The Trinity, Part 1/2: Various Interpretations

I’m glad to have in my collection an original copy of Dr. Cornelius Van Til’s An Introduction to Systematic Theology, printed in 1949. On the title page of this class syllabus, Van Til notes that it is “not to regarded as a published book.” I take it that he means that it hasn’t had a thorough edit for grammar and spelling; not that his views in the syllabus are to be regarded as less than less fully-formed. Regardless of the meaning of that statement, the syllabus defines the positions taught in courses where it was used at Westminster Theological Seminary.

One of the positions defined by this text is Van Til’s view of the Trinity as both “three persons” and “one person.” Van Til writes,

The fact that God exists as [a] concrete self-sufficient being and not merely specifically one when compared with any other form of being now appears to have within himself a distinction of specific and numerical existence. We speak of the essence of God in contrast to the three persons of the Godhead. We speak of God as a person; yet we speak also of three persons in the Godhead. As we say that each of the attributes of God is to be identified with the being of God, while yet we are justified in making a distinction between them, so we say that each of the persons of the Trinity is exhaustive of divinity itself, while yet there is genuine distinction between the persons. Unity and plurality are equally ultimate in the Godhead. The persons of the Godhead are mutually exhaustive of one another, and therefore of the essence of the Godhead. God is a one-conscious being, and yet he is also a tri-conscious being. (p. 215)

It is sometimes asserted that we can prove to men that we are not asserting anything that they ought to consider irrational, inasmuch as we say that God is one in essence and three in person. We claim therefore that we have not asserted unity and trinity of exactly the same thing. Yet this is not the whole truth of the matter. We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person. We have noted how each attribute is co-extensive with the being of God. We are compelled to maintain this in order to avoid the notion of an uninterpreted being of some sort. In other words we are bound to maintain the identity of the attributes of God with the being of God in order to avoid the specter of brute fact. In a similar manner we have noted how theologians insist that each of the persons of the Godhead is co-terminous with the being of the Godhead. But all of this is not to say that the distinctions of the attributes are merely nominal. Nor is it to say that the distinctions of the persons are merely nominal. We need both the absolute cotermineity of each attribute and each person with the whole being of God, and the genuine significance of the distinctions of the attributes and the persons. “Each person,” says Bavink, “is equal to the whole essence of God and coterminous with both other persons and with all three.” (Vol. II, p. 311) (“Elk persoon is daarom gelyk aan het gansche wezen en evenveel als de beide andere of als alle drie naam.”) Over against all other beings, that is, over against created beings, we must therefore hold that God’s being presents an absolute numerical identity. And even within the ontological Trinity we must maintain that God is numerically one. He is one person. When we say that we believe in a personal God, we do not merely maintain that we believe in a God to whom the adjectives “personality” may be attached. God is not an essence that has personality: He is absolute personality. Yet, within the being of the one person we are permitted and compelled by Scripture to make the distinction between a specific or generic type of being, and three personal subsistences. (p. 224-5)

This is actually the second syllabus in which Van Til’s peculiar doctrine of the Trinity arises. Similar wording is found earlier in his Junior Systematics from 1940. (An original copy of which is in Gordon Clark’s personal library now the Gordon H. Clark Collection in the Clark Library at Sangre de Cristo Seminary)

But it is not only in syllabi that Van Til explicates his doctrine of the Trinity. He also writes of it in his published book, The Defense of the Faith, originally published in 1955. I have a third edition, Revised, 1967. There Van Til writes,

Fourthly, we speak of the unity of God. We distinguish between the unity of singularity (singularitatis) and the unity of simplicity (simplicitatis). The unity of singularity has reference to the numerical oneness. There is and can be only one God. The unity of simplicity signifies that God is in no sense composed of parts or aspects that existed prior to himself (Jer. 10:10, I John 1:5).

The attributes of God are not to be thought of otherwise than as aspects of the one simple original being; the whole is identical with the parts. On the other hand the attributes of God are not characteristics that God has developed gradually; they are fundamental to his being; the parts together form the whole. Of the whole matter we may say that unity and the diversity in God are equally basic and mutually dependent upon one another. The importance of this doctrine for Apologetics may be seen from the fact that the whole problem of philosophy may be summed up in the question of the relation of unity to diversity; the so-called problem of the one and the many receives a definite answer from the doctrine of the simplicity of God.

What we have discussed under the attributes of God may also be summed up by saying that God is absolute personality. The attributes themselves speak of self-conscious and moral activity on the part of God. Recognizing that for this intellectual and moral activity God is dependent upon nothing beyond his own being we see that we have the Reformed doctrine of the personality of God. There were no principles of truth, goodness or beauty that were next to or above God according to which he patterned the world. The principles of truth, goodness, and beauty are to be thought of as identical with God’s being; they are the attributes of God. Non-Christian systems of philosophy do not deny personality to God, at least some of them do not, but, in effect, they all agree in denying absolute personality to God. As Christians we say that we can be like God and must be like God in that we are persons but that we must always be unlike God in that he is an absolute person while we are finite persons. Non-theists on the other hand, maintain that though God may be a greater person than we can ever hope to be yet we must not maintain this distinction between absolute and finite personality to be a qualitative one.

