Low, High, and In Between – Confessional Subscription and the Clark – Van Til Controversy


Low, High, and In Between – Confessional Subscription and the Clark – Van Til Controversy

by Douglas J. Douma

Speech given on March 24, 2017 at Reedy River Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC

The intent of my speech today is to argue for the necessity and sufficiency of the Westminster Standards as the bounds of subscription for Presbyterian ministers. To support this argument we will look at the “low, high, and in between.”
If the aim of a Presbyterian church is too low they will not require their ministers to subscribe to all of the particular doctrines of the Westminster Standards (which includes the Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism, and Larger Catechism). If the aim of a Presbyterian church is too high they will require their ministers to subscribe to more than the particular doctrines of the confession and catechisms. The correct level of subscription, the “in between,” I shall argue, should be the Standards themselves. For Presbyterian ministers, subscription to the Westminster Standards should be both necessary (as opposed to those who would desire something less) and sufficient (as opposed to those who would require something more.)
In much of American Presbyterian history, from as early as the Adopting Act of 1729 to present day Presbyterian denominations—even conservative ones like the PCA—the view of subscription to the Standards has often been too low. On the other hand, there have often been cases where requirements on subscription have been too high; cases where extra-confessional positions have been pressed upon ministers of the gospel. The Clark – Van Til Controversy of 1944-1948 provides such a “too high” example. In light of the Standards being the correct “in between” level of subscription for Presbyterian ministers, this particular controversy —The Clark – Van Til Controversy—, it will be seen, should have been over before it was started.
While perhaps I could have invoked Goldilocks and titled this speech “Too Cold, Too Hot, and Just Right,” I chose the title “Low, High, and In Between” in homage to the greatest folk singer America has produced—the late great Texan Townes Van Zandt who released an album by similar name (High, Low, and In Between) in 1971.
History of Confessions
Early in the Reformation, in response to various misconceptions and lies about what Protestants were said to be teaching, various Protestant groups wrote confessions – summaries of their beliefs. Some of the first were written by the Lutherans. These include the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Smalcald Articles (1537), and the Formula of Concord (1580). The Reformed branch of the Reformation also wrote confessions. Among the more prominent Reformed confessions were the Scots Confession (1560), the Belgic Confession (1561), and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1571). But at the pinnacle of the Reformation, in 1643, the Church of England convened a council at Westminster Abbey. From there, over one hundred of the most learned ministers of the day met for a number of years and penned, among other documents, the Westminster Confession of Faith. Although this document was never taken up as the confession for the Church of England itself, the Presbyterians of Scotland (and later those in America) chose it as their confession.
The purpose of confessions was (and is) multifold. In fact, church historian and now president of Westminster Theological Seminary, Peter Lillback has listed twelve purposes of confessions including—to name a few—to express one’s faith, to defend one’s faith, to teach the youth, and to test for orthodoxy. (Peter Lillback, “Confessional Subscription Among the Sixteenth Century Reformers” in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, ed. David W. Hall, Oak Ridge, TN: Covenant Foundation, 1977, 58.)
Towards these ends, in many of the European realms in which a variety of the Protestant Christian faith was preeminent, the faith’s respective confessional document was made to be the requirement for subscription by the ministers and sometimes also by the professors, elders, and magistrates. In the first centuries of the reformation, subscription always required a minister to agree to “all things contained” in their confession. Likewise, in our context—Presbyterianism—it should be noted that in the 17th, 18th, and for most of the 19th century subscription allowed for no exceptions. There was a strict subscription requirement to all of the particulars of the confession. But even in those centuries there were certain developments that led to the later loose subscription views where exceptions or even outright denials of the confession were allowed in presbyteries.
The Adopting Act of 1729
Perhaps the earliest sign of a presence of a “too low” view of subscription in American Presbyterian history was right near the beginning. The Adopting Act of 1729, which as you might imagine, occured in the year 1729. The act was unanimously approved at the Synod of Philadelphia on Sept. 19 of that year, and, with its passing, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Shorter and Larger Catechisms were adopted as the synod’s confession of faith.
There was, in a sense, two parts to this act. There was the “Act Preliminary to the Adopting Act” and the “Adopting Act” itself.
The “Act Preliminary to the Adopting Act” read in part:

“all the Ministers of this Synod, or that shall hereafter be admitted into this Synod, shall declare their agreement in and approbation of the Confession of Faith with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the assembly of Divines at Westminster, as being in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine”

And the “Adopting Act” itself read in part:

“All the Ministers of this Synod now present, except one, that declared himself not prepared, viz., … [a list of 18 ministers] … after proposing all the scruples that any of them had to make against any articles and expressions in the Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, have unanimously agreed in the solution of those scruples, and in declaring the said Confession and Catechisms to be the confession of their faith, excepting only some clauses in the twentieth and twenty-third chapters”

