The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, A Festschrift, Ronald H. Nash, ed., Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968, 516 pp.
This book—a festschrift for Gordon H. Clark—consists of three sections. The first section is Clark’s Wheaton Lectures. The second is “exposition and criticism” from various Christian intellectuals. The third and final part consists of Clark’s replies to most of the critics.
Though the book was published in Clark’s sixty-sixth year of life and he was nearing—or was expected to be nearing—the twilight of his career, approximately two-thirds of his published works were yet to come in later years. Thus the contributors to The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark who critiqued aspects of Clark’s philosophy did not have the advantage we have today of being able to access a larger corpus of his writings. Some of them still certainly knew Clark’s thought well from his writings then published or from their personal acquaintance with him.
The choice of critics is interesting in itself. None of Clark’s former students (Henry, Carnell, Lindsell, Jewett, Davis etc.) are included among the critics, though certainly some of his students were critical of his philosophy. Nor was there included any of Clark’s philosophical adversaries from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; John Murray and Cornelius Van Til among them. The critics Nash chose to contribute to this volume were theologians no doubt, but more specifically most of them were philosophers; a category that would be stretched if those previously mentioned in this paragraph were to be included. Nash, who wrote one of the critiques in this volume, and Roger Nicole were two that found much in common with Clark; at least in their theology if not philosophy. While Van Til was not chosen, R. J. Rushdoony, Gilbert B. Weaver, C. Gregg Singer, and perhaps David H. Freeman in that order had significant affinities with his thought. The remaining contributors—Merold Westphal, Arthur F. Holmes, George I. Mavrodes, H. Harold Hartzlter, John T. Stahl, and John Warwick Montgomery—are ones that I’m not familiar enough with to accurately categorize.
I’m grateful to own a copy of this book which once belonged to and is signed by Howard Long, a friend of Gordon Clark’s. Howard’s widow Genevieve, now in her nineties, graciously donated this book to me along with many others from her library. This volume is relatively rare and usually sells for over $100. But there is no need to pay so much since all of the material of this volume is reproduced in the much less expensive Clark and His Critics, Volume 7 of the The Works of Gordon Haddon Clark published by the Trinity Foundation.
PART ONE, THE WHEATON LECTURES
The Wheaton Lectures are an expanded version of three lectures Clark gave in November 1965 at Wheaton College. The lectures are “Secular Philosophy,” “The Axiom of Revelation,” and “Several Implications.” This section of the book was later printed alone as An Introduction to Christian Philosophy (1993).
The Wheaton Record promoted the lectures with the following notices:
The program then for the event is also extant:
Secular Philosophy. (Wheaton Lecture I)
Clark notes the primacy of epistemology to metaphysics. He writes, “But before any type of metaphysics can be accepted, another and far more crucial question must be asked and answered. After someone asserts that the universe is nothing but atoms in motion, or that the universe is an Absolute Mind, or even that planets revolve around the sun, we may properly ask, How do you know? A theory that tries to explain how knowledge is possible is called an epistemological theory. This is where we must begin.” (p. 27)
In rejecting nominalism, and perhaps accepting a form of realism, Clark writes, “On one major base some sort of theory of Ideas stands impregnable. It is the necessity of similarities and classifications. Unless we can use concepts and talk of groups of things, philosophy would be impossible. If only individual things existed, and every noun were a proper name, conversations and even thinking itself could not be carried on. Neither the medieval nominalists nor Bishop Berkeley, who tried to get along without abstract ideas, were able to explain the reason why we classify men as men and horses as horses. … All thought and speech depend on classification, and no epistemology can succeed without something like the Platonic Ideas.” (p. 28)
Yet Clark refers to Platonism as a failure. The plausibility of Plato’s theory of reminiscence vanishes when Plato leaves mathematics for politics. “The slave boy was easily able to remember the square on the diagonal, but neither the Athenians nor the Syracusans could remember justice, not even with the lengthy stimulus of the Republic.” (p. 29) Further, “Man before birth may have been omniscient, but here below the Platonic cave in which man is a prisoner actually has no opening.”
