Elements of Gordon Clark's Theory of Knowledge

Elements of Gordon Clark’s Theory of Knowledge

This post seeks to clarify Gordon Clark’s theory of knowledge by first evidencing how he defined some of his terms and then enumerating key elements of his theory.

A. Definitions

Belief – assent to an understood proposition.

Taking into consideration the various places where Clark speaks of “belief,” the term for Clark is best defined as “assent to an understood proposition.” In his book Faith and Saving Faith, Clark writes, “Belief is the act of assenting to something understood.” (p. 51) And in his audio lecture “A Defense of Christian Presuppositions in the Light of Non-Christian Presuppositions,” Clark says, “Belief is assent. It is assent to an understood proposition.” (min 106)

Truth – the propositions God thinks.

In Clark’s unpublished systematic theology, First Lessons in Theology, he writes, “Truth is what God thinks or knows.” And since the “what” must be propositions [See attribute 1 below], we can say truth is the propositions God thinks. God thinks no false propositions, for it is his very thinking a proposition which makes it true. As Clark writes, “A proposition is true because God thinks it so.” – An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 66.

Knowledge – the possession of a truth (by a mind).

In Clark’s A Christian View of Men and Things, he writes Knowledge means the possession of truth.” (p. 217). In his audio lecture “Language, Truth, and Revelation, Part 2” he asked rhetorically “and is not knowledge the possession of a truth?” And writing for the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Clark provides a definition, “Presumably knowledge, if it be defined at all, means the possession of truth by a mind.” This latter definition is more complete as it gives what — the mind — possesses the truth.

Omniscient / omniscience – having all knowledge.

In his audio lecture, “A Defense of Christian Presuppositions, Clark says: “God is omniscient. He has all knowledge.” God does not “know falsehoods” for the simple reason that this is a contradiction in terms. Further, all which God thinks is true is true by virtue of it being thought by God. As Clark writes, “God is the source and determiner of all truth.” – An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 65. And again: “God is eternally omniscient. He has not learned his knowledge. And since God exists of himself, independent of everything else, indeed the Creator of everything else, he must be the source of his own knowledge.” – An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 65.

Fact – a value with a variable error of zero.

Although “fact” isn’t as prominent a term in epistemology as are belief, truth, and knowledge, I’ve listed Clark’s definition here for good measure. In his debate with David Hoover, minute 58, Clark says “my definition of fact is a value with a variable error of zero.”

B. Attributes of Truth

1. (All) Truth is propositional.

Clark’s view that truth is necessarily propositional is widespread and frequent in his works. For example, in his audio lecture “Language, Truth, and Revelation, Part 2” he says “knowledge always comes in propositions” [min 11], “The content of knowledge is always propositional” [min 12], and “all truth comes in propositions.” [min 13] Again, in his debate with David Hoover, Clark says “truth in my opinion is always a quality of propositions.” [min 148] And in A Christian View of Men and Things, Clark writes, “The object of knowledge is a proposition.” (p. 319). So numerous are the references to this point of Clark’s theory in his works that those listed above make for only a small sample.

2. Truth is consistent / systematic / coherent.

It is also clear from Clark’s works that he holds to the Coherence Theory of Truth; that is, the theory that no two true propositions contradict one another.

In his audio lecture “How Does Man Know God,” Min 30, Clark says, “Whatever contradicts itself is not truth. Truth must be consistent.” In A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 25, he writes, “[if there is a God] Instead of a series of disconnected propositions, truth will be a rational system, a logically ordered series, somewhat like geometry with its theorems and axioms, its implications and presuppositions. And each part will derives its significance from the whole. Christianity therefore has, or, one may even say, Christianity is a comprehensive view of all things: it takes the world, both material and spiritual to be an ordered system.” And in An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 60, he writes, “Truth is not thus disjointed. It is systematic.”

3. Truth is eternal

Knowledge therefore requires an existing object, and that object is truth — truth that always has and always will exist.” – A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 319.

4. Truth is unchangeable / immutable.

It follows then that truth must be unchangeable. What is true today always has been and always will be true. … To speak of truth as changing is a misuse of language and a violation of logic.” – A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 319.

