Clark and Van Til Must be Dehomogenized

[This is a guest post from C. Jay Engel, reblogged from You can read the original here.]

Clark and Van Til Must be Dehomogenized

by C. Jay Engel

For about three years, I have wanted to write an essay titled “Clark and Van Til Dehomoginized.” This is not that essay, though it anticipates it; it is but a shadow of a much better essay.

There are some who will recognize that the title is borrowed from the world of Austrian Economic theory, in which author Joe Salerno aimed to “dehomogenize” Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek. As an interesting bit of historical context, this essay was Salerno’s contribution to a Festschrift in honor of Hans Sennholz, student of Mises and Professor at Grove City College. The Festschrift was organized and edited by none other than John Robbins, who became the important publisher of the works of Gordon Clark.

The problem Salerno needed to address was that there were “two very different paradigms” that were both operating under the single label of “Austrian Economics.” Salerno writes:

Unfortunately, the majority of those who currently regard themselves as ” Austrian economists” have failed to recognize the considerable differences between these two paradigms. And because Mises was the main influence on Hayek’s early writings on business cycle theory and on socialist calculation, the most important manifestation of this failure is the tendency to attribute to Mises positions originated by Hayek or independently developed by those working within the Hayekian paradigm.

The result is that attention has been deflected from the Misesian paradigm, and those seeking to deepen and extend it have found it increasingly difficult to gain recognition for their own efforts or to channel the interests and efforts of younger Austrian scholars into the same endeavor. There thus currently exists a pressing need, especially for Misesians, to undertake the task of a courageous and thoroughgoing doctrinal dehomogenization of Hayek and Mises.

It is in a similar vein that Clark and Van Til need a systematic and complete dehomogenization (is that a word?). The presuppositionalist label has equally been applied, in a broad way, to cover a variety of Christian apologist/philosophers (including of course Van Til and Clark)— and the result of that is A) that its critics miss the distinct and separate framework of Gordon Clark and therefore issue critiques that are inapplicable to Clark and B) that only the “mainstream” presuppositionalist camp, which is Van Til’s, gets any hearing at all.

That I consider this a tragedy stems not only from my own Clarkian sympathies, but also because I reject the view, often held by both Van Tillians and Clarkians, that they were similar, though distinct in emphasis and non-essentials. On the contrary, I think that Clarkianism and Van Tillianism are completely different frameworks, with different philosophical contexts, commitments, arguments, vocabulary, and interpretations of theological concepts.

One vital implication of this is that this isn’t merely a debate over the best apologetic method; apologetics is a subset of the apologist’s broader epistemological convictions. The true debate between Clarkians, Van Tillians, Classicalists, and so forth, is over epistemology. Thus, categorizing Clark and Van Til as two flavors of a specific apologetic method severely damages any attempt to understand how each related to more general issues relating to the nature of truth, logic, knowledge, reality, and the mind.

In this anticipatory post, I merely want to mention a few items, a few distinctions of Clark that are not true of Van Tillians and Classicalists. To be slightly provocative I actually think there are some key areas in which Van Tillians and Classicalists (adherents of Thomas Aquinas, more specifically) are closer to each other than they are to Clarkianism. Besides these distinctions, I also want to mention a few clarifications regarding Clarkianism as the battle between Van Tillian presuppositionalists and the TCI [“The Christian Intellectual”] proponents of Thomism heat up. After all, the TCI guys have recently declared war on presuppositionalism and as a Clarkian who considers himself exempt from their claims, now is as good a time as ever to at least start my efforts at dehomoginizing the two.

But again, a fully and systematic essay is a vital need. I pray that I can conquer this in due time.

Gordon Clark believed that one characteristic of truth was that all truth was propositional; indeed, only propositions can be truths. Knowledge does not merely “correspond” to the Truth, because if it only corresponded to truth, it would not actually be the truth; and if it wasn’t the truth, it wouldn’t be knowledge. Under the correspondence theory, the proposition is not itself the truth, but the proposition relates to the “Truth,” which itself is not actually a proposition (if it were a proposition, correspondence would be unneeded).

In this way, as I will get into further in the dehomogenization piece, Clark sought to reframe Augustinian philosophy (which was based on “ideas”) and recast it all by replacing ideas with propositions! Among the theologians most often mentioned by Clark, perhaps only Calvin gets referenced more than Augustine. Perhaps, though not entirely sure. Nevertheless, one sees it often in Clark’s writings that he was attempting to shift Augustinian thought from emphasis on “ideas” to emphasis on “propositions” or “propositional truth.” If the Classicalists and the Van Tillians borrow from the framework of Aquinas, Clark is the Augustinian of the group.

