John Witherspoon’s place in American Presbyterianism

A great number of important 18th and 19th century American Presbyterian theologians could find John Witherspoon as their personal teacher or as a teacher of their teacher to a higher degree. There are important exceptions to this chart. For example, James Henley Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney (two important Southern Presbyterian theologians) did not have teachers in this lineage.

I had first made this chart to see the importance of Archibald Alexander, but it seems John Witherspoon is even more central.


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Machen to Clark’s father.

One of the earliest letters of the now 890 letters I’ve collected in research on Gordon H. Clark is one from J. Gresham Machen to David S. Clark in 1921. I’m not sure if the original is extent, but a photo copy of the letter is in the possession of Dr. Clark’s family. By the time of this letter Machen was already deeply involved in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. He found in Clark’s father a Presbyterian minister on his side. It is likely that they knew each other personally, both living in or near Philadelphia and fighting for the fundamentalist cause in the PCUSA.

I’ve also found the review of David S. Clark’s which Machen refers to in the letter. I’ve transcribed it and posted on the Clark foundation website:

And the letter itself:

[Dr. J. Gresham Machen, Professor at Princeton University to Rev. David S. Clark, Pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church, Phila., and father of Gordon H. Clark]





October 2, 1921

Rev. David S. Clark, D.D.,



My dear Dr. Clark:

I have read with the greatest interest your exceedingly able review of Professor Foster’s book in the “Presbyterian.” It is, of course, far more than a book review. Professor Foster represents the thinking of a large part of what is called, rightly or wrongly, “the religious world.” You have given an admirably clear exposition of the whole modernist position, and your criticisms go straight to the point. Particularly instructive is the way in which you are able to connect these present day popular tendencies with their roots in Schleiermacher and others. I feel greatly heartened by the presence of such a true defender of the faith in the pastorate in Philadelphia.

I hope I may see you before long.

Faithfully yours,

J. Gresham Machen

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List of Students of Gordon H. Clark

Here are all those I know have taken courses from Dr. Clark. Over 60 years in the classroom there would have been thousands of others.


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A List of Differences Between the Thought of Gordon H. Clark and Cornelius Van Til

[Critique of this list is appreciated. I don’t own many of Van Til’s books and so haven’t provided as many quotes of his positions as I would like.]

1. The Incomprehensibility of God

2. The Relationship of the Faculties of the Soul

3. Reconciling Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

4. The Free Offer of the Gospel

5. Whether Arminianism is “Another Gospel”

6. On What is the Christian Presupposition

7. The Validity of Proofs for the Existence of God

8. The Nature of Paradox and the Scriptures

9. The Doctrine of the Trinity

10. The Role of the Senses

11. Whether Logic is Created or Uncreated

12. How Knowledge is Justified

13. Eschatology

14. Lapsarianism (the Logical Order of God’s Decrees)

The differences between the thought of Gordon H. Clark and Cornelius Van Til became well-known after a group of elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church filed a complaint at presbytery against Clark’s ordination in 1944. The document filed, called The Complaint, was signed by twelve elders, including Van Til, three months after Clark’s ordination. It took issue with some of Clark’s views and the procedure under which he was ordained. Clark, with four other OPC elders, responded with a document called The Answer. The controversy, which continued in the church until 1948, centered on four topics:

  1. The Incomprehensibility of God.
    1. Univocal knowledge vs. analogical knowledge.

Clark held that man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge have a univocal or single point of contact in that whatever proposition man knows is the same proposition God already knows. The Complaint, however, argued that “We dare not maintain that [God’s] knowledge and our knowledge coincide at any single point.” That is, The Complaint denied Clark’s view of univocal knowledge.

Though The Complaint was clearly opposed to Clark’s view of univocal knowledge, Van Til later wrote in his 1949 text Introduction to Systematic Theology, “The point of reference cannot but be the same for man as for God” while “the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man coincide at no point in the sense that in his awareness of meaning of anything, in his mental grasp or understanding of anything, man is at each point dependent upon a prior act of unchanging understanding and revelation on the part of God.” Thus (although he probably wouldn’t admit it) Van Til came to side with Clark (against The Complaint he himself signed) in that the “point of reference” (the object known) is the same for God and man. In the second point of the Van Til quote above he argues that man’s knowledge is dependent on or derivative of God’s knowledge. And it is this distinction which Van Til means when he refers to man’s knowledge as “analogical” to God’s knowledge.

Whereas in Van Til’s Introduction to Systematic Theology, “analogical” simply means “derivative of,” Van Til’s creator-creature distinction led the authors of The Complaint to think that analogy entailed that the propositions known by man are not the same as the propositions known by God. In Van Til’s view of the creator-creature relationship (and of Divine Simplicity) man cannot know the same proposition that God knows without being or becoming God. Van Til wrote as much saying:

I pointed out to him [Clark] then that for a creature to seek to know God comprehensively was to seek to wipe out the Creator-creature distinction. When he fell back on the distinction between God’s being and His knowledge saying that it would be sin for men to aim for identity with God’s being but no sin for man to seek for omniscience in knowledge I indicated that such a distinction would cut a rift in the very nature of God. But to no avail.” – CVT to Charles Stanton, 27 December 1945, WTS Archives.

Thus the implication of Van Til’s view of the creator-creature relationship (that there can be no point of coincidence between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge) which was reflected in The Complaint, contradicted his view that The point of reference cannot but be the same for man as for God.” His view of the creator-creature distinction also led The Complaint to argue for a distinction in “content” between the knowledge of man and the knowledge of God.

