GHC to Carl Henry, March 19, 1957 (contra natural law)

March 19 1957

Dear Carl,

First Marcellus sends me a book to review; then you send me Carnell’s galleys, and then you send me 50 pages on natural law with a request to write an editorial on the subject. Well, I’ll try.

You do not state how you want me to use the paper you sent, or whether it should be referred to in the article you ask me to write. I suppose no reference is needed. The paper is rather superficial with some historical mistakes, e.g. the writer implies that Cicero was a Stoic, and he states that Aristotle put slaves beyond the pale of natural law. He also intimates on page one that natural law can be known by revelation; his wording is not so clear as this; it cannot be called an outright mistake, but it seems to me misleading. At any rate, natural law is never supposed to be a matter of special revelation. And the writer depends too much on a collection of quotations from a number of other authors.

As you may guess, if I write on natural law it will be to condemn the idea. I shall follow the arguments *of the chapters on Politics and Ethics in Men and Things, as well as the last chapter in Thales to Dewey, to show the futility of reason apart from revelation. If you want to run this for July 4, when must you have the MS? Give me as much time as possible, for I am pressed these days. And when do you want back this MS you sent me?

Also is the review of Thales to Dewey going to appear soon? Last Saturday it was reviewed in the Indpls Times.

Cordially,

-Gordon-
*This is part of an argument against Romanism. Natural Law plays into Romish hands, & contrary to what Dr. Bell said to you, we hear a good deal about it these days.

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GHC Review 8: What Presbyterians Believe

GHC Review 8; What Presbyterians Believe

What Presbyterians Believe, An exposition of the Westminster Confession, by Gordon H. Clark, Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1956, 130 pp.

What Presbyterians Believe is the first of two books Gordon Clark wrote on the Westminster Confession of Faith. The second—What Do Presbyterians Believe? (1965)—is more well known and is an expansion of the first.

The introduction to the book is by John R. Richardson (1901 – 1992), then pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA and a contributing editor to the Southern Presbyterian Journal. It was for this journal that Clark originally wrote a series of articles on the Westminster Confession of Faith that became the basis for the present volume.

Two letters from John R. Richardson to Gordon Clark are extant in the Clark Collection at Sangre de Cristo Seminary. In the first, of Oct. 26, 1954, Richardson writes, “First I want to thank you for the articles you have been publishing in the Journal. They are very helpful and I am sure will stimulate constructive thought.” In the second, of Jan 20, 1955, Richardson writes to Clark in what must have been the impetus for the volume under review, “I want to thank you for your articles on the Confession of Faith. I am writing you to ask that you consider having them published in permanent form. It may be that you would like to amplify a few of them in the event you decide to have them published in book form.”

Before commenting on each chapter of the Confession in turn, Clark begins with brief sections on “Knowledge and Ignorance” and “Creeds.” The main point of the former seems to be that Biblical knowledge is necessary to a revival or reformation. The latter focuses on the importance of fidelity to the Confession.

Rather than summarizing each of this book’s chapters, this review will simply note some items of interest from them.

1. The Holy Scriptures

Against “mystics and visionaries who claimed that God spoke to them directly,” Clark notes the cessationist position that “the rule of faith which the Reformers acknowledged was the Scriptures alone.” (p. 5) In this chapter Clark also contends for the infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures. And his view of Romans 1:20 is also presented. (For more on that see here.

3. God’s Eternal Decree

Clark writes, “God is not the author of sin that is, God does nothing sinful.” (p. 13) This provides a definition of what Clark believes “author of sin” to mean. This definition allows him to contend that God is the cause even of sin but not the author of it. He continues, “Christians who are not Calvinists must admit that God in some sense is the cause of sin, for he is the sole ultimate cause of everything. But God does not commit the sinful act, nor does he approve of it and reward it.” (p. 14)

Clark also notes that some of Calvin’s detractors, like Wesley, thought he had a revulsion to the doctrine of reprobation, calling it a horrible decree. But, Clark explains, “This charge against Calvin’s integrity is at best explained on the basis of an ignorance of Latin. True, in Latin Calvin referred to reprobation as a decretum horrible, but in Latin horrible does not mean horrible. It means awe-inspiring. … Calvin therefore was saying that the decree of reprobation was one that inspired awe in the presence of God.” (p. 14)

