[To appear in the Spring 2017 issue of the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal. Reproduced here by permission.]
The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark, by Douglas J. Douma. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016. Pp. xxv + 292. $37.00 soft. Reviewed by David J. Engelsma
“Oh, the damnable politics in the church of Jesus Christ,” someone has exclaimed, and rightly. No church is free of the evil. Ministers cripple or destroy their fellow ministers out of jealousy, or out of fear for their own prominent position in the church. The sin of the politics is not only the injury that is invariably done to one’s brother and colleague. But it is also the damage that is done to Christ’s church. The politics deprives the church of the gifts of the minister who is marginalized, or even driven out of the church. It is not unusual that the direct effect of the sinful mistreatment of a minister is the church’s decline, even apostasy, if the mistreated man is a forceful defender of the faith. The falling away continues and increases long after the minister thus cruelly treated and his persecutors are dead.
These miserable realities are a prominent part of the biography of Gordon H. Clark. Three of the thirteen chapters are devoted to the reprehensible treatment of Clark by his colleagues in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). Tremors of the mistreatment reverberate throughout the book.
Gordon H. Clark was a Presbyterian philosopher/theologian. Wholeheartedly committed to the Westminster Standards, both in his theology and in his philosophy, he was the unabashedly sound and outspoken Presbyterian thinker and teacher that Reformed academia and Presbyterian churches always sorely need and often sorely lack.
The OPC rejected him and virtually expelled him from its fellowship. It did this, despite the fact that, with Machen, Clark played a leading role in the formation of the OPC, as a reformation of the apostate Presbyterian churches in the early 20th century. It was Clark who nominated J. Gresham Machen as moderator of the first General Assembly of the newly formed Presbyterian Church of America, soon to be renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
The OPC drove Clark out in spite of Clark’s sterling orthodoxy and recognized gifts. Clark distinguished himself, not only in the church but also at Wheaton College, where he worked for some time as a professor, as basing all his thinking, philosophical as well as theological, firmly upon the Bible as summarized in the Westminster Standards. As for his gifts, the man was brilliant, as the content of his cornucopia of books and other writings witnesses.
A presbytery of the OPC approved Clark’s ordination into the ministry of the OPC, in the face of vehement opposition. Against a complaint, the general assembly of the OPC upheld the decision to ordain Clark. But the faculty of Westminster Seminary, the authors of the complaint against the ordination of Clark, made known that it would persist in its campaign to deny Clark entrance into the ministry in the OPC. Under this heavy pressure and foreseeing that the heavyweights in the OPC would never give up their determined opposition to him, by fair means or foul, Clark left the OPC for another Presbyterian denomination. He spent the rest of his life teaching philosophy (and theology) at Butler University in Indiana and writing significant books, especially of theology.
Late in Clark’s career, an ardent disciple of Clark, John Robbins, created Trinity Foundation, to publish Clark’s books. The books are still available from the Foundation.
What makes the concerted opposition to Clark of special interest to the Protestant Reformed reader is that the attack was led by three theologians at Westminster Seminary, C. Van Til, N. Stonehouse, and R. B. Kuiper. All three were Christian Reformed in origin and theological thinking. As Herman Hoeksema suggested in his analysis of the controversy over Clark, it is likely (I would judge, virtually certain) that the theological objection raised against Clark was essentially the Christian Reformed objection against Hoeksema. The Orthodox Presbyterian professors of theology objected that Clark taught that God is truly knowable; that Clark taught that the truth of Scripture is not contradictory (“paradoxical”) and, therefore, is understandable; that Clark taught that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility can be, and must be, harmonized by the believing, Presbyterian mind (without compromising sovereignty and without comprehension); and that Clark taught that the notion of a “well-meant,” or “free,” offer of the gospel, as the teaching of a loving desire of God for the salvation of all humans, logically contradicts the Presbyterian doctrine of predestination and is, therefore, false.
The three Christian Reformed theologians at Westminster, who led the campaign to drive Clark out of the church, recognized the theology of Clark as essentially the same as that which the Christian Reformed Church had condemned in the common grace controversy of 1924. Clark affirmed the sovereignty of God, without “paradoxical,” that is, contradictory, confusion and weakening by the teaching of universal grace in the preaching of the gospel. Clark’s theology was guilty of the appalling sin of being logical, so that the revelation of God is knowable to the believing mind. The three doctrinally Christian Reformed professors at Westminster led the charge in condemning Clark’s theology and harassing him out of the OPC. They charged Clark with “rationalism.” Evidently, they had not yet thought of the slander of “hyper-Calvinism.”
Douma’s account of the controversy is fascinating, if disheartening, and his analysis of the issues is perceptive and instructive.
Understandably, Herman Hoeksema took an interest in the Presbyterian controversy at the time—the 1940s. He wrote on it in the Standard Bearer. John Robbins published Hoeksema’s articles as a book, The Clark-Van Til Controversy. Douma mentions Hoeksema’s involvement in the controversy, and recommends his book.
Clark’s leaving the OPC did not pacify his foes. They turned on his defenders in the denomination, particularly the missionary Floyd Hamilton. Their vindictive treatment of him drove Hamilton out of the OPC also. Many others left the OPC at that time.
