Clark and Van Til on Barth, Part 2.

Part 2: Was Cornelius Van Til the first Reformed theologian to critically oppose Karl Barth?

This is part 2 of a 5 part series on “Clark and Van Til on Barth.”
Click here for Part 1

Variations on the claim that Cornelius Van Til was the first Reformed theologian, or among the first, to voice critical opposition to Karl Barth are repeated in a number of publications. Phillip R. Thorne in Evangelicalism and Karl Barth writes, “Without a doubt the history of Barth’s reception by American Evangelicals must begin with Dr. Cornelius Van Til … Not only was he one of the earliest, most prolific and well read of Fundamentalist Evangelical interpreters, Van Til was the most influential.”1 John Douglas Morrison and Kevin J. Vanhoover, respectively (and with suspicious similarity) write, “Cornelius Van Til … was one of the first evangelical thinkers to critically engage Karl Barth’s theology”2 and “Van Til was the first evangelical to engage Barth critically.”3 Van Til’s biographer John Muether adds, “Having the advantage of knowing Barth in the original German, Van Til’s analysis became one of the earliest of English language assessments.”4 And finally, though we have not here exhausted all variations of the claim, George Harinck notes, “Van Til was an early bird with his 1931 article [His first article on Barth].”5

The claim is accurate to a certain extent. Though not the very first, Van Til was certainly among the earliest of American Reformed theologians to critique Barth. He was the first in The Presbyterian Guardian to critique Barth at any length with his “Karl Barth on Scripture” (Jan. 9, 1937, p. 137). (Though the first critical reference of Barth in that magazine was made by Calvin Knox Cummings, it was just a passing reference.6) And, as other early critiques failed to garner much recognition, Van Til’s persistent critiques of Barth in various publications helped spur a widespread acceptance of his viewpoint. Gregory G. Bolich notes, “Under Van Til … the work of Barth was declared off limits to a generation of evangelicals. Van Til’s general conclusions, as well as many of his specific criticisms, became the primary response of the American conservative community to Karl Barth.”7

The claim however is misleading in some ways. For one, it is false to say Van Til was the very first Reformed theologian (or even American Reformed theologian) to critique Barth in print. Vanhoover, as quoted above, makes this error in declaring Van Til to be “the first evangelical to engage Barth critically.” The same error is only narrowly avoided by Jim Cassidy in a Reformed Forum podcast when he says, “It [Van Til’s critique] is the first, if I understand correctly, its at least among the first of the American Evangelical critiques of Karl Barth.”8 There were in fact a number of Reformed theologians to pen critiques of Karl Barth prior to Van Til doing so.

American Reformed theologians to critique Barth in print prior to Van Til include J. Gresham Machen, Caspar Wistar Hodge Jr., and Alvin Sylvester Zerbe.

J. G. Machen on Barth

On April 23, 1928 (three years before Van Til’s first article on Barth) Machen spoke to a group of pastors on “Karl Barth and the ‘Theology of Crisis.’”9 The paper he read, however, remained unpublished until 1991.10 Though Machen believed, in D. G. Hart’s words, “it was too early to render a definitive judgment because Barth was so difficult to understand” and so decided not to have his paper published, he did critique Barth in the paper. He wrote of his own “uneasy feeling” with regard to the Barthian epistemology and objected to “the attitudes of Barth and his associates toward the historical information that the Bible contains.”(p. 202) Machen concluded, “The truth is that the radicalism of Barth and Brunner errs by not being radical enough.”(p. 203) That is, Machen held that Barth and Brunner had not distanced themselves enough from the modernist schools in which they were taught. Machen continued, “What we need is a more consistent Barthian than Barth; we need a man who will approach the NT documents with presuppositions that are true instead of false, with presuppositions that enable him to accept at its face value the testimony of salvation that the NT contains.” (p. 204) And furthermore, “In their effort to make the Christian message independent of historical criticism, one has the disturbing feeling that Barth and his associates are depriving the church of one of its most precious possessions—the concrete picture of Jesus of Nazareth as he walked and talked upon this earth.” (p. 205)

Though Machen’s 1928 speech on Barth remained unpublished for many years, he did critique Barth in a published article in 1929. In this article, “Forty Years of New Testament Research,” Machen referred to Barth’s commentary on Romans as a “strange exposition” in which “many readers hold up their hands in horror.” And concluded, “It would indeed be a great mistake to regard the Barthian teaching as a real return to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”11

While these writings of Machen predate Van Til’s first published comments on Barth (1931), as D. G. Hart notes, regarding the new theology of Barth and Brunner, Machen “referred all inquires to Van Til” starting in 1929 when Van Til joined Machen’s faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary. Thus, even though Machen published criticism of Barth before Van Til did so, Van Til may have been more aware of Barth’s theology at the time.