4. Creation

“That the Bible is not a book on science is often given as an excuse for its many alleged mistakes. The assumption seems to be that science books do not make mistakes. But over the centuries scientific theories have come and gone. Even in the last half century physics has been completely altered. … Of course, the Bible is not a science textbook, but when it mentions natural phenomenon it speaks the truth.” (p. 18)

5. Providence

Relevant to the discussion of the salvation of arminians Clark writes, “Not all Christians are Calvinists.” He continues, “It must not be supposed that these people are therefore lacking in sincerity and devotion or that they are outside the fold of Christ. But such is the clarity of the Bible in its teaching on God’s sovereignty that Presbyterians cannot convince themselves that such people have a sufficient understanding to discharge the responsibilities of an ecclesiastical office. They stand in need of further instruction. They should study the proof texts cited by the Confession.” (p. 22)

7. God’s Covenant with Man

In one of only a couple places I know of where Clark speaks on baptism, he writes, “As the Old Testament Passover became the Lord’s Supper, so the Old Testament’s circumcision became the New Testament baptism. Those who deny the legitimacy of infant baptism on the ground that there is no specific command to that effect in the New Testament are embarrassed when asked for a specific New Testament command to admit women to the Lord’s Supper. Specific New Testament commands are not absolutely necessary when the Old Testament has spoken with sufficient clarity. Such objections to infant baptism are based on a wrong conception of the relation of the two Testaments, a denial of covenant theology, and a neglect of the Westminster Confession. The remedy is obvious.” (p. 33)

9. Free Will

“The sources of confusion in discussions on free will are chiefly three. First, the discussion is allowed to proceed without anyone’s defining the key terms; second, implications are assumed to be valid when they are fallacious; and third, more than in any other theological discussion there is a temptation to neglect the express statements of Scripture and to depend on uninspired philosophy, common opinion, and hasty guesswork.” (p. 43)

“The Bible never actually mentions free will, as it certainly would have done, if free will had been as important as the Arminians think.” (p. 45)

11. Justification

“In general there are only two plans of salvation. The first plan has several varieties, but basically it is a purely human plan of salvation by works. Its sole drawback is that the works do not work. Heaven’s requirements are too stringent, and we cannot make the grade. The second plan is the divine plan of justification by faith.” (p. 50) “Sinful men hate the doctrine because it reveals their sin; proud men hate it because it prevents them from earning heaven by their own merit.” (p. 51)

21. Religious Worship and the Sabbath Days; Lawful Oaths and Vows

In a rare case Clark professes his ignorance. He writes, “The Confession also says, in conformity with I John 5:16, that we should not pray for anyone whom we know to have sinned unto death. The present writer wishes he knew what the verse means and how to apply it. He does not, and proceeds to the next point.” (p. 85) Clark’s commentary on First John, written some years later, does not conclude a meaning to that verse either.

For the previous review in this series, see here.

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GHC Review 7: A Christian View of Men and Things

GHC Review 7; A Christian View of Men and Things

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.

I. INTRODUCTION

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)

IV. ETHICS

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)

V. SCIENCE

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.

VI. RELIGION

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.

VII. EPISTEMOLOGY

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.

Posted in Gordon Clark Book Reviews | 2 Comments

Clark and Agnosticism

After giving a speech at the Gordon H. Clark Philosophy Symposium held at Covenant College earlier this year I confessed to being somewhat stumped when an audience question came to me about Clark’s view of agnosticism. The exact question was as follows:

“What was his opinion on the rationality or the appropriateness of agnosticism with respect to religious questions; just not taking any position at all. If it [his philosophy] is purely comparative where does that fit?”

While I was ill-prepared to answer the question at that moment, I’ve now come across Clark’s view on agnosticism in some of his books.

