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.

8 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!

      1. Scott,
        It seems, please correct me if I’m wrong, but your objections at least in your second example appear to be due to the fairly obvious impracticality of GHC’s views if taken to the extreme? After all and I sympathize that any doubt as to whether or not the woman you’re sleeping with is your wife seems entirely impractical – and it is!

        But consider that the government executes criminals, for capital crimes and has since God commanded the death penalty, without ever having absolute apodictic certainty of guilt; God commands men to execute murderers upon the testimony of witnesses whose testimony can NEVER be absolutely empirically verified. God it appears is not opposed to opinion even in the most severe life or death circumstance. So opinion can and does and it seems ought to carry great weight in our lives. We do the best we can with our finite understanding. Mistakes will be made.

        But KNOWLEDGE does not derive from opinion since it comes directly from the mind of God revealed in the Scriptures.

  2. The claim is that the John 4 dialog with the Samaritan woman, shows that she knew a proposition not derived from Scripture. If that claim is not true, explain the text accordingly.
    If it is true, that does not prove the truth of “empiricism” (say, in John Locke’s sense). A counterexample disproving a general theory often does not establish a different general theory.
    A math example. One could come up with a large number of theories about: what’s the largest prime factor of 11,111,111,111 . Only one such theory is correct (and I know which it is, hehe). One theory that isn’t correct is, that said largest factor is 500,009. This can easily be seen by trial division. But disproving that it’s 500,009 doesn’t prove what the correct theory is.

  3. LJ- There are plenty of things scripture does not tell us that we know. I am not told in scripture that I personally am one of the elect but scripture says only believers of the gospel are elect (Rom. 1:16, 1 Cor. 2:14) and I know I believe the gospel, I can know I am one of the elect. On a secondary level I know empirically my faith works (James 2), although imperfectly, and this reinforces my knowledge. If we cannot know these things then we lie all the time. If I cannot know that I am married then when I reject offers because I am married, I am lying. My opinion is meaningless! Someone may ask me if I like sauerkraut and in my opinion it is awful but objectively they should try it for themselves as they may like it. There is no objective truth in that sauerkraut is awful but there is in things like I am married. This is the reason birth, death, marriage and divorce certificates (Deut. 24:1) exist. You can see, touch and maybe smell and taste them. Jesus also learned this way as well (Luke 2:52 and Hebrew 5:8).

    Doug- You are correct GC disciples will need to deal logically with the scriptures on this issue.

    As far as whether John Locke held to a correct view of empiricism or not I cannot answer as I have not studied him. Even if he was unsaved however I do believe he could have understood a true view of empirical method as unbelievers are not able to believe the gospel (1 Cor. 2:7,8) either with their head or heart, but not necessarily everything in scripture. I agree with Gordon Clark that unbelievers can believe in angels and demons and other scriptural things and still be unbelievers in the gospel. I also agree with Clark that words matter and although Shakespeare is also correct a Rose by any other name would be just as sweet, if an unbeliever holds to a correct definition of empiricism, he holds to empiricism.

    1. Thanks for your response. Just curious as to which books of GHC you’ve read? We seem to be equivocating on the key term, KNOWLEDGE. I intend to use it as summarized by Dr. Beisner above on behalf of GHC.


  4. LJ,

    I have read a few of Gordon Clark books but it has been many years ago. Some of the titles are what is Saving Faith?, Predestination, Revelation, Reason and Religion, he wrote a book on emotions and another one on evangelism but I cannot remember the names of them and his commentary on 1 Corinthians I have used as a resource while teaching through that book.

    My initial reply to Beisner was to indicate a difference in understanding of “KNOWLEDGE“. My main concern is the scriptural view and not Gordon Clark’s and I am sure it is yours and Beisner’s and Doug Douma’s as well. Mark 8 indicates the disciples knew they did not have bread. Their axiom was the non existence of bread in their presence and not an epiphany from scripture. The proposition could be bread would have mass, weight and light refraction so as to indicate its existence were it in their presence. I hope this helps!


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