Martyred for the Gospel

Martyred for the Gospel
The burning of Tharchbishop of Cant. D. Tho. Cranmer in the town dich at Oxford, with his hand first thrust into the fyre, wherwith he subscribed before. [Click on the picture to see Cranmer's last words.]

Collect of the Day

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.
The Collect.

O LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Daily Bible Verse

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Did Gordon H. Clark Cross the Line into Nestorianism?

Did Gordon H. Clark Cross the Line into Nestorianism?

[I no longer agree with what I wrote here.  I had not read much of Clark's works when I wrote this and did not appreciate the finer points of Clark's view that all knowledge is propositional.  For a proposition to be meaningful it must have both a subject and a predicate joined by a copula.  A definition is simply the meaning given to the word that stands for the concept behind the word.  For Dr. Clark propositions and logic is how God thinks and if we know anything that is true we know it because God knows that same truth and has enlightened our minds with that truth.  I no longer believe Dr. Clark was guilty of Nestorianism and I am writing a series of blog posts at this time to explain why.  Charlie J. Ray, M.Div.]

Honestly, most seminarians these days are not required to read Gordon H. Clark's apologetics or philosophy. The man died in 1985 so what is all the fuss about you might ask? That is a good question, particularly in the light of what Clark had to say in his last book, The Incarnation, (Trinity Foundation: Jefferson, 1988). Since blog posts serve a different purpose than purely academic writing, I will get straight to the point and announce Clark's conclusions first and then particularize why Clark's reasoning process was in error at several steps along the way.

First of all, the fact that Clark's position is essentially neo-Nestorian is easy to establish simply from the closing statements in his book, The Incarnation. I will post his own words here for all to see and judge for themselves:

9. The Conclusion

Some unfriendly critics will instantly brand the following defense of Christ's humanity as the heresy of Nestorianism. Nestorius, you remember from the early pages of this study, taught, or was supposed to have taught, that the Incarnation of the Logos resulted in two persons. This view of Nestorius, with its accompanying condemnation, cannot be sustained either logically or historically. As for the history, several scholars assign the heretical view to his followers, who supposedly developed his suggestions beyond his approval. Nor can the charge of heresy be logically stantiated. The reason should have become obvious pages ago. Neither Nestorius nor his opponents had any clear idea of what a person is. They used the word but attached no meaning to it. In their discussion and writings the term was as much nonsense syllables as substance and nature. However distasteful it may be to those students whose knowledge is confined to fifteen minutes of a broader lecture in the Systematic Theology class, and all the more distasteful to the professor who knows little more than those fifteen minutes, they must be forced to acknowledge that the Chalcedonian bishops and the later theologians were talking non-sense, because their terms had no sense at all.

To remedy this disgraceful situation, I have not only denounced the use of and expurgated the term substance, but in an attempt to be occasionally positive, I have offered a definition of person. Most people will find it queer. Most theologians will find it unacceptable. Well and good, let them formulate and propose a different definition. That is the honest and logical thing to do. Then there will be an intelligible subject of discussion. One can reasonably suppose that it could be a better definition than mine. But even if not, it could not be reasonably branded as nonsense. …..

The usual theological treatment of the problem is so self-contradictory that nearly any escape looks promising. After stating that Jesus was a man, a "true" man, the theologians continue by arguing that he was not a man at all—he was only a "nature." For them the boy in the temple and the assistant carpenter in Nazareth was some set of qualities attaching to the Second Person. But this is impossible for two reasons. First, it attaches contradictory characteristics to a single Person. He is both omnipotent and frail; he is both omipresent and localized; he is omniscient, but he is ignorant of some things. In the second place, closely related to the first, the characteristics of an ordinary man cannot possibly attach to Deity. The Logos never gets tired or thirsty; the Logos never increases in either stature or wisdom. The Logos is eternal and immutable. How then can these human characteristics possibly be characteristics of God? But by irresponsibly assigning such characteristics to God, the theologians contradict their other statement that Jesus was a true man. Even the word true betrays the weakness of their position. Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. The Scripture simply and plainly says, "The Man Christ Jesus."

