The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark

The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark

By Douglas J. Douma
Published by WIPF & Stock
Reviewed by Jack Kettler

Brief Bio:

Douglas J. Douma received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan, an MBA from Wake Forest University, and a master of divinity from Sangre de Cristo Seminary. He and his wife currently reside in western North Carolina.

What others are saying about this book:

“Gordon H. Clark was one of the most significant Christian thinkers of the 20th century. Through numerous books and effective classroom teaching at more than four institutions of higher education, he influenced several generations of scholars, especially in Presbyterian and Evangelical circles. Biographer Douglas Douma has skillfully woven distinctive elements of Clark’s philosophical and theological thought through this thoroughly researched account of his life, including his activity as a churchman, revealing much about American Presbyterian history. His narrative also interestingly captures much of the humanness of Gordon Clark, the man.” – Dr. William S. Barker, Professor of Church History Emeritus, Westminster Theological Seminary

“Dr. Cornelius Van Til was absolutely correct when he stated that “. . . Clark” was an “. . . outstanding Christian Philosophers of our time.” How can anyone disagree with Dr. Van Til’s assessment of Dr. Gordon H. Clark? In this book on the life of Gordon H. Clark, you have the factual events that drove a wedge between Clark and Van Til. Even today, the heart of the issue is hidden beneath years of misunderstanding. This is the definitive book on Clark’s life, researched and documented by Doug Douma. A must read by laymen, students, pastors, and professors who love Reformed Christian Philosophy and Apologetics.” – Kenneth Gary Talbot, President, Whitefield Theological Seminary and College

A review starting with the chapter layout:

Chapter 1 The Presbyterian Heritage of Gordon Clark
Chapter 2 Gordon Clark’s Intellectual Influences
Chapter 3 Gordon Clark and the Formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Chapter 4 Gordon Clark at Wheaton College
Chapter 5 The Origins of Presuppositionalism
Chapter 6 Origins of the Ordination Controversy
Chapter 7 The Arguments of the Ordination Controversy
Chapter 8 The Continued Controversy and Its Results
Chapter 9 The Butler University Years (1945–1973)
Chapter 10 Four Theological Contributions of Gordon H. Clark
Chapter 11 “Clark’s Boys”
Chapter 12 Persons, the Trinity, and the Incarnation
Chapter 13 Gordon Clark’s Later Years
Appendix A: Life Timeline of Gordon H. Clark
Appendix B: Notes
Appendix C: Studies of the Doctrine of The Complaint
Bibliography

As the chapter listings, indicate the story of Gordon H. Clark in this book by Douglas Douma is a thorough and ample biography of a great man of God. It has been a privilege to know, one of Dr. Clark’s grandsons and great-granddaughters.

Regrettably, this review will be limited and will focus on what is known as “The Clark-Van Til ordination controversy as covered in Chapters 6-8 and Appendix C.”

In this reviewer’s opinion and from personal experience, an essential part of the book involves the complaint against Clark’s ordination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). The epicenter of the debate was about the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God.

The reader is encouraged to read the whole book to appreciate Dr. Clark’s contribution to Christ’s Church. It has been enormous and will continue to be so.

The Theological Issues involved in the complaint against Clark’s ordination:

“There were four theological topics addressed in The Complaint and The Answer, summarized by the following titles: 1) The incomprehensibility of God, 2) The relationship of the faculty of knowledge to other faculties of the soul, 3) The relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and 4) the Free Offer of the Gospel. A fifth topic, however, related to each of the others, was Clark’s alleged rationalism.” (110)

“The incomprehensibility of God the theological portion of the complaint centered on the first of the four issues, the incomprehensibility of God. More time and discussions were spent on this point during the controversy than perhaps on all of the other points combined. Both parties agreed that God is incomprehensible—that man can never fully and exhaustively know God. The issue between the two parties, rather, was over how man’s knowledge relates to God’s knowledge.” (110)

The Complaint against Clark argued, “we dare not maintain that his knowledge and our knowledge coincide at any single point.” (112)

The Complaint declared, “Because of his very nature as infinite and absolute the knowledge which God possesses of himself and of all things must remain a mystery which the finite mind of man cannot penetrate” (112).