Neither was Aristotle’s empiricism successful for “he must determine the categories and ultimately defend the law of contradiction.” In this Clark concludes that “Aristotle fails to arrive at the law of contradiction by his empirical method.” (p. 30) “Aristotle’s difficulties start, not with the secondary realities, but right at the beginning with sensory individuals.” Using an example of rocks, Mt. Blanca, and the Sangre de Cristo range Clark asks, “Which then is the individual: rock, mountain, or range? The question is embarrassing for the identification of individuals cannot be made on the empirical basis Aristotle adopts.” (p. 31) [It might be interesting to note that while Dr. Clark’s son-in-law Dwight Zeller did not start Sangre de Cristo Seminary in that range (or on that mountain, or on those rocks) until the 1970s, by the 1950s Zeller and his brother Paul had begun Horn Creek, a Christian camp there. And prior to the seminary being built Dr. Clark owned undeveloped acreage at the site.]
Clark gives a brief historical survey of secular epistemology concluding that it is a failure. This failure might “induce one to try a religious or revelational theory.” (p. 37) The reader should now see that these lectures follow Clark’s general approach of showing the skeptical futility of various philosophies and then presenting the Biblical alternative and its superior merit. But first this lecture continues with sections on science, ethics, and religion.
On science Clark notes that the uniformity of nature, upon which physics depends, cannot be established by empiricism. Even if the law of uniformity is granted, it alone is of no use in obtaining the contents of physics. (p. 38) Then also, Scientific laws depend on non-observational factors, including mathematical manipulations of the observed readings of an experiment’s measurements. The equations chosen to fit the data, are just that: chosen, for an infinite number of alternative equations may fit the data equally well. The theologian then, who argues from the second law of thermodynamics that the world cannot have existed from eternity cannot, upon pain of contradiction, also claim that miracles—events contrary to the supposed uniform laws of nature—occur. For consistency, creation is to be defended from the scriptures. “If science cannot establish a mechanistic metaphysics, neither can it establish the second law of thermodynamics.” (p. 42) Science, Clark concludes, as manipulation or operationalism is astoundingly successful, but regarded as a cognitive enterprise is a failure.
The critique of secular views continues to ethics. Here too, Clark contends, secular philosophy fails. He briefly dispatches Kantianism before addressing utilitarianism. As he has written elsewhere, a major problem is that the calculations required by utilitarianism are impossible. The “still greater difficulty” in calculating the greatest good of the greatest number is establishing the normative proposition in the first place; why ought man to seek the greatest good for the greatest number? This cannot be established by observation. Referencing Hitler and Stalin, Clark writes, “The greatest good of the greatest number is a principle for tyrants.” (p. 46) Among critiques of other philosophies, Clark writes that Existentialism fails of “establishing values or norms of conduct.” (p. 53) Existentialism’s freedom of choice, he contends, “totally unrestricted, empties life of all meaning.” (p. 54) Sartre “can command us to choose, as insistently as he wants, but he can give us no idea of what to choose.” (p. 54) Secular ethics, Clark concludes, “do not justify a single norm of conduct.” (p. 54)
Finally, on religion, Clark provides a short critique of humanism, writing that it is unable on its empirical principles to establish the values of friendship, truth, and beauty that it so cherishes.
The Axiom of Revelation. (Wheaton Lecture II)
This second lecture, on the Axiom of Revelation, is in my opinion Dr. Clark’s single most important writing. Nothing more clearly displays his own philosophy. Regarding this lecture I agree with Mary Crumpacker’s article “Clark’s Axiom, Something New?” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32, no. 2 (1989) 355-65) that it does not signify a change in Clark’s thinking, but presents in clearer detail what he had essentially been proposing all along; or at least since A Christian View of Men and Things in 1952.
Clark’s first conclusion, summarizing the previous lecture, is that “no construction in philosophy is possible without some sort of presupposition or a priori equipment.” Then, second, he concludes also, “secular philosophy has failed.” Therefore, he moves on to “A Suggested Axiom.”
As I consider this lecture to be of considerable value, the following quotes from it will be of some length.