C. W. Hodge on Barth

Another American Reformed theologian to publish criticism of Karl Barth predating those of Cornelius Van Til was Caspar Wistar Hodge Jr. (1870-1937). Hodge, a professor at Princeton Seminary and grandson of the prominent 19th century Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge, had conversed with Machen, his Princeton colleague, about Barth in 1928 and published criticism of Barth in an article on “The Reformed Faith” in the Evangelical Quarterly in 1929.12 There Hodge noted a “fundamental difference” between Barth and the Reformed Faith; that Barth denies any innate knowledge in man—any knowledge apart from that revealed in the Word of God, and so makes “the idea of Redemption swallow up that of Creation.” (p. 6)

Like Machen, Hodge had conducted some of his theological studies in Germany. As English-translations of Barth’s books did not begin to be published until 1933, both Machen and Hodge, with their ability to read German, would have had earlier access to Barth’s writings than most American theologians. A similar proficiency in German of our next notable Barth critic, A. S. Zerbe, may also explain the earliness of his critique.

A. S. Zerbe on Barth

Alvin Sylvester Zerbe (1847-1935), one time the President of the Ohio Synod of the Reformed Church in the U. S. and a professor at Central Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH, wrote the first book-length critique of Barth by an American Reformed theologian. Van Til’s first article on Barth, in fact, is a review of Zerbe’s book, The Karl Barth Theology or The New Transcendentalism (1930). Naturally, Van Til’s article postdates Zerbe’s own writing. Dennis Voskuil notes in his essay “Neoorthodoxy” in Reformed Theology in America, “The First book-length interpretation of Barth’s thought was produced by an orthodox Calvinist, Alvin Sylvester Zerbe” who “concluded that Barth’s theology was ‘but a cosmic philosophy in which the fundamental doctrines of God, man, sin, redemption, the Bible, time and eternity are in a new setting and have a meaning entirely different from the old creeds and confessions.’”13 It is possible that Zerbe—a member of the church commonly known as “German Reformed”—himself spoke German and therefore read Barth earlier than English-speaking Americans.

Barthian Critics In the Netherlands:

The Barthian critiques of American Reformed theologians, Van Til included, were yet some years behind the Reformed theologians in the Netherlands. George Harinck in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism writes a fascinating of account of Van Til’s travels to the Netherlands in 1927 where Van Til first comes to learn of Barth’s work and the Dutch criticisms of Barth.

Harinck writes,

“After thirteen years of study and college life, Van Til was free of duties and made a vacation trip to his native country, to meet family and to learn about the present state of the vast Reformed community in the Netherlands. Van Til had not known anything about Karl Barth up until this point. But that would change soon. When he arrived in the Netherlands in the summer of 1927, Karl Barth had recently made two trips to the Netherlands, one in May and June of 1926 and another in March and April of 1927. … When Van Til arrived three months later, Barth was in the air in Holland. … Van Til visited his uncle and aunt in the village of Oegstgeest and also called on their pastor, Klaas Schilder. Schilder was not at home, but later that year they corresponded. Schilder was a young minister in the Reformed Churches, and he was intrigued with Karl Barth. Barth had been known by the neo-Calvinists since his appointment as a professor of Reformed Theology at Göttigen University in 1921. … Schilder had read Barth’s Römerbrief and several other publications, but he hesitated to call Barth a Reformed theologian. … Van Til was impressed by the vivid debates on Barth in the Netherlands and tried to visit him in the summer of 1927 in his hometown of Münster — situated close to the Dutch border — but he did not succeed. Barth was also the reason why Van Til wanted to meet Schilder. Schilder was the first neo-Calvinist to pay serious attention to Barth’s theology, and his interpretation would dominate the neo-Calvinist appreciation of Barth for almost twenty years. He had published his first essay on Karl Barth half a year before Van Til arrived, titled “The Paradox in Religion,” and published his next one, “In the Crisis,” in September 1927. In these two essays Schilder analyzed the theology of Karl Barth and concluded that it would not stop secularization, but on the contrary would support it. …Van Til adopted Schilder’s point of view regarding Barth.14

None of these Barthian critiques pre-dating those of Van Til should take away from Van Til’s place as the most influential early Barth critic in evangelical circles.


As for Gordon Clark (since this is a series on both Clark and Van Til on Barth) when did he first write on Karl Barth? He was much later Van Til. Clark’s first article on Barth, a review of Barth’s The Humanity of God was published in April 25, 1960 edition of Christianity Today. Like most theologians though, Clark was aware of Barth by the 1930s, very likely influenced by some of Van Til’s critiques. This influence of Van Til can be seen in the earliest notes about Barth in Clark’s papers; two letters between J. Oliver Buswell, then President of Wheaton College, and Clark in 1938.

