Note: This is the text of a speech I gave on Aug 2, 2014 at the Christians for Liberty Conference in Austin, TX. I can’t seem to copy the footnotes over correctly. If you’re interested in where the references come from, let me know and I can give you a full pdf copy of my paper.
Libertarianism in the Thought of the Calvinist Philosopher, Gordon H. Clark
I. Introduction and Background
Gordon H. Clark (1902-1985) was a prominent twentieth-century American Presbyterian, or Calvinist, philosopher. He received a Ph.D. in philosophy at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania in 1929 and taught philosophy for sixty years in the classroom, from 1924-1984. Early in his career he became an expert on the Ancient Greek philosophers. He contributed articles on the 3rd century A.D. neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus to various journals and later wrote a popularly-selling history of philosophy textbook titled “Thales to Dewey.” Despite Clark’s study of secular philosophy, he always remained firstly a Christian. In this he followed in the tradition of his Presbyterian minister father. As a ruling elder Clark was active in the reform movement in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. during the “Fundamentalist- Modernist” controversy of the 1930s.
Today Gordon Clark may be best known for the “Clark – Van Til Controversy” of the 1940s related to certain theological disputes following his ordination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Although Clark’s ordination was upheld, he later left on his own accord upset with the continuing arguments in the rigid conservative church. For the next twenty-eight years he taught philosophy at Butler University in Indianapolis where he was Head of the Department. Simultaneously, he was a minister at a local Presbyterian Church. During these Butler Years (1945-1973) Clark set out on a path to construct a Christian alternative to what he saw as the failures of secular philosophy. For his philosophy he relied extensively on the work of St. Augustine and the Westminster Confession of Faith, the leading confession of the Presbyterian Church.
From my count, Clark’s life work includes 62 published books and 283 articles. His literary works were of such breadth of material and depth of insight that Carl F.H. Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today, wrote of him, “Among articulate Christian philosophers on the American scene, none has addressed the broad sweep of contemporary concerns from an evangelical Protestant view more comprehensively than Gordon Clark.”
II. Was Clark a Libertarian?
I don’t want to give the impression that Clark was a libertarian in the “Big L” sense. He never joined the Libertarian party, nor was he particularly active in national politics. There is not any sign in his writings that he was even aware of the concept of anarcho-capitalism. Nevertheless, his philosophy supported a type of libertarianism. It would be fair to call him a “minarchist” – one who supports the existence of a minimal government limited to a few essentials.
A. Libertarian by Association?
There are two libertarian thinkers who book-end the career of Gordon Clark.
1. J. Gresham Machen – A church leader and theologian whom Clark most admired. Critic of the public school movement in the Progressive Era.
2. John Robbins – Published Clark’s books through the publisher he founded, the Trinity Foundation. Robbins worked as Ron Paul’s chief of staff and as editor of Freeman.
B. Evidence of Libertarianism in the thought of Gordon Clark.
It is important to bring up these evidences for a couple reasons. First, I want to distinguish Clark from the standard conservative position and show that he was actually a libertarian. Second, there has been some dispute in our small “Clarkian” circles over whether he truly was a libertarian.
1. He favored religious liberty. (It was a regular theme of his that secular thought leads to totalitarianism or anarchy – in the leftist sense of the term) He wrote, “The security of human rights. the preservation of religious liberty. freedom from totalitarianism can only be assured on Christian principles of government.”
2. He supported hard money. From the Audio Lecture “Questions and Answers”: “I believe that Christianity has certain economic implications. And that an elementary form of capitalism was found in ancient Israel. They had a hard money system. They insisted on correct weights and measure. I don’t know that the devaluation of the shekel was a commandment of God. So I think sound monetary policy is an implication of Christian principles of honesty.”