One phrase in the Preliminary Act almost immediately brought up questions when it was read by ministers who did not attend the Synod. That phrase was the one which noted “essential and necessary” articles. Questions arose such as, “Which articles are essential? And which articles are necessary?”
Many church historians, like Charles Hodge, have argued that the signers of the Adopting Act intended that all articles of the confession are essential and necessary except for “some clauses in the twentieth and twenty-third chapters” regarding the civil magistrate. So a minister was allowed to contest those clauses, but no others. The Adopting Act, then, and the American Presbyterians at that point, basically held to a form of strict subscription, requiring their ministers to subscribe to the full extent of the doctrines of the confession and catechisms. Any question of ambiguity in the Adopting Act was cleared up in Synod declarations in 1730 and 1736 stating that their intent in the Adopting Act was adhere to the Westminster Standards “without the least variation or alteration.” This was strict subscription.
Even so, over time other exceptions beyond just those in the chapters about the magistrate were noted by the presbyteries and allowed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. The Adopting Act did not prove to sufficiently function as a bulwark against confessional exceptions. As the progression of history in the American presbyterian church is followed into later years, a number of major events in its history can be seen to evidence “too low” views of subscription
The Plan of Union
One of the first developments in the “too low” direction was the Plan of Union between Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches in 1801. In order to reach the growing populations on the frontier and to avoid competition among the churches, the Plan of Union allowed Presbyterian ministers to serve Congregational churches and Congregational ministers to serve Presbyterian churches. But, since the Congregationalist ministers did not subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith this not only allowed a “low view” of subscription but brought in to the Presbyterian church ministers who frequently had sympathies for the erroneous views of what was called The New England Theology.
The Old School – New School Controversy
In time the Plan of Union led to a low view of confessional subscription in the presbyteries most influenced by New England Theology. These presbyteries came to be called “New School” presbyteries to distinguish them from the “Old School” presbyteries where traditional strict subscription views were more consistently maintained. The ministers of the New School presbyteries often argued for loose views of confessional subscription so that they might be allowed to maintain disagreements with the Confession and yet be ministers in good standing in the Presbyterian church.
Some of those who held to loose views of subscription sometimes held what has been called “system subscription,” where the ministers are not to be required to agree to every particular doctrine of the confession, but only need to agree to the general system the confession exhibits. From there each presbytery would have to decide whether the theological views of their ministerial candidates satisfy whatever the Presbytery might consider essential or necessary to the system of the confession.
The controversy over this matter led to a split in 1837 between the Old School and New School churches into each their own separate denominations for a time. When the two groups reunited during the Civil War era, the merged denomination contained both ministers that held strict views of subscription and ministers who held loose views of subscription.
Modernism and The Briggs Trial
Despite the growing confessional infidelity in the church, for some years it was still possible to bring a minister to trial if they were at odds with some particular doctrine in the confession. The most famous Presbyterian trial was that of Charles Augustus Briggs, who you might know today as one of the authors of the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon. In 1893, after a trial in which he was found guilty of heresy in having Modernist views in conflict with the Westminster Confession of Faith, Briggs was defrocked by the Presbyterian church.
The Five Fundamentals
Though Briggs was forced to leave the Presbyterian church, a growing number of ministers whose views were at odds with the confession remained in the church. It got so bad in the early twentieth century that the conservative “Fundamentalists” got the 1923 general assembly to approve of five fundamental beliefs that minister must agree to. (The inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the resurrection of Jesus, and the authenticity of Christ’s miracles.)
Had the church strongly practiced strict subscription, however, the five fundamentals would have been unnecessary, for these doctrines were already contained in the Standards.
It is clear then that there was a slide away from orthodoxy in American Presbyterianism starting with the Plan of Union in 1801 and going through the New School presbyteries and to the modernists like Briggs as the twentieth century dawned. It is also clear that this slide away from orthodoxy was made possible by a low view of confessional subscription.
The PCUSA Book of Confessions, 1967
In denominations like the PCUSA that moved in a modernist direction it was not long before it was impossible to have a heresy trial at all, for there was no longer officially any particular doctrines that a person had to agree to in order to be a minister of the Gospel.
In 1967, in fact, the PCUSA essentially did away with the Confession by relegating it to a book of historical confessions, none of which were any longer binding. The situation had so devolved that Gordon H. Clark was able to write the following criticism in a 1973 letter to a member of the PCUSA’s layman’s committee. Clark writes,

“With the 1967 Assembly the new confession was adopted and the ordination vows changed. These vows result in the fact that the new confession is not a confession at all, for no one confesses it. You cannot now try anyone for heresy because there is no such thing as heresy in your church. The vows do not commit a minister to any doctrine. Your church therefore believes nothing. It is therefore not a church at all.” (Gordon H. Clark to James L. Cochran, Aug. 27, 1973. In Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark, eds. Douglas J. Douma and Tom W. Juodaitis, Trinity Foundation, 2017. )

So this is the where the trend of a “too low” view of subscription inevitably leads. It leads to the discarding of the entire confession. And that leads to a doctrine-less church, which is no church at all.
But, what about a “too high” view of confessional subscription? Have there been historical cases where ministers were asked to subscribe to more than the confession? And, if so, what were the results?
Now, if I said there were no such cases, this would be a short speech, wouldn’t it? So we must find some cases.
Quoting Peter Lillback again, we see such an example of a “too high” view. He writes,

“To the Lutheran Confessional heritage goes the record for the most stringent and elaborate subscription probably ever enforced. This was found in the Duchy of Brunswick when Duke Julius required all clergy, from all professors and from all magistrates, a subscription to all and everything contained in the Confession of Augsburg, in the Apology for the Confession, in the Smalcaldic Articles, as well as in all the works of [Martin] Luther, and in all the works of [Martin] Chemnitz! (Peter Lillback, “Confessional Subscription Among the Sixteenth Century Reformers” in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, ed. David W. Hall, Oak Ridge, TN: Covenant Foundation, 1977, 39.)

