about Him which escapes His exhaustive knowledge or control. As a result, God is capable of both formulating and transmitting an intelligent design to His creation, thus establishing a basis for human knowledge. Science is possible precisely because God's aseity establishes both the infinite number and thus the co-termineity of His properties. To the extent, therefore, that a denial of the Trinity undercuts God's aseity, the possibility of an ordered creation and, hence, human science falls to the ground.

Trinitarian Implications
Having discussed the role of the divine properties in creation, it is now possible to set forth the epistemological significance of the Trinity. To this end, Van Til's formulation of the doctrine will be used due to its succinctness and its tremendous depth of insight (Van Til 2, pp. 25, 26):

We may express this thought philosophically by saying that for us the eternal one and many form a self-complete unity. God is absolute personality and therefore absolute individuality. He exists necessarily. He has no non-being over against himself in comparison with which he defines himself; he is internally self-defined.
Using the language of the One-and-Many question we conclude that in God the one and the many are equally ultimate. Unity in God is no more fundamental than diversity in God, and diversity is no more fundamental than unity. The persons of the Trinity are mutually exhaustive of one another. The Son and the Spirit are ontologically on a par with the Father.... In God's being there are no particulars not related to the universal and there is nothing universal that is not fully expressed in the particulars.

From this description two major relationships are evident. First, since the "universal is fully expressed in the particulars," the transcendent properties of God extend to each Person with the result that the three Persons are "mutually exhaustive of one another" and thus "ontologically on a par." On the other hand, since "unity in God is no more fundamental than diversity," the three Persons, though fully divine, nevertheless remain distinct from one another and from the Godhead as a whole. Accordingly, due to the plurality of distinct, ontologically equivalent Persons, God can compare and contrast within His own being and is therefore internally benchmarked. Thus, in contrast to the gods of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism who defined their being (spiritual unity) in contrast to the non-being (material plurality) of the physical universe, God "has no non-being over against himself in comparison with which he defines himself" but rather "is internally self-defined." Consequently, in God's being the plurality of Persons prevents God from becoming relativized and therefore reduced through a defining contrast with the finite creation. Just as God's unity was seen to guard the transcendence of each Person, so God's plurality guards the transcendence of His one being by preventing a relativizing erosion of His infinitude. Each of these relations will now be considered in terms of its effect upon human knowledge.

The Role of the Universal
As mentioned above, the significance of the universal relates to the extension of full divinity to each of the Persons. The reason that such extension is important is that Scripture represents the involvement of all three Persons in creation (Bavink, p. 256):

Elohim creates by means of Word and Spirit. The Word spoken by God is not a mere sound but a power so great that the universe is thereby created and upheld; Jehovah utters his voice and it comes to pass, Gen. 1:3; Ps. 33:6, 9; 147:18; 148:8; Joel 2:11. That Word, which is spoken by God, proceeds from him, and is therefore distinct from him, is later on personified as Wisdom, Job 28:23-27; Prov. 8:22 ff.; cf. Prov. 3:19; Jer. 10:12; 51:15. From everlasting Jehovah possessed, set up, and searched this wisdom. It was God's master workman, through whom he created and still maintains everything.
But the work of creation and providence is established not only through the agency of the Word and of Wisdom, but also by means of the Spirit of God, Gen. 1:2; Ps. 33:6; 104:33; 139:7; Job 26:13; 27:3; 32:8; 33:4; Is. 40:7, 13; 59:19. Whereas God calls everything into being by means of the Word as mediator, he is immanent in all creation through the Spirit, who gives life and adornment to all things. Hence, a threefold cause of the origin and preservation of all things is already evident in the O.T. doctrine of creation. Elohim (God) and the cosmos (the universe) do not stand over against one another in dualistic fashion; but the world, created by God has his Word for its objective, and his Spirit for its subjective principle. God first thought the universe; hence, the latter is called into being by means of God's omnipotent Word; once realized, it does not have a separate existence, i.e., apart from God or opposed to him, but rests in his Spirit.

As can be seen from Bavink's formulation, each of the Persons is involved in creation. Consequently, God's ability to effect an ordered design hinges upon the ability and hence the transcendent properties of each one. In other words, within the divine economy, the chain of distinct and synchronous operations can be no stronger than its weakest link. To the extent that the divinity of any Person is discounted, therefore, He becomes a weak partner in the process, negating the basis for an ordered design. However, due to God's Trinitarian nature, the universal is "fully expressed in the particulars," causing full divinity to extend to each Person. As a consequence, weak links in the divine economy are eliminated by the universal, thus safeguarding the basis for knowledge.

