top of page

Article course available: ...

Enhance your understanding and support Apologetics Central by acquiring your next read through the following selections. By clicking, you'll be directed to Amazon via our affiliate link, contributing to our mission with your purchase.


How the Trinity explains the problem of the one and the many

Updated: Mar 30

It has been humorously observed within philosophy departments that a common opening for undergraduate papers is the phrase: "For centuries, philosophers have debated <insert subject here>." This cliché holds particularly true for discussions surrounding the philosophical dilemma known as the problem of the one and the many. Even in scholarly works, this tendency persists. For instance, Dr. Bosserman, in his Ph.D. dissertation, remarks, "The problem of the one and the many has consistently been a significant quandary within Western philosophy." Similarly, Rushdoony begins his examination of the topic with, "The question of the one and the many and their interrelation remains a fundamental and enduring issue throughout human history." With this in mind, let us delve into the discussion...

The issue of the one and the many stands as a fundamental and widely recognized challenge within the annals of philosophical inquiry. Cornelius Van Til dedicated considerable effort to exploring the relationship between the Trinity and the one and the many, proposing the Trinity as a solution to this complex problem. It is important to clarify that Van Til did not suggest the Trinity as a solution that entirely dispels the mystery surrounding the issue. Instead, he posited that the Trinity offers a meaningful framework for understanding this problem. James Anderson notes that the dilemma of the one and the many is often seen as the core of Van Til's apologetic approach. [1]

If Van Til's perspective holds true, it is indeed remarkable that such a profound philosophical challenge may find its resolution within the most central doctrine of Christianity — the belief in one God manifesting as three distinct, co-eternal, and co-equal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each fully divine.

Therefore, this article aims to demystify the problem of the one and the many and to elucidate Van Til's proposed solution, as interpreted by his followers. Given the ambitious nature of this endeavour and the complexity of the subject matter, I will strive to clarify key concepts throughout our discussion and, towards the conclusion, recommend additional resources for those interested in exploring this topic further.

Preliminary terms defined

To grasp the essence of the problem effectively, it's essential to start by defining some key philosophical terms. It's important to note that these definitions align with their general use in secular philosophy and may differ when encountered in the works of Van Til and his proponents.

In the realm of metaphysics, a crucial distinction exists between abstract and concrete concepts. To clarify this difference, let's consider a few examples:

Abstract universal and concrete particular

  • Abstract Universal: Tennis.

  • Concrete Particular: A specific tennis match.

  • Abstract Universal: Redness.

  • Concrete Particular: A red traffic light or a red apple.

  • Abstract Universal: Running.

  • Concrete Particular: A specific instance of a dog running.

  • Abstract Universal: Dog.

  • Concrete Particular: A specific dog, whom we'll name Winston in our later examples.

  • Abstract Universal: Apple.

  • Concrete Particular: A specific apple.

From the examples provided, it becomes evident that universals are typically abstract, embodying the commonalities shared among particular instances, while particulars are concrete, representing individual occurrences or entities.

Abstract particular

Discussing abstract particulars is beneficial, and we will delve into the concept of concrete universals later. Van Til references abstract particulars in his writings, although he does not provide a detailed explanation. The notion of abstract particularity becomes pertinent when we examine the existence of multiple distinct entities (for example, numerous apples).

Van Til writes,

How do we know that the many do not simply exist as unrelated particulars? The answer given is that in such a case we should know nothing of them; they would be abstracted from the body of knowledge that we have; they would be abstract particulars.

We will provide a full quote from Van Til later to delve deeper into this topic. If the many distinct entities are unrelated, we encounter a conceptual challenge. Specifically, we cannot group individual items under the universal category of "apple" by stating "this is an apple" and "that is an apple" if we consider them to be completely unrelated particulars. The only workaround would be to refer to "this apple" and "that apple" as differing in their sense of the word "apple." However, this approach essentially strips the term "apple" of its meaning, making it impossible to discuss "apple" in any tangible, concrete sense, as previously illustrated.

Are you a Christian?

  • Yes

  • No


For our last definition, let's address the concept of predication. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that properties, which are considered universals, are entities that can be predicated of, or attributed to, things. Consequently, universals are frequently referred to as predicables. For instance, when we declare that something is a cup and it is yellow, we are attributing to it the properties of "cupness" and "yellowness."

What is the problem of the one and the many?

It would be useful for the reader to first watch the following 6-minute video before reading the rest of the article. The video will introduce a way of thinking which might assist in grasping the concepts discussed.