    1. Knowledge as mode and object vs. knowledge as mode, object, and content.

In Clark’s view of knowledge, there is a distinction between the mode of knowing and the object of knowledge. Though the object (the proposition known) is the same for God and man, the mode (or way) in which man knows a proposition is different from the mode in which God knows the proposition. Man’s mode, he held, is qualitatively different from God’s mode of knowing in that man’s mode is discursive (coming to know propositions through learning) and God’s mode is intuitive (having always known all true propositions). Further, in Clark’s view there is a quantitative difference in the object of knowledge. That is, man knows (and can only ever know) a finite number of propositions while God’s knowledge is not limited by anything outside of himself. In addition, Clark argued a second quantitative distinction in that man can only know some implications of any given proposition, whereas God knows all the implications of any given proposition.

The Complaint argued that the mode/object distinction (with Clark’s quantitative and qualitative distinctions included) was insufficient. It agreed with Clark as far as the distinctions he did make, but wanted an addition a distinction in “content.” The Complaint read:

We gladly concede this point [Clark’s distinction in mode]… However, this admission does not affect the whole point at issue here since the doctrine of the mode of the divine knowledge is not a part of the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of his knowledge. The latter is concerned only with the contents of the divine knowledge. Dr. Clark distinguishes between the knowledge of God and of man so far as mode of knowledge is concerned, but it is a tragic fact that his dialectic has led him to obliterate the qualitative distinction between the contents of the divine mind and the knowledge which is possible to the creature.”

Clark, however, never received a satisfactory answer as to what was meant by “content.” He wrote to Edmund Clowney:

The mode of knowing, as I use the word, is simply the psychological activity of the knower. The object is what the knower knows. An answer to the question, How do you know, would state the mode of your knowing. An answer to the question, What do you know, would state the object. And so far throughout all the discussion I have failed to see any reason for introducing any other element; in particular the third element [content] that has been introduced is simply unintelligible to me.” – Clark to Edmund Clowney, 20 February 1946, WTS Archives.

The Complaint had denied any coincidence of “content” between man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge and had clearly meant “the proposition known” – that is, the object of knowledge itself. Realizing later, as Clark argued, that this led to skepticism, Van Til and his supporters changed their meaning of “content” to a vague “character of understanding.” But without explaining what this “character of understanding” was (and how it differed from the mode and object) it was impossible for Clark, or anyone else, to know what they were talking about.

For more analysis of this situation see my Chapter 8 “The Continued Controversy and its Results” in
The Presbyterian Philosopher, Wipf & Stock, 2017.

    1. The nature of knowledge.

Clark held that knowledge is always propositional, that is – one can only know propositional statements as only propositional statements, not terms or ideas, can be true. Truth is a property only of propositions.

Opposed to Clark, The Complaint read, “Now even if it could be assumed that human knowledge has this propositional character, it would still involve a tremendous assumption to conclude that the divine knowledge must possess the same character. Since our thinking is pervasively conditioned by our creaturehood, we may not safely infer the character of our knowledge what must be true of the knowledge of the Creator. Even if we could be sure that human knowledge might be resolved into distinct propositions, it would not necessarily follow that the knowledge of God, who penetrates into the depths of his own mind and of all things at a glance, would be subject to the same qualification.” – The Complaint

Clark put the burden of proof was on the Westminster professors to give evidence for the existence of “nonpropositional truth” and suggested that it may be “a phrase without meaning.”

If knowledge is “justified true belief” and belief is “assent to an understood proposition” then so-called non-propositional knowledge would be “justified true assent to a non-propositional proposition.” And a non-propositional proposition is a contradiction in terms.

  1. The Relationship of the Faculties of the Soul.
  1. The relationship of the faculties in the human soul.
  2. The relationship of human faculties and divine faculties.
  3. Whether God has emotions.

Clark held that when the Westminster Confession of Faith says “God is without parts or passions” that the “passions” are emotions, which God does not have. Those places then in Scripture that some might see as attributing emotions to God, Clark would call either anthropopathisms (human emotions attributed to God as a literary device) or volitions (acts of will).

  1. Reconciling Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility.

The Complaint was concerned that Clark’s attempt to reconcile God’s sovereignty and human responsibility (in his 1932 article “Determinism and Responsibility”) was by its very attempt a form of “rationalism.” Rather, they would have it that no one attempt to solve this supposed “apparent paradox.” Clark opposed the idea that Scripture contained such paradoxes, and believed that Christians are bound to try to understand God’s revelation through the correct hermeneutical method of comparing Scripture with Scripture.

  1. The Free Offer of the Gospel.

The Complaint argued that “God sincerely offers salvation in Christ to all who hear,” and “would have all who hear accept it and be saved.” The Answer states “Dr. Clark’s refusal to use such words [sincere, offer] springs from his desire not to be charged with Arminianism” as these terms have often been used by Arminians and Lutherans to describe an unlimited atonement and universal favor of God to all men.

I discuss these first four issues at length, including a historical survey of “the free offer” in Chapter 7, “The Arguments of the Ordination Controversy” in The Presbyterian Philosopher, Wipf & Stock, 2017.

  1. Whether Arminianism is “Another Gospel.”

At issue also during the 1940s in the OPC, but not brought up in The Complaint against Clark’s ordination was the question of whether Arminianism was “another Gospel.” Granted, Clark and Van Til did not get into this issue directly with each other, but some men who supported their respective sides of the controversy did argue over this question.

The issues arose when E. J. Young, (a member of the Westminster Theological Seminary faculty along with Van Til) writing an article in the Presbyterian Guardian titled “Is Arminianism the Gospel” (Sept. 25, 1944, p. 264) concluded “All of which is another way of saying that Arminianism is not the gospel.”

Responses against the position of this article came out in the
Guardian by Robert Strong (Oct. 25, 1944, p. 302 and Dec. 25, 1944, p. 360) Richard Willer Gray (Jan. 25, 1945, p. 21-22), and John Wistar Betzold (Sept. 25, 1945, p. 262). They held that Arminianism was not “another Gospel” but an inconsistent expression of the true Gospel. Strong and Gray were leading supporters of Clark during the controversy. Though Clark didn’t get into the debate in the Guardian his position is clearly of Strong/Gray/Betzold as evidence by a letter he wrote of March 1, 1948 and also in What Presbyterians Believe (1956) p. 22, 74.