In the Presbyterian world there have also been those few supporters of the 19th century minister David Steele who, it is said, “insisted that the perpetual obligation of the Scottish Covenants required their renewal by the American church.” (Gordon J. Keddie, “The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland and The Disruption of 1863,” Crown and Covenant Publications, 1993, 7.) That is, David Steele insisted that ministers should subscribe to all the historical documents of the Presbyterian church: the Westminster Standards, plus the National Covenant, plus the Solemn League and Covenant, plus the Renovation of Covenants, plus the Acts, Declaration, and Testimony, and finally, plus the Short Directory for Religious Societies.
It is not completely unheard of today that a church might unofficially require its ministers to hold a particular political view, a certain eschatology, or even require them to have a beard.
But, today, I want to focus on one particular “too high” case with which I am quite familiar. That is, the Clark – Van Til Controversy of 1944-1948. Last year I had published a biography of “The Presbyterian Philosopher” Gordon H. Clark in which I addressed the Clark – Van Til Controversy in three chapters. Today I will to summarize these chapters in brief, with the end goal of arguing that, whether you tend to agree with the theological positions of Gordon Clark or with the theological positions of his adversary-friend Cornelius Van Til, you should believe that the controversy between their two factions largely went beyond the doctrines of the confession and thus the complaint against Gordon Clark’s views should have been thrown out by his presbytery.
Gordon Clark before the Controversy.
For those who don’t know, Gordon Clark was one of the founding members of what later took the name Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He, as well as his minister-father David S. Clark, was friends with and a supporter of the leader of their movement, J. Gresham Machen. In fact, Clark gave the nomination speech for Machen as moderator at the new church’s first General Assembly in 1936.
But Clark wasn’t just any founding member of the church. He had earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania in 1929, had written a number of books and articles, had taught at the University for a dozen years, and then had taught at Wheaton College in Illinois for seven years where he had such students in his class as Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry, and Edmund Clowney.
Following a controversy at Wheaton College essentially along the lines of the Calvinist-Arminian debates, Clark resigned his professorship. While then searching for another academic post, he sought ordination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Having been one of their founders, and having led many students from Wheaton College into seminary studies at Westminster Theological Seminary, Clark was licensed to preach the Gospel and then ordained with only a relatively small dissenting minority in his Presbytery.
But then, three months after his ordination a complaint was registered in his presbytery. The complaint was signed by twelve elders but largely found its theological motivations in the views of Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til. And thus, even though Van Til mostly stayed out of the fray over the next four years of the church struggle, history has called the ordeal the Clark – Van Til controversy.
Gordon Clark and some of his supporters in the presbytery responded to the document called The Complaint with their own writing called The Answer. These two documents, along with presbytery and general assembly minutes, constitute the most important primary sources for understanding the controversy. But they are not the only primary sources. In The Presbyterian Philosopher I quote from relevant personal letters from the era and include in an appendix a never-before-seen writing of Dr. Clark’s from the middle of the controversy analyzing the theology of The Complaint.
So, you might ask, what was the controversy about? And how does this relate to the Westminster Confession of Faith? As I briefly go over the four major theological issues in the controversy, you might ask yourself, “Are these topics clearly addressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith?” Or might The Complaint be seeking for the peculiar views of its signers to become additional criteria for ordained ministers to subscribe to?
The Four Points of Contention
The four theological points of contention in the controversy were as follows (1) the incomprehensibility of God, (2) the relationship of the faculties of the soul, (3), the relationship of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and (4) the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel.
**These next four points are an excerpt from The Presbyterian Philosopher, Wipf&Stock, 2017**
Point 1: The Incomprehensibility of God
The theological portion of the complaint centered on the first of the four issues, the incomprehensibility of God. More time and discussions were spent on this point during the controversy than perhaps on all of the other points combined. Both parties agreed that God is incomprehensible—that man can never fully and exhaustively know God. The issue between the two parties, rather, was over how man’s knowledge relates to God’s knowledge.
Clark believed that for man to know any truth at all, there must be a common point of contact between man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge. This point of contact was, for Clark, the proposition known. He believed that the propositions which man knows must be identical to the propositions which God knows in order for man to know anything at all.
Clark also held to a number of distinctions between man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge. First, because man will never know everything, whereas God has always known everything, Clark believed it is necessary to acknowledge a quantitative distinction between man’s knowledge as limited and God’s knowledge as not limited by anything outside of himself. Likewise, Clark held to a quantitative distinction regarding the implications of propositions—that for any given proposition, God knows all of its implications, whereas man knows only some of its implications at best. In addition to these two quantitative distinctions, Clark held to a qualitative distinction in the mode or manner of knowing. He believed God’s knowledge is intuitive (that is, God knows all truth immediately and essentially), whereas man’s knowledge is discursive (that is, man knows truth in part, via revelation and deduction).
The Complaint, however, argued that Clark’s distinctions were insufficient and that a further qualitative distinction is also needed. The Complaint’s argument was worded:

“Because God is God, the creator, and man is man, the creature, the difference between the divine knowledge and the knowledge possible to man may never be conceived of merely in quantitative terms, as a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind.”

