A Christian View of Men and Things, A Treatise Showing that Social Stability Demands a Christian Society, by Gordon H. Clark, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952, 325 pp.
With A Christian View of Men and Things (CVOMT) we now come (by my way of counting) to the seventh volume from Gordon Clark’s pen. The publication of this book—in July 1952—came one month shy of Clark’s fiftieth birthday. Clearly his writing efforts picked up later in life as he would ultimately be responsible for over fifty published books.
A Christian View of Men and Things is Gordon Clark’s magnum opus and seminal work. It covers many topics which he will later expand upon in other volumes. The introduction is akin to the second of his “Wheaton Lectures” in The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark (1968); Chapter 2 “History” is similar to his Historiography, Secular and Religious (1971); Chapter 5 “Science” is a precursor to his The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (1964), Chapter 6 “Religion” has elements in common with Religion, Reason, and Revelation (1961), and Chapter 7 “Epistemology” should be read in conjunction with Clark’s Lord God of Truth (1994).
The content of CVOMT was delivered in condensed form as the 1951 Peyton Lectures at Fuller Theological Seminary. At that point not only was Fuller still relatively orthodox, but Clark was on good terms with his former student (and Fuller professor) Edward J. Carnell. Clark thanked both Carnell and Carl Henry (also a former Clark student and also then a professor at Fuller Seminary) in the acknowledgments for “reading and criticizing the manuscript in careful detail.”
Throughout the volume the goal (matching the subtitle) is to show that social stability demands a Christian society. The argument is that there is a bewildering array of contradictory worldviews which leads to conflict between their positions. To escape the chaos and have social stability, Christianity is needed because it, unlike other views, is coherent and gives meaning to life and morality.
Following an introduction, CVOMT contains chapters on The Philosophy of History, The Philosophy of Politics, Ethics, Science, Religion, and Epistemology. This review will summarize and make some comments on each of these in turn.
The threefold purpose of the book, Clark writes, is (1) to arrange some elements and implications of a theistic worldview to give some prospect of what the position is, (2) to clarify the position in comparison to a naturalistic worldview, and (3) to phrase it in the elementary form of an introduction to philosophy. (p. 17)
The questions of philosophy are very difficult to answer and one is apt to get discouraged when the answers appear to be so disconnected. But if there is an omniscient God, then there is hope because “Instead of a series of disconnected propositions, truth will be a rational system, a logically ordered series, somewhat like geometry with its theorems and axioms, its implications and presuppositions. And each part will derive its significance from the whole. Christianity therefore has, or, one may even say, Christianity is a comprehensive view of all things: it takes the world, both material and spiritual, to be an orderly system.” (p. 24-25)
This however “does not imply that a man must know everything in order to know anything.” (p. 25) [This is a particular interesting statement in light of Clark’s controversy with Cornelius Van Til, for in the latter’s thought one must “know everything to know anything.” Clark critiques Van Til’s position (exemplified in The Complaint)on this very point in his “Studies on the Doctrine of the Complaint.” See pages 263-264 of The Presbyterian Philosopher.] Providing a supporting example, Clark writes, “To appreciate an intricate and beautiful mosaic, we must see it as a whole; and the parts are properly explained only in terms of the whole; but it does not follow that a perception of the pieces and some fragmentary information is impossible without full appreciation.” (p. 25-26)
To defend theism, Clark notes, it might seem most natural to prove the existence of God right at the first. But, “The more the arguments are studied, the less valid they seem.” And “Because of this the argument for a theistic world view cannot begin with the traditional proofs of God’s existence.” (p. 28-29)
Without proof one might discouraged in the attempt to advance beyond the first lesson of philosophy. But skepticism (the denial that attaining knowledge is possible) is not an easy way out because it is internally self-contradictory. (p. 30) All that is self-contradictory or absurd must be rejected.
But what if two or more mutually contradictory but internally coherent systems remain? Choice is unavoidable. Clark writes, “But if one system can provide plausible solutions to many problems while another system leaves too many questions unanswered, if one systems tends less to skepticism and givesmore meaning to life, if one worldview is consistent while others are self-contradictory, who can deny us, since we must choose, the right to choose the more promising first principle?” (p. 34)
So concludes the introduction in summary. But a couple other items in the introduction might be of interest:
1.) Clark notes C. S. Lewis and two other converts (C. E. M. Joad and A. E. Taylor) from humanism to theism. He refers to Lewis as “brilliant and humorous” and states that many [though perhaps not Clark himself] would call him a proponent of a very orthodox faith. (p. 16) This is interesting given that John Robbins would later work on a volume critiquing Lewis. Though Robbins passed before completing that book, he did critique Lewis in the Trinity Review. See: http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=103
2.) Clark notes that “a theistic philosophy of systematic proportions has not been developed to meet contemporary needs” and that it “awaits a modern Augustine.” (p. 17) A case could be made that Clark himself fulfilled at least some of this need. Robbins, in fact, called Clark “America’s Augustine.” Might it have been Clark’s life goal to build just such a systematic philosophy, expanding in later books what he began in COVMT? In this reviewer’s opinion, that seems truly to be the case.