James Anderson writes that the ontological predicament in the problem of the one and the many is notoriously difficult to state with precision. He believes this is partly because any conceptual example we might employ to express it will in the nature of the case exemplify the problem (i.e. be an example of the problem itself) [2]. Anderson continues by describing the problem in the following manner: One intriguing feature of reality is that it exists in aspects of both unity ("human") and plurality (many distinct "humans"). He uses the example of Angus and Shona. Both manifest a unity as they are both human, and they manifest plurality as they are not the same, but distinct persons. To have knowledge of Angus, you'd need to be able to grasp both what unifies him with other things, in the world, and what distinguishes him from those other things [3].

Hence, he continues, it follows as a general principle that to have knowledge of objects in the world, the world must be such that its unity and plurality are related yet distinct. As such, the expressions of unity and plurality (e.g. Angus and Shona) in the world must themselves manifest unity (through relations of commonality) and plurality (through distinction).

The question naturally arises (as it did in ancient Greece) as to which aspect of

reality is ultimate. Is it unity, or plurality? If it is plurality, we end up with unrelated particulars of which nothing can be known in principle, as they become abstract particulars. If it is unity, we end up being unable to make any distinctions, so again, nothing can be known in principle.

From another perspective, Vern Poythress is a Van Tillian philosopher-theologian who has spent some time working on the problem. He describes the problem as follows: There are many horses, but one species of horse. There are many beautiful objects, but one idea of beauty belongs to them all. To link in with Anderson's example, there are two humans (e.g. Angus and Shona), but one idea of "humanness". How do the many things fit together to display a common single idea? [4].

R.J. Rushdoony is another philosopher-theologian who has done extensive work on the subject. In fact, he wrote an entire book on the topic. He greatly helps us in defining the one and the many.

The one can be a separate whole, or it can be the sum of things in their analytic or synthetic wholeness. That is, it can be a transcendent one, which is the ground of all being, or it can be an immanent one [5]. The many refer to the particularity or individuality of things; the universe is full of a multitude of beings; is the truth concerning them inherent in their individuality, or is it in their basic oneness? [6] So, does everything exist as unrelated particulars, or is everything essentially one?

Brant Bosserman perhaps captures it the best when he writes that the problem of the one and the many can be summarised from an epistemological perspective and is ultimately one of how we may be certain that our rational categories (the one) do justice to the Spatio-temporal objects (the many) they supposedly represent [7]. The common way presuppositionalists ask this question is in the form of "How do you know your sense perceptions correspond to reality".

Do you enjoy our content? Please subscribe on YouTube

Our videos will provide overviews of our research and articles as they are published, including interviews with top experts in the field.


In summary: In our general, everyday experience, we observe particulars and we organize them into categories that are supposed to encapsulate them. Every proposition in every language requires both universals (the one) and particulars (the many). Consider the phrase, "That dog is running." "That dog" is referring to a particular dog. But "particular dog" refers to a universal dogness by which one can reference a particular member of the universal category of dog. " running" has the same problem. It's a particular instantiation of an act known by the universal category of "to run."

So which comes first (logically), the universal categories of dog and run, or a particular dog that does an act known as running? That question is the problem of the one and many.

Greg Bahnsen describes the problem as follows (and he does so in a way that brings it all together quite nicely):

[We now think of the] reality of abstract entities or notion. [The question] is raised in a variety of forms, in connection with universals, ideas, general concepts, essences, categories, classes, set definitions, resemblances, predicates, properties, etc. - all of which are said to be applicable to, or inclusive of, many particulars. Although our observational experience is always of concrete, particular things, we often reason and speak in terms of abstract entities or concepts. In the sentence "The tree has green leaves," there is a reference to a particular tree, yet the term "tree" does not itself name that specific object; other objects take that designation as well. Likewise, may things have the term "green" applied to them, not simply the particular leaves of this particular tree... How can such references to unobserved generalisties, universals, and laws be made intelligible? Van Til noted, "The whole problem of knowledge has constantly been that of bringing the one and the many together".

Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic, pg. 238

The example of the many dogs

Let's imagine for a moment that we have two dogs in front of us (Winston and Porchy). When we say that "Winston is a small dog" it refers to the particular dog that is Winston. When we say that "dogs are incredibly cute", we are talking about the universal category of all dogs.

Although Plato and Aristotle (one of the earliest and greatest Greek philosophers) each prioritize the relationship between the one and the many differently, both are in agreement that universals are defined by their abstract forms [8][9].

Take Winston as an example. We first learn to classify him as a dog. We then learn to recognize similarities among similar animals and differences between them and other types of animals. We learn to classify Winston as a dog among many dogs. The form of "dog" is abstracted from the particulars, of Winston and Porchy.

But then, dogs can be grouped into larger classes still: canines, mammals, animals, living beings, beings, being [10]. The process of abstraction continues upward until we reach the highest level of abstraction - being (see fn 4). Each step goes deeper into the nature of reality - the essence of things. If we can know this, the secular philosopher thinks, we can know something of everything. We can gain a God's Eye view of the world.

