[You can listen to my recorded speech here: tinysa.com/sermon/102519161232368]
“The Grand Old Doc”
“Gordon Clark: A Presbyterian Philosopher and His Influence on American Evangelicals”
by Rev. Douglas J. Douma
Presented at the Presbyterian Scholars Conference
October 22, 2019
In the numerous extant letters from Edward J. Carnell to Gordon H. Clark the address is always the same; when Carnell wrote to Clark his letters were simply addressed, “Dear Doc.” Carnell is a name that should be familiar to many American evangelicals. He was a graduate of Wheaton College—class of 1939—and later President of Fuller Seminary. But even in reaching such heights he was always the student, Clark—his former Wheaton College philosophy professor—always the doc. When Carnell published a book of his own and sent a copy to Clark he signed his name on the first page and wrote:
To the grand old “Doc”
Carnell was by no means the only American evangelical to put Clark in such a place of honor in his mind. While doing research for The Presbyterian Philosopher, The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark I flipped through the pages of many of Dr. Clark’s books in his personal library, now housed at Sangre de Cristo Seminary outside of Westcliffe, Colorado. In one of these books I found a letter to Clark from Kenneth Kantzer; another name that should be familiar to many American evangelicals. Kenneth Kanzter taught theology here at Wheaton College from 1946 until 1963 and had a long connection also with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. What is particularly notable in the letter I found—the only one in fact that I’ve found between the two men—is a comment in the postscript where Kantzer writes to Clark:
As always I enjoyed greatly our short time together at E.T.S. [The Evangelical Theological Society] In a way you are the grand patriarch of us all, but I have never heard of such a young and spritely patriarch as you. On second thought “leader” is much the better word.
These designations then—from Carnell and Kantzer—set the stage for us to consider Gordon Clark’s influence on American evangelicals. He was for them a father-figure; the grand patriarch, the grand old doc.
PART I – CLARK’S INFLUENCE AS A PROFESSOR
Clark’s influence on American evangelicals came through his books, articles, speeches, and work in such organizations as the Evangelical Theological Society where at its inaugural meeting he helped craft its belief statement: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the word of God written and is therefore inerrant in its autographs.” But perhaps in no greater way was he influential than in his work as a professor, influencing many students in a career of sixty years teaching in the classroom (1924-1984).
Clark’s classroom influence is most notable here at Wheaton College a few generations ago. Two chapters in my The Presbyterian Philosopher are particularly relevant to this discussion. Chapter 4 on “Gordon Clark at Wheaton College” focuses considerably on Clark’s struggles with the Wheaton College administration but also brings into view the impact that he had on his students. Clark—with the backing for a time of President J. Oliver Buswell—was instrumental in filling the ranks of Westminster Theological Seminary with graduates from Wheaton College. By the year Clark left Wheaton, thirteen of its graduates were enrolled at Westminster, constituting approximately one quarter of the seminary’s student body. I trace Clark’s influence on some of these students in Chapter 11 titled “Clark’s Boys”—a title I was inspired to chose from correspondence I had with a nonagenarian who referred to her own brother (and former Wheaton College student) affectionately as one of “Clark’s boys.”
Among these “boys” were Edward Carnell, Carl F. H. Henry, Paul Jewett, and Edmund Clowney. These Wheaton students and many others were greatly influenced by Gordon Clark and remained in correspondence with him for years after their Wheaton College days. In the biography of Edward Carnell, The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind by Rudolph Nelson there is a telling recollection from a Wheaton classmate of a scene from their college days. In this we see Clark as a leader. It reads:
“I recall on one occasion, following a particularly lively session with Clark, that we trooped out together across the campus. Clark (who, I suppose, was about five feet seven inches in height) was in the lead. Ed, who may have been five-ten or eleven, fell in behind Clark, walking in his footsteps with Paul Jewett next in step, etc. The order may not have been just so, but at least there were four or five of us imitating Clark’s gait and manner like goslings following their mother goose.”
It was not only at the college that Clark interacted with his students. Wheaton student Charles Svendsen boarded in the Clark house for a time, and Clark became, according to Svendsen’s son John, “the theological father that he never had.” Clark led the Creed Club that discussed and memorized the Westminster Confession of Faith, and he led the chess club, and on occasion was seen at the French club. At Wheaton as well as Butler University—students would regularly come to Clark’s house for discussion, usually to discuss philosophy but at least once to view a slideshow of pictures that the doc took of his beloved American Southwest. Interactions with Dr. Clark made imprints on the minds of his students such that even many years later a man I interviewed was able to say that he recalled that his own father (and former Clark student) would “regale” him with stories of the doc.
