An Introduction to the Life and Work of Gordon H. Clark
by Douglas J. Douma
Keynote speech given at the Gordon H. Clark Philosophy Symposium at Covenant College, April 6, 2018.
Imagine you are a student at Covenant College on summer break in 1973 and you hear a rumor, “Dr. Gordon H. Clark is coming to teach here next year.” For those of you here who are Covenant College students it should not be too hard to imagine that you are a Covenant College student. (You philosophers might call this the law of identity) But you will have to go back to 1973 when the college was not yet part of the PCA (the Presbyterian Church in America) but belonged to one of the PCA’s precursor bodies, the RPCES (the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod). The college was surely smaller than it is today, yet similar in its Presbyterian tradition.
For many students at the time this was an exciting rumor to hear. And, after the rumor turned out to be true and Dr. Clark did join the faculty at Covenant College, the interest in his courses was considerable. In fact, some students would transfer here from other colleges just to take his courses.
Why though was Dr. Clark’s coming to teach at Covenant College of interest? A semi-retired man of seventy-one years of age coming to teach philosophy of all subjects. Why was this noteworthy? And why are we still talking about him and his philosophy decades later?
Though there might have been a considerable number of reasons why his coming to Covenant College was of interest, I will focus on three main ones and in the process I hope that I might adequately introduce to you the life and work of Dr. Gordon H. Clark.
The three reasons I will discuss are as follows:
I. He was one of the most notable Christian thinkers of his era.
II. He was a witness to many of the major events of 20th century American Presbyterian history.
III. He was a endearingly unusual individual.
And so it might have been one or more of these reasons why the rumor of his coming to Covenant College was of interest.
Now, I would like to pause for a moment to comment about this year, 1973. All records that I’ve found say that Gordon Clark started at Covenant College in 1973. Despite the records, I can’t seem to figure out how it is possible that he taught in 1973. According to his personal letters he spent a full month in October and November of 1973 teaching at Geneva College in Pennsylvania upon the invite of the retired philosophy professor Johannes Vos. I believe that Dr. Clark probably started at Covenant College in the Winter of 1974, but one might call that the 1973-1974 school year.
But let us return to the subject at hand.
Our first point:
I. He was one of the most notable Christian thinkers of his era.
In The Presbyterian Philosopher, the biography I wrote of Dr. Clark, I attributed the formation of Clark’s mindset to be principally of two factors: his upbringing under a father who was an Old-School Presbyterian minister, and his training in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania where he earned his Ph.D in 1929. It is important to note that Christians do not often earn doctorate degrees in philosophy at secular universities. They do not often do so today and they certainly did not often do so in the year Dr. Clark graduated. A similar point was made in a letter Dr. Clark received from his friend and theological hero J. Gresham Machen in 1934. Machen wrote, “We can certainly be thankful for a man like you, who is not a minister and is even a university professor, and yet is not ashamed to be called a Christian!”
It might be said that for Clark, though not without a critical eye, Presbyterianism beat out secular philosophy as his worldview. Though he rejected the Scottish Common Sense Realism philosophy of his Presbyterian forebears, including his own father, he became even more convinced of the futility of non-Christian philosophies in establishing any knowledge whatsoever.
But this certainly did not mean that Clark eschewed secular philosophy or had no use for it. He, in fact, published two books on the history of philosophy, first as a contributor to A History of Philosophy in 1941 and then his own book Thales to Dewey in 1957. He also wrote a number of articles on the philosophy of Plotinus, and once during a low point in his career as a Christian academic thought that he might continue his work there and become, in his own words, “a mediocre Plotinian.”
By the time Dr. Clark came to Covenant College in 1973 (or be it 1974) he had, by my count, published 22 books. By the year of his death (1985) his output had swelled to include 38 published books. And another 14 or so so were published posthumously. In addition to his published books, he wrote at least 351 articles for various publications. His output, Carl Henry once wrote, was “A wide and deep swath.” He wrote on ethics, Christian education, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of language, logic, and historiography, and on Christian doctrinal questions including predestination, the Trinity, faith, sanctification, the atonement, and various others.
