Was there any person who attended both the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) and the Westminster Assembly (1643-1653)?

Did anyone attend both the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) and the Westminster Assembly (1643-1653), the two most important councils of the Reformation?

If so, the likely place to look is among the Englishmen who attended the Synod of Dort. That is because, while the Synod of Dort included individuals from the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and England, the Westminster Assembly only included individuals from England, Scotland, and Wales. So if there is any overlap, it would be among those Englishmen who attended Dort.

Investigating this, we find that 9 Englishmen were either delegates (6) or observers (3) of the Synod of Dort.

But six of these men [George Carleton (1559-1628), Thomas Goad (1576-1638), John Davenant (1576-1641), Samuel Ward (1572-1643), William Ames (1576-1633), and John Brinsley the Elder (1581-1624)] died before the Westminster Assembly first met in 1643.

That leaves three.

Bishop Joseph Hall was chosen to go to Dort, but fell sick and therefore didn’t attend. He later, with other bishops, was convicted of some offenses and seems to have retired before the Westminster Assembly ever met.

Walter Balcanquhall (1586?-1645) was Dean of Durham from 1639 until his death, but for some reason unknown to me he was not called to the Westminster Assembly.

John Hales (1584-1656) seems to have spent his later years as a scholar at Eton College. But he did not attend the Westminster Assembly.

So it seems no person attended both the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly.

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Gordon Clark’s View of “Emotion”

Gordon Clark’s view of emotion has garnered significance interest and raised many questions. But asking simply “What was Gordon Clark’s view of emotion?” is too broad of a question if one is seeking a single answer. His comments on emotion, as will be noted below, apply to a variety of theological concerns. Compiling quotes from his works, we should not be surprised to find that Dr. Clark saw that the first task, as is so frequently the case, is to define the term itself. Only then can be discussed the relation of emotion to God, Man, and Faith.

1. The Problem of Definition.

A. Clark noted that rarely if ever does one find that an author will define emotion.

Dr. Clark: On one occasion I asked a professor of psychology to give me some competent books on emotions. He gave 4 volumes, each one 3…4…500 pages. Each one written by a professor of psychology in some American university. I read all four of those books. Not one of them ever said what an emotion was. Until you define emotion the discussion cannot continue.

[Audience laughter]

Moderator: Dr. Clark, what have you understood those people who do speak of emotions as referring to.

Dr. Clark: Well, they didn’t tell me.

[Audience laughter]

– “Questions and Answers,” Audio Recording, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.

B. Clark provided his own definition of emotion.

“Emotions by definition are fluctuating; an emotional man is unstable and few people have a high opinion of him; whereas throughout our constantly changing emotional states, our beliefs and the volitions founded on them remain comparatively fixed.” – Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 1961, 2nd Edition 1995, Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, p. 97.

Dr. Clark: I should offer perhaps not a complete definition, but at least an element of the definition. An emotion seems to me to be a sudden upheaval, disturbance in our ordinary calm state of mind. And I don’t see that this is part of the image of God, I think this is part of original sin. – “Questions and Answers,” Audio Recording, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.

2. Emotion and God.

A. Clark held, in agreement with the WCF, that God lacks emotions.

Moderator: Dr. Clark, I have another question for you. And this moves on to another area of your lecturing material. Dr. Clark, does God have feelings?

Dr. Clark: The Westminster Confession says that God has neither body, parts, nor passions. I suppose the word feeling is a contemporary word for passions and the answer of the confession is no God has no feelings, emotions, or passions.

– “Questions and Answers,” Audio Recording, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.

B. Yet, Clark held, God has “concern.”

Moderator: Dr. Morris?

Dr. Morris: I would certainly agree with that. It seems to me that the nub of the question is the definition of emotion which is why I started by throwing the ball back to Dr. Clark, I want to hear him on that. If we are thinking of emotion in the sense of some passion that overmasters us and takes us out of what we are in ourselves, then God is surely without emotions. And God’s love doesn’t mean that at all. On the other hand, to say that God is without body, parts, or passions, which in case you didn’t know is part of the Anglican formularies as well as part of the Westminster Confession, means that God is not thrown off his balance by anything outside of him. It means more than that, but it means that. It means that nothing that puny man can do, for instance, can cause God to deviate from his calmness. But it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care. The Scripture is full of the idea that God does care. That caring is shown in his love. It is also shown in his wrath. And the wrath of God runs through and through Scripture. So in the sense that God is, dare I say it, passionately concerned with our well-being, then I would say that God does show emotion. But it’s a question of the definition. We must not take up such a position that we can feel God can be wobbling from one state of mind to another one as we so easily are. That’s not that. But we must hold that, I think, in line with the Scriptural position that God does care very much whether we do good or ill, and he cares for us, for our well-being, and the upshot of his caring we see on the cross.

Audience: Would you permit a follow up question?

Moderator: I’d like to have the panel finish first, and then I’ll… because this is the only aspect we have directly on emotion. A lot more on the image of God in man. So, but, first the panel. Any more on this?

Dr. Clark: I wouldn’t wish to be convicted of placing words in the mouth of Dr. Morris, but his last remarks sound to me to say that he has asserted that God’s will is immutable. An immutable volition which he calls concern. I could agree with that.

Dr. Morris: Ok then let’s not argue.

[Audience Laughter]

– “Questions and Answers,” Audio Recording, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.

3. Emotion and Man

A. Clark held that humans have emotions and they are sinful.

Dr. Clark: I should offer perhaps not a complete definition, but at least an element of the definition. An emotion seems to me to be a sudden upheaval, disturbance in our ordinary calm state of mind. And I don’t see that this is part of the image of God, I think this is part of original sin. – “Questions and Answers,” Audio Recording, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.

“Emotion hinders, distorts, or almost eradicates thinking. Acting under the stress of emotion we usually act blindly. An emotionally overwrought student, having had a spat with his sweetheart, can’t memorize the Greek irregular verbs or solve a problem in physics. Nor can he do theology. We must meditate and be still. This command displeases pragmatic Americans.” – Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1983, 2nd Edition 1990, p. 70.

B. Clark held that Biblical love is to be categorized as a volition (an act of will), not an emotion.

Moderator: I have another one that speaks of God is love. Is the emotive or emotional aspect of man not also a part of the image of God in view of the fact that God is love and we’re commanded to love one another?

Dr. Clark: Love is defined in the 13th or 14th chapter of Romans. Love is defined as obedience to the commands of God. You may say God is love and his love is defined as giving his Son as a ransom for the elect. In the history of theology, love traditionally has never been considered an emotion. There is something that is called love, particularly in these days that is quite emotional, but in theology love has traditionally been considered a volition and not an emotion. That’s a partial answer.

– “Questions and Answers,” Audio Recording, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.

“But Timothy commands the Ephesians to love. Love, then, is something volitional, not emotional. Many ministers love to preach about love. I hear the theme with distressing frequency. It is all the more distressing because the sermons do not explain the difference between Christian love and the love of either the Christian Scientists or the love of Joseph Fletcher. The sexual anarchy and licentiousness of the present age desperately necessitates information on a love it little knows. The Scriptures explain and define this voluntary, non-emotional love in several places, though not in this one verse. The reader may occupy himself profitably trying to find these other passages.” – Gordon H. Clark on 1 Timothy 1:5, 6 in The Pastoral Epistles, 1983, 2nd Edition 1998, The Trinity Foundation, p. 9

Dr. Clark: No. Christian love is not an emotion. It is a volition.

Audience: An act of will.

Dr. Clark: And act of will, yes. Because you cannot command emotion. They take off at all ridiculous ways. And when you are commanded to love, obviously love must be a volition. And the volition is “to obey the law.” Love is obedience to the law.

Audience: Do you feel that emotions are good or bad?