The Clarkian or more appropriately the biblical response to the above two complaints:

“In critiquing Van Til’s theory of analogy, Clark argued that if God’s knowledge has no point in common with ours, then we know nothing that is true, for God knows all truths. Therefore, Clark believed, Van Til’s theory of analogy resulted in skepticism. In The Answer, his argument for this conclusion is presented: “The Presbytery wishes to suggest that if man does not know at least one truth that God knows, if man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge do not coincide in at least one detail, then man knows nothing at all. God knows all truth, and if man’s mind cannot grasp one truth, then man’s mind grasps no truth. Far from being a test of orthodoxy, this test imposed by The Complaint is nothing else than skepticism and irrationalism.” (114)

Clark falsely labeled a rationalist:

“The Complaint listed theologians who had wrestled with these doctrines and then argued that “there is a problem that has baffled the greatest theologians of history. Not even Holy Scripture offers a solution. But Dr. Clark asserts unblushingly that for his thinking the problem has ceased being a problem. Here is something phenomenal. What accounts for it? The most charitable, and no doubt the correct, explanation is that Dr. Clark has come under the spell of rationalism.” (117)

Clark and observer Herman Hoeksema respond to the charge of rationalism:

“In fact, Clark later called paradox a “charley horse between the ears” and said the fear of “being too logical” was a “fear without a corresponding danger.” At the time of the controversy, Herman Hoeksema of the Protestant Reformed Church wrote on the alleged rationalism of Clark in his denomination’s publication The Standard Bearer. He wrote, “There is here, indeed, something that is more than amazing, that is really unbelievable, that almost might be catalogued as another paradox: the phenomenon that theologians accuse a brother theologian of heresy because he tries to solve problems!” Hoeksema then rhetorically asked, “Is it really rationalism to attempt to bring Scripture in harmony with itself?” (127)

The complainants lose their case against Clark’s ordination:

“That assembly [1946] upheld the ordination of Dr. Gordon H. Clark by a vote of nearly two to one.” (135)

“Referring to The Complaint as it relates to the Westminster Confession, the report concluded, “Our committee is of the opinion that [The Complaint] requires the Presbytery of Philadelphia to exact a more specialized theory of knowledge than our standards demand.” (137)

A great tragedy:

“After the “Clark Case” was officially resolved in Clark’s favor, the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary turned their attention to those who had supported Clark.” (138)

The faculty of Westminster’s action against Dr. Clark’s supporters was sad and unfortunate.

The result of the heavy-handedness against Dr. Clark’s supporters, the OPC suffers departures:

“The departure of so many ministers and congregations from the already small OPC, and along with them much of the evangelistic zeal, essentially ended any likelihood of the denomination becoming a noticeable numerical presence in the American Christian landscape. This fracturing of the church left the OPC weak.” (154-155)

Evidence that the complainants were in error:

The complainants reversed a key definition in their complaint, which revealed the weakness of the complaint.

“The Complaint was sent out to the church. In a key paragraph it read: Since certain expressions used in the Complaint have been understood as skeptical in character and since the Complaint cannot disavow all responsibility for producing such misunderstandings of its intent, we gladly affirm that, when the objects of knowledge are contemplated, human knowledge does have contact with the objects of divine knowledge within the compass of the divine revelation, and that within that sphere of revelation the objects of knowledge as such are the same for God and man. This admission was a far cry from The Complaint’s original statement that “We dare not maintain that [God’s] knowledge and our knowledge coincide at any single point.” In fact, the admission that “the objects of knowledge as such are the same for God and man” is nothing other than a complete reversal of the original position.” (160-161)

Why did the complainants change key wording in the original complaint?

