Gordon Clark’s Theory of Divine Illumination

In The Light of the Mind Ronald Nash notes four major interpretations of Augustine’s theory of Divine Illumination: the Thomist, the Franciscan, the Formal, and the Ontologist. (p. 94 ff.) As Gordon Clark was a proponent of Divine Illumination, it is proper to ask which, if any, of these interpretations did he subscribe to? Or more exactly, which view does Clark’s own epistemology agree with?


Nash explains of the Thomist interpretation that “In Summa Theologica St. Thomas suggested that the light by which man’s mind knows is the agent intellect. He added that because God is the cause of the agent intellect, this gives the ‘light’ a divine origin.” (p. 94) Nash quotes Father Charles Boyer as a proponent of this view who explains, “God enlightens us by the fact that our own intelligence enlightens us. Our intellect is, in fact, nothing else that the divine Light tempered to the infirmity of our nature.” (p. 95)

Of the Franciscan theory Nash says that it “ascribes the function of the agent intellect to God” and “The divine illumination is found chiefly in God’s production, infusion, or impression of the divine forms upon the mind of man. These infused forms then become the first objects man knows or the norms by which he judges experience.” (p. 97) Nash quotes another writer explaining this theory who says, “the role of producing the impressed species which the Arisotelians attribute to the agent intellect is assigned to God in this system. … He imprints the representation of the eternal truths which is the cause of our knowledge. The ideas are not innate as in the angels but successively produced in the soul which knows them in itself.” (p. 97)

Of the Formal theory, Nash explains, “The function of illumination is not to give the human mind some definite content of knowledge but simply to convey the quality of certainty and necessity to certain ideas.” (p. 98)

And lastly, of Ontologism Nash writes, “According to Malebranche and contrary to Descartes, these two substances [the body and the mind] are so disparate that neither can have any causal effect on the other; there can be no interaction between mind and body.” (p. 103) “When Malebranche said that we see all things in God, he truly meant all things. Though his view does not preclude sensations in the body, it does rule out any causal connection between bodily sensations and the psychic events that follow them. Malebranche believes that God causes even the images or ideas that we have of sensible things.” (p. 103-104)

Analyzing these interpretations, Nash rejects each one in kind. After providing some criticism of each Thomism, Franciscanism, and Formalism, he concludes, “The most unsatisfactory of these appears to be the Thomist interpretation, and we can assume that this position has been refuted. The Formal interpretation is correct in what it asserts (in the sense that illumination explains the certainty and necessity that attend many of our judgments) but wrong it what it denies. It fails to go far enough because of its refusal to allow any specific conceptual content to divine illumination. No serious objections could be found against the Franciscan theory, although, as in the case of the Formal interpretation, we may find that it does not say quite enough.” (p. 101) Then, as for “Malebranche’s Ontologism,” Nash concludes it “is far removed from anything that might be found in Augustine.” (p. 103) That is, while Augustine allowed the soul to influence the body, Malebranche “rules out any causal connection between bodily sensations and the psychic events that follow them.” (p. 103-104) “Augustine, however, reserved an important place for sense perception—something he would not have done if the ontologist interpretation were correct.” (p. 120)

Nash instead argues for a “modified ontologist” interpretation. (p. 121) He defends against a major criticism of ontologism in saying, “The vision of God is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the beatific vision, but it is nonetheless a vision of God. [Quoting Augustine:] ‘And hence, in so far as we know God, we are like Him, but not like to the point of equality, since we do not know Him to the extent of his own being.’ While man can have some knowledge of God’s nature in this life, it is limited. At best, in the words of St. Paul, ‘we see through a glass darkly.’” (p. 121) The “modification” that Nash makes is his rejection of Malebranche’s view that even knowledge of the sensible world must be attributed to divine activity.



Lydia Schumacher in Divine Illumination, The History and Future of Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge expands beyond Nash’s noting of four (or five) interpretations, adding also Innatism and grouping Franciscanism with Formalism and Idealism.

In a helpful delineation, Shumacher differentiates between Thomism as intrinsic—where “the divine light simply imparts cognitive capacity to form ideas in the way Aristotle described”—and all other interpretations as extrinsic—where illumination is “a force that is super-added to the cognitive capacity.” (p. 8)

While it seems in Nash’s critique of Ontologism he hardly explains the position, Schumacher does better in saying that on the ontologist interpretation “the divine light immediately imparts all of the content of knowledge, whether it be about empirical reality or abstract ideas formed upon the basis of experience.” (p. 9)

She notes that Innatism is “perhaps the most popular among contemporary scholars” and that this holds “that the light is the source of a set of innate ideas for all things from ordinary objects to abstract concepts like goodness, truth, beauty, and justice.” (p. 9) “By turning away from the changing senses and into the self where these ideas for things are stored, the mind recovers or is illumined by its deep-seated ideas and thereby gains access to the genuine knowledge of created realties that it cannot actually derive from the experience of created reality itself.” (p. 10)

