Despite covering a wide and deep swath of theology in his numerous books and articles a lacuna remains in the writings of Dr. Gordon H. Clark in that he never wrote a piece specifically addressed to the topic of hermeneutics or Biblical interpretation. Though indeed no individual writing of Clark’s was dedicated to this topic—and he almost never used the word “hermeneutics” or “hermeneutical” in his writings—some elements of his views on the subject can be discerned in his writings. What is found there is a Reformed hermeneutic that radically places Scripture over extra-biblical information not only in degree but in kind.
Books on hermeneutics typically list various “principles of hermeneutics” but rarely show their derivations. Are the principles of hermeneutics to be found in Scripture itself? Might they be based on logic? Or are they determined from other considerations, even extra-Biblical ones?
In Gordon Clark’s thought hermeneutical principles (like knowledge in general) must either be found in Scripture or deduced from Scripture. Only then would he be consistent with his “Scripturalist” epistemology based on the axiom “The Bible is the Word of God.” But in addition he accepted logic (or valid reasoning) as a corollary principle to his axiom and, as such, would no doubt accept as valid hermeneutical principles based on logic. As for hermeneutical principles that are based on anything else—anything extra-biblical—these must be rejected. It is in this rejection en toto of extra-biblical hermeneutical principles that Clark’s hermeneutics radically diverges from all others.
Part 1: Principles of Scripturalist Hermeneutics
I. The Analogia Fidei Accepted in Scripturalism.
The main hermeneutical principle for Reformed theology is that of comparing Scripture with Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith 1:9 explains: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself; and, therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”
Called the analogia fidei or “analogy of faith” this principle is merely an application of the law of contradiction. This principle presupposes that there are no contradictions between the various propositional statements of the Bible. If there were contradictions in Scripture, the comparison of Scriptural passages would bear these out and show that God’s Word is not always true. But the Scriptures teach that God does not lie (Numbers 23:19) and that he is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). The analogia fidei then has both Biblical and logical backing.
Clark approvingly comments on this principle in at least two places:
“We are not supposed to take each verse in isolation and restrict ourselves to disjointed bits of scattered information. We are to compare Scripture with Scripture. What is not clear or complete in one verse may be clearer or may be completed in another. We are to infer and deduce. If the Bible teaches that David was king of Israel and if it also teaches that Solomon was a son of David, we can legitimately infer that Solomon was the son of a king of Israel.” (Gordon H. Clark, Predestination, p. 4-5)
“Even without understanding the verse, one can see that these interpretations are wrong because they contradict a number of other and clearer passages in the Bible.” (Gordon H. Clark, “Desultory New Testament Curiosities”)
Clark’s emphasis on the necessity of following the analogia fidei led him to contest the sub-Reformed view of Cornelius Van Til who contended for “paradox” in Scripture. As that debate has been discussed numerous times in other places, there is no need to delve into it here. It is mentioned merely to evidence that Clark was serious about this principle of hermeneutics.
What other principles might be included in Scripturalist hermeneutics?
II. Continuing Validity Accepted in Scripturalism
One such principle might be summarized as “accept the continuing validity of what is taught in the Scriptures unless it is overturned at a later point.” In a sense this principle is a continuation of the analogia fidei but with special reference to progressive revelation. The principle is derived logically as an application of chronology to the Scriptures. While it is not always clear which Biblical writing comes after another, much chronology can be determined from the Scriptures. Again this principle then has both Biblical and (chrono)logical backing.
That Clark accepted this principle at least in relation of the New Testament to the Old Testament is clear:
“Some people act as if, or even definitely assert that, we cannot accept any of the Old Testament unless it is repeated in the new. The correct principle, however, is that we should not discard any of the Old unless told to do so in the New—as for example the ceremonial law.” (Gordon H. Clark, Predestination, p. 12)
“The correct principle of interpretation is not the Baptist one of discarding everything in the Old Testament not reasserted in the New; but rather the acceptance of everything in the Old not abrogated by New Testament teaching.” (Gordon H. Clark, Sanctification, p. 61)
Other principles of hermeneutics can likely be found in Scripture and/or logic. (And I encourage my readers to find others!)
III. The Adequacy of Language Necessary in Scripturalism
The interpretation of the Scriptures also requires that it is possible for man to understand their meaning. Therefore the medium itself—language—must be adequate for the communication of God’s truth. This is a necessary presupposition, for without the adequacy of language no communication from God could be known to man and Biblical hermeneutics could not begin.
“Surely language, as God’s gift to Adam, has as its purpose, not only communication among men, but communication between man and God. God spoke words to Adam and Adam spoke words to God. Since this is the divine intention, words or language are adequate. To be sure, on occasion, even on frequent occasions, sinful man cannot find the right words to express his thought; but this is a defect of man, not an inadequacy of language.” (Gordon H. Clark, Language and Theology, p. 130.)
This point is surely non-controversial for Reformed Christians. Indeed none of the points listed so far should be controversial for Reformed Christians. What makes Scripturalist hermeneutics unique—and perhaps even controversial—is the role, or lack thereof, played by extra-Biblical information.
Part 2: Scripturalist Hermeneutics and Opposition to Extra-Biblical Information
As Scripturalism limits knowledge to that which is explicit in the Scriptures or logically deduced from the Scriptures, extra-Biblical information cannot be trusted and thus cannot be determinative in Biblical interpretation.