3. He opposed government involvement in marriage. According to his son-in-law (who happens to be the President emeritus at the seminary I attend) Clark was opposed to the government being involved in marriage. And even, holding a unique position as far as I’m aware of, that the CHURCH shouldn’t be involved in marriage. I can only speculate that as an aggressive exegete of the scriptures he saw no particular evidence for the church sanctioning marriage, but it being a personal or family affair.
4. He was a proponent of Capitalism. Being asked whether the Christian should occupy a third position, rather than communism or capitalism, Clark responded: “I would want to know what that third position is. I think you have to choose between limited government and totalitarianism. And I don’t know what a third position would be. Of course, we are all sinners, but to say that capitalism has some sinners somewhere around isn’t to show that socialism has no sinners anywhere around. You’d have just as much sin under socialism and more oppression and bureaucracy than you do under capitalism. And the question really is should the government set prices for political reasons under the pressure of brutes? Or should the prices of commodities be set in a free market? And I think the free market is by far the best way of handling the economy. And I don’t see any contradiction or antithesis between capitalism and Christianity. It was John Calvin who insisted on the right of charging interest on loans. And I take it that John Calvin was the originator of modern capitalism. Good Calvinistic doctrine.
5. His statements overall seem to support personal liberty. Although in one place he wrote “I have always supported the prohibition movement,” in another he later wrote, “I affirm my belief in the doctrine of Christian liberty. Spurgeon smoked, Luther drank beer (the stinking stuff), and with the [pro-liberty] statement prepared by the committee of nine [in his Orthodox Presbyterian Church] on the matter I am in complete agreement.”
6. Opposition to the welfare state.
Question: What are the most prevalent false gods of our time and how do you assess their relative significance?
Gordon H. Clark, professor, Butler University: “The phrase ‘false gods’ suggests polytheism; and indeed modern society has many gods. One of the most powerful is the secular, anti-Christian welfare state. No other modern god or demon so controls all life. Totalitarianism is today’s rival of the sovereign God.”
7. He was opposed to Theonomy / Christian Reconstructionism.
8. (And perhaps the fact that settles the issue) He spoke at libertarianism conferences in the 1970s. According to Clark’s son-in-law Dwight Zeller, he spoke at some Libertarian conferences in Chattanooga in the 1970s.
III. The Political Theory of Gordon Clark.
Libertarianism, like any political theory, must fit within a more general philosophy. Particularly, it needs an epistemological foundation; for, for every political proposition there is an accompanying question – how do you KNOW that proposition to be true?
A. The failure of secular epistemology to justify norms.
Various attempts at defending libertarianism epistemologically have been made by secular thinkers: Ludwig von Mises was a Kantian, Murray Rothbard was an Aristotelian, and Ayn Rand was…well…a Randian. Each of these epistemologies rely to some extent on empiricism – the philosophy that knowledge comes primarily or exclusively from sensory experience. Clark believed, however, that empiricism fails to support any ethical or political position. This is because empiricism fails to surmount the Is-Ought Problem. You cannot get an “ought” from what there “is.” Or in other words, from descriptive premises one cannot form normative conclusions. Or, from what is observed in the world, one cannot conclude how we ought to act. Failure to get around this problem, no norms are justified and thus libertarianism isn’t justified either on empirical premises.
B. The failure of secular arguments for libertarianism.
Even if we ignore for the moment that empiricism fails to justify any norms, we must look briefly at the two primary secular approaches to defending libertarianism, the theory that there are legitimate rights to life, liberty, and property which should be honored and enforced. These two secular approaches are utilitarianism and deontological or natural rights.
Utilitarians argue that respecting libertarian rights produces the best results for society. Utilitarianism is fatally flawed. And, for Clark, quite evidently so. Firstly, its calculations are impossible. There are no such units as utils and we are hopelessly lost in trying to aggregate them. But, more importantly, the utilitarian doesn’t know what “Good” is.
2. Natural Rights
We are all familiar with the “self-evident” rights of the Declaration of Independence. But are these, or any rights, self-evident? Clark did not believe so. He wrote, “Looking carefully on nature and seeing it red in tooth and claw, Caesar, Napoleon, and Stalin can conclude that the universe is indifferent to the fate of any individual and that it is the law of nature for the brutal to rule the meek.”