Responses in favor of E. J. Young’s position were written for the Guardian by Edward Herrema (an outspoken pro-Van Til figure) (Dec. 10, 1944, p. 344), Thomas Birch (the editor of the paper) (Jan.10, 1945, p. 8), and Paul Woolley (a colleague of Van Til’s at WTS) (Apr. 10, 1945, p. 106).

  1. On What is the Christian Presupposition.

Van Til holds that we must presuppose the triune God. (The Defense of the Faith, p. 50.) [Can someone confirm this, I don’t have a copy.] In other places he says we must presupposes the triune God “of the Scriptures.” His emphasis seems to be on apologetics with unbelievers in making these statements, where Clark focuses on epistemology.

Must not God be the axiom? For example, the first article of the Augsburg Confession gives the doctrine of God, and the doctrine of the Scripture hardly appears anywhere in the whole document. In the French Confession of 1559 the first article is on God, the Scripture is discussed in the next five. The Belgic Confession has the same order. The Scotch Confession of 1560 begins with God and gets to the Scripture only in article nineteen. The Thirty-Nine Articles begin with the Trinity and Scripture comes in articles six and following. If God is sovereign it seems very reasonable to put him first in the system. But several other creeds, and especially the Westminster Confession, state the doctrine of Scripture at the very start. The explanation is quite simple: our knowledge of God comes from the Bible. We may assert that every proposition is true because God thinks it so, and we may follow Charnock in all his great details, but the whole is based on Scripture.” – Clark, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 72.

  1. The Validity of Proofs for the Existence of God.

Clark rejected the traditional proofs for the existence of God as logically invalid. Van Til however held “[…] I do not reject ‘the theistic proofs’ but merely insist on formulating them in such a way as not to compromise the doctrines of Scripture.” – Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 197.

Van Til has said this over and over again. He doesn’t accept Thomas’ proof or any other proof. But he insists that there is an absolutely certain proof. A cogent theistic proof. And he indicates he means the cosmological proof not the ontological proof. And for some forty years now I’ve been bugging him to show me the proof, so I can see whether it is valid or not. He hasn’t accommodated me as yet.” – Clark, John Frame and Cornelius Van Til, audio lecture.

  1. The Nature of Paradox and the Scriptures.

Van Til emphasizes “apparent paradox” in those places of Scripture where he cannot reconcile two doctrines. This “apparent paradox” he holds to be objective in one sense – that it will be apparent for all people who read the Scripture – but not objective in the sense that God cannot solve the dilemma. Clark, on the other hand, held that paradox is a “charley horse between the ears” and that what is apparent to one person may not be apparent to another. Thus he held that we should attempt to resolve paradox through Scripture interpreting Scripture and deductions by “good and necessary consequence.”

A paradox, in my opinion at any rate, a paradox is simply a confusion in one’s mind. And hence what is paradoxical to one man is not paradoxical to another.” – Clark, John Frame and Cornelius Van Til, audio lecture.

  1. The Doctrine of the Trinity.

Van Til thinks it is acceptable to refer to the Trinity as both “one person” and “three persons.” Whereas he might think this is a paradox, Clark calls it a contradiction.

Van Til’s theology, I suppose you could say mainly or basically, that it is Reformed, but not all is quite the same. He has a view of the Trinity that no theologian that I know, no orthodox theologian I know of, has ever come up with at all. He holds that God is not only three persons in one substance to use that horrible Latin word that doesn’t mean anything. He holds that God is both three persons and one person. And he explicitly denounces the usual apologetic defending the doctrine of the Trinity which is that God is three in one sense, and one in another sense, and hence there is no contradiction because there are lots of things that are three in one sense and one in another. You can get all sorts of examples. The easiest one to think of is a business corporation that has three officers. President, Vice-President, and Secretary Treasurer. And here the corporation is one corporation but three officers. And you can have one godhead and three persons. Or all sorts of combinations where you have three in one, but in different senses. And that is the standard orthodox position all the way back from Athanasius. Van Til denounces this. And says that the Trinity is both one person and three persons. And he calls this a paradox. Which is putting it mildly.” – Clark, John Frame and Cornelius Van Til, audio lecture.

  1. The Role of the Senses.

Clark rejects any empirical notion that the senses provide man with knowledge. Van Til it seems (and his student Bahnsen more certainly) believes that knowledge can come through the senses. [I’d be glad to be correct on this or be given quotes from Van Til that support it.]

  1. Whether Logic is Created or Uncreated.

Concerned as usual with upholding his view of the creator-creature relationship, Van Til could not have it that the logic used by a right-thinking man is the same as the logic used by God. “The law of contradiction, therefore, as we know it, is but the expression on a created level of the internal coherence of God’s nature. […] Christians should employ the law of contradiction, whether positively or negatively, as a means by which to systematize the facts of revelation.” – Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 11.

The laws of logic as God had created them in the universe were not broken by sin…” – Van Til, In Defense of the Faith, p.92.

For Clark, logic is the way God thinks. “The law of contradiction is not to be taken as an axiom prior to or independent of God. The law is God thinking.” – Clark, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 67. Since logic is how God thinks and He is eternal, for Clark logic is uncreated.

This sort of thing occurs in the controversy which Van Til and I engaged in for some years. He would say that I make logic superior to God. Well, that’s sorta nonsense. Logic is the way God thinks. And God’s thinking isn’t superior to him, that’s the way He is.” – Clark, John Frame and Cornelius Van Til, audio lecture.