The Complaint held that Clark’s distinction in “mode” was insufficient to account for this qualitative distinction. The Complaint read, “We gladly concede this point [Clark’s distinction in mode] . . . However, this admission does not affect the whole point at issue here since the doctrine of the mode of the divine knowledge is not a part of the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of his knowledge. The latter is concerned only with the contents of the divine knowledge. Dr. Clark distinguishes between the knowledge of God and of man so far as mode of knowledge is concerned, but it is a tragic fact that his dialectic has led him to obliterate the qualitative distinction between the contents of the divine mind and the knowledge which is possible to the creature.”
Thus it was argued that in addition to Clark’s qualitative distinction in mode there must be a qualitative distinction in “content.” The use and meaning of the term content would become a central element of the controversy.
Clark later wrote in a letter to Edmund Clowney:

“The mode of knowing, as I use the word, is simply the psychological activity of the knower. The object is what the knower knows. An answer to the question, How do you know, would state the mode of your knowing. An answer to the question, What do you know, would state the object. And so far throughout all the discussion I have failed to see any reason for introducing any other element; in particular the third element [content] that has been introduced is simply unintelligible to me.”

And Clowney, leading the majority report on the matter at the 1946 General Assembly concluded:

“It has been shown that the major specific charge of The Complaint cannot be supported from the stenographic record. Dr. Clark cannot be accused of failing to distinguish between Divine and human knowledge as to “content” when he analyzes knowledge into only two parts, mode and object. We have seen that it is possible, and even likely that Dr. Clark’s distinction of the mode of knowledge includes much of what the complainants require in their distinction of content. This question must be examined somewhat more closely. To declare that the mode-content-object schematization of knowledge cannot be insisted upon is not to declare that no doctrine conveyed in such a schematization can be insisted upon. The difficulty emerges in determining just what difference the complainants are insisting upon in speaking of content, a term which they do not define.”

Van Til, for his part, refused to define the term which he required Clark to hold. Van Til later wrote,

Suppose now that the complainants should try to “state clearly” in Dr. Clark’s sense the qualitative difference between the divine and the human knowledge of the proposition that two times two are [sic] four. They would have to first deny their basic contention with respect to the Christian concept of revelation . . . It is precisely because they are concerned to defend the Christian doctrine of revelation as basic to all intelligible human predication that they refuse to make any attempt at “stating clearly” any Christian doctrine . . .