Of Franciscanism, she states “illumination is the source of certain a priori or transcendental concepts. These concepts do not afford the actual content of knowledge as in the ontological and innatist interpretations. Rather, they regulate the process of cognition so as to ensure that the concepts the mind generates with respect to its experiences correspond to the divine ideas about reality and are therefore absolutely certain.” (p. 10) In the similar idealist interpretation of Bruce Bubacz “illumination is the source of a priori concepts which he calls ‘principal ideas.’ … the principal ideas only provide a blueprint or map for comprehending the ‘terrain’ of created reality and for making sense of objects that are encountered there.” (p. 11) And for Etienne Gilson’s formalism “the innate ideas act as rules by which the mind validates ideas.” (p. 11)



We can summarize these explanations from Nash and Shumacher with the following chart:

As the interpretations are ordered from left to right in this chart (Thomism, Franciscanism / Formalism, Innatism, Ontologism) so there is an increasing role for God in man’s knowing. This order of will be important as we consider Gordon Clark’s theory of divine illumination.


Which of these interpretations then best match with Gordon Clark’s epistemology?

First, we should (and can) establish that Clark held something of Augustine’s view. It is clear that Clark agreed with Augustine’s theory of Divine Illumination at least to some extent:

“Psalm 36:9 – ‘In thy light shall we see light.’ St. Augustine used this verse to teach that God is the source of all knowledge. This may not be very clear in the immediate context; but possibly other passages will support Augustine’s interpretation. Such support soon appears. Psalm 43:3 is, ‘O Send out they light and thy truth, let them lead me.’ No one can rationally maintain that the word and connects two different thoughts here. The nouns light and truth are in apposition. The term truth explains what the term light means.” – Gordon H. Clark, First John, p. 28-29.

Which then, if any, of the interpretations of Augustine best matches with Clark’s own view?

The Thomist view must be ruled out as Clark’s view of Divine Illumination is definitely extrinsic. He notes, “Proverbs 6:23 says, ‘the law is light.’ Light, therefore, is a figure of speech that means information from God.” – Gordon H. Clark, The Johannine Logos, p. 65.

As Nash stated of Franciscanism with respect to Augustine, we might also say of Franciscanism with respect to Clark—we may find that it does not say quite enough. This could be said of formalism and idealism as well. Indeed even Innatism may not be enough, but we can see that Clark was at least an innatist, for he often wrote in support of innate ideas in places such as the following:

“Is it not possible that the knowledge of God is innate? May we not have been born with an intuition of God, and with this a priori equipment we see the glory of God upon the heavens? – Gordon H. Clark, What Presbyterians Believe, p. 7.

The question ultimately seems to be whether Clark was or was not an ontologist.

While Clark notes that ontologism is “heresy” this is only in reference to the Roman Catholic pronouncement of such, and not his own opinion. (See: Gordon H. Clark, “Augustine” in Encyclopedia of Christianity, Edwin A. Palmer ed., 1964.) And while Clark notes, without specifics, that Malebranche—the most well known proponent of ontologism— is “in some places sadly unacceptable” (Lord God of Truth, p. 13), he also spoke well of Malebranche, saying that he “developed non-empirical Augustinianism” with “brilliant insights” (Lord God of Truth, p. 13), even saying that “Perhaps then Malebranche was a better Augustinian than Augustine.” (See: Gordon H. Clark, “Augustine” in Encyclopedia of Christianity, Edwin A. Palmer ed., 1964) The reason why Clark can call Malebranche a better Augustinian than Augustine might be that ontologism is a theory that more consistently rejects empiricism. “Augustine, in spite of his greatness, or perhaps because of his greatness, is somewhat inconsistent. He certainly is not a strict dogmatist, for he does not base all knowledge on revelation; nor is he a strict rationalist, for he accepts some revelation and some empiricism.” – Gordon H. Clark, Three Types of Religious Philosophy, p. 10.

To answer the question then of whether Clark was or was not an ontologist, I suggest we compare Clark at three points to Malebranche. Does he believe with Malebranche that (1) “all things are seen in God?” Does he believe (2) that God directly, immediately gives man knowledge? And does he believe (3) that God causes even the images or ideas that we have of sensible things?

The answer to the first question must be “Yes” as we see in this quote:

“With less literary flourish than Malebranche’s peroration one may summarize by saying that truth concerns Ideas, Ideas are in God, and the mind can perceive them only there. These Ideas are alone the objects of thought. Nor can sensory images in any way be transformed into truth. In the language of antiquity and of modernity, abstract concepts can never be derived from sensory images. Though different human beings may and must have different sensations – for your pain is not mine – there is only one set or world of Ideas. It is the system of God’s mind, and we can see them only there.” – Gordon H. Clark, Lord God of Truth, p. 16.

