Clark, Van Til, and the Incomprehensibility of God

Although the discussion has been called a debate on the “incomprehensibility of God”, both Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til agreed that God is incomprehensible. By this, it is meant that no one does, or ever can, know God fully. The true nature of the debate is regarding the content of man’s knowledge and the content of God’s knowledge.  Is there a univocal point of commonality between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge? How is the knowledge in man’s mind related to the knowledge in God mind?
Van Til wished to emphasize what he called the “Creator-Creature distinction.” In Van Til’s view, God is wholly other than man and man can only know analogically what God knows by thinking it after God. He declared Clark’s position to be ignoring this Creator-Creature distinction.
Clark, however, did make a distinction between God and man in the area of knowledge; God knows things intuitively and man knows things discursively. God knows everything all at once and for always, man must work out his thoughts and can only have one thought at a time. It is the way in which God knows things that is different from man’s way of knowing things.  Knowledge itself can be shared when revealed by God to man. It is this knowledge that connects man and God in that we can know those propositions which He reveals to us. If we know anything truly, God knows it too. If our ideas are not God’s ideas then we know nothing. Van Til, by claiming our knowledge and God’s knowledge is analogical, is making a critical mistake. An analogy is used to show a similarity between two things. But, for Van Til there is no similarity, no sameness, in our knowledge and God’s knowledge. Van Til, by claiming our knowledge to be different in quality with God’s knowledge, I must agree with Clark, produces “unmitigated skepticism.”  What this “quality” of difference is I have yet to find in Van Til’s writings.
Van Til’s biographer, Muether, also says Clark didn’t withhold a distinction between God’s being and man’s being:
“Van Til established the similarity of the being and knowledge of man, as God’s image bearer, with God’s while denying their identity at any point. Gordon Clark, intolerant of any notion of mystery, committed the error of allowing the circles to touch.”.1
This is false. The being, or substance, of God is wholly other than man.  Muether has conflated two ideas here; being and knowledge.  The “circles” of man’s being and God’s being do not touch, this is true.  But the circles of knowledge do.  This though is a poor picture as God’s knowledge is infinite and no circle can be drawn around it.
God is distinct from man in his being. Our knowledge, when true, is identical to the knowledge God has. We will never have all the knowledge that it is in the mind of God for his mind is infinite. God reveals knowledge to us but no duration of time is sufficient for God to reveal his infinite knowledge to us. God knows everything and the relationships between everything all at once; man does not.
One may respond, “God’s way are not our ways, nor his thoughts our thoughts” which is certainly true. But this is a distinction between how we act and how God acts on knowledge. We never have sufficient knowledge to do things rightly, thus our ways and our thoughts are not holy like God’s. But God, in his wonderful plan, has revealed knowledge to us in the Scriptures, without which we would be lost.

1  – John Muether, Cornelius Van Til, Reformed Apologist and Churchman, P&R Publishing. Pg 116

3 thoughts on “Clark, Van Til, and the Incomprehensibility of God”

  1. Excellent summary of the distinctions between Clark and Van Til. The only area where I might have a question or two is on the definition of the word “infinite”. I think Clark talks about this somewhere or other. He said something about the word “infinite” means something more like “without measure” from a human point of view but not necessarily meaning that God’s knowledge extends forever and ever into infinity… God knows all the propositions there are to know and He knows them all at once. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Hi Doug,
    A friend of mine translate this article into Indonesian and I have published the translation om my blog:
    Hope you don’t mind.
    I am from Indonesia and here Clark has not been sufficiently known. Most books translated into Indonesians are of van Tillian perspective. I have for two years or so translated Clark’s work into Indonesian in my spare time. It seems to me that there is nobody interested in his works here.
    Wish you the best with your works on Clark’s biography.
    Ma Kuru

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