“Now, a third conclusion, or at least an hypothesis for consideration may be proposed. It is that revelation should be accepted as our axiom, seeing that other presuppositions have failed.” (p. 59) “That revelation should be accepted without proofs or reasons, undeduced from something admittedly true, seems odd when first proposed. It will not seem so odd, however, when the nature of axioms is kept in mind. Axiom 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.” (p. 59)
“If a philosopher ponders the basic principles of Aristotle, Kant, or even Sartre, he will do so only by considering how well the author succeeds in solving his problems. If the problems are such as confront us all, and if the basic proposals succeed fairly well, a philosopher is inclined to give his assent to them. He cannot be strict logic be compelled to assent; he makes a voluntary choice, induced by the successful solutions of the problem. 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 consistent with one another? 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.” (p. 59-60)
“Those who dislike systematic philosophy, or system in general, for example, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and the Pietists, should be pressed to prove the virtue of disjointed truths. Can philosophy of time be disregarded in eschatology? Does behaviorism have bearing on religion and politics? Is it possible to speak about zoology without suggesting views on creation? Or, vice versa, can we assert creation without implying something about zoology? No, truth is not thus disjointed. It is systematic. And by the systems they produce, axioms must be judged.” (p. 60)
“Though not impossible, it is difficult to extort knowledge of a human being if he does not want to make a self-disclosure. A fortiori the notion that God can be known only through revelation seems to be essential to the very concept of God. Try to extort knowledge of God from an unwilling God is impossible if God is the supreme omnipotent Being. Therefore if we profess a God who is infinitely superior to man, we should not be surprised by the necessity of a revelation, if we are to know him. Or, to put the matter in other words, we are confronted with an alternative: we can either deny God and accept atheism, or we shall have to try revelation.” (p. 60)
“Natural theology means that the existence of God can be demonstrated from an observation of the world. Taking revelation in this sense as an axiom is no different from taking the world as an axiom. This understanding of revelation simply returns us to empiricism, beset as it is with all difficulties listed in the first lecture.” (p. 61)
“Acceptance of revelation as a presupposition does not require a denial of the a priori. … As a matter of fact, the doctrine of the image of God in man, a doctrine learned from Scripture, is an assertion of an a priori or innate equipment.” (p. 61-62)
“A systematic philosophy must take care of epistemology. Knowledge must be accounted for. It may be that the a priori forms cannot be listed: it may be that botany or some other subject remains obscure; but knowledge of some sort must be provided. Hence the postulate her proposed is not revelation as natural theology, not revelation as ineffable mysticism, not an inexpressible confrontation, but a verbal and rational communication of truths, the revelation of Scripture.” (p. 62)
“It is necessary to consider logic first, rather than botany or history, because the denial of the law of contradiction, or even the failure to establish it as a universal truth, was the downfall of secular philosophy.” (p. 64) “Christians generally, even uneducated Christians, understand that water, milk, alcohol, and gasoline freeze at different temperatures because God created them that way. … It was God’s eternal purpose to have such liquids, and therefore we can say that the particulars of nature were determined before there was any nature. Similarly in all other varieties of truth, God must be accounted sovereign. It is his decree that makes one proposition true and another false. Whether the proposition be physical, psychological, moral or theological, it is God who made it that way. A proposition is true because God thinks it so.” (p. 65-66)
After quoting the Bible and Charnock’s Existence and Attributes of God, Clark writes, “God’s knowledge depends on his will and on nothing external to him. Thus we may repeat with Philo that God is not to be ranked under the idea of unity, or of goodness, or of truth; but rather unity, goodness, and truth are to be ranked under the decree of God. It is hoped that these remarks on the relation between God and truth will be seen as pertinent to the discussion of logic.” (p. 66-67)
Quoting John 1:1 then, Clark famously if not controversially gives his translation as “In the beginning was Logic, and Logic was with God, and Logic was God. … In logic was life and the life was the light of men.” (p. 67)
“Not only do the followers of St. Bernard entertain suspicions about logic, but even more systematic theologians are way of any proposal that would make an abstract principle superior to God. The present argument, in consonance with both Philo and Charnock does not do so. The law of contradiction is not to be taken as an axiom prior to or independent of God. The law is God thinking.” (p. 67) “As there is no temporal priority, so also there is no logical or analytical priority.” (p. 68) “logic, the law of contradiction, is neither prior to nor subsequent to God’s activity.” (p. 68) “God and logic are one and the same first principle.” (p. 68)
“Scripture, the written words of the Bible, is the mind of God. What is said in Scripture is God’s thought.” (p. 69) [Because God is logical, so too are His words in the Scripture] “We maintain that the Bible expresses the mind of God. Conceptually it is the mind of God, or, more accurately, a part of God’s mind. For this reason the Apostle Paul, referring to the revelation given him, and in fact given to the Corinthians through him, is able to say, “We have the mind of Christ.” (p. 70) “As might be expected, if God has spoken, he has spoken logically. The Scripture therefore should and does exhibit logical organization.” (p. 70)