The second and third questions should also be answered in the affirmative based on the following:

“The medieval philosopher, the Moslem Al Gazali, denied physical causation and referred all events immediately to the will of God. Zwingli also seems to have suggested something similar in his emphasis on the sovereignty of God. But Malebranche goes into detail. First he attacks the confused notion of causality. Theologians use the term glibly, but they never define it. The Westminster Confession states that God’s decree establishes secondary causes, but it gives no hint as to what they are or how they operate. The term cause is of course correlative with the term effect. If there be no effect, there could have been no cause. If there is a cause, the effect results necessarily. But no such relationship is found in sensory experience. If someone says that eating good food is the cause of nourishment, a touch of seasickness will disabuse his mind. Eating good food does not necessitate nourishment. The so-called cause can occur and the alleged effect fail. Hence the soul cannot cause a bodily motion. In fact there are no causes and effects in natural phenomena. That is rather interesting, for it means that Malebranche anticipated modern science in rejecting occult qualities and the like and in defining the scientific enterprise as a description of motions. … Since no one can see the soul affecting the body, why does it seem so? Aside from the intellectual lethargy of the general public and its unquestioning acceptance of traditional ignorance, the worlds of space and mind, in the light of revelation, do have an understandable relationship. Malebranche’s explanation of this is a theory called Occasionalism. God is the sole and indefeasibly effective cause of everything throughout the universe. He speaks and it is done. God produces mental events and physical events immediately. That is to say, when one stick’s one finger with a pin and experiences a pain, it is not the pin that produced the pain. God did.” – Gordon H. Clark, The Biblical Doctrine of Man, 1984, p. 90-91.

“It is interesting to note that while Hume denied all miracles, there was a medieval Moslem who anticipated Hume’s arguments against causality and concluded that every event is a miracle. Since no sensation can be the cause of another sensation, every event is immediately caused by God. … “The second reply the apologete will probably give is that a Christian such as I am must acknowledge that God causes everything. Indeed, this I certainly acknowledge; but the meaning of the term cause has been drastically changed. … We now concur with the Islamic anti-aristotelian Al Gazali: God and God alone is the cause, for only God can guarantee the occurrence of Y, and indeed of X as well. Even the Westminster Divines timidly agree, for after asserting that God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, and that ‘no purpose of yours can be withheld from you’ (Job 42:2), they add, ‘Although … all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes…’ What they called second causes, Malebranche had called occasions. But an occasion is neither a fiat lux nor a differential equation.” – Gordon H. Clark, Lord God of Truth, p. 24–25, 27.

In a number of ways then, Clark was an ontologist. If he modified Malebranche it was less than Nash’s modification.


This topic brings out an interesting connection, perhaps ill-explored, between Ontologism and Calvinism.

In its entry on Divine Illumination, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says “It is useful to think of divine illumination as analogous to grace. Just as a proponent of grace postulates a special divine role on the volitional side, so a proponent of divine illumination postulates a special divine role on the cognitive side.”

Calvinists recovered Augustine’s soteriology. Why not Augustine’s (or Malbranche’s) epistemology?

Is not Ontologism merely God’s sovereingty in our knowledge acqisition? God’s active (not merely passive) work. That is, God is in control of all things … including the mind of man.

But why have Calvinists seemingly (for I’ve not been able to find any resources on the subject) not taken up this line of thought?

Well, the Calvinist Clark did make the connection:

“Even if the details of Malebranche’s philosophy cannot be accepted, yet it must be insisted on that God is the ‘place’ of spirits. Minds are not impenetrable pellets. Even human minds in some degree overlap or penetrate each other, and the Divine Mind that encloses or surrounds all others penetrates them completely. Another statement of Paul’s has far reaching implications. He said, ‘Work our your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you, both to will and to do, of his good pleasure.’ This statement asserts an interpenetration, at least of Christian minds, by the Divine Spirit such that not only the actions but even the will of the man is controlled by the good pleasure of God. And if this passage does not, other passages extend this control to heathen minds also, though it may not result in their salvation. The law of Jehovah required that all the males of Israel should go up to appear before Jehovah three times a year. This requirement would naturally suggest to the Israelites the possibility of foreign aggression at the time of these religious observances. How could the country be defended? As if to answer this objection the Lord says he will so control the minds of the heathen that they shall not desire to attack at those times. (For specific instances of mental control see also, II Sam. 17:14, I Kings 18:27, II Chron. 10:15.)” – Gordon H. Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 322.

“When Paul preached in Athens, if a New Testament reference be permitted in an Old Testament chapter, he said, ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ The ‘we’ does not refer to Paul and other Christians alone. It particularly refers to Paul and his pagan audience. The pagans lived and moved, thought and spoke, in God. Their minds and God’s mind interpenetrated. The doctrine of omnipotence shows that God can control men’s wills; the passage in Acts makes somewhat clearer how God controls men’s wills. My toothache does not exist in your mind; and many of your thoughts do not exist in mine. But every thought of yours and mine alike is found in God’s mind. This interpenetration at least clarifies to some degree the manner in which the creator’s mind controls his creatures’ thoughts.” – Gordon H. Clark, Predestination in the Old Testament, p. 9.