II. THE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY
“The general problem of history is the formulation of a law which will enable us to understand the course of events and to make a probable guess about the future.” (p. 39) Karl Marx contended that one type of civilization replaces another by the operation of a fixed and definite cause: economic pressure. “It is perfectly obvious,” Clark writes, “that economic factors have a deep and widespread influence on the character of civilization.” (p. 41) “But to grant that economic motives have a widespread effect on the form and development of civilization is far from granting [like Marx] that everything can be so explained.” (p. 41) Marxism oversimplifies the problem, leading one to examine other philosophies of history. (p. 42)
The philosophy of history has seen various theories of progress. Of these, “In general it may be said that three types of cause have been invoked: scientific knowledge, political or social planning, and biological evolution.” (p. 47) Scientific knowledge can produce an atomic bomb, but it cannot prevent war. Since scientific knowledge is instrumental—since it can as easily produce evil as good—it cannot guarantee progress. (p. 48) Those who have appealed to political or social planning “assumed that human nature is malleable in the hands of a legislator.” But “a worse type of human nature can be produced as easily as a better type.” Then there are problems with the third type of cause—biological evolution—as well. Clark notes, “Biologists, aside from Marxist biologists, usually deny that acquired physical characteristics are inherited; and if this is true, it would seem that acquired moral characteristics have even less of a chance of being transmitted to succeeding generations. It is also doubtful that moral qualities uniformly contribute to survival.” (p. 49) Then, “Most basic of all constituents of any theory of progress is the idea of a goal. In colloquial language, when anyone is said to be making progress, it means that he has a goal in view and is getting nearer to it. If there is no goal, it seems difficult to talk of progress.” (p. 51) The denial of a goal empties the word progress of all meaning. And if progress itself is the law of history “does it not follow that the theory of progress will be discarded?” (p. 53)
Rejecting progress as a law of history, Clark continues to the thought of the philosophers of history Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936) and Arnold Toynbee (1889 – 1975). Spengler broadens his study from European history to world history. In so do he exchanges the idea of progress for a biological metaphor of civilizations, contending that they have a birth-growth-decline-death cycle. Spengler “bursts into popularity . . . by reason of his prediction of the collapse of western civilization.” (p. 55) Toynbee, like Spengler, has collected a mass of historical facts. But what the one has collected does not much overlap what the other has collected. “Empirical history is inherently impossible,” Clark contends, because the person studying history must of necessity use a non-empirical method to select from the thousand and one events that happen every minute the world over. In the selection of facts the student of history begins to impose his interpretation upon them. Ultimately, “Neither of the two [Spengler and Toynbee] seems to have proved anything. Analogies cannot be trusted and empirical evidence is not decisive.” (p. 66) Interpretations cannot be settled by an appeal to facts. “There is involved a moral and normative judgment; and before a philosophy of history can be satisfactorily established, it will be necessary to erect some system of morality as its foundation. No theory of history rests on an empirical basis.” (p. 75) “So long as Spengler and Toynbee describe the similarities of culture change, their writings may be stimulating, their descriptions may be accurate, and yet the really important questions may remain unanswered. Suppose it is true that one society gives birth to a second and then dies. Is this any more important that the fact that one generation of mosquitoes gives birth to another generation of mosquitoes, and then another, and another? What is the end of all this? Is there any end? The question, Does history repeat itself? must give way to the deep question, Does history have any significance.” (p. 75)
Karl Marx and Bertrand Russell answer in the negative, the latter having a theory of “cosmic death.” The Stoics and Nietzsche have a “theory of eternal recurrence” but this does not provide any significance; the repetition of meaninglessness is still meaningless. Perhaps pessimism is the final word and history is devoid of significance. “But before adopting this dreary view of things, before basing one’s life on unyielding despair, would it not be wise to ask whether there are any other possible theories? Should it not at least be asked what is assumed or presupposed by a theory that gives significance to history?” (p. 77) “What must be true if history and humanity are to be meaningful? What is the presupposition of significance” If significance is to be assigned to human history, there must be a goal.