So, the doctrine which the complainants asked Clark to believe was not only not defined in the Confession, it was not defined anywhere. One might ask, can a minister subscribe to something which cannot be defined?
Point 2. The Relationship of the Faculties of the Soul
The authors of The Complaint came to know of Clark’s view on the topic of the relationship of the faculties of the soul through his then recently published article “On the Primacy of the Intellect” in the May 1943 issue of the Westminster Theological Journal. While specifying that a person is a unity, not a compound of his mental functions or conscious states, the goal of Clark’s article was to answer the question with which faculties of the soul (given as intellect, will, and emotion) does “a man best respond, most fully grasp God, most perfectly worship, and most closely commune with Him.” Critiquing emotion and will, Clark argued for the primacy of intellect, saying, “Now if in Christianity the end of all human endeavor is to see or contemplate God, evidently the desire for God or the love of God is subordinate, since one can love God without seeing him, or at least without seeing him with that clarity which characterizes the final object of desire. In other words, desire and love, because they are means to the end, cannot be the end itself.”
On this issue The Complaint brought up discussion on two related points. First, as did Clark’s article, it discussed the relationship of the faculties of the soul in man. Secondly, it discussed the faculties, not of man, but of God. Arguing that the discussion of one point necessitated a discussion of the other, The Complaint said, “Any statement on the relation between the intellect and other spiritual faculties must needs be concerned with God as well as with man.”
The Complaint took issue with Clark’s denial of emotions in God. Clark used the term “emotions” synonymously with the term “passions,” and the complainants did concede that with that definition, to attribute such to God would be opposed to the Confession.
Responding to The Complaint ’s accusation that Clark had a “forthright denial of anything that might be called ‘emotion’ in God,” The Answer responded that such attributes as love and wrath God does certainly have, but that they are better called “volitions,” or acts of will, rather than emotions.
Again, what precisely the complainants were asking Dr. Clark to agree with on this topic was not clear. But what seems quite clear is that the topic of discussion was moving beyond the confines of the Confession.
Point 3 The Relationship of Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility.
The third charge in The Complaint stemmed from Clark’s views as presented in his 1932 article “Determinism and Responsibility.” In this article, Clark aimed “to show that determinism is consistent with responsibility, indeed responsibility requires determinism.” To put it another way, Clark believed there was no contradiction or even apparent contradiction between the doctrine that God is the fully sovereign cause of all things and the doctrine that man is responsible for his own sins. Clark was not alone in holding to this view. But unlike other theologians who held these views, Clark set out to prove that the doctrines were without contradiction. He wrote, “[My own] denomination [at that time the PCUSA] has stated that the reconciliation of man’s free agency and God’s sovereignty is an inscrutable mystery. Rather, the mystery is—recognising that God is the ultimate cause of the man’s nature—how the Calvinistic solution could have been so long overlooked.” Here, as was his common practice, Clark first defined his terms. Regarding “responsibility” he wrote, “By calling a man responsible we mean he may be justly punished by God. For this definitional truth is the key to the explanation of why a man is responsible for the act God determined him to do.” Taking the key to his solution from John Calvin, Clark wrote, “God is Sovereign; whatever He does is just, for this very reason,because He does it. If He punishes a man, the man is punished justly and hence the man is responsible.”
According to The Complaint, however, “Dr. Clark asserts that the relationship of divine sovereignty and human responsibility to each other presents no difficulty for his thinking and that the two are easily reconcilable before the bar of human reason.” The Complaint listed theologians who had wrestled with these doctrines and then argued that “there is a problem that has baffled the greatest theologians of history. Not even Holy Scripture offers a solution. But Dr. Clark asserts unblushingly that for his thinking the problem has ceased being a problem. Here is something phenomenal. What accounts for it? The most charitable, and no doubt the correct, explanation is that Dr. Clark has come under the spell of rationalism.”
The issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility brought up a more general disagreement between the two factions: the nature of Scripture. The Complaint argued that reconciling these two doctrines is impossible for man; it is an unsolved and unsolvable paradox. In The Answer, however, Clark responded, “The Scriptures nowhere prohibit us from attempting to solve revealed paradoxes.” Clark then turned the tables, arguing that “anyone who argues that a given revealed paradox cannot be solved is virtually claiming omniscience. He who says a given paradox cannot be solved, logically implies that he has examined every verse in Scripture, that he has exhausted every implication of every verse, and that there is in all this no hint of a solution. Such a person must have a tremendous knowledge of the Bible. And this is exactly what the complainants claim.” In fact, Clark lampooned the complainants’ principle, describing it as the view that “a man, to be subject to God’s Word, must fail to understand it.”
This third point of the complaint, in my opinion, is not so much outside of the Confession as opposed to it. That is, the Confession teaches that there is a “consent of the parts” of Scripture, not that there are unsolvable paradoxes in it.
Point 4 The Doctrine of the Free Offer of the Gospel
On a fourth issue, The Complaint charged: In the course of Dr. Clark’s examination by presbytery it became abundantly clear that his rationalism keeps him from doing justice to the precious teaching of Scripture that in the Gospel God sincerely offers salvation in Christ to all who hear, reprobate as well as elect, and that he has no pleasure in any one’s rejecting this offer but, contrariwise, would have all who hear accept it and be saved.
Clark’s hesitancy in his theological examination to apply the term “sincere” to the call in the gospel concerned the complainants. The topic of debate was over what is known as the “sincere,” “well-meant,” or “Free Offer” of the gospel. The crux of this doctrinal question concerns not to whom the Christian should preach the gospel, but the very content or message of that preaching. Both Clark and the complainants agreed that the gospel should be preached to all people (what is often referred to as the “General Call of the Gospel”), but Clark did not agree with the complainants’ supposition that God desires the salvation of all men, reprobate included (what is called the “Free Offer of the Gospel”). Rather, Clark and his supporters held that God desires the salvation of only those whom He actually saves: the elect only.
This point had a long history of debate, first in the Marrow Controversy in the Presbyterian Church in Scotland in the 1720s where the vast majority sided with what Clark would later believe, and then in the 1920s in the Christian Reformed Church where the sides were more equally divided, but the majority sided with what Van Til would later believe.
But the very fact that there were ministers in the OPC who were supporting Dr. Clark’s position shows that their view had at least in their own ordinations not been an issue deemed opposed to the Westminster Confession.
Beyond the Confession
In fact, never once in The Complaint is there any explicit contention that any of Clark’s view opposed to a particular element in the Westminster Confession of Faith!
The Answer notes that:

“Dr. Clark without equivocation subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith. … The complainants found no objection to Dr. Clark’s doctrinal views under the heading of the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture, the creation, providence and miracles, or the fall of man. The complainants have not attempted to attack Dr. Clark’s doctrine of the atonement, effectual calling, justification by faith, sanctification, or eschatology. It is therefore not surprising that at the most largely attended meeting of the Presbytery of Philadelphia in history Dr. Clark’s examination in theology was sustained by more than three-fourths vote of the Presbytery. Even some of the complainants themselves at that meeting of the Presbytery voted to sustain the examination in theology. More than three-fourths of the Presbytery of Philadelphia were satisfied of Dr. Clark’s adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith.”

Whether Clark’s view were correct, or Van Til’s views were correct, or neither of there views was correct, this is besides the matter. In each of the four questions of the controversy I believe Clark was correct. But, even if he was wrong, The Complaint, being beyond the Confession, should have had no merit in the church courts.
Fortunately for Clark, his presbytery and then the general assembly found in his favor. A majority report led by Edmund Clowney concluded:

“Our committee is of the opinion that [The Complaint] requires the Presbytery of Philadelphia to exact a more specialized theory of knowledge than our standards demand.”