“The Scripture teaches that God created man in his own image. Although the first chapter of Genesis does not say explicitly what that image is, it implies that the image distinguishes man from the animals. From Colossians 3:10 we may infer that the image consists chiefly in knowledge, rationality, or logic. … Therefore the contention is that knowledge and rationality are the basic constituents of God’s image in man.” (p. 72-73)
“The Fall seriously damaged God’s image in man in all its parts. The intellect became depraved as well as the will. This is the doctrine of total depravity: no part or function of man is free from the effect of sin.” (p. 75) “While no act of will can be moral in the unregenerate man, it does not follow that no intellectual argument can be valid. True enough, fallen man is deceived by fallacious thinking, and he makes mistakes in arithmetic. But even the most hardened sinner sometimes constructs valid syllogisms and sometimes gets his bank account correctly balanced.” (p. 75) “Morally his [fallen man’s] every act is sinful … Therefore, in order not to assert that the image of God has been completely annihilated stress must be laid on its component of logic and reason.” (p. 75-76)
To avoid irrationalism, “we must insist that truth is the same for God and man. Naturally, we may not know the truth about some matters. But if we know anything at all, what we must know must be identical with what God knows. God knows all truth, and unless we know something God knows, our ideas are untrue. It is absolutely essential therefore to insist that there is an area of coincidence between God’s mind and our mind.” (p. 77)
“Religion, or to speak clearly, the Christian religion is not an affair of the emotions, at least no more so than politics and economics are, but fundamentally an acceptance of an intelligible message. The acceptance of this message is offered as a first principle, an axiom or postulate on which a superstructure of knowledge can be erected. Secular philosophy, with as well as without presuppositions, was shown to be impossible. Therefore, to put it as modestly as possible, the postulate of verbal revelation is at least worth trying.” (p. 87)
“The thousands of Biblical propositions need not be construed as an immense set of axioms. The peculiarity is in the opposite direction. What annoys Euclid and Spinoza is that this theology can operate on a single axiom. The single axiom is: The Bible is the Word of God. But though single, it is fruitful because this is embedded in it the law of contradiction, plus the nature of God, as argued above, plus the thousands of propositions thus declared true. On this latter point the form of deduction can be maintained. From the one axiom it follows syllogistically that such and such a sentence in Scripture is true because it is the Word of God.” (p. 88)
Several Implications (Wheaton Lecture III)
From Clark’s axiom or postulate this third lecture then seeks to provide some positive views on various subjects: history, politics, ethics, and theology or religion. Thus the failure of secular philosophy in these areas can be seen in stark contrast the success of revelation.
Clark then has a lengthy discussion of the views of the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd; his fifteen “law-spheres” and “cosmic time.” Generally he finds Dooyeweerd often unintelligible and in the end inadequate. [This is the first Clark writes on Dooyeweerd, but additional articles on him come from Clark’s pen in the next few years after this volume.] Clark then moves on to “illustrate how the axiom of revelation can in a few instances be used to produce some concrete results.” (p. 102)
“Revelation then explains the significance of history. Without revelation there is no possibility of developing significance.” (p. 105) “The postulate of written or Scriptural revelation certifies events and gives their explanation. Explanations developed on any other ground are fanciful. Thus the postulate has this advantage.” (p. 107)
“A theory of civil power established by divine decree and promulgated by revelation avoids, as the secular theories cannot, the twin evils of totalitarianism and anarchy.” (p. 112)
On ethics, “The secular theories failed because there is no valid argument by which one can start from observable phenomena and reach and conclusion concerning obligation. When, however, the establishment of normative laws is placed in the hands of God, these secular attempts are seen to be as unnecessary as they are impossible.” (p. 113)
The final section on religion critiques irrationalism and argues in favor of the intelligible message of Christianity, the Good News.
Clark then summarizes the main thrust of his lectures: “Secular philosophy with our without presuppositions has been shown to be a failure. The verbal revelation of the Bible solves the problems of epistemology, history, ethics, and religion. It distinguishes truth from error. It preserves intelligibility. It banishes mysticism, emotionalism, and despair. And by it we receive the Reason of God, that is, God himself.” (p. 122)
Following Clark’s lectures, there was significant pushback from those philosophers in attendance. A Wheaton Record article commented “Intense dialogue resulted at last weekend’s philosophy conference as philosophers vigorously reacted to the rationalistic thought of Butler’s university’s Dr. Gordon Clark.”
It may be valuable to address the comments in the Wheaton Record of those philosophers who attended the Wheaton Lectures, but for the present the purpose here of reviewing The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark must continue.