Abstraction (philosophy). Aristotle
Abstraction. The form of "dog" is abstracted from the particular dogs.

But note that the process of abstraction (that keeps on generalizing), has a result of cognitive loss. Winston is more than just a dog. He has certain characteristics - he is white, has a long tail, is rather small, fat, etc. None of these qualities can be derived by simply calling him a dog. Some dogs have the qualities possessed by Winston, but others don't. So, every step on this ladder of abstraction is a step toward emptiness. The highest abstraction, being (or being in general), covers everything, but it includes nothing specific [11]. To say that Winston is being is to say nothing about him.

It is useful to point out that abstract forms do not exist somewhere in reality apart from the particulars. The abstract form of "dog" is not an actual existence like this dog or that dog (Winston or Porchy). Close your eyes and image "dog", without thinking of a specific dog. It's not possible. So, in a sense to say that Winston is a dog, is to say nothing about him as well. "Dog" is a meaningless concept in and of itself. There is nothing in the abstract universal itself that can relate it to Winston and Porchy. Note that in our previous figure, in the abstract form, we had the outline of a dog. But, this would be incorrect as even that would be a particular dog!

Abstract reasoning involves divorcing certain characteristics and features of the creation from their concrete contexts (e.g. being, "dog"), and treating them as if they were self-intelligible, immutable principles. So, we've seen that the process of abstraction leads to non-existent universals and that abstraction leads to cognitive loss.

But now, this abstract thinking not only leads to non-existent abstract universals but also "abstract particulars" that cause more problems [12]. If we are to really honor the uniqueness (particularity) of Winston and Porchy (existing in distinction from each other), we would be forced to give up the abstract universal that is "dog", and rather speak of this dog (Winston) and that dog (Porchy) equivocating on the word "dog". But in this case, the word "dog" loses its definition and each individual dog (Winston and Porchy) becomes its own abstract particular [13].

Hence, we can no longer meaningfully designate Winston or Porchy as "dog" in any concretely determined sense [14]. And so, the designation of Winston as a "dog" is carried into nothingness.

Abstract particulars
Abstract particulars

In summary: If we abstract Winston and Porchy into a single category of "dog" that should be understood in and of itself, we end up with an abstract universal that destroys particularity. If "dog" is more ultimate than Porchy or Winston, we have no accounting for how Porchy or Winston can arise in the first place. If we then try to honor their particularity by referencing them as "this dog" and "that dog", "dog" becomes an abstract particular that has no content. If all we have is abstract unity, there is no way to relate this to the particulars of experience. If all we have is abstract particularity, these particulars are by definition unrelated and we lose unity of experience

At this point, let's provide a well-known quote from Cornelius Van Til on the subject:

In seeking for an answer to the One-and-Many question, philosophers have admittedly experienced great difficulty. The many must be brought into contact with one other. But how do we know that they can be brought into contact with one another? How do we know that the many do not simply exist as unrelated particulars? The answer given is that in such a case we should know nothing of them; they would be abstracted from the body of knowledge that we have; they would be abstract particulars.
On the other hand, how is it possible that we should obtain a unity that does not destroy the particulars? We seem to get our unity by generalizing, by abstracting from the particulars in order to include them into larger unities. If we keep up this process of generalization till we exclude all particulars, granted they can all be excluded, have we then not stripped these particulars of their particularity? Have we then obtained anything but an abstract universal?

Van Til, The Defense of the Faith

Application to society

The question of the one and the many goes deeper than simply the objects of our experience. It's vast in its scope and consequences. We won't expand on this instance of the problem further than this section, but it is useful for the reader to see the far-reaching consequences of the problem. Rushdoony in Jerusalem and Athens expands on the problem in terms of societies. The question of the one and the many is also a question that is basic to every area of life. It makes a vast difference in society if we hold that the basic structure of man’s life is to be sought in the state as the unity or oneness of man and society [15], or if the basic structure of man's life is found within each individual man. Historically, if the basic structure is found in the state (the oneness is more ultimate than the particulars [people]) you end up with a totalitarian state. If the particulars are more ultimate, you end up with anarchy where each person does what he/she feels is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25).

This is also a point reiterated by Pastor Brant Bosserman in his many online discussions on the topic [16]. These discussions are incredibly helpful in addition to this article to understand the scope of the issue that is at stake here.

Something of this sort can be seen in a recent article The Economist. This was the header image on the article.

China, a totalitarian state (The Economist)
China, a totalitarian state (The Economist)

China is a classical example of a totalitarian state. This means that they have a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state. The image captures something of how the many are swallowed up by the one, almost to the extent they have been eliminated. Although there are many people in the image, they are somehow swallowed up by the bigger person, losing their identity.