“It seems the complainants felt the weight of Clark’s criticism that their position results in skepticism, and in the wake of this critique modified their position. This modification was made in two ways: (1) a changed definition of “content” and (2) an acceptance of a “point of contact” which at the start of the controversy had been categorically denied. In order to maintain that their position in fact did not entail skepticism, it is evident that the complainants changed their definition of “content” in the time between The Complaint (1944) and the majority report in 1948. The majority report explained “content” as distinct from “object.” The majority report read, “It is not with the objects of knowledge the Complaint is concerned but with the difference between the character of God’s understanding and man’s understanding even when the same object is contemplated.” (158)

John Frame, who served on the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary and was a founding faculty member of their California campus analysis of the specific dispute over the incomprehensibility of God by the complainants, is valuable:

“Van Til so obviously misunderstood Clark on these points that John Frame wrote, “I must say that I find this criticism of Clark quite preposterous,” and “Again, I am rather shocked at Van Til’s distortion of Clark’s position.” Frame concludes, “It would have been more helpful if Van Til, like the Report, had straightforwardly conceded Clark’s point that there is such common meaning.” (162)

Note: Although Van Til was not directly involved in the complaint, his supporters brought Van Til’s philosophical beliefs into the complaint.

In Appendix C, Douma clarifies some crucial points in the controversy.

Who was more faithful the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith?

“The Answer, page 9, says: “Dr. Clark contends that the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God as set forth in Scripture and in the Confession of Faith includes the following points: 1. The essence of God’s being is incomprehensible to man except as God reveals truths concerning his own nature; 2 The manner of God’s knowing, an eternal intuition, is impossible for man; 3. Man can never know exhaustively and completely God’s knowledge of any truth in all its relationships and implications; because every truth has an infinite number of relationships and implications, these must ever, even in heaven, remain inexhaustible for man. 4. But, Dr. Clark maintains, the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God does not mean that a proposition, e.g. two times two are four, has one meaning for man and a qualitatively different meaning for God, or that some truth is conceptual and other truth is non-conceptual in nature.” (253)

“The Complaint says, “we dare not maintain that his knowledge and our knowledge coincide at any single point” (italics theirs). Note well that the complainants are not content to say that God’s knowledge differs from man’s in certain ways, such as in its extent and in its mode. They insist that there is no point of contact whatever. Not a single point. With this I heartily disagree. Far from denying that there is a single point of coincidence, I maintain that there is an area of coincidence. That area includes, “David was king of Israel,’ and ‘Jesus was born at Bethlehem,’ and several other items. These are the points where God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge coincide. The propositions mean to the man who knows them, to the man who grasps their meaning, exactly what they mean to God, although God, as was said knows implications of these propositions that man does not know; but the truth itself is the same for man as it is for God. If a man does not grasp God’s truth, he grasps no truth at all, for there is no other truth than God’s truth. God knows all truth. And if a man grasps any truth at all, since it is God’s truth, that truth is a point or even an area of coincidence.

The propositions mean to the man who knows them, to the man who grasps their meaning, exactly what they mean to God, although God, as was said knows implications of these propositions that man does not know; but the truth itself is the same for man as it is for God. If a man does not grasp God’s truth, he grasps no truth at all, for there is no other truth than God’s truth

The Complaint, on the other hand, makes the truth God has qualitatively different from the ‘truth’ man has. There is not a single point in common. Whatever meaning God has, man cannot have. And since the Bible teaches that God has all truth, it must follow on the theory of the Complaint that man has no truth. The theory of the Complaint is therefore skepticism.” (259-260)

In conclusion:

This controversy pitted two theological and philosophical giants against each other – Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til. During this whole time of the complaint and beyond, there has never been any evidence that Dr. Clark and Van Til had any personal animosity towards one another personally.

This book is highly recommended, and it should be in every theological student’s library.

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com

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