Truth as propositional is the reason why Clark dismisses “natural theology” or “general revelation” as a source of knowledge. He does not reject it as a category; after all, for the individual who believes in the God of the Bible, the heavens certainly declare His glorious handiwork. But how can observation of the milky way logically produce a proposition? This is an epistemological objection to natural theology as a source of knowledge, not an observation about how man’s fallen nature prevents him from accurately interpreting nature. No amount of sinlessness can make propositions derive from nature. Glorification does not overcome the problems of empirical theory. Only propositions beget propositions.
Clark writes:

Again, the Hebrew-Christian view that “the heavens declare the glory of God” does not, in my opinion, mean that the existence of God can be formally deduced from an empirical examination of the universe.

Thus, Clark’s opposition to general revelation should not be confused with Van Til’s objections. Van Til believed that it was because the unbeliever wasn’t in covenant with God and that he was a fallen and corrupted sinner, that general revelation was flawed. This is a very different approach. Thus, when the Classicalists lambaste presuppositionalists for rejecting the idea that unbelievers can know truths via general revelation, they are not responding to the more fundamental and epistemological objections posed by Clark.

But I digress. Moving back to my earlier mention of the correspondence theory, and to jump straight to the accusation, under this framework the mind does not actually have “reality” when it is claimed that something is “known.” Clark observes:

if the mind has something which only corresponds to reality, it does not have reality; and if it knows reality, there is no need for an extra something which corresponds to it. The correspondence theory, in brief, has all the disadvantages of analogy.

The correspondence theory, as Clark notes, suffers from the same problems as the concept of analogical predication. Analogical predication is the Van Til-Thomas Aquinas position on how we can speak of God. God, it is claimed, is “totally other.” The knowledge that we have of him is distinct from the knowledge that he has of himself. Theologian Robert Reymond, himself a Clarkian, explains (in his magnificent Systematic Theology) this Thomistic view:

“Aquinas declared that nothing can properly be predicated of God and man in a univocal sense. To do so and to say, for example, that God and man are both “good” and to intend by “good” the same meaning, is to ignore the difference between the essences of God the Creator (his existence is identical with his essence) and of man the creature (his existence and his essence are two different matters).”

It was this paradigm that paved the way for analogical predication:

“But Aquinas saw too that to intend an equivocal meaning for “good” would lead to complete ambiguity and epistemological skepticism. Therefore he urged the way of proportionality or analogy as the via media between univocality and equivocality. In other words, the assertion, “God and man are both good,” means analogically that man’s goodness is proportional to man as God’s goodness is proportional to God, but it also means that the goodness intended cannot be the same goodness in both cases. In sum, of this Aquinas was certain: nothing can be predicated of God and man in the univocal sense. Rather, only analogical predication is properly possible when speaking of the relationship between them.”

I won’t elaborate on the analogy doctrine for now— suffice it to say that Van Tillians have this same sense as the Thomists do in their radical separation of God and man.

Clark, however, has no use for analogy, because of his understanding of the nature of truth as propositional, and his position that man assents to the same propositions God does. For if knowledge is knowledge of a proposition, and the proposition is true, then it cannot be a different proposition in the mind of man as compared to the mind of God. Else man would not be able to have knowledge.

I mentioned that Clark has no use for analogy (for Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine called the Analogy of Being). I am not exaggerating:

However, in philosophy and theology analogy is not much use. If two objects are compared, for example, if we say that man is the image of God, it is not immediately evident what the point of similarity is. It may be freedom; it may be male and female; or it may be rationality. In addition to the bare statement that man is like God, we need a definite, positive identification of the similarity. Analogy does not give us this information.

What is much worse is that in theology, as distinct from poetry, analogy is used to compare a known object with an unknown object. The Thomistic theory is that we have no positive knowledge of God, but our ignorance can be relieved to some extent by learning that this unknown God is like man. Thus we manufacture an analogical notion of God. This is impossible. Suppose I were to tell you that a boojum is like an apple. Does this mean that a boojum is red but not round, round by not red, both round and red, or neither round and red but soft? A statement comparing a known with an unknown object gives us no knowledge of the unknown object at all. Hence dependence on analogical knowledge, paradox, or symbols, with its denial of literal and positive knowledge of God, destroys both revelation and theology and leaves us in complete ignorance.”

All this is why Clark was firm that the propositions the man held were qualitatively the same as the one’s God held. That is, they had the very same quality; they were the very same proposition! Clark was fond of repeating Paul: “we have the mind of Christ!”