Buswell first wrote to Clark on Dec. 9, 1938: 

Have you kept track of the Barth-Brunner battle-front? I am ashamed to say I have not. I wonder if you can give me a brief comment on the material in the attached copy of the article in the Presbyterian. I am surprised to find Barth even this near to the orthodox position. My last information about Barth of any consequence was in Van Til’s lecture which he delivered in New York several years ago. He was splendid on the subject, but I have not kept up with it since then. (Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark, p. 80)

Clark responded to Buswell, Dec. 12, 1938:

My father sent me the copy of the Presbyterian containing the interview with Barth. I read it very carefully. Van Til has an article on Barth in the last issue of the Guardian, largely devoted to Barth’s conception of time by which Barth removes the incarnation, etc. from calendar time. What Van Til did not mention, but what struck me about the interview is Robinson’s inexplicable omission of the question: Do you believe the Bible to be infallible throughout? The phrase “Word of God” is as you well know ambiguous, but to ask if the sixty-six books contain any error is not ambiguous—yet. (Clark and His Correspondents, p. 81)

In addition to the impact of Van Til’s critiques, Clark likely had his views of Barth shaped by the critique of Barth by his own father, David S. Clark. The elder Clark wrote against Barth in a 1937 article, “Barthian Fog” in The Presbyterian making David (though not Gordon) one of Barth’s earliest American Reformed critics.


1 Phillip R. Thorne, Evangelicalism and Karl Barth: His Reception and Influence in North American Evangelical Theology [Pittsburgh, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1995], 33.

2 John Douglas Morrison, Has God Said? Pickwick Publication, 2006, p. 168.

3 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “A Person of the Book? Bark on Biblical Authority and Interpretation” in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology, ed. Sung Wook Chung, 2006. p. 28.

4 John Muether, Cornelius Van Til, P&R, 2008., p. 121.

5 George Harinck, “How Can an Elephant Understand a Whale and Vice Versa?, The Dutch Origins of Cornelius Van Til’s Appraisal of Karl Barth” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, ed. Bruce L. McCormack, 2011, p. 17.

6 Cummings describes Brunner as “a well-known Barthian who destroys the whole historic basis of Christianity.” Cummings, Calvin Knox, “The Student World and The League of Evangelical Students.” (Jan 20, 1936. p. 126)

7 Gregory G. Bolich, Karl Barth & Evangelicalism Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980, 66-67.

9 J. Gresham Machen, “Karl Barth and ‘The Theology of Crisis’” WTJ 51 (1991) 197-207.

10 D. G. Hart “Machen on Barth: Introduction to a Recently Uncovered Paper.” Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991) 189-196.

11 J. Gresham Machen, “Forty Years of New Testament Research,” Union Seminary Review 40 (1929) 9-11. Reproduced in J. Gresham Machen, “Karl Barth and ‘The Theology of Crisis’” WTJ 51 (1991) 197-207.

12 C. W. Hodge, “The Reformed Faith” Evangelical Quarterly 1929.1.1 (1929): 3-24.

13 Dennis Voskuil, “Neoorthodoxy,” Wells, David, ed. Reformed Theology in America, A History of Its Modern Development, p. 252.

14 George Harinck, “How Can an Elephant Understand a Whale and Vice Versa?, The Dutch Origins of Cornelius Van Til’s Appraisal of Karl Barth” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, ed. Bruce L. McCormack, 2011, p. 19-23.

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Now Available: Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark

Clark and His Correspondents Front Cover.jpg

With Tom Juodaitis editing, and the help of Jaime Rodriguez Jr., Sam Colon, and Errol Ng typing up letters, I narrowed down a “best of” collection of Gordon H. Clark’s letters which is now available for purchase from The Trinity Foundation here:

I think readers of GHC’s books are going to love reading his letters. There are important theological points made in them and fascinating historical and personal details. I expect many of these letters to be referenced in theological discussions, blog posts, and hopefully in other books in due time.


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Clark and Van Til on Barth, Part 1.

This is the first of a series of articles I’m writing on the reactions of Gordon H. Clark and Cornelius Van Til to the theology of Karl Barth. This “Part 1” will simply provide reference to the source material under discussion and online links where available.

Part 2 answers the question, “Was Cornelius Van Til the first Reformed voice to oppose Karl Barth?”

Part 3 will address the question, “How does Clark’s critique of Barth differ from Van Til’s?” Part 4 then explores the debate regarding “Did Cornelius Van Til interpret Karl Barth well or poorly?” And finally, Part 5 seeks to answer the question, “Were Cornelius Van Til’s views actually a lot like Karl Barth’s views?”

First, the source material:

A. Cornelius Van Til’s Books on Karl Barth

1946. The New Modernism.
1962. Christianity and Barthianism.
1962. Barth’s Christology. [Pamphlet]
1964. Karl Barth and Evangelicalism. [Pamphlet]

B. Cornelius Van Til’s Articles on Karl Barth.

1931. Review of The Karl Barth Theology or The New Transcendentalism by Alvin S. Zerbe. Christianity Today 1, no. 10, (February): 13-14.

1937. Karl Barth on Scripture, The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol 3., pp. 137f.

1937. Karl Barth on Creation, The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol 3., pp. 204f.

1937. Karl Barth and Historic Christianity, The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol 4., pp. 108f.

1937. Seeking for Similarities in Theology, The Banner, Vol. 72, pages 75 and 99.

1938. More Barthianism in Princeton. The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol. 5., No. 2. Feb, p. 26-27.