The Role of the Particulars
However, since unity and particularity are equally ultimate in God, the particulars also establish the universal. The reason for this effect, as stated earlier, is that the plurality of Persons preserves God's internal self- definition, thus guarding His self-contained, infinite status (aseity). To see the full significance of this point, it is necessary to consider another statement of Van Til (Van Til 1, p. 229):

It is sometimes asserted that we can prove to man that we are not asserting anything that they ought to consider irrational, inasmuch as we say that God is one in essence and three in person. We therefore claim that we have not asserted unity and trinity of exactly the same thing.
Yet this is not the whole truth of the matter. We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person. We have noted how each attribute is coextensive with the being of God. We are compelled to maintain this in order to avoid the notion of an uninterpreted being of some sort. In other words, we are bound to maintain the identity of the attributes of God with the being of God in order to avoid the specter of brute fact. In a similar manner we have noted how theologians insist that each of the persons of the Godhead is coterminous with the being of the Godhead. But all this is not to say that the distinctions of the attributes are merely nominal. Nor is it to say that the distinctions of the persons are merely nominal. We need both the co-termineity of each attribute and each person with the whole being of God, and the genuine significance of the distinctions of the attributes and the persons. "Each person," says Bavink, "is equal to the whole essence of God and coterminous with both other persons and with all three." (Vol II, p. 311) ... Over against all other beings, that is, over against created beings, we must therefore hold that God's being presents an absolute numerical identity. And even within the ontological Trinity we must maintain that God is numerically one. He is one person. When we say we believe in a personal God, we do not merely mean that we believe in a God to whom the adjective "personality" may be attached. God is not an essence that has personality; he is absolute personality. (emphasis added)

The significant point of this citation is that the Persons serve to define not only one another, but also the Godhead as a whole, establishing personality for the universal. When this statement is combined with the one cited earlier, therefore, several significant points emerge.

First, the Persons are seen to be both distinct and yet on an ontological par with one another and with the Godhead as a whole. God is able to compare and contrast within His own being and is therefore internally self- defined. As a result, God is not defined by contrast to a finite creation and thus is not reduced to the level of a creation-dependent, finite god. Rather, being internally self defined, God is totally self-determined and therefore a se. God is the ground of His own existence, the source of His own knowledge, and the determinant of His own action. As such, God is infinite in knowledge and power and, therefore, capable of conceiving and transmitting an intelligent design. Thus, by guarding God's self-contained status, the plurality of Persons protects God's transcendence and with it a basis for human knowledge.

Second, since knowledge is a personal concept, God's particularity guards human knowledge by preserving God's personality. After all, since the three Persons are exhaustive of both one another and the Godhead as a whole, God's one being must also be personal. In this regard, traditional formulations of the Trinitarian doctrine state that God is one in essence and three in person. Yet, as noted by John Frame (North, pp. 306, 307), the traditional formulation leaves open the possibility of God's tri-personality being derived from an abstract, impersonal essence. However, in stating that the Godhead is also a person, Van Til closes this loophole by maintaining an equal ultimacy of unity and particularity. In other words, according to Van Til's formulation, God is not merely three in person and one in essence; He is both three and one in person! If He were not, God's personality would dissolve into the ground of an impersonal essence with the result that knowledge, as a personal concept, would vanish.1

Finally, the equal ultimacy of unity and particularity is itself a necessary condition for God's personality and thus for human knowledge. After all, in the absence of either quality, God's being would reduce to chaos or a unitary blank, both of which are impersonal. As a consequence, personality would not be ultimate in the universe, and knowledge, as a personal concept, would vanish. Thus, God's plurality further guards human knowledge by preventing the reduction of God to an empty, impersonal form.

The Scientific Import of the Trinity
From the preceding discussion, the scientific import of the Trinity should be clearly seen. On the one hand, the unity of God ensures the full divinity of each Person and, hence, the transcendence needed to effect an ordered creation. On the other hand, God's equally basic plurality, secures the aseity, infinitude, and personality of God's one being. Thus, just as God's unity secures the transcendence of each Person, so God's plurality secures the transcendent personality of God's one essence. In other words, His unity guards His transcendent plurality even as His plurality guards His transcendent unity. Given this fact, science is possible precisely because God is triune. If He were not, the transcendence needed for an ordered creation could not be maintained.

Notes

1. Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Carlisle, PA, 1991).

2. John M. Frame, "The Problem of Theological Paradox," Gary North, Foundations of Christian Scholarship (Vallecito, CA, 1979).

3. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1978).

4. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1967).

1. Moreover, since personality would then be a quality external to God's being, God would have to define Himself in comparison to personality as an external quality with the result that God would lose His internal self-definition. Accordingly, since God would thereby lose His aseity and infinitude, the transcendence needed for an ordered creation would vanish. Thus, God's plurality guards human knowledge by maintaining the transcendent personality of His one being.


Topics: Science, Theology

John B. King, Jr.

John B. King, Jr., a free lance writer from Corvallis, Oregon, holds a Ph.D. in engineering. He is also a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary West. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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