Thus, we ought to mention a corollary: how Clark understood logic and the laws of logic, which were a core component of his philosophical system. Gordon Clark believed that Logic was not created, either by God as a way to communicate with “mere humans,” nor by man to organize the world around him. Rather, logic is the structure of God’s own thinking. For Clark, reason is logic. To reason correctly, therefore, is to literally think as God does. And to reason incorrectly is itself sinful, and a result of original sin. Clark wrote:

“The law of contradiction is not to be taken as an axiom prior to or independent of God. The law is God thinking.

For this reason also the law of contradiction is not subsequent to God. If one should say that logic is dependent on God’s thinking, it is dependent only in the sense that it is the characteristic of God’s thinking. It is not subsequent temporally, for God is eternal and there was never a time when God existed without thinking logically. One must not suppose that God’s will existed as an inert substance before he willed to think.”

Now, it is important to understand the extent to which this formulation plays a role in Clark’s understanding of God. For Clark, God is logic, he does not contain logic. “God and logic are one and the same first principle, for John wrote that Logic was God.” Indeed, Clark famously (to the extent that epistemological decisions within the Reformed circles make one famous) interpreted “Logos” as logic, leaning on the Greek philosophical context in which John wrote his letter.

As an aside, I’ve always found it humorous when the atheist complains that Christians favor faith over reason– and I come back with the observations that some Christians (those in the Clarkian-Augustinian tradition) literally worship logic and subsequently claim that violating the law of contradiction is sinful.

In sharp contrast to Clark, Van Til believed that the laws of logic were created by God to be used as a tool in understanding God’s revelation. Further, as Doug Douma points out, “Van Til could not have it that the logic used by a right-thinking man is the same as the logic used by God.” That is, if God created the logic man has access to, then He is above logic, or at least his thinking is distinct from it, and it therefore does not bind his thinking. And if it doesn’t “bind” his thinking (as if being bound by logical purity and consistency is a mark against God), he thinks in a different way— his thinking, as well as his being, is “totally other.”
In this way, for example, Clark completely and radically escapes any critique made by Classical apologists that Van Tillians depreciate logic and therefore advance unintelligible doctrines.

This is why Van Til and his followers embrace the concept of paradox in theology, while Clarkians reject it, and often reject it intensely. Frustratingly, Van Tillians often embrace it piously, as if accepting paradox is honoring to God in that we submit to Him as a God we cannot understand. Doug Douma distinguishes between Van Til and Clark on paradox:

Van Til emphasizes “apparent paradox” in those places of Scripture where he cannot reconcile two doctrines. This “apparent paradox” he holds to be objective in one sense – that it will be apparent for all people who read the Scripture – but not objective in the sense that God cannot solve the dilemma. Clark, on the other hand, held that paradox is a “charley horse between the ears” and that what is apparent to one person may not be apparent to another. Thus he held that we should attempt to resolve paradox through Scripture interpreting Scripture and deductions by “good and necessary consequence.”
A paradox, in my opinion at any rate, a paradox is simply a confusion in one’s mind. And hence what is paradoxical to one man is not paradoxical to another.” – Clark, John Frame and Cornelius Van Til, audio lecture.

In any case, this Clarkian understanding of logic has implications for man, as he relates to logic. For Clark, the meaning of being made in God’s image is a reference to man’s rationality. Man is the image of God and since God is logic, so too man’s mind is structured with the very same logic. This means that the mind of man, contrary to the Lockean empiricists, is not a blank slate but is instead an interpreting and judging mind— it has an innate structure, laws that guide his thinking.

The theory that there is a “body of primary principles on which further knowledge may be built up” … “might be called apriorism, presuppositionalism, or intellectualism.” Here we get, if we allow Clark to define his own terms, Clark understanding of what it means to be a presuppositionalist. He places this phrase within the tradition of actual development of epistemological thought. The idea that man reasons from a starting point onward to “further knowledge” is categorically aprioristic, which is why I have in another article described my Clarkian framework as theistic apriorism.

Now, given Clark’s understanding of the nature of truth as propositional, and his understanding of the nature of man such that man was created with a logical and rational mind (like his Creator), Clark escapes the accusation that presuppositionalists deny a common ground with unbelievers (for all humans were created in God’s image). Let me clarify this. Unbelieving man does not lack a logical mind, and indeed can access the laws of logic regardless of his belief in the inspiration of the Bible. The laws of logic are therefore the common ground. One does not first need to assent to the proposition that the Bible is the inspired and infallible word of God to discover, understand, and adhere to the following structure of logical argumentation:

All dogs have legs.

