Gordon Clark’s Apologetic Methodology

As the biographer of the noted presbyterian philosopher Gordon H. Clark, a number of students of Christian apologetics have asked me to explain his apologetic methodology.

In recent decades, buoyed by the great number of internet forums for endless argumentation and debate, the topic of apologetics seems to have overtaken in popularity the study of such Christian disciplines as evangelism, discipleship, and holiness. The demand for resources on apologetics is considerable.

Riding the wave of this demand, the school of apologetics of Cornelius Van Til and his followers has found great popularity. While the case could be made that its popularity has declined some in recent years, no doubt it has been the most influential school of apologetics in Reformed circles in our time. Far lesser known is the work of Gordon Clark. And when Clark’s work is cited it is often done so merely in the context of the ecclesiastical controversy he had with Van Til. The student might assume that because Van Til was most interested in apologetics that Clark must have been likewise. This is to miss something of the bigger picture.

That is, the primary subject of Gordon Clark’s work was not apologetics so much as epistemology. This is not to say that Clark had no particular views on defending the faith, but merely to say that his apologetic methodology flowed from his theory of knowledge.

The Van Til school, in contrast, seems to have jumped over the subject of epistemology and gone strait into apologetics. There is little developed epistemology in Van Til or his followers. For Clark the Bible itself is the Word of God and therefore all of its propositions are true. God reveals knowledge not through the senses (which cannot produce propositions), but directly to man’s man mind ordinarily upon the reading or hearing of Scripture. Key to Clark’s view is the rejection of non-Biblical theories of knowledge, particularly empiricism. Lacking a specified theory of knowledge Van Til and his followers have never fully jettisoned that worldly philosophy. Take for example Van Til’s student R. J. Rushdoony who accepted empiricism for himself (and everyone else!) when he wrote, “All agree that the immediate starting point must be that of our everyday experience and the ‘facts’ that are most close at hand.”(Rushdoony, Van Til and the Limits of Reason, p. 44.) Van Til himself accepted the empirical Cosmological Argument.

The empiricism in the Van Til school is juxtaposed with Bahnsen’s fervent opposition to “autonomy” in all things. While in Clark’s epistemology God is as sovereign in knowledge as He is in (Calvinistic) salvation, the philosophy of empiricism gives autonomy to man. Here one is supposed to come to knowledge without any role of the Logos nor of the illuminating Holy Spirit.

The disagreements between Clark and Van Til were largely epistemological. There is indeed no reference at all to apologetics in their 1944-1948 controversy. What later disagreements they had in apologetics stemmed from more basic concerns like epistemology and the doctrine of Scripture. For instance, Clark viewed the Scriptures as perspicuous, agreeing with the Westminster Confession of Faith which says “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” (WCF 1:9) but Van Til’s view of Scripture was built on a rather neo-orthodox theory of paradox that opposed the confessional position. (see “Gordon Clark and Other Reformed Critics of Karl Barth,” Trinity Review, October-December 2018)

But to suspend the discussion of these more basic concerns and answer the question about Gordon Clark’s apologetic methodology I shall move on.

Or, let’s say, I shall mostly move on, for again Clark’s apologetics depends on his epistemology. In his Wheaton Lectures (published as An Introduction to Christian Epistemology) Clark defends some apologetic points. First, is the necessity of a starting point. In order to prevent an infinite regress some truth must be assumed. The empiricist assumes sensory perception, the Christian (according to Clark) must assume the truth of God’s revelation in the Holy Bible. To ask one to prove the truth of the Scriptures is to miss the point. To prove the Bible in such a fashion would be to assume something else as more trustworthy, and that is an affront to God.

For Clark, the Christian need not know any particular argument for Belief in God or His Word in order to be a Christian. It is the Holy Spirit that makes one believe in Jesus Christ. Yet, while arguments are not necessary they can be used by God as secondary means for the Holy Spirit to work upon the mind for faith. And good arguments for the Christian position can be made. In the Wheaton Lectures Clark provides a couple of such as he argues for Christianity based on (1) the internal consistency of the Christian worldview against the internal inconsistency of various non-Christian worldviews, and (2) the greater explanatory power of the Christian worldview over all others known.

An important distinction then can be made in looking at Clark’s work. That is, the answer to the question “Why do you believe in Jesus Christ” is always “because of the work of the Holy Spirit causing me to believe” but the answer to the question “Are there good reasons to believe in Jesus Christ” is a most certain “Yes.” The arguments may be more or less persuasive but are not “proofs”. And because no demonstrable proof is available to rationally force belief, each person must chose for or against faith in Jesus Christ. Clark writes elsewhere, “Still it remains true that no demonstration of God is possible; our belief is a voluntary choice; but if one must choose without a strict proof, none the less it is possible to have sane reasons of some sort to justify the choice. Certainly there are sane reasons for rejecting some choices. One most important factor is the principle of consistency.” (A Christian Philosophy of Education, 2nd edition, p. 41)

