Alvin Plantinga reviews Gordon Clark


The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, by Ronald H. Nash (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968, 516 pp., $9.95), is reviewed by Alvin Plantinga, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California.

This Festschrift in honor of Professor Gordon H. Clark contains an expanded version of his 1965 Wheaton Lectures, some twelve essays in comment and criticism by “evangelical” philosophers and theologians, and Clark’s “Reply to Critics.” Although nearly all the contributors react with appreciation to Clark’s work, nearly all of them also find important areas of disagreement. Among the most interesting I found Merold Westphal’s “Theism and the Problem of Evil” (which defends Clark against the charge of committing the “naturalistic fallacy” and makes some enlightening distinctions along the way), Arthur Holmes’s “The Philosophical Methodology of Gordon Clark,” and George Mavrodes’ “Revelation and Epistemology.”

Clark’s lectures are written in a breezy, insouciant style, punctuated here and there with memorable wit. Archbishop Temple, says Clark, claims that “the possibility of misunderstanding the Scripture ‘destroys the whole value of this form of revelation’ Clark retorts that “apparently the possibility of misunderstanding the writings of Archbishop Temple did not in his opinion destroy the whole value of his writing his book.” He adds later that the archbishop “has no excuse for personally illustrating his theory that the Scriptures can be misunderstood.”

Clark’s first lecture is a rapid and necessarily cursory examination of “secular theories of epistemology, science, ethics, and religion”; he concludes that none are successful. Here he tries, I think, to cover far too much ground in far too brief compass; the result is probably too ambitious to be of much use.

The second lecture is noteworthy for a valuable polemic against those who unduly deprecate “mere human reason” and claim that all knowledge of God must be “analogical” or “negative” or “paradoxical” or all three. In this connection Clark quite properly defends logic and the use of logical techniques of argumentation in philosophy and theology; on the other hand, his paraphrase of the Prologue to the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was Logic, and Logic was with God and Logic was God”) might be considered a little strong even by the more enthusiastic friends of logic.

More important, however, is that he argues in this chapter that every philosophy must have presuppositions; apparently he thinks of a philosophy as a deductive system whose axioms are its presuppositions. And since all secular systems fail (as he thinks to have shown in chapter 1), Clark suggests that we try the Christian philosophy, whose sole axiom is:

A1 The Bible is the Word of God. From A1 Clark apparently believes he can deduce “syllogistically” such truths, as, for example, that David was King of Israel.

What, exactly, is the role Clark means to assign to this axiomatic system? This question is not altogether easy to answer. But clearly he means to assert it; that is, he means to endorse every proposition that is a theorem of the system. Further, he claims, I think, to know the theorems of the system. But he also seems to suggest that neither he nor anyone else knows any proposition that is not a theorem of the system.

This claim has a certain initial implausibility. I know my name and address, and I think that the same could be said for Professor Clark. Yet clearly enough the Bible does not furnish us with these bits of information; and according to Clark it follows that no one knows them. Furthermore, according to Clark, none of us knows who his wife is (or, for that matter, whether he’s married), a situation that could conceivably lead to trouble. To this kind of objection, Clark retorts that no one has given a really convincing solution of such traditional epistemological problems as Descartes’s “evil demon” query: Is it not possible, for all Descartes knows, that some malignant demon is constantly and consistently deceiving him (and us) about his name? (He always thought it was “Descartes”; but all along it was “Schultz.”) And so long as we have no answer to Descartes we cannot, Clark holds, properly claim to know these things.

Even more interesting, I think, is the fact that from A1 alone we can deduce very little. We cannot, for example, deduce that David was King of Israel; to do that we should need the additional premise P1:

P1 The assertion “David was King of Israel” is contained in the Bible.

But P1 does not follow from A1; how, then, does Clark know it is true? You and I think we know P1 is true; we simply turn to Second Samuel Chapter 5 and there it is: David was anointed King of Israel. But this won’t do for Clark; he may be, for all he knows, the victim of some evil demon’s deceit; he may have been led to suppose that Second Samuel contains this assertion (and also led to suppose that everyone else thinks so too) when in fact it says nothing of the kind.

This problem is carefully explored in Mavrodes’ excellent essay; so far as I can see, Clark’s only recourse is to take as axiom, not the assertion that the Bible is the word of God, but each of the propositions asserted in Scripture. Clark expresses a certain distaste for this procedure (a deductive system with 16,000 axioms could perhaps be scored as uneconomical and inelegent), but it is not easy to see an alternative for him.

Although the essays in this volume are of uneven quality, it contains much that is stimulating and much that is worth reading. I recommend it.

3 thoughts on “Alvin Plantinga reviews Gordon Clark”

  1. Clark, like Plato, distinguished knowledge from opinion. He considered the knowledge to be limited to axiom’s and propositions validly inferred from them. Things like one’s address or the identity of one’s wife or even whether one were married, he considered opinion. He believed that many opinions were true, but he denied that they were part of knowledge.

    1. The problem with this is it is not scriptural! In Mark 8:14-21 Jesus tells the disciples to beware the leaven of the Pharisees. The disciples discussed the empirical fact (verse 16 ESV) that they did not have bread. Jesus corrected them first for misunderstanding him to be talking about bread and not the teaching of the Pharisees, and that they did not seem to understand that Jesus could make all the bread they needed. He did not correct them for holding empirically the fact that they did not have any bread.

      We also see in John 4 Jesus discuss with the woman at the well whether she has a husband or not (16-19) and he says she is speaking true that she does not have a husband because and only because she is not married to the guy she was living with. If she had an empirical ceremony with him she would have been speaking falsely. Jesus told her she had had five husbands which was a fact and not her opinion.

      If our marriages are our opinion then the church is helpless to discipline anyone for sexual sin as any given day the person they sleep with in their opinion will be their spouse!

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