That is, the general assembly rightly judged that the complaint contained a view of subscription that was too high. It required a theory of knowledge more specialized than the Westminster Standards demand.
Clark remained a minster in the OPC until 1948 when he transferred his credentials to the United Presbyterian Church
Writing in the Standard Bearer for the Protestant Reformed Church in Michigan at the time of the controversy Herman Hoeksema argued that the theological issues in the Clark-Van Til controversy were of a nature that they should have been an academic debate, not a test for ordination. Hoeksema wrote, “And this renders the whole dispute rather abstract—a matter, it would seem, to be discussed by a conference of theologians rather than to be used as a ground for protest against the licensure of a candidate for the ministry.” (Herman Hoeksema, The Clark – Van Til Controversy, Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, 1995, 6.) Now, we might note against Hoeksema that Clark was already ordained; he was no longer a candidate; he was an ordained minister. But Hoeksema’s main point still stands; these “abstract” disputes are not directly addressed by the Confession, whether Westminster in Clark’s case, or the Belgic Confession which ministers in Hoeksema’s church subscribed to.
That the complaint went beyond the Confession was surely Clark’s belief as well. He noted that the complaint, with its peculiar, extra-confessional views would have denied ordination to orthodox Old Princeton professors “Hodge and Green, and even Machen.”
The effects of the controversy.
We saw earlier that a “too low” view of confessional subscription has serious negative effects. But what about a “too high” view of subscription – requiring ministers to hold to doctrines beyond the Confession that elite seminary professors maintain? This too can have serious repercussions. In The Presbyterian Philosopher I have given a whole chapter to this question. You can read more details there, but for now I might mention that the controversy distracted the church for four years, manifested much personal animosity, contributed to the failure of a proposed Reformed Christian university, and helped to prevent the OPC from attaining significant membership growth or a place of leadership among Christian fundamentalists.
Was The Complaint politically driven?
And so, because the complaint was extra-confessional, it appears to have other motives. In my research into the matter—having access to Dr. Clark’s personal papers, interviewing with his living family and colleagues, and scouring archival materials in a number of theological institutions, I came to the conclusion there there were a number of political factors that added to motivations behind The Complaint. I’ll note two of them here today, and the others you can find in my book, The Presbyterian Philosopher.
Factor 1: The Alcohol Debates
For those of you who are students of Presbyterian history you will know that the Bible Presbyterian Church came into being in 1937, and among the issues that led to their separation from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was the question of alcohol.
The Bible Presbyterians took a strong stance against alcohol and earned a reputation as a dry church. By comparison to the BPC, the OPC earned the undesirable reputation as a “wet” church. The church’s image as “wet” was partially but unfairly based on the rumors surrounding Machen’s family [that they had made their money in the alcohol trade during prohibition] and comparison to the dry BPC. But at Westminster Theological Seminary the liberty to use alcohol was seen by some as license. The situation was so dire that, prior to the split in the denomination, J. Oliver Buswell submitted to Machen an extensive critique of Westminster Seminary highlighting the issue of alcohol abstinence (or the lack thereof). Clark saw the acceptance of alcohol at Westminster Theological Seminary as a further detriment to the image of the church. With such a stain on the church’s image, the reality of Clark’s hope that the OPC could lead the fundamentalists, most of whom were teetotalers, waned. He believed the fundamentalists would not join the OPC without the church adopting an official policy on abstinence from alcohol. Therefore, Clark desired to commend, but not absolutely require, abstinence from alcoholic beverages to improve the image of the church and remove a stumbling block to the fundamentalists looking to the OPC for leadership. Clark wrote of the issue:

“In the present circumstances our Church faces a deplorable situation. Because the General Assembly of 1937 did not make a complete pronouncement on the liquor question the church has been called a wet church. Because of rumors of drinking by persons connected with Westminster (popularly identified with the Church [OPC]), students have chosen to go to other seminaries. Insofar as these rumors are true, the individuals concerned are responsible for placing a stumbling block in the path of prospective students. The attitude of the faculty and students of Westminster, on this and similar matters, is widely and plausibly interpreted as smugness and stubbornness. Well-authenticated cases can be produced of students making themselves un-reasonably objectionable and bringing reproach upon the Church. The matter of drinking alcoholic beverages seems to be the center or at least a prominent part of this attitude. The faculty of the seminary has been requested privately to remedy the situation but the reply was completely unsatisfactory. Unless something unforeseen should happen, the only Presbyterian procedure remaining is to bring the matter before the Assembly.”

