Saturday, June 18, 2005

Gordon Clark-2


If you deny sense knowledge, then you must deny special revelation, for the Bible cannot be a source of knowledge unless the Bible is an object of knowledge, and the Bible cannot be an object of knowledge if sense knowledge is denied. This holds at several levels:

i) A Bible is a concrete object, consisting of paper and ink or some other material medium, be it audio, electronic, Braille, &c.

ii) Although the Bible consists of thousands of abstract propositions, these propositions are encoded in the medium of concrete linguistic tokens.

iii) Our knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, or the receptor language (e.g., Latin, English) is acquired by empirical means—reading, speaking, hearing.

iv) The Bible refers to the world. Unless the sensible, external world is an object of knowledge, we cannot know what the Bible is referring to.

v) The Bible is saturated with sensory verbs and nouns and imagery. Yef we deny the possibility of sense knowledge, then these must be stripped of their sensory content. But after they're drained of their sensory associations, what do they continue to mean or describe?

vi) Likewise, one mode of revelation consists of visions and auditions. While these may not entail an external simulus, the visions and auditions simulate actual sensory perception. But if sense knowledge is denied, we, once again, lose our frame of reference.

To deny that Scripture is a sensible object, both in form and content, logically commits Clark to some form of natural or general revelation as opposed to special revelation. He oscillates between the two:


Christian dogmatism therefore must be realistic. The real object of knowledge is itself present to the mind. One need not (one cannot) pass from an image to the truth. One knows the truth itself.

There are of course other thoughts, objects, or realities. Every Biblical proposition is one. These never change nor go out of existence, for they are constituents of God’s mind. Knowing them we know God. To know God, we do not pass from an unreal concept abstracted from sensory experience to a different reality. We know God directly for in him we live and move and have our being.

Three Types of Religious Philosophy, 123.


The problem here is that the Bible is an extramental object. The relation between the reader and the text is a subject/object relation. So we do have to pass from the image on the page or vocables in the air to the abstract concept. Once the concept is present in the mind, we know God, but the question is how the concept comes to be present in the mind. Given the concept, our knowledge is immediate, but the given is, itself, mediated by sensory information processing.

The only alternative is some form of ontologism or direct illumination. If that is what Clark has in mind in his allusion to Acts 17:28, this might work on its own level, but it would work as an alternative mode of knowledge--to the exclusion of sola Scriptura. This has always been a problem for Christian Platonism, from Clement, Origen, and Augustine through the Cambridge Platonists to Gordon Clark and other suchlike.

I’d at that this is not at all how Acts 17:28 functions in context. It is not a prooftext for a particular theory of knowledge. It is, rather, a paraphrase of Isa 42:5 on the subject of divine creation and providence.

Clark appears to shifting from epistemology to ontology, where the subject/object duality is dissolved by pantheistic idealism. Back to (1).

Even in this heretical sense, it is unclear how that solves the problem. For in that event, we would not know God. Rather, this would be a form of divine self-knowledge. God, as the subject of knowledge, would be taking himself as the object of knowledge—in a manner analogous to human introspection.

Clark has another strategy for dealing with common sense objections to his position:


When a nonempirical apologetic is present to them, they almost always reply with the boldest and most naïve petitio principii: “Don’t you read the Bible?”

A serious apologist cannot ask this question until after he has defined sensation and explained its relation to perception. Apologetics or Christian philosophy has the task of formulating a complete and consistent theory from beginning to—if not end, at least as far as one can go. But it must start at the beginning. When someone asks, “Don’t you read your Bible?” he is assuming that a Bible is certain sensations of black and white without combination, arrangement, or intellectual interpretation. Now, this is clearly not the case. The perception of a bible is somehow ordered and interpreted. The apologist must explain how.

Language & Theology, 131.


There are a number of quite serious problems with this reply:

i) In the course of his chapter, Clark rehearses a number of standard objections to empiricism. Now, whatever their independent value, he is going outside the Bible for his arguments. He is, therefore, invoking extra-Biblical objections to undercut sola Scriptura. And since Clark was a professed adherent of sola Scriptura, he is not entitled to use arguments which subvert his own stated rule of faith.

ii) It is simply not true that when we say the Bible is an object of sense knowledge, we are assuming that the Bible is an object of raw sensations, without combination, arrangement, or intellectual interpretation.