1938. Changes in Barth’s Theology, The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol. 5, pp. 221f.

1942. Kant or Christ, The Calvin Forum, Issue 7, p. 133.

1946. Karl Barth: Die kirchliche Dogmatik.

1948. Karl Barth en de Kinderdoop.

1948. Christianity and Crisis Theology, The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol. 17, p. 69f.

1949. More New Modernism at Old Princeton, The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol. 18, pp. 166f.

1954. Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox? Westminster Journal. 16:2, May.

1959. What About Karl Barth, Eternity.

1960. Karl Barth on Chalcedon, Westminster Theological Journal 22: 147-166

C. Cornelius Van Til’s Lecture on Karl Barth

Van Til on Barth (1968)
Part 1:
Part 2:

D. Gordon Clark’s Book on Karl Barth

1963. Karl Barth’s Theological Method.

E. Gordon Clark’s Articles on Karl Barth

1960. Review of The Humanity of God, by Karl Barth. Christianity Today 25 Apr.

1961. Review of Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum, by Karl Barth. The Presbyterian Journal. May 3.

1961. Review of Deliverance to the Captives, by Karl Barth. Christianity Today 5 Jun.

1961. Questions on Barth’s Theology (Contributor). Christianity Today 3 Jul., Vol. V, No. 20.

1962. Barth’s Critique of Modernism. Christianity Today 5 Jan., Vol. VI, No. 7.

1962. More Questions on Barth’s Views (Contributor). Christianity Today 5 Jan.

1962. Special Report: Encountering Barth in Chicago, Christianity Today, May 11, 1962, 35-36.

1962. Review of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture, by Klaas Runia. Christianity Today 6 Jul.

1963. Barth’s Turnabout from the Biblical Norm (excerpt from Karl Barth’s Theological Method). Christianity Today Jan. 4., Vol. VII, No. 7.

1963. Review of Karl Barth on God, by Sebastian A. Matczak. Christianity Today 1 Mar.

1963. Review of Evangelical Theology by Karl Barth, The Presbyterian Journal 8 May: 21.

1964. Review of Portrait of Karl Barth, by George Casilas, The Presbyterian Journal 30 Sep.: 18.

1964. A Heritage of Irrationalism (excerpt from Karl Barth’s Theological Method). Christianity Today 9 Oct., Vol. VII, No. 7.

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Review of Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross

Barone Luther

Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross, by Marco Barone with foreword by David J. Engelsma. Resource Publications, Eugene, OR. 2017. 141 pp.

For first thirty years of my life I was a member of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Though I am now a licensed Presbyterian minister, I have retained a great interest in and love for the writings of Martin Luther. Barone’s Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross, focused on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, was a welcome return for me to Luther after some years away from his writings.

At 141 pages this book is the length that nearly all books should be, with a shortness that forces brevity. It is evident from the quality of the writing that Barone spent considerable time and effort working out his thoughts on the subject and bringing the book to publication. If the book reads at times like a dissertation that is because it was a dissertation for Barone; for a master’s degree in philosophy at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland.

Barone’s introduction clearly describes the goal and path of the book. His goals are repeated a number of times throughout the book, so that even a person like myself with occasionally poor reading comprehension cannot miss the main points. The book has two major contentions: (1) Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation is essentially Augustinian in nature, and (2) that a specific “Lutheran philosophical thesis”—that all philosophies in which man is not absolutely dependent on God lead to a moralism of man seeking to reach God by human works—is confirmed in the results of the philosophies of Leibniz and Kant (as well as those of Aristotle and Pelagius before Luther’s time).

In the first five chapters Barone works through each of the 28 points of the Heidelberg Disputation explaining the Luther-Augustine connections. He has chapters on “Free Will” (points 13 through 18), “The Law of God and the Works of Man” (points 1 through 12), “The Righteousness of God” (points 25 through 28), and “The Glory and the Cross” (points 19 through 24). Although he does mention at least one difference between Luther and Augustine—Augustine’s “infusion” vs. Luther’s “imputation” of righteousness (p. 9)—I would like to have read more about the differences. Showing that Luther came to understand the “righteousness of God” as “the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith” independent of reading Augustine, but yet in agreement with Augustine, Barone shows that Luther was not slavishly dependent on the African father. (p. 8) He points out that Luther regularly quoted from Augustine, was an Augustinian monk (p. 4), and referred to Augustine as St. Paul’s “most trustworthy interpreter” (p. 3). Where Luther does not explicitly quote Augustine, Barone argues, Luther is often clearly influenced by Augustine. His case is convincing. Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation is an Augustinian document.

While the first five chapters focus on the first contention, the sixth and final chapter addresses the second contention, the more important of the two. Luther’s thesis itself is described: “any ethics set forth independently of a consistent understanding of Christianity is basically constructed on an Aristotelian or Pelagian foundation.” (p. 57) and “any theology or philosophy that attempts to ascribe part or all of the work or part or all of the merit of redemption and enlightenment to the autonomous power or will of man is a form of Pelagianism. This means that it does not properly understand the reasons for and the implications of the cross, and it is a ‘theology of glory.’” (p. 102) Barone’s contribution is to show how two philosophies, those of Leibniz and Kant, confirm the truth of Luther’s thesis. The two examples, however, point to the fact that all non-Biblical philosophies fall into the same error. Specifically, he contends, “Beyond the philosophy of the cross, there is nothing but Pelagianism.” (p. 107)

The difference between Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” and the less-than fully dependent on God “Theology of Glory” is handily summarized in a table on page 107.