Common answers to the problem of the one and the many

In the past philosophers have either tended toward nominalism or realism when it comes to the one and the many.

The broad category of nominalism

Basically stated, nominalism can be defined as the view that general categories such as horse and beauty are simply names ("nominal" etymologically means “of a name”). The names are invented by us after the objects already exist. So the many objects are prior to and more ultimate than the one name that unites them. [17]

Nominalism would state that the particular objects are more ultimate than the one name that unites them (i.e. dog, cup). There exist no inherent link between them, and the names, that we use to describe them are exactly that, simply a name that is invented.

If nominalism is the case, we are plagued by the perpetual problem of how we know that the categories we impose on the particulars do them justice. If it is the case that the ultimate nature of reality is that of distinct particulars with no inherent relationship with each other, nominalism as an approach is deficient as an explanation, because if the multiplicity of the many is the ultimate reality, why do they have anything at all in common that would justify the unity that we acknowledge by using a single name? We end up with abstract particulars.

It can be said that the name "dog" is simply something that is imposed on the particulars after some observation, but that would derail the intuition that there is something real called "dog" that actually connects that particular dog together. Is it then not the case that there is really something common to all the particulars we call dogs? Moreover, if our reality consists of unrelated abstract particulars, there is no unity between them that will allow us to group them together.

Even if somehow we get unity in the concept of "dog", this concept is not identical to any one dog. So how can we still say that any one dog is a dog, using a concept not identical to any one dog? Can it perhaps be via the matter of degree, in the sense that a particular conforms to some kind of exemplar? If this is the case, we still haven't solved the problem as there is no universal exemplar. Remember that according to nominalists, reality is ultimately many unrelated particulars.

It seems to be the case that we cannot produce real unity from particularity if it does not already actually exist [see fn. 17].

The broad category of realism

Realism can be defined as the philosophical approach known as realism says that general categories such as horse and beauty are real, in the sense that they exist somewhere (e.g. Plato's realm of forms). These real ideas are in some sense prior to and more ultimate than the particular instances of dogs. In particular instances, we see copies or embodiments of the ideas from which they derive. According to this way of thinking, we start with the one, namely, an idea. It might be the idea of "dogness". Then we derive the many, that is, the many instances of dogs in objects.

But this explanation does not provide a satisfying answer for how the many come about. If we start with a monolithic (indivisible) one, how can this one ever become many? In other words, if there really is only one idea, with unity and no diversity, how can diversity ever arise? It seems to be the case that we cannot imagine how to create diversity unless we already have it!

To state it differently, if all we have are abstract forms that shed the details of all the particulars of experience that are more ultimate than the particulars, where does the particularity come from?

Moderate realism

Moderate realism is opposed to both extreme realism (or realism in the sense as discussed above) (such as the theory of Platonic forms) and nominalism. Aristotle espoused a form of moderate realism, as did Thomas Aquinas. Moderate realism can be summarised as follows: There is no realm in which universals exist (against platonism), nor do they really exist within the individuals as universals, but rather universals really exist within the particulars as individualized and multiplied [18].

The Thomistic Institute has produced awesome videos on YouTube that explain a lot of the concepts in the thought tradition of Thomas Aquinas. One such video is on moderate realism. From the start of the video, you get a nominalist flavour to moderate realism (which makes sense as it's supposed to be a middle ground between the two). Near the end, it is explained that "The forms (universals) exist first within the particulars themselves". Furthermore, "when we apprehend a dog, we abstract the form of dogness in our minds". It remains it seems, as discussed at the beginning of the article, that we either end up with an abstract universal or an abstract particular that destroys any meaningful predication.

The Form-matter scheme

According to the Greek form-matter scheme, form is distinct from matter. The matter is what brings differentiation between different "dogs", where "dog" is the form. This scheme is unique as it seems to provide a middle-ground between those who believe reality is ultimately one, and those who believe it is ultimately many. The form-matter scheme seems to imply both.

This view, however, seems to imply some kind of defect on the side of the particulars. For example, if we have the form of "dogness", no one dog is identical with this form of "dogness", so this would imply that no one dog is perfect.

There is more to be said about the form-matter scheme as a way to ultimately understand reality. Vern Poythress has a chapter dedicated to it in his book, 'The Mystery of the Trinity' and ultimately concludes that it is useful, but has its limitations - and should not be used as the scheme to try and reach a Gods-eye view of reality, trying to fit everything under form and matter.

Bosserman also mentions the dialecticism of the form-matter scheme more in context of a critique. Dialecticism can be defined as a philosophical system that envisions the world to exist of two opposite but not opposed ideas. In this case, form and matter would be the opposites. The extreme, on the one hand, pure form, has no distinction. And on the other hand, prime/ultimate matter is indefinable. Frame writes that if we were to discover some ultimate matter, what would it be? If it were identifiable and describable then it would be subject to further analysis. Thus, if it were really ultimate, nothing can be said about it.