Mary is a dog.

Mary has legs.

Gordon Clark once noted of Van Til (in Lord God of Truth):

“Dr. Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Seminary has annoyed the empirical apologetes by insisting that there is no common ground shared by believers and unbelievers—that is if both are consistent with their principles. The empirical aim is to discover some point of agreement which they can use in convincing any man of the truth of Christianity. Dr. Van Til denies that there is such an agreement.”

And indeed, one of the accusations (which was true) that Van Til threw at Clark was that Clark believed that all men had some sort of common ground which could be appealed to in argumentation.

Doug Douma has an interesting comment on this topic when he writes:

Clark believed that Van Til’s (and Kuyper’s) apologetics went too far in rejecting logic as a common ground between the believer and unbeliever. Despite Van Til’s desire to avoid the use of logic to determine his worldview, he still had to employ logic. Clark, realizing the impossibility and hypocrisy of such a position, retained logic in his apologetics while Van Til denied common ground of any sort, including logic. Clark argued that all men, believer and unbeliever alike, shared the same logical mental structure because this structure was part of the image of God in which all men were created.

What is interesting here is this: it is well known that the philosophical tradition of Old Princeton (which represent the theological roots of Clark) was Classical and basically Thomistic. Hodge, Warfield, and Machen were all proponents of what we now might categorize as Sproulian, Classical apologetics and epistemology. But even though many decades after Old Princeton fell at the hands of the Progressives Van Til’s presuppositional revolt began to undermine the Classicalism at WTS, Clark (who was of course not a Classicalist), happened to carry on the “common ground” tradition. However, for Clark as opposed to the Classicalists, the common ground was far more restrictive and honed in on logic itself. But nonetheless, interesting.

I realize that this article is not broad enough to fully capture all the ins and outs of the differences between Clark, Van Til, and neo-Thomists. However, let me bring it to a close by mentioning the difficulty of labels.

If Clark and Van Til are worlds apart, who deserves the presuppositionalist label? The Thomists operate under the Classical label— which has the advantage of appealing to nostalgic sentiments among conservative philosophers. But they deserve it— Thomism has a lineage of continuity and was the dominant strain of Western Thought from the Scholastics onward.

Etymology is not very helpful here, for regardless of whether the Thomists, the Clarkians, or the Van Tillians are right, everyone has to presuppose something; start his reasoning from somewhere (which Clarkians and Van Tillians are quick to remind the listener).

The history of epistemological thought (as mentioned above with the apriori word) is a possibility, but this seems like cheating and in any case is not the sense in which Van Tillians would consider themselves presuppositionalists— and they are the dominant branch.

Van Tillian Scott Oliphant attempted to make the case the Van Tillians would be better served operating under the label Covenantal Apologists. That would be helpful. But it’s hard to change the hearts and minds of the beloved swarm of Facebook philosophers.

Cal Beisner, a Clarkian, has suggested classifying Clarkians as “Classical Presuppositionalists” to distance their thinking from the “Van Tillian Presuppositionalists.” This doesn’t go far enough in the dehomogenizing direction, in my opinion. Though it does have the advantage of not being impressed by the “Copernican” nature of Van Tillian presuppositionalism.

I have used theistic apriorism in the past, because I wanted to emphasize that Clark stands in the tradition of philosophers (and theologians) who focus on the fact that God made man logical in his logical image and therefore the mind is not a blank slate— the mind interprets the world, the world does not enter the mind via the senses. This, however, is not very specific— theism is not per se Christianity. Christian apriorism is more specific, perhaps Reformed apriorism is better.

John Robbins suggested Scripturalism. After all, all knowledge (which has as a component the characteristic of infallibility— otherwise it ought be categorized as opinion) stems from Scripture. This is very specific and honors Clark’s legacy well. The only concern with this might be that it is easily confused with Biblicism, which might be defined as the idea that only propositions found in the Bible, and not even propositions that can be logically deduced from these, are to be considered knowledge. Under the Biblicist framework, logic is a tool of the Devil, or, less dramatic, Fallen Man. Thus, even deductions and implications are not to be trusted.

I have yet to truly decide which label suits me in my attempt to dehomogenize Clark and Van Til, but what I do know is this: they must not be kept under the same label, as if they were two differing flavors or consisted of difference of emphasis.

The labels themselves are important only in accurately conveying the fact that we have before us a variety of philosophical frameworks and we ought to be aware of the differences and similarities. What fascinating topics!

More to come.