Another point in the Christian doctrine of God that needs to be mentioned here is the trinity. We hold that God exists as tri-personality. “The trinity is the heart of Christianity.” (H. Bavink: Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, II, 289.) The three persons of the trinity are co-substantial; no one is derived in his substance from either or both of the others. Yet there are three distinct persons in this unity; the diversity and the identity are equally underived. – The Defense of the Faith, p. 10-12.

When it comes to interpreting Van Til on this point there are two main camps. The first camp is exemplified by John Frame, James Anderson, and Lane Keister. They believe that Van Til did not intend to use the term “person” (or “personality”) in the same sense for both the oneness and the three-ness of God. The second camp, exemplified by Gordon Clark, John Robbins, Robert Reymond, and R. Scott Clark, believes that Van Til did intend to use the term “person” or “personality” in the same sense for both the one-ness and three-ness of God, and in doing so erred grievously.

John Frame

Starting with the first camp, we find that John Frame believes Van Til was using “person” in two different senses but that he (Frame) is unable to to explain the difference “precisely and exhaustively.” He writes,

How, then, do we relate the “one person” to the “three persons”? Van Til asserts that “this is a mystery that is beyond our comprehension.” Indeed! But he does not say that the two assertions are contradictory. Are they in fact contradictory? That may seem obvious, but in fact it is not necessarily the case. Anybody who has studied logic knows that something can be both A and not-A if the two A’s have different sense. In this case, God can clearly be both one person and not-one person, if the meaning of “person” changes somewhat between the two senses.

The traditional language, “one in essence, three in person” (which, again, Van Til does not reject), brings out more clearly, of course, that the oneness and the threeness are in different respects. But the formulation “one person and three persons” does not deny that difference of respect. It is simply an alternative formulation that makes a point somewhat different from the point of the traditional language.

How is the word person used in different senses or respect? Obviously, there is some difference between the sense of “person” applied to the oneness of God and the sense applied to the three members of the Trinity. Van Til would agree, for example, with the creedal statements that the Father is the begetter, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit is the one who proceeds; the whole Godhead is neither begetter, begotten, nor proceeder. But neither Van Til nor I would claim to be able to state, precisely and exhaustively, the difference between God’s essence and the individual persons of the Godhead. Doubtless the Clarkite critics of Van Til will find this a damaging admission, for they insist that all theological statements be perfectly precise. Never mind that Scripture itself often fails to be precise about the mysteries of the faith. – Cornelius Van Til, An Analysis of His Thought, p. 68-69.

While Frame says that he is not able to state “precisely and exhaustively the difference between God’s essence and the individual persons of the God,” his only attempt at providing a difference is to say that Godhead is not any of the Persons. But this is the very conclusion that needs to be reached, not an argument for the conclusion. It must be noted, therefore, that he states no differences at all—and therefore not even imprecisely. His claim seems to be that Scripture itself does not provide the difference.

James Anderson

James Anderson also believes that Van Til held there to be a difference between “person” in the sense of the oneness of God and “person” in the sense of the three-ness of God but that we can’t know what the difference is. For Anderson, however, it is not Scripture that limits our ability to know what the difference is, but the fact that we are finite creatures. He writes,

Yet, we reply, how could God be both one person and three persons? Isn’t that a blatant violation of the law of non-contradiction? In seeking an answer, we must acknowledge that Van Til considered this an apparent contradiction and not a real one (see Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 9). A contradiction is said to occur when something is asserted to be both A and not-A at the same time and in the same sense. Since Van Til held to the traditional doctrine of God’s timelessness, we can disregard the ‘same time’ condition. We must therefore conclude that, since Van Til emphatically rejected the idea that Christian truth involves real contradictions, he held that God is one person and three person in different senses.

What exactly are these different senses? Where or how is the distinction to be made? Van Til, of course, didn’t specify; his point was that we cannot specify the distinction, as finite creatures, and thus we must rest content with an apparent contradiction (at least for now). Although we can rationally infer that there is a distinction to be made, we are not in a position to specify what that distinction is. Still, God comprehends the distinction and there is no irresolvable contradiction in his mind. (

Lane Keister

Though Frame believes that stating any distinction between the two ways in which Van Til used the term “person” is not attainable because Scripture doesn’t provide the answer (much like how Van Til said that “stating clearly” a definition of the term “content” as used in the Clark – Van Til Controversy would be to “deny their basic contention with respect to the Christian concept of revelation”) and Anderson believes man’s finitude is the preventing factor, Van Tillian Lane Keister attempts the impossible; he attempts an explanation. Keister writes,

In order to determine, therefore, whether Van Til is contradicting Trinitarian orthodoxy, the question that must be answered is this: does Van Til use the word “person” in the same sense in these statements of the uni-personality of God as he does in those statements concerning the tri-personality of God? If he uses them in the same sense, then he is unorthodox. If not, then he is merely guilty of difficult and confusing language … My evidence is the following contextual clue that “person” does not mean the same thing in both contexts: “Yet, within the being of the one person we are permitted and compelled by Scripture to make the distinction between a specific or generic type of being and three personal subsistences” (p. 364). I believe that what Van Til means here is that the “specific or generic type of being” corresponds to the phrase “God is one person,” and that the phrase “three personal subsistences” refers to the tri-personality of the three persons. In other words, the distinction between “God is a person” and “God is three persons” is a distinction between a generic type of being (and therefore personality) as contrasted with the three relational persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (

