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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

Friday, May 05, 2017

Book Review: The Presbyterian Philosopher


Book Review: The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Dr. Gordon H. Clark

By Charlie J. Ray, M. Div.

Douglas Douma. The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark. (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2017). Ebook edition.

Douglas Douma has done us all a great service with the research and effort he has put into writing this biography of the late Dr. Gordon Haddon Clark, a controversial figure by all accounts. The reason for the controversy, however, is not what you might think. In fact, the reason Clark was a controversial figure is that he was unafraid to challenge bad theology and bad doctrine. Dr. Clark was one of the most ardent defenders of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura in the 20th century. He not only upheld the doctrine of the plenary verbal inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, following the old line Princeton theologians, but he also faithfully defended the doctrine of the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. Dr. Clark held that Scripture alone is the word of God and that because God is Logic (John 1:1) the Scriptures themselves are logical and propositional revelation from God and therefore perspicuous and plain precisely because God himself is intellectual, intelligible, and rational in his tri-personal being. If the Scriptures can mean anything, according to Dr. Clark, they mean nothing at all. That is, the Scriptures must have a definite meaning and exegesis. The Scriptures are not open to any and every exegetical interpretation.

We live in troubled times. Evangelicals have sold their Evangelical and Protestant birthright to mainline Protestant liberalism and neo-orthodoxy without even realizing what they have done. Although Dr. Clark would not like this illustration, he could be called the Mr. Spock of Presbyterianism. That's because Clark held that the Bible is not a book of psychological experiences, ecstatic experiences or emotionalism. According to Clark, replacing doctrine with psychological categories of thought undermines the dogmatic emphases of the Scriptures and leads ultimately to skepticism, liberalism, and even atheism. Even his friend and mentor, Dr. J. Gresham Machen, who was forced out of Princeton Seminary and the Presbyterian Church of the United States, said that liberal Christianity and classical Protestant Christianity are two different religions. For Dr. Clark the Bible is a rational revelation from God that can be understood logically and propositionally. Further, Clark held that propositions can be systematized; because logical propositions are all interrelated other propositions can be deduced from certain other propositions.

While Douglas Douma's book purports to be an authorized biography of the late Dr. Gordon H. Clark, it is much more than that. In fact, the book's first three chapters provide much biographical information. The heritage of Dr. Clark seems to have been a great influence on his theological formation prior to his going off to study philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school. Clark's grandfather and father were both Presbyterian ministers and Clark had numerous conversations on these matters with both men, not to mention that the young Gordon H. Clark had access to read many classical theological works written by the Puritans and the 19th century Calvinist theologians because of his father's extensive theological library. It should also be pointed out that Clark was an only child and had plenty of intellectual stimulation from both his parents.

The next few chapters deal with the ordination controversy and the theological issues behind the controversy. And several other chapters deal with Clark's views on empiricism and other issues. Unfortunately it is difficult to cover eighty years of Gordon Haddon Clark's life and fully deal with all of his philosophical views and theological views in such a brief book. Douma does an admirable job of doing this but I think he was too easy on the Van Tilians and probably had some influence from John Frame and Kenneth Talbot to soften the edge a bit. This is particularly true of Douma's assertion that the authors of the Complaint revised their view to say that there was some element of coincidence between the Bible and what God knows. But in the appendix of the book, Dr. Gordon H. Clark says the opposite is true. The retraction paper did not in any serious way deal with Dr. Clark's objections to Cornelius Van Til's doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. In the body of the book, Douma says that the complainants retracted their attack on Dr. Clark's view that the Bible is univocally the very words of God. According to an email conversation I had with Douglas on this issue he said that the timeline was wrong and that Clark's paper presented in the appendix was written prior to the retraction written by the complainants. This does appear to be the case but there was an earlier retraction on mimeographed paper and it is to this earlier retraction that Clark responds in his paper. Since the supporters of Van Til continue to this day to mispresent Clark's views, I would contend that Clark's assessment of the earlier retraction most likely still applies to the later retraction. That's because Clark never again mentions any changes in Van Til's views. In his paper Clark says:

It is true that at one point the papers [sic] seems to withdraw from the position of the Complaint. On page 3 it says, "Truth is one. And man may and does know the same truth that is in the divine mind . . . " This statement is entirely acceptable because it flatly contradicts the Complaint. And if the paper as a whole consistently maintained this view, it too would be acceptable. But it is soon seen that this, which seems to be a retraction is but a temporary and superficial lapse from their fixed doctrines. The very same paragraph continues to say that man "cannot possibly have in mind a conception to eternity that is identical or that coincides with God's own thought of his eternity." This is nothing else than the doctrine of the Complaint over again. In the first lines of the paragraph they say that man can have the same truth that is in the divine mind, and immediately below they say that man cannot have the concept of eternity. The conception of eternity that the complainants have—not God's conception of eternity—is the conception of endless years. If this is not God's conception of eternity, it must follow that the complainants have the wrong conception of eternity. Man, according to them, cannot know that God is eternal; he can only know that God has endless duration. Endless duration is an analogy of eternity. God has the truth; man has only an analogy of the truth, and he can be quite sure that he does not have the truth itself.