This is not to say that the proposition “George Washington is alive” is eternally true. This proposition is vague; it is incomplete. The eternal proposition will be “George Washington is alive at time T on day D.” This proposition is either true or false for all eternity.

5. Truth is mental / spiritual.

If a truth, a proposition, or a thought were some physical motion in the brain, no two persons could have the same thought. A physical motion is a fleeting event numerically distinction from every other. … If one may think the same thought twice, truth must be mental or spiritual. – A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 319-320.

C. Important Elements of Gordon Clark’s theory of Epistemology

1. Belief and faith are synonymous terms.

There has been debate over the legitimacy of the phrase “justification by belief” between some who affirm to be Clarkians and some who do not follow Clark, but there is no doubt what Clark held. In his audio lecture “A Defense of Christian Presuppositions in the Light of Non-Christian Presuppositions,” min 106, Clark says, “And so believing, and I really prefer the word believing, because the word faith is Latin, and I don’t like Latin, I like the Greek pistueo.” Clark also writes, “Exegesis will reveal that faith, Christian faith, is not to be distinguished from belief.” – Religion, Reason, and Revelation, p. 99. And in two other places he uses the terms interchangeably: 1: Faith or belief is a gift from God and he gives it to whom he will.” – The Holy Spirit, p. 83. And 2: “The distinction between the faith the devil has and the kind the regenerate man has, is not in the mental function involved, but it is a difference of object. We put our faith or belief in Christ’s finished work for us; the devil does not.” – Clark to J. Oliver Buswell, Feb. 9, 1939.

2. Man was created with (innate) knowledge.

What is implied in Genesis is expanded in Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10. These two passages, in explaining regeneration as a sort of new creation, teach that man was originally created in knowledge and in righteousness.” – Clark-Hoover debate, minute 14-15.

The Scriptures do not discuss empiricism as such, but the doctrine of the image of God in man, the law written on the hearts of the Gentiles, and the transmission of original sin all indicate an innate, non-empirical inheritance, which precludes this philosophy.” – “Empiricism” in Encyclopedia of Christianity.

I hold that every man is made in the image of God, and that every man has what may conveniently be called an innate idea of God.” – Clark to J. Oliver Buswell, Nov. 10, 1947.

Is it not possible that the knowledge of God is innate? May we not have been born with an intuition of God, and with this a prior equipment we see the glory of God upon the heavens? – What Presbyterians Believe, p. 7.

3. The role the senses play in knowledge acquisition is as a “stimulus to intellectual intuition.”

Though Gordon Clark frequently critiqued the philosophy of empiricism, it is false to conclude that he allowed for no role of the senses of seeing, hearing, etc. Granted, Clark disagreed with the theories of sensation provided (or usually not even provided) by empiricists and other philosophers. He rejected their theories. But, this does not mean he was left without any theory of sensation. Clark accepted St. Augustine’s view that the senses provide a stimulus to recollection as the follow extended quotes show:

Dr. Robert L. Reymond … writes, “There are scores of Biblical passages which teach by inference if not directly that sensory experience plays a role in knowledge acquisition.” And he gives these various Scriptural references. “It seems to me” (me here refers to Reymond) “it seems to me that before he (that’s myself) will convince many Christians of his position, that Clark must explain satisfactorily in another way which is virtually universally taken, literally hundreds of passages of Scriptures which employ the words see, hear, read, listen, and so on.” “At this time I am not convinced that he is accord with Scripture when he denies to the senses a role in knowledge acquisition and would hope that he would take the Greek skeptics less seriously and the implications in many of the subsidiary axioms of Scriptures more seriously than he does.” … His words “denies to the senses a role in knowledge acquisition” are vague. For the do not specify what role. And, I have talked with Reymond personally and asked him make it clear what role does he give to sensation. And neither to me in conversation nor in his books does he give any notion of the role sensation plays. Animals have more acute sensations than human beings, but they know no mathematics, construct no syllogisms, nor do they write narratives. Sensation does not help them in these matters. Sleeping and eating play a role in knowledge acquisition in this life. For without them we them we would not remain in this life. But their role contributes nothing the content of knowledge. Nutrition plays a role, but it is not true that Der Mensch ist was er isst [A man is what he eats]. … Philosophers who insist on giving a role to sensation in the acquisition of knowledge should first define sensation, which they never do, at least the Christian apologetes never do. Then show how sensation can become perception, which they never do. And presumably how memory images can produce universal concepts by abstraction. If this is not their scheme, and that is the usual scheme in the history of philosophy, if that is not their scheme, and it might not be, then they should describe in detail what their scheme is. It is not enough to speak vaguely about some role or another. Plato gave the senses role of stimulating reminiscence. Presumably this role would not satisfy Dr. Reymond. St. Augustine, though he altered his views as he grew older, gave a different role to sensation, and without too much distortion one may call it a “stimulus to intellectual intuition.” – “A Christian Construction, Part 2.” (Also see: Language and Theology, p. 114.)