Looking to Christianity, Clark writes, “The argument does not aim to prove or demonstrate that Christianity is true and that Russell is wrong. The precise aim is to show in both cases what assumptions and what conclusions are consistent with each other. The aim is to compare the theory that begins with the denial of value to unique events and ends in despair with the theory that assumes a goal and on this basis asserts the significance of history.” (p. 80)
Christianity—“what the Bible teaches” (p. 83)—“not only contains a philosophy of history, but so prominent is this theme in the Bible that few members of the Christian Church have been unaware of it.” (p. 84) “Christianity teaches that God created the world out of nothing at a point in the finite past. This is an event which happened just once and forms the temporal basis for all those unique events of history to which Christianity attaches so much significance. The concept of creation therefore produces a worldview in which humanity plays the central role which nature is the stage setting, as opposed to the Greek and all other naturalism in which man is a minor detail.” (p. 85)
Clark then enumerates principles of a Christian view of history. (1) God controls history. (2) God not only controlled history so far, but he will bring it to its end and culmination. (3) God himself acts in history.
He concludes, “If the secular standpoint is chosen, history has no significance; human hopes and fears are to be swallowed up in oblivion; and all men, good, evil, and indifferent, come to the same end. Anyone who chooses this view must base his life on unyielding despair. If however, he chooses the Christian view, then he can assign significance to history; human hope and fears in this life contribute to the quality of a life after death, when two types of men will receive their separate destinies. Anyone who chooses this view can look at the calamities of western civilization and say ‘We know all things work together for good to them that love God.’”
III. THE PHILOSOPHY OF POLITICS
Unlike the other chapters of this book, this one on politics and the next one on ethics are not expanded upon in subsequent volumes of their own. Yet more of Clark’s political and ethical views are found in the posthumously published collection of his Essays on Ethics and Politics (1992).
Clark begins the present chapter arguing that political theory presupposes that history is in some sense significant or rational. He writes, “If life has no goal, if the world is a blind and purposeless mechanism, if human actions are void of sense, then the political scientist need not bother with history. But neither need he any longer bother with politics.” (p. 98) Underlying and comprehending various political questions is a very general question, What form of state is best? (p. 100) “No amount of factual information will imply that one form of government is better than another.” (p. 101)
“What do better and best mean? “(p. 102) “Political theory must find some method of determining a standard that is not a mere description of belief, if one government is to be rightly considered as superior to another.” (p. 104) “Norms usually introduce questions of ethics; fixed and eternal truths concern epistemology and theology.” (p. 106) “When one asks, which government is better, one must explain the better: better for what? The German government was pretty good at waging war, but the American government was better. The British government is pretty good in stability, but the French government has been better at alternating premiers. Perhaps the problem should bd expressed in other words. The clearest expression may be, What is government good for? What is the purpose of government?” (p. 106-107) “There is still another way of phrasing the original question. When the question is put, Which state is better? instead of asking Better for what? one may ask, Better for whom?” Some states are better for the rulers, other aim for “the greatest good of the greatest number.” “[This] cannot be ascertained without first determining the good of one man. And what is good for a man can be determined only after one knows what man is. That is to say, the definition of good depends on the nature of man.” (p. 113)
Both historically and logically, “if there is no God who controls states, then totalitarianism is the conclusion to be expected.” (p. 135)
On the theistic view, however,“the authority of the magistrate does not derive from any voluntary social compact, but it derives from God.” (p. 136) Further, “All human rights are gifts from God.” “All the nontheistic systems assume that the present condition of man is normal; the Christian system views actual humanity as abnormal. This answers a question which is occasionally raised in political discussion as to whether the state is a positive good or essentially an evil. The Christian answer is that the state is not a positive or unconditional good, but rather a necessary evil.” (p. 138) “When the several factors of the theistic position are kept in mind, it appears to possess a greater degree of coherence than the humanistic view.” (p. 139) “The purpose of this chapter is to give evidence that Christian presuppositions justify civil government of limited rights, whereas humanistic principles imply either anarchy or totalitarianism.” (p. 143)
With regards to politics “of any particular proposal one had to ask whether it was right or wrong.” “One could not avoid the question, Is this end a good end or an evil end? It is therefore impossible to arrive a satisfactory theory of politics without having first settled the question of ethics.” (p. 151) In fact “ethical theory colors many subjects.” (p. 156)