Dr. Gordon H. Clark. "Appendix C. Studies of the Doctrine of the Complaint". Douglas Douma. The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark. (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2017). Ebook edition.

Nota Bene: I am unable to give an accurate page number due to the epub reader I am using.

Interestingly the proponents of Dr. Cornelius Van Til's theology continue to charge Clark with rationalism. Of course Dr. Clark was not a rationalist because he started with the axiom of Scripture, not with reason or rationalist arguments for God's existence.

Furthermore, Van Til claimed to reject both rationalism and irrationalism but in fact embraced both as his starting points. First, Van Til was an irrationalist because he said that man's logic does not apply to God because there is no point of coincidence or univocal knowledge between God and His creatures. Interestingly enough, by Van Til's own theology this would not be possible to know because that would be prying into the incomprehensibility of God as Van Til defines incomprehensibility as unintelligibility and unknowability. How does Van Til know that God has feelings and emotions or that God has no logical coincidence with "mere human logic"? And why do I say that Van Til was a rationalist? I say that because consistent with Van Til's Thomist views he tried to prove God exists by way of the transcendental argument for God's existence. Basically this is just another version of the ontological argument. Because we can conceive of no higher being than God then God must exist, otherwise we could not conceive of such a being with so many perfections.

The TAG is a transcendental argument that attempts to prove that God is the precondition for logic, reason, or morality. The argument proceeds as follows:

God (most often God is defined as the supreme entity found in Christianity), is a necessary precondition for logic and morality.

People know things (have logical, and moral intuitions).

Therefore, God exists.

Cornelius Van Til likewise wrote:

"We must point out ... that univocal reasoning itself leads to self-contradiction, not only from a theistic point of view, but from a non-theistic point of view as well... It is this that we ought to mean when we say that we reason from the impossibility of the contrary. The contrary is impossible only if it is self-contradictory when operating on the basis of its own assumptions."

— (A Survey of Christian Epistemology [Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969], p. 204).

From: Wikipedia: "Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God".


It is not clear to me why Van Til thought that univocal revelation in the Bible is a self-contradiction. Did Van Til really believe the Bible is special revelation from God? And exactly what was Van Til arguing? That it is impossible for God to not exist? The "impossibility of the contrary" seems to mean that the assertion that God does not exist is an impossibility to the contrary. But why Van Til thought this was true still is not clear.

On the other hand, Dr. Clark thought that Van Til was advocating a version of the cosmological argument or the argument that God is the first cause of all things:

Some more quotes. "With regard to the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism, there is absolutely certain proof. There is a cogent theistic proof." Now, Frame's statement there is quite true, Van Til has said this over and over again. He doesn't accept Thomas' proof or any other proof. But he insists that there is an absolutely certain proof. A cogent theistic proof. And he indicates he means the cosmological proof not the ontological proof. And for some forty years now I've been bugging him to show me the proof, so I can see whether it is valid or not. He hasn't accommodated me as yet.

From the transcript of Clark's lecture, "John Frame and Cornelius Van Til".

The Gordon H. Clark Foundation.


Douma does not deal with these two issues in the book but I think the key to understanding the continuing controversy on the incomprehensibility of God is that Van Til, according to Dr. Gordon H. Clark, inadvertently stumbled into neo-orthodoxy without realizing it:

Student asks question at around 17:49 in the lecture: Um, how does Van Til . . . (garbled)?

Clark: "I hope to talk about Van Til before the class . . .before the semester is over but let me say this. My impression is--I could mention some differences between the two—but my impression is that in spite of the fact Van Til denies he is a neo-orthodox apologete, I think he has been very deeply influenced by neo-orthodoxy and unwittingly supports their position. But let that do for the present and I'll try to explain it further when we get to uh ….(garbled)."

From Clark's lecture, "Irrationalism". Posted at the Trinity Foundation: http://www.trinitylectures.org/MP3/Irrationalism.mp3

As Douma's book correctly points out, Clark held that incomprehensibility as it was defined by the classical Calvinist theologians like Hodge and the earlier Puritans was that God's knowledge is immeasurable, not that God was totally unintelligible. Van Til did a great disservice to the conservative Presbyterian cause by opening the door to irrationalism and neo-orthodox theology within the Evangelical Presbyterian churches and seminaries.

The strength of Douma's book is that he provides a detailed timeline for the ordination controversy and the participants involved on both sides. He also refutes the typical view that Clark left the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in a heated emotional outburst. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Douma points out, Clark only left because his supporters were attacked and forced out leaving him to defend himself alone. What other choice did he have other than leaving? Douma's account of the situation gives an insight into the man that I have not seen before and for this Douma is to be greatly commended.