Dr. Clark: Bad. Doesn’t the Apostle Paul say “suppress your emotions”?

Audience: Then we should all be Stoic?

Dr. Clark: Huh? Well, not Stoics, no.

Audience: I don’t think emotions are bad.

Dr. Clark: You don’t? Well if you ever become the pastor of a church I think you may conclude that. Nearly all the church fights arise out of emotions.

Audience: I’m not talking about general emotions. I’m talking about, you know ok, there are emotions that are evil. Those should be suppressed. But there are others, such as love…

Dr. Clark: Love isn’t an emotion. It’s a volition!

Audience: You’re talking about loving your wife which we are commanded to ???

Dr. Clark: And what is that command?

Audience: Love her. Protect her as Christ…

Dr. Clark: Well that isn’t an emotion. That’s a volition. That is a determination of something you’re going to do. Palmer stresses man’s need of regeneration because of total depravity. Well and good, but to substantiate man’s sinfulness after speaking of man’s intellect and will, he adds, “And as far as his emotions are concerned, he cannot love God because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God, Romans 8:7.” That an unregenerate man cannot love God is indubitably true, but the mind of the flesh is not the emotions. The history of orthodox theology, at least from Augustine on, teaches that love is a volition, not an emotion. Paul himself has small respect for emotion.

Audience: ??? back over again to what you said?

Dr. Clark: In Colorado, oh no this is Colossians.

[Audience Laughter]

Dr. Clark: In Colossians 3:5…

[Audience Laughter]

Audience: Colorado 3:5.

Audience: Maybe that is a highway number.

Dr. Clark: Well, it’s C O L. In Colossians 3:5, he says “mortify therefore your members which are upon earth. Fornication, uncleanness, pathos, inordinate affections” and so on. The NAS translates the last two words as “evil desire.” Desire may or [may] not be an emotion. Fornication and uncleanness seem to be emotions, and pathos surely is. The NAS translates it “passion,” the English cognate. Arndt and Gingrich give “suffering” which makes no sense in this verse, and then add “passion, especially of a sexual nature,” also anger. The supreme of all lexicons, who Dwight’s discussed, Liddell and Scott, has “accident, experience, misfortune, death.” None of these make sense in this verse, but the continuation is emotion, that is the continuation in Liddell and Scott, emotion, passion, sensation, and in literature, emotional style. Paul therefore instructs us to suppress our emotions and if so, love is not an emotion. It is a volition. Palmer himself escapes nearly all the religious deterioration this misinterpretation has so widely caused in recent years. But the congregation subjected to semi-Christian psychologies need constant warnings.

– Gordon H. Clark, “Knowledge and Persons”, Audio Transcript, c. 1982 [Clark reading from his text which was later published as The Holy Spirit, 1993. p. 32-33)

4. Faith

A. As opposed to Pietists and Mystics, Clark held that Christianity (and “faith” in particular) is primarily intellectual not emotional.

“The Christian religion is intellectual in nature. Ignorance, emotion, and unintelligibility are not even a map for the road, let alone the road itself or the destination. The difference between the Christian religion and the neo-orthodox, existential, anti-intellectual religion is as great as the difference between Christianity and Buddhism. When our opponents and even some of our less perceptive friends emphasize the experience of person faith, we appeal to Christ’s remark about a faith as small as a grain of mustard seed and conclude that the How is of very little importance, while the What is what really counts.” – The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, 1968, p. 122; reprinted in An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, 1993, p. 122.

“In the United States today non-doctrinal emotionalism finds wide acceptance. But this cannot be done without eliminating Christianity as well.” – The Trinity, 1985, Second Edition 1990, p. 126.

“Unfortunately, at least in the present writer’s opinion, many Christians, motivated by an irrational pragmatism or by an even more extremely irrational mysticism, consider belief to be an emotion or feeling. To be sure, some beliefs stir the emotions, but the very sober belief that a man has five fingers on each hand is as much a belief as some shattering bad news. Nor can believing good news, namely the Good News, be a mere emotion.” – Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1983, 2nd Edition 1990, p. 5.

“That emotions sometimes accompany volitional decisions cannot be denied; but this is far from insisting that an intellectual decision has emotion as a necessary ingredient.” – Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1983, 2nd Edition 1990, p. 65.

“In order to define faith, some analysis of personality is needed. Whatever faith is said to be, distinctions among conscious activities are presupposed. According to a very common opinion, consciousness consists of these parts: intellect, volition, and emotion. Faith may be placed under one of them, or it may be described as a combination of two of them, or possibly of all three. At any rate, some analytical scheme is required. Now, one of the many difficulties in this procedure arises from the necessity of expressing Biblical truth in non-Biblical terminology. In itself, the use of non-Biblical terminology cannot legitimately be objected to. The term Trinity does not occur in the Bible, but all trinitarians holds that the ideas and relationships for which the term stands are solidly Biblical. Similarly, the word emotion does not occur in the Bible, at least not in the King James Version. However, in the use of new terminology, one must make sure that the terms are unambiguously defined. Unfortunately, many discussions of faith fail to define intellect, will, or emotion. Those who use the terms seem to have but a nebulous idea of their meaning, and a little Socratic questioning soon reveals the unintelligibility.” – Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 1961, 2nd Edition 1995, Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, p. 90-91.

Now, Calvin and Hodge did not have a three-fold division. They speak of the intellect and will and make no mention of the emotions at all. Now I am of the opinion that Calvin and Hodge, oh, Augustine too, are closer to the Scriptural view of man than this contemporary three-fold division of intellect, will and emotion—especially the Gospel of John. – Gordon H. Clark, “The Problem of Pietism and Non-Doctrinal Christianity.” Audio Transcript, 1977.

B. Clark argued that the head vs. heart distinction is unbiblical.

“Because care is called for, because on principle the analysis finally to be chosen must square with the Bible, and because—as was pointed out a moment ago—the heart of the Bible has often been identified with the emotions of popular psychology, a brief survey of the Biblical data must be made. The key term of Biblical psychology, especially in the Old Testament where the fundamental principles are laid down, is the term heart. When contemporary Christians, often in evangelistic preaching, contrast the head and the heart, they are in effect equating the heart with the emotions. Such an antithesis between head and heart is nowhere found in Scripture. On the contrary this usage at once indicates a departure from the Old Testament. In the Psalms and Prophets the heart designates the focus of personal life. It is the organ of conscience, of self-knowledge, indeed of all knowledge. One may very well say that the Hebrew heart is the equivalent of the English word self. – Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 1961, 2nd Edition 1995, Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, p. 90-92.

“In addition to these neo-orthodox groups the Pietists with their claims to individual guidance and additional revelations, and the saccharine devotional writers who malign dead orthodoxy and cold intellectualism, also exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity when they draw their sharp distinctions between the head and the heart. The head, for them, represents knowledge and dry theology; the heart is all the exciting emotionalism of hillbilly evangelism. But in Scripture there is no contrast whatever between head and heart. The view is a strictly modern innovation that conflicts with Biblical psychology and reflects a wrong notion of true religion. Depreciation of understanding, knowledge, reason, and logic not only stimulates and evil ecumenism but also leads to serious errors in theology, errors concerning human nature, sin, and therefore errors concerning the way of salvation.” – The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, 1968, p. 87; reprinted in An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, 1993, p. 87.

“The term heart therefore stands for volition and not emotion.” – Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1983, 2nd Edition 1990, p. 68.

But he does admit that in the Bible:

“It is true that sometimes the term heart refers to emotions.” – Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1983, 2nd Edition 1990, p. 69.