Barone Chart

Naturally, neither two examples (Leibniz and Kant), nor five examples (Leibniz, Kant, Aristotle, Scholasticism, and Pelagius), nor even a thousand examples prove the contention. Barone admits as much saying his “thesis and its proof” … “do not claim to be complete and fully satisfactory” but rather “are intended to be an intellectual stimulus for further discussion.” (p. 107) However, as Barone claims, “When God is not the only one at work, man is.” (p. 107) That is, there is no tertium quid, no third option. If this is correct—that there is no third option—then Barone’s contention is correct. Whether it is correct or not (and I think it is), we Christians know of salvation by grace through faith, and so need not seek for any other salvation, whether of our own accord or in anything other than Jesus Christ. Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross is a good warning against all soteriologies which attempt to give man any of the glory properly belonging to God. I pray that many Arminians will read this book.

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My Visit to the PCA General Assembly

Last week I spent three days at the Presbyterian Church in America’s yearly General Assembly, this year in Greensboro, NC. The major work at this GA was related to questions of women’s ordination as deacons. But, since I’m not a member of the PCA (I’m a licensed minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church – Hanover) and since I did not listen in on the sessions, I will not comment on the questions. Rather, this post will just note some of my experiences at the GA.


I spent most of the three days helping out in two booths. First, I spent some time helping out at the booth of my father-in-laws church website business, Five More Talents. Then, when I found that my publisher, Wipf & Stock, had a booth at the GA, I helped them run their table, and sold some copies of my The Presbyterian Philosopher.

Overall, it seemed that the layout was quite poor. The booths were in two sections (one on the main floor, and the other in the upstairs hallway) of the Koury Convention Center. The GA sessions and conference, however, were in rooms where one hardly needed to pass by any of the booths. Thus it was a lonely time for the booth vendors, and a fairly poor investment at $800 a booth for a scant few customers passing by.


I came to the GA thinking I would hardly know anyone there. But I was surprised to meet 20-25 people I knew. Not only was my in-laws family there (7 of them total), but I met up with pastors I knew from Winston-Salem (John Lindsay) and Greensboro (Nathan Kline, who I taught a Titus Bible study under for a spring project during seminary), laypersons from my old Greensboro Bible study, and a colleague from Sangre de Cristo Seminary, among others.


I was glad also at GA to run into some PCA “celebrities.” These are people, perhaps not well-known on a national scale, but prominent in the small conservative Presbyterian world for what its worth. These people are more “celebrities” to me (having read their books) than hollywood actors (whose movies I rarely watch).

So I met up with the soon-to-be-relocating-to-NC pastor Kevin DeYoung and gave him a copy of my book. I was glad to hear from him that he already knew of its existence from a book review.

At lunch on the third day Harry Reeder (Senior Pastor of the large Briarwood Presbyterian Church) sat down at the table I was sitting at. I had listened to (and do recommend) his series on “Christian Manhood Illustrated” last year. I gave Reeder a copy of my book as well, which he seemed glad to receive. He had taken a course from Dr. Clark at Covenant College in 1974.

After the lunch I tracked down Sean Michael Lucas, professor at RTS and author of a book I read last year – For a Continuing Church, The Historical Origins of the PCA. I gave him also a copy of my book and had a pleasant conversation with him.

And finally, on the last afternoon I met up with Derek Halvorsen, President of Covenant College, and had a great conversation with him about his (as he says) “most famous faculty alumni” Gordon H. Clark. I gave Halvorsen a copy of my book as well.


I had some great conversations at the GA with Aaron Gould (who I think is a “Clarkian”), a brilliant young man named Ben Harris, Wayne Sparkman of the PCA archives, and Martin Cameron, librarian at Highland Theological College.

All the good conversation at the GA got me thinking on a number of subjects. Primary among them – should I pursue a PhD in Scotland? Well, one (or three) things at a time! I’m working at a church now, working on ordination for September, and starting a ministry on the Appalachian Trail.



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“Now then…” – A review of “The Presbyterian Philosopher” by OPC minister Gregory E. Reynolds in The Ordained Servant.

Originally posted here:

The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark, by Douglas J. Douma. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016, xxv + 292 pages, $37.00, paper.

Now then,” said Dr. Clark as he sat behind a small utilitarian oak table in a second-floor class room in Carter Hall at Covenant College in the fall of 1974. He then placed his pocket watch on the corner of the table as he looked out the window to gather his thoughts. He proceeded to launch us into the complex world of contemporary philosophy. These were deep waters, but the clarity of Clark’s thought enabled us to navigate.