And from the audio lecture, “A Contemporary Defense of the Bible”:

Questioner: In your philosophy, when you read, what role does reading have? When you see what role does seeing have?

Clark: A stimulus to recollection if you wish.

Questioner: Dr. Clark, I want to know if faith comes by hearing and hearing by preaching the word does not our sensory organs have some type of role in coming to know knowledge?

Clark: Yes. It is like the violin that reminds you of Mischa Elman or whoever else it may be. There is sensory stimulation, but the stimulation, the sense material, will never give you the knowledge. Our knowledge is due to the light that lightens every man that comes into the world. And the reason is that God’s mind and our minds penetrate. We exist in God. And maybe I might not want to press it quite as far as the author of this expression pressed it but we see all things in God. We live and move and have our being in God and he uses these things to stimulate us but the knowledge itself, the propositions, cannot be deduced from any sensory experience.

I can’t do much better explaining this than Gary Crampton in “Scripturalism: A Christian Worldview”:

The Bible teaches, as stated by John Calvin, that the Spirit of God has implanted an innate idea of Himself, a sensus divinitatis, in all men, which is propositional and ineradicable. This is due to the fact that all men are created in the image of God. When man interacts with God’s creation, which demonstrates His glory, power, and wisdom, man, as God’s image, is forced, in some sense, to “think God.” The visible creation itself does not mediate “knowledge” to man (as in the epistemology of Thomas Aquinas), for the visible universe sets forth no propositions. Rather, it stimulates the mind of man to intellectual intuition (or recollection), who as a rational being is already in possession of apriori, propositional information about God and His creation. This apriori information is immediately impressed upon man’s consciousness, and it is more than adequate to show that the God of the Bible is the one and only true God. Yet, without the “spectacles” of special revelation, all of the evidences speak in vain. One must not attempt to prove God; He is the necessary premise for all proof. Since all knowledge must come through propositions (which are either true or false), since the senses in interacting with creation yield no propositions, knowledge cannot be conveyed by sensation. Rather, as noted above, the senses apparently stimulate the mind of man to intellectual intuition, to recollect the God-given innate ideas that man already possesses. Gordon Clark used the illustration of a piece of paper on which is written a message in invisible ink. The paper (by illustration, the mind) might appear blank, but in actuality it is not. When the heat of experience is applied to the mind (as when heat is applied to the paper), the message becomes visible. Human knowledge, then, is possible only because God has endowed man with certain innate ideas.

4. The Correspondence Theory of knowledge should be rejected.

Suffice it to say that if the mind has something which only corresponds to reality, it does not have reality; and if it knows reality, there is no need for an extra something which corresponds to it.” – “The Bible as Truth.”

5. Knowledge is justified true belief. (when each of these terms is understood in a particular way)

Students of Dr. Clark’s thought have come to opposite conclusions on the question of whether, for Clark, a true belief must be justified to be considered knowledge. Those who say “no” (i.e. knowledge is true belief) include David Tay and Jason Petersen.. On the other hand, those who say “yes” (i.e. knowledge is justified true belief) include John Robbins, Gary Crampton, Sean Gerety, Cal Beisner, Ryan Hedrich, Luke Miner, Cjay Engel, Tim Shaughnessy, and Carlos Montijo.

Jason Petersen: http://answersforhope.org/a-conversation-with-luke-miner/

[Edit, 5/30/2018, Jason apparently has come to agree that knowledge is justified true belief. He comments “I still don’t like jtb as a term, but this is my conclusion as well.”]