First, in A Christian Philosophy of Education (1946), Clark writes:

“A man either lives with fear of God before his eyes, attempting to make his whole life a song of praise to his Creator, or he does not. If he does, he is a theist; if he does not, his life shows that, far from being neutral, his serious belief is that God will not judge him and his actions, that there is no God who rules the universe with him in it.” (p. 48)

Then, in the second revised edition of the same book, he adds:

“As Augustine long ago pointed out, when such a man easts his dinner he believes that it is probably better to eat than starve. He does not know that he will escape starvation, but he believes that he has a better chance of survival if he eats. Neither does he know that survival is better than starvation; but he believes so. More to the point, he may say that he neither asserts nor denies the existence of God. But his actual daily life is lived in conformity with the one postulate or the other.” (p. 34-35)

Also, in A Christian View of Men and Things (1952), Clark writes the following:

“As Christ said, ‘he that is not with me is against me,’ and ‘he that is not against us is on our part.’ One must therefore be either for or against; there is no neutral or immediate position. . . . Everyone lives either with the fear of God before his eyes or not. Our preferences, our standards of morality, our purposes in life accord with a theistic worldview or they do not. And if they do not we are acting on the assumption, whether we admit it or not, that there is no God to hold us responsible. Suspension of judgment, so-called, is but a disguised, if dignified, form of unbelief.” (p. 33)

So, Clark’s view is that agnosticism is practical atheism. Choice is inevitable. Those who do not chose God chose against him.

Posted in Notes on the thought of Gordon H. Clark | 1 Comment

GHC Review 6: A Christian Philosophy of Education

GHC Review 6; A Christian Philosophy of Education

A Christian Philosophy of Education, by Gordon H. Clark, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946, 217 pp.

With A Christian Philosophy of Education we now move from that period in which Clark wrote on ancient Greek Philosophy into that in which he began to publish constructive contributions to Christian thought. That he started to present his Christian philosophy with a book on education is perhaps surprising. Education itself is not one the major areas of philosophical inquiry; it is neither epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, politics, nor aesthetics. But, as Clark shows in this volume, all subjects including education necessarily require some philosophical grounding. And so Clark—at this point a university professor for nearly twenty years—choses education as the subject, the vessel, by which to present his philosophy more generally.

Since in the preface to the second edition written “nearly forty years later” Clark notes that, “The present book is about three halves the length of the earlier one,” I got a hold of an original 1946 copy to prevent attributing anything to Clark in the 1940s that might have only arisen later.

Clark’s philosophy of education, advocating as it does the disinvolvement of government in schooling, was very likely influenced by J. Gresham Machen. (See my review of Machen’s Education, Christianity, and the State here). It is probable in turn that Clark’s book then was an influence on R. J. Rushdoony whose The Messianic Character of American Education was published in 1963.

Clark’s presuppositional view begins to be expounded in the first chapter; even in its title, “The Need of a World-View.” “Doubtless,” Clark writes, “every professor of education has some sort of philosophy underlying his views of education, but it is ordinarily an unconscious philosophy, unexpressed and unacknowledged, or at best poorly formulated.” (p. 15) Colleges and universities speak of “aims in the plural rather than the aim of education” which is “a tacit admission of failure to find any one comprehensive aim.” Clark contends,

“There is only one metaphysics, one philosophy, that can really unify education and life. That philosophy is the philosophy of Christian theism; that metaphysics is the metaphysics of the Being of the Triune God. What is needed is an education system based on the sovereignty of God, for in such a system man as well as chemistry will be given his proper place, neither too high nor too low. In such a system there will be a chief end of man to unify, and to serve as a criterion for, all his activities. What is needed therefore is a philosophy consonant with those greatest creeds of Christendom, the Westminster Confession, the Canons of the Synod of Dort, and the like.” (p. 27)

