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.]

Daily Bible Verse

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Clark/Van Til Controversy: The Text of a Complaint (Part Two)

The Clark/Van Til Controversy: The Text of a Complaint (Part Two)

[See Part One here].

Now the judgment to which with deep sorrow we have been compelled to come is that the doctrine of the knowledge of God which was set forth before the Presbytery of Philadelphia by Dr. Clark is very far from being in agreement with the high view of Scripture and of the Confession and Catchisms as that has been expounded above. It is true indeed that Dr. Clark accepts the term “incomprehensible” as a quality of God. But the issue of course is not settled by the bare acceptance of the language of the standards. The modernists in our day have freqently indicated a readiness to accept the language of the historic creeds, but have reinterpreted that language to mean something sharply at variance with their historic meaning. It is our contention that Dr. Clark's view of the incomprehensibility of God is definitely at variance with the meaning that this doctrine has had in Christian theology.

In expounding Dr. Clark's views we appeal to the stenographic record of his examination before the presbytery. The record is far from accurate in detail but the expressions on this doctrine are so comprehensive and repeated that no doubt remains as to its essential elements. The references are to page and line in the record.

Dr. Clark's definition of the incomprehensibility of God serves as an appropriate starting point. By this doctrine he means “that God knows every proposition and that those propositions are infinite in number and that we shall not exhaust them when he reveals them to us one at a time” (27:19ff. Cf. 37:19ff.). The Scriptural statement that the ways of God are past finding out Dr. Clark would explain by saying “that no endeavor on our part can discover certain truths about God but those truths can be obtained only by revelations and we cannot solve them on our own initiative . . .” (20:9ff.).

When this definition is analyzed with the help of the rest of his testimony, it will appear that Dr. Clark denies that there is any qualitative distinction between the contents of the knowledge of God and the contents of the knowledge possible to man, but rather in so far as there is any distinction between these two the distinction is merely quantitative. The demonstration of this conclusion may most conveniently proceed by taking note of three stages in Dr. Clark's development of his views.

1. The fundamental assumption made by Dr. Clark is that truth, whether in the divine mind or in the human mind, is always propositional. Truth, it is said, cannot be conceived of except in terms of propositions (Cf. 2:9ff.; 11:2, 14f.; and especially 22:19ff.). It will be observed that Dr. Clark does not claim to derive this judgment from Scripture; it is rather regarded as an axiom of reason (Cf. 36:13-17; 19:19ff.).

It is not necessary or appropriate to consider here all of the implications of this fundamental assumption. A few observations are, however, of immediate importance. This view of truth, it will be noted, conceives of truth as fundamentally quantitative, as consisting of a series of distinct items. Now even if it could be assumed that human knowledge has this propositional character, it would still involve a tremendous assumption to conclude that the divine knowledge must possess the same character. Since our thinking is pervasively conditioned by our creaturehood, we may not safely infer the character of our knowledge what must be true of the knowledge of the Creator. Even if we could be sure that human knowledge might be resolved into distinct propositions, it would not necessarily follow that the knowledge of God, who penetrates into the depths of his own mind and of all things at a glance, would be subject to the same qualification. And it may not be overlooked in this connection that Dr. Clark does not claim Scriptural proof for his fundamental assumption as to the character of knowledge.

2. The far-reaching significance of Dr. Clark's starting point, as observed under 1. above, is evident when we note that Dr. Clark holds that man's knowledge of any proposition, if it is really knowledge, is identical with God's knowledge of the same proposition. If knowledge is a matter of propositions divorced from the knowing subject, that is, of self-contained, independent statements, a proposition would have to have the same meaning for man as for God. And since Dr. Clark holds that no limitation may be placed upon God's power to reveal propositions one at a time to men, there is no single item of knowledge in God's mind which may not be shared by the human mind.

That the above statement is a fair representation of Dr. Clark's reasoning is abundantly borne out by the record. See 2:22ff.; 18:23f.; 20:22ff.; 28:14-17ff.; 32:25-33:4; 50:11-21; 51:3-7. These include the following statements: “God can reveal any particular proposition to man, and if God can make sons of Abraham out of stones on the roadway, he can make even a stupid person understand a proposition” (2:22ff.). “. . . if we don't know the object that God knows, then we are in absolute ignorance” (28:16f.). In answer to the question, “You would say then, that all that is revealed in the Scripture is capable of being comprehended by the mind of man?”, Dr. Clark answered, “Oh yes, that is what it is given to us for, to understand it” (20:22ff.).

It would seem here that Dr. Clark is seeking to work out a theory of knowledge which, over against agnosticism and skepticism, will assure man of actual and certain knowledge. By appealing to the power of God reveal knowledge, and by resolving knowledge into detached items, he argues that man may be assured of true knowledge since his knowledge corresponds wholly with the divine knowledge of the same propositions.

While we appreciate the effort to arrive at certainty with reference to man's knowledge of God, in our judgment this is done at too great a cost. It is done at the sacrifice of the transcendence of God's knowledge. His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are past finding out. The secret things belong unto the Lord our God. If we are not to bring the divine knowledge of his thoughts and ways down to human knowledge, or our human knowledge up to his divine knowledge, we dare not maintain that his knowledge and our knowledge coincide at any single point. Our knowledge of any proposition must always remain the knowledge of the creature. As true knowledge, that knowledge must be analogical to the knowledge which God possesses, but it can never be identified with the knowledge which the infinite and absolute Creator possesses of the same proposition.