  1. How Knowledge is Justified.

Clark is an externalist, Van Til is an internalist. That is, Clark held that the justification of true beliefs which makes them knowledge is by factors outside of man – namely, the Holy Spirit enlightening the mind to propositions of the Scriptures. This issue was never debated between the two men, but is an observation from studying their respective epistemologies.

  1. Eschatology

Clark was a historic premillenialist, Van Til an amillennialist.

The present volume advocates premillennialism, though in a manner that many premillenarians will not like. For it is to be feared that premillenarians are their own worst enemies. Why may become somewhat clear as the end approaches. At any rate, the argument of the present volume is not so much that the Bible teaches it unmistakably, as that postmilennialism and amillennialism can in no way be fitted into the Biblical data, and hence only premillenarianism is left.” – Clark, “Eschatology,” First Lessons in Theology.

  1. Lapsarianism (the Logical Order of God’s decrees)

Clark held to surpalapsarianism. See here:

Van Til held to infralapsarianism.

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Gordon Clark and the Salvation of Arminians

With books like What Presbyterians Believe (1956) and Biblical Predestination (1969) there is no doubt that Gordon Clark was an ardent Calvinist. In fact, his acceptance of supralapsarianism and his denial of the so-called “well-meant offer of the gospel” classify him as a High Calvinist. Yet, while being a staunch defender of the Doctrines of Grace, Clark held that salvation is possible for those, like the Arminians, who do not believe these same doctrines.

Clark’s view is most clearly seen in What Presbyterians Believe where, for one, he writes, “Not all Christians are Calvinists … It must not be supposed that these people are therefore lacking in sincerity and devotion or that they are outside the fold of Christ.” (p. 22) There he also calls a particular Arminian a “saint” (p. 71) and refers to other Arminians as “saints;” (p. 72) a term commonly reserved for Christians. In his most definitive statement on the topic, Clark writes, “An Arminian may be a truly regenerate Christian; in fact, if he is truly an Arminian and not a Pelagian who happens to belong to an Arminian church, he must be a saved man. But he is not usually, and cannot consistently be assured of his salvation. The places in which his creed differs from our Confession confuse the mind, dilute the Gospel, and impair its proclamation.” (p. 74) All of these statements from What Presbyterians Believe are kept intact in Clark’s 1965 revamping of the book under similar title, What Do Presbyterians Believe?

Clark clearly takes the same position earlier in a letter where he laments the changing emphasis in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the 1940s. He writes,

Modernism is dangerous because it denies the infallibility of the Bible. It is dangerous because it denies the vicarious satisfaction of Christ. Modernism is dangerous because there is no possibility of eternal salvation from sin for one who accepts these modernistic denials. Modernism is dangerous because it leads to hell. Arminianism accepts the Bible, preaches the vicarious death of Christ, and believes in the Resurrection. All sincere Arminians are predestinated, all persevere in grace, and are perfectly sanctified in heaven. We hold that Arminianism misinterprets the Scriptures on some important points. But, to put it mildly, it requires a singular lack of theological discernment to hold that Modernism and Arminianism are equally dangerous.” – Clark to the Directors of Covenant House, March 1, 1948.

The question of Arminian salvation was one of many questions at issue in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the 1940s. Some elders, including Clark, grew concerned that the Westminster Theological Seminary group was over-playing their Calvinist hand. Opposed to the WTS group, Rev. Richard Willer Gray, a friend of Clark’s in the OPC, wrote an article on the question of Arminian salvation in the Presbyterian Guardian titled “Is Arminianism Another Gospel?” (January 25, 1945, Vol. 14, No. 2, p. 21-22) He writes,

The first conclusion we draw from Galatians 1:6-8, therefore, is that Arminianism is not another gospel but an inconsistent expression of the true gospel. If it were another gospel, those who have embraced it would have fallen away from God. … Arminians, however, insist on making a special case of the sin of unbelief. It is sufficient to condemn a man for whose sins Christ died. They do not see the contradiction in their position. And they resolutely affirm that man is saved on the basis of the substitutionary atonement and that alone. Hence their error is an inconsistency. They do not deny outright, as the Judaizers, that the cross of Christ alone is the hope for lost sinners. Once again we insist that there is a difference between preaching an inconsistent view of the cross and denying the cross. The Arminians and Lutherans do the former; the Judaizers and Modernists do the latter.”

Clark and Gray are not alone in the history of Reformed theologians in holding that Arminians can be saved. In fact, it seems that this is the majority position among Reformed theologians including J. Gresham Machen (See: Christianity and Liberalism, 1923), Charles Spurgeon, and even the ardent High Calvinists in the Protestant Reformed Churches, ( Herman Hoeksema among them. (see: Banner, January 2, 1919)

The question “can Arminians be saved” is really part of the larger question “What belief(s) are necessary for salvation?” That is, what proposition or propositions must those who are saved believe? If we can find an answer to the latter question, then we have the answer to the former.

In Faith and Saving Faith (1983) Clark twice references Romans 10:9-10 “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your mind that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.”

Yet, Clark’s final remarks in Faith and Saving Faith show that he held that there are various sets of belief in Biblical propositions sufficient for salvation. He concludes:

Faith, by definition, is assent to understood propositions. Not all cases of assent, even assent to Biblical propositions, are saving faith; but all saving faith is assent to one or more Biblical propositions.” – Faith and Saving Faith, p. 118.

Clark must then understand Romans 10:9-10 (correctly, I believe) to say that believing the proposition “Jesus is Lord” along with believing the proposition “God raised him [Jesus] from the dead” is a sufficient, but not necessary, set of beliefs for salvation. Clark (and Paul in Romans) leaves open the possibility that one could believe other (even non-overlapping) sets of propositions, and yet be saved.