The manuscript ends here because of the final illness of the author. [From: The Incarnation, pages 75-77].

I developed an interest in Clark because I read Carl F. H. Henry's God, Revelation and Authority and his view of propositional truth as a defense of inerrancy. However, I must say that I am disappointed with Clark after reading The Trinity and The Incarnation. I found both books to be meandering messes of mixed up logic, despite Clark's disavowal of such criticisms.

Clark seems to be guilty of Nestorianism in my view. Simply redefining the heresy of Nestorianism or denying that it existed in the first place (because Nestorius did not "define" person in a way that Clark finds satisfactory) does not justify taking a position that is overtly a two person view. (See pages 75-77 in The Incarnation).

Essentially, all Clark ends up doing is saying that he disagrees with Chalcedon after continuing his own apophatic negation of practically everything in the Athanasian Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed which states positively that Jesus Christ is one Person who is both fully and truly God and fully and truly man. Moreover, Clark's view begs the question. According to Clark, no one in Christianity understood the incarnation up until Clark reformulates the definitions of "person" and "nature" to fit his own philosophical presuppositions, which one must note are attached more to extra-biblical reason than to revelation in Holy Scripture itself.

Clark's books are generally too short to deal seriously with any of the implications raised by Clark's own re-interpretation of classical orthodox theology. And why should Clark's views not be used by opponents of Christianity as ammunition against orthodox Christianity? Has Clark actually done Evangelical Christianity a service or has he done more damage?

The fact that Clark's view negates chapter 8 of the Westminster Confession and other statements in the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity, and the English Formularies (i.e. the 39 Articles of Religion, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) and the writings of the vast majority of the magisterial Protestant Reformers is indication enough that Clark's view can indeed be classified as "heretical".

Moreover, Clark does not follow his own warnings to students that these are difficult issues and that the noetic effects of sin affect even our ability to reason. It is best to stay with the principle of sola Scriptura and not exalt either reason or tradition above Scripture. Clark seems to have committed the error of elevating reason above Scripture and the creeds. The principle of sola Scriptura does not and never has thrown out secondary authority in the local church and in the creeds. It does, however, test the church and the creed by Scripture. Overturning the creeds that the magisterial Reformers approved in their confessions of faith would take much more than the meager and meandering critique Clark has offered in his book, The Incarnation. Reason has no more authority than the church or tradition, something which Clark seems to have forgotten. Reason, like the authority of the church and of tradition, is to be submitted to the ultimate authority of Scripture.

In addition, Clark himself foresees that most Evangelicals and Reformed folks would indeed classify his view as Nestorianism. Why would Clark anticipate this if in fact there do not seem to be just reasons for reaching this conclusion?

To Clark's credit he does point out that Latin and Greek terms for substance and person were interchangeably used and thus part of the confusion issued from the fact that some of the western theologians did not know Greek. (See pages 6-8, 16). However, this problem is easily resolved by staying with the Greek language rather than Latin. The creeds instantly resolve themselves when the language is consistently Greek. Clark's understanding of the philosophy of language, especially regarding the use of language in epistemology and in translation issues from one language to another is never explained for us here and I do not know if Clark deals with this in any depth in his philosophical writings.

Clark's assessment is that the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon are "hopelessly ambiguous" and that they do not define what a "person" is in modern psychological terms. Clark's complaint seems to be that neither the Bible nor the creeds deal with twentieth century concerns. My question, however, is whether Clark's agnosticism differs in any practical respect from the agnosticism of other modernists with an agenda to undermine biblical and confessional Christianity, especially as it is expressed in the Reformed confessions of faith and catechisms?

