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

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Did Gordon H. Clark Advocate a Common Ground View of Apologetics?

"The Christian worker cannot convince him [the unbeliever] of the truth of the Gospel. He is not supposed to. After we present the Gospel, we then pray that the Holy Ghost will convince him, that God will change his mind, grant him repentance, that God will give him the divine gift of faith, cause him to believe the axioms of Scripture and raise him from the death of sin to a new life in Christ."  

-- Dr. Gordon H. Clark

It has been contended by certain Van Tilian apologists and theologians that Gordon H. Clark said that reason is a common ground between believers and unbelievers.  But I will show in this post that that was not Clark's view at all.  Critics of Clark keep accusing him of rationalism and using other straw man arguments against his position instead of dealing with his actual position.  One article I found from Chalcedon Magazine in 1997 said that Gordon H. Clark was a Cartesian philosopher of all things.  There are so many misrepresentations on the internet in regards to Clark's actual philosophy and theology that it is almost impossible to refute and rebut them all.  Moreover, some of the views being perpetuated online are advocated by self professing admirers and proponents of Clark's dogmatic philosophy.

The article from Chalcedon Magazine in 1997, The Philosophy of Gordon Clark, by Joseph P. Braswell, makes at least three mistakes in regards to Clark's philosophy.  First, the author confuses Clark's view with Alvin Plantinga's foundationalism.  He then goes on to accuse Clark of being a Cartesian philosopher.  I guess if one charge will not stick another one will do just as well.  Of course, Descartes was a rationalist who tried to prove that man exists because of the proposition that "I think therefore I am."  But Gordon H. Clark totally rejected cartesian philosophy.  The same author thinks that Van Til was in agreement with Immanuel Kant's innate knowledge view, which I cannot verify or falsify.  However, I can say that in some ways Clark agreed with Kant in that Clark says that God has created man with certain innate abilities such as the ability to think rationally, to mark time as the passing of one thought to another thought in the mind.  But Clark does not deduce these innate abilities from Kant but from Scripture.  Clark also advocated the view that John 1:9 does not refer to salvation but rather to man as the rational image of God and that Christ in His pre-incarnate person of the divine Logos enlightens every man such that even fallen men can know some truth.  But is this common ground?

Braswell says:
For Clark, logic is the common ground-principle between believers and unbelievers (based on the argument in book gamma of Aristotle’s Metaphysics), but logic needs true premises—premises that are logically primitive, basic beliefs. We must have a source of such incontrovertibly certain truths—foundational truths—if we are to deduce anything by means of logic, since conclusions are only as good as the premises from which they derive. Clark also believes (following Augustine) that the assertion of skepticism is self-refuting and that skepticism is the reductio ad absurdum of any epistemological theory (i.e., any theory that leads to skepticism can be eliminated from further consideration). He thus seeks to eliminate all competition to his axiom by reducing all other epistemological contenders to skepticism. After the field is cleared of rationalism and empiricism, if he can show that the axiom he has proposed succeeds in making some knowledge possible (a set of propositions, however limited in number), he believes he has justified his starting point. The only test of his system of propositions is the logical test of the internal consistency of the system qua a coherent, noncontradictory system.  (Ibid.)

This assessment at first glance sounds like a reasonable summary of Clark's view.  However, the writer seems to think that Clark begins with reason and tries to prove his axiom and justify his view by means of logic.  This is not Clark's view at all.  In fact, Clark begins with Scripture and consistently shows that God's written word is in fact propositional revelation.  If God's written word is not logically consistent, how could we know anything from God at all?  Revelation from God must be intelligible and understandable.  For Clark God does not breathe out lies, contradictions, half truths, or irrationalisms.  (2 Timothy 3:16; Matthew 4:4; 2 Peter 1:19-21).  Basic to all thinking, according to Clark, is the law of contradiction.  If God says yes, it cannot mean no or both yes and no because that would be a contradiction.  If God says, "Do not commit adultery," it cannot mean, "Thou shalt commit adultery."  According to Clark, we know that God is not only logical in the way He thinks but He is Logic.  John 1:1 uses the Greek term Logos, which is defined as rationality.  It seems odd to me that Evangelical Christians today have no problem with the proposition that God is love (1 John 4:7-8) but they seem to have a problem with John's proposition that the Word was God.  (John 1:1).

Clark, while contending that all men are created in God's image and have an innate ability to think logically, recognized that men are fallen in sin and that there is a noetic effect caused by the sinful nature such that men are unable to reason consistently and therefore make errors in logic.  (Romans 1:18-25).

But for Clark truth is systematic because propositions are logically consistent with all the parts of the truth.  Truth exists only in God's mind and if mankind knows anything that is true then God being omnipotent knows that same truth.  In fact, the reversal of the proposition is that if mankind cannot know anything God knows it logically follows that man knows nothing that is true since all truth originates in the mind of God.  God is eternally omniscient and has never learned anything new.  God is the Truth.  (John 17:17).

According to Gordon H. Clark, Christianity is not a religion.  In fact, Christianity is a philosophical and theological worldview that is deduced from the axiom of Scripture.  Clark rejected the proposition that there is common ground with other epistemological systems despite the assertion of his critics to the contrary:

Because this whole subject has so many facets, and because the details are so complex, the conclusion can canvas only one objection. The objection is this. If every system of philosophy derives from its own unique set of axioms, it becomes impossible for those who accept one set of axioms to hold a meaningful discussion with those who hold another set. The two parties to the dispute have nothing in common, and hence, neither has any basis for convincing the other.  This is an ancient, not a recent, objection. It does not require genius to think it up. But though so common, indeed because it is so common, it needs a clear answer. An historical reference will serve as a starting point.