Bringing the issue before the Assembly was exactly what Clark desired to do when he wrote a proposal for a denominational resolution on abstinence.
The WTS faculty who had signed The Complaint held to a position of Christian liberty in the matter of alcohol use. Professor John Murray, for example, explained the seminary’s position well in an article for the Westminster Theological Journal . He wrote, “The progress of knowledge, of faith, of edification, and of fellowship within the body of Christ is not to be secured by legislation that prohibits the strong from the exercise of their God-given privileges and liberties, whether this legislation be civil or ecclesiastical.” On the particular matter at hand Murray commented in a letter to Ned Stonehouse, “Dr. Clark’s minority report which will no doubt be presented to the general assembly in the form of a resolution gives me grave concern.” These professors who supported Christian liberty in writing were also known to indulge themselves. A number of them were known to smoke pipes, a common practice of those who were of Dutch heritage, and Murray, of Scottish heritage, smoked cigars and occasionally drank single malt whisky. To the WTS faculty, and many in the OPC, the issue of alcohol abstinence had already been dealt with at the Third General Assembly of the OPC in 1937, which, by not voting on the issue, essentially affirmed their position on Christian liberty. Thus Clark’s resolution for abstinence would not find any support among the professors.
Clark saw the level of alcohol acceptance at WTS as a real problem. He wrote to Rev. Strong:

And I must confess that, rightly or wrongly, I think the seminary men are woefully blind to the situation. Kuiper speaks of having a course introduced to take care of the matter. In my judgment no course on ethics is needed for this matter. Unless the professors change their attitude, a course will be no good. And if they change their attitude, a course would not be necessary. But what hope is there of the professors changing their attitude? For this reason I want to push the resolution. . . . I have maintained a hope that the OPC could lead a considerable section of the fundamentalists. They need leadership, and it ought to fall to us. But to lead them, we must have their confidence. . . . Well, you can continue the line of thought for yourself.

It is important to note that Clark’s position on abstinence shifted over time or at least became more nuanced. In 1936 he had written to Buswell, “I have always supported the prohibition movement.” And again to Buswell in 1938, “I want you also to know that in 1934 or ‘35, I wanted to raise the liquor question in the Independent Board, because I knew that at least one member of the board was drinking. Griffiths persuaded me not to because it would result in such an explosion that the whole case would be injured.” But by 1942 Clark, it seems, had changed his position when he wrote to three OPC ministers saying, “I affirm my belief in the doctrine of Christian liberty. Spurgeon smoked, Luther drank beer (the stinking stuff), and with the statement prepared by the committee of nine on the matter I am in complete agreement.”
By the time of his proposal in 1942, Clark sought to correct the alcohol image of the OPC without forming laws opposed to it. His resolution was not to create a law regarding abstinence in the church, but simply to commend abstinence as beneficial.
Continuing the same letter to the three OPC ministers, he wrote,

I sympathize, more than the seminary men image [imagine] I judge, with their unwillingness to make even an apparent concession to the Wheaton group, the perfectionists, the victorious life group, and that type of people. I know very well that my resolution would not change their attitude one bit toward us. The people whom the resolution is aimed at are good, humble Christians here and there who have been deeply grieved at our the younger ministers, have said and done unjustifiable things. People still no doubt always call us (as Burt [Goddard] so cautiously expressed it to me) ‘unbending.’ And our men must be ready to take it on the chin. Guts are required. But I do believe that some of our number have voted unwisely even taking into consideration either their youth, their more prominent position, or any and all considerations.