Throughout all of this Clark stood for the vow he had made to the Westminster Confession of Faith in his ordination first as a ruling elder in the mainline Presbyterian church in the 1920s and then as a teaching elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1944.
Clark’s philosophy—alternately known as presuppositionalism, dogmatism, or Scripturalism—was, above all else, guided by the understanding of the Christian religion as outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith. If then, his philosophy was grounded in the historic confession of the Presbyterian Church, for what reason was his work particularly notable?
That is a difficult question to answer because he made contributions areas including the relationship of divine sovereignty to human responsibility, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, lapsarianism, and the problem of evil.
But above all else, what drew me first to Dr. Clark’s work and what continues to do so is his epistemology, his theory of knowledge.
And so for the necessary brevity that a speech such as this requires I will limit my explanation of Dr. Clark’s philosophy to a brief overview of his epistemology.
The best source for his views on epistemology is his 1965 Wheaton Lectures first published in his festschrift in 1968. There he explains the importance of foundational axioms in philosophy. That is, you have to start somewhere if you’re going to start. The argument is that all philosophies start with some assumed starting point or axiom. Empiricism starts with the validity of sensory perception, rationalism starts with pure logic, and Christianity starts with the truth of the Bible. And so when non-Christians complain that we start with an unproven assumption—the truth of the Bible—it is a problem they equally share, for every philosophy must start with some unproven assumption.
But, from each axiom a philosophical system is built. And, Clark thought, by comparing the various systems based on their logical consistency and explanatory power we can judge which is superior.
To prove an axiom would be to assume a prior axiom which would then itself need to be proven. The only way to avoid such an infinite regress is to understand that the initial axiom is not proven but assumed.
And so Clark writes,
“Axioms, whatever they may be and in whatever subject they are used, are never deduced from more original principles. They are always tested in another way. If a philosopher ponders the basic principles of Aristotle, Kant, or even Sartre, he will do so by considering how well the author succeeds in solving his problems. … So too it should be with Christian Revelation as an axiom. We must ask, Does revelation make knowledge possible? Does revelation establish values and ethical norms? Does revelation give a theory of politics? And are all these results consistent with one other? We can judge the acceptability of an axiom only by its success in producing a system. Axioms, because they are axioms, cannot be deduced from or proved by previous theorems.” (Gordon H. Clark, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 59-60)
Clark’s life work then is to show the inconsistency of various non-Christian philosophies and the consistency and explanatory power of Christianity.
This is not a feat that he believed could be done with a single argument, like those who employ the so-called Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God. Rather, Clark held, the various philosophies must be addressed each in their own right and proven false. While Clark could certainly not write against each and every philosophy mankind has ever devised, he did write against the main contenders. And by showing them false through their own logical contradictions and weak in their inability to answer the important questions of philosophy, he opens the door for a consideration of the Christian faith which he argues is consistent, is logical, and answers many of our most profound questions about God, about men, and about the things of this world.
When I first came across Clark’s writings I was struck by the immensity of this idea, of starting with, of assuming the truth of the Bible. This, I found, is something much greater than the so-called Reformed Epistemology of Alvin Plantinga and others. Plantinga’s work establishes that it is not irrational to be a Christian. Not irrational! That wasn’t good enough for me. That isn’t good enough for me. I want to know the truth. Seeking for truth I kept coming back to a phrase I had memorized in the Dutch language “De vreze des Heren is het begin der kennis.” (“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” – Proverbs 1:7) And this is certainly a true phrase. But the proper fear of the Lord should lead one to distinguish God’s word from Satan’s lies. And so having a fear of the Lord is to believe in the truth of His Word, the Bible. And so from the propositions of the Bible and those propositions which can be logically deduced from the Bible considerable knowledge from God is available to man.
While this is an entirely too-short account of Clark’s epistemology I shall leave it there so that we can move on to our second of the three points.