This is just a straw man argument. Belief in sense knowledge does not commit one to radical empiricism--to the belief that the senses are the only source and standard of knowledge. Neither does it commit one to a bundle theory of perception or personal identity.

Rather, from a Christian standpoint, it only assumes that God has created the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge in a state of mutual adaptation. God, in creation, providence, revelation, and inspiration, has set up a meaningful correspondence between the spoken or written word and our linguistic equipment, as well as a meaningful correspondence between the outward sign (linguistic token) and the abstract significate (extralinguistic type).

iii) Clark is also dead wrong to insist that we don’t know what we’re talking about unless we can define our terms or exclude every borderline case. The act of formal definition presupposes tacit knowledge, just as reflective knowledge presupposes prereflective knowledge. Otherwise, we’re at the mercy of a vicious regress. As Peter Geach points out:


This is not a demand that can always legitimately be made. If a definition is given in words, the demand might again be made that these words to defined—and there would be no end to it, or rather the discussion could never begin, never get under way.

It would really have served him right if one of his victims had retorted: “Come now, Socrates, please define ‘definition’!”

I certainly could not define either “oak-tree” or “elephant”; but this does not destroy my right to assert that no oak-tree is an elephant, nor will my readers find this thesis hard to understand or be likely to challenge it.

Reason & Argument (U of California 1976), 38-39.


We certainly do not need a complete theory of perception before we come to Scripture, before we can listen to the witness of Scripture.

Clark then offers an alternative to empiricism by saying that:


St. Augustine’s solution was, briefly, not that two minds had the same sensation, but that two minds have the same ideas. The ideas are common because Christ is the Logos that lighteth every man that comes into the world. “In him we live and move and have our being.” Malebranche…used the figurative phrase, “we see all things in God.”

Language & Theology, 142.


Several problems:

i) Once more, Clark manages to miss the point. How do two minds share the same idea? How does the idea find its way into the mind in the first place?

ii) The ideas in question are not universal truths of reason, but particular truths of fact regarding historical revelation and historical redemption. This isn’t instinctual know-how.

iii) Clark lifts Acts 17:28 out of context (see above).

iv) He also lifts Jn 1:9 out of context, where the setting is soteriological rather than cosmological. At this stage of redemptive history, saving revelation has now been extended to the Gentiles in the person of the Christ. What we have here is a literary allusion to the consummation of messianic hope and prophecy (Isa 9:2-6; 42:6-7; 60:1-11).

Clark then compares Jn 1:1 with 1 Jn 1:1 and asks, rhetorically:


This second person of the Trinity is the subject of John’s declaration. Can this eternal Wisdom be heard with the ears, seen with the eyes, and handled with the hands? Is the second person of the Trinity an object of sense?

Ibid., 145.


He returns to this same objection on p148.

It should be unnecessary to point out that John’s appeal is not to God qua God, but to God Incarnate--and to the communication of attributes, so that while what he saw and heard and handled was “flesh,” it was God-in-the-flesh. In that transitive sense God is, indeed, a “physical object” which could be “literally seen and handled.”

It’s amazing that Clark can cite 1 Jn 1:1 without registering the patent allusion to the Incarnational event. It’s amazing that C lark can cite Jn 1:1 without seeing how this pans into vv14 and 18.

You begin to wonder, when Clark writes a book on The Incarnation, if he’s using Scriptural and dogmatic terms as a code language to channel his idealistic ontology and epistemology--much as Bishop Berkeley explains away the witness of Scripture: “This, I am sure, is agreeable to Holy Scripture…I see no difficulty in conceiving a change of state, such as is vulgarly called death…”

Clark also runs through some figurative verses of Scripture in which “clearly the verb ‘to see’ does not always, perhaps not even usually, refer to sensation” (147). This is, of course, nothing to the point. It only shows that sensory verbs are sometimes used with a more abstract import--of intellectual apprehension--which no one denies. It has absolute no bearing on the occurrences in which the same verbs are used in their literal and concrete sense.