Keister agrees with Frame and Anderson that Van Til is using the term “person” in two different senses when applied to each the oneness and three-ness of God, respectively. But unlike them, he attempts to explain the difference. Keister’s solution is that the oneness Van Til is referring to is that of a generic type of being. (See part II for an explanation of generic unity)

This solution, however, is at odds with both Frame and Anderson who write in opposition to God’s oneness being of generic unity. Frame writes against generic unity:

Philosophers have sometimes said that we should distinguish between essence and individuality as follows: Fido, Rover, and Spot are three individuals with a common essence, namely the essence of “dogness” or “doghood.” But “doghood” is an abstraction. You can put Fido on a leash, but you cannot so restrain doghood. Now is it legitimate to understand the Trinity (to be sure, a reality exalted far above the canine realm) according to this model? If so, the persons, Father, Son, and Spirit would be the individuals, and the divine essence, God, would be an abstraction. But of course this model is entirely inadequate for the Trinity. God is not an abstraction. Nor is he a mere society of three gods, united by common abstract properties. – Cornelius Van Til, An Analysis of His Thought, p. 67.

And likewise, Anderson writes,

Indeed, I suggest…the essential inadequacy of all social trinitarian interpretations, that is, all trinitarian models in which the divine persons are numerically distinct from the divine substance (however that latter is construed). Such interpretations weaken the ontological unity within the Godhead to the point where a collapse into tritheism is unavoidable. – Paradox in Christian Theology, 45-46.

Gordon Clark

For the second camp of Van Til interpreters— those who believe that Van Til was (however unwittingly) using the term “person” in just one sense—we turn first to Gordon Clark. Clark’s critique of Van Til’s view is found in his book The Trinity (published in 1985, but originating from Clark’s unpublished systematic theology written in the 1970s). As far as I am aware of, Clark was the first to contend against Van Til’s doctrine of the Trinity. Clark writes,

Note the situation. When opponents have objected that the doctrine of the Trinity is logically self-contradictory because it makes three equal to one, Christians have usually replied that there are many examples of situations that are three in one sense and one in a different sense. Hence there is no contradiction. Here Van Til rejects this defense of the Trinity and asserts that the Trinity is both one and three in the same sense: not one substance and three Persons, but one Person and three Persons. This is indeed contradictory and irrational. Look at his words again; ‘We do assert that God, that is the whole Godhead, is one person.’ He defends this irrationalism on the ground that ‘each attribute is co-extensive with the Being of God.’ Now, some attributes apply equally to all three Persons; for example omnipotence and omniscience. But the attribute of Fatherhood and Sonship are not ‘co-extensive with the Being of God.’ Sonship is not attributable to the Father, nor to the Spirit. (p. 91)

Also, in an audio lecture in 1981, Clark said,

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. – “John Frame and Cornelius Van Til,” audio lecture.

Followers of Gordon Clark

Followers of Gordon Clark have also interpreted Van Til to be using “person” in just one sense. This list include John Robbins who called the view “The Van Tillian Heresy” and a “unitarian heresy” (Cornelius Van Til The Man and the Myth, p. 20, 21); Gary Crampton, who noted that Van Tillian James Jordan extended the view to accept that God is in fact “one essence and three essences” (“Why I am Not a Van Tillian” The Trinity Review, 1993); and Robert Reymond who wrote that “no orthodox creed has ever so represented the doctrine” (A New Systematic Theology of The Christian Faith, p. 109.)

R. Scott Clark

The divide then would appear to be just another Clark – Van Til split with Robbins/Crampton/Reymond on Clark’s side and Frame/Anderson/Keister on Van Til’s side. (Ignoring for the moment the differences of interpretation between Keister and Frame/Anderson on Van Til’s view of God’s unity)

But this Clark – Van Til paradigm is broken by R. Scott Clark (no relation to Gordon Clark) who, while otherwise a Van Tillian, believes Van Til did in fact use “person” in only one sense, and erred in doing so. (See the comments here:, and comment 75 here:

R. Scott Clark argues that we must discard Van Til’s doctrine of the Trinity noting that the phrase “God is one person” is virtually absent from the literature of the Reformation and the church in general. He comments,

“The expression ‘one person’ adds nothing to our understanding of the Trinity. One is hard pressed to see how it is in any sense a true account of the biblical teaching or how it is theologically true. God is not ‘one person.’ He is three persons. The only personality he has is tri-personality.”

My favorite laugh-out-loud quote of R. Scott Clark here is, “If CVT cannot be said to have erred when he said ‘one person, three persons’ what exactly could he have done to have made an error?” In this case R. Scott Clark’s strong Reformed history studies have been a corrector to his following of Van Til.