Another strength of the book is that Douma accurately describes and explains in detail Clark's rejection of empiricism and logical positivism. Related to this is the issue of how sensations could produce impressions or perceptions. Clark emphatically rejected the view that sensations could produce sensory images that led to perceptions which in turn produced knowledge. My only question is how Clark understood the role of sensations since in the question and answer session at the end of his lecture on A Contemporary Defense of the Bible he stated that sensations could stimulate recollection by the mind.

Questioner: Dr. Clark let me ask a question to try to clarify this a bit. In your philosophy what exactly is the role of empiricism and sensory data?

There is role of empiricism in my philosophy. I am utterly anti-­empiricist. I've been trying to get that point across. And I give you the challenge again, show me how you get perception out of sensation.

Questioner: Well, I think that's not really what we're trying to get to.

Well, that's what I'm trying to get to.

Questioner: I understand. For example, a man, a scientist in a laboratory, he gathers data.

No he doesn't gather data. There are no such things as data in the science of physics.

Questioner: That's what they call it.

Some scientists don't know much science.

Questioner: Well, what would you consider they are gathering? What are they collecting in the laboratory? When they do run experiments.

They are not collecting. They are formulating a construction. They never discover anything. And every law of physics is false.

Questioner: What is the role, for example, when you read a book, you're using your eyes to read the book.

You don't even know you have a book in your hand.

Questioner: You assume you have a book.

Is that your assumption?

Questioner: Well, I wouldn't, yes sir that'd be my assumption.

Well then you deduce a lot of theorems from the assumption, "I have a book in my hand." Can you construct a philosophy on the assumption "I have a book in my hand?" Of course you can't appeal to sensation, because you're starting with a proposition "I have a book in my hand."

Questioner: Right, ok, when you read. What role does reading have in your philosophy?

Well I answered that a moment ago, but see you were offering an alternate point of view. You wish to base a philosophy on the proposition "I have a book in my hand."

Questioner: No, no. Taking your presupposition "the Bible is the word of God" that is your fundamental principle. In your philosophy, when you read, what role does reading have? When you see what role does seeing have?

A stimulus to recollection if you wish.

From: Transcript of "A Contemporary Defense of the Bible: Question and Answer Session".


The weakness of Douma's book, I think is that he downplays the continuing controversy between the Clarkian camp and the Van Tilian camp. While this could make the book more broadly appealing to a wider audience, I do not think it serves either party well. The book is endorsed by John Frame but as the lecture on John Frame and Cornelius Van Til shows, Clark was no fan of Frame or Van Til. In fact, the paper in Appendix C straightforwardly says that Van Til's view is not Reformed and that it is a departure from classical Reformed theology. Also, the anecdotal accounts of four meetings between Clark and Van Til later in life hardly means the two men reconciled. To the contrary, it seems to me that the rift between the two men was never reconciled and the audio evidence on Van Til's side of the issue confirms my view. Van Til on several occasions accused Clark of neo-orthodoxy, which is laughable at best. In another audio I heard, Van Til said that Clark was responsible for the neo-evangelical liberalism at Fuller Seminary and that Clark's apologetics amounted to positing "theories." Van Til apparently did not know the difference between a logical theorem deduced from an axiom and a conditional theory to be tested by empirical science. Obviously Clark completely rejected empiricism so it would be impossible for him to base his apologetics on empirical theories. For Clark all induction is false. I apologize for not providing quotes and time stamps to Van Til's remarks but one of the lectures was on The New Evangelicalism posted at Sermon Audio.


There is also a chapter on the issue of Clark's view of the Incarnation. Douma does an adequate job of explaining that controversy as well, though I think Clark's reasons for rejecting the one Person view of the Incarnation are more complicated than some interpreters of his work have indicated. Clark was not a Nestorian but his major concern was to reject the kenosis view of the incarnation and he contended that taking an Apollinarian view where an impersonal human nature receives the Logos as a replacement for the human soul of Christ implies the liberal doctrine of kenosis and in fact denies that Christ was both fully human and fully God.

I am greatly appreciative for all the information Douglas Douma has provided in regards to Clark's childhood, education, and marriage. He has truly brought to life a controversial figure. I highly recommend this book to both the supporters and opponents of Dr. Gordon H. Clark's apologetics, philosophy and theology.

For an excerpt of the book:


To purchase the book:




2 comments:

Charlie J. Ray said...

I should point out that Gordon Clark was not a fan of the amalgamation of denominations or ecumenicalism even in Reformed circles. That's because larger denominations tend to water down their theological roots and the doctrines of grace.

John Bradshaw said...

I did think that Douma's understanding of Clark's view (definition) of what a Person is and how that applies to the one person of Jesus Christ, was very insightful and made Clark's position on the Incarnation completely logical/Biblical.

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