Anselm wanted to appeal to the Jews and Moslems on their own ground without using revelation. “Reason” (in quotation marks) was supposed to be the common ground. But “reason” (in quotation marks) was not clearly defined nor was a common proposition actually identified. But common sense supposes that whenever we try to persuade people of anything, we appeal to what they already believe. But common sense is wrong. This works only on secondary matters and not on all of them. On basic matters no one ever appeals to a common ground between two systems of philosophy.

Take this for example. Can an empiricist, on the basis of sensation, convince me of empiricism when I do not accept sensation? Well, how then may we present the Gospel to an unbeliever? We present the Gospel as fully as possible. We explain to him as many of the historical details as we have time for and as many of the logical connections as our prospect will listen to. But sermons, arguments, and explanations will not convert him. The Christian worker cannot convince him of the truth of the Gospel. He is not supposed to. After we present the Gospel, we then pray that the Holy Ghost will convince him, that God will change his mind, grant him repentance, that God will give him the divine gift of faith, cause him to believe the axioms of Scripture and raise him from the death of sin to a new life in Christ.

[From the transcript of Gordon H. Clark's audio lecture, "How Does Man Know God?"  Posted at the Gordon H. Clark Foundation website.  For the Sermonaudio version of this lecture click here.]

I therefore conclude that Clark did not advocate common ground between the believer and the unbeliever.  In fact, Clark did not try to prove his axiom since axioms cannot be proved in the first place.  By definition axioms are unproven and unprovable starting points.  Since everyone starts with unproven starting points and everyone is a fideist, why criticize the Christian for starting with the axiom of Scripture?   Clark's lecture on Empiricism makes the same point as the above quote.  There is no common ground with other epistemological and philosophical worldviews or systems.

There is another lecture on YouTube by Michael Butler, "Refuting Gordon H. Clark," that criticizes Clark as well.  But I will answer the objections raised in this lecture in a future post.  But surprisingly Butler attacks the truthfulness and logical consistency of Scripture and never once mentions the fact that the Westminster Confession of Faith is a logical and propositional system of truth that is logically deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence.  (Westminster Confession of Faith 1:6).

I should also point out that Doug Douma and two of his colleagues have done the majority of the footwork to type and post the transcripts of Clark's audio lectures and unpublished papers at the Gordon H. Clark Foundation website, although the site is hosted by Whitefield Seminary and Dr. Kenneth Talbot.  Doug does a blog at:  A Place for Thoughts.


Igor Wirandé said...

For Clark there are no a commun ground between christian system and system non-christian, but there are between christian person and non-christian person. Clark did distinguish between a system of thought and an actual person. Dr. Buswell, in his review of book A Christian Philosophy of Education of Clark, he accuses Clark of denying a common ground by saying "“He [Clark] denies that we have any common ground, in facts and rationality, with unbelievers.”

Clark repy by saying "It may be that some contemporary Calvinists, in their efforts to state the Biblical position and to defend it against humanism, have denied “any common ground, in facts and rationality, with unbelievers.” To me, however, this denial seems unscriptural and therefore untrue. All men are made in the image of God, even though the image is marred by sin; and all men are inhabitants of one and the same universe. These are two “grounds” in common.

The quotation from A Christian Philosophy of Education, p. 164, which Dr. Buswell uses in this connection, does not deny such common ground. If it is read in its context, one will see that it says “There is no such thing as a common ground between Christianity and a non-Christian system. From a world naturalistically conceived, one cannot argue to the God of Christianity.”

In this philosophical discussion it has seemed important to me to distinguish between a system of thought and an actual person. Since everyone is fallible, since some people hold more erroneous views than others, it is clear that a given Christian does not have all the truth or all the system. Some of the system he must believe in order personally to be a Christian; some of the system he may not know at all; and some parts of the system he may consciously reject. For example, Calvinists and Arminians accuse each other of rejecting parts of Biblical teaching. Therefore what is true of an inconsistent person is not necessarily true of a consistent system. And I have maintained that there is a common ground among persons, but not among systems."

"Dr. Clark Comments,” by Gordon H. Clark, The Bible Today 41.3 (December 1947): 67-70.

Charlie J. Ray said...

Dr. Clark did not accept the doctrine of common grace which advocates a common ground between empirical science and Christianity among other things. But empiricism starts from an entirely different axiom, namely that all knowledge comes from sensations. Clark obviously denied this. Also, taking the common ground position one must say that the unbelieving critical scholarship that attacks the Bible is on equal ground with the believing scholar of the Bible. So does evolution prove the biblical account of creation is wrong? Does textual criticism prove that we have no reliable sources to determine what the text of the original autographs said? Does form criticism, source criticism, and redaction critism prove that the Bible was not actually written by Moses, Paul or David?

It is true that we all have the image of God in common. Man is the image of God. But to begin with any other axiom than the Bible is to capitulate to rationalism, irrationalism, and skepticism. Is the Bible really irreducible paradox?

Charlie J. Ray said...

I agree with your quote from Clark and that was the point I was making in the blog post.

Charlie J. Ray said...

If logic is not a common ground between all men, there could be no reasonable communication of information from one person to another since all knowledge is propositional, logical, and rational. John 1:9.

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