A parallel can be noted between Clark’s approach here and the position of the Westminster Confession of Faith as it provides not a proof of the truth of the Scriptures but a series of reasons buttressed ultimately by the work of the Holy Spirit:

“We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” – WCF 1:5

As Clark denied the validity of Thomistic and VanTillian “proofs” for God’s existence, he has been labeled as a “fideist.” This is a term he was in some ways willing to embrace. (See Three Types of Religious Philosophy, p. 7) But when he provided arguments (rather than attempted proofs) for the Christian faith, some of the same critics labelled him a “rationalist.” Neither of these labels fit the man’s thought. While a choice must be made, it is not without arguments. And while logic is necessary in showing the consistency of a worldview, it is the Holy Spirit that causes belief rather than any demonstrable “proof”.

In his books Clark frequently cleared the way for the Christian presentation by critiquing alternative worldviews. His critique was not a sweeping Transcendental argument, but a one-by-one demonstration of the inconsistencies of non-Christian views. He did the hard work to understand the main alternatives and to see where they lead. Those alternatives were as much philosophical ones as religious. Clark expertly dissected the ancient Greeks and major Western philosophers as well as religious philosophies such as those of Aquinas and Barth. And it was in his book on Barth that Clark most concisely explained his own apologetic methodology:

“The process of the reductio must be explained to him. There are two parts to the process. First the apologete must show that the axioms of secularism result in self-contradiction. … Then, second, the apologete must exhibit the internal consistency of the Christian system. When these two points have been made clear, the Christian will urge the unbeliever to repudiate the axioms of secularism and accept God’s revelation. That is, the unbeliever will be asked to change his mind completely, to repent. This type of apologetic argument … [does not] deny that in fact repentance comes only as a gift from God” (Karl Barth’s Theological Method, p. 110.)

The Scriptures do not seek to prove God’s existence, but always assume that He IS. And from this basis comes the command “Repent and believe in the gospel.”

8 thoughts on “Gordon Clark’s Apologetic Methodology”

    1. Clair,

      With this epistemology I do not see how even a keen scholar like Doug can “KNOW” the theology of Gordon Clark barring charismatic revelation from the Holy Spirit as it is not in the scripture. I see how he can ape him but to KNOW him I do not see. If Gordon was right, he could not even KNOW what he believed himself!

      1. I’m sure Dr. Davis meant “know” in the colloquial way.

        Truthfully, I know very little. The rest is some opinions, and I don’t even have that many of those.

  1. A question on ” (2) the greater explanatory power of the Christian worldview over all others known.”

    I wonder if GHC set a trap for himself that he didn’t realize? Because in Scripturalism, knowledge is just Scripture propositions and logical deductions therefrom.

    So all human knowledge could be summarized by the Bible, and the ideal theological multi-volume work derived therefrom. That’s all the “explanatory power” allowed by this system. Perhaps math as well.

    If there’s anything else about our world that Scripturalism explains besides the above, I don’t see the derivation.

    I’d rather say that nobody now knows the true epistemology, than say we know it, and as a result we are totally ignorant of any matter of fact since the close of the canon in the First Century A.D.

    1. You can read his arguments in his “Introduction to Christian Philosophy.” The same material was first in his festschrift and later republished in “Clark and His Critics.”

  2. In Clark’s audio lecture “A Contemporary Defense of the Bible” he redirects the discussion from apologetics to epistemology:

    Questioner: Thank you very much. Would you care to comment on what you would conceive to be the chief differences between your system of apologetics and that Cornelius Van Til’s.

    Clark: Didn’t want to get in that either. In Bibliotheca Sacra, which I suppose you know something about. I think it was in 1956 I answered that question. But I suppose you want me to say something more. Among other things, Dr. Van Til has written that the knowledge that God has, and I think he says the contents of God’s knowledge if that’s the correct phrase. The contents of God’s knowledge and the contents of what man can possibly know. That’s not exactly verbatim but that’s about right. The contents of God’s knowledge and the contents of the knowledge possible to man. I think they’re the exact words. The contents of the knowledge possible to man do not coincide at any single point. Now, I ask this, does God know that David was King of Israel? I hope you will answer yes. But if you take Van Til’s position and say that your knowledge does not coincide with God’s knowledge at any single point you simply cannot know that David was King of Israel. I disagree with that. I think anything we know is coincidental with God’s knowledge. God has all truth and if we have any truth whatsoever it must be God’s truth. And I’ll give other examples like this. You have heard of course, it is common for people to disparage “mere” human logic. I have something to say about that. But why don’t they disparage mere human arithmetic. We say 2 plus 2 is 4. That’s mere human arithmetic. For God, even if he isn’t an omnipotent demon, 2 plus 2 must be 5 but anything other than 4. Because we believe that 2 plus 2 is 4 and our knowledge doesn’t coincide with God’s knowledge at any point. Therefore, for God 2 plus 2 isn’t 4. I think that is a sufficient difference between professor Van Til and myself.

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