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Gordon Clark on “Common Grace”

The most significant note on “Common Grace” in Clark’s writings comes from his unpublished First Lessons in Theology. There, in chapter seven on “Salvation,” he writes,

“Before the discussion of clearly heretical views begins, one may consider for a moment a theory of so-­called common grace that is undoubtedly Biblical. If there is anything wrong with it, the fault lies in its defenders’ overemphasis. Since it is no part of saving grace, it is best mentioned briefly and then passed by. This grace is called common because it consists of benefits which God confers on all men indiscriminately. They are common to the regenerate and the unregenerate alike. The verse usually quoted is:

Mt. 5:45 He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

This can be called grace, if it be agreed that it is both unmerited and a favor or blessing. But though sun and rain are essential for food, in comparison with eternal salvation they are rather trivial. The frivolity may disappear, however, if the preaching of the gospel to all and sundry is an unmerited favor. One theologian argues that the gospel is both a savor of life unto life and also a savor of death unto death. To the reprobate the preaching of the gospel is no favor because as it increases their knowledge, it increases their responsibility and condemnation. Better if they had never heard the gospel. One can reply, nonetheless, that in some cases the preaching of the gospel may restrain an evil man from some of his evil ways. Since therefore sins are not all equal, and since some are punished with many stripes, but others with few, the preaching of the gospel results in the lessening of the punishment. Thus preaching would be a small favor, a modicum of grace. We note it and pass on.”

Here Clark argues that that “Common Grace” is favor to the reprobate only in that the Gospel may lead to some restraint of sin and lessening of punishment. It is evident that he would reject the “Three Points of Common Grace” presented at the 1924 Synod of Kalamazoo; the points over which the Protestant Reformed Churches emerged out of the Christian Reformed Churhes.

Clark’s opposition to the “Three Points of Common Grace” is particularly clear when it comes to the first point on the so-called “Well-meant” or “Free” offer of the Gospel. As detailed in The Presbyterian Philosopher (p. 118-127) Clark defended his position (essentially the same as the PRC) against the CRC-influenced faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in his ordination controversy.

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Sanctification and its Means

Some concerns have been raised in regards to my last article “Sanctification: Clark, Robbins, and Piper.”

Any concern there over the use of the term “synergism” in reference to the doctrines of sanctification and justification I believe I have adequately addressed in that article, and so shall not do so further here. Only, I should say as I did before, don’t let the use of the term deceive you into thinking it has anything to do with Arminianism.

Another concern that has been raised, however, is one that I did not adequately address in the original article. This concern is in regards to the question of whether God sanctifies man through means, particularly through the means of the good works He does in us. This follow-up article intends to address that question.

The question more generally might best be asked in two parts.

1: “Is Sanctification immediate or mediate?”


2: “By what means does God sanctify man?”

In this context, by “immediate” it is meant “without means” and by “mediate” it is meant “via means.”

[Note that there is another, possibly more common, way in which the term “immediate sanctification” is used. That is, it is often used in the sense that one is sanctified without time having passed after first becoming a Christian. Thus, this “immediate sanctification” is contrasted with the “progressive sanctification” that occurs over time. This type of “immediate sanctification” should not be confused with the use of the term in this article]

Charles Hodge, who Gordon Clark considered “by far the best of all American theologians,” well explains the answer to both questions in a concise way. He writes,

“The Spirit renders the ordinances of God, the word, sacraments, and prayer, effectual means of promoting the sanctification of his people.” – Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 3, Eerdmans, Reprinted 1975, p. 231.

Hodge is clear: Yes, God effectually uses means for sanctification. Hodge then gives a list—albeit not an exhaustive one—of those means: the word, sacraments, and prayer. The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question and Answer 154 lists these same means. It reads:

“The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.

Sanctification surely is included in the “benefits of his mediation” when the catechism (Question and Answer 57) notes “Christ, by his mediation, hath procured redemption, with all other benefits of the covenant of grace.” (See also Q&A 69 which includes sanctification among that which “members of the invisible church” partake in due to “the communion in grace.”) Therefore, these “ordinary means” can rightly be called “means of sanctification.”

The Word and Sanctification

The first of the means of sanctification Hodge (and the catechism) notes is the Word, the Scriptures. That the Scriptures are a means of sanctification is most clear in John 17:17 – “Sanctify them through thy word: thy word is truth.”

Hodge further notes,

“The sacred writers, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are exuberant in their praise of the Word of God, as its power was revealed in their own experience. ‘The law of the Lord’ says the Psalmist, ‘is perfect, converting the soul.’ (Ps. xix. 7.) By the law of the Lord is meant the whole revelation which God has made in his Word to determine the faith, form the character, and control the conduct of men. It is this revelation which the Psalmist pronounces perfect, that is perfectly adapted to accomplish the end of man’s sanctification and salvation. ‘Thy word, he says, ‘is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.’ (Ps. cxix. 105.)” – Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 3, Eerdmans, Reprinted 1975, p. 467-8.

and he concludes,

“There can, therefore, be no doubt that the Scriptures teach that the Word of God is the specially appointed means for the sanctification and salvation of men.” – Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 3, Eerdmans, Reprinted 1975, p. 468.

The Scriptures, therefore, as Hodge notes, are very clear that God uses at least this one means—the Scriptures themselves—to effect sanctification. The Word is the primary means, the “specially appointed means” for sanctification.

The Sacraments and Sanctification

The second of the means of sanctification Hodge (and the Catechism) notes is the sacraments, baptism and holy communion.

The sacraments, along with the Word, are often called “the means of Grace.” The means of Grace are not themselves the cause of sanctification (nor of justification). Rather they are the channels through which faith is strengthened and Grace is effected.

About the sacraments the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question and Answer 162 notes,

“A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another; and to distinguish them from those that are without.”

That is, according to the catechism, there are ends (to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience, etc.) to which the sacraments (the means) are intended. That the sacraments are a means of grace is affirmed in that the catechism includes in the purposes of the sacraments “to strengthen their faith, and all other graces.”

Prayer and Sanctification

The third of means of sanctification Hodge (and the catechism) notes is prayer.

There certainly are prayers for sanctification in the Scriptures (Psalm 141, 1 Thessalonians 5:23). When these prayers are answered they have functioned as a means of sanctification. To deny the mediacy of prayer is to deny its effectiveness.

Good Works and Sanctification

The catechism lists the Word, sacraments, and prayer as especial among the “ordinary means.” That is, other means may also be used by God. Might “good works” be included in these other means? Prayer is a good work and it is included even in the enumerated especial means. So at least some good works—prayers—can be means of sanctification. All three of the “especial means,” in fact, are included with other good works or “duties required” in Westminster Larger Catechism, Question and Answer 108.

It reads,

“The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word; particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; church government and discipline; the ministry and maintenance thereof; religious fasting; swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto him: as also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.”

These other good works or “duties” (worship, church government and discipline, fasting, etc.) are less commonly used means of sanctification than the word, sacraments, and prayer, but means they still are.

The means of sanctification are not effectual causes of sanctification. Rather, they are secondary or instrumental causes, like how a plow turns over the soil when it is pushed by a farmer or a how pencil writes on paper when an author sets to his work. While God mediates His grace through instrumental causes it remains His grace itself that effectually causes sanctification. And so, Soli Deo Gloria!


