Learning new things is like opening doors to windowed rooms. We can enter another space we haven’t seen before, but that other space also lets light into the hallway of the present. All we had thought and experienced before is hit with new color. In some cases, that color change is so drastic that we question whether we really saw things before as we should have. Everything ripens for the thrill of reinterpretation. As we learn, we not only go to new places; we revisit all the old ones and see them as we never had.
Something like this happened to me some years ago when I was listening to an old lecture from the Dutch theologian Cornelius Van Til. The audio quality was poor (circa 1970s), and I struggled to make out all the words. I had no idea what sort of door was about to open. And then the handle turned.
We certainly cannot penetrate intellectually the mystery of the Trinity, but neither can we penetrate anything else intellectually because all other things depend on the mystery of the Trinity, and therefore all other things have exactly as much mystery in them as does the Trinity.
Hmm, Amen. . . . Wait—what? We can’t penetrate the mystery of the Trinity—sure, I’ve got that. Who would dare to disagree? But everything has as much mystery in it as the Trinity does? Who would dare to agree?
Is a yellow tulip as puzzling as the divine persons? Is grass as incomprehensible as the Godhead? Does a dog’s bone have divine depth? Van Til’s words drove me deeper into thought. I had always learned to link the doctrine of God to the doctrine of creation (the famous Creator-creature distinction). But now I had to think about how the nature of God has an effect on the nature of the world all around me.
Here’s what I believe Van Til meant, and how it’s revolutionized my approach to . . . well, everything.
Differentiation and Divine Threads
The Trinity is the source of all things. That much seems simple enough. But then Van Til goes deeper. In his Introduction to Systematic Theology, he wrote these cryptic words: “for a consistent Christian theology the principle of individuation lies within the Godhead.” I’ll assume that sentence produces the same response in many readers that it did in me: huh? Individuation is the ability to identify and distinguish individual things amidst the panoply of creation. It’s how we can identify the significance of one yellow tulip picked from our front yard, which has many other things on it (including some forgotten kids’ toys). This is related to Van Til’s discussions about “the one and the many,” or universals and particulars, which is a whole other rabbit hole to fall into.
If this all sounds horribly abstract, just hold on; I promise there’s a point. If we want to actually identify and differentiate between the things around us—to see their significance amidst the multitude of created things—we have to go all the way back to the Trinity. In Van Til’s words, “There is a deep and rich differentiation in the personal relationship between the three persons of the Trinity.” Put differently, in the Trinity, there is differentiation among the divine persons in the one essence of God. We can distinguish between the Father, Son, and Spirit without losing the unity and deep relationship in the Godhead. And so, because creation is an expression and revelation of this God, all of the myriad things in our universe are significant and meaningful because of who God is: three perfectly differentiated persons (Father, Son, and Spirit) in one perfect essence, a God who works many things at many moments all according to one plan.
Now, that means there’s a divine thread running from the yellow tulip in my front yard all the way back to the incomprehensible, infinitely mysterious Trinity. Knowing that little tulip exhaustively would, in the end, require that I know its source and sustainer exhaustively, and I can’t do that. I’m a limited creature. Whatever rests on the eternal mystery of the Trinity is beyond the tiny confines of my full comprehension. That’s why Van Til can say, “all other things depend on the mystery of the Trinity, and therefore all other things have exactly as much mystery in them as does the Trinity.”
And that was when my brain broke. I had always assumed the things in the world were basically non-mysterious elements of creation, and God was the mysterious one. But the door to the windowed room was open now. Everything around me seemed flooded by a light I hadn’t noticed before: a mystery calling for worship. Tulips, grass, trees, a glass of water, a crow’s feather—these are objects of mystery. They mean something far more than any meaning I could give to them. They have trinitarian meaning: a value and significance in the intricate plan of God. And because that plan goes well behind me and before me, I can’t know these things exhaustively. More importantly, Van Til showed me that, ultimately, I can’t fully understand these little ordinary things all around me because I can’t understand God himself. There is a clear link between the mystery of the Godhead and the mystery of creation. We just ignore it most of the time because we don’t look at that divine thread running from everything around us back to the beautifully incomprehensible mystery of the trinitarian maker.