David Tay: https://davidtay81.wordpress.com/2016/01/03/gordon-clarks-view-of-knowledge-true-belief-or-justified-true-belief/

John Robbins (from 2003): “Knowledge is true opinion with an account of its truth.” http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=192

Gary Crampton (from 1997): The Scripturalism of Gordon H. Clark

Cal Beisner: “knowledge (which is justified true belief)” http://www.christianheadlines.com/news/two-evangelicals-rejection-of-reason.html

Sean Gerety: https://godshammer.wordpress.com/2016/01/16/whitefield-follies/

Luke Miner: http://scripturalism.com/is-knowledge-merely-true-opinion/

Cjay Engel and Luke Miner: http://scripturalism.com/gordon-clark-and-knowledge-on-justification/

Tim Shaughnessy and Carlos Montijo: http://thescripturalist.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-marks-of-true-clarkian.html

I had originally tried to write a summary of this question and my view of the answer, but I found that the post on Scripturalism.com (http://scripturalism.com/gordon-clark-and-knowledge-on-justification/) is better than what I had done. Thus, I recommend it along with the post of Tim and Carlos. And so, for the record, I hold that Clark held knowledge to be more than true belief; knowledge must be justified. And it is justified in that we acquire the knowledge from Biblical revelation and the Holy Spirit working on our minds. We do not need to be able to demonstrate the knowledge, for it is not the demonstration that justifies knowledge, but the acquisition of it from an infallible source.

This view accords with both of these two following passages. Whereas the view that knowledge is “true belief” does not accord with the second passage.

Knowledge means the possession of truth. It is not necessary to work out a philosophical system and to demonstrate truths before having them. On the contrary, even in geometry, one usually has come into the possession of a truth before one attempts to demonstrate it; in fact, this will be seen always to be true if we do not restrict our vision to a narrow field. Demonstration and the arrangement of truths into a logical system is undeniably a desideratum; it is precisely the progress in such systematization that distinguishes the philosophical student from the intellectually dull; but philosophers are not the only people who can know the truth.- A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 323.

We can indeed entertain opinions about Columbus, and by accident or good luck they may be true; but we could not know it. Our dear pagan Plato, at the end of his Meno (98b) declared, “That there is a difference between right opinion and knowledge (ōrtheme) is not at all a conjecture with me, but something I would particularly assert that I knew.”- Lord God of Truth, p. 40.

6. Externalism

The internalist says that if a person knows P, he must also know how to justify P. He must be able to access (i.e. be aware of) the justification for P. The externalist says that one might have access to the justification for P but he might not.

In line with what was just said above about the justification of knowledge being based on the acquisition itself, rather than the demonstration of knowledge, it is apparent that Clark’s view aligns with externalism. The internalist requires one to have the ability to demonstrate knowledge in order for it to be knowledge, but Clark does not put that stipulation on knowledge.

Furthermore, internalism results in an infinite regress. “The internalist says that if a person knows P, he must also know how to justify P.” If so, then “how to justify P” becomes the new item of knowledge. And so the internalist would have to know how to justify “how to justify P” and know how to justify “how to justify ‘how to justify P'” etc. etc.

In Clark’s audio lecture “A Contemporary Defense of the Bible” a dialogue with a student clearly evidences that he holds the externalist position:

Questioner: But if you can’t know that you have true knowledge, then what’s the point of it.

Clark: Because you still know the truth.

Questioner: But you don’t know that you know the truth. You’re not certain of it.

Clark: Do you know that you know that you know that you know? But let me quote another verse of Scripture. “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” Was the person certain? No, obviously not.

And this view, externalism fits well with knowledge as justified true belief. Were internalism true, demonstration of one’s knowledge would be necessary. With externalism, the justification of true beliefs is possible on the basis of factors outside of oneself; that is – revelation through the word of God and the Holy Spirit enlightening the mind. Were internalism accepted, it would have to be argued that Clark held not to justified true belief, but to true belief as knowledge. (This is because Clark clearly rejected the necessity of demonstration) Thus I can see why those who hold to internalism also hold to true belief. But as a package together that view cannot hold up to various statements Clark made.

7. Epistemology must precede Metaphysics

Whether a political assertion by made, or whether the subject be botany, aesthetics, or Latin grammar, one may always ask, either seriously or in derision, How do you know? – A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 285.