Postscript: A survey of Reformed theologians in the past confirms the historic orthodoxy of understanding “good works” as among the instrumental causes of sanctification.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564):

“The origin and efficient cause of our salvation lie in the heavenly Father’s love; the matter and substance in Christ’s obedience; the instrument in the Holy Spirit’s illumination, that is, in faith; and the finality in the glory of God’s goodness. That does not prevent God from accepting works as less causes. But how does that happen? In his normal dispensation, he leads those whom in his mercy he has predestined to eternal life to lay hold of their inheritance through good works. – John Calvin [Institutes 3.14.20]

J. C. Ryle (1816 – 1900):

“Sanctification, again, is a thing which depends greatly on a diligent use of Scriptural means. When I speak of “means,” I have in view Bible-reading, private prayer, regular attendance on public worship, regular hearing of God’s Word, and regular reception of the Lord’s Supper. I lay it down as a simple matter of fact, that no one who is careless about such things must ever expect to make much progress in sanctification. I can find no record of any eminent saint who ever neglected them. They are appointed channels through which the Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul, and strengthens the work which He has begun in the inward man. Let men call this legal doctrine if they please, but I will never shrink from declaring my belief that there are no “spiritual gains without pains.” I should as soon expect a farmer to prosper in business who contented himself with sowing his fields and never looking at them till harvest, as expect a believer to attain much holiness who was not diligent about his Bible- reading, his prayers, and the use of his Sundays. Our God is a God who works by means, and He will never bless the soul of that man who pretends to be so high and spiritual that he can get on without them.” (Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots. p. 20-21)

W.G.T Shedd (1820 – 1894):

The believer cooperates with God the Spirit in the use of the means of sanctification. Sanctification is both a grace and a duty….. Regeneration, being a sole work of God is not a duty. It is nowhere enjoined upon man to regenerate himself”.

A. A. Hodge (1823 – 1886):

The evangelical doctrine of sanctification common to the Lutheran and Reformed Churches includes the following points: (1) The soul after regeneration continues dependent upon the constant gracious operations of the Holy Spirit, but is, through grace, able to co-operate with them. (2) The sanctifying operations of the Spirit are supernatural, and yet effected in connection with and through the instrumentality of means: the means of sanctification being either internal, such as faith and the co-operation of the regenerated will with grace, or external, such as the word of God, sacraments, prayer, Christian fellowship, and the providential discipline of our heavenly Father. (3) In this process the Spirit gradually completes the work of moral purification commenced in regeneration. The work has two sides: (a) the cleansing of the soul from sin and emancipation from its power, and (b) the development of the implanted principle of spiritual life and infused habits of grace, until the subject comes to the stature of perfect manhood in Christ. Its effect is spiritually and morally to transform the whole man, intellect, affections, and will, soul, and body. (4) The work proceeds with various degrees of thoroughness during life, but is never consummated in absolute moral perfection until the subject passes into glory. – http://www.reformedliterature.com/hodge-sanctification.php

Louis Berkhof (1873 – 1957):

“It is a work of God in which believers co-operate. When it is said that man takes part in the work of sanctification, this does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayful and intellegent co-operation with the Spirit.” – Systematic Theology.

The Word and the sacraments are in themselves means of grace; their spiritual efficacy is dependent only on the operation of the Holy Spirit. – Systematic Theology.

J.I. Packer (b.1926):

“Regeneration was a momentary monergistic act of quickening the spiritually dead. As such, it was God’s work alone. Sanctification, however, is in one sense synergistic — it is an ongoing cooperative process in which regenerate persons, alive to God and freed from sin’s dominion”

R. C. Sproul (b. 1939), or someone else at Ligonier:

“Though God does not make use of means besides Himself to bring about regeneration, he does work through means in our sanctification, the process of growing in personal holiness. Scripture read and preached, the sacraments, prayer, and so on are all means that the Lord uses to mature us in Christ.” – http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/regeneration-immediate/

R. Scott Clark (b. 1961):

It is easy to imagine that sanctification is the result of an immediate action by God upon the soul. By “immediate” I mean that the Spirit is thought to act without using means. In the history of the church more than a few people have thought this. In the early church Christians began withdrawing from the world, first by themselves and then in communities to try to become holy. What they found is that they took the world with them. Other Christians have sought access to and information from God without means—we usually describe that as mysticism. … The Reformed confessions would have us think differently, however. The Heidelberg Catechism does not begin explaining sanctification in detail until after it has completed its doctrine of the sacraments and the ministry of the Word. From its beginning, the Westminster Confession casts the Christian life as one that involves “the due use of ordinary means” (1.7). Shorter Catechism 88 closely ties our salvation, including our sanctification, to the “outward and ordinary means” by which Christ communicates to us the benefits of salvation.https://heidelblog.net/2014/02/office-hours-sanctification-and-the-means-of-grace/

Michael Horton (b. 1964):

I find it very hard to believe that a view that says that God is the one doing the speaking even through a sinful human being—God is the one who is speaking, Christ is the one who is reconciling sinners to his Father by being present with His Word—, I’m just summarizing Romans 10, how could that possibly be considered Arminian? – https://wscal.edu/resource-center/the-means-of-grace-and-sanctification-part-i

John Robbins, whose comments in my last article were a source of concern regarding Gordon Clark’s views, even notes a distinction in the “The Means of Sanctification” (The Trinity Review, August 1997) between “primary means” (the Holy Spirit) and “secondary means” (God’s word, the sacraments) in sanctification. (He, like A. A. Hodge, seems to include even “the benefit of Christian community” as a means of sanctification, but is not explicit on that point.) He agrees that sanctification is mediated. But while prayer is also included in the Confession, and noted by Reformed Theologians in the past and present, Robbins inexplicably fails to mention it.

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Sanctification: Clark, Robbins, and Piper

Monergists [mon (one) + erg (work)] hold that God works alone as the effective agent of man’s regeneration. Synergists [syn (together) + erg (work)], on the other hand, hold that man’s regeneration is a cooperative effort—a working together—of God and man.

Gordon Clark, like all other Calvinists, was, naturally, a Monergist.

Yet when we move on from the doctrine of regeneration to the doctrine of sanctification, we see that Clark held that man’s works have a certain role. He writes,

Let us be quite clear on the fact that the Bible does not teach salvation by faith alone. The Bible teaches justification by faith alone. Justification then necessarily is followed by a process of sanctification, and this consists of works which we do. It consists of external actions initiated by internal volitions. We must therefore work out our own salvation; and this, in fear and trembling because we must depend on God. What then does God do in our process of sanctification? The verse says God works in us. … First he so works in us that we do the things that produce sanctification. God works in us so that we sing a psalm, or comfort the sick, or apprehend a criminal, or preach the gospel. These are things we do because God works in us to do them. … God not only works the doing in us, but he first works the willing in us. God works in us both to will and to do.” – Clark, Predestination, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987, p. 120-121.

Even more clearly, Clark used the term “synergism” in reference to the doctrine of sanctification:

But there is a difference between regeneration and sanctification. As to the former “we are altogether passive therein.” In the latter we struggle. One must not deny either the Spirit’s power or our activity. The two of us must cooperate. You see there is no synergism in regeneration, but there is in sanctification. … God is the source of our abilities and the effective determiner of how we use them. But it is we ourselves who must fight the good fight and run the straight race through God’s good grace.” – Clark, “Sanctification” Audio Lecture (read from the text of The Holy Spirit, p. 47-48.)

Though “monergism” and “synergism” are historically applied solely to the doctrine of regeneration, it is not impossible to use the terms in regards to other doctrines such as justification and sanctification. The terms used however are relatively unimportant compared to the meanings associated with the terms. Thus, while Clark’s ascribing of “synergism” to sanctification is fairly novel, his purpose for doing so and the meaning associated with what he is saying is not novel – many, probably most, Reformed theologians have held essentially the same view.

One of his main reasons for holding to a type of synergism in sanctification comes from his exegesis of Philippians 2:13-14. The text reads:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” – Philippians 2:13-14

Monergists (in regards to regeneration) understand that the “working out your own salvation” in this passage must refer to those good works of sanctification, and not any works that contribute to regeneration. Clark’s important point is that these works are done by God through man. On Philippians 1:11, Clark writes,

“The first phrase, ‘being filled with the fruit of righteousness’ surely refers to the character of the Philippian Christians. That some of this is connected with his concern for others is not to be denied, but the main idea is entirely subjective. Indeed the next phrase, through Jesus Christ,’ enforces this view. The sanctification of the Christian is controlled by him who began the good work.” – Clark, Philippians, 23.

