Saturday, June 18, 2005

Gordon Clark-1

Because the late Gordon Clark was a Reformed philosopher and apologist, he has something of a following--to what extent I do not know--in the Reformed community. Since the issue of Gordon Clark has come up at Triablogue, I’ll take the occasion to explain some of my disagreements with Clark.

Was Clark an idealist? There are at least a couple of lines of evidence to indicate that Clark was an absolute idealist. To begin with, he was an archenemy of empiricism. Take the following snippet, where he is summarizing some Berkeleyan and Humean objections to Lockean-style empiricism:


From Berkeley Hume accepts the conclusion that material or so-called external bodies do not exisst; and that, if they did, we could know nothing about them…How can the sensation hard resemble something invisible? Note that the alleged external objects are not perceptions. Therefore they are non-perceptible. Only perceptions are perceptible. No one has ever seen a material body. Colors are only mental events.

No one has ever seen extension or motion unless it is a colored extension. Experience never gives us extension or motion. One never sees anything but color.

If perhaps this argument does not complete disprove the existence of non-sensory bodies, extended in space, and if someone insists that there still might be such bodies even though we have no expeience of them, Berkeley and Hume reply, even so in that case no one has the remotest idea of what such bodies could be like. In particular we could never know that they are like our ideas of red and sweet. To know that one thing is like or unlikek another, we must see them both and so compare them. But since no one has seen an external body, no one can compare it with the red he has seen or the heard he has touched. Empiricism therefore furnishes no knowledge of an external world, finds no evidence for its existence, and confines the mind to the mind, i.e., its sensations.

Three Types of Religious Philosophy (1989), 76-77.


Now, does Clark agree with this analysis? There are several reasons for supposing that he does. Although he is summarizing the position of others here, and not his own, yet he is summarizing this material to present an argumentum ad impossible against empiricism. Hume and Berkeley, representing the tradition of British empiricism, are, at the same time, delivering the coup de grace to empiricism. Empiricism cuts its own throat.

Further confirmation for this interpretation comes from the fact that this particular summary occurs in a chapter, the entirety of which is a frontal attack on empiricism. So the Berkeleyan-Humean material functions to further that larger argument.

Finally, Clark recycles these stock objections to empiricism in the chapter, tellingly entitled “A Christian Construction, of another book, in which, “to prepare for a positive formulation of a Christian theory of language, the first thing is to clear the ground of empiricism,” Language & Theology (P&R 1980), 131.

Consider, for example, his question, “Where, then, did the knowledge of space come from? Has anyone seen, smelled, or touched it?” (134). The next sentence continues with Hume and Kant.

Another line of evidence concerns his definition of personhood as well as his principle of individuation:


Therefore, since God is Truth, we shall define person, not as a composite of sensory impressions, as Hume did, but rejecting with him the meaningless term substance, we shall define person as a composite of truths. A bit more exactly…the definition must be a composite of propositions. As a man thinketh in his (figurative)_ heart, so is he. A man is what he thinks.

I am referring to the complex of truths that form the Three Persons [of the Trinity]. Though they are equally omniscience, they do not all know the same truths. Neither the complex of truths we call the Father nor those we call the Spirit, has the proposition, “I was incarnated.” This proposition occurs only in the Son’s complex. Other examples are implied. The Father cannot say, “I walked from Jerusalem to Jericho.”…If this be so, no difficulty can arise as to the distinctiveness of human persons. Each one is an individual complex. Each one is his mind or soul. Whether the propositions be true or false, a person is the propositions he thinks.

The Incarnation (Trinity 1988), 54-55.


And again:


Like Locke they posit a material substance and a spiritual substance, to no avail…What modern Christian academics needs need therefore, among other things, is a theory of individuation…The Scripture itself reminds us that “as he thinketh in his heart, so is he. Cannot we then infer that a man is what he thinks?

Accordingly the proposal is that a man is a congeries, a system, sometimes an agglomeration of miscellany, but at any rate a collection of thoughts. A man is what he thinks: and no two men are precisely the same combination.

The Trinity (Trinity 1985), 104-106.


So it seems that Gordon Clark was an absolute idealist. Negatively, he seems to believe that we have no good warrant for affirming the existence of bodies or an external world. Even if such things really exist, they are underdetermined by the available evidence. Hence, we are not justified in affirming their existence.

Likewise, he apparently rejects substance dualism. So he resolves the mind-body problem in favor of the mind.

