Gordon Clark and Theonomy

I basically consider myself a “Reformed Libertarian,” and regularly read C.Jay Engel’s blog http://reformedlibertarian.com. Recently there has been a lot of questions about Reformed Libertarianism and how it compares with Theonomy.  I haven’t studied Theonomy too aggressively but have this week read a few books on the topic.

A question I’ve been dealing with since this summer when I spoke at the Christian Libertarian’s conference is: what did Gordon Clark think about Theonomy?

I mentioned at this talk that Dr. Clark’s son-in-law told me that Clark was opposed to Theonomy. However, Dr. Clark never seemed to address the topic in his many writings.

Dr. Clark’s distaste for Theonomy can at least partially be explained but the fact that Theonomy grew out of Van Tillian circles. In fact, Theonomists claim to be the rightful heirs of Van Til’s philosophy. (a fact, which oddly enough, Van Til always denied).

Anyways, here at the Sangre de Cristo Seminary I am very fortunate to have access to Dr. Clark’s personal books and some of his papers. In his collection is a copy of “By What Standard” by Rousas Rushdoony. This seems to be THE book which started off the Theonomy movement. Contained in Dr. Clark’s copy of this book are some scattered notes and a review of another Rushdoony book. If only there were a review by Clark of “By What Standard” itself, we would know Clark’s opinion of it. But, we are not so fortunate.

There is perhaps one enlightening note of Dr. Clark’s written in the margins of the book. Rushdoony critiques Clark and praises Van Til, which likely did not contribute to win the graces of Clark to the Theonomy movement.
On page 127, Rushdoony writes, “If all facts are created facts, then no facts are neutral in their witness to the Creator, least of all man, not only a creature but formed in the image of God. To presuppose a neutrality of date, and to presuppose a neutrality of witness on man’s part, is to deny that God created all things and to deny that man is created in His image. The basic question is this: is man faceless? Is he no more than a blank? If he is faceless and a blank, then neutrality is possible. But if man is truly created in God’s image, then neutrality is an impossibility and the pretense to it no more than disguised hostility. To hold that neutrality is possible is to eliminate God as Creator and relegate Him, at best, to a position of another fact among many miscellaneous and manginess facts, a fact, moreover, which, like some strange species of life, remains unknown until discovered. This, in fact, is precisely what Clark does with God.”

Rushdoony then quotes Clark: “For an illustration, suppose that the discoverer of an uninhabited island in some remote ocean should search it to determine whether a particular form of animal life ever existed in that place. It is quite possible for him to search carefully and, discovering no evidence, still remain in ignorance. He could not be sure, however, that the particular animal had never lived on the island, because, even though the search had been diligent, still tomorrow the remains might be discovered. Similarly, aside from the question whether much or little evidence is needed to lead one to a belief in God, it is clear that no finite amount of searching could rationally lead one to deny the existence of God. During the time of the atheist’s investigation of this earth, it just might be that God was hiding on the other side of the moon, and if some rocket should take the atheist to the moon, there is no reason to hold that God might not go over to Jupiter – for the express purpose of inconveniencing the atheist.”
This quote is footnoted: “Gordon H. Clark: A Christian Philosophy of Education, p. 44 (Eerdman’s) On the other hand, Clark wisely observes, ‘instead of beginning with facts and later discovering God, unless a thinker begins with God, he can never end with God, or get the facts either’ (p. 38).”

Clark notes at the end of the chapter, referring to this paragraph and footnote of Rushdoony, “The author’s admission here shows that he misunderstood what he quoted on p. 127. In particular the author omitted the first sentence of my paragraph and hence failed to state what I was illustrating.”

This ‘first sentence’ in Clark’s book is “Now this denial [Atheism’s denial of the existence of God] results in such curious complications that it is hardly a tenable or choice-worthy theory.”

Well, this is all quite confusing I admit, even having these books in front of me. I would have to read them each more thoroughly and see the context of the argument. But, this is not the main point of this blog post. Rather, the main point is, the movement of Theonomy, coming out of Van Tillian circles (even though it didn’t have Van Til’s approval) was unlikely to receive the approval of Gordon Clark. Knowing Clark, I’m sure he would have had specific arguments against Theonomy, but as of yet, I don’t know what these were. And hence Theonomy’s greatest statement – “By What Standard?” – surely to the great delight of theonomists, remains unanswered by Clark at least.

4 thoughts on “Gordon Clark and Theonomy”

  1. I would not call Gordon Clark was a theonomist. However, the main thesis of Theonomy is this: “we should presume that Old Testament laws continue to be morally binding in the New Testament unless they are rescinded or modified by further revelation”. And Gordon Clark affirmed something like that in his book “What Do Presbyterians believe?”. So, maybe someone can call him a theonomist. In fact, I saw some people here in Brazil doing exactly that.

    1. Yeah, basically one could make a distinction like “Big L” and “little l” libertarians do. Clark was perhaps a “theonomist” but not a “Theonomist.” He certainly believed we should get our ethics from Scripture, he just didn’t come to the same conclusions as Bahnsen/Rushdoony etc.

  2. “If all facts are created facts, then no facts are neutral in their witness to the Creator, least of all man, not only a creature but formed in the image of God.”
    “All facts are created” seems to me to be so false that it falls into the category of gibberish. To be a fact requires the attribute of truth. Truth is eternal. Rushdoony boldly declares that truth is created. I am certain that he must also hold to the notion that logic (the laws of truth) is also created. To me this is the ultimate failure to recognize the creator/creature distinction that Van Tilians are so fond of bringing up.
    Truth is a quality of propositions only. A fact must be a true proposition. All true propositions have existed in the mind of God from all eternity. Whatever qualifies as a fact is not created.

  3. Your reasoning here is a non sequitur. Just because Rushdoony advocated Van Til’s theology and apologetics and Clark was misquoted by Rushdoony does not prove that Clark was opposed to theonomy as defined by Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith. I think you mean that Clark was opposed to theonomy as defined by Van Til’s followers, including Bahnsen and Rushdoony. The word theonomy just means God’s law. Clark obviously did not reject the moral law of God as there is an entire chapter on the law of God in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Clark was not a libertarian and neither was J. Gresham Machen if you mean that Machen thought that nations were not to be held accountable to obey the moral law of God. Obviously God is sovereign over nations and nations are held morally accountable to God for all their sinful rebellion. Not just individuals but nations will be judged and many have already been judged. Even the acts of God in nature illustrate this sufficiently. The tsunami that wiped out 250,000 or more people in 2004 is just one example of God’s judgment of nations.

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