Though R. Scott Clark rejects Van Til’s doctrine of the Trinity, he also rejects “social trinitarianism” by which I assume he is including Gordon Clark’s view of the generic unity of God.

Lane Tipton

While Clarkians agree with substantial uniformity on their interpretation and critique of Van Til on the point at hand, Van Tillians vary widely. Frame and Anderson, as seen, interpret Van Til to be using “person” in two different senses and say that this justifies Van Til’s doctrine. Keister also interprets Van Til to be justified in using “person” in two different senses, but in a manner of generic unity not accepted by Frame and Anderson. Thirdly, R. Scott Clark believes Van Til used “person” in only one sense and that Van Til is not justified in doing so. Yet another—a 4th—interpretation comes from Lane Tipton who, like R. Scott Clark, believes Van Til did use “person” in only one sense but, unlike him, believes that Van Til is justified in doing so.

Tipton’s main argument is that Van Til was merely repeating the 19th century American Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge who spoke of God as having “one mind” and who said that God can be called “a person” because of the doctrine of perichoresis—the mutual indwelling of the persons. (“The Function of Perichoresis and the Divine Incomprehensibility.” Westminster Theological Journal 64, 2002, 289-306)

Responding to Tipton, R. Scott Clark argues, “Claims to contrary not withstanding, neither Charles Hodge (1797–1878) nor B. B. Warfield (1851–1921) taught that God is one person. They taught that God is personal but that adjective cannot be equated with the expression ‘one person.’” (

Tipton’s view—that there is 1 consciousness in God shared among the 3 persons—doesn’t account for any distinctions among the persons. Though he claims there are distinctions, nowhere does he identify any that are ontological; only noting that Van Til held to functional distinctions; the “certain works” ascribed to each of the persons in the Bible. Noting, as Tipton does a number of times, that Van Til opposes Sabellianism isn’t the same as demonstrating that Van Ti’s positive view of the Trinity differs in some definite way from Sabellianism or Unitarianism. And, as John Murray writes, “One can hardly avoid the suspicion of a unitarian bias in the failure to appreciate distinguishing self-consciousness in the three persons of the Godhead.” (Collected Writings, 4:278-79)

Summary so far.

To summarize the various interpretations of Van Til this chart may be of some help:

2 x 2

Interpreting Van Til

When I look at Van Til’s writings I am apt to give him the benefit of the doubt. Often he is just unclear, and so it is difficult to know what he means. Van Tillians, as we have seen, even disagree among themselves at times as to how to interpret him.

There is in the present case however one statement in Van Til that might bring clarity to what his view was. He writes, “God is a one-conscious being, and yet he is also a tri-conscious being.” This seems to be the key statement in interpreting his doctrine of the Trinity. Unless a Van Tillian wants to argue that here too Van Til is using the term “conscious” in two different (yet undefined and undefinable) senses, they must abandon the idea that Van Til is using the term “person” in two different (yet undefined and undefinable) senses. This not only indicates that Van Til is using the term “person” in one sense, but that he actually provided a definition (though not “precise and exhaustive”) of the term: a person is a conscious being.

God, for Van Til, is both a one-conscious being and also a tri-conscious being. How he can therefore say, “We claim therefore that we have not asserted unity and trinity of exactly the same thing” is truly incomprehensible, for in calling God one person and three persons, and a one-conscious being and a tri-conscious being, he is asserting exactly what he claims not to be asserting in the very same passage. This contradiction in Van Til helps to explain how varying interpretations of his doctrine would develop.

For Part II we’ll look at “numeric unity” and “generic unity” and challenges to these respective positions in an attempt to understand something of the difference between the oneness of God the threeness of God.

For Part II see here:

Posted in Notes on the thought of Gordon H. Clark | 2 Comments

An Alliterative Account

A partial play-by-play of Presbyterianism’s past.

The 20th century:

1922 – Fosdick fights fundamentalist forces.

1923 – Machen’s manifest makes mincemeat of modernism.

1924 – Herman Hoeksema heads honorable Hollander hullabaloo.

1937 – Buswell’s BPC bans booze.

1944 – Cornelius complains concerning Clark’s comprehensibility conclusions.

1955 – Schaeffer starts Swiss chalet sheltering seeking souls.

1959 – Rushdoony writes Reconstruction’s rule.

1966 – RTS renews Reformed reverend rearing.

1971. – Ligonier launches learning lessons.

1973 – Smith serves as stated clerk of seceding Southern saints.

1974 – Professor Plantinga publishes perceptive position.

1984 – Sproul settles in sunshine state.

The whole century – Various Van Tillians venture vague views.

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Gordon Clark on Divine Simplicity

A List of Places where Gordon Clark favorably notes Divine Simplicity.

[Note that in some of these instances Clark might just be relaying the view of the theologian he’s writing about, and not necessarily accepting the doctrine himself. But in other instances approval of Divine Simplicity is clearly his view.]

  1. 1937. A letter from Gordon H. Clark to J. Oliver Buswell, April 3, 1937.