PART TWO, EXPOSITION AND CRITICISM and PART THREE, REPLIES TO CRITICS
This review will comment on parts two and three simultaneously. That is, rather than looking at all of the writings of the critics and then all of Clark’s replies, it shall go essay by essay commenting on the critiques and corresponding replies each in turn.
Ronald H. Nash (1936 – 2006), the editor of the volume, was then Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Department of Philosophy at Western Kentucky University. Later he taught at Reformed Theological Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I once spoke over the phone with Nash’s widow, Betty Jane, who informed me that while her husband had professional connections with Dr. Clark, they were not close friends in frequent contact. Second only to the writings of Gordon Clark, of 20th century Christian philosophers I find Nash’s work in philosophy (Especially The Concept of God and The Light of the Mind) to be particularly stimulating.
Nash’s section in this volume is on “Gordon Clark’s Theory of Knowledge.” In this essay Nash first explains Clark’s theory of epistemology. And his explanation is pretty good. He contends that if there is one thinker in the rationalist tradition in epistemology that Clark should be related to, it is St. Augustine. (p. 126) Nash agrees with Clark’s criticism of the Thomistic theory of analogy. (p. 151) He also agrees with Clark over Van Til in the claim that “truth is the same for both God and man.” (p. 162)
What I question in Nash’s explanation is his contention that Clark holds to a type of Preformation Theory. (p. 143-145, 156). [I hope to explore Clark’s and Preformation Theory in a subsequent article, God willing.]
Following Nash’s explanation of Clark’s theory of knowledge, he provides some criticism. At least five particular critiques can be identified.
Critique 1 (Nash): It seems that because Nash sees Preformation Theory in Clark’s earlier works but not in his Wheaton Lectures—where Clark restricts knowledge to Scriptures and deductions from it— he then concludes that Clark’s view has changed. “This latter view is not only inconsistent with his earlier view (where he admits the possibility of man knowing things which cannot possibly be derived from Scripture) but, it is, I think, a most implausible position.” (p. 173) Nash believes that Clark’s earlier view is plausible while the latter is “a weak platform on which to build a vital Christian apologetic.” (p. 175)
Clark’s Response: In Clark’s response he argues that Nash has often mistaken exposition for construction in his books. That is, Nash has mistaken Clark’s explanation of various philosophers (in Thales to Dewey, for example) to be positively his own views. In one of Clark’s audio lectures he admits that this has been a frequent problem. Those studying Clark’s works should be careful not to assume Clark’s views in those places where he is merely discussing secular philosophies.
Critique 2 (Nash): “Clark has repeatedly told us that the Truth is the whole; this follows from his coherence view of truth. But it is obvious that man never grasps truth as a whole. How is it then that man possesses truth?” … The problem cannot be avoided by simply saying that man is in contact with the divine ideas in the mind of man. Augustine tried this move without complete success.” (p. 164) After quoting Etienne Gilson on Augustine, Nash writes, “Clark then seems plagued with a dilemma that has haunted all Platonists. Unless the objects of human knowledge are separate from or ‘above’ man’s mind, they will be subject to the same finiteness and mutability as individual human intellects. On the other hand, unless man’s mind is related to absolute Reality, it cannot possess genuine knowledge.” (p. 164)
Clark’s Response: “Nash in the first of his two major disagreements uses Plato’s Parmenides as the point of departure. This seems unnecessarily to complicate matters, not only because I have so vigorously defended Phlio against Plato, but also because even within the limits of pagan philosophy Parmenides is a great enigma. … Plato himself would deny that ‘These natures have nothing to do with us, nor we with them.’ … Now, when one removes oneself from strict Platonism and accepts the Hebrew-Christian status of Forms, as outlined by Philo and Augustine, it becomes still easier to answer these objections. … But the New Testament is clear: we live and move and have our being in God’s mind. The Old Testament also in Psalm 36:9 says, ‘In thy light shall we see light.’ Therefore I reject Nash’s conclusion, buttressed by a quotation from Etienne Gilson, that ‘The problem cannot be avoided simply by saying that man is in contact with the divine ideas in the mind of man.’ These words really misstate the situation, for our existence in the mind of God puts us in contact with the ideas in the mind of God and not simply ‘in the mind of man.’” (p. 406) “…our mind and Christ’s mind overlap or have a common area or coincide in certain propositions. Thus objections taken from the Parmenides are inapplicable to the New Testament. Note that Christ’s mind and our mind only overlap: they are not coextensive. Plato may require omniscience, but Christianity uses revelation; and man knows only so much as God has revealed to him. In my publications I have never claimed more than a partial knowledge for man.” (p. 406-407)