We have examples of such sets of saving beliefs with the plentitude of Old Testament believers. They did not know that God raised (or would raise) the messiah from the dead, but were yet saved. And we should consider the thief on the cross, to whom Christ said “today you will be with me in paradise.” Of this thief, Clark writes, “As Christ preached to the multitudes, the thief might have been picking their pockets and also picking up some few ideas of what Christ was saying. We must therefore not underestimate the extent of the thief’s knowledge, but we can be pretty sure that he had no theological theory about the nature of saving faith.” (Faith and Saving Faith, p. 2.) That is, the thief was saved, but he was not a Calvinist. Clearly, one does not have to know all the doctrines of Calvinism to be saved.

In which Biblical propositions then does belief entail salvation? Surely believing “Jesus wept” is a trivial, non-saving proposition. Even believing “God is one” is not a saving proposition in itself as we see in James 2:19 – “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe, and shudder!” In fact, as Clark held, even belief in certain doctrines as central to the Christian Faith as the virgin birth of Christ is not necessary for salvation. He wrote, “Doubtless it is possible for some heathen to accept Christ’s sacrifice for his sin without knowing of the virgin birth and be saved.” (What Presbyterians Believe, p. 39.)

A Christian may be saved with a faith of minimal content, as are elect infants who die infancy, but no Christian should, of course, be looking for the minimal number of propositions to believe in order to be saved. A Christian should continue to seek the knowledge of God in the Scriptures and continually grow in faith. Clark writes,

But even if a minimum of propositions could be listed, below which number justification were impossible, it would still be the wrong question with a perverted outlook. This is the basic weakness contributing to the low spiritual level of most so-called fundamentalist congregations. The church is neither commanded, encouraged, nor even permitted to be satisfied with a bare minimum of a half dozen doctrines. Historic Presbyterianism is in a much better position with its multi-paragraph thirty-three chapters of the Westminster Confession. The Bible commands the maximum, not the minimum. Jesus said, Matthew 28:19, 20 Teach all nations … instructing them to observe all whatever I command you.” – Faith and Saving Faith, p. 109-110.

And so he concludes:

There seems to be no other conclusion but that God justifies sinners by means of many combinations of propositions believed. For which reason a minister should not confine himself to topics popularly thought to be ‘evangelistic,’ but should preach the whole counsel of God trusting that God will give someone the gift of faith through sermons on the Trinity, eschatology, or the doctrine of immediate imputations.” – Faith and Saving Faith, p. 110.

If Old Testament believers are saved, and the thief on the cross is saved, both of whom lacked knowledge of important Biblical propositions, so likewise can Arminians be saved by means of one of many combinations of propositions believed.

Clark correctly holds not only that Arminians can be saved, but that all true Arminians are saved. True Arminians believe a set of Biblical propositions sufficient for salvation because they believe that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. A Calvinist might challenge whether an Arminian actually believes “Jesus is Lord.” A Calvinist might ask, “Do Arminians, by virtue of thinking they have free will, deny ‘Jesus is Lord?’” Though the implication of Arminian free-will is a denial of “Jesus is Lord,” Arminians (in a fortunate logical error) don’t follow this implication. True Arminians do believe the proposition “Jesus is Lord.” And true Arminians believe the proposition “God raised Jesus from the dead.” And thus according to Romans 10:9-10 all true Arminians are saved.

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Clark on “Permission”

When we examine our own experience of permission we see that always it implies an independent power in another person. We permit a man to do something; that is we do not hinder him from doing it; but his is the power and frequently enough we could not have forced him to do it if he had not wanted to. But there is no power independent of God, in the case of omnipotence the distinction between permission and something else vanishes, and I want to stick by the proposition of the catechism: God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. Further, the introduction of permission, which was intended to relieve God of responsibility for sin, does not accomplish its end. The historic objection to Christianity runs: Either God could have prevented sin and did not want to, or else he wanted to and could not; therefore God is either not omnipotent or not good. I cannot see how permission enables us to escape that dilemma. If we could prevent a suicide but permit it, we seem as morally reprehensible as if we had actually goaded the person to his act. Permission, therefore, does not solve the problem for which it was invented. My own solution — well, at least no one has convinced me of logical error, though that may be due to my stubbornness or stupidity. – Clark to J. Oliver Buswell, Dec. 28, 1935.

It seems to me impossible to produce any definition of the word permission, as distinct from something not permission, that would apply to an omniscient and omnipotent Being. It is one of the standing flaws of those who speak about permission that they do not say clearly what they mean. But of course you will not agree with me here. At any rate, Calvin, I think, is with me.” – Clark to J. Oliver Buswell, Dec. 14, 1948.

Not only are free will and permission irrelevant to the problem of evil, but further the idea of permision has no intelligible meaning. It is quite within the range of possibility for a lifeguard to permit a man to drown. This permission, however, depends on the fact that the ocean’s undertow is beyond the guard’s control. If the guard had some giant suction device which he operated so as to engulf the boy, one would call it murder, not permission. The idea of permission is possible only where there is an independent force, either the boy’s force or the ocean’s force. But this is not the situation in the case of God and the universe. Nothing in the universe can be independent of the Omnipotent Creator, for in him we live and move and have our being. Therefore the idea of permission makes no sense when applied to God.” – Religion, Reason, and Revelation, p. 205. (1961)

Calvin makes it quite clear that there is no such thing as permission with God. One who tries to use this idea is sure to be confused, for when it is logically followed, the result is Arminianism or worse.” – Clark to Tim Deal, 10/28/1982.

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Elements of Gordon Clark’s Theory of Knowledge

Elements of Gordon Clark’s Theory of Knowledge

This post seeks to clarify Gordon Clark’s theory of knowledge by first evidencing how he defined some of his terms and then enumerating key elements of his theory.

A. Definitions

Belief – assent to an understood proposition.