Clark’s presuppositionalism is also evident when he writes, “instead of beginning with facts and later discovering God, unless a thinker begins with God, he can never end with God, or get the facts either.” (p. 38) He then argues that neither archaeology nor the classical arguments for the existence of God prove theism. But, even though there is no strict proof of Christianity, “it is under no greater disadvantage than is any other system.” (p. 41) His argument continues, “Basic world-views are never demonstrated; they are chosen.” (p. 41) “So it is with every world-view; the first principle cannot be proved — precisely because it is first. It is the first principle that provides the basis for demonstrating subordinate propositions. Now if such be the case, the thoughtful person is forced to make a voluntary choice. He may choose theism, or he may choose pantheism, or he may prefer to reject these various possibilities and choose skepticism. At any rate he must make a choice.” (p. 41) Clark, however, rejects skepticism because “every statement of skepticism involves a contradiction, in that it is an assertion that we know what we do not know.” (p. 41) And, “The atheist who asserts that there is no God, asserts by the same words that he holds the whole universe in his mind; he asserts that no fact, past, present, future, near, or far, escapes his attention, that no power, however great can baffle or deceive him. In rejecting God, he claims omniscience and omnipotence. In other words an atheist is one who claims that he himself is God; and the pantheist [holding a logically identical position] must be said to join him in the same claim.” (p. 45) The suspension of judgment (Agnosticism) proves to be impossible as “A man either lives with fear of God before his eyes, attempting to make his whole life a song of praise to his Creator, or he does not. If he does, he is a theist; if he does not, his life shows that, far from being neutral, his serious belief is that God will not judge him and his actions, that there is no God who rules the universe with him in it.” (p. 48) “But if one must choose without strict proof, none the less it is possible to have sane reasons of some sort to justify the choice. Ultimately these reasons reduce to the principle of consistency. A postulate must be chosen such that it makes possible a harmony or a system in all our thoughts, words, and actions.” (p. 48-49) Those who choose not to be consistent need “constant care by well qualified attendants.” (p. 49)

To avoid reproducing the whole of the book (or even just the arguments) in this review it might just be noted that the book then has a chapter on “The Alternative to Theism” which shows the despair of humanism, and then three chapters showing the impossibility of neutrality. In the end Clark concludes, “The aim of education is the glory of God” (p. 164) The end of education, so writes John Robbins in the foreword to the second edition, is the creation of Christian men (and women).

Ultimately this book is important, not only for Clark’s anti-public schooling, pro-Christian education arguments, but for the laying out of his system of philosophy for the first time. In his next book, A Christian View of Men and Things, this philosophy is expounded in further detail.

For the previous review in this series see here.

For the next review in this series see here.

 

Thanks to Wayne Sparkman for scanning these images of the original dust jacket, and cover and spine:

GHC Review 6; A Christian Philosophy of Education 3

GHC Review 6; A Christian Philosophy of Education 4

 

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GHC Review 5: A History of Philosophy

GHC Review 5; A History of Philosophy

A History of Philosophy, Seymour G. Martin, Gordon H. Clark, Francis P. Clarke, and Chester T. Ruddick. New York: F.S. Crofts and Company. 1941, 546 pp.

The untimely death of Dr. Seymour G. Martin left his A History of Philosophy in a partially finished form. Three members of the philosophy department at the University of Pennsylvania—Gordon H. Clark, Francis P. Clark, and Chester T. Ruddick—then took up the task of completing the volume. When the book was finished, it is said, the head of the department, Dr. Edgar A. Singer Jr. “judged the finished project, which he had initiated, as the work of men ‘thinking with the times, personalities, circumstances of which their story tells; never do they blur the effect by intruding their own thoughts about these distant moments and their sequence.’”

Of the men other than Gordon Clark who worked on this volume, I’ve pieced together the following information:

Seymour Guy Martin (1887-1937) earned his Ph. D. at Northwestern University in 1910. He taught at Harvard before coming to Penn.

Francis Palmer Clarke (1895-1976) was, like Gordon Clark, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He earned his Ph. D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1928 and remained there as an instructor—and then professor—until 1966, even for some time (1938-1945, 1947-1960) serving as the chairman of the department. His major work centered on Thomas Aquinas.

Chester Townsend Ruddick (1904-1980) earned his Ph. D. in 1931 at the University of Delaware. In one letter in 1942 Clark noted that with respect to finding a professor of philosophy position, Ruddick had once “looked for five years and found nothing.” It seems Ruddick must have finally found a position at Penn. He later taught at Lake Erie College.

As for Gordon Clark’s contribution to the book, his section is Part One: Ancient Philosophy, pages 9 through 236. There he has chapters on The Pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, and The Hellenistic Age. If you cannot find a copy of A History of Philosophy, all of this material is reprinted on pages 1-255 of Ancient Philosophy (Trinity Foundation, 1997).