Furthermore, since Clark is supposed to be complaining about meaningless "definitions" regarding hypostasis, ousios, homoousios, and prosopon, how does his solution help matters? Is not the modern English translation of those terms just as problematic? For example, Clark complains that the term "person" is meaningless and then proceeds to provide his own unique "definition" of what a "person" is. The problem is that Clark's definition of "person" is not the normal way people understand the word "person." So for all practical purposes Clark is reduplicating the same problem he complains the terms in the orthdox creeds and the Reformed confessions present us. The word "person" has many different meanings and Clark has simply added his own idiosyncratic definition to the list. Normal people understand the term "person" to refer to an individual with a particular personality, mind, set of emotions and even a particular physical body and appearance. Obviously, "person" in this normal usage does not apply to the three Persons of the Godhead in the precise same way, hence the difficulty of describing exactly what the Tri-unity of God is regarding the three hypostases or subsistences. 

It is true that human personality does not precisely and exactly correspond to what a "person" is in the divine nature. But Clark never attempts to deal with this dichotomy in either of his books, The Trinity or The Incarnation. Clark says that man thinks God's thoughts after Him. This is true when man's thoughts correspond to the exact understanding of one propositional statement where man's thoughts converge with exactly what God intended to reveal to the creature.  However, one should not forget that God knows more than man does about any single proposition or collection of propositions.  The Christian theologian should remember that God is not a creature and the Bible relates God's mind or personality in anthropomorphic and anthropopathic terms. We are created in God's image and likeness; God is not like us—we are like Him. Furthermore, God is omniscient and we are not. God's reasoning abilities are not tainted by sin or corrupted by original sin. God has the ability to reason with absolute perfection, something Clark is obviously not able to do. Clark's definition of "person" is essentially meaningless in regards to any connection to Scripture at all. Hence, in regards to the incarnation of Christ Clark is essentially eisogeting his own philosophical and epistemological presuppositions back into Scripture just as all sinful distortions of revelation do.

Scripture is not a textbook on philosophy or "clarkian" definitions of what Scripture should say or what the creeds or the Reformers "must" or "should" say. Rather, Scripture presents the truthful revelation of God in everyday language for anyone who is willing to read it and understand it. The point of the creeds is to summarize in clear, definite and understandable language what is essential doctrine for Christians and the creeds represent what the vast majority of Christians believe the Bible says. In Clark's theology the plow boy needs to earn a degree in philosophy just to understand the Scriptures, the creeds, and even Clark's own views!

So for Clark to re-invent Christianity based on his own personal philosophy is in essence no different from any other gnostic who comes along and claims to have some epiphany that no one else has. Clark's elevation of reason above revelation is a strong indication that his connection to Hume's empirical philosophical views has distorted his ability to recognize that theological terminology is indeed abstract and not concrete or empirical. Clark's complaint is analogous to the logical positivist attack on abstract thought. If there is no concrete definition Clark likes, then to him it is meaningless. But how does this differ from the atheist complaint that Christianity as a theological and ethical system or worldview is "meaningless"? Clark is simply the confusing issues more and for all practical purposes gives ammunition to enemies of the Christian faith.

Clark's objection to the use of the term "ousios" or "nature" or "essence" is that these are "meaningless" terms that have no definition. But Clark simply replaces these terms with the term "definition." For all practical purposes the term "definition" is as meaningless as the terms to which Clark objects. The word "definition" simply refers back to how we describe God. In other words, Clark's term for "attributes" is simply their "definitions". But Clark never defines what HIS definition of "definition" is or what HIS definition of God is—in other words, what are the attributes of God in Clark's view? (See pages 14-15, 30-31). Clark is good at telling us what he thinks is wrong. His approach is to attack the apophatic theology of the creeds with an apophatic theology of his own. His methodology seems a bit hypocritical in light of this. He spends precious little time giving positive statements of his own views but the entire book tells us what is wrong with the creeds, the confessions and with "tradition" views of the unity of Jesus Christ as one Person with two natures, divine and human.

The bottom line here is that Clark openly attacks the doctrine of the incarnation as meaningless and then misrepresents it in order to justify his own departure from the biblical doctrine outlined in the creeds and confessions. For example, Clark asserts that the orthodox position does not uphold the full humanity of Jesus. He says:

That Christ assumes a body causes no difficulty to anyone who believes the Bible; but to understand how the Second Person could have a human soul and be a human person (which virtually all orthodox Christians deny), and how that mind or soul was related to the Divine Person is perhaps the most difficult problem in all theology. (Page 4).