Even in the human being I cannot persuade myself that there is a radical distinction between intellect and will – nor do I mean to be an anti-intellectual. But the activity of the intellect seems to involve volition (a good deal on the part of the students). And reciprocally a thought is an incipient impulse. In the case of God, the simplicity of his reality should favor still more such a identification, rather than a development of divine faculty psychology. If a view like this can be worked out in detail the result might be that God’s nature is his will and the original question, if not answered, might be to that extent clarified. It would then be possible to speak of the nature of God’s will, but no longer of a ‘nature’ independent of and distinct from the will of God. This attracts me because God is a living God, not a Plotinic One or a Spinozistic axiom.

  1. 1957. Thales to Dewey, p. 204-205.

The mystic view is that the doctrines are really false, colloquial accommodations to human limitations. But Anselm believed that God has revealed the truth and that this truth itself, not some ethereal negation of it, could be demonstrated. This must not be taken to imply that certain attributes cannot be denied of God. John Scotus had called God Sun, Star, Breath, and Water, only to empty them of all significance. Anselm keeps the significance and denies that these are attributes of God. But other attributes which are better than these belong to God. He is living, just, wise, powerful, and eternal. At the same time, Anselm is careful to point out that God is not wise or just by participation in a superior Idea. God himself is justice. That is what he is. As this line of reasoning applies to all attributes, so by them we know not merely what sort of being God is, but what God is. And is this not to know his essence, which the negative theologians said was unknowable? However, this concession, if it be a concession, must be made to negativism. Since God is one, without any composition, it follows that Justice is Life, Power is Eternity, and all attributes are the same. Obviously if Justice is God’s essence, and if God’s essence is Power, Just and Power are identical. Each attribute exhausts every other, “because whatever God is essentially in any way, this is all of what he is.”

  1. 1960. “Divine Attributes” in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology.

The unity of the attributes therefore is a thesis that cannot be thoughtlessly dismissed. … The short account above might suggest that the attributes are not only the same in God, but with a little thought they appear to be the same to us too.

  1. 1964. “Thomas Aquinas” In Encyclopedia of Christianity.

With respect to man, the term wise signifies a quality distinct both from the man’s strength, from his essence, and from his existence. But with God, essence and existence are identical, and all His attributes merge.

  1. 1968. “Existence of God” in Encyclopedia of Christianity.

The simplicity of God’s being requires His essence to be identical with His existence

  1. 1972. The Johannine Logos. p. 64.

Power, wisdom, and word are identical, for in the simplicity of the divine essence all attributes merge.

  1. c. 1980. First Lessons in Theology.

Are All Attributes One? … A few pages back comments were made on a list of verses, relating to the eternity of God, with the exception of one. That verse was, “I AM THAT I AM.” It is hard to say how much can be drawn from this name, or how much can be read into it. Probably one cannot validly infer from this verse alone that God is pure simple being, and that his essence and attributes are all one reality; but it would be harder to show that this verse ruled out Charnock’s position. It rather supports it.

  1. c. 1980. First Lessons in Theology.

At this juncture the point in question is not the doctrine of the Trinity, which was of course Athanasius’ main interest, but the identification of God with the substance of God. God is not a compound of substance and attributes, the substance standing under the attributes, supporting them lest they fall to earth; nor are the attributes some addition to the substance, completing it. God therefore is his substance; his substance is his attributes; all his attributes are one; and this One is God.

  1. 1982. “The Sovereignty of God.” The Trinity Review Nov.-Dec.

Augustus Toplady wrote, among other things, “Observations on the Divine Attributes.” 3 The simplicity of God and the identity of all the divine attributes, used above to settle the relation between justice and sovereignty, Toplady expresses in the following words. “Although the great and ever blessed God is a Being absolutely simple … he is, nevertheless, in condescension to our weak and contracted faculties, represented in Scripture as possessed of divers properties, or attributes, which though seemingly different from his essence, are in reality essential to him, and constitutive of his very nature” (p. 675, col. 1). Toplady, then, specifies “his eternal wisdom, the absolute freedom and liberty of his will, the perpetuity and unchangeableness, both of himself and his decrees, his omnipotence, justice, and mercy.” The material is so good that it demands great restraint not to quote the entire article, twelve pages of long double columns. Fear not, modern reader, I shall give only a few short paragraphs.

  1. 1985. The Trinity. p. 76

The Biblical data, as it seems to me, adequately support Berkhof’s assertion that “God and his attributes are one.”

  1. 1985. The Trinity. p. 77.

This treatise has already suggested that the attributes are the essence, and that it would be better to drop the word essence and use the word definition. The attributes constitute the definition of God.

Posted in Notes on the thought of Gordon H. Clark | 6 Comments

Sermon on Romans 2:1-4

The Hypocrite and the Just Judge

Scripture reading: Romans 1:26 — 2:1-4
Sermon text: Romans 2:1-4

[Rom 1:26 — 2:1-4 ESV] 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man–you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself–that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?



“Judge not lest ye be judged.”

This statement of Jesus in the Gospels is perhaps the most frequently mis-applied quote from the New Testament.

The person defending their own sins resorts to mis-applying this quote in an attempt to get his accuser off his back. “You can’t tell me what to do!” “You’re judging me!” “Didn’t Jesus say not to do that!?”