C. A Scriptural Approach.
There is however a Christian, rather than secular approach to libertarianism. Rejecting both utilitarianism and natural rights, Clark derived and defended limited government solely from the Scriptures. Rejecting secular philosophies, Gordon Clark developed a Christian view upon a new axiom – rather than beginning with sensory experience or the ability of the human mind, Clark argued that the Christian axiom is “the Bible is the Word of God.” The revelation in Scripture is the axiom of Christianity; not sensory experience or man’s reasoning abilities, but God’s “divine illumination” giving knowledge to all men on the occasion of their hearing the word of Scripture and coming to knowledge of the truth. Just as God is central in soteriology so he is in epistemology. All of the propositions in the Scriptures (and logical deductions from these propositions) are thus part of the Christian system. The Scriptural approach circumvents the “is-ought problem” by providing normative content from the outset.
It seems like a lot to grant – the truth of the Scriptures. But, we must understand that all systems of thought have unproven axioms. To those of you who have studied the Austrian School of Economics axiom are well known to you. As the Austrian School begins with the axiom of “Human Action,” Clark’s Biblical philosophy begins with the axiom of the Truth of the Scriptures. We must have axioms, we must have beginning points to our philosophies, or they have no beginning. To suggest that one needs to prove their axiom is to misunderstand what an axiom is. In attempting to prove an axiom one has shifted away from that axiom to another on which to rest the proof. To avoid an infinite regress of such proofs and proofs of proofs, etc. we must accept some axiom as our beginning point to philosophy. In this sense, Christianity (i.e. the Bible) is on equal terms with empiricism, rationalism, or any other foundational axiom. But, the Christian axiom has two important advantages. One, it is not self-contradictory like many of the other philosophies, and two it provides a more thorough system to explain the world. Accepting the truth of the Bible provides an ethical theory (it gives norms) and thereby makes political theory (which relies on norms) possible.
D. From Epistemology to Political Theory
When we look to this ethical and political theory in the Scriptures we see something much like libertarianism in many ways. We certainly know the Scriptures teach us not to kill or steal. This takes care of 2 of the 3 “rights” of libertarianism. The third right, liberty, is limited only by those positive obligations which God gives us such as the necessity of teaching our children the scriptures.
1. The Sovereignty of God
A common political question is, “What is sovereign, the individual or the collective?” Clark, believed there was a third option – God is sovereign. God grants to the individual and to the collective each their certain responsibilities. The implication of this view is that the libertarian self-ownership principle is not Biblical. You do not own yourself, God owns you. He owns everything.
2. Limited Government
But, without such grants from God to the individual and collective, all non-theistic views, Clark argued, lead to anarchy or totalitarianism. (Either the individual or the collective is fully sovereign.) Only Christianity allows for limited government. And the government is to be limited to punishing evil-doers.
3. An unanswered question. What kinds of evil should the government punish?
It is clear from Clark’s writings that he would have the government enforce inter-personal morality; laws such as “thou shalt not kill” or “thou shalt not steal.” And it seems that he would NOT have government enforce INTRA-pesonal morality (commandments such belief in God and keeping the sabbath holy).
Although he held this libertarian position (thus granting man certain liberties which the government should not restrict) I have been unable to find his argument for such a position. The difficulty is in defining why only some of the commandments should be enforced and not all of them; for the breaking of any of them is evil; and if the government is to punish evil-doers, a restriction on liberty is apparent.
IV. Summary: So what should be learned:
1. Christian philosophy is not secular philosophy. It has something better – revelation.
2. With a different starting point, Christianity does not use the same arguments for libertarianism as do secular libertarians. (and succeeds where the secular theories fail)
3. Neither the state nor the individual is sovereign, but God.
4. The government is limited by the powers granted to it by God.