In 2017 one can discern the further adverse consequences of the OPC’s decisions and actions in the matter of Gordon Clark. The OPC committed itself to “paradoxical” theology, abandoning, if not condemning, logical thinking (in fact, this is an abandonment of thinking; illogical thinking is an oxymoron; if it is still thinking at all, it is thinking that is unintelligible). A leading instance was the OPC’s virtual adoption of the theology of a common grace of God, consisting of a desire of God for the salvation of all humans, at least all who hear the gospel (cf. Murray and Stonehouse, “The Free Offer of the Gospel”). The contradiction of this universal grace by the doctrine of predestination, reprobation as well as election, which is creedal for Presbyterians in the Westminster Confession, is not for the OPC an argument against universal grace. Rather, the contradiction is accepted and defended as an aspect of the “paradoxical” nature of doctrinal truth. Over the years, since the 1940s, this honoring of universal (saving) grace as a glory of its “paradoxical” theology has weakened the OPC’s testimony to all the doctrines of (particular) grace. Invariably, indeed necessarily, the truth being, in fact, rigorously logical, the doctrine of universal, ineffectual grace in the “paradox” drives out the doctrine of particular, sovereign grace.
Recently, its “paradoxical” theology has opened up the OPC to the covenant theology of the federal vision. In the just judgment of God, this grievous departure from the gospel of (covenant) grace has had its origin at Westminster Seminary, with Prof. Norman Shepherd, vigorously supported by Prof. Richard Gaffin. Expelling Gordon Clark largely by the efforts of Westminster Seminary, at Westminster Seminary the OPC received Norman Shepherd. Under the influence of Westminster Seminary, the OPC has approved a covenant theology that expressly denies all the doctrines of grace of the Westminster Standards, including justification by faith alone, with special reference to the children of believers. Such is the theology of the federal vision.
When confronted by this theology’s contradiction of the doctrines of the Reformed faith in the Westminster Standards, the Westminster professors and their supporters in the OPC argue that truth is “paradoxical.” The logic of biblical revelation finds no favor in the OPC. Therefore, the illogic of heresy gains entrance.
The Gordon Clark case is unfinished business in the OPC.
Significant, and, if one can stifle his indignation, interesting as the Westminster Seminary/Clark case was, it was not all of Clark’s life. Both at Wheaton College prior to the conflict with the OPC and at Butler University after the conflict, Clark taught biblical, Presbyterian philosophy for many years. The effect of this distinctive teaching upon his many students, only God knows. Especially at Wheaton, Clark had many students who, by his instruction, became influential men in evangelicalism, including Edward Carnell, Edmund Clowney (later president of Westminster Seminary), Paul Jewett, Carl F. H. Henry (longtime editor of Christianity Today) and Harold Lindsell. Even Billy Graham took a medieval philosophy course with Clark, although obviously the course helped Graham neither philosophically nor theologically.
Some of “Clark’s boys” united as professors at Fuller Seminary in California. Carnell became president of the seminary. Carnell was among those of Clark’s students who later rejected the infallibility of Scripture and identified themselves as “neo-evangelicals,” to Clark’s sorrow.
In a fascinating vignette, Douma relates the account of Carnell and Clark’s conduct at the well-known gathering of theologians at the University of Chicago in 1962 to meet and question Karl Barth. Carnell had the honor of questioning the famed German/Swiss theologian. Answering a question by Carnell concerning Barth’s view of Scripture, Barth frankly responded that there are “contradictions and errors” in the Bible. The majority of the five hundred theologians at the gathering applauded Barth’s answer. Carnell did not press the issue further. According to the ubiquitous Richard Mouw, who also attended the gathering, Carnell responded to Barth by murmuring, “This is a problem for me too.” Clark, who was sitting next to Carnell, and evidently near Mouw, muttered, in response to Carnell, “betrayal” (208, 209).
The authorities at Wheaton pressured Clark out of the school because of his strong, unyielding Calvinism.
One weakness of the Presbyterian philosopher was his relatively mild judgment of Arminianism. There was no place for it in his own theology. He condemned schools and magazines that taught it. But his judgment of it was that it was a defective form of Christianity, rather than a gospel-denying heresy. Clark was critical of a magazine that “referred to Arminianism and modernism as ‘equally dangerous’” (154). The reason for his restrained condemnation was that Clark’s controversy was with outright modernism in the mainstream Presbyterian churches of his day. The same was true of Machen, as is evident in his Christianity and Liberalism. Fighting modernism, with its denial of the inspiration of Scripture, the deity of Jesus, and the resurrection of Christ, both Clark and Machen tended to underestimate the evil of Arminianism, which did pay lip service to the fundamental truths of the Christian religion that modernism denied outrightly.
Clark…believed that although “Arminianism misinterprets Scripture on some important points,” it still accepts the Bible, and that “sincere Arminians are predestinated, all persevere in grace, and are perfectly sanctified in heaven.” Modernism, on the other hand, Clark wrote, is dangerous because “it denies the infallibility of the Bible,” it “denies the vicarious atonement of Christ,” and ultimately “leads to hell” (154).
A man of principle, Clark lived what he believed and taught. One such consistency strikes this reviewer as extreme. Clark taught two, and only two, faculties of the human soul: intellect and will. He denied that emotion is a third faculty. In keeping with this philosophical view, the night of the death of his beloved wife Clark played chess with a friend, lest the sorrow of his loss betray him (229).
To his credit, Clark worked, teaching at various colleges and writing numerous books, almost to his dying day, past his 80th birthday.
He died in 1985 and was buried near the Sangre de Christo Seminary, which carries on his legacy, deep in the Colorado Rockies.
The Reformed man or woman will read Clark’s biography, and his books, with profit, especially the student of Presbyterian theology and of Presbyterian church history.