Fighting the Good Propaganda

I was asked by D. Clair Davis (former professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, 1966-2003) to evaluate a particular essay written by D. G. Hart and John Muether. This essay, “The OPC and the New Evangelicalism,” is contained in their co-authored book, Fighting the Good Fight, A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. (Published by The Committee on Christian Education and The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1995).
I wouldn’t typically want to review a book (or essay) so many years after it was published, but I figured a review of it might be of some interest and value since the 15-page essay centers on the “Clark – Van Til Controversy” of which I have recently published three chapters on in my book The Presbyterian Philosopher, The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark.
The essay “The OPC and the New Evangelicalism” is to be praised for revealing that there were political matters in behind of and intertwined with the theological matters of the Clark – Van Til Controversy. But it is to be faulted for what its contends those political matters were, for its lack of objectivity as a historical essay, and for its factual errors.
Starting with the last, let us note some factual errors contained in the essay.
The authors contend “He [Clark] was licensed to preach and ordained at the same meeting.” (p. 107). And they repeat “The presbytery should not have decided upon Clark’s licensure and ordination at the same meeting.” (p. 110). I’ve already noted this mistake in The Presbyterian Philosopher, p. 155, where I wrote, “in truth, there was a month between Clark’s licensing (July 7, 1944) and ordination (Aug 9, 1944). Furthermore, Clark’s application for ordination (May 9, 1942) was more than two years prior to these events. His ordination was anything but rushed.”
The authors contend that Clark held that human knowledge is “identical” to God’s knowledge. They write, “they [the thirteen signers of The Complaint] maintained against Clark that such human knowledge is never identical to God’s knowledge.” (p. 108). This has been a persistent error of those who have written on this topic.  It is true that The Complaint does once use the word “identical” referring to Clark’s view. The Complaint reads:

The far-reaching significance of Dr. Clark’s starting point, as observed under 1. above, is evident when we note that Dr. Clark holds that man’s knowledge of any proposition, if it is really knowledge, is identical with God’s knowledge of the same proposition.

But, it cannot be properly said that this which The Complaint maintained was “against” Clark, for Clark never held that man’s knowledge was “identical” to God’s knowledge.
In a previously unpublished paper of Gordon Clark’s from “Winter 1946/1947” Clark comments:

Before ending this part of the discussion, I wish to draw attention to the following assertions of the paper in question. On page 7, paragraph 1, are these words: “Dr. Clark’s fundamental insistence upon identity (italics theirs) of divine and human knowledge. . .” On page 8 near the bottom we find, “Dr. Clark insists upon identity of divine and human knowledge of a particular truth. . .” It is amazing that these men continue to circulate these false statements after I have so many times denied them, I denied them in the examination (cf. Transcript, 31:9–10). I denied them in The Answer (pages 20–21). I denied them in speeches in two Assemblies and in countless conversations. The Report of the committee to the thirteenth General Assembly denied them for me (page 3, next to the bottom paragraph). And in spite of all this, the committee for the complainants has neither seen nor heard these denial, and continue to make the same false statements. Truly, this is incomprehensible. (“Studies in the Doctrine of the Complaint,” published in Appendix C, The Presbyterian Philosopher, p. 265)

Rather, Clark held that man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge must be of the same (or identical) propositions. Yet, while the object of knowledge (the proposition) for Clark is identical between God and man, the mode in which man knows a proposition differs from the mode in which God knows a proposition, and thus knowledge itself is not identical. The false statement which Clark found (pun apparently intended) “incomprehensible” then in 1946/1947 continued to be made in Muether and Hart’s essay in 1995.
Whereas Clark explicitly and repeated emphasized the difference in the mode (or way) in which man knows (discursively) and the mode (or way) in which God knows (intuitively), Hart and Muether erroneously describe Clark’s position:

If we do not know the things God has revealed IN THE SAME WAY as God knows them, he [Clark] reasoned, then there is no connection between God’s and our knowledge and we are left with “unmitigated skepticism.” (p. 110)