Perhaps the best explanation of this is from one of Clark’s audio lectures where he says:
“[John] Frame insists that we can derive knowledge from an observation of nature. And the quotation is ‘extra-scriptural information to interpret scripture.’ As we need, or as we use ‘extra-scriptural information to interpret scripture.’ But neither he nor Van Til explain how this is possible. This is a big gap in their theory. But Frame insists, ‘Thus we can use such data fearlessly and thankfully.’ That is we can use extra-scriptural data fearlessly and thankfully. Does that mean that we should hold the discarded theory of gravitation? Does it mean that we should hold to Newton’s idea that motion proceeds in a straight line? Does it mean that we must accept Einstein who says that motion never proceeds in a straight line? And that there is no gravitation? Are space and time independent frameworks as Newton said, or are they not independent as Einstein says? And who knows what the science will be a year from now. … Continuing to quote from Frame. ‘Even when we use extra-scriptural information, as we must, (that’s part of his wording), even when we use extra-scriptural information, as we must, to understand Scripture, we must hold loosely to this information.’ Oh, I thought he said on the previous page, we can use it ‘fearlessly and thankfully.’ Now he says we have to use it loosely. And if we use it loosely, then, even loosely, then we must reject the principle that Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture, which I think is the Reformed position. And of course, this matter of loosely, that just wrecks Frame’s whole scheme.” – (Gordon H. Clark, Audio Transcript #19. “John Frame and Cornelius Van Til”)
Similarly, Clark wrote of Robert Reymond:
“If my esteemed colleague—and I do esteem him—wishes to make Scripture the sole basis for knowledge, and then add on something from a different source, his consistency eludes me.” – (Gordon H. Clark, Language and Theology, p. 151.)
And it is not just Frame and Reymond who differ from Clark on this subject, but probably most every Reformed theologian.
Consider Louis Berkhof who wrote,
“The principal resources for the historical interpretation of Scripture are found in the Bible itself. In distinction from all other writings, it contains the absolute truth, and therefore its information deserves to be preferred to that gleaned from other sources.” (Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, p. 128.)
Note that for Berkhof, the principles of hermeneutics are found principally in the Scriptures, but not solely in the Scriptures! The information in the Bible is preferred, but extra-Biblical information is not excluded.
Whereas theologians like Berkhof wish to retain extra-Biblical information as a second, lesser, form of knowledge after the Bible, Clark discards extra-Biblical information entirely. It is for him, not merely a different type of knowledge, it isn’t knowledge at all. And since extra-Biblical information isn’t knowledge it cannot be used to definitively interpret Scripture. If we remember the first principle above, Scripture is to be interpreted by Scripture. Is not Scripturalism the most consistent with this principle?
Part 3: Was Clark Consistent? – Extra-Biblical appeals in Clark.
What about the times then in which Clark himself makes reference to extra-Biblical information? Was he being inconsistent?
Here are some of those times:
“Since the point at issue is merely Greek usage, appeal can be made to books outside the Bible. Now, in the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus 34:25 (LXX. 34:30) connects the verb baptize with purification. One must wash or baptize oneself after touching a dead body. Numbers 19:13, 20 shows that purification from contact with dead bodies was performed by sprinkling. Hence the verb baptize in the Apocrypha designates sprinkling.” (Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe, p. 242.)
“About two centuries before the birth of Jesus, the rabbis in Alexandria–where the large Jewish population had largely forgotten Hebrew–translated the Old Testament into Greek. This translation, called the Septuagint, uses the Greek word Kurios for the Hebrew JHVH. The New Testament, which frequently uses the Septuagint translation, applies this Greek title to Jesus: the Lord Jesus. Thus the authors of the New Testament books identify Jesus as Jehovah.” (Gordon H. Clark, The Atonement, p. 30.)
“The Greek verb means believe. So it was translated in the previous verses quoted. Here will follow some instances of its ordinary use, both in pagan sources and in the Bible. The Biblical verses from the Septuagint are not chosen because they are Biblical, but, like the pagan sources, they show how the word was used in pre-christian times. When the New Testament authors began to write, they perforce used the common language.” (Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, p. 95.)
“Even if the longer ending of Mark be spurious, it is nonetheless Greek, written by a Greek-speaking writer, and therefore bears on the meaning of the word.” (Gordon H. Clark, The Pastoral Epistles, p, 155n.)
In addition, in Clark’s commentary First John he seems to approve of Leon Morris’ work of seeking certain terms in the Septuagint, a translation of the original Hebrew Scriptures. (See: Gordon H. Clark, First John, p. 44-45.)
How then to solve this dilemma? Are these extra-Biblical appeals merely opinion rather than knowledge with regards to extra-Biblical information? Truth cannot be built on a foundation of mere opinion. If an interpretation of Scripture is dependent on extra-Biblical information the understanding of the Scriptural passage is as tentative as the extra-Biblical information itself.
Maybe Clark answers all of these questions in this one place:
“Ramm writes, ‘Sola Scriptura did not affirm that, with reference to the writing of theology, all knowledge other than biblical knowledge is unnecessary’; presumably he means that a knowledge of Greek grammar is useful in writing theology. So it is; but since the New Testament is written in Greek, one may include Greek grammar in the sphere of Biblical knowledge. If he means a knowledge of archaeology or the sociology of Hittite culture, we reply that Protestants accept Scripture as perspicuous and sufficient. ‘All Scripture is inspired of God … that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.’ Writing theology, orthodox theology, is a good work. Extra-Biblical knowledge is therefore unnecessary, even if it is has some value of its own.” (Gordon H. Clark, “The Concept of Biblical Authority”, p. 16.)