Positively, he offers a purely mentalistic definition of personal identity--not only for God, but also for man. He doesn’t just say that a person has a mind. Rather, a person is his mind. The soul is not merely the seat of personality--it is identical with the human subject.

So far I’m offering an exposition, not a critique. But there are a number of heretical consequences which either must follow or may follow from the above:


It is profoundly unclear whether Clark has any room for a doctrine of creation. On the traditional Reformed view, God has a complete concept for the world (the decree) which he instantiates in time and space. Time and space are limits. That is what makes us finite creatures. But time and space have no place in Clark’s epistemology:


To compose a tree, one must make use of time and space. But time and space cannot be seen, smelled, or touched. They are not simple impressions such as green and hard. For this reason both Berkeley and Hume account for these ideas as ideas of relatives [relations?] between things. But if so, one must have the things before he can produce the idea of relation; and the trouble is that he must have the relations before he can produce the things. Empiricism fails at the very start.

With Hume’s disaster before us, it is unnecessary to say much about space and time. Let us merely quote two of Kant’s sentences. “Space is a necessary representation a priori which serves for the foundation of all external intuitions…Space is not discussion or…general concept6ion of the relations of tings, but pure intuition.”

The Incarnation, 35-36.


For Kant, and apparently for Clark, time and space are mental rather than extramental categories. But in that case, a man is consubstantial with God, for a man is merely a set of propositions, which are, in turn, a subset of divine propositions. We are God thinking us, just like dream characters are the direct product of the dreamer's imagination and thought-process.

If that is not what Clark means, then I don’t know what he does mean. Given what he has taken off the table, I can’t see what alternative he has left.


Notice that Clark individuates the persons of the Godhead by reference to the economic Trinity. In so doing, he collapses the intramundane Trinity into the economic Trinity. That’s classic modalism. Instead of three eternal and ontologically distinct persons, you have one person in three historical manifestations.

Now perhaps he can salvage some remnant of the intramundane Trinity by recourse to eternal generation and eternal process. Indeed, in his book on The Incarnation, he just touches upon that, but he does so in contrast to his principle of individuation: “I am not at the moment referring only to the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit,” and he then goes on to say what I already quoted from p55.

So it would seem, at most, that the persons of the Trinity are partly individuated by eternal generation and eternal procession, as well as partly by their economic relations. But that hybrid solution is still modalistic inasmuch as it leaves the Trinity incomplete until it is fully individuated by the historical process. So this looks like process theology or Neoplatonic emanationism.

There is also a fundamental tension between (1) and (2). For if one denies the objectivity of spatiotemporal relations, then there is no economic Trinity, for there is no external world to redeem. There is no place for historical redemption.


If (1) is a correct interpretation and logical consequence of Clark’s doctrine of creation, or the absence thereof, then certain other heresies follow in due course.

i) There was no Incarnation. The Word did not become flesh.

ii) There was no hypostatic union, for under pantheism you have a relation of identity rather than unity. So Clark’s position reduces to a variant of the monophysite heresy--as well as the monothelite heresy.

iii) Likewise, you can have no physical death or bodily resurrection or literal return of Christ. And there can be no blood atonement.

So bedrock principles of Christology and eschatology regarding the person and work of Christ must be jettisoned.

iv) By this same token, there can be no original sin insofar as original sin entails physical death—among other things. Likewise, there can be no general resurrection or resurrection of the just.


  1. Here's a very interesting assessment of Gordon Clark's Christian theology and philosophy by David P. Hoover. It should be read along with Steve's two part article.
    (this is the correct link. The link at has the file extension ".htm" when it should be ".html".)

    Or try this one.

  2. For one to accuse Gordon Clark of not having room for a doctrine of creation, and say that his theology leads to pantheism, docetism, etc. is laughable. No Incarnation? Please. I can understand why many people would have many issues with Clark's views, but this is blatant libel, which is obvious to anyone even remotely familiar with his works. The author of this post is in need of repentance of this slanderous attack on his brother's reputation.

  3. The author of this post is a liar. Clark has forgotten more than you will ever know. From reading this post I don't think you have read one book by Clark.

  4. OldSchool36 and Drake Shelton apparently don't understand the difference between stating someone's professed position and working out its logical implications. If the latter always entails the former, that would disqualify wide swaths of theological discussion as "libel" or other "liar" like "attacks" on someone's "reputation." Here we see basic errors in reasoning and/or reading comprehension leading to the rather ironic demand that someone repent for misrepresentation.