Critique 3 (Nash): Like critique 2, Nash finds this third critique from Plato’s dialogue Parmenides. “Parmenides is saying that is God’s knowledge is of the perfect, it follows that God knows nothing of the imperfect real world and since man belong to the latter world God cannot know us. Now Clark has told us that knowledge always has as its object propositions. This means that all that God knows are propositions. But surely I, the writer of this sentence, am not a proposition nor are you the reader. If God knows only propositions, Clark seems to imply that God cannot know you and me as existing individuals. And this is a denial of God’s omniscience.” (p. 166)
Clark’s Response: “Far from making it impossible for God to know human beings, it is rather Professor Nash who does so. His view of this self is that of some Ich-an-sich. Leibniz suggests that the ego is a complex definition, including the life history of the person, and no doubt his state in a future world as well. This definition is not unknowable in essence, and God knows it because he determined what it should be. On the hand, it is something that the person himself does not know, at least in this life. The difficulties which my critics press upon me depend in large measure on their assumption that some truths are non-propositional. … to ask me to make room for non-propositional truth is to ask a great deal. … Nash appeals to non-propositional truth. So have some others. But no one has ever told me what this phrase means. No one has ever presented any evidence to show that there is such a thing.” (p. 412-413)
Critique 4 (Nash): This Nash calls “An Ethical Problem.” Nash is concerned that for Clark “God himself is not bound by the laws (e.g., those in the decalogue) that he has revealed.” (p. 168) “In other words, there is a divine standard of morality which is essentially different from our own and which, for all practical purposes, is unknown to us until God chooses to reveal it.” (p. 168) “Unless the moral law revealed (however imperfectly) in man’s moral consciousness and more specifically in the Bible are reliable indications of what is eternally right and wrong, man is left with ethical skepticism.” (p. 169) “It bothers Clark not a little when someone like Van Til suggests that God’s logic may not be the same as ours, but he remains unperturbed when he advocates that God’s moral laws may be different from those we know.” (p. 169)
Clark’s Response: “Now, the laws of the Decalogue define man’s obligations to God and man’s obligations to men. They do not define God’s obligations. Can a Christian hold that God has any debts or obligations at all? Are the conditions of the Divine Being subject to the restrictions on human conduct? … To put it in a jolting fashion, Can God commit adultery? Is it murder, forbidden by the sixth commandment, when God, ‘casteth the wicked down to the ground,’ when he ‘removeth kings,’ when ‘the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven’ or ‘when the Lord Jesus Christ shall be revealed … in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God’? It does not seem strange to me that God is not bound by laws that are applicable only to created beings.”
Critique 5 (Nash): Finally Nash gives the argument most commonly raised against Clark’s philosophy. It boils down to “Don’t you have to read your Bible.” No doubt this concern had been brought to Clark’s attention on various occasions previously. Yet, it is Nash here who, as far as I know, first puts it in writing. “But three is another difficulty. Since Clark repudiates all sensory experience as a source of knowledge, it follows that we cannot even know what God’s revelation says. In order to know what the Bible says, I must be able to read it with my eyes or hear it with my ears or touch it with the braille of my fingers. But this is sense perception.” (p. 174)
Clark’s Response: Clark references Augustine who says “I answer that everything signified by these words was already in our knowledge.” (p. 416) And also, quoting Augustine, “Even though I speak about true things I still do not teach him who beholds the truth things, for he is taught not through my words but by means of the things themselves which God reveals within the soul.” (p. 416)
Clark responds to this question also some years later in an audio lecture.
In “A Christian Construction, Part 1” Clark says, “Many Christian evidentialists, unwilling to accept liberal or neo-orthodox visions, are nonetheless unwilling also to hack away and dig out the roots of non-Christian branches of learning. When a non-empirical apologetic is presented to them, they almost always reply with the boldest and most naive petitio principii, “don’t you have to read your bible.” I’ve heard that more than once you know. … When someone asks “don’t you read your Bible?” he is assuming that a Bible is certain sensations of black and white without combination, arrangement, or intellectual interpretation. Now this is clearly not the case. The perception of a Bible is somehow ordered and interpreted. The apologist must explain how. An empirical appeal, like the sight of a Bible, can not be the beginning of an epistemological theory. If the apologist cannot show how perception of a Bible develops from sensation he has no basis for his empiricism. He has no defense against a spiritual rationalism. The former, so we apprehend, lands him either into behaviorism or chaos, which are much the same thing. The latter provides for an intelligible message from God.