These Wheaton students became some of the most prominent American Evangelicals. Carnell was president at Fuller, Clowney president at Westminster, Henry—perhaps the most influential of all—became editor of Christianity Today. And when Henry, the “dean of American Evangelicals” later wrote his 6-volume mega-magnum opus God, Revelation, and Authority, he would say:
“To no contemporary do I owe a profounder debt than to Gordon Clark. Since the thirties when he taught me medieval and modern philosophy at Wheaton, I have considered him the peer of evangelical philosophers in identifying the logical inconsistencies that beset nonevangelical alternatives and in exhibiting the intellectual superiority of Christian theism.”
While Clark would never have such an influence as a professor at other schools as he did at Wheaton, he had in those places substantial influence nonetheless. The late David Clyde Jones wrote to me a few years ago about this mid-twentieth century period saying, “To those of my generation—college undergraduates, 1955–1959—Dr. Clark was the philosopher-hero of the post-fundamentalism Evangelical Renaissance.” At Butler University he was the favored professor of D. Clair Davis who would go on to teach church history for almost forty years at Westminster Theological Seminary. At Winona Lake School of Theology in the summers Clark had an impact on later pastor of Moody Bible Church, Erwin Lutzer. Finally, in Clark’s later years at Covenant College he would influence the path of a number of budding theologians and pastors including Dr. Kenneth Talbot, the founder of Whitefield Theological Seminary.
PART II – CLARK’S INFLUENCE AS A WRITER
Naturally though in the age of printed media a person’s influence can be felt far beyond their local circle. So it was—and is—that Clark’s published writings have impacted countless individuals in wider circles of both place and time. Clark dedicated a large percentage of his life to writing, and the results of that effort are noticeable. For one, Professor Allan MacRae (of Bible Presbyterian fame) wrote to Clark in 1976 praising him for doing so well to get his work out to the public. MacRae wrote,
“It is a pleasure to look back on our contacts through the years. You showed yourself to be much wiser than I, by getting material into print instead of giving all your time to teaching and administration. Now the burden of extensive research carried out through the years and never written up in final form presses heavily on me.”
Producing the corpus he did was much of the benefit of Clark having a quiet position at Butler University. There the secularists left him alone more than the Christians at other institutions ever did! And Clark’s writing really took off in those Butler years—1945 to 1973. His books at first found their way to print among well-known even secular publishers like F. S. Crofts and Houghton Mifflin. Then a number of his books were picked up by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. But while Clark’s influence expanded with these books, his writing legacy remains today much because of the work of John Robbins and his publishing of Clark’s books through the Trinity Foundation starting in the year 1980.
In addition to books, Clark wrote many published articles. So far, I’ve found 352 of them! These articles may have found some influence in their time, but I suspect many of them were forgotten over the years. Now, with all of our modern search capability, more and more of them are becoming accessible.
Of the published articles Clark’s greatest influence was through the pages of Christianity Today. When Billy Graham and J. Nelson Bell started the newspaper and hired former Clark student Carl Henry to be the first editor, Clark was sure to play a part. In 1955 he was notified by letter from J. Nelson Bell about the proposed new magazine, and he responded noting that there had already been another paper of the same title back in the days of the Presbyterian Conflict and that Bell should check if that paper does not still exist. (GHC to L. Nelson Bell, Feb 12, 1955) Ultimately, with Henry regularly asking Clark to write for the paper, Clark contributed, by my count, ninety-four articles and book reviews. This would make him one of the most frequent contributors to one of the largest Christian publications of its time.
PART III – WAYS IN WHICH CLARK FAILED TO INFLUENCE EVANGELICALS
But while Gordon Clark’s influence on American evangelicals was significant through his work as a professor and as an author, his overall project in certain ways must be considered a failure. This might be for you a surprising thing to hear stated from Clark’s own biographer, especially considering the recent published comments of one strange man who contends I have written a hagiography.
So I want to look at three ways in which Clark failed to influence evangelicals. (Preachers love 3-points outlines!). First, Clark failed to influence evangelicals to become Presbyterians. Then, Clark failed to influence Presbyterians as much as he might have otherwise, for lack of an influential teaching post. And finally, Clark failed to have his overall philosophy adopted by his students.
