Review of An Introduction to Christian Apologetics by Edward John Carnell

An Introduction to Christian Apologetics by Edward John Carnell, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948, Fifth Edition 1956, 379 pp.

While Carl Henry and John Robbins might be the first two to come to mind when thinking of notable students of Gordon H. Clark, Edward John Carnell deserves mentions as well. (Though I believe John Robbins most consistently followed Clark’s philosophy, he was never a student of Clark’s in the classroom.) And it is upon this basis — Carnell as a student of Clark — that I believe study of him is in order. The question is, how “Clarkian” was Edward Carnell?

There is perhaps no better to place to start looking for an answer to this question than in Carnell’s An Introduction to Christian Apologetics. I happened upon a free copy of the 1956 printing, fifth edition of this book at a library purge at Graham Bible College in Bristol, TN. While there might have been some substantial changes in this later edition as compared with the original 1948, I will assume that this edition still largely reflects an early Carnell. The reason I distinguish an early and later Carnell is because, among other reasons, letters between him and Clark, published in Clark and His Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark, evidence a Carnell of the 1950s and 1960s growing philosophically further and further away from his teacher.

That this early Carnell was influenced by Clark is evidenced in, for example, a letter Cornelius Van Til wrote to a friend shortly after the publication of Carnell’s An Introduction to Christian Apologetics. There Van Til commented that the book was “Clark through and through.” But to what extent did the early Carnell follow Clark’s philosophy? And if he did follow Clark, might there be some comments in An Introduction to Christian Philosophy that could help one understand something of Clark’s thought that is less well detailed in his own writings?

Carnell notes the influence of Clark on him in the preface to the first edition. He writes,

“The author acknowledges an incalculable indebtedness to his former professor, Dr. Gordon Haddon Clark of Butler University, whose spiritual kindness, fatherly interest, and academic patience made the convictions which stimulated the penning of this volume possible.”(p. 12)

There are numerous minor points in Carnell that are shared by Clark. And Carnell quotes Clark regularly. I want to focus, however, on just a few points that stood out to me. Carnell certainly emphasizes logic, truth, and systematic consistency. He even, like Clark, calls himself a “Christian Rationalist.” (p. 151, 152) He critiques pure empiricism. (p. 64 ff) He even has two chapters on the Problem of Evil which mostly follow Clark’s thought on the matter. In one place that might have been what upset Van Til, Carnell argues, like Clark, that analogies rest upon having a univocal element. (p. 147) Carnell also argues in favor of Clark’s view of Romans 1:20. (p. 149 footnote 18) He argues along lines similar to that of Clark’s axiom. (p. 174) And his discussion of “common ground” (p. 211 ff) matches Clark.

The early Carnell it seems was philosophically much closer to Gordon Clark than say Robert Reymond later was. Carnell writes against empiricism, and emphasizes innate knowledge and illumination. Despite this, it seems to me that the early Carnell was somewhat Kantian in his overall philosophy. That is, he accepts innate knowledge or categories, which he calls rationes, but then claims that these make it possible for man to acquire knowledge of the world. Even though he notes the role of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the illumination (p. 64) of man’s mind there seems yet to be an idea in Carnell that there are “facts of nature” which man discovers. He writes that “sense perception is a source for truth.” (p. 49) But he never explains in this volume how exactly that works. That is, he does not explain how man might distinguish between valid and invalid inferences from perception. Although he does not write specifically about it, it seems to me that Carnell might have held to something like Kant’s preformation theory, the theory that man’s mind was designed by God to be able to learn from the natural world. As Clark did not hold this theory, Carnell diverged from Clark at that point.

Overall the early Carnell was closer to Clark than I had expected. The influence is very strong. But Carnell seems to lack that essential reliance on God for man’s acquisition of knowledge. He becomes perhaps more of a Kantian than a supporter of the theory of divine illumination. Carnell is generally less clear than Clark; less consistent and less thorough. I don’t see that he has made any contributions that advances Clark’s philosophy. Still, this book is a generally valuable read and shows that at least the early Carnell should be considered very much a student of Clark.

3 thoughts on “Review of An Introduction to Christian Apologetics by Edward John Carnell”

    1. I haven’t read Reymond’s “Faith’s Reasons For Believing.” I have read his “The Justification of Knowledge” and his “A New Systematic Theology.” I think Reymond is a clearer, better writer than Carnell, but I think Carnell’s thought is closer to Clark’s than is Reymond’s. The main reason for that is that Carnell rejects empiricism more thoroughly than Reymond.

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