Gordon Haddon Clark was a major influence on my life. To a novice like me in the world of Christian scholarship, Clark was a breath of fresh air with his old-school pedagogy and theology, during my final year at Covenant College from 1974 to 1975. Since most students were intimidated by his demeanor, which reminded some of Alfred Hitchcock, a few of us had him to ourselves. It only took an ounce of humility and a hunger to learn to get his attention. Underneath the stern exterior was a warmhearted man. He excelled in his knowledge of much of the history of philosophy. To this day I regularly consult his one-volume history of philosophy, Thales to Dewey.1 He taught me the discipline of thoroughly understanding a thinker’s philosophy by analyzing and articulating it in detail before engaging in critical assessment. My first assignment was Augustine’s de Magistro. Then I did my senior thesis on Jonathan Edwards’s The Freedom of the Will.

Coming out of the 1960s counterculture, I found Clark’s logical rigor to be of enormous help—although it could also be frustrating: I won only one game of chess while playing him by mail for a decade up until his death. Beyond the disciplines he taught me, his love for Scripture and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms had a lasting effect on me. I shall never forget his paternal kindness and instruction.

While Douma’s biography is clearly written by an admirer, he does a fine job in tracing the personal biography, intellectual development, and philosophy of Clark. He also doesn’t hesitate to paint an accurate picture of Clark. For anyone who has any connection with Clark’s thought or life this is a fascinating and very informative read. Some of the philosophical and theological discussions will prove difficult for those without training in these disciplines. Also, the details of some of the history, especially in the Clark-Van Til controversy, will be more interesting to those who are at least aware of some of the issues.

If that controversy is all one knows about Clark, this book will demonstrate the great value of Clark’s expansive contribution to the church, whatever one may think of his apologetics. I am convinced of Van Til’s version of presuppositionalism, but I have still learned much from Clark’s approach. I have learned to value what they both held in common as well as to identify their differences. Douma is very good at explaining both.

Gordon Haddon Clark was born on August 31, 1902, to Presbyterian parents. His father, David, was a minister who attended Princeton Theological Seminary and the Free Church College (4). At Princeton David Clark studied under A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, so young Gordon had an early and extensive exposure to the Reformed Faith. Gordon attended the University of Pennsylvania with a mature faith, having made a profession at a Billy Sunday campaign in 1915 (8). Clark thrived in a rigorous academic environment, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and completed his doctorate in 1929 with a dissertation entitled Empedocles and Anaxagoras in Aristotle’s De Anima. He began teaching undergraduate philosophy in 1924 (10–11) at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1936 he founded a chapter of the League of Evangelical Students there (13).

Chapter 2 on intellectual influences shows how he came to his version of presuppositionalism, seeking to uncover logical inconsistencies in unbelieving philosophies and worldviews, while defending the logical consistency of the Christian faith. Plotinus, Augustine, Calvin, and the Westminster Confession all had a powerful influence on his thinking. Of course, he rejected Plotinus’s doctrine of God, some of the remnants of empiricism in Augustine, and maintained that Calvin was the best interpreter of Paul. The Old School theology of Charles Hodge, the Westminster Confession, and the teaching of J. Gresham Machen were all central in the formation of Clark’s thinking (17–22).

During the era of the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), Clark strongly opposed the Auburn Affirmation’s denial of the central tenets of orthodox Christianity. As an elder and a churchman he fought against this heresy in the courts of the church alongside men like H. McAllister Griffiths and Murray Forst Thompson (27). Clark especially admired Machen’s 1923 tour de force, Christianity and Liberalism, in which Machen clearly distinguished between true Christianity and the Liberalism that artfully hid its heresies under Christian language (28). Clark was deeply involved in the founding and early history of the OPC at the behest of Machen (30). Also, Clark’s father, David, was on the board of Westminster Theological Seminary, which Machen had founded in 1929. Douma concludes, “Machen, for his part, saw Clark as an ally” (31).

At the first OPC General Assembly both Clark and Van Til were elected to serve on the Committee on Christian Education. In his first year teaching apologetics at Wheaton, Clark even used Van Til’s syllabi notes. As Clark began to understand Van Til he came to disagree fundamentally with his transcendental approach. This would lead to a major controversy in the 1940s (35).

The Wheaton years (1936–43) were difficult for Clark because he “expounded theological views that irritated the college’s inter-denominational establishment, but despite conflicts with the administration and board of trustees, his years at Wheaton were some of his most productive” (38). He now had an opportunity to influence Christian students, some of whom would become notable church leaders such as Edward Carnell, Edmund Clowney, Carl Henry, Paul Jewett, and Harold Lindsell. Even Billy Graham took Medieval philosophy from Clark (43). Clark sent many students off to Westminster Theological Seminary.

Students often accused Clark of being “cold,” and he was stoic, as Douma admits, but he used this sternness to instill logical thinking and scholarly discipline in his students. If he at times emphasized the rational over against emotion, it was due partly to his stoicism but more to his proper aversion to the anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalism of his day. Once, when reading a passage from Jock Purves’s Fair Sunshine about a Scottish Covenanter martyr, I saw a tear roll down his cheek.