Clark forces the Christian to operate with a double-truth theory: there's what the Bible says, then there's what the Bible means. What the Bible says must be filtered through the interpretive grid of Clark's idealist epistemology, to find out what it really means. But what comes out the other end, after the screening process is complete, is anyone's guess.

5. Divine omniscience

There are yet other heretical consequences of Clark’s epistemology, such as his assertion that “if the theorems are infinite in number, neither God nor man could know them all, for with respect to infinity there is no ‘all’ to be known. Infinite has no last germ, and God’s knowledge would be as incomplete as man’s,” The Incarnation, 62.

This suffers from a pre-Cantorian definition of the infinite, according to which what is infinite is incomplete while what is complete is finite.

Clark simply disregards the arguments for an actual infinite as a given totality. Clark is letting himself get carried away with the picturesque and incidental implications of a numerical series. But numbers are not literally linear. The order is logical, not linear. The fact that we count from 1-100 says nothing about the ontology of an abstract object. An infinite set is a system of internal relations--inwhich each number is implicit in the others.

6. Divine omnipotence

Not only does Clark limit the knowledge of God, but the power of God as well:


It is not true that the Father could choose to create or choose not to create. God did not have, from eternity, a blank mind, undecided as to whether to create or not. God’s mind is, or better, includes the idea of this particular cosmos, with Abraham, David, and Jesus at particular points.

This is not the “best of all possible worlds,” Leibniz claimed: It is the only possible world, As Spinoza claimed. Since God’s mind is immutable, since his decree is eternal, it follows that no other world than this is possible or imaginable.

The Trinity, 111,118-119.


There are several problems with this claim:

i) The Bible is full of hypotheticals. Hence, a wide variety of possible alternatives is at least conceivable. And not all possibilities are compossible.

ii) Given, then a number of hypothetical scenarios, didn’t God have to make a choice? And didn’t God have the power to enact one or another—or none at all?

iii) The Spinozistic view also destroys the gratuity of grace. Mercy becomes mandatory. But that, too, is unscriptural.

iv) Clark gives two supporting reasons for his view. One wonders why he gives two? Is it that neither is sufficient of itself?

v) The first is that God did not have a blank mind. His mind included the idea of this particular world.

That is true, but it hardly yields the desired result. The question is whether his mind only included the idea of this particular world? Can God only have one idea of one world? Is his imagination so very narrow? Notice, once again, how this imposes a severe restriction on divine omniscience. And does the actual world exhaust all that God is capable of doing?

The doctrine of possible world does not posit a blank mind, but--to the contrary--a full mind.

vi) In addition, Clark claims that the Leibnizian view is incompatible with divine immutability. But this either proves too much or too little.

For if a timeless agent cannot choose to create or not to create, or choose what to create, from an array of bare possibilities, then a timeless agent cannot even create or not create.

Clark says that:


We are apt to think or subconsciously suppose that God makes decisions. He willed to create, he willed, after some deliberation, to save some, and so on…[It] pictures him as indecisive on the prior points, and assigns to him a relatively momentary act of choice. This makes God a temporal creature, or if not a creature, at least a temporal being.

The Atonement, 129.


But if that’s how he is going to frame the issue, then it would apply with equal force to the creative fiat. There was an instant before the Lord made the world--maybe an eternity before he made the world.

Yet if we reject the interjection of a temporal series into the mental act of making the world, we should likewise reject the interjection of a temporal series into the mental act of choosing the world.

The correct way of framing the issue is to say that just as there was never a time when God hadn’t made the world, there was never a time when God hadn’t chosen to make the world, or chosen to make this world rather than another.

Whenever we talk about God, we must make some allowance for the difference between a divine and a human mode of existence. In speaking of God, we need to bracket the incidental conditions of our finite existence. Ironically, Clark is concrete when he needs to be abstract, and abstract when he needs to be concrete.

6. Divine justice

In trying to exculpate God from the problem of evil, Clark says that:


Whatever God does is just and right. It is just and right simply in virtue of the fact that he does it…God is “Ex-lex.”

Religion, Reason & Revelation (Trinity 1986), 239-240.


It is true that whatever God does is just and right. But it hardly follows from this that whatever God didn’t do, but could have done, would be just and right simply in virtue of the counterfactual consideration that he could have done it.