But before any type of metaphysics can be accepted, another and far more crucial question must be asked and answered. After someone asserts that the universe is nothing but atoms in motion, or that the universe is an Absolute Mind, or even that planets revolve around the sun, we may properly ask, How do you know? A theory that tries to explain how knowledge is possible is called an epistemological theory. This is where we must begin.” – An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 27.

We cannot start with God; we must start with the Bible.” – God’s Hammer, p. 176.

8. Man’s knowledge is a subset of God’s knowledge.

Now, it seems obvious that if a man knows any truth at all, he must know a truth that God knows, for God knows all truths.” – Knowledge, in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology.

And insofar as man knows anything, he is in contact with God’s mind. … The Apostle Paul said that in God we all live and move and have our being. … Even human minds in some degree overlap or penetrate each other, and the Divine Mind that encloses or surrounds all others penetrates them completely. Another statement of Paul’s as far reaching implications. He said, “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you, both to will and to do, of his good pleasure. This statement asserts an interpenetration, at least of Christian minds, by the Divine Spirit such that not only the actions but even the will of the man is controlled by the good pleasure of God. – A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 321-322.

We must insist that truth is the same for God and man. Naturally, we may not know the truth about some matters. But if we know anything at all, what we must know must be identical with what God knows. God knows all truth, and unless we know something God knows, our ideas are untrue. It is absolutely essential therefore to insist that there is an area of coincidence between God’s mind and our mind. – An Introduction To Christian Philosophy, p. 77.

In 1 Corinthians 2:16 Paul says “we have the mind of Christ.” The word is nous. How is it possible for us to have Christ’s nous, unless his mind is the truth? We have Christ’s mind insofar as we think his thoughts. Of course, we are not omniscient; we do not think all his thoughts; and worse we think some false propositions too.” – God’s Hammer, p. 185.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of elements of Clark’s theory of knowledge. Other points could easily be mentioned such as the affirmation of secondary causes, the acceptance of a form of occasionalism, and that the Gettier problem is no problem for Clark’s epistemology. If anyone desires to write on those topics, I’ll gladly update this post to include what you have to say assuming that I agree with it.

Edit 5/25/2017: We’ve now discussed the Gettier problem here: Scripturalism and the Gettier Problem

11 thoughts on “Elements of Gordon Clark's Theory of Knowledge”

  1. well done
    On Wed, Sep 28, 2016 at 1:21 PM, A Place for Thoughts wrote:
    > douglasdouma posted: “Elements of Gordon Clark’s Theory of Knowledge This > post seeks to clarify Gordon Clark’s theory of knowledge by first > evidencing how he defined some of his terms and then enumerating key > elements of his theory. A. Definitions Belief – assent to an under” >

  2. Pingback: Elementos de la teoría del conocimiento de Gordon Clark (parte 1) – Escrituralismo

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  4. Dear Doug:
    A very interesting summary.
    I appreciate your attempts to relate Gordon Clark to issues in contemporary philosophy such as externalism. : – )
    Benjamin Wong

  5. Pingback: Scripturalism and the Gettier Problem. | A Place for Thoughts

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  7. “A systematic philosophy must take care of epistemology. Knowledge must be accounted for.” – An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 62.

  8. Pingback: In Thy Light, We See Light: The Apriori Nature of the Logos Doctrine – Reformed Libertarian

  9. Hi Doug, I came across a statement from WGT Shedd, that sounds very much like Clark’s position on the role of the senses in knowledge acquisition. Commenting on Romans 1:20, he writes, “The invisible attributes of God are clearly perceived by the human mind, in the exercise of reason stimulated into activity by the notices of the senses. The merely sensuous vision of the earth and sky by a brute, would not result in the rational ideas of omnipotence (δύναμις) and sovereignty (θειότης), because the brute has not that rational faculty whose operation is properly designated by the verb νοεῖν. Yet the same physical sensations would be experienced by the brute, that are experienced by the man.”
    (William G. T. Shedd, A Critical and Doctrinal Commentary upon the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1879), 20–21)

    1. Thanks Paul. Shedd is an interesting figure that I only know a bit about. I recently found an article by Oliver Crisp called “Pulling Traducianism out of the Shedd” which is a pretty fantastic title.

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