3. Finally, however, Dr. Clark seems to reckon with the infinity of God and thus also to hold to a certain conception of incomprehensibility. The divine knowledge consists of an infinite number of propositions, and since man is a temporal creature, it will not be possible even in eternity to reveal this infinite series of propositions to man (Cf. 34:5; 52:15ff.). It is illuminating that Dr. Clark does not base his doctrine of incomprehensibility upon the distinction between God as infinite and man as finite (Cf. 45:24f.), nor on the consideration that, if God were fully to reveal himself to his creatures, the creatures would themselves have to be God (Cf. 46:16ff.). It is based solely upon the judgment that man as a temporal being cannot be conceived of as receiving an infinite number of revelations. It is clear again that the approach of Dr. Clark is quantitative through and through. It is the number of the propositions, rather than their content as such, not to speak of the inscrutable mystery of the mind of God which is viewed as excluding an exhaustive revelation of the divine mind.

Dr. Clark here, in a very restricted way, takes cognizance of infinity in connection with the divine knowledge but he seems to interpret infinity in terms of mathematical definition rather than as a theological distinction. He constantly appeals to the arithmetical series to illustrate the infinite (11:24ff.; 15:20ff.; 21:12ff.) and even at one point denies that one may properly speak of “all” of the propositions in God's knowledge, since then they would not be “infinite”, appealing (in a remark unfortunately not included in the record) to the help which mathematics affords in this connection (38:19ff.).

Now this view of infinity is altogether inadequate as applied to the knowledge of God. It is at best a quantitative category. And if one may not speak of “all” of the propositions constituting the divine knowledge, it would suggest that infinity means that which is unfinishable. If so, the self-sufficiency, the perfection of God, is not maintained. (At other points, indeed, Dr. Clark seems to be employing a different conception of infinity, as when he states that the attributes are infinite as being “limited by nothing outside of himself” (11:6).

It may be objected to the exposition of Dr. Clark's views presented above that it leaves out of account the important consideration that Dr. Clark allows that beyond the knowledge of a proposition there is the knowledge of the implications of a proposition, and that the knowledge which man may enjoy of a proposition does not necessarily carry with it a knowledge of its implications. This qualification, however, does not affect Dr. Clark's basic position in any substantial way. The implications of propositions are after all, on his view, also propositions. Consequently, the inclusion of such propositions among the number of propositions that are thought of as constituting the divine knowledge does not require any modification of the judgment that the distinction between the divine knowledge and the knowledge possible to man is merely quantitative.

Another possible objection to the foregoing might take the form that he does not draw a qualitative distinction between the knowledge of God and the knowledge possible for men since he freely recognizes a fundamental difference between the mode of God's knowledge and that of man's knowledge. God's knowledge is intuitive while man's is discursive (Cf. 18:5f., 18ff.). Man is dependent upon God for his knowledge. We gladly concede this point, and have reckoned with it in what has been said above. However, this admission does not affect the whole point at issue here since the doctrine of the mode of the divine knowledge is not a part of the doctrine of the imcomprehensibility of his knowledge. The latter is concerned only with the contents of the divine knowledge. Dr. Clark distinguishes between the knowledge of God and of man so far as mode of knowledge is concerned, but it is a tragic fact that his dialectic has led him to obliterate the qualitative distinction between the contents of the divine mind and the knowledge which is possible to the creature, and thus to impinge in a most serious fashion upon the transcendence of the divine knowledge which is expressed by the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God.

We may also point that, even to the extent that Dr. Clark affirms the incomprehensibility of God, he does not do so in a manner that provides solid assurance that it is a stable element in his thought about God. At the March, 1944, meeting of presbytery, Dr. Clark was not even ready to say categorically that the number of propositions in the divine knowledge was infinite. And in the July examination, he seems at times to have been far from sure of his position. He says, for example, that “it seems to me entirely likely, though the exegesis is a littlee weak; but it seems to me entirely likely that there will always be certain particular truths that we do not know” (2:10ff.). Finally, if “in all probability there will be no end” to the increase of our knowledge of God in heaven (2:4ff.), and if it is only the infinite number of propositions in the divine knowledge which distinguishes it from the knowledge which man may receive, this distinction approaches a vanishing point.

We judge then that Dr. Clark's view of the incomprehensibility of God, as presented to the Presbytery of Philadelphia, is not a proper one. And that he is in error seems to be due to the fact that he does not approach the doctrine by way of an exegesis of Scripture. His approach, in the contrary, while admittedly taking into account certain teachings of Scripture, is to a large extent rationalistic. His argument is built up from certain principles derived from reason. One cannot expect a sound theology to proceed from a faulty method. In short, therefore, we hold that both the formulation of this doctrine and the method by which it is it is reached are out of harmony with orthodox Presbyterianism.

[See Part Three.]

Reasonable Christian Blog 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. 1662 Book of Common Prayer

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