The will of God is not a sheer, free-floating will, detached from his own nature or the nature of his creatures. God’s will is a wise will and a just will. God punishes the wicked, not the innocent.

And God’s laws are adapted to the nature of his creatures. For example, sodomy is sinful, not by arbitrary fiat, but by the way he has designed our sexual constitution. God could not merely make sodomy to be virtuous--by a sheer willpower. Rather, he could only change the nature of the moral law by changing the nature of the lawful object. God can do both, but only by doing both--in tandem.

Clark is isolated the will of God from the doctrine of creation as well as the doctrine of the fall. But these are also expressions of the divine will.

Clark wrote some very useful books: Ancient Philosophy; Thales to Dewey, God’s Hammer; Predestination; A Christian View of Men & Things; Historiography: Secular & Religious, but his later writings are increasing eccentric and unorthodox. These are best consigned to the flames.


  1. I haven't read Clark's later works. I enjoyed his early ones, but they seem better in terms of critiqing non-Christian thought than presenting a positive case for Christianity.

    In addition, I haven't read Reymond's Systematic Theology, which I gather is from the Clarkian perspective.

  2. You're right, Steve. Reymond is in the same moderately Clarkian mode as Nash and Henry. Reymond does take issue with Clark's view of divine eternality, although here I think that Reymond's analysis is a hopeless muddle.

    And I agree with you that Clark is better as a critic than when it comes to providing a constructive alternative.

  3. Speaking of Systematic Theology, has anyone in the reformed community written a good ST since Berkhof?

  4. Steve, short answer--no.

    The problem is that systematics is an interdisciplinary field, so it takes an individual of rare ability who has the aptitude as well as the range of specialization in the fields of philosophical, exegetical, and historical theology to pull it off with complete success. What is more, most of the intellectual cream doesn't go into theology, but math, science, economics, &c.

    In terms of post-Berkhof systematic theologies, the four major entries are by Hoeksema, Grudem, Reymond, and Morton Smith.

    Hoeksema has the best brain of the four. But he's not much of an exegete.

    The Smith entry is a more of a primer from a by-the-book old school Presby perspective.

    Grudem is a decent exegete, but a bit shallow. And whenever the discussion runs into philosophical theology, he sinks without a trace.

    Also, his own belief-system is quite ecclectic: premil, charismatic, Reformed Baptist.

    Of recent entries, Reymond's may be the best compromise--generally competent without being outstanding. It's especially strong on Christology and also gleans much of the best of Vos, Warfield, and Murray--something you don't get in Berkhof.

    If it were every transcribed, Nicole's taped series would be a cut above the above.

    Although it's not a full-fledged systematic theology, Packer's Concise Theology is the best recent introduction to Reformed Theology.

    John Frame is currently writing a mini-systematic theology as well--to be posted at Frame is one of the few who has the breadth and brain-power to pull it off. Poythress also has the intellectual and exegetical equipment if he put his mind to it.

    This is not to say that Reformed theology has stood still since Berkhof. But you'd have to piece together the best from the likes of Frame, Helm, Murray, Poythress, Schreiner, Vos,

    Pre-Berkhof, the best representatives of Reformed systematics are Bavinck and Turretin.

    Other standard-bearers are Calvin, Edwards, and Owen.

    Actually, Lutheranism is in the same rut at the moment. One must still turn to Pieper for Lutheran systematics. The late Bob Preus was editing a new series to serve as the new Pieper, and Scaer contributed a volume, but the project seemed to stall with the passing of Preus.

    Systematics is actually a quite active field right now: Bloesch (Barthian)
    Erickson (Evangelical/premil)
    Geisler (Fundamentalist)
    Grenz (ecumenical/postmodern)
    Lewis/Demarest (Evangelical/premil)
    McClendon (Anabaptist)
    McGrath (Evangelical Anglican/scientific realism)
    Oden (ecumenical/ecclectic/patristic/ small "c" catholic)
    Pannenberg (liberal Lutheran/Hegelian/Plotinian)

  5. Norman Gulley's ST looks quite interesting based on the reviews, but haven't actually seen it. He is SDA.

    Geisler's looks like a cut and paste job.