While some might naively think there is general agreement on what is right and wrong, “various writers have collected interesting examples of moral standards that differ widely from the ordinary opinions of our time and place.” (p. 157) “Why is this act right and that act wrong? What makes an action right? What makes another act wrong? … What is the basis of morality?” (p. 158)
Clark divides ethical theories into two groups: teleological and ateleological. That is, the former asserts that the morality of an act depends on its consequences, while the latter does not. Teleological ethics can then be divided into two groups, egoism and utilitarianism. Clark agrees with a certain type of egoism saying, “Does not egoism have a primafacieclaim to reasonableness? With all due regard to other people, should I not seek my own good? Should I ever deliberately seek my own harm?” (p. 162) Clark definitely rejects utilitarianism with its impossible calculations. But teleological ethics (whether utilitarianism or egoism) “seem to be a complete failure. It fails in the crucial test of practical, concrete applications.” (p. 176) With the alternative, ateleological ethics, “moral excellence must be found in the act itself regardless of its consequences.” (p. 176)
With the failure of the secular views, Clark looks to he Christian view, the “ethics of revelation.” Here self-interest, if not egoism, is affirmed. But the major advantage is that “Biblical theism gives specific guidelines in actual situations in life.” (p. 189) Thus “Christianity escapes the difficulties and the futilities of other systems.” (p. 189)
Science today “is usually accorded the last word in all disputes.” (p. 198) But “what is sufficient evidence?” And “what is evidence?” (p. 201) Can facts be empirically discovered? “The history of science, however, shows that the scientific method does not invariably arrive at the truth.” (p. 202) “Scientific judgments are essentially tentative and stand in need of constant revision.” (p. 204) “Scientific laws are not discovered but are chosen.” (p. 209) All scientific laws are non-empirical and false. Science yet is “extremely useful.” (p. 210) The fallacy of asserting the consequent is used in every case of verification. (p. 211) Science,it is seen,depends on ethics and history.
Naturalism or humanism leads to “inconsistency, despair, or suicide.” (p. 231) But one still must choose from among the various forms of theism. To recommend Christianity other forms of theism must be shown to be inconsistent mixtures. While it would be convenient to reject all non-Christian forms of theism in one fell swoop, they cannot be classed together as they do not seem to have any one common element among them. [One might note here that Clark’s view is evidence of opposition to the so-called Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God. That is, he does not believe that there is a single argument that dispenses with all non-Christian views at the same time.]
What follows then is a lengthy critique of the views of Edgar Sheffield Brightman for the purpose of providing a typical example of a refutation of a religious view. Clark’s arguments in this section are somewhat hard to follow. He concludes that Brightman’s attempt to find a middle position between Biblical Christianity and atheistic naturalism results in incoherence. The problems with Brightman’s empiricism extend to many, though not all, religious views.
While epistemology is found at the end of this volume, it is first in Clark’s philosophy.
The importance of epistemology for Clark is attested when he writes, “Whether a political assertion be made, or whether the subject be botany, aesthetics, or Latin grammar, one may always ask, either seriously or in derision, How do you know? … The question, How do you know? may seem simple enough; but the answer virtually controls the whole system of philosophy.” (p. 285)
Skepticism is self-contradictory and “if a philosophy of any other name can be shown to be a disguised skepticism, it too must be rejected.” (p. 293) Relativism too “is always contradicting itself.” (p. 296) “Relativism is always asserted absolutely. If it were not intended to apply generally, it would have no claim to philosophic importance. But if it is asserted universally, then its assertion contradicts what is being asserted. An absolute relativism is a self-contradiction. If it is true, it is false.” (p. 297)
Following a rejection of empiricism, Clark writes, “a satisfactory theory of epistemology must be some sort of apriorism with or without intellectual intuition.” (p. 312)
Finally, Clark gives the view of “A Theistic World.” Here he emphasizes for the first time that truth must be propositional. “The object of knowledge is a proposition.” (p. 319) Truth, he contends also, must be eternal, unchangeable, and not physical but mental or spiritual. He then says, “Is all this any more than the assertion that there is an eternal, immutable Mind, a Supreme Reason, a personal, living God? The truths or propositions that may be known are the thoughts of God, the eternal thought of God. And insofar as man knows anything he is in contact with God’s mind.” (p. 321)
Adding together the arguments of the various sections of this book the overall point is seen: Christianity is the superior choice.
For the previous review in this series see here.
For the next review in this series see here.