II. He was a witness to many of the major events of 20th century American Presbyterian history.
When I started writing on Gordon Clark it was not for a biography at all but for a summary of his philosophy. It was not long however until I realized the importance of understanding the historical context of his philosophical work. And so the biography project began to make sense of the history. For some Covenant College students in 1973 it very well could have been the history rather than the philosophy that intrigued them when they heard of Dr. Clark’s coming to teach.
I’ve noted in the introduction of The Presbyterian Philosopher that Gordon Clark was directly involved in most of the major American Presbyterian denominational separations and mergers of his era.
To give a brief overview of Clark’s history prior to coming to Covenant College it is important to note first that he was the son of a Presbyterian minister who was himself the son of a Presbyterian minister. Clark grew up in Philadelphia and came to faith at age thirteen at a rally of the popular evangelist of the time and former major league baseball player Billy Sunday. In college he first studied French for his undergraduate degree and then Philosophy for his Ph.D. In the meantime he joined the cause of the Fundamentalists and looked up to J. Gresham Machen more than anyone else except maybe his dissertation advisor William Romaine Newbold. Clark and his father, a minister of a church in Philadelphia for forty years, was closely acquainted with Machen who led the Fundamentalist movement among the Presbyterians. Clark wrote to and received letters from Machen and met with him on various occasions.
But as a Christian teaching in the philosophy department at his Alma Mater, the University of Pennsylvania, he found opposition to his views in some administrators who prevented him ever rising from the rank of instructor to assistant professor.
And so in 1936 Clark took a position as a visiting professor at Wheaton College and the next year accepted a full time position there as an associate professor.
Though Machen had died young in 1937, the denomination of Fundamentalists that he had created continued forward. With the president of Wheaton College, J. Oliver Buswell, also involved in the movement Clark found an adversary and friend. He would then have some good and then some bad years at Wheaton. The good years were the first three while Buswell remained president. But when Buswell was fired in 1940 Clark found more outspoken opposition to his strongly Calvinistic views.
Yet while at Wheaton there was an almost uniquely gifted set of future Christian leaders who would study under Dr. Clark. Carl Henry, Edmund Clowney, Harold Lindsell, Paul Jewett, E. J. Carnell and others considered Clark their greatest influence as a professor. The late Billy Graham also took at least one class with Dr. Clark, but that did not go quite as well.
According to one student in the class (Samuel Faircloth) later interviewed for the Wheaton College archives, Billy Graham one day stood up in the back of the class and looked Clark right in the eye. Then he pointed his finger at Clark and said “Doc, you’re cold.” Clark, in his characteristically logical—almost Spock-like way—retorted “I prefer to remain cold.”
While “cold” meant something like “lacking evangelistic passion” for Billy Graham, it had connotations of level-headed consideration for a philosopher like Clark.
Nevertheless, Clark was forced to resign in 1943 when the complaints of the Head of the Bible and Philosophy Department, Henry C. Thiessen convinced the board of trustees of the danger of Dr. Clark’s views.
And so, considering his career direction in 1944 Clark applied for ordination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. But there too he would find opposition, and from a somewhat surprising source – the philosophically minded professors at Westminster Theological Seminary.
The next four years have been called in history “the Clark – Van Til controversy.” And it was four unfortunate years of internal struggle in the church distracting Fundamentalist Presbyterians from many of their major goals.
The controversy ended with Dr. Clark’s ordination being upheld at both levels of the church courts – presbytery and General Assembly. Ultimately it was said that the challenges brought up against Dr. Clark’s ordination set a standare more precise than did the confession.
But disappointed in the direction of the denomination Clark took a job teaching philosophy at Butler University in Indianapolis and transferred his credentials to the United Presbyterian Church.
Surprisingly it was there at Butler—for 28 years—not in a Christian college but in a secular university that Clark found his greatest independence. While his job as professor and head of the philosophy department was a stabilizing force in his life, the church struggles continued. The United Presbyterian agreed to a merger with the liberal church and so Dr. Clark led his congregation, of which he was then pastor on the side to his professor job, out of the denomination. They joined the small Reformed Presbyterian Church General Synod (RPCGS) which became the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES) in 1965. At that time Clark was back in a denomination with J. Oliver Buswell and also another noted Christian thinker, Francis Schaeffer.