Chapter 5 explore the origins of Clark’s presuppositionalism, which Douma sums as the “synthesis of two factors: (1) the rejection of empiricism and (2) the acceptance of worldview thinking” (58). Clark insisted that absolute truth cannot be obtained through experience. He also believed that the senses are untrustworthy, thus disagreeing with the Scottish Common Sense Realism of his father and old Princeton (63). The idea of the logical coherence of Christianity was not new to Clark. James Orr and Abraham Kuyper held a similar view (64–7). “Clark came to believe that all knowledge possible to man is limited to the propositions of the Bible and that which can be logically deduced from the Bible” (68). This does not seem to allow for various kinds of knowledge, especially in the area of common grace and general revelation. I know that when it comes to science, however, Clark was an operationalist,2 a position consistent with the tentative nature of the scientific method, which is empirical. Clark’s rigorous defense of the infallibility of the Bible should not be forgotten by those of us who are not on board with his apologetics.

By emphasizing the importance of a Christian worldview, Clark made a significant contribution to students seeking to navigate a liberal education. On the importance of developing a Christian worldview, Clark and Van Til were agreed. Where Clark came to disagree with Van Til is in the area of epistemology. Clark rejected both empiricism and the traditional proofs for the existence of God, whereas Van Til still held to aspects of empiricism, and believed that the traditional proofs must be formulated in terms of a Christian epistemology (74).

In Chapters 6–8 Douma does a masterful job presenting the great conflict in Clark’s career and the history of the OPC. He has researched the episode with great care and presents the results in a fair and balanced way. For the most part he leaves the reader to decide. I was happy for an opportunity to revisit an old and very complex issue that I had not thought much about for decades. I learned a lot of new things about that controversy, even though I had investigated it very closely in seminary. I believe that, whatever the reader’s assessment of the issues involved, he will learn from the history, because Douma is a serious historian. I do not intend to go into much detail on the three chapters covering the controversy, or I will greatly exceed the editor’s word limit.

Clark applied for ordination in the OPC through the Presbytery of Philadelphia in March of 1943 (77). The 1944 General Assembly voted to waive the requirements of a seminary education and Hebrew. A protest was submitted arguing that the waiver was premature given the absence of “discussion of the evidence concerning Clark’s theological examination” (78). At the same time a document titled “A Program for Action” was circulated by Clark supporters which, among other things, encouraged affiliation with the non-Reformed American Council of Christian Churches, favored a recommendation against the consumption of alcoholic beverages, and pressed for the church to supervise Westminster Theological Seminary and The Presbyterian Guardian. So there were more than theological differences at play behind the scenes. “The ministers leading the Program for Action saw Clark’s ordination as an opportunity to change the direction of the denomination” (81). It is no wonder that commissioners were alarmed.

On July 7, 1944, the Presbytery of Philadelphia met to consider Clark’s ordination. He was licensed to preach, and the GA waiver of seminary education was affirmed on a 34 to 10 vote. Clark read Genesis 1 in Hebrew to prove his knowledge of the language. On August 9, 1944, Clark was ordained as a minister, becoming part of Calvary OPC in Willow Grove. Douma doesn’t make clear what the call associated with the ordination was (82). Three months later, twelve church officers, among whom were R. B. Kuiper, Leroy Oliver, N. B. Stonehouse, Paul Woolley, Cornelius Van Til, Edward J. Young, and Arthur W. Kuschke Jr., lodged a complaint against the ordination (83). Clark was surprised, since he had been the commencement speaker at WTS in 1941 and sent many students there (84). Given the objectives of the Plan of Action, the complaint is very understandable. What is sad is that the ordination was linked to these other very distinct issues (85). Douma helpfully explains the four issues causing the complaint (87–101). Douma makes the point that requirement to subscribe to a particular view of apologetics goes beyond the confessional requirements for ordination. As one who favors Van Til’s approach in rejecting the neutral bar of reason as the common ground between believer and unbeliever, I nevertheless think Douma is correct. As Clark concluded, Hodge and Machen would not have passed this ordination test (102).

A special committee of the presbytery, consisting of Clark supporters, responded to The Complaint with The Answer at the presbytery’s March 1945 meeting defending “the decision to ordain Clark and supported his theological positions” (108). Beginning in 1945 Clark accepted a position as assistant professor of philosophy at Butler University, so he sought to transfer his credentials to the Presbytery of Ohio. He was received after examination in October 1945. Earlier that year he wrote an article in The Presbyterian Guardian criticizing the OPC for assuming “the position of an isolationist porcupine” (109). From pages 110 to 127 Douma gives a helpful summary of the theological issues: the incomprehensibility of God; the relationship of the faculties of the soul; divine sovereignty and human responsibility; and the free offer of the gospel. He sums up by discussing the “overriding issue: charges of rationalism.” As Douma points out, technically, this label describes those who base their knowledge on human reason alone (127). Although there is a rationalistic aspect to Clark’s apologetic as there was in old Princeton’s, it should have remained an academic debate and not an issue for ordination.