And again,

“The most important phrase for exegesis is, ‘work out your own salvation.’ And not only work it out, but work it out in fear and tremblings. … Lenski says, ‘The danger for the saved is ever that they grow otiose, secure, and thus through their own fault lose the salvation bestowed on them by God.’ Lenski is a good Lutheran. The Arminians are worse than the Lutherans, on this point any way. … Yet like Lenski, they would still assert that the verse teaches the possibility of losing one’s salvation. To which we reply they have read only half of the sentence. The remainder of the sentence, to express it in chaste, academic language, packs a wallop. 2:13 … for it is God who works in you both to will and to do, of his good pleasure. – Clark, Philippians, p. 69-70.

While Clark uses the term “synergism” in regards to sanctification, it must be noted that this synergism is quite different from the type of synergism Arminians hold to in their doctrines of regeneration and justification. That is, in that Arminian type of synergism the contribution that man supposedly adds towards his justification is INDEPENDENT of God’s work in salvation. But in the “synergism” of sanctification man’s works are DEPENDENT on God working in him. Here God alone is the effective cause of salvation in all its aspects: regeneration, justification AND sanctification. And thus it is God alone who deserves the glory.

Clark notes,

“Paul wrote, ‘But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.’ One verse is not much, but it sheds at least a minimum of light on the agreement of Peter and Paul in their inspired description of God’s methods. And it also enforces the previous and important point that God’s foreknowledge does not center in any merit in man. Man’s sanctification is the work of God’s Spirit and is not the basis of God’s choosing to bless any individual with saving grace.” – Clark, New Heavens, New Earth, p. 92.


“Justification is a forensic act usually ascribed to the Father, and the same for all the elect. Sanctification is a subjective change of character in the individual, in different degrees for different persons. The former is instantaneous; the latter is temporal and lasts a lifetime. The agent is the Spirit and the topic belongs right here.” – Clark, The Holy Spirit, p. 41.

It is also important to note that the question is NOT “DOES man have a role in each of these aspects of the ordo salutis” (regneration, justification, sanctification)—for even an entirely passive role is a role—but rather the question is “what IS man’s role in each of these aspects of the ordo salutis.” Man’s role in sanctification differs from his role in regeneration. In regeneration man is being acted upon by God. In sanctification man is being made to act by God. Noting these roles may be clearer than using the terms “monergism” and “synergism.”

Clark, to be consistent with his view of synergistic sanctification, should also say that justification is synergistic in a certain way. Whereas in regeneration man is entirely passive, in justification man does something—he believes, he has faith—even if that faith is given to him. And this is “synergistic” in the same way that Clark’s view of sanctification is “synergistic”—where man does the good works even if man is led by the Holy Spirit to do so. But in regards to both of these “synergisms” of justification and sanctification it is again important to note that God is the only effective cause, He deserves all the glory, and man is entirely dependent upon God for faith and good works.

To summarize, we should say that regeneration is entirely monergistic. Man’s only role in regeneration is passive. Justification is monergistic in the sense that God is the only effectual cause of it. However, justification is synergistic in the sense that man does something active—he believes—and this is still active even if it is an action led by the Holy Spirit in us. Likewise, sanctification is monergistic in the sense that God is the only effectual cause of it, and sanctification is synergistic in the sense that man does something active—he does good works—and these are works he does even if the Holy Spirit in man leads man to do the good works.

Robbins’ Critique

When the Trinity Foundation reprinted Clark’s Predestination, John Robbins added a lengthy footnote arguing that “Dr. Clark errs in two ways.” Robbins noted “First, the Bible emphatically teaches salvation by faith alone.” He then quoted a number of scripture verses and argued, “We see in these verses that justification is not an aspect of salvation on par with other aspects, but is so identified with salvation that the terms are interchanged repeatedly. To be justified – to be declared righteous because of the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness – is to be saved. All else – sanctification, good works, glorification – flow from that.” [It is interesting to note however that in none of the verses Robbins quoted on this first point does the word “salvation” occur; but only the word “saved.”] Robbins’ footnote continued, “Second, Dr. Clark errs when he says that sanctification ‘consists of works which we do’ and “of external actions initiated by internal volitions’ and that ‘we do things that produce sanctification.’ All these statements are in error. Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit, it is not something we do, nor is it the result of something we do.”

When Clark made his original point (that the Bible teaches justification by faith alone and not salvation by faith alone) he was using the term “salvation” to encompass all the aspects of the ordo salutis (including: justification, regeneration, sanctification, and glorification). Clark writes,

“It must also be noted that salvation has several aspects. Some people say, “I was saved on December 31 at 6:05 p.m.” If the statement is true, it can mean only that they were regenerated at that time. But sanctification and eventually glorification are also parts of salvation. Therefore, when Paul says, “work out your own salvation,” thereby indicating a process, he is referring to sanctification not regeneration. Once again this ties in with God’s beginning a work that proceeds to completion. In this process, as is absolutely not the case in regeneration or justification, we have some work to do. And God works in us, not only to do such work, but beforehand to will to do such work.” – Clark, Philippians p. 74.


“If Christians would be more particular in their use of words, they would escape many unnecessary misunderstandings. Salvation is a very broad term, and its phases are so diverse that what is true of one phase is not true of another. No doubt it is necessary on occasion to speak of salvation taken in its entirety, but it is more frequently necessary to focus attention on some part. For this reason the Christian should know—should have learned in Sunday School—the correct definitions of regeneration, justification, repentance, sanctification, and glorification. These are all parts of salvation, but not all have happened once for all. Regeneration is an instantaneous, subjective, moral change; justification is an instantaneous, objective, forensic change. Repentance and sanctification are subjective but not instantaneous.” – Clark, New Heavens, New Earth, p. 21. (see also p. 77)

Robbins, on the other hand, argued that salvation and justification are so intertwined that they are used interchangeably in the Scriptures. Since, as I noted before, God alone is the effective cause of salvation, and since the other stages of the ordo salutis necessarily follow that justification of God, it certainly is acceptable to say salvation is by grace alone / faith alone in such a way. That is, when one uses “salvation” to refer to justification, man’s salvation is by grace alone / faith alone. But when one uses “salvation” to refer to the entire ordo salutis it is not accurate to say “salvation is by grace alone / faith alone” because sanctification, which involves good works, is an element of the ordo salutis.

So, it seems to me, Robbins first disagreement with Clark is based merely on different use of the terms. And although justification and salvation are sometimes used interchangeably in Scripture, they are not always used so.

Robbins’ second critique of Clark (that sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit, it is not something we do) again seems to be based on a terminological difference between the two men. Perhaps if Clark had said “works enabled by sanctification” Robbins would have agreed.

But, if, as per Robbins, man’s good works are not part of the meaning of sanctification but only flow out of being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, how are we to “work out our own salvation?”

How does this view differ from John Piper?

Other than some terminological difficulties, Clark and Robbins essentially agree with each other. And I agree with them. But the position John Piper holds is quite different, and dangerously so.

Much of the present conversations about sanctification have arisen due in large part to John Piper’s recent blog article, “Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone?” (https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/does-god-really-save-us-by-faith-alone)

Of issue is that Piper wrote,

“In final salvation at the last judgment, faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has born, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith. As Paul says in Thessalonians 2:13, ‘God chose you as the firstfruits being saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.’”

He further notes,

“Paul calls this effect or fruit or evidence of faith the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11) and the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith, are necessary for our final salvation.”