Form and matter visualised. Aristotle
Form and matter

Both concepts of pure form and pure matter and empty and uninformative. These concepts are meaningless and cannot relate to each other - yet this is exactly what many people put forth as some kind of solution [19]. Moreover, even if these concepts were to relate somehow, it still leaves us with the unanswerable question of how the relationship between the one (pure form) and the many (ultimate matter) will continue to be conducive to knowledge [20]. We seem to be without a standard for supposing that the flux and irrationality of the many will not somehow swallow up the one, or that the one will not swallow up the many and bring everything to a standstill [21]. What stops the principle of pure chance from swallowing up the law-like structure of the forms? What stops the lawlike structure of the forms from swallowing up the pure chance?

The origin of the problem of the one and the many [22]

By now the reader might wonder where this problem comes from, and why it doesn't really seem like a problem in our everyday lives. In short, the answer to the former is because of sin, and the answer to the latter is because reality is God's created reality, with all the particulars pre-interpreted by Him. We've spent quite some time defining the problem. It is useful to trace its roots, as that will assist us in seeking to find an explanation for the problem later on.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. On the sixth day, He created Adam. Adam knew His Creator immediately on creation, and naturally obeyed God when he was confronted with the requirements of the covenant God made with him. With his covenantal vision of reality, Adam was able to organize the world around him. He could reason systematically (relating facts to a system of thought) where special revelation was allowed to illuminate natural revelation, and vice versa so that he would develop an ever deeper knowledge of reality.

In the fall (Genesis 3), Adam and Eve were for the first time invited to reason abstractly by the serpent, and this way of thinking has governed secular philosophy ever since.

The serpent, by suggesting that God lied about the penalty that would follow from eating from the Tree of Good and Evil, the serpent in effect asked man to reason autonomously. No longer should special revelation and natural revelation be used in harmony, but in fact, special revelation should be regarded as inessential or questionable.

No longer is systematic reasoning, as informed by divine revelation, possible. Think about it. We cannot hope to know the entire universe in exhaustive detail (perhaps that is why God created the universe as big as it is - so we are continuously confronted with our own finitude). Hence, we cannot confidently engage in systematic reasoning. If knowledge is about relating things to an all-encompassing whole, we must either know everything or nothing can be known [23]. It is not inconceivable that an unforeseen fact might render everything we currently believe false. Fallen man, then, recognizes the need to have certain immutable reference points if we are to possess any knowledge. The solution, then, is to turn to abstractions as we discussed previously. These abstractions are supposed to replace God by accounting for the relative unity/normalcy we find in the particulars.

But these abstractions, since they shed the details of the particulars, will not be able to account for the particularity that gives diversity to experience (only having the form of dog cannot account for the diverse amount of dogs we experience!). Therefore fallen man must appeal to some principle of irrational chance that acts as some kind of anti-principle to the abstractions (one) that brings about change and diversity (many). In this way, brute facts (things that have no explanation - pure chance) can exist alongside unchanging laws.

And so, the fallen man is not able to think in a way that is independent of their Creator and His revelation but ends up creating for himself the problem of the one and the many.

The answer


Unity in God is no more fundamental than diversity, and diversity in God 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 par with the Father [24]. 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.

Bosserman writes that on the presupposition of the Trinity, Van Til believes it to be clear why He (God) would not be subject to the problem of the one and the many. He Himself is harmony between unity and diversity. The one God cannot recede into oblivion as an abstract universal because He is concretely and infinitely defined in relationship to the many (three) persons. Nor can the three degrade into irrational particulars that evade definition at some point, for they are defined by the trinitarian dynamic. In God, the one and the many are equally ultimate. It is interesting that some in the Reformed Thomist camp believe that the many lies solely on the side of creation. But this seems rather strange, as God is the eternal one and many. He existed from all eternity as the Trinity - the Faher, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as one God.

The importance of Christian reasoning and the derivative one and many

Poythress provides a sober warning for us at this point. In doing this reasoning, he writes, it makes all the difference whether we are operating with a Christian or a non-Christian view of knowledge of God. If we are using classes and instances and harmonious associations in creation as a model to which God must conform, we are bringing God down to the level of creature. On the other hand, we may say that our experience of classes, instances, and associations is an experience that is not self-sufficient but has its origin and final explanation in God. God is the archetype and reflects who is His in the ways in which he relates to the created world.

This is to say that creation is modelled after the Creator, and not vice versa. God has named the creature according to what is found in the Creator. We would be incorrect to use our experience of the one and the many as a model for what God must be like. If we do this, we don't escape the problem, and it's unclear how God would escape the problem to act as a sufficient explanation - he would be subject to it!