The first two pages of the essay contend that the OPC, as a Reformed church, rejected Fundamentalism in the 1937 split with the Bible Presbyterians, and had a “coolness” to the new evangelicalism emerging in the 1940s. The next eight pages are on “The Clark Controversy” under the background of “relations between the OPC and other conservative Protestant denominations and organizations.” And the final four pages of the essay are on “The Character of the OPC.” This organization of the essay sets up what seems to be its major contention: Gordon H. Clark and his supporters were less Reformed than the group which opposed him. Hart and Muether write, “Clark’s most vociferous supporters wanted the OPC to be a church for all who opposed modernism” (p. 115) and “Ministers in the OPC who sided with Clark also hoped the church would become more evangelical than Reformed.” (p. 117) In other places Clark and his supporters are referred to as “American Presbyterians” or “the Americanist party (p. 108).”
This contention flows out of the framework of the essay that the “sometimes obscure theological debates … were always bound up with the larger question about the OPC’s relationship to the broader evangelical community and the church’s Presbyterian identity.” (p. 107)
Placing Clark and his supporters in a faction supporting greater ecumenicity, the authors appear to be linking them with the New Evangelicals. Though some of his supporters may have considered themselves more broadly evangelical, Clark saw himself as distinctly Reformed. As I argue in The Presbyterian Philosopher, the central focus of Clark’s work and life was dedication to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Presbyterianism’s defining confession.
Where Hart and Muether argue that “Clark’s most vociferous supporters wanted the OPC to be a church for all who opposed modernism,” I’ve noted of Clark himself,

In an article titled “An Appeal to Fundamentalists,” he encouraged like-minded Christians to come out of their faltering denominations and join the OPC. He was clear, however, to invite unity with fundamentalists only on the basis of following the doctrines of the original Reformers, namely the whole Reformed faith, not simply the basic tenets of fundamentalism which Clark likened to a house with a foundation but no roof. Clark’s vision was that the OPC would lead the fundamentalists under the banner of the teachings of the Westminster Confession of Faith  in their entirety. Thus, whereas Paul Woolley, in his article “Discontent!,” stated his belief that the goals of church growth and commitment to Reformed principles were mutually exclusive, Clark held that the two goals were compatible. (The Presbyterian Philosopher, p. 90)

Clark saw himself as Presbyterian, not some lesser neo-evangelical.
Though some of Clark’s supporters had sympathies for non-Reformed Fundamentalists (and thus deviated in some measure from historical Presbyterianism), the opponents of Clark deviated from historical Presbyterianism towards the views of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). For them, the CRC’s views became THE Reformed view. (see The Presbyterian Philosopher, p. 122-123.)
Hart and Muether note that the OPC did not join the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), but rather affiliated with the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (RES) consisting of itself, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), and the tiny Free Magyar Reformed Church in America. So the OPC got its wish of associating with its particular brand of Reformed theology as represented by the Dutch CRC from where Cornelius Van Til, Ned Stonehouse, and R. B. Kuiper had transferred.
Interestingly Hart and Muether note that John Murray’s minority report “reflected the theological convictions at the heart of Reformed theology.” And they contrast this with the majority who believed that a candidate, like Clark, should be licensed and ordained if he was in agreement with the “teaching of Scripture as expressed in the Westminster Confession.” But is not the Westminster Confession the “heart of Reformed theology?” Does this not betray where lies Murray’s theological convictions? Extra-confessional.
Though Hart and Muether rightly note the question of the OPC relationship with other churches as figuring in to the controversy of the 1940s, they leave out a number of matters less pleasant to the history of the OPC.  These include questions of alcohol acceptance, the Reformed University project, and control of Westminster Theological Seminary. (See chapter 6 of The Presbyterian Philosopher)
The essay contains many subtle elements which reveal that it was written not as objectively-minded history, but as a theologically-minded polemic; a propaganda piece of the OPC. The first of these subtleties occurs in the title of the essay itself, “The OPC and the New Evangelicalism” seeming to imply (along with other statements in the essay) that Clark was a neo-evangelical when Clark (whose case forms the majority of the essay) could hardly be placed in that camp. As also noted above, the essay uncritically takes the position of Van Til and The Complaint, misunderstanding Clark’s view of “identical.”
It is hardly historically objective to refer to one theologian, John Murray, as “notable, IF NOT UNIQUE, for his ability to derive clear doctrinal formulations from careful exegesis.” Protestantism does not have a pope.
In a number of places in the essay reference is made to “THE qualitative distinction” between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge supposedly held by Van Til but not by Clark.