Clark’s chapter on the pre-Socratics nicely shows that the philosophers of that period were not each working in isolation but were each influenced by their predecessors and/or contemporaries. Philosophy developed in not entirely unpredictable or aimless ways. The Milesians (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes) first focused on understanding nature. The succeeding pre-Socratics were almost universally influenced by the Milesians in some way. Xenophanes, from nearby Colophon, was “stirred by the conflict between the theological conceptions in the poems of Homer and Hesiod and the new modes of thoughts [of the Milesians].” (p. 18) Pythagoras “spent his early years on the island of Samos in the Aegean, and there he presumably made his acquaintance with the philosophical speculations of near-by Miletus.” (p. 20) Pythagoras “was on the track at least of a valuable idea: that mathematically expressible processes do underlie physical phenomena and that it is the business of science to discover them.” (p. 27) The interest of Heraclitus (of Ephesus, near Miletus) shifted from the details of natural phenomena to the meaning and import of the universe as a whole. His “everything changes” doctrine is found to be self-contradictory by the rationalist Parmenides of Elea who concluded that change is in fact an illusion. Zeno of Elea, a student of Parmenides, then defended his teacher’s doctrine of immobility with illustrative examples. Zeno’s contemporaries, Empedocles and Anaxagoras, attempted a compromise between the Eleatic doctrine and the testimony of every man’s senses. Empedocles moved beyond the Milesian attempts of explaining the universe as a single substance and instead chose four­—fire, air, water, earth. Anaxagoras went even further and posited an infinite number of elements. Leucippus, who was probably a Milesian by birth, had Eleatic and Pythagorean teachers. In him and Democritus the existing line of philosophy speculation culminated in a thoroughgoing naturalism with two novel ideas, the atom and the void. Continuing along these materialistic lines Protagoras concluded that “one man’s perception may be more useful than another’s; but it cannot right claim to be truer in any further sense.” That is, naturalistic materialism eliminates the possibility of knowledge and lands Protagoras in skepticism. Clark concludes, “Henceforth this problem [how knowledge is possible] assumes far greater importance: subsequent thinkers—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—realize that the nature of the world must be conceived to such terms as to make man’s knowledge of that nature an intelligible possibility.” Perhaps we could say the pre-Socratics tried to understand metaphysics, largely ignored ethics, and finally realized the necessity if not primacy of epistemology.

Due to their individual importance, Plato and Aristotle are each allotted their a chapter of their own. “Plato so overshadows all of his predecessors that he is usually put in a class by himself.” (p. 80) The failures of the pre-Socratics left the Sophists in skepticism. To surmount skepticism Plato devised his Theory of Ideas. These unchanging supersensible ideas make for stable objects of knowledge not possible in the Heraclitean flux of the sensible world.

While Plato wrote beautiful dialogues, Aristotle’s work “cannot be classed a literary masterpiece.” (p. 135) Instead of Plato’s theory of reminiscence Aristotle has knowledge rising up from its elementary form in sensation through various stages to the culmination in the intellect. (p. 164) Much of the chapter on Aristotle I found difficult, but foreshadowing Clark’s own philosophy, I found this paragraph significant:

“In Platonic philosophy the highest object of knowledge was the Idea of the Good, the most universal of all concepts, superior even to Being itself. For Aristotle, God and the other existents which first philosophy considers are both objectively existent and also the highest universals; but they are universal because they are first in the scale of existents, not first because universal. Just how a science can be first because it investigates the highest rank of existents and because it investigates the highest universals is not quite clear, since ordinarily the more universal a concept is the less real it is. The difficult is removed if we assume that the highest concepts are in the mind of the highest being. Now Plotinus and Augustine, each in his own manner, will later make this assumption, but Aristotle remains vague.” (p. 168)

Clark devotes part of the chapter on Aristotle to an explanation of his logic. In a brief note, which decades later Clark will significantly elaborate on, he writes,

“On the whole, however, Aristotle’s formulation of logic has remained unchanged to the present day. Modern symbolic logic may analyze the proposition All S is P into more elemental expressions; with its universe of discourse and null class it may extend and generalize Aristotelian theorems; but its early suspicion that subalternation, without which there is no Aristotelian logic, is invalid, has been shown to depend on unwarranted or at least unnecessary assumptions.” (p. 175)

Clark’s final chapter on the Hellenistic Age. He explains that the three periods of Greek philosophy—Pre-Socratic, Plato/Aristotle, and Hellenistic—can be roughly said to correlate to the stages of science, epistemology, and ethics. This final chapter emphasizes the philosophy of Plotinus on whom Clark also wrote a number of published articles in the early years of his career.

