Some years ago I wrote a short article defending some of Van Til’s remarks on the Trinity and offering some criticisms of Gordon Clark’s view of the Trinity. In that article I noted a point of disagreement with Steve Hays. Whereas Steve had argued that Clark’s view reduces to modalism, I argued that his position is clearly a form of social trinitarianism (which I’ve contended elsewhere is not a form of monotheism and is thus unacceptable as an interpretation of orthodox trinitarian doctrine).
Well, after re-reading some of Clark’s writings on this issue, I’ve changed my mind. I’m happy to report that I no longer disagree with Steve. But that’s not to say I’ve abandoned my earlier conclusion. Rather, I now think we were both right (which is a much more agreeable position to take).
How can this be? It all depends on which passages in Clark’s writings you focus. On the one hand, if you focus on the passages where he expounds his definition of ‘person’, you’re led to the conclusion that his view reduces to modalism. On the other hand, if you focus on those passages where he tries to explain what unifies the persons of the Trinity, you’re led to the conclusion that he’s a social trinitarian.
Generally speaking, there are two basic approaches to developing a model for the Trinity. (By ‘model’ I mean a way of interpreting the claim that there is “one God who exists in three persons”.) The first approach is to start with the idea of one God (monotheism) and then try to explain how this one God could exist as three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The second approach is to start with the idea of three divine persons and then try to explain how these three can be considered one God, i.e., how trinitarianism can be considered monotheistic. (These two approaches are sometimes labeled the ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ approaches, respectively, although I suspect that terminology owes more to pedagogical utility than to historical accuracy.)
Interestingly, one finds both approaches in Clark’s writings on the Trinity. In his book The Incarnation he attempts to give an account of the plurality within the Godhead by arguing that what distinguishes the three persons is just the different first-person indexical propositions that constitute them. (Recall that Clark defined a person as “a composite [or complex] of propositions” — and in the case of divine persons, those propositions are all truths.) Examples of these differentiating propositions, according to Clark, would be “I was incarnated” and “I walked from Jerusalem to Jericho” (both of which belong uniquely to the Son). But as Steve pointed out, these propositions are contingent truths that concern the different economic roles of the divine persons, in which case the persons would be only contingently distinct. This, of course, is the hallmark of modalism: the relations between the persons of the Trinity are nothing more than contingent economic relations. Steve’s analysis was spot on.
But that’s not the end of the story. In his article ‘The Trinity’ Clark tries to give an account of the unity within the Godhead by appealing to Platonic realism about essences: the oneness of the Trinity consists in the fact that the three persons have one divine essence in common. On this view, the unity of the Godhead is a merely generic unity. But as I observed in my earlier article, this is the hallmark of social trinitarian models, and such models are wide open to the charge of tritheism. (More sophisticated versions of social trinitarianism attempt to deflect this objection by arguing that the persons are unified in further respects, e.g., they are necessarily united in love and in purpose, but Clark makes no such attempt.)
So it seems that Clark’s treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity is doubly deficient and doubly heterodox (at least in its implications). His account of the plurality within the Godhead leads to modalism. His account of the unity within the Godhead leads to social trinitarianism at best (and tritheism at worst).
But here’s the crowning irony: since modalist models and social trinitarian models are logically incompatible, Clark’s overall view of the Trinity (based on all his writings taken together) appears to be logically inconsistent. In other words, Clark’s view of the Trinity is paradoxical. This is rather unfortunate for one who so vehemently repudiated paradoxes in Christian theology! Perhaps Clark had more in common with Van Til than his followers care to concede.
I want to make clear that I’m not trying to argue that Clark was a heretic or anything of the sort. I don’t think that at all. It’s important to distinguish between those whose views appear to have unorthodox implications (implications which they themselves would repudiate) and those who knowingly promote unorthodox views that cause division in the church. I find much of Clark’s theology and philosophy to be problematic, but I’ve benefited from reading his books and I still consider him to be one of the Good Guys. And unlike some of his followers, I won’t dismiss him as an irrationalist simply because he advocates a paradoxical theology.