Each of these two quotes from Piper’s blog post makes works necessary to salvation.  This is where Piper diverges from Reformed orthodoxy which holds that works are not necessary for salvation. While works are ordinarily present in Christians and to be encouraged, works are by no means absolutely necessary for salvation, nor are they a cause of salvation. The thief on the cross is the go-to example. If works are “necessary for our final salvation” how can Jesus say that the thief on the cross—who had no opportunity to produce fruit—will enter paradise?

I strongly recommend Tim Shaughnessy and Timothy F. Kaufmann’s article here: http://biblethumpingwingnut.com/2017/10/10/gospel-according-piper/ They show that Piper’s recent misstep has been his position for a number of years, and that Piper seriously misunderstands the Bible’s teaching that good works merit future rewards, but do not merit justification.

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On Distinctions in God’s One Will

Theologians frequently make distinctions within the one will of God. Some of these distinctions are valid, but others are invalid; erring in attributing to God contradictory desires.

One valid distinction in God’s will is that between his revealed will and his hidden or secret will. This distinction merely states that there are some things which God has willed to reveal (in the Scriptures, but also in “sundry times and diverse manners” to His prophets in the Old Testament) and other things which God has willed to keep hidden/secret. This distinction, the validity of which is not typically a matter of debate among theologians, is seen in such passages as Deuteronomy 29:29 – “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

A commonly used, but in some ways erroneous, distinction in God’s will, however, is that of a decretive will and a preceptive will. By God’s actual will—His decretive will—all things come to pass as He has decreed. Nothing resists God’s will. The apostle Paul speaks of this in Ephesians 1:11 when he writes, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” God’s so-called “preceptive will,” on the other hand, is misnamed. It refers to the precepts, the commands, of God and not his ultimate will. In these precepts God commands man to do certain things and not to do other things. But man regularly disobey’s God’s commands. Though God works all things according to the counsel of his own will, Man’s actions are often contrary to God’s commands. God, therefore, it must be said, does not will that man obey His commands, otherwise man would obey His commands.

To equate God’s commands with His will is to put his “preceptive will” in direct opposition to his decretive will. To give God both a decretive will and a “preceptive will” is to say God “wills event x to occur” and that “God does not will event x to occur.” This, being a contradiction, is opposed to God’s rational nature.

Gordon Clark aptly summarizes the situation:

I wish very frankly and pointedly to assert that if a man gets drunk and shoots his family, it was the will of God that he should do so. The Scriptures leave no room for doubt, as was made plain before, that it was God’s will for Herod, Pilate, and the Jews to crucify Christ. In Ephesians 1:11 Paul tells us that God works all things, not some things only, after the counsel of his own will. … The opponents may at this point claim that Calvinism introduces a self-contradiction into the will of God. Is not murder contrary to the will of God? He then can God will it? Very easily. The term will is ambiguous. The Ten Commandments are God’s preceptive will. They command men to do this and to refrain from that. They state what ought to be done; but they neither state nor cause what is done. God’s decretive will, however, as contrasted with his precepts, causes every event. It would be conducive to clarity if the term will were not applied to the precepts. Call the requirements of morality commands, precepts, or laws; and reserve the term will for the divine decree. These are two different things, and what looks like an opposition between them is not a self-contradiction. … When the term will is used loosely there is also a second distinction that must be made. One may speak of the secret will of God, and one may speak of the revealed will of God. … It was God’s secret will that Abraham should not sacrifice his son Isaac; but it was his revealed will (for a time), his command, that he should do so. Superficially this seems like a contradiction. But it is not. The statement of command, “Abraham, sacrifice Isaac,” does not contradict the statement, at that moment known only to God, “I have decreed that Abraham shall not sacrifice his son.” (Religion, Reason, and Revelation p. 222-223. Reproduced in God and Evil: Problem Solved)

The distinction between a decretive will and a preceptive will, like the similar distinction between an active will (what God actualizes, i.e. his decretive will) and a permissive will (what God allows to happen via some supposed power outside of his influence) is an invented device to attempt to solve the problem of evil. The problem of evil, however, is not solved by such a distinction. God is not “off the hook” of being responsible for sin because He passively let’s it happen. The idea of permission is not applicable to all-powerful God. The problem of evil is rather solved in the fact that God is sovereign. As Clark writes, “God created the good and the evil for his own glory, to bestow his love on the good and his wrath on the evil.” (See The Presbyterian Philosopher, p. 193-194.) The problem of evil being thus solved, there is no need for decretive/preceptive and active/passive distinctions in God’s will.

I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure.” – Isaiah 46:9-10

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The Trinity, Part 2/2: Unity

[For Part I see here: https://douglasdouma.wordpress.com/2017/10/04/the-trinity-part-12-various-interpretations/]

If we reject Van Til’s “one person and three persons” language regarding the Trinity (and I suggest we do) and hold to some distinction between the sense(s) in which God is one and the sense(s) in which God is three, then we should positively identity those senses and note the difference(s).

To do so it might be helpful to look at two terms which are commonly noted in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity: numerical unity and generic unity.

An example of numerical unity is that “Socrates,” “The Athenian Philosopher,” and “Aristocles” (Socrates’ birth name) are three names that refer to the same subject, the man Socrates.

An example of generic unity is that “Socrates,” “Plato,” and “Aristotle” are three individuals that are all men. The unity of the three is the genus (a word related to the word “generic”) in which the individuals are members. In this example, though each person also has their own accidental attributes, all the members have in common all the essential attributes of Man.

So then, are the persons of the Trinity—The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit—united as numerical unity or generic unity? (Or are they united in some other way?)

The Unity of the Trinity as Numerical

The first option—numerical unity—might seem (at least at first sight) to fall into the error of Sabellianism (a.k.a. modalism, Patripassionism); the view that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not distinct persons but merely modes or aspects of the one God. While this is the result of a “numerical unity of the persons” where “The Father,” The Son,” and “The Holy Spirit” are three names that refer to the same subject, it is not so clearly the result of a separate view of “numerical unity of the essence” where “the essence of The Father,” “the essence of The Son,” and “the essence of the Holy Spirit” each refer to the same subject. These two views must be distinguished. It seems that defenders of “numerical unity” usually or exclusively mean “numerical unity of the essence.”

Though “numerical unity of the essence” might avoid Sabellianism, one major problem still exists: it does not answer the question. That is, it alone does not contribute towards answering the question “how does God’s threeness differ from his oneness?”

James Anderson, who definitely opposes the unity of the Trinity as generic, is an example of one who holds to numeric unity. He believes that “God is essentially one being who subsists in three distinct persons. Each person of the Trinity is numerically identical to God, but numerically distinct from the other two persons.” (See: http://www.proginosko.com/2008/12/wesleyan-trinitarianism/) This, as common to proponents of numerical unity, provides little more than terms (person and being) to refer to the oneness and threeness of God.

Rather than explaining any difference between the oneness and threeness of God, Anderson resolves to call it, in good Van Tillian fashion, an apparent paradox. His “solution” is paradox—that is, he doesn’t have a solution. Anderson contends that anything else would be heresy. He writes, “Rejecting outright appeal to mystery in the face of apparent contradiction, the anti-trinitarian must opt for either oneness over threeness (modalism) or threeness over oneness (tritheism).” (Paradox in Christian Theology, p. 281)

Admitting to not know the solution to any particular problem is understandable enough. The claim to know that no man can know the solution is, however, a much stronger claim that requires justification. Where John Frame admits that the Scriptures do not provide the solution, Anderson claims that man cannot know the answer because of man’s finitude. But why would man be able to know the answer to any problem at all then? It is not clear why man’s finitude would prevent him from understanding some difference between the oneness and the threeness of the Trinity but would not prevent him from understanding something of the substitutionary atonement, the Pythagorean theorem, or of the difference between a cat and a dog.