Though that ends Clark’s contribution to the volume, other sections (written by Clarke, Martin, and Ruddick) may be of value in understanding Clark’s own philosophy. For instance, after quoting Augustine, F. P. Clarke writes, “This is clearly a reinterpretation of Plato, as Augustine himself admits. In the place of reminiscence literally understood, we have the doctrine of illumination.” (p. 258) It is the doctrine of illumination which Clark later takes up in his own theory of epistemology.

For the previous review in this series see here.

For the next review in this series see here.

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GHC Review 4: Selections from Hellenistic Philosophy

GHC Review 4; Selections From Hellenistic Philosophy

Selections From Hellenistic Philosophy, Gordon H. Clark, ed. New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1940, 267 pp.

Clark’s Selections From Hellenistic Philosophy is in a sense a second to Nahm’s similarly-titled Selections from Early Greek Philosophy. It continues to a later period with selections from various ancient philosophers in chapters on Epicureanism, The Stoics, Plutarch, Philo Judaeus, Hermes Trismegistus, and Plotinus.

The translation of the selection of Hermes Trismegistus was made by William Romaine Newbold, Clark’s professor at Pennsylvania who died young in 1926. Clark notes, “Since I was studying with him at the time of his death, Mrs. Newbold most graciously gave me his copy with its interleaved translation and extensive notes.” (preface, vii)

In this—now the fourth work on Greek philosophy reviewed in this series—there is again little of Clark’s own philosophical views explicitly present. Yet there are things of value to learn from this study of the Greeks.

Clark explains that while the Epicureans remained in detailed agreement with Epicurus himself, the Stoics are more difficult to study because of their constant change. (p. 50) The Stoics also were willing to engage in political activity while the Epicureans recommended a life of pure contemplation. (p. 53)

Clark’s comments on Philo are particularly instructive. He writes, “Even the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, contains slight traces of Greek influence. For example, many of the anthropopathisms were modified; in one or two places the concept of creation was made to approximate the Platonic picture of formation; and in at least one case the influence of Stoicism is discernible in the choice of a technical term. While these peculiarities cannot be explained as the normal result of translating, on the other hand, there is no good reason to suppose that the translators knew and intentionally promoted the later Alexandrian philosophy.” (p. 151) “In order to harmonize the revelation from God in the Old Testament with the clear, rational Greek philosophy, Philo made large use of the allegorical method of interpretation.” (p. 152) He notes also that “Because Phlio used the term Logos, because he spoke of the Logos as the image of God, the first begotten son of God, because of the repeated use of personification, Christians have at times believed they have discovered in Philo an anticipation, if not of the Trinity completely, at least of the second person of the Trinity.” (p. 157) But, Clark responds, “For although [in Philo] the Logos is the Son of God, on the other hand, Laughter is also a the Son of God, God is the husband of Wisdom, Wisdom is the daughter of God, Wisdom is the mother of the Logos, and Wisdom is the father of instruction. … Philo’s use of allegory and personification is amazing.” (p. 157-158)

As for the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, Clark writes, “The corpus as a whole is not the work of a single author, and attempts to formulate a consistent system of theology or cosmology from its teachings must result in confusion. The critical problems are difficult. None of the tractates was written before the Christian era and they were not collected into a single group much before A. D. 300.” (p. 185) And, “one must judge that the Hermetic literature is a less popular form of Gnosticism, showing Christian influence in its phraseology, but even more pagan in its philosophy than the better known Gnostic systems.” (p. 187)

The book concludes with Plotinus. Interestingly, we read, “Although Plotinus attacked Gnosticism, he does not seem to have been familiar with the main current of Christianity.” (p. 220) Pertinent to epistemology (and I hope to begin writing a book on Clark’s epistemology following this re-read through and review of all his books) Clark notes, “To defend the possibility of knowledge against skepticism Plotinus therefore rejected not only the crude Epicurean form of image-transmission, but also the more refined theory of Aristotle, and even the theory of Plato whom in general he followed. The explanation he accepted is that of the sympathy of similar parts of the same universe.” (p. 222)

Before we move on to Clark’s Christian constructions, there is one more book—A History of Philosophy—in his early stage of work in secular philosophy.

For the previous review in this series see here.

For the next review in this series see here.

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