Van Til mentions this as well and writes, that the Christian finds it necessary to distinguish between the Eternal One-and-Many and the temporal one and many. Non-Christian philosophers on the other hand find it unnecessary to make this distinction. We find this necessary of course because our conception of God as the triune God stands at the centre of our thinking. We may express this thought philosophically by saying that for us the eternal one and many form a self-complete unity.

It goes without saying that if we hold to the eternal one and many in the manner explained above, we must hold the temporal one and many to be created by God. Reality is marked by unity and diversity because it is the creative work of the Triune God who is the ultimate unity and diversity. Creation is inspired by nothing other than the Triune God [25], and hence creation is an analogue of the Creator who made it.

If the creation doctrine is thus taken seriously, it follows that the various aspects of created reality must sustain such relations to one another as have been ordained between them by the Creator, as superiors, inferiors, or equals. All aspects being equally created, no one aspect of reality may be regarded as more ultimate than another. Thus the created one and many may in this respect be said to be equal, they are equally derived and equally dependent upon God who sustains them both [26].

To state it in simple terms, both Winston and Porchy (our two dogs) and the relation between them are both products of the creation of the Triune God. To demand that the relation between them be more ultimate than Winston on Porchy, or vice versa, is not to reckon with the doctrine of creation in a proper manner.

In Jerusalem and Athens, Rushdoony writes the following,

As Van Til makes clear, the metaphysical implications of the creation doctrine are that the ultimacy of the one and the many is to be found only and exclusively in God, and that therefore the one and the many can never exist independently of one another or in essential conflict with one another, in that both are derivative. The one and the many are thus not essentially alien things which imply a dualism and can be held together only in dialectical tension lest the one reduce the other to nothing and itself to meaninglessness. The one and the many are absolutely under God and therefore totally subject to God and his law. They are absolutely subject to his creative purpose and a part of his sovereign decree.
It follows, [also], that, since the answer to the one and the many problem is found in God, Van Til points out that the doctrine of the ontological trinity brings to an end the necessity for any tension between the two. It is not the one nor the many which is ultimate, but it is rather the equal ultimacy of the one and the many because of the ultimacy of the triune God.

Rushdoony, Jerusalem and Athens

Freed from the problem

Frame writes that the mystery is not how abstract universals and abstract particulars can meaningfully relate, they can't. We need to reckon with the Christian God (trinity) at the start of our thinking process as the personal one and many. The ultimate unity of creation is not found in a concept (like being), but rather in a Person. The particularities are also divine, as God's plan is his own self-expression [27].

A world totally under God, a world in which the created one and many are absolutely determined and governed by the eternal one and many, is a world with purpose and meaning. History is rescued from meaninglessness. Instead of being a collection of brute facts without meaning, of abstract particulars and abstract universals, history has purpose and direction [28].

God stands in contrast with the idolatrous concepts of abstract unity and abstract particularity. His plan redemptive-historical plan is perfectly unified, nothing is out of order, and nothing is not known to Him.

Daniel Akande describes it as follows:

The Christian presupposes the Triune God whose creative act accounts for the diversity in human experience. Every fact, object, event, owe their being to the creative act of God. Also, every fact, object, event, is related to every other in the comprehensive system which has existed for all eternity in God’s mind. For the Christian metaphysician, God’s mind provides the unity. What we have in this system, then, is an eternal unity.

Daniel Akande, Unity vs. Unity

This brings us to the necessity of God's verbal revelation.

The light of God's Word and revelation

We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ

2 Corinthians 10:5, ESV

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

Psalm 119:105, ESV

God's revelation is the only light in Whom the creation can be understood.

The Trinity can facilitate concrete thinking in men because He, as an Absolute person can verbally disclose a finite, but a dependable description of his eternal plan with which people may organize the facts of nature and in turn, refine their vision of the whole. The consistent believer accepts God's self-attesting revelation at the beginning of his theoretical and practical project.

Without the concretely revealed knowledge of God's triunity and his relation to the world as its Creator, the problem of particulars and universals can only be tackled in the abstract fashion discussed above [29].

Every human mind is endowed with an intrinsic awareness of God. Christians and non-Christians alike participate in the truth of God and His creation. Only in light of this truth can the human mind make sense of the reality that we perceive [30].

The issue, however, is that we don't know all the details of God's plan in history. We don't have a God-eye view of the world, and we never will. So what do we make of this?

We need the trustworthy Word from the Creator who modelled the creation after Himself on a finite level. As a child, we turn to God in faith and take His Word as our interpretive framework which we use to organize the facts around us. So, yes, we'll never have a comprehensive view of reality, but we know the God who does. And via His revelation we can start to reason analogically, having faith that through His guidance, we can correctly interpret the world around us although we'll never exhaustively understand it in the way God does.