And in “A Christian Construction, Part 2,” Clark says, To finish once and for all with the question “Don’t you read your Bible?,” Abraham Kuyper in The Work of the Holy Spirit, and this would be a good book for you to read, its only about 700 pages long. It’s very good. But beginning with a quotation from Guido de Bres, says, quote, this is from Abraham Kuyper “that which we call Holy Scripture is not paper with black impressions. These letters are but tokens of recognition. Those words are only clicks of the telegraph key signaling thoughts to our spirits along the lines of our visual and auditory nerves. And the thoughts so signaled are not isolated and incoherent but parts of the complete system that is directly antagonistic to man’s thought, yet enters their sphere.” This analogy may still be too behavioristic, but the main thought is sound.
Merold Westphal (1940 – ) was then Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Yale University where he also took his M.A. and Ph.D. Like Dr. Clark, but at a later period, Westphal had also taught at Wheaton College. At the time of publication of this volume he was also Dean of the Winona Lake School of Theology where Clark taught some summers. Dr. Westphal, who I contacted during the process of writing this review, responded, “My contact with Gordon Clark was very limited, and I did not find myself to be a very close philosophical kin. I contributed to the volume in question at the suggestion of Ron Nash, the editor. That was one of my earliest publications, and I have not been engaged with Clark’s work since then.” (Merold Westphal to Doug Douma, Nov. 30, 2018)
Merold Westphal’s essay is “Theism and The Problems of Ethics.” As neither it, nor Clark’s reply is particular applicable to Clark’s epistemology—the study of which is my goal in reading through Clark’s works—I will not at the present time summarize this essay. For the same reason I will not review most of the remaining essays.
Arthur F. Holmes (1924 – 2011) was a long-time professor at Wheaton College, having resurrected the philosophy department there which had been neglected since Clark’s departure from the school. Earlier this year I read Holmes’s Christianity and Philosophy but was sorely disappointed in it. We’ve seen already from the Wheaton Record that following the Wheaton Lectures Holmes “observed that Clark had made a value judgment in placing an axiomatic system over all others and questioned the basis for this.”
George I. Mavrodes (1926 –) taught philosophy at my alma mater, the University of Michigan. Two letters between Clark and Mavrodes are extant. The second, Clark’s response, is available in Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark.
Mavrodes essay is available here.
And Clark’s response is available here.
David H. Freeman (1903 – 1984) was at the time of publication of this volume the Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Rhode Island. A minister colleague of mine who was in good friends with David Freeman writes to me:
“David Freeman was solidly committed to historic Calvinism as embodied in the WCF and catechisms. … He was also a strong proponent of expository preaching, which he believed was in decline in the OPC as recently as the 1970s. He pastored a small Psalm-singing OPC church in Havertown, PA (a Philadelphia suburb) and was John Murray’s pastor for 30 years. They were very close friends. He spent the last few years of his pastoral ministry at Grace OPC in Fall River, MA. When he retired in 1968, he taught philosophy at Rhode Island College in Providence until he moved to Florida, where he died in 1984. Although he would not have thought of, or called himself a philosopher, he was well versed in the Greek philosophers and their heirs in the Middle Ages and in modern times. Born in 1903, he immigrated to the U.S. with his orthodox Jewish parents from Poland and was converted through the loving witness of a Baltimore public school teacher in his teen years. When he told his mother of his faith, she said, ‘The news would have been better if it had been that you were dead.’ I think he had to leave home. He attended George Washington University, from which he received his undergraduate degree. He afterwards attended Princeton Seminary and had Machen and others for teachers. He remembered going to dinners prepared for the students by Machen in his Alexander Hall apartment where, Freeman also lived. He was ordained in the Presbyterian Church, USA, and became a charter member of the OPC in 1936 when it was formed in the wake of Machen’s trial. At some point early in his ministry he received a Ph.D. from Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in Philadelphia, where he studied under the renowned Hebrew (Jewish) scholar, Cyrus Gordon.” (Rev. Bill Marshall to Doug Douma, Dec. 1, 2018)
R. J. Rushdoony (1916 – 2001) is a name familiar to most who read this blog. To learn more about him and the movement he began I recommend Michael J. McVicar’s Christian Reconstruction, R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. See my review of that book here.