Even if one has hardly read any of the Bible, they seems to know this retort, “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

In today’s passage, Paul, like Jesus, speaks out against judging. And it is important on this subject that we do not misunderstand Paul just as is it important that we do not misunderstand Jesus.

Paul has much the same message as Jesus when it comes to judging. We want to understand what this message is. This message from God’s Word. And so, in doing so, we will look at two main points from the text:

1: Man’s judgments are hypocritical. (REPEAT)

2: God’s judgments are just. (REPEAT)

The text today, from Romans 2:1-4, continues Paul’s longer argument that all men are unrighteous; all men are sinners. In the last section Paul listed particular sins (envy, murder, strife, deceit, etc.) And he contended that these sins reveal God’s wrath upon the unrighteous. But here in our passage today he transitions from condemning those who blatantly practice such sins outwardly (the Gentiles) to those who judge the Gentiles while committing the same sins (that is, the Jews / early Christians).

A Jewish reader of Paul’s letter might be nodding his head in agreement with Paul against all those sins listed. But, if the reader thinks he himself is perfect, he is quite mistaken.

Point 1: Man’s judgments are hypocritical. (vs. 1)

So Paul writes,

“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

In seminary, we were trained, whenever we read the word “therefore” in the Bible we should ask “What is the ‘therefore’ there for?”

Usually, in standard argument form you list your premises first and then your conclusion which follows. And in between your premises and you conclusion you say “therefore,” connecting the two.

But Paul here appears to reverse the order; he lists his conclusion first and then his premise. Working backwards like this, John Calvin says is a Hebraicism, a Hebrew way of saying things. Paul, of course, was a Hebrew so it is not surprising that even in this letter written in Greek that he would think like a Hebrew.

So what is the “therefore” there for? What is Paul’s argument? What is Paul connecting when he says “therefore”?

Paul’s conclusion is “everyone who judges has no excuse.” The premise, which actually follows his conclusion, is “when you judge others, you judge yourself, because you sin in the same ways.”

So, if we are reverse this order, to straighten out Paul’s words so that they are not in a reverse Hebraicism, but in a regular way of speaking, we’d get a more standard argument form. Paul’s meaning straightened out is “when you judge others, you judge yourself because you sin in the same ways” and THEREFORE “everyone who judges has no excuse.” Or, to say it another way, the judge is no better than the accused because the judge is also guilty of sin.

So, this is our first point of the sermon, “Man’s judgments are hypocritical.” (REPEAT) Man is the hypocrite.

To be hypocritical is “to pretend to have virtues that you do not actually possess.” The word itself, “hypocrite” comes from the Greek, ὑποκρίνομαι (hupokrínomai) meaning “to play a part on stage.” So a hypocrite is an actor, a pretender. But, as Paul is pointing out, we cannot pretend to be without sin when we are in fact sinners. Rather, because we are sinners, if we then condemn others for being sinners, we are only condemning ourselves who also sin.

A. Does this mean we should make no judgments at all?

But does this mean that we should make no judgments at all? Is it wrong always and everyone to judge?

By the nature of things we have to make general judgments all of the time. We judge a particular car to be a better choice for us than another car when we purchase it. We judge what we put on our plate at the buffet. We judge what work we undertake and how to use our free time. We make judgements every day. These are unavoidable and these are obviously not what Paul is arguing against. Judging, in the very broadest sense, is not universally wrong.

We also, especially as Christians, JUDGE SIN TO BE SIN.

Is it wrong to make this kind of judgment? To judge sin to be sin? Surely not. We must raise our children to judge sins to be sins. If anything, we need to be better tuned in to what God tells us in the Bible about what is sinful. We need to be better at judging sin to be sin so that we can avoid it; so we can use that judgment to help lead us not to sin.

If we didn’t judge sin to be sin, we would harm ourselves in that sin. Only a fool would oppose judging dangerous things as dangerous.

So, we may and we must judge sin to be sin.

Paul, in fact, in this very text judges some things to be sinful. That is, he has already listed some visible outward sins in chapter 1, and continues here in chapter 2 to condemn — to judge — this behavior currently under question. Paul judges (rightly) that some other type of judging is wrong. So what is this wrong type of judgment?

It is not judging in general that is wrong. Nor is it judging sin to be sin that Paul is opposing. What type of “judging” then does he oppose?

The “judging” Paul is speaking against is “passing judgment on one another”; that is, he is speaking against wrongly judging yourself to be better than another. (REPEAT)

It is wrong to think that others are sinful and you are without sin.

B. The Jews judging the Gentiles.

In the passage there is a transition in the pronouns. In the last section Paul was speaking about “them.” “They” commit sins. “They,” “other people” are sinners. But now, Paul speaks about “You.” It is not just others that are sinful, but it is you also! (What a hard message to hear! But what a necessary message to hear)

If this passage is referring primarily to the Jews, which most commentators believe it is, then Paul is saying that the Jews judge the Gentiles for their sinfulness, but do so hypocritically because they also sin. Paul is saying, “we Jews (for Paul himself was a Jew) are no better than the Gentiles.”