The Unity of the Trinity as Generic

The second option—generic unity—might seem (at least at first sight) to fall into the error of Tri-theism where there are three Gods, not one. That is, if “Socrates,” “Plato,” and “Aristotle” are united as members of the genus Man and they are three men, would not also “The Father,” The Son,” and “The Holy Spirit” united as members of the genus God be three Gods?

Despite the danger of tritheism, a number of theologians in church history—including most prominently Gregory of Nyssa—have held to some form of generic unity. But for any remaining chance at brevity we will skip a more detailed history of the doctrine and move on to Gordon Clark’s view.

First, an improvement Clark makes over nearly all other theologians in his treatment of the Trinity is that he explicitly provides a definition of “person” and explains something about the meaning of the term “essence.”

As for defining “person,” Clark writes,

“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, p. 106.

And for “essence” Clark notes,

“The real reason for hesitating on the latter word [homoousius, of the same essence] is that it is a meaningless pseudo-concept. Ousia doubtless means “reality.” But no only are trees and rocks “real,” dreams are “real” too. They are real dreams. The number three is real. Everything is real, and thus the term has no meaning.” – The Trinity, p. 67-68.


“This treatise has already suggested that the attributes are the essence, and that it would be better to drop the word essence and use the word definition. The attributes constitute the definition of God.” – The Trinity, p. 77.

He then relates persons and essence through a theory of generic unity. Clark explains his view:

“Now, when we face the subject of the Trinity – the common unity in the three Persons – may we not say that the three Persons share or communicate the common characteristics of omnipotence, omniscience, and so forth, and so constitute one essence? The Platonic point of view makes this essence a reality, as truly as Man and Beauty are real. Were the essence not a reality, and the Persons therefore the only realities, we should have tritheism instead of monotheism.” – “The Trinity” in The Trinity Review, 1979.

We’ll come to a better understanding of Clark’s view as we look at a number of challenges to it.

Challenge 1. God is not an abstraction.

Repeating a John Frame quote from earlier, but now for the purpose of focusing on objection to God as an abstraction, we see that he writes,

Philosophers have sometimes said that we should distinguish between essence and individuality as follows: Fido, Rover, and Spot are three individuals with a common essence, namely the essence of “dogness” or “doghood.” But “doghood” is an abstraction. You can put Fido on a leash, but you cannot so restrain doghood. Now is it legitimate to understand the Trinity (to be sure, a reality exalted far above the canine realm) according to this model? If so, the persons, Father, Son, and Spirit would be the individuals, and the divine essence, God, would be an abstraction. But of course this model is entirely inadequate for the Trinity. God is not an abstraction. Nor is he a mere society of three gods, united by common abstract properties. (Cornelius Van Til, An Analysis of His Thought, p. 67)

James Anderson is similarly opposed to God being abstract. He writes,

“It would be misguided to object that Athanasius could be speaking here of only a generic unity, since this would suggest that the Godhead is a third entity, an abstract nature distinct from the Father and the Son in which both participate.” – Footnote 34, Paradox in Christian Theology, p. 22.

So, both Frame’s and Anderson’s denial of generic unity in the Godhead is, at minimum, based on opposition to God being abstract. But Clark’s view—a type of Realism—avoids this problem because he denies the possibility of abstraction.

Clark writes,

“The idea of abstraction exemplifies the great complexity of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is a point that only the most advanced student would be much inclined to investigate. Yet from a systematic standpoints it is actually essential. To make matters worse for the reader, the present writer may seen to agree with those he is about to criticize, for he too rejects abstract ideas; but for a different reason. … The two philosophers best known for their theory of abstraction are Aristotle and Locke. Briefly Aristotle begins with sensory impressions. These motions initiate subsequent motions after the sense object no long is present. These subsequent motions are sensory images. From these images, by a process which Aristotle never clearly describes, we construct abstract idea. Thus instead of having the individual sensation of this one pussy, Timothy Ticklepitchers by name, we have the abstract idea of cat. Abstraction therefore presupposes an empirical epistemology. Theologians who are not empiricists, Shedd for example, have no place for abstract ideas. Calvin also, if we stress the first chapter of the Institutes, cannot admit the possibility of abstract idea. The present treatise, strongly anti-empirical, denies the possibility of abstraction in its traditional meaning. If theologians wish to redefine abstraction, and if therefore they mean something different from what Aristotle and Locke meant, they should make their redefinition explicit and even emphatic. If any of them has done this, I have failed to find it. (p. 100-101)


“Furthermore, as has been hinted, Augustinianism differs from Platonism. Plato had ideas. Augustine has truths or propositions. In reading what Augustine wrote, most people fail to note what he did not write; namely they fail to note that he has no theory of abstraction. Instead of abstract ideas, he has truths. The present treatise follows Augustine on this point: There are no such things as abstraction and abstract ideas.” (p. 108)

So we find that opposition to God being abstract is an argument without force against Clark’s position because Clark doesn’t hold that God is abstract.

Challenge 2: The Bible refers to God with singular personal pronouns showing that God is one person.

The argument that “because God is referred to with singular personal pronouns (including I, me, my, he and him) that he must be one person” is a standard argument employed by Unitarians who hold that God is one person and only one person.

It is doubtful that Van Til was making such an argument when he wrote, “We speak of God as a person.” That he wasn’t arguing from the use of singular personal pronouns in the Bible is shown in that he immediately followed with the clause “yet we speak also of three persons in the Godhead.” This seems to imply that by “speaking” he means a more general “speaking in a theological manner,” and not a reference to any particular Biblical content.

Even so James Anderson writes, “But what positive reasons did Van Til have for wanting to say that God is ‘one person’? … In the first place …Van Til found prima facie justification in the language of Scripture itself. There’s no denying it: the Bible often use singular personal terms when describing God qua God. This is a basic revelational datum which trinitarian theorizers (let alone critics of Van Til) cannot simply ignore.” (http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2005/08/van-tils-serious-trinitarian-theology.html)

The unitarian argument is proven false though, not only because Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 11:17 and Isaiah 6:8 refer to God with the plural personal pronouns us and our, but also in understanding that singular personal pronouns in some places refer to one of the persons of God— usually the Father—or to the being of God, just as they can personify other non-persons like the nation of Israel which is referred to with “thou” in Isaiah 41:8.

If the unitarian argument were true there would be as much trouble for view of Van Til in the Frame/Anderson/Keister interpretation as for any Trinitarian view. That is, if God is one person because God is referred to with singular person pronouns, then the sense in which God is one would be the same as the sense in which God is three (if indeed God would be three at all in such a view). Only Tipton might be glad for this conclusion. Anderson’s response is to claim that “person” in the oneness of God and “person” in the threeness of God are not being used in the same sense but are “analogically related.” This, like “mystery” and “paradox” is merely another way to say “there is a difference, but I don’t know what it is, and you can’t know either.”

One more argument of interest might be noted. If the use of a singular personal pronoun makes for a single person, then when Jesus says in Luke 22:42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done,” and the common understanding is that “my will” is referring to Christ’s human will, then the personal pronoun “my” would necessitate a human person for that human will to be associated with. This might be Clark’s view, but it probably isn’t a view any of his critics. If personal pronouns necessitate persons, then, to be consistent, this must apply to Christology as much as to the Trinity.

Challenge 3: Generic unity results in modalism.

Historically, Trinitarian models have had to navigate the narrow waters between the Scylla of tritheism and the Charybdis of modalism. Whereas numerical unity models of the Trinity have typically been challenged in regards to avoiding modalism, the concern with generic unity models has usually been how to avoid tritheism. Thus while it is no surprise to find one critiquing Clark’s view of generic unity on the error of tritheism, a critique of his view on the error of modalism is unexpected. But this very critique has been made by both Steve Hays (http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2005/07/why-im-not-cramptonian.html) and James Anderson. (http://www.proginosko.com/2010/03/gordon-clarks-paradoxical-view-of-the-trinity/)

Anderson, for example, argues,

“In his book The Incarnation he [Clark] attempts to give an account of the plurality within the Godhead by arguing that what distinguishes the three persons is just the different first-person indexical propositions that constitute them. … These propositions are contingent truths that concern the different economic roles of the divine persons in which case the persons would be only contingently distinct. This, of course, is the hallmark of modalism: the relations between the persons of the Trinity are nothing more than contingent economic relations.”