    Maybe theology has become so complex that a contemporary ST would have to be written by a team. But I wonder who would want to be associated with such a project. I gather there is a liberal Lutheran team-written ST (Christian Dogmatics).

  6. Gill's Body of Divinity is well worth owning, although he inclines to dogmatic exegesis.

    Boyce has been superceded by Grudem.

    Strong denied special redemption. He succumbed to higher criticism. And he's a proto-process theologian.

    Watson was a much-beloved popularizer of Puritan theology, and is still useful in that regard. However, Owen is the prince of Puritan theologians.

    Shedd operates with a quasi-platonism which isn't consistently platonic or consistently Scriptural.

    Although Ames is best remembered for his Marrow of Divinity, and the ensuing controversy, he also wrote an important work on Cases of Conscience, which is still available.

    Dabney was something of a Renaissance man--philosopher, theologian, architect, farmer, poet, social critic, &c.

    He's the most brilliant 19 American theologian. He's a deeper thinker than Chas Hodge.

    However, the art of exegesis has improved since his own day. Also, his own philosophical commitments (Scottish Realism) , as well as the philosophical schools he aligns himself against, show their age.

    He's well worth reading, but not a first pick. IN some respects his most enduring contribution is to be found in his prescient social criticism.

    Witsius was an early architect of covenant theology. But in that respect he's been surpassed by the likes of Vos and Robertson.

    Boice was a popularizer--much like Sproul. As popularizers go, Packer does it better.

    A. A. Hodge is useful for ready reference. Also, his commentary on the Confession is a classic.

    Chas Hodge is a major exponent of Reformed theology. Well worth reading.

    However, he lacks the exegetical intensity of Murray or Vos, much less the expertise of a trained exegete (e.g., Beale, Carson, Poythress, Schreiner, Silva).

    Likewise, he lacks the philosophical sophistication of John Frame or Paul Helm or William Young--not to mention the younger generation of Reformed philosophers (e.g., Anderson, Sudduth, Welty).

    Kline is a brilliant man with a highly idiosyncratic prose style--almost a code language--to match his highly idiosyncratic theological synthesis. His _Structure of Biblical Authority_ is overly schematic, his version of covenant theology is contra-confessional, while his hermeneutical method shades off into free association. He has also capitulated to the autonomy of modern science. The fate of Lee Irons is a salutary omen of what the Klinean outlook leads to.

    Mind you, Kline is too gifted not to offer some useful insights along the way. But he must be read with cautious discernment.

  7. One can find a review of Muller's work by Nicole in the Founders Journal.

    Muller is not, himself, a Calvinist. His work is a study of Reformed historical theology. It's a standard of its kind--useful at a descriptive rather than normative level.

    Almost anything by Owen is worth reading. Regarding his Biblical Theology, ironically he reads more easily in translation than in his native tongue. His English syntax is more Latinated than his Latin!

  8. Trying doing a search on "The Marrow Controversy." Actually, this was related to an anonymous book entitled "The Marrow of Modern Divinity."

    Ames' book, "Conscience With the Power & Cases Thereof" is available at

  9. The Williams list has a view mistakes, such as listing T. Finger as a baptist when in fact he is an anabaptist.

    I think Carl Henry's Basic Christian Doctrine is quite good as far as an introductory work goes.

  10. I don't share Riddlebarger's rave reviews of Horton. Aside from the fact that he's something of a lightweight who spreads himself way too thin, I don't care for his sacramentalism or his rather antinomian soteriology.

    Berkhof also needs to be put in perspective. Although it's still the best one-volume work of Reformed systematics, it inevitably suffers from space constraints. The prooftexts are all there, but not the exegesis. Reformed theology is an interpretive construct, and, as such, is no better or worse than its exegesis.

  11. Super late for me to be commenting this late in the game. I was wondering about your statement that Cantorian set theory has proven Clark's view of omniscience to be wrong. Would you expand on that? Thanks.

    1. Clark operated with the pre-Cantorian understanding of the infinite. According to that view, the only kind of infinite is a potential infinite, which is an actual finite. There's no such thing as an infinite totality. No such thing as a complete infinite set.

      But Cantor's diagonal proof demonstrated the possibility of actual (abstract) infinite sets.