Taking into consideration the various places where Clark speaks of “belief,” the term for Clark is best defined as “assent to an understood proposition.” In his book Faith and Saving Faith, Clark writes, “Belief is the act of assenting to something understood.” (p. 51) And in his audio lecture “A Defense of Christian Presuppositions in the Light of Non-Christian Presuppositions,” Clark says, “Belief is assent. It is assent to an understood proposition.” (min 106)

Truth – the propositions God thinks.

In Clark’s unpublished systematic theology, First Lessons in Theology, he writes, “Truth is what God thinks or knows.” And since the “what” must be propositions [See attribute 1 below], we can say truth is the propositions God thinks. God thinks no false propositions, for it is his very thinking a proposition which makes it true. As Clark writes, “A proposition is true because God thinks it so.” – An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 66.

Knowledge – the possession of a truth (by a mind).

In Clark’s A Christian View of Men and Things, he writes Knowledge means the possession of truth.” (p. 217). In his audio lecture “Language, Truth, and Revelation, Part 2” he asked rhetorically “and is not knowledge the possession of a truth?” And writing for the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Clark provides a definition, “Presumably knowledge, if it be defined at all, means the possession of truth by a mind.” This latter definition is more complete as it gives what — the mind — possesses the truth.

Omniscient / omniscience – having all knowledge.

In his audio lecture, “A Defense of Christian Presuppositions, Clark says: “God is omniscient. He has all knowledge.” God does not “know falsehoods” for the simple reason that this is a contradiction in terms. Further, all which God thinks is true is true by virtue of it being thought by God. As Clark writes, “God is the source and determiner of all truth.” – An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 65. And again: “God is eternally omniscient. He has not learned his knowledge. And since God exists of himself, independent of everything else, indeed the Creator of everything else, he must be the source of his own knowledge.” – An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 65.

Fact – a value with a variable error of zero.

Although “fact” isn’t as prominent a term in epistemology as are belief, truth, and knowledge, I’ve listed Clark’s definition here for good measure. In his debate with David Hoover, minute 58, Clark says “my definition of fact is a value with a variable error of zero.”

B. Attributes of Truth

1. (All) Truth is propositional.

Clark’s view that truth is necessarily propositional is widespread and frequent in his works. For example, in his audio lecture “Language, Truth, and Revelation, Part 2” he says “knowledge always comes in propositions” [min 11], “The content of knowledge is always propositional” [min 12], and “all truth comes in propositions.” [min 13] Again, in his debate with David Hoover, Clark says “truth in my opinion is always a quality of propositions.” [min 148] And in A Christian View of Men and Things, Clark writes, “The object of knowledge is a proposition.” (p. 319). So numerous are the references to this point of Clark’s theory in his works that those listed above make for only a small sample.

2. Truth is consistent / systematic / coherent.

It is also clear from Clark’s works that he holds to the Coherence Theory of Truth; that is, the theory that no two true propositions contradict one another.

In his audio lecture “How Does Man Know God,” Min 30, Clark says, “Whatever contradicts itself is not truth. Truth must be consistent.” In A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 25, he writes, “[if there is a God] 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 derives 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 ordered system.” And in An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 60, he writes, “Truth is not thus disjointed. It is systematic.”

3. Truth is eternal

Knowledge therefore requires an existing object, and that object is truth — truth that always has and always will exist.” – A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 319.

4. Truth is unchangeable / immutable.

It follows then that truth must be unchangeable. What is true today always has been and always will be true. … To speak of truth as changing is a misuse of language and a violation of logic.” – A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 319.

This is not to say that the proposition “George Washington is alive” is eternally true. This proposition is vague; it is incomplete. The eternal proposition will be “George Washington is alive at time T on day D.” This proposition is either true or false for all eternity.

5. Truth is mental / spiritual.

If a truth, a proposition, or a thought were some physical motion in the brain, no two persons could have the same thought. A physical motion is a fleeting event numerically distinction from every other. … If one may think the same thought twice, truth must be mental or spiritual. – A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 319-320.

C. Important Elements of Gordon Clark’s theory of Epistemology

1. Belief and faith are synonymous terms.

There has been debate over the legitimacy of the phrase “justification by belief” between some who affirm to be Clarkians and some who do not follow Clark, but there is no doubt what Clark held. In his audio lecture “A Defense of Christian Presuppositions in the Light of Non-Christian Presuppositions,” min 106, Clark says, “And so believing, and I really prefer the word believing, because the word faith is Latin, and I don’t like Latin, I like the Greek pistueo.” Clark also writes, “Exegesis will reveal that faith, Christian faith, is not to be distinguished from belief.” – Religion, Reason, and Revelation, p. 99. And in two other places he uses the terms interchangeably: 1: Faith or belief is a gift from God and he gives it to whom he will.” – The Holy Spirit, p. 83. And 2: “The distinction between the faith the devil has and the kind the regenerate man has, is not in the mental function involved, but it is a difference of object. We put our faith or belief in Christ’s finished work for us; the devil does not.” – Clark to J. Oliver Buswell, Feb. 9, 1939.

2. Man was created with (innate) knowledge.

What is implied in Genesis is expanded in Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10. These two passages, in explaining regeneration as a sort of new creation, teach that man was originally created in knowledge and in righteousness.” – Clark-Hoover debate, minute 14-15.

The Scriptures do not discuss empiricism as such, but the doctrine of the image of God in man, the law written on the hearts of the Gentiles, and the transmission of original sin all indicate an innate, non-empirical inheritance, which precludes this philosophy.” – “Empiricism” in Encyclopedia of Christianity.

I hold that every man is made in the image of God, and that every man has what may conveniently be called an innate idea of God.” – Clark to J. Oliver Buswell, Nov. 10, 1947.

Is it not possible that the knowledge of God is innate? May we not have been born with an intuition of God, and with this a prior equipment we see the glory of God upon the heavens? – What Presbyterians Believe, p. 7.