The complaint that had been defeated at the Presbytery of Philadelphia was appealed to the Twelfth General Assembly in May of 1945. A special committee to deal with the complaint was erected, consisting of Richard Gray, Edmund Clowney, Lawrence Gilmore, Burton Goddard, and John Murray (136). The majority report favored Clark, and the GA agreed by a vote of nearly two to one. The report concluded: “Our committee is of the opinion that [The Complaint] requires the Presbytery of Philadelphia to exact a more specialized theory of knowledge than our standards demand” (137).

Although the case was over, the controversy continued, leading to Clark’s departure from the OPC in October 1948 to join the United Presbyterian Church of North America (153). Under the heading of “Changes in the Position of the Complainants” (157) Douma argues that Murray, Stonehouse, and Kuschke clarified The Complaint in the area of epistemology in order to avoid the charge of skepticism (158). I found this helpful and wish this clarification had been made at the outset.

Just when the reader may need a break from controversy, Douma digs into Clark’s long tenure at Butler University from 1945 to 1973. He produced an impressive number of books during that time (167). He became deeply involved in his new denomination, but as his daughter Betsy testified, “My dad never complained about the OP church” (172). He strongly opposed the proposed merger of the UPCNA with the PCUSA. When this occurred in 1958, he helped to lead his congregation out into the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod (RPCGS, 173). After the death of the pastor, Clark preached regularly for over eight years (175). He was truly a churchman. In 1965 he assisted in arranging a merger between his denomination (RPCGS) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES). The EPC brought Francis Schaeffer and Covenant College and Seminary (176).

During this time Clark and Van Til both opposed Barthianism with trenchant critiques from different epistemological perspectives in their respective books in 1963: The Theological Method of Karl Barth and Christianity and Barthianism. They, also, both ardently defended biblical inerrancy (180–81, cf. 209), something Van Til would warmly recall about Clark in their later years and renewed friendship.

Douma reports on Clark’s life outside of work (176–80). On the human side Clark was a legendary chess player. A friend of mine and I once played him together. He took us both on at once and beat us handily in a matter of minutes. I recall watching him feed the wild dogs on the Covenant College quad. He kept a supply of biscuits in his suitcoat pocket. Clark also had a dry sense of humor. In a class at Covenant College he referred to distressed blue jeans as “synthetic poverty.”

In chapter 10 Douma enumerates four theological contributions of Clark. 1. An axiomatized epistemological system, built like Euclidean geometry with Scripture as the basic postulate and doctrines as derived theorems (184–88); 2. Theological supralapsarianism in which the logical order of the decrees is the reverse of the temporal execution (188–92); 3. The solution to the problem of evil (192–94); 4. Arguments for a return to traditional logic (194–98). These comprise an accurate description of Clark’s views on these major topics.

Chapter 11 on “Clark’s Boys” distinguishes between prominent leaders who strayed from the doctrine of inerrancy and those who didn’t. Clark would have been disappointed that, as a minor “Clark boy,” I became a Van Tilian in apologetics. But I heartily affirm the best of his convictions: the inerrancy of God’s Word and the summary of its teaching in the Westminster standards. Whatever our disagreements with Clark may be, we must appreciate his deep commitment to Christian scholarship and the Christian faith which he clung to, to his dying day. He defended Machen, inerrancy, and the Westminster standards. In the end Clark is on the side of the angels.

After a chapter on Clark’s theology of the Trinity and the incarnation, Douma covers Clark’s years teaching at Covenant College (1974–84). This chapter includes an interesting history of Clark’s opposition to the RPCES joining with the newly formed Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) (235–39). Ironically, one of his reasons for opposing the union was that it would be “an unmerited insult to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church,” due to the fact earlier the RPCES had voted against merging with the OPC, despite the OPC’s favorable vote (236).

My favorite part in this final chapter is “ ‘My good friend’—personal reconciliation with Cornelius Van Til” (240–42). I witnessed the first of four friendly meetings between the two aged apologists. It was significant that two of the original complainants, Leroy Oliver and Paul Woolley, went to lunch with Van Til and Clark after Clark spoke in chapel at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1977. Thereafter Van Til and Clark referred to each other as good friends. “Later that year, in an interview for Christianity Today, Van Til made reference to ‘my good friend Gordon Clark [who] believes in the inerrancy of the Bible’ ” (240). Remarkably, in 1983 Van Til asked Clark to speak at a dinner in Van Til’s honor. Without diminishing their theological differences, reading this was a little taste of heaven. I highly recommend this book.

When I arrive in heaven I plan on having lunch with professors Clark and Van Til.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant.

1 Gordon H. Clark, Thales to Dewey: A History of Philosophy (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1957).

2 Gordon H. Clark, The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (Nutley, NJ: Craig, 1964).

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Clark and His Correspondents

In approximately one month copies of the collection of Gordon H. Clark’s correspondence I compiled, edited by Tom Juodaitis, will be available from The Trinity Foundation. The cover design has just been finalized. Check it out:

Clark and His Correspondents



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