Van Til brilliantly summarised it as follows:

My unity is that of a child who walks with its father through the woods. The child is not afraid because its father knows it all and is capable of handling every situation.

The summarised the answer once again, we quote at length from Bosserman:

The Trinity solves the problem, not as a theoretical explanation for how universal principles and ideas control matters of fact, but as a personal Authority Who is a perfect harmony of unity and diversity in Himself, and thus uniquely qualified to guide man in developing an analogous harmony in his own life and thought. Apologetically, the Trinitarian perspective carries with it an illuminating diagnosis of sinful thinking as the self-defeating attempt to treat principles found in creation, rather than the Creator, as the ultimate sources of unity and/or diversity in reality. In terms of systematic theology, the doctrine of the Trinity proves to foster the sort of coherence between Christian doctrines after which unbelievers may only grope.

Bosserman, B. A. The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til

But what do we make of "abstraction"?

J. Alexander Rutherford has written two interesting articles on the issue of abstraction from a Christian perspective. The non-Christian must resort the abstractions for knowledge simply because they've never experienced and can never hope to experience all the particulars of the world. They regard abstractions as true knowledge and disregard particulars. If knowledge is about relating things to an all-encompassing whole, “all things must be exhaustively known, or nothing can be known”. [31]

But when you read Frame in Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, he makes the point that we cannot really escape "abstraction". Indeed, even names like Winston or Porchy are abstractions of the particular dogs underlying those names. Do we as Christians not use categories like "dog" to group Winston and Porchy as well? Yes.

We are not opposed to considering things in relative isolation from their context to arrange them systematically. However, the negative form of abstraction involves treating any feature of the creation as if it were self-evident apart from revelation.

Rutherford writes,

In short, abstraction according to the Biblical worldview describes relationships we perceive between the particular objects of our experience. These relationships are not themselves objects of knowledge but conceptual bridges that allow us to utilize the knowledge we already have in understanding new objects we experience.

Perhaps a Biblical example will suffice

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

1 John 3:16, ESV

How do we know love? We know what love is through the concrete act of redemption on the cross when Jesus laid down His life for us. Love is not an abstract concept that the atonement happens to partake in. No, love is defined through the concrete act of the atonement, and we can recognize relationships between the love of Christ for His church on the cross and the self-sacrificing love of a husband for his wife. Love is therefore a relationship we perceive between what Christ did, and what a husband does for his wife.

The universal, love, is therefore not simply an abstract set of qualities that are shared by multiple particular acts of our experience. It is a definite history and trajectory, as well as the concrete interaction between particulars that are marked by similar and congenial attributes [32].

The red apple

In the embedded video at the top of this article, the example is used of a red apple. If reality consists of abstract particulars, to designate the perceived object as red and apple, is to bring the object together with other objects in the class of "redness" and "apples". Knowing that reality is the created analogue of the Triune God who Himself has called us to organize the facts of experience around us, we have faith that the facts of experience are not unrelated particulars. They are particulars eternally related in the comprehensive plan and knowledge of God. We can therefore bring the objects of experience into relation with each other, and start to investigate creation more deeply and deeply as we organize, classify and correct our system of knowledge.

We do this with the guidance of our Father, and the goal of our system is to reflect His system on a finite level.

Closing thoughts and conclusion

Once we start to understand the problem of the one and the many, we'll start to see it pop up everywhere. Here's a brief list to get your mind going (keep in mind that men have avoided the answer to the problem of the one and the many because they reject the God who is the answer.):

  • One law or group of laws that do justice and meet the needs of all the people in a country at the same time (that invites no opposition in the parliament).

  • A coin toss (and every other statistical occurrence that can be modelled). For example, there are many coins tossed, but they are all related and described by the single probability distribution.

  • Maleness. Is maleness a concept that we impose on particular people that does violence to them as individuals/particulars? The worldview underlying transgenderism seems to be nominalistic at heart.

If at any point we deny the God who has pre-interpreted all of reality, all we are left with are empty abstractions or abstract particulars, neither of which can furnish us with knowledge.

Because the facts have been authoritatively and comprehensively interpreted by God, in order to have knowledge of facts, man must seek to mirror the system in God’s mind. Since God’s interpretation is constructive of the world of facts, man must consult that interpretation in order to properly interpret the facts. Reasoning analogically is a necessary consequence of the Christian philosophy of fact.