A number of OPC ministers recommended to Clark that he not present his resolution. Robert Strong wrote to him, “Now about your resolution. I still feel that it would be better not to present it. . . . Might not a big row on the abstin. question do harm at this point?” Clark responded to Strong, “Clifford [Smith] wrote me an almost overpowering letter to get me to withdraw it, and maybe I shall have to, but it will be a bitter disappointment.” And finally, Ned Stonehouse wrote to Clark objecting to the resolution and its argument.
Ultimately Clark heeded the warnings and chose not to present his proposal at the general assembly. According to a letter Strong wrote to Stonehouse, Strong had seen a copy of a letter Clark had written to Paul Woolley which read, “Owing to the fear, expressed by several of the pastors, that an acrimonious opposition to the resolution I proposed as a minority report of the Committee of Nine would produce more dissension in local congregations than the resolution would produce good, I hereby regretfully withdraw it.” Even though Clark did not present his motion, his view on abstinence became known to the faculty of WTS. Seeing that Clark was essentially calling out the leadership of WTS with his view and could potentially bring it back up at a later general assembly, the WTS faculty were alarmed.
Factor 2: Control of the Seminary and the Denomination.
Since its founding in 1929, WTS had remained an independent institution and the professors had full say in handling its affairs. The status quo of professorial leadership at the seminary was threatened by two issues directly related to Clark’s ordination. First, Clark’s motion to commend abstinence of alcohol, although never presented, was particularly aimed at the seminary and the drinking issues there. Second, the Program for Action called for denominational oversight of the seminary.
The WTS professors had good reason to be concerned about church control over the seminary. Nearly all of them had previously taught at Princeton Theological Seminary, where church control had led to the modernists’ control of the Board of Trustees and the conservative professors’ departure to form Westminster. Thus the faculty at Westminster desired to choose for themselves who would be on the board. They chose mostly recent graduates of Westminster who supported the faculty’s positions. As a result of the experience at Princeton, WTS had been administered by consensus at faculty meetings since its founding. History taught them that the seminaries are the heart of the denomination. A popular phrase in Christianity, “As the seminary goes, so goes the church,” is quite fitting to this situation. This was the case in the PCUSA where the seminaries were all liberal by the 1930s, long before the majority of the church members themselves followed suit. Westminster Theological Seminary, by remaining independent, sought to avoid any shift to modernism or to other views divergent from the professors’ own.
Clark expressed what he believed to be dangers of independency in years prior regarding missionary societies in the church. To fellow members of an OPC committee, Clark wrote, “An independent society is responsible to no one but itself and involves all the dangers of un-Presbyterian independency.” There can be little doubt that Clark extended this same concern to an independent seminary.
While Clark’s alcohol abstinence motion and the Program for Action threatened the seminary’s status quo from the outside, Clark’s theology threatened it from the inside. WTS had struggled through the years to enroll enough students to remain financially sound. In its early years, the seminary often survived only because J. Gresham Machen was personally wealthy and could himself make up for budgetary shortfalls. So when, with Clark’s direction, students from Wheaton College started attending the seminary, it was of great financial help to the institution. But the students who came from Wheaton also came versed in Clark’s thought. The WTS faculty had to do battle for the theological mind of the students, but many who had studied under Clark remained committed to his teachings. A prime example of this was Edward Carnell who came to Westminster having been taught by Clark at Wheaton and, despite having professed that he had learned more from Van Til and the impressive faculty of the seminary than he had at Wheaton, nevertheless remained committed to the “consistency criterion” of Clark’s apologetic method. This concerned Van Til, as shown in a letter a few years later in which a disappointed Van Til wrote of Carnell’s prize-winning book An Introduction to Christian Apologetics, saying, “Have you seen the book by Carnell? It is Clark through and through.”
Clark’s ordination brought with it the possibility that he could teach at the seminary or at the newly planned Reformed university and even further impact the future ministers of the denomination. Robert Rudolph wrote, “Dr. Van Til said that Clark was probably the most effective teacher he knew and that therefore he was afraid of the great influence he would have on students and that Clark’s effectiveness would do much harm—more so than most other men.” A letter from one OPC pastor to another raised the concern saying, “Cross currents of emotional pressure are present in the presbytery, currents originating from men who would seek to use Clark as a spearhead about the seminary.”
It was clear to Ned Stonehouse that the force of those aligning against he seminary caused The Complaint to be written in reaction. He wrote, “The issue, to state it again, is whether we are in our approaches to be distinctly Presbyterian. The Clark case is only one aspect of that; indeed it would not have arisen, in my judgment, unless there had been the anti-seminary left-wing group.” However, because the seminary power struggle was intertwined with the Clark case, Stonehouse had to point out that there was a case against Clark on its own merits and that false accusations had flown in the direction of the professors. He wrote, “Unless we had felt that there was something wrong in Dr. Clark’s outlook, we would never have taken the step of challenging his qualifications. But what happened. Immediately people’s minds were poisoned with charges that we had personal animosity towards Dr. Clark, that we were afraid of him, and all sorts of false and unChristian statements of that kind.”
History Question
So we reach an interesting history question.
Clark and Van Til, along with essentially all of the early ministers of the OPC, came out of the strict confessionalist tradition of the Old School Presbyterians. Were those who signed the complaint so reacting to the liberalism of the PCUSA—where few if any requirements were imposed on ministers and thus a “too low” view of subscription reigned—that in their complaint against Clark their zeal led them to go over and above the Confession to a “too high” view?
In Between (And in Conclusion)
But to round out the topic, and bring us back to our original discussion, it should be asked, if much of American Presbyterian history has been “too low” on the Confession, and the complaint against Gordon Clark was “too high,” what is “in between?” The “in between” simply is the Confession itself. The bow leveled at the right height sends an arrow on target. The essential and necessary doctrines of the Biblical Christian faith are perhaps summarized in no place better than in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

4 thoughts on “Low, High, and In Between – Confessional Subscription and the Clark – Van Til Controversy”

  1. Doug,
    Was there a difference between Clark and Van Til / Westminster Confession on Saving Faith? I know the London Baptist Confession states in chapter 14:3 that Saving Faith differs in “kind or nature” from temporary faith does Westminster share that concern? I know Clark would have differed from Robert Sandeman in his holding Saving Faith is made up of two parts (knowledge and will) whereas Sandeman held to Simple Faith denying any will aspect to faith (and Clark sadly never referred to Letters on Theron and Aspasio neither complimentary nor critical in his What is Saving Faith?).

    1. Scott, that is an interesting question. The topic of “Saving Faith” did not feature in the Clark – Van Til Controversy in the 1940s. However, there very likely are some differences in their views. I do not know if Van Til gives his view in some particular place. Maybe he does, I’m just not well-enough versed. Clark, as is pretty well-known and as he discusses in a half dozen of his books, did not like the traditional three-part definition of faith. He held that the first two parts (understanding and assent) were a sufficient definition and that the third part of the definition (trust) was superfluous/redundant. I’d like to write about the Sandeman question someday. I’ve seen that come up in a few places.

  2. It’s interesting in the controversy, that the faculty of Westminster Philadelphia did not want (quite strongly) the Presbytery to rule over them, but they wanted the Presbytery to do their will regarding overturning a former Presbytery decision to ordain Clark! Brings a new meaning to the word “untouchables”. I wonder if the same mentality pervaded the seminary at the time of the Shepherd controversy, when the tables were reversed?

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