1. Clark failed to influence evangelicals to become Presbyterians.
It is important to understand that Gordon Clark was always first and foremost a Presbyterian, a Reformed thinker. While like his mentor J. Gresham Machen he would accept the term “fundamentalist,” and while he would accept the term “evangelical” in its historical sense, he never embraced the term “neo-evangelical” carried by some of his own students. This is a mistake I regularly see repeated — calling Clark a neo-evangelical. Clark was a Presbyterian and desired to influence his students and readers also in that direction — the Reformed faith. In this objective, however, he largely failed.
To consider a concrete example, it is worth noting that almost none of “Clark’s boys” at Wheaton—who came there as Baptists—ever accepted the paedobaptism of Reformed theology. Henry, Carnell, Jewett, and Harold Lindsell accepted the Doctrines of Grace under Clark’s teaching but remained credobaptists. Under Clark’s leadership his students would often for the first time embrace Calvinist soteriology but then return to their Baptist or non-denominational roots without embracing the rest of the Reformed system. This it seems was never a big focus for Clark. Only in a few places in his writings does he spend time arguing for covenant baptism over “believer’s” or—what is more properly termed—professer’s baptism.
Among Clark’s Wheaton students the notable Presbyterian is Edmund Clowney. But Clowney does not provide a strong counterexample to the trend because he came to Wheaton already with Presbyterian leanings. According to Clowney’s son David, “To the best of my recollection, he [Edmund] attended a Presbyterian church with my grandparents. The church, I think, was more generally evangelical and dispensationalist than anything else, though my grandfather was a Calvinist. Dad, if I remember what he told me, felt comfortable with what he was getting from that church until he studied with Clark.”
Through Clark’s life Presbyterianism was on hard times. In response to a compliment on his book What Do Presbyterians Believe? Clark wrote back in a letter saying, “Thank you … only there are hardly any Presbyterians.” (GHC to John Robbins, Feb 1, 1982) And while the lack of Presbyterians certainly cannot be solely attributed to Clark’s failure of influence, the fact that he would make such a comment indicates how small interest in the Westminster Confession had become. Clark had seen the demise of the great and powerful PCUSA of his early years and was left unable to find confessional presbyterianism but in a few remnant denominations.
2. Clark failed to influence Presbyterians as much as he might have otherwise, for lack of an influential teaching post.
I’ve noted this point a few times to individuals who have asked me why the apologetics of Cornelius Van Til are better known that those of Gordon Clark. While Clark had great influence at Wheaton College, he then spent twenty-eight years at Butler University where he had few students seeking places of influence in the Christian world. Compare this to Cornelius Van Til who for over fifty years at Westminster Theological Seminary taught future Christian pastors, professors, and authors. All the while Clark was quietly working away at Butler, influencing Christianity more through his books and articles than his lectures. Only in the last ten years of Clark’s life when he was hired to teach at Covenant College did he again have a leading influence on Christian students and future leaders.
All of this might have been entirely different if not for the failure of a proposed Reformed Christian University in the 1940s. There Clark had been pegged to be its philosophy professor where he would seek to press a more academic stance for fundamentalists. I follow the saga of the Christian University Association in its efforts to found a Reformed Christian University on pages 138-146 of The Presbyterian Philosopher. There, men in a number of denominations but led by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, set out to create a “great center of Christian learning” somewhat like the Free University in Amsterdam. Like the other men involved in the project Clark saw the need for such a university. He wrote in The Presbyterian Guardian:
“Practically everything that appears in print is in the broad sense humanistic. Such a situation shows clearly what is needed. A center of Christian learning must be established in which investigation in all fields of study will be pursued. A Christian college is not sufficient. Several Christian colleges exist at the present time. Some do respectable work; some are rather incompetent. A list of the faculty’s publications is the criterion. And there is enough room in the country for other Christian colleges, if they are to be competent. But the great need is the need of a university. This includes a law school … it must include a graduate school for the granting of the doctorate, and it must be administered by a faculty which through research, mutual criticism, and publication will develop the philosophy to coordinate Christian thought and action.”
But the whole project fell apart amidst various other troubles brewing in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. And thus Clark found work at a basically secular school—Butler University—and even contemplated focusing his efforts not on Christian philosophy but settling down to a life as a “mediocre Plotinian.”
He looked for a short period at teaching at the Reformed Episcopal Seminary, but opted against it. He had taught there part time in 1931-1936 and again in 1944. While Clark influenced the Rudolphs—both father and son—in a Reformed direction, the Reformed Episcopal Church veered away from that direction as the twentieth century progressed. By the 1980s Clark’s own son-in-law Dr. Dwight Zeller would have his break from that denomination which was more and more promoting baptismal regeneration.