Daniel Akande, Brute Facts Are Mute Facts: A Van Tilian Transcendental Argument


[1] Anderson, J., 2005. If knowledge, then God: The epistemological theistic arguments of Plantinga and Van Til. Calvin Theological Journal

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Poythress, V.S., 2018. Knowing and the Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity. P & R Publishing. pg. 236

[5] Although Rushdoony provides his own clarification, it might prove valuable to spend some more time on the definition of the one before we move on. Rushdoony points out that the one can either be imminent, or transcendent. Immanent means the sum of all things (e.g. a group of objects categorized together), or a transcendent one as in the case of Plotinus and Aquinas, where the one acts as the ground of all other beings. This has links with a participation ontology which will be discussed later in the article.

[6] Chalcedon (en-US). 2021. Philosophy: The Problem of the One and the Many. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 April 2021].

[7] Bosserman, B. A.. The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til (p. 52).

[6] The idea of abstract forms undergirds the process of abstraction as applied to universals and particulars,that underlies a substantialist way of thinking.

[7] Kai, S., 2018. G.W.F. Hegel. P & R Publishing Company.

[8] Frame, J.M., 1995. Cornelius Van Til. P&R Pub..

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kai, S., 2018. G.W.F. Hegel. P & R Publishing Company.

[11] An abstract particular is a particular object severed from its defining idea. Without the species "dog" as its form, the name "Winston" or "Porchy" is but the empty name of an individual object that cannot be identified.

[12] Kai defines "concrete" as the ultimate unity of particulars and universals, seen as an inseparable whole. Britannica defines concrete as such entities as persons, physical objects, and events (or the terms or names that denote such things), as contrasted with such abstractions as numbers, classes, states, qualities, and relations.

So, when we say that "we can no longer meaningfully designate Winston or Porchy as "dog" in any concretely determined sense", it means that the form of "dog", when we honor the particularity of different dogs, has lost its meaning and each dog (when we say this dog, or that dog) has become an abstract concept linked to the particular in question, hence abstract particular. "Dog" is no longer a "abstract universal" with any meaning. It cannot the abstract particular "dog" of Winston cannot be applied to Porchy.

[13] Rushdoony, Jerusalem and Athens.

[14] For example, see Bosserman's discussion with Eli Ayala and with Parker Settecase.

[15] Poythress, V.S., 2018. Knowing and the Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity. P & R Publishing. pg. 237

[16] Ibid.

[17] Poythress, V.S., 2018. Knowing and the Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity. P & R Publishing. pg. 236

[18] Psychology Wiki. 2021. Moderate realism | Psychology Wiki | Fandom. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 22 April 2021].

[19] Frame, J.M., 1995. Cornelius Van Til. P&R Pub..

[20] Bosserman, B. A.. The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til (p. 52).

[21] Bosserman, B. A.. The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til (p. 91-92).

[22] Bosserman, B. A.. The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til.

[23] Van Til, C. IST, pg. 163

[24] Poythress, V.S., 2018. Knowing and the Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity. P & R Publishing. pg. 244

[25] Bosserman, How The Trinity Explains Everything | w/Dr. Brant Bosserman - PPP ep. 35, 40:00.

[26] Poythress, V.S., 2018. Knowing and the Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity. P & R Publishing. pg. 244

[27] Frame, J.M., 1995. Cornelius Van Til. P&R Pub..

[28] Rushdoony, The one and the many, Jerusalem and Athens

[29] Kai, S., 2018. G.W.F. Hegel. P & R Publishing Company.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Bosserman, B. A.. The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til (p. 91). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[32] Bosserman, B. A.. The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til (p. 241-242). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.




Stephen Richards
Stephen Richards

Really helpful - thanks!

"Poythress provides a sober warning for us at this point...." Can you provide the citation for the warning? I know you wrote this a while ago!

Stephen Richards
Stephen Richards

Thanks! I found you yesterday, and am loving your articles!



It seems to me that articles like this one confuses "the problem of the one and the many" with "the problem of universals". They are not the same. The problem of the one and the many isn't about how we compare 2 apples with each other; that is the problem of universals. The problem of the one and the many is what is the one underlying thing that unifies every particular.

Arne Verster
Arne Verster

Interesting. I think the problem of universals is part of the problem of the one and the many. The problem of the one and the many is incredibly broad. Greg Bahnsen gives an example of the problem of the one and the many as follows: “Philosophers see in the world certain particulars as well as a basic underlying unity. For instance, many particular dog breeds exist: dachshunds, Dobermans, terriers, pit bulls, etc. Yet all of these have a basic unity, which we might call ‘dogness.’ They are all members of the one biological family known as Canidae. The many dogs are related by their one dogness.” (Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen, American Vision,…


Published by Apologetics Central

At Apologetics Central, we are committed to providing biblically grounded, Reformed presuppositional apologetics resources to equip believers in defending the Christian faith. As a ministry, we strive to uphold the truth of God's word and present it winsomely to a world in need of the gospel.

bottom of page