Judging others for their sins, when you are a sinner, is like the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. Or like a sewer worker calling a garbageman stinky.

Or, even better, this is perhaps a bit like sitting on a large tree branch, while cutting the base of the branch with a saw. In fact, the safety manual that came with my chainsaw has such a picture on it showing a person sitting on a tree branch and cutting the thick side of the branch. And over this picture is a circle and a diagonal line indicating “don’t do this.” In cutting off the branch you are going to fall. Desiring the branch to fall, while sitting on that same plane, you cause yourself to fall.

Many of the first century Jews did not see themselves as sinners. Sinners were those outside of Israel, those who didn’t attempt to follow the Torah, the Old Testament laws. And since these Jews didn’t see themselves as sinful, they were not on the lookout for a moral messiah. They didn’t think they needed a Christ to die for their sins if they didn’t have any sins for someone to die for. Rather, the Jews were looking for a political messiah. The enemy, in their eyes, was not their own sins. The enemy, they thought, was the oppression of the Romans. So a messiah, some of them thought, would save them from the Romans.

Paul explains, however, how everyone — even the Jews, or especially the Jews — is sinful and in need of a moral messiah; in need of Jesus.

C. Condemning themselves.

When the Jews condemned the Gentiles for being sinners, they were condemning themselves as well because they too are sinners. They were cutting the very branch they were sitting on, condemning themselves to the same fall as the branch.

But not only were the Jews also sinners, but they were sinning again when judging themselves not to be sinners! They were guilty of a double wickedness – not only doing those same things, but passing judgment on those who do. If we want to keep our analogy with the tree branch, we might say “they are not only going to fall with the branch” and break a leg on the fall, they are going to be scolded for (by their employer) for not following safety directions.”

There is an irony here in that the judgment of hypocrites is in fact a just judgment. That is, they rightly judge sin to be sin, but they fail to realize that they are condemning themselves in the process.

There is an instructive story in the Old Testament about this topic; condemning oneself.

It comes from 2 Samuel 12:1-7

[2Sa 12:1-7 ESV] 1 And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds, 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, 6 and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” 7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man!

The text then explains:

Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. 8 And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.

So David was the rich man in Nathan’s story, unsatisfied with his own gifts from the Lord and taking Bathsheba as his wife after arranging for her first husband Uriah the Hittite to be killed. David’s anger is greatly kindled against the rich man in Nathan’s story, not realizing that HE IS THAT MAN.


How can we apply this today?

Are you that man?

Do you rage in anger against others who have sinned, not recognizing your own sins?

The example that comes immediately to mind is homosexuality and other deviant sexual practices. It is right, as I noted previously, to judge THAT these practices are sins, for God himself makes that judgment revealed in Scripture.

But, to apply the text today,

Do not think that you are better than they are. For what sexual sins have you committed? And what others sins have you committed?

Or do you think what you have done is not as bad?

In the Gospels, Jesus (with so much power behind his words) emphasizes that all are sinners. He sets the bar higher than man can achieve.

His words are,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)

So even if you haven’t committed grossly immoral sexual sins in action, you have certainly committed sexual sins in your mind; in your lust.

Realizing your own sinfulness in areas such as this, it is important that you do not think yourself better than those who practice homosexuality or prostitution, or other sinful sexual practices. You, like them, are sinners in the need of God’s forgiveness.

The Scripture readings today, both from Romans and from 2 Samuel are there, at least in part, to humble your pride.

D. Paul and Jesus

The parallels between Paul’s teaching and Jesus’ teaching are evident. Both Paul and Jesus speak against the hypocritical judge.

In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7, verses 1-5, Jesus says,

[Mat 7:1-5 ESV] 1 “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

As I noted earlier, it hard to imagine that any Scriptural passage has been more misused than this one. “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

This statement should NEVER be used to defend a sin, as if to say “YOU can’t judge my sin to be a sin, because you too are a sinner.” This is not the intent of Jesus. And it is not the intent of Paul either. Those things which God has revealed to us in the Scriptures to be sinful are things which we can, and should, rightly judge to be sinful. But, again, we should never judge that only others commit these sins, and not ourselves. That is why both Paul and Jesus refer to the judge as a hypocrite; the one who judges himself to be better when in fact he, like all men everywhere, is a sinner.

Though men’s judgments, apart from God’s revealed will, are hypocritical, God’s judgments are always just. (Repeat) And so this is our second point, God’s judgments are always just.

Point 2: God’s judgments are just. (vs 2.)

Paul writes, “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”

Man judges hypocritically because man commits the same sins that he condemns. But God judges justly, committing no sins, and being and setting the very standard by which man is to live.

God’s judgment falls rightly. His judgments are just.

There is not some higher level of justice to which God looks to. He doesn’t consult someone else. He sets the standard for right and wrong, and tells us in His Word.

The punishment for sin is always separation from God. It is death and hell, for God is most holy and cannot tolerate wickedness in His presence. All men deserve this judgment, for all men have sinned.

Paul writes with his mind to possible objections that might come up against these points. (That man is a hypocrite, but God is a just judge) He then answers his imagined critic. He typically introduces one of the objections of the critic by saying “What shall we say then?”And he answers in his own words with the response, “By no means.”