One of the problems we shall have to face is whether or not the human Jesus is an hypostasis. (Page 8).

Notice that Clark says that the orthodox position denies that Jesus "could have a human soul and be a human person." But this is either a straw man fallacy or it is a non sequitur since that is precisely what the orthodox creeds proclaim! When Clark quotes the Definition of Chalcedon he denies the entire second half of the creed as meaningless but it is precisely there that the creed upholds what Clark denies that the orthodox position says! On page 5 Clark quotes the entire creed and at the point where it upholds the full humanity of Christ, Clark says everything after … "in all things like unto us, without sin . . ." contradicts the first part of the creed. In footnote 4 at the bottom of the page he says:

The remainder of the Creed really contradicts this last phrase because it denies that Christ was a human person. Obviously something that is not a human person at all cannot be "in all things like unto us." (Page 5).

The point to be made here is that Clark unfairly assumes that his assessment of what he "thinks" the creed implies is what the creed actually says. The creed obviously upholds the doctrine of the full humanity of Christ with a complete human soul. Even if we take Clark's view Jesus would still not be "like us" in all things because no matter how you slice it Jesus Christ is unique.  If not, why are we discussing the incarnation at all?  If Jesus is merely human then there is no debate.  The real problem here is that Clark "thinks" that the incarnation itself is a logical contradiction and, given his hatred of any hint of neo-orthodoxy, incomplete understanding, or limits to human epistemology is not tolerable. The simple history of the theology of the incarnation shows that all the Protestant Reformers and every orthodox Evangelical theologian since that time has upheld the full deity and full humanity of Jesus Christ as one Person who is one subsistence/prosopon, with two natures/substances in hypostatic union.  That union is described in the "Definition" of Chalcedon via the limitations of human thought and intelligence.  Scripture tells us all we know about Christ and by logical inferences drawn from Scripture we understand the incarnation as best we can.  Clark's straw man attack fails at this point.

What is telling is that Clark does lip service to the Scripture ascribing full deity to Christ and in his concluding remarks can only bring himself to say that Jesus Christ is fully man. How Christ is united as both God and man Clark is completely unable to tell us. He can only prove that Christ is fully human and that is essentially his theology. So I can only conclude that Clark did cross the line into Nestorianism. He cannot bring himself to say that Jesus Christ is literally God who became a man by assuming a true human soul and nature into union with the Logos, the Second Person of the Godhead. It is not that the human nature is "impersonal" any more than the "divine nature" is impersonal. But what "defines" what a human being is by essence is completely united with what "defines" what a divine being is by essence.  This hypostatic union is completely personal in the one Person, Jesus Christ. Jesus is God and Jesus is man and the two cannot be separated without crossing the line into Nestorianism. The two natures are not confused, mixed, or separated but are perfectly united in the person of Christ.  Clark crossed that line and so does every modern Clarkian who upholds Clark's irrational division of Christ into two persons. (Deuteronomy 6:4; Hebrews 13:8; John 1:1, 14, 18; 2 John 1:7-10).  Nestorianism and the kenotic theories sacrifice the complete deity of Christ to preserve His humanity.  This is why both of these theories are heretical.  (John 1:1, 2; 18; 1 Timothy 3:16).

I have other remarks to make about some of the evidence Clark uses in his book to deny the biblical doctrine of the incarnation. However, I will save those remarks for subsequent posts. Let this stand as my statement that the Trinity Foundation and those "clarkians" who support Clark's view of the incarnation have crossed the line into heresy. How they can claim to uphold chapter 8 of the Westminster Confession without denying that Jesus Christ is one divine and human Person is beyond me.

May the peace of God be with you,



3/14/2012   I made some minor editorial changes in the text above.  Also, I have softened my critique of Clark since this was written.  However, it seems to me that Clark's theory of personality as consisting only of what a man "thinks" falls far short of the biblical presentation of man as thinking, feeling, willing, emoting and experiencing.  Being human is much more than sentience or thought processes.  That would seem to imply that man is pure thought.  Obviously the Bible defines man as a physical being as well as an ethical and thinking being.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost; Answer. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world without end. Amen.


