That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 Jn 1:1-3).
I'm going to comment on Gordon Clark's interpretation of 1 Jn 1:1-3, in Language and Theology. But let's back up:
At any one time a person has impressions of red, smooth, sweet, and dozens of others. To perceive a thing, these “sensations” must be combined. Note that no one ever sees a dog or a tree. A dog is not just black; he is also soft, fuzzy, and perhaps has an odor. But before one perceives a dog, he must choose black, fuzzy, and odor, combine them, and only then has he the perception of his pet. Yet there is nothing in the single qualities that forces him to select these particular ones and discard the dozens of others he also has at the same time. Why does he not select the fuzzy, the sound B-flat, and the taste of Bacardi rum, all of which he senses at the same moment, and combine them into the perceived object? Is there anything in a person’s fifty or more sensations that compels the selection of these few rather than another few?
That's reminiscent of William James's "one great blooming, buzzing confusion." But Clark's analysis suffers from a fundamental blunder: the observer doesn't need to combine different sensations. For these sensations are already combined in the sensible object. These are structured sensations, not random, disconnected sensations.
But induction never arrives at universals. And induction is all that empiricism has. By induction a young ornithologist may observe a thousand black crows – not to repeat all the difficulties of seeing even one black crow – and on the basis of these thousand observations he is likely to assert “All crows are black.” Then the thousand and first crow is an albino. Induction never arrives at a universal. If so used, it is always a logical fallacy.
That objection suffers from two basic flaws:
i) Even if induction can't prove a universal, it can, by his own admission, disprove a universal negation. But that's an item of knowledge.
ii) Clark overlooks the doctrine of creation. God created natural kinds. Therefore, a sample can be representative of the whole. For instance, all humans are of a kind. So you can reason from part to whole.
As for hearing, one should note that no one can ever hear a piece of music or a line of poetry. Our opponents, who insist on sensation as the origin of knowledge, cannot well object to an instance taken from experience. Augustine pointed out that to “hear” music or poetry, one must at least “perceive” the rhythm. But there is no rhythm in a single sensation. Even beyond perception it is necessary to have memory before a line of poetry can be recognized as poetry. A single sound has no rhythm or meter. The first sounds of a line must be remembered until the last sound occurs; note also that the first sound no longer exists when the last sound sounds. Therefore no one ever senses music or poetry. This Augustinian remark should satisfy any empiricist; but it is not exegesis.
Clark is shadowboxing with empiricists like Locke and Hume, who think the human mind starts out as a blank slate. But disproving empiricism fails to disprove sense-knowledge, unless you assume the possibility of sense knowledge is equivalent to empiricism. But to say sensory perception is a source of knowledge does not entail that sensory perception is the only source of knowledge. Likewise, to say that sensory perception is a source of knowledge does not entail that the mind must start from scratch. The possibility of sense knowledge can make allowance for innate knowledge. Supplement innate knowledge. So Clark's objection erects a false dichotomy.
Clearly the verb to see does not always, perhaps not even usually, refer to sensation.
Here Clark distinguishes between the literal meaning of sensory verbs and the figurative meaning of sensory verbs. That distinction is unobjectionable in principle. It's hardly a revelation to point out that words like "to see" can either denote physical visual perception or comprehension. Literal sense organs can be used as metaphors to denote understanding.
It would, however, be heretical to suppose you can substitute a figurative meaning for a literal meaning whenever Scripture uses sensory verbs. That's the hermeneutic of Mary Baker Eddy.
In Greek the first word of 1 John designates the Word of Life, who in verse 4 is identified as Jesus Christ. Since the Epistle and the Gospel have the same author, it is permissible to connect this Word of Life with the Word of John 1:1. And no one should object if we equate this Word with him whom Paul calls “the Power of God” and “the Wisdom of God.” 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? The word hearing comes first; seeing comes second.
But now 1 John. As in the Gospel of John 12:40, here, too, there is no reference to empirical sensations. The object, namely, the Word of Life, the Reason and Wisdom of God, is not a physical object and cannot be literally seen and handled. He does not have a color, nor any degree of hardness, wetness, or any quality of touch. Explicitly in 1 John the object is the truth or proposition, “God is light.” This proposition cannot be seen in any literal sense. Therefore, since words are arbitrary signs, whose meaning is fixed by ordinary language, the hundreds of Scriptural verbs to which empirical apologists refer do not support the role of sensation which presumably – though they are never clear on what this role is – those apologists desire to give it.
i) To begin with, Clark's interpretation is hopelessly equivocal. The object in Jn 1 and 1 Jn 1 isn't the Son qua Son, but the Son qua Incarnate. The Son Incarnate is a sensible object. The Son Incarnation has empirical properties. Sure, you can't physically perceive his Deity, but that's not what John is referring to.
Take the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Batman. If I saw Batman, I saw Bruce Wayne–even though I failed to recognize his true identity behind the disguise.
ii) John's first description denotes literal sight: "what we saw with our eyes." Not just a sensory verb, but the organs of sight. Likewise, "what our hands have handled" is hardly synonymous with intellection.
iii) To suggest that John is referring to intellectual apprehension to the exclusion of sensory perception, as if Jesus merely appeared to the disciples in their minds, like a dream, or idea, is heretical. 1 Jn 1 alludes to incidents like the public miracles of Christ (Jn 1:14; cf. 2:11; 11:40ff.), as well as the Resurrection accounts in Jn 20-21.
Not the invisible God, but God made visible in the flesh. They saw Jesus. They could touch Jesus with their hands.
iv) John's discussion combines sensory perception with intellectual perception. They understood what they saw.
For Clark to suggest these descriptions are reducible to mental events is the hermeneutic of Valentinus, Basilides, and Mary Baker Eddy. That's not remotely Christian. It's appalling that his antipathy to sense-knowledge betrayed him into such a heterodox interpretation.