A. Rhetorical Question 1

The first of two rhetorical questions set up against his teaching is this:

Do you suppose, O man–you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself–that you will escape the judgment of God? (vs. 3)

He seems to be referring to the false security that some Jews had. That is, some Jews thought they would escape God’s judgment just because they were Jews. (REPEAT)

Do you suppose, O man–you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself–that you will escape the judgment of God? (vs. 3)

By no means! By no means is the right answer. You should not expect to escape God’s judgment just because of your status.


This should be a warning to you, not to think your status in life saves you.

There are statuses that people falsely hang on to, hoping in them for salvation.

Do you think you are saved because you are baptized? By no means!
Do you think you are a saved because you attend church? By no means!
Do you elevate yourself saying “I have good doctrine?” Will you learning save you? By no means!

Being baptized will not allow you to escape the just judgment of God. Attending church will not allow you to escape the just judgement of God. And having good doctrine will not allow you to escape the just judgement of God.

I especially want to focus on this last point. We have great doctrine here in the Reformed Presbyterian church. Pastor Hicks is one of the most learned scholars of the Faith I have come across. But don’t let this be a crutch to you. Do not think that you are saved because you have good doctrine, or a good pastor, or good elders, or good deacons.

Good doctrine is extremely important, but you are not saved by your doctrine. You are saved by God’s grace through Faith in Jesus Christ. And those in churches with less emphasis on doctrine are also only saved by God’s grace through Faith in Jesus Christ.


One pastor has said, “The secret hope of the hypocrite is that God will judge by the hypocrites perspective.” (REPEAT)

Like the first century Jews, there are all manner of people today who think they are better than others based on the family in which they were born, the country in which they live, or their ethnic origin.

These groups include racists, kinists, and elitists. They judge others on standards they have invented. Standards that are sinful in the eyes of God. Stay far away from these sinful mindsets. Your status will not save you. By no means!

B. Rhetorical Question 2

Paul then moves on to the second rhetorical question:

“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (vs. 4) (REPEAT)

This is much like his rhetorical question in Romans 6:1 where Paul asks – “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!”

Of course not. We should never presume on the riches of God’s kindness. We should never sin thinking “Oh, God will forgive me anyways.”

So Paul is telling his audience, you are not off the hook just by being a Jew, nor are you off the hook because God is so kind as to forgive you regardless of what your response is to him. God’s forgiveness is not a license to sin as you please.

Rather, God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance. God doesn’t pronounce his judgment and carry out the sentence right now because he is using his kindness to lead His people to repentance; turning away from their sins and following Christ in faith.

Paul’s arguments are not merely made for the Jews of the first 1st century, but are the Word of God to you and me today.

Consider this: We have the tendency to judge the sins of others severely and judge our own sins gently. We ask for forgiveness, but do we forgive others?

The Gospel

The Jews sought outward holiness. They wanted to be seen as holy, devout. Calvin says of this, “God will take an account, not only of their disguised righteousness, but also of their secret motives and feelings.”

Remember also Jesus said that “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

And so all are guilty. Paul extends his point about sinners from the outward sins to inward sins like false judgment. This is in order help support his main point which ranges over multiple chapters. That is, “all men are sinners.” You included!

So what then? So I’m a sinner even if I haven’t sinned outwardly?


What hope then do I have?

There is a solution. There is hope. Not in yourselves, but in Christ.

Despite how heinous your sins are. Even if you are a hypocrite like many 1st century Jews. Even though all people sin, and even though the judgment of God is justly upon you. Even despite all of this, we have hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Your sins are forgiven! You must repent and believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe that he died on the cross for your sins.

What was David’s response when Nathan told him, “You are the man!”? David rightly admitted “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Repent and believe. For it is through faith that the grace of God is given to you and the righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to your account, so that God sees you as pure and holy regardless of any sins you have committed.

And because we have been forgiven in Christ, all the more should we forgive those who have sinned against us, and all the more, knowing that we were saved despite all being sinners, we should not judge ourselves better than anyone else but praise God for his pardon and his great salvation.


So, we will conclude with this.

You are the man. You are the sinner, like David.

God is the just judge, and Christ is our savior.

Trust in him alone for your salvation. Not in your own self, nor in your status.

And through this coming week do not, like hypocrites, look to judge others yourself as superior to others, but be merciful and kind to others as God has been merciful and kind to us.

We thank God for His mercy and His kindness in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Posted in Sermons | 1 Comment

Clark and Van Til on Barth, Part 5.

To what extent is Van Til’s doctrine of God similar to Barth’s “Wholly Other”?

This is part 5 of a 5 part series on “Clark and Van Til on Barth.”
Click here for Part 1.
Click here for Part 2.
Click here for Part 3. 
Click here for Part 4.

A. Van Til’s Creator-creature distinction and skepticism.

The Answer, written by Gordon Clark and other elders, accused The Complaint, written by Cornelius Van Til and other elders, of resulting in skepticism. It reads:

“The Presbytery wishes to suggest that if man does not know at least one