And so when Clark came to Covenant College in 1973 he had already been in five denominations and had been through many church struggles, including the one with his name in it.
Something else should perhaps be noted about his coming to Covenant College. He been forced to retire at Butler University because of their age restriction. But he was not done teaching, nor done thinking. He would come to Covenant and teach for ten years, spending the summers teaching at Sangre de Cristo Seminary in Colorado, and continuing to write books until his dying days.
Well, for other students maybe neither philosophy nor history was particularly interesting. But they would later find out that Dr. Clark himself was an endearingly unusual man.
III. He was a endearingly unusual individual.
To give you some indication of Dr. Clark as a person, he compartmentalized his food, eating one item fully before moving on to the next; he knew more of his neighbors’ dogs names than his neighbors’ names, he loved chess, chocolate, and scrapple (a pork, cornmeal, and spice dish popular in Pennsylvania).
He explained of himself in a letter to Nick Barker at Covenant College, “Outside professional philosophy I write terrible poems, paint worse pictures, and play mediocre chess.” Truthfully, it seems he was quite good at chess, even once winning his chess club’s tournament in Indianapolis.
About Dr. Clark in the classroom, one student commented, “When he taught Augustine, or Aquinas, or Spinoza, he was for a time the living incarnation of each thinker, defending a given philosopher’s affirmations against all counterattack, and driving us to formulate our criticisms ever more lucidly and logically.”
Dr. Clark had a great sense of humor and regularly made jokes in his lectures. One of my favorite of his jokes is appropriate for our philosophical audience here today. Following a lecture in which Dr. Clark explained Zeno’s Paradox, a sort of tortoise and hare situation meant prove that motion is in fact impossible, Clark spoke about his publisher saying that his book had not yet been published because the publisher “is the slowest person on earth” and that “he would have pleased Zeno the Eleatic with his exhibition of no motion.”
My favorite recollections of Dr. Clark, however, are from Covenant’s own art teacher Ed Kellogg.
Kellogg recalled, “Clark was so muscle-bound in his left hemisphere and atrophied in his right hemisphere; my impression was that artwork really frustrated him, that he couldn’t master it, that he couldn’t rationally figure out what the issues were here.”
Dr. Clark would regularly invite students to his home to discuss philosophy. There is a picture of such a scene at Wheaton College in circa 1940 that is included in The Presbyterian Philosopher. Recently, I spoke with one of Dr. Clark’s former students from the Butler University years. And I asked him, did you ever get invited to Dr. Clark’s house to talk philosophy. And he said, “No, some students in our class did go over to Dr. Clark’s house – 345 Buckingham Dr — but they didn’t talk philosophy. Rather, Dr. Clark pulled out his slide projector and showed them his pictures of the American Southwest, the place he most had a love affair with.” Perhaps his favorite place was Boquillas Canyon in Big Bend National Park.
Mrs. Ruth Clark, Dr. Clark’s wife, was a botanist by training with a master’s degree in 1932 from the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, one lady I interviewed remembered Ruth Clark all the way back to about 1940. She recalled Ruth speaking French and someone saying, “She is so smart she could be president.” which prior to the recent presidents was a position which retained some dignity and much honor.
Well, Dr. Clark would spend much of his summers out in the American Southwest, and do landscape drawings and paintings of what he saw there. He was an artist in the sense that he did art, never in the sense that someone would pay for his art. Well, when he’d return from these trips in the Fall he’d show his artwork to Dr. Kellogg.
Dr. Kellogg recalled, “Clark had gotten a book on the perfect ideal composition in art. He came into my office once before class and almost slapped this book down on my desk and said, ‘According to this book, this is a perfect composition.’ He knew that the drawing or painting was just terrible, and it was. He knew it, and was very frustrated that he couldn’t approach it and do something that came so easy to him with his left-hemisphere approach.”
For those who are listening to this speech and have already read the biography, I want to note a few things that I’ve found since it was published. It is interesting how research goes. Once you get something published THEN people want to tell you more! And you might respond, “Where were you during my research!”