3. The role the senses play in knowledge acquisition is as a “stimulus to intellectual intuition.”

Though Gordon Clark frequently critiqued the philosophy of empiricism, it is false to conclude that he allowed for no role of the senses of seeing, hearing, etc. Granted, Clark disagreed with the theories of sensation provided (or usually not even provided) by empiricists and other philosophers. He rejected their theories. But, this does not mean he was left without any theory of sensation. Clark accepted St. Augustine’s view that the senses provide a stimulus to recollection as the follow extended quotes show:

Dr. Robert L. Reymond … writes, “There are scores of Biblical passages which teach by inference if not directly that sensory experience plays a role in knowledge acquisition.” And he gives these various Scriptural references. “It seems to me” (me here refers to Reymond) “it seems to me that before he (that’s myself) will convince many Christians of his position, that Clark must explain satisfactorily in another way which is virtually universally taken, literally hundreds of passages of Scriptures which employ the words see, hear, read, listen, and so on.” “At this time I am not convinced that he is accord with Scripture when he denies to the senses a role in knowledge acquisition and would hope that he would take the Greek skeptics less seriously and the implications in many of the subsidiary axioms of Scriptures more seriously than he does.” … His words “denies to the senses a role in knowledge acquisition” are vague. For the do not specify what role. And, I have talked with Reymond personally and asked him make it clear what role does he give to sensation. And neither to me in conversation nor in his books does he give any notion of the role sensation plays. Animals have more acute sensations than human beings, but they know no mathematics, construct no syllogisms, nor do they write narratives. Sensation does not help them in these matters. Sleeping and eating play a role in knowledge acquisition in this life. For without them we them we would not remain in this life. But their role contributes nothing the content of knowledge. Nutrition plays a role, but it is not true that Der Mensch ist was er isst [A man is what he eats]. … Philosophers who insist on giving a role to sensation in the acquisition of knowledge should first define sensation, which they never do, at least the Christian apologetes never do. Then show how sensation can become perception, which they never do. And presumably how memory images can produce universal concepts by abstraction. If this is not their scheme, and that is the usual scheme in the history of philosophy, if that is not their scheme, and it might not be, then they should describe in detail what their scheme is. It is not enough to speak vaguely about some role or another. Plato gave the senses role of stimulating reminiscence. Presumably this role would not satisfy Dr. Reymond. St. Augustine, though he altered his views as he grew older, gave a different role to sensation, and without too much distortion one may call it a “stimulus to intellectual intuition.” – “A Christian Construction, Part 2.” (Also see: Language and Theology, p. 114.)

And from the audio lecture, “A Contemporary Defense of the Bible”:

Questioner: In your philosophy, when you read, what role does reading have? When you see what role does seeing have?

Clark: A stimulus to recollection if you wish.

Questioner: Dr. Clark, I want to know if faith comes by hearing and hearing by preaching the word does not our sensory organs have some type of role in coming to know knowledge?

Clark: Yes. It is like the violin that reminds you of Mischa Elman or whoever else it may be. There is sensory stimulation, but the stimulation, the sense material, will never give you the knowledge. Our knowledge is due to the light that lightens every man that comes into the world. And the reason is that God’s mind and our minds penetrate. We exist in God. And maybe I might not want to press it quite as far as the author of this expression pressed it but we see all things in God. We live and move and have our being in God and he uses these things to stimulate us but the knowledge itself, the propositions, cannot be deduced from any sensory experience.

I can’t do much better explaining this than Gary Crampton in “Scripturalism: A Christian Worldview”:

The Bible teaches, as stated by John Calvin, that the Spirit of God has implanted an innate idea of Himself, a sensus divinitatis, in all men, which is propositional and ineradicable. This is due to the fact that all men are created in the image of God. When man interacts with God’s creation, which demonstrates His glory, power, and wisdom, man, as God’s image, is forced, in some sense, to “think God.” The visible creation itself does not mediate “knowledge” to man (as in the epistemology of Thomas Aquinas), for the visible universe sets forth no propositions. Rather, it stimulates the mind of man to intellectual intuition (or recollection), who as a rational being is already in possession of apriori, propositional information about God and His creation. This apriori information is immediately impressed upon man’s consciousness, and it is more than adequate to show that the God of the Bible is the one and only true God. Yet, without the “spectacles” of special revelation, all of the evidences speak in vain. One must not attempt to prove God; He is the necessary premise for all proof. Since all knowledge must come through propositions (which are either true or false), since the senses in interacting with creation yield no propositions, knowledge cannot be conveyed by sensation. Rather, as noted above, the senses apparently stimulate the mind of man to intellectual intuition, to recollect the God-given innate ideas that man already possesses. Gordon Clark used the illustration of a piece of paper on which is written a message in invisible ink. The paper (by illustration, the mind) might appear blank, but in actuality it is not. When the heat of experience is applied to the mind (as when heat is applied to the paper), the message becomes visible. Human knowledge, then, is possible only because God has endowed man with certain innate ideas.

4. The Correspondence Theory of knowledge should be rejected.

Suffice it to say that if the mind has something which only corresponds to reality, it does not have reality; and if it knows reality, there is no need for an extra something which corresponds to it.” – “The Bible as Truth.”

5. Knowledge is justified true belief. (when each of these terms is understood in a particular way)

Students of Dr. Clark’s thought have come to opposite conclusions on the question of whether, for Clark, a true belief must be justified to be considered knowledge. Those who say “no” (i.e. knowledge is true belief) include David Tay and Jason Petersen.. On the other hand, those who say “yes” (i.e. knowledge is justified true belief) include John Robbins, Gary Crampton, Sean Gerety, Cal Beisner, Ryan Hedrich, Luke Miner, Cjay Engel, Tim Shaughnessy, and Carlos Montijo.