Something else may help explain this mystery (even though I’m trying not to explain mystery right now). Vern Poythress wrote, “creation as a whole and every individual creature have their foundation in God’s plan, his commands, his governance, and his presence. We can know God, but we cannot comprehend him.” These words rehearse the truth we all know: God is incomprehensible. Van Til was going one step further by saying that since the world always depends on this God, we can know the world around us truly, but we can’t fully comprehend it. We can’t master it. We can’t squeeze all the mystery from it like water from a sponge. The world remains wet.
Some readers still may not be satisfied. “But why can’t we fully understand the world around us? Why is trinitarian mystery embedded in a pinecone?” Here’s a trinitarian answer.
We’re dealing with the connection between God and creation. We tend to sunder the two: we have God on one side and the world on the other. But that’s not the case. Mystery abounds in the world around us because God is the connection between himself and the world. The Word is the mediator, the link, between God and creation. As Poythress wrote in The Mystery of the Trinity, “The ‘boundary’ between God and man is the boundary of God’s mediation through the Word and the Spirit. The boundary is God himself, in one aspect of his resources. This boundary is full of mystery because the mystery is God himself, in his Trinitarian character and in his Trinitarian communication to human beings.” That divine thread I mentioned between created things and God is actually the divine Word, empowered by the Spirit. In the Trinity lies not just how we differentiate between things but how we understand things in relation to God the Giver.
If this seems tough to grasp, that’s okay. It’s a brain-breaker. But brain-breaking is some of the most exciting education out there.
What’s the Payoff?
What’s the use of this seemingly bizarre theology? Two words help summarize the way it’s changed my approach to the world around me and the people in it: humility and worship.
Humility. It’s very easy for us to act as if we’re masters of the world around us. All of creation is just here for our use or abuse. How horribly wrong! We’re not masters; we’re ministers. We’re not lords; we’re Levites, holy servants of the self-giving God of grace. When we look at the world around us and stare at the mystery that hides there, we should fall on our knees. We might also hold our tongues. In a world where quick speech and shallow judgment abound, there is a holiness to silent awe and patience. Things are beyond us. People are beyond us. God is beyond us. We will never understand the depths. The deep things of God are only grasped by the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 2:10). We can catch ourselves acting like masters when we aren’t careful. And the mark of this sort of master is the assumption that there’s nothing more to know. We've figured everything out. That will never happen for us. Mystery will always be the horizon we sail towards, not the landmass behind us.
Worship. We don’t worship what we fully comprehend. We worship what’s beyond us. And worship is always the end-point of thinking about anything in our world. Herman Bavinck wrote, “From the comfort which we enjoy in our hearts, and from the benefit and fruit which the knowledge of God spells for our own selves and our lives, we always go back to the worship of the Eternal Being.” Worship is the great home our hearts return to after engaging with anything in our world. If it isn’t, our hearts are wandering. And mystery has a central place in this. Our world offers limitless possibilities for worship in the ordinary things around us, things that reflect the grand mystery of the Trinity. Things are more than they appear to be. Instead of trying to decide how much value the things around us add to our lives (what’s called axiology), we should be turning up our chins to worship the maker who gives them meaning. Axiology should always end with doxology. When it doesn’t, our souls shrivel. And why shouldn’t they, if we’ve detached the God-revealing creation from the life-giving Creator? May our hearts be wise to worship.
I’m glad a Dutchman broke my brain that day. He took me into a windowed room I’d never entered. And now the rest of the world is bathed in biblical light as I strive to stay low, worship well, and love deeply.
- "The Relevance of God"
- Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology
- Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge
- Vern S. Poythress, The Mystery of the Trinity