In Rushdoony’s short essay “Clark’s Philosophy of Education” he repeats the refrain that “Clark’s position is basically presuppositionalist” and contends that despite clear differences on some points that Clark is close philosophically to Van Til. There is very little if any criticism, and thus it is no surprise that Clark did not respond to this essay directly.
Gilbert B. Weaver (1929 – 2008 ) wrote his Th.D. dissertation on “The Concept of Truth in the Apologetic Systems of Gordon Haddon Clark and Cornelius Van Til.” As I recall he largely took Van Til’s position there. Here, in his essay “Gordon Clark: Christian Apologist” he again takes Van Til’s position. In Clark’s response, so many years into these debates, he seems perturbed by the continued arguments. He repeats many of those arguments of the Clark – Van Til Controversy. Little if anything of that saga is advanced in either Weaver’s essay or Clark’s response.
C. Gregg Singer (1910 – 1999) was at the time of this volume’s publication the chairman of the history department at Catawba College, Salisbury, NC. Singer, a ruling elder in his church, was later involved in the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America.
H. Harold Hartzler (1908 – 1993) was then Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Mankato State College, Mankato, Minnesota. Two letters between Hartzler and Clark are extant.
John T. Stahl (1937 – 1975) was then Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Western Kentucky University working then with Ronald Nash. The Journal of Philosophy (Volume 72, Issue 12, June 1975) reported “the untimely death of John T. Stahl, Professor of Philosophy at Western Kentucky University” who “died of cancer on May 4, 1975” at thirty-eight years of age.
John Warwick Montgomery (1931 –) is well-known as a leading theologian and philosopher in the Lutheran tradition.
Montgomery writes on “Clark’s Philosophy of History.” Clark does not respond in this volume, but in a matter of a couple of years comes out with his Historiography, Secular and Religious.
In a letter to C. Gregg Singer, September 27, 1968, Clark writes, “Thank you for your friendly letter. Yes, in the Festschrift I replied mainly to those who disagreed with me. That seems called for. Montgomery is very capable and competent. His criticisms must be noticed. But in addition to the late date at which his chapter came in, there is the consideration that I have been working on a volume to be called Historiography, Secular and Religious. It will be a somewhat lengthy work. Topics are: geographical and physical determinism, statistical history; objective and relativistic history, moral judgments on history; and some others, as well as Barth and Bultman. In this book I hope the answer to Montgomery will be found. My basic difference with him is that he is an empiricist. This comes from his Lutheran background. His objections to me are all based on the presupposition of empiricism – almost an historical positivism – though he would not call it that. If this basis can be overthrown, the specific objections lose their force.”
Roger Nicole (1915 – 2010) was a Professor of Theology at Gordon Divinity School. He and his brother Jules-Marcel Nicole were friends of Dr. Clark’s.
Nicole’s essay, “The Theology of Gordon H. Clark,” is fairly short and congenial. His criticism regards doubt over Clark’s supralapsarianism and that “Clark’s confidence in the adequacy of the human intellect may be exaggerated.” (p. 397) Clark’s response is a defense of his supralapsarianism and at the same time a critique of infralapsarianism. It is a valuable addition to Clark’s work on that topic.
For the previous review in this series see here.
For the next review in this series see here.
9 thoughts on “GHC Review 17: The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark”
Great review Doug! Looking forward to the rest. I’m still on Thales to Dewey, but your reviews are wetting my appetite for more!
Thanks! I hope that the historical context and archival finds I’m presenting here might make the reading of these volumes even more fruitful.
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Good stuff! For folks new to Clark the entire Mavrodes exchange is offered up front on the Trinity Foundation website …
Thanks for providing that link Larry! This is exactly what I’m hoping for with these reviews; they give a place to reference thoughts relative to each book. The Mavrodes exchange, with the additional letter I’ve made available in “Clark and His Correspondents” p. 180, could be a topic of research and writing on its own.
Another major topic to research and write on is the Preformation Theory and the extent, if any, to which Clark held to it. Nash repeatedly says Clark holds to it (or one), but that seems doubtful to me.
Nash does assert as much in the Festschrift but since I lack both the formal training in philosophy and the requisite intelligence quotient to offer an opinion I’ll have to wait for your research and writing!🤓
And here: http://www.trinityfoundation.org/new_article.php?id=2
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