But in The Trinity Clark denies any contingency in the mind of God, arguing for necessitarianism. He writes,

“The second type of necessitarianism may be called logical rather than factual, and absolute rather than hypothetical. On this view of things no other conditions than the actual conditions are possible. This is not “the best of all possible worlds,” as Leibniz claimed: It is the only possible world, as Spinoza claimed. … Now, Spinoza is in ill repute among orthodox theologians … but it does not follow that every idea he suggests is wrong, for otherwise geometry would be false. … We must ask therefore whether or not this world is logically necessitated. The answer must take into consideration that God is truth and truth is rational. Does this mean that the universe is not a voluntary creation? Does it mean that the generation of the Son is not voluntary? Of course not. Both these items are both voluntary and necessary. … Given them the immutability of God’s mind and the eternity of truth, so-called philosophical necessitarianism seems to be quite scriptural and with respect to the creation of the world conflicts in no way with the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. Since God’s mind is immutable, since his decree is eternal, it follows that no other world than this is possible or imaginable..” (p. 118-119)

Furthermore, Clark distinguishes the divine persons not only by their economic roles and subjective knowledge of those roles, but also by their relational properties; eternal generation and eternal procession. These doctrines, which provide ontological distinctions among the persons of the Trinity, are incompatible with function-only distinctions of modalism.

Challenge 4: Generic Unity of the Trinity results in Tritheism

If three humans persons united under the genus Man are three men, why are the three divine persons united under the genus God not three Gods?

In his book The Atonement Clark notes this question and admits that generic unity cannot be the full story; it cannot be the full explanation of the unity in the Godhead. He writes,

Naturally the Persons of the Trinity are one in the sense that all men are one, and all horses; but it does not follow that the three Persons are one only in that sense. For example, three human beings have three wills; but the three Persons of the Trinity have but one will. Hence the diversification of human beings is not identical to the diversification of the Persons, for which reason we cannot assert that the two unities are completely identical. (p. 117)

Similarly in his article on the Trinity, Clark wrote,

“But it must be made likewise clear, in the interest of sound logic, that the failure of Hodge’s arguments do not prove the identity of the type of unity among men with the type of unity among the three Persons of the Trinity. It remains an unrefuted plausible option. It seems to be the best solution ever proposed. But it still may be and undoubtedly is inadequate.”

This is why he must note, as he did in the same article,

A more substantial objection is that unity in the Godhead cannot be the unity of a species or a genus. The three Persons are one in a stricter, deeper, more inexplicable sense than the sense in which three or thirty men are one. Whether this objection is plausibly true or not depends on the sense in which men are one and the sense in which the Trinity is one. Those who make this objection should define the two senses (if indeed they are two) and point out the distinction. Unless we know how the Persons are one and how men are one, we cannot tell whether the unity is the same or different. But the objectors hardly define specific unity and disclaim ability to define divine unity.”

But since he had said himself that generic unity is inadequate, Clark is to an extent his own critic. Given that he admits that generic unity is inadequate, HE should define a different or additional sense in which the three person are united.

Clark does note that one difference between three human persons and three divine persons is that the former have three wills but the latter have just one will. He explores this further in The Trinity where he notes Gregory of Nyssa’s focus on the single will of God (what Clark here calls there “one operation” or “conjoint action”) as that which forms a unity among the divine person unlike that of human persons. Clark writes,

“he [Gregory] raises the question why, if Peter, James, and John are one human nature, but three men, why are not the Three Persons, of the same nature, three Gods? With unintentional understatement he remarks that this is a difficult question. All men, he continues, have the same nature. Similarly an army has a nature, and though each solider has an individual name, the nature cannot be divided. However, in the case of God, the matter is more complicated Gregory’s answer seems to be that God’s nature is unnameable and unspeakable. God is indeed incorruptible, but this word does not express God’s nature in essence. When we say that God is incorruptible, we say that his nature suffers no corruptions, but we do not say what that nature is. Yet, Gregory admits, this does not solve the problem: if there is one common nature, why are there not three Gods? The Godhead signifies and operation, not a nature. Philosophy is an operation, but there are three philosophers. Gregory replies, perhaps lamely, that although the Godhead is an operation, like shoemaking or philosophy, and not a nature, the men operate independently, but the Three Persons always act conjointly, and their operation is one, not three operations. (p. 39)

Yet the fact that God has one will does not seem to answer the question, “why are the three divine persons united under the genus God not three Gods?” When three men act conjointly in running a relay race or winning at tug-of-war they do not cease to be three men. That Clark noted Gregory’s answer to be “perhaps lame” seems to indicate that Clark didn’t see Gregory’s answer as sufficient either.

The question of tritheism and the necessity of finding a unity beyond that of generic unity is also noted by Joel Parkinson who writes,

Now the simplistic answer to those who assert it is a contradiction to say God is both three and one is to respond that he is three in a different sense than he is one. However, if we desire to be convincing, we should also try to define the senses in which God is three and one and do so in a way that preserves all three Trinitarian affirmations. For instance, one could say that God is three Persons with one divine nature. But though this is true, if it is left unqualified it implies tritheism. Three men clearly share a common human nature but are not indivisible. One man could be killed without necessarily endangering the existence and identities of the other two. So there must be something unique to the divine nature precluding such divisibility. (“The Intellectual Triunity of God”, The Trinity Review, January 1992)

As a solution, Parkinson contends,

shared and identical objective knowledge possessed by the three maintains a unity that is unique within the Godhead and negates tritheism.” (“The Intellectual Triunity of God”, The Trinity Review, January 1992)

It is not yet clear to me, however, how either an identical will or identical objective knowledge (or both) being shared among the three divine persons is sufficient to “negate tritheism.”

Looking back to Parkinson’s previous quote might help send us in the right direction for an answer. He noted, “Three men clearly share a common human nature but are not indivisible. One man could be killed without necessarily endangering the existence and identities of the other two.” This seems to imply that his view (like Clark’s who he is basing his view on) is that the divine persons are mutually dependent upon each other unlike how any human persons are. This is the solution we will now investigate.

There are relational distinctions among the divine persons that are essential to who they are. (1) It is essential to who the Second Person of the Trinity is that he is eternally generated of the First Person of the Trinity. (2) It is essential to who the First Person of the Trinity is that he eternally generates the Second Person of the Trinity. (3) It is essential to who the Third Person of the Trinity is that he eternally proceeds from the First Person of the Trinity (and the Second Person of the Trinity according to the Western Church’s Filioque). (4) It is essential to the First Person of the Trinity (and to the Second Person of the Trinity) that the Third Person of the Trinity eternally proceeds from him.

Because these relational attributes of the Persons of the Trinity are essential to who they each are, the divine persons cannot exist independently (separately) of each other. This is not the case, however, with human beings. There are no essential relations between humans making them who they are; only accidental relations. Adam may be “married to Eve,” but he would still be Adam if he were not; just as he was Adam before he married Eve.

So, to supplement the generic unity of the divine persons we have identified 3 additional forms of unity; not the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt, and Heidelberg Catechism, but the sharing of a single will, the possessing of identical knowledge, and essential relational attributes of mutual interdependence among the persons. It is particularly the last of these three points that might show promise for negating tritheism. The three divine persons are distinct from each other but ultimately are who they are in virtue of their relations to one other and thus cannot be separated.



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