Clark’s opponents believed that Clark came perilously close to denying the qualitative distinction between the knowledge of the Creator and the knowledge of the creature. (p. 108-109)
While truth is one there is also a qualitative distinction between God’s knowledge and ours. (p. 114)

This “qualitative distinction” cannot be the mode (or way) since, as noted above, Clark held such a distinction. (Not to mention the The Complaint noted Clark’s distinction in mode saying it was good as such, but that another qualitative distinction was also needed). It cannot be the “object of knowledge” as Van Til affirmed such a distinction in 1948 and 1949. (see The Presbyterian Philosopher, 157-162). Rather the controversy became centered around the supposed distinction of “content” between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge. But it was this very term which Van Til refused to define. And likewise Hart and Muether seem unable to define it.
The whole controversy itself can be summed in a quote from a letter Gordon Clark wrote to D. Clair Davis, his student at Butler University, in 1952:

There was a question I asked the complainants which they refused to answer. If mode answers how we know, and object answers what we know, what question is answered by the idea of content? They have (to this day, as far as I know) refused to define content so as to distinguish it from mode and object.—GHC to D. Clair Davis, 14 October 1952.

9 thoughts on “Fighting the Good Propaganda”

      1. Dear Doug:
        Although our presuppositions will color our perception of facts, but truth is objective and invariant with respect to presuppositions and conceptual frameworks.
        D.G. Hart being a historian, your comment (or jibe) must hurt a bit.
        Since both D.G. Hart and John R. Muether (Historian of the OPC) have both written about the history of the OPC that overlaps the period cover by your Biography of Gordon Clark, and since you gave a very different interpretation of that history, I look forward to their more substantial response.
        Benjamin Wong

  1. Thanks, Doug, for autographing my copy of your excellent biography of the Presbyterian philosopher Gordon Clark. We actually had a vigorous discussion today in our Sunday Q&A on so-called “common grace.” We are the second largest OPC church in America and GHC is very much admired and read by many in session leadership. I know of at least three others who are now reading your book and many(!) others who have read several of Clark’s books. I began reading Clark myself about 26 years ago and can honestly say I’ve read nearly all his published works and much that was unpublished. I can state without hesitation Clark has benefited me more than any other Christian scholar and just maybe more than all others combined. Good news is that it appears the blinders are coming off the eyes of many not only within the reformed faith at large but even within the OPC where the naysayers and propagandists have defamed Clark for years. You deserve a TON(!) of credit for helping redeem the memory and reputation of The Presbyterian Philosopher. God speed you to positive public recognition and financial reward for your hard work!

    1. Thanks for the comment! Dr. Clark’s work has certainly influenced me more than any other reformed writer. No one, as far as I can tell, has linked all the components together in a system like he has. In fact, many are anti-systematic and “paradoxical.” But it is hard to argue for one paradoxical view (say Van Til) to be any better than another paradoxical view (say, modern Lutheranism).

  2. I don’t know about you but I’ve found most people who turn their noses up at Clark haven’t read Clark. Several I recall admitting candidly they haven’t read him and others I’ve busted by asking pointed questions finding they’re usually just repeating the tired old Van Tilian line. Sad as that is what is still sadder is that you STILL can’t get them to read Clark even after it’s known they are ignorant of his views. While I’ve agonized through Van Til’s works they refuse the much more readable Clark, simply it appears, because they’re so brainwashed by the anti-Clark sect. Clark is difficult because his subject matter is difficult; Van Til also due to the subject matter but also because his disjointed writing is made more difficult by his Dutch influenced use of the English language. At least that’s my take … get some sleep!

  3. D. G. Hart writes,
    “For all of twentieth-century evangelicalism’s non-denominational character, Presbyterians had been an important resource for the neo-evangelical leaders who carved out an identity for conservative Protestantism that was distinct from fundamentalism. Several neo-evangelical intellectuals such as Harold John Ockenga, Edward J. Carnell, and Carl Henry had either studied with Machen and/or Van Til, or had been students of Orthodox Presbyterians who taught at Wheaton College.” – D. G. Hart, “Beyond the Battle for the Bible” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, ed. by Bruce McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011, p. 44.
    Well, there was only one Orthodox Presbyterian who taught at Wheaton College – Gordon Clark. Probably Hart is also including J. Oliver Buswell. But Buswell was only in the OPC for the first year; leaving with the Bible Presbyterians. And Buswell was the President of Wheaton who only occasionally taught one course (Theism).
    Perhaps this is all-the-well. That is, too often Clark is lumped in with the neo-evangelicals as he was the teacher of many of them. Hart’s comment shows that Machen and Van Til can equally be noted as teachers of the neo-evangelicals.

  4. Thanks for posting this. I cut my teeth in the Van Tillian tradition and I always thought that Clark’s school was a more “American” (with all the negative connotations that American low-church evangelicalism brings), but when I actually started listening to Clark’s lectures I was struck with just how Scottish his use of sources on epistemology was. He was quoting guys like Rutherford and Gillespie. Not exactly Americanized stuff.

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