Gordon Clark’s Half-Preformation Theory

In this article I contend that philosopher Ronald Nash erred when he claimed that Gordon Clark held to the Preformation Theory. I believe it is better said that Clark held to only half of this theory. It seems likely that Nash erred by reading his own view into Clark.

Nash’s contention that Clark held to the Preformation Theory is found in his essay “Gordon Clark’s Theory of Knowledge” in The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark (1968). In the same place some explanation of Preformation Theory is given. Nash writes:

“Like Kant, Clark believes that the possibility of human knowledge depends upon man’s possession of some innate ideas. But Clark goes beyond Kant in holding that these aptitudes for knowing are implanted by God who harmonized them with the laws of nature.” (p. 141)

“Clark points out that Kant was never able to explain why all men possess the same categories. Since science studies the phenomenal world, is it pure chance that all scientists seem to talk about the same world?” (p. 143)

“In spite of these objections, Clark agrees with Kant that there are universal and necessary truths that transcend sense experience. He proposes to skirt Kant’s difficulties by defending a modified form of Kantianism that he calls The Preformation Theory. This position holds that knowledge is possible only because God has endowed man with certain innate ideas (in the sense of dispositions or aptitudes to think in certain ways). These forms of thought correspond to the real world which is also a creation of God. Kant actually mentioned this possibility in an often overlooked section in the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason. Clark considers all of Kant’s objections to the preformation theory and rejects them on the grounds that Kant either misrepresents the preformation view or else fails to see how his objections apply with more force to his own position. Clark’s charge that Kant misrepresented the preformation view seems justified.” (p. 143)

“Clark holds that the laws governing reality are not simply the result of a subjective aptitude of the human mind to think in a certain way. Not only has God implanted aptitudes for knowing, He has also ordered things so that man’s mind harmonizes with the structure of the world. The rational structure of man’s mind is similar to the rational order of the world.” (p. 145)

But, writing in the third person as he does in Clark Speaks from the Grave (1986), Clark denied Nash’s (and Robert Reymond’s) contention:

“A critique can properly reject the half or even the third it does not like. One thing it does not like is the assertion on page 78 that what Kant rejected, ‘Clark calls … the Preformation Theory and advocates it himself.’ This statement is untrue. Clark did not accept the preformation theory. Reymond simply misread page 410 in Thales to Dewey, for that is about the only place Clark every mentioned the preformation theory. Even his students in college recognized that this section did not commit Clark to the theory. The argument is that Kant’s position is vulnerable to the very objections that Kant had raised against preformation. The whole is an ad hominem argument against Kant, not an acceptance by Clark. Anyone should be able to realize that Clark’s Scriptural-deductive method can have no place for preformation.” (p. 20)

Yet in the second edition of Clark’s Thales to Dewey (which Nash quotes in Life’s Ultimate Questions) it is seen that he did in fact accept some sort or some element of preformation theory:

“Kant wrote as if space, time and the categories were the same in all human minds and that these a priori forms could guarantee a sort of unitary human experience. But when he argues against all types of preformation systems that would unify experience by grounding the possibility of knowledge in the Creator’s ordering of human minds, he ruins every hope of discovering unity and of making knowledge possible. Only theism can do this.” – Gordon H. Clark, Thales to Dewey, 2nd ed. (Unicoi, TN.: The Trinity Foundation, 1957, 1989), 410.

How are we to reconcile these points? Or, how are we to understand what is going on here? I think the answer is that Clark held to one part of the preformation theory as Nash explained it, but not to another part of it. That is, Clark certainly believed man is created in the image of God who gives all men innate ideas. But he did not believe that the fact alone of man and nature having been created by the same God, he did not believe that this makes knowledge of the world possible for man. Rather, Clark’s theory of knowledge (especially in his Wheaton Lectures) entirely discounts any knowledge of the outside world and limits the knowledge available to man to the propositions of Scripture along with logical deductions from those propositions and the innate ideas the Scriptures confirm.

Might it be that Nash read his own view into Clark? Nash himself held to preformation theory and believed Clark to hold to the same. He explained in his lectures:

“Leibniz had developed the preformation theory. … I’ll tell you something else, Gordon Clark is the major defender of the preformation theory in the 19th and 20th centuries. He really is. Nobody has articulated and defended the preformation theory in a more powerful or eloquent way in the last 200 years than Gordon Clark. Now let me tell you what the preformation theory says. It says that there is only one reasonable answer to the question, why does every human being possess the same categories. You can’t account for this by evolution, you really can’t. Darwinism is hopeless in the face of the rationality of the human race. It makes no sense at all to suggest that the survival of the fittest has brought about a condition in which only people with these categories have survived. You know the whole business of Darwinism. Silly. Now the preformation theory says that the only reasonable explanation for this incredible situation in which every human mind possesses the same categorical structure, is that every human mind is created by another mind that possesses the same categorical understanding, categories of understanding.” (Lecture 28 Immanuel Kant – 01 in “History of Philosophy and Christian Thought.” min 54-55)


“I want to show you how a preformation theorist, remember that word? That’s Gordon Clark. That’s me, I’m a preformationist. How a preformationist can avoid Kant’s skepticism. Here’s how. Kant denied any role for God in creating the human mind, in creating the human world, so he kinda trapped himself into this skepticism in which the real world, the noumenal world is always beyond the bounds of human knowledge. A preformationst doesn’t have that problem. Here’s why. A good sensible Augustinian, like Clark, or some other people that I know would tell you that first of all, there is a correlation between the mind of God and the mind of man. The God who created us in His own image, creates us with a structure of rationality that is similar to his own. Now what that means then is, and is one of the points I make in the context of the whole book The Word of God and the Mind of Man. This is what that book calls the Logos theory. Because God has created us as creatures who are capable of knowing the mind of God, we’re not left in the dark, we’re not stuck as creatures who can never have knowledge about God. God has created us as creatures who are capable of knowing His mind and His will and His revelation. But moreover, the same God who created us as rational creatures created the universe as a rational cosmos. Consequently a preformationist doesn’t have a wall existing between some phony phenomenal world and some phony noumenal world. The same God who created the world, created us with a mind that is capable of knowing that world. We’re not trapped in this bifurcation between noumenal and phenomenal.” (Lecture 29 Immanuel Kant – 02, min 19-21)

While Clark would certainly agree with Nash that “there is a correlation between the mind of God and the mind of Man,” Nash goes too far if he thinks that Clark would agree with the second part of the theory—that because man and the world are both created by God man is capable of knowing the world. Nash’s view of preformation may surmount “Kant’s Wall” between the noumenal and phenomenal, but there still remains many obstacles to overcome to explain how sensation leads to knowledge. Nash, so far as I know, does not overcome these obstacles nor even attempt an explanation. It is one thing to say that man can know the physical world and it is another to show how man can know the physical world.