Jason Petersen:

David Tay:

John Robbins (from 2003):

Gary Crampton (from 1997): The Scripturalism of Gordon H. Clark

Cal Beisner:

Sean Gerety:

Luke Miner:

Cjay Engel and Luke Miner:

Tim Shaughnessy and Carlos Montijo:

I had originally tried to write a summary of this question and my view of the answer, but I found that the post on ( is better than what I had done. Thus, I recommend it along with the post of Tim and Carlos. And so, for the record, I hold that Clark held knowledge to be more than true belief; knowledge must be justified. And it is justified in that we acquire the knowledge from Biblical revelation and Holy Spirit working on our minds. We do not need to be able to demonstrate the knowledge, for it is not the demonstration that justifies knowledge, but the acquisition of it from an infallible source.

This view accords with both of these two following passages. Whereas the view that knowledge is “true belief” does not accord with the second passage.

Knowledge means the possession of truth. It is not necessary to work out a philosophical system and to demonstrate truths before having them. On the contrary, even in geometry, one usually has come into the possession of a truth before one attempts to demonstrate it; in fact, this will be seen always to be true if we do not restrict our vision to a narrow field. Demonstration and the arrangement of truths into a logical system is undeniably a desideratum; it is precisely the progress in such systematization that distinguishes the philosophical student from the intellectually dull; but philosophers are not the only people who can know the truth.- A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 323.

We can indeed entertain opinions about Columbus, and by accident or good luck they may be true; but we could not know it. Our dear pagan Plato, at the end of his Meno (98b) declared, “That there is a difference between right opinion and knowledge (ōrtheme) is not at all a conjecture with me, but something I would particularly assert that I knew.- Lord God of Truth, p. 40.

6. Externalism

The internalist says that if a person knows P, he must also know how to justify P. He must be able to access (i.e. be aware of) the justification for P. The externalist says that one might have access to the justification for P but he might not.

In line with what was just said above about the justification of knowledge being based on the acquisition itself, rather than the demonstration of knowledge, it is apparent that Clark’s view aligns with externalism. The internalist requires one to have the ability to demonstrate knowledge in order for it to be knowledge, but Clark does not put that stipulation on knowledge.

Furthermore, internalism results in an infinite regress. “The internalist says that if a person knows P, he must also know how to justify P.” If so, then “how to justify P” becomes the new item of knowledge. And so the internalist would have to know how to justify “how to justify P” and know how to justify “how to justify ‘how to justify P'” etc. etc.

In Clark’s audio lecture “A Contemporary Defense of the Bible” a dialogue with a student clearly evidences that he holds the externalist position:

Questioner: But if you can’t know that you have true knowledge, then what’s the point of it.

Clark: Because you still know the truth.

Questioner: But you don’t know that you know the truth. You’re not certain of it.

Clark: Do you know that you know that you know that you know? But let me quote another verse of Scripture. “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” Was the person certain? No, obviously not.

And this view, externalism fits well with knowledge as justified true belief. Were internalism true, demonstration of one’s knowledge would be necessary. With externalism, the justification of true beliefs is possible on the basis of factors outside of oneself; that is – revelation through the word of God and the Holy Spirit enlightening the mind. Were internalism accepted, it would have to be argued that Clark held not to justified true belief, but to true belief as knowledge. (This is because Clark clearly rejected the necessity of demonstration) Thus I can see why those who hold to internalism also hold to true belief. But as a package together that view cannot hold up to various statements Clark made.

7. Epistemology must precede Metaphysics

Whether a political assertion by made, or whether the subject be botany, aesthetics, or Latin grammar, one may always ask, either seriously or in derision, How do you know? – A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 285.

But before any type of metaphysics can be accepted, another and far more crucial question must be asked and answered. After someone asserts that the universe is nothing but atoms in motion, or that the universe is an Absolute Mind, or even that planets revolve around the sun, we may properly ask, How do you know? A theory that tries to explain how knowledge is possible is called an epistemological theory. This is where we must begin.” – An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, p. 27.

We cannot start with God; we must start with the Bible.” – God’s Hammer, p. 176.

8. Man’s knowledge is a subset of God’s knowledge.

Now, it seems obvious that if a man knows any truth at all, he must know a truth that God knows, for God knows all truths.” – Knowledge, in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology.

And insofar as man knows anything, he is in contact with God’s mind. … The Apostle Paul said that in God we all live and move and have our being. … Even human minds in some degree overlap or penetrate each other, and the Divine Mind that encloses or surrounds all others penetrates them completely. Another statement of Paul’s as far reaching implications. He said, “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you, both to will and to do, of his good pleasure. This statement asserts an interpenetration, at least of Christian minds, by the Divine Spirit such that not only the actions but even the will of the man is controlled by the good pleasure of God. – A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 321-322.

We must insist that truth is the same for God and man. Naturally, we may not know the truth about some matters. But if we know anything at all, what we must know must be identical with what God knows. God knows all truth, and unless we know something God knows, our ideas are untrue. It is absolutely essential therefore to insist that there is an area of coincidence between God’s mind and our mind. – An Introduction To Christian Philosophy, p. 77.

In 1 Corinthians 2:16 Paul says “we have the mind of Christ.” The word is nous. How is it possible for us to have Christ’s nous, unless his mind is the truth? We have Christ’s mind insofar as we think his thoughts. Of course, we are not omniscient; we do not think all his thoughts; and worse we think some false propositions too.” – God’s Hammer, p. 185.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of elements of Clark’s theory of knowledge. Other points could easily be mentioned such as the affirmation of secondary causes, the acceptance of a form of occasionalism, and that the Gettier problem is no problem for Clark’s epistemology. If anyone desires to write on those topics, I’ll gladly update this post to include what you have to say assuming that I agree with it.

Posted in Notes on the thought of Gordon H. Clark | 3 Comments