GHC Review 25: Colossians

ghc review 25; colossians
Colossians, Another Commentary on an Inexhaustible Message, by Gordon H. Clark, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979, 136 pp.

In this commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, Gordon Clark seems to use his own translation of the text (p. 68) and gives considerable emphasis to the Greek grammar.

It also seems to me that, above all other of Clark’s writings, here he is particularly Presbyterian-sounding, or even Covenanter-sounding. In fact, these views are so pronounced in a couple of places that they seem to overturn his positions elsewhere given. For example, on Colossians 2:16 Clark concludes, “Paul does not abrogate the Lord’s Day, but he forbids the celebration of saint’s days, Easter, and Christmas.” (p. 96) But from Clark’s personal papers it is seen that he himself gave sermons on Easter and Christmas specifically themed to those days. This might be reconciled by thinking that Clark is only opposed to an official church calendar, but the statement above seems even stronger than that forbidding the celebration of holidays entirely. There seems to be <gasp> an inconsistency here in Clark.

Then, an even bigger shock to me is to see Clark’s reversal of position on images of Christ. Back in 1944 (July 7 to be precise) in Clark’s “Examination in Theology” during his ordination process there was the following dialogue between him and a Rev. Clelland in which Clark did not take objection to images of Christ:

Question (from Rev. Clelland): “In the 109th question of the Larger Catechism, under: “Sins Forbidden”, in the Second Commandment, there is forbidden making any representation of God, of all, or of any of Three Persons, either inwardly in our minds, or outwardly of any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever” Do you subscribe to that particular statement of the Larger Catechism?”

Answer: Very easily, there is no possible imagining of God.

Question (from Rev. Clelland): Would you interpret that to forbid pictures of Jesus

Answer: No sir, that is his human nature, he had a body like anyone else and there is no reason that a likeness cannot be made of Christ, not to kneel before them, not to worship, but there is no objection to painting a scene of the Crucifixion or Christ before Pilate.

But here in his commentary on Colossians, Clark’s position appears to have changed, putting the burden of proof on the one who wants images of Christ rather than on the objector to such images. Clark now writes,

“God is spirit, not body; he is neither visible nor tangible; and that is why it is idolatry to make graven images of him. Not only graven images: Numbers 33:52 forbids pictures as well. It is hard to see any Christian principle that allows us to put a picture of Christ in our wallet and carry it around in our hip pocket with our driver’s license.” (p. 33.)

These Covenanter views were then widely distributed to 2000 donors of Covenant (probably the college where he worked, and not the seminary) who each received a copy courtesy of the institution. (GHC to John Robbins, 3/7/1981)

While there might be some strengthening of Covenanter convictions in this volume even to the point of reversing previously held positions, there are other topics in this volume on which Clark never wavered. For example—and it is even an anti-Covenanter example—Clark opposes, as he does elsewhere, “restricting congregational singing to the Psalms of David.” (p. 121) And he continued his opposition to the ordination of women. On this he provides a valuable argument:

“Finally Paul concludes, ‘of which I Paul became a deacon.’ The Greek word is deacon. In the present social and ecclesiastical situation it is worthwhile to note that Paul applies this word to himself. The word originally had a very wide sense. Anyone who served was a deacon (servant). Hence Phoebe in Romans 16:1 was a ‘deacon.’ But it does not follow that she was ordained to any office.” (p. 58)

Two other interesting quotes from this volume should be noted. Clark almost certainly has Van Til in mind when writing,

“Some who think a little more and have just a smattering of philosophic terms consider the Father as the unity, and the Son and Spirit as the diversity. Thus they attempt to solve “the One-and-the-Many problem” which Parmenides discovered and removed by denying plurality, which Democritus hardly considered at all, which embarrassed Plato, in which Plotinus failed horribly, and in which also William James turned Parmenides upside down by denying unity. The contemporary theologians may go further and constructively propose that unity and plurality are “equally ultimate” in the Godhead. They are not apt to have a very clear idea of what “equally ultimate” means. (p. 82)

On this see also here.

And finally, in what has bearing on understanding his views of the Trinity (See also: 1, 2) Clark writes,

“The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity certainly teaches that the Father and the Son are equal in power and glory, and, as equally eternal, they may be called equally ultimate. But the Father is not to be equated with unity and the Son with plurality. The Three persons are the plurality and the Godhead is the unity. The Godhead is not one of the persons as distinct from another, but rather the common reality shared by the three. Such is our partial answer to the objections of Islam, and also to some confused American theologians. But whether the group of common qualities, the Godhead, is more ultimate than any one of the three persons who share these attributes, and whether “ultimate” means “generic,” for certainly there is no chronological precedence in this argument, are questions more properly discussed in a systematic theology than in an exegesis of Colossians.” (p. 82-83)

For the previous review in this series see here.
For the next review in this series see here.