あじ said...

I only managed to skim this, but it's a decent analysis. Clark's Nestorianism is fairly apparent, and his free redefinitions of terms actually hurts his credibility, as he seems unable or unwilling to deal with Orthodox Christology on its own terms.

Charlie J. Ray said...

Thanks, Ken. I think even Arminians can recognize this heresy easily.

Scott R. Harrington said...

It seems you view Gordon H. Clark as Nestorian. Nestorianism is not the only possible heresy. The Westminster Confession of Faith itself is heretical. It contradicts John 15:26. It preaches semi-Sabellianism, which is what the Filioque heresy is. The Westminster Confession of Faith preaches the heresy that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father "AND THE SON" (FILIOQUE), and the Filioque is a heresy which introduces ditheism (bitheism), binitarianism, a dyad within the Godhead. 2 Gods, exluding the Spirit from the privileges of the Father and Son together. In Erie PA Scott Harrington

Charlie J. Ray said...

Gordon H. Clark denied the Chalcedonian Creed 451 and said that Christ is two persons, one human and the other divine. It's clearly Nestorianism.

Regarding the Filioque controversy, you're reading way too much into the Western view. The Western view seeks to preserve the equality of all three persons of the Godhead. They are all equally eternal as the Athanasian Creed puts it. The error of the Eastern view is to make the Son and the Spirit less than the Father. All three are fully God and eternally self-existent. John 15:26 teaches that Jesus sends the Spirit from the Father, hence there is a dual procession. This is an expression of relationship and not origin. If the Son is not eternal and the Spirit is not eternal then they are not fully God.

It is the Eastern church in error here since their view of the trinity exalts the Father to the point of denying the full deity of the Son and the Spirit.

Also, Cassian was most definitely semi-pelagian. This is why the Eastern churches emphasize sanctification, deification and recapitulation rather than the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The East is as pelagian as Rome.

Scripture is the final word, not Constantinople or Rome.


Charlie J. Ray said...

The dual procession of the Spirit from both the Father and the Son does not teach ditheism any more than it teaches tritheism. It's a matter of the divine economy within the one nature or being of the Godhead. The procession of the Spirit is an eternal procession with no beginning in time. Therefore, the theology of a dual procession is not semi-sabellian just as the Eastern Orthodox view is not monarchian modalism.

A single procession of the Spirit from the Father would not be Arianism since the Eastern Orthodox view is that all three Persons of the Godhead are equally divine and share the same divine nature/being/essence.

jrodriguez27 said...

Just FYI I have heard that Dr. John Robbins finished the book Incarnation for Clark. Has anyone else heard this? My source is credible. I wanted to share the info anyways.

Jaime Rodriguez

jrodriguez27 said...

Just FYI I have heard that Dr. John Robbins finished the book Incarnation for Clark. Has anyone else heard this? My source is credible. I wanted to share the info anyways.

jrodriguez27 said...

Dr. John Robbins finished the book Incarnation for Dr. Clark so I was told by my father-in-law who took some of Dr. Clark's courses.

Charlie J. Ray said...

The book clearly marks off the closing remarks of John Robbins from the point where Dr. Clark left off. And it should be noted that Dr. Clark's commentary on Colossians clearly upholds the view espoused in the Definition of Chalcedon.

The Clarkian said...

Half way down, the paragraph that starts with "So for Clark to re-invent Christianity..." the word "the" needs to be omitted toward the end. Great article, I will definitely look deeper into this. Thank you for this very well written article.

Charlie J. Ray said...

In case you missed it in my other articles, my views have changed. I no longer view Clark's position as nestorianism for the simple reason that Clark stands within orthodoxy by recognizing that Jesus had a real and genuine human soul or mind which is not replaced by the Logos or second Person of the Trinity. Jesus's human nature includes a human mind that is not omniscient. The Logos is omniscient and cannot replace the human mind of Jesus without that being the Apollinarian heresy.

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