3. Clark failed to have his overall philosophy adopted by his students.
While students of Gordon Clark’s accepted and adopted much of what he taught, few classroom students ever took up the mantle of his particular (or peculiar) epistemology of fully rejecting empiricism and all non-revelational philosophies of knowledge acquisition. Carnell sounded decidedly Clarkian in his Introduction to Christian Apologetics, and Cornelius Van Til said as much in one of his letters. But Carnell would later move away from Clark’s views and even have a break in their friendship over various matters. Carl Henry, while remaining a baptist, might have been the most “Clarkian” philosophically as evidenced by his God, Revelation, and Authority. Friendly critics Robert Reymond and Ronald Nash, though not students of Clark’s in the classroom, took up some but definitely not all of Clark’s system. Only in perhaps Henry and Clark’s publisher John Robbins can one find more or less full philosophic disciples.
IV. WAYS IN WHICH CLARK DID WELL TO INFLUENCE EVANGELICALS
Failure is depressing, so let’s talk about some successes.
1. In his push for fundamentalists to also be academics
First, we can see one of Clark’s influence as being his push for fundamentalists to also be academics. Where perhaps some Presbyterians would teach only in Presbyterian schools, Clark went to more Fundamentalist places in Wheaton College and Winona Lake. He even came to consider himself a historic premillennialist with at least some persuasion on him of J. Oliver Buswell.
When the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was founded—and Clark was a founding member—he hoped that the denomination would lead (academically) the American Fundamentalists. In order to do so, they would need to clamp down on the drinking at Westminster Theological Seminary. Dr. Clark considered a motion in 1942 to propose at the OPC’ General Assembly alcohol abstinence at Westminster Theological Seminary. This did not go over well with some of the professors there. Dr. Clark ultimately refrained from making the proposal, but likely forever damaged his relationship with the seminary. Yet this episode shows Clark’s dedication to improving fundamentalism academically.
2. Christian philosophy and theology today – the grand old doc.
Then, second, a successful influence Clark has had on evangelicals is in the role of Christian philosophy and theology today.
I recently polled the Gordon Clark discussion group that I’m active in, asking them about Clark’s influence on their own thought. Their responses were fairly typical of what I’ve found elsewhere. For them, the areas in which Clark was an influence on their thought included: epistemology, logic, science, and growing in confidence that the Bible alone is the Word of God. Perhaps surprising was that numerous individuals noted having left Arminianism and even Pentecostalism for Calvinism after reading Clark. Others noted having switched their views on apologetics. (For any “outsiders” it should be noted that there has been an ongoing and often acrimonious debate between the apologetics of Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til for decades.) So I want to note one particular comment on this topic of apologetics and Clark’s influence. This person writes,
“[Clark] pulled me away from Van Til’s analogical knowledge and paradox theology when I was beginning to become entrenched in it. It was an interesting experience for me. Reading the likes of Van Til, Frame, Bahnsen in some detail, and thinking to myself “this is the top of the mountain, this is peak Christianity.” Only to one day see Clark peering down from an even higher peak. I couldn’t help but climb further, and I am forever grateful for Clark’s influence on my life.”
In writing Clark’s biography and interviewing many individuals who knew him and speaking with many people today who read his books, I’ve regularly heard similarly enthusiastic responses as to what they’ve learned in studying Clark. After publishing the biography I received a number of letters thanking me for making known the history of the man himself who so impressed their minds. And impressing minds continues as Clark’s legacy.
V. THE GRAND OLD DOC
Clark seems to have always been the grand old doc. A man in some ways born old. The son of an old-school presbyterian minister. Studious, anything but athletic, he gravitated towards reading books. He thought college was for studying. That was what he did and that is what he expected from his students.
Clark is the grand old doc because, for one, he predates many of the evangelical figures of the 20th century. He was never one of them; he was always the teacher of them. He was from another era – born in 1902. He jokes in one lecture that he used to be surprised when his students didn’t remember World War One but now his students don’t even remember World War Two!
And Clark is the grand old doc because there is always something to learn from him. His writings tend to penetrate the question at hand deeper and more satisfyingly conclusive than other writers.
There are many who have influenced American evangelicals more than Clark. And the modern resurgence of Reformed Theology might be better traced to other sources: the work of Reformed Theological Seminary, of R.C. Sproul and Ligonier, and of J. I. Packer and Francis Schaeffer, etc. But when a student then gets there and studies the difficult questions, and then looks up to the next level on the shelf, they might just find the grand old doc.