But anyway, I recently spoke with the son of one of Dr. Clark’s old Wheaton students. The student was Charles Svendsen, the son is John Svendsen. John explained that Charles had attended Wheaton College and lived for a time at Dr. Clark’s house. Having had a deaf father who was not an academic nor a reformed Christian, Charles found Clark to be a father figure of sorts for him. He fell in with the philosophy students including Paul Jewett and E. J. Carnell and followed them to Westminster Seminary after they all graduated from Wheaton. John said “Dad [Charles] would regale us with his stories of Clark. One time, Clark had come out to California and dad took him to Disneyland. And dad said ‘Don’t you want to hang out with [Paul] Jewett and [Edward] Carnell?’ And dad was serving a church ten miles from Fuller [Seminary]. Clark said, ‘No, no, they’ll just ask me a lot of questions and I want to have a good time.”
I might also note that since the publication of the biography we have also published a collection of Dr. Clark’s selected letters titled “Clark and His Correspondents.” It is a “best of” collection including letters with J. Gresham Machen, Cornelius Van Til, J. Oliver Buswell, Carl F. H. Henry, and many others.
Before I set out to write Dr. Clark’s biography, I had in my mind the idea of writing a summary of his thought. I even had a title chosen – The Ocotillo is not a Cactus. And so I thought I might end this speech where I started off on my work on Gordon Clark – thinking about cacti. And so here is a story of Dr. Clark’s, recorded on an audio lecture. It shows you something of his philosophy – the importance of definitions. It shows you also his passions – the American Southwest. And it should challenge you to think about what you know and what you don’t know.
This is from 1981 when Dr. Clark spoke at Gordon-Conwell seminary.
“You know out west in Arizona, in Southern Arizona, in the deserts there are cacti and at this time of year or within a few weeks now the desert will not merely blossom like the rose it will much out do the rose. Therefore, cacti flowers are far more beautiful than any roses are and they are simply gorgeous. If you go out there at the proper time you will see a plant that goes about twelve to fifteen to twenty-feet tall, it’s name is the ocotillo and it has beautiful red blooms on it.
Well one day I went into a ranger station and looked at the exhibits there and in one of the rooms on the wall there was a painting an oil painting of an ocotillo and of course there were ocotillo growing outside and underneath amongst some other little bit of information on a placard it says the ocotillo is not a cactus. There is something an easterner wouldn’t guess you know, because the ocotillo has thorns you better be careful about touching it and to the unaided eye it looks very much like the other cacti. As I went to the ranger desk and there was a man there I said, “You have a picture in the other room there, a nice painting of a ocotillo and underneath it says it is not a cactus.” He said, “Oh, yes that is right; ocotillois not a cactus.” I said, “Would you please tell me what is a cactus?” He looked at me, “Nobody has ever asked me that question before.” Guess not many philosophers got there. He says, “I don’t know. But the head ranger is coming back in just a few minutes. If you can wait why, we’ll ask him.” I said, “Why, yes i’m not in any hurry and very beautiful and I just enjoy the view and all.” Well the main ranger did come back and so I said “would you kindly tell me sir, what is a cactus?” He said, “I don’t know, but I will look it up for you.” And so he got out some of these books and then he gave me a pretty fair statement of what cactus is. I later found a better statement than the one. But, he made a try.
So you have to define your terms you know. And in particular when you are doing apologetics you have to understand botany and know what a cactus is as oppose to an ocotillo which isn’t a cactus. I wish you can all go to Arizona this summer and see some ocotillos and some cacti. Uh let’s see. You might even, you might even, get so disgusted with this course that you might leave early and get there in the middle of May. And I think you might find more blooms in the middle of May than – you’ll still find some around the first of June. But, early May and middle of May is the best time to visit Arizona and pull this joke on the rangers because they don’t know what cacti are.”
And so perhaps more than anything, I’ve learned from Dr. Clark the importance of definitions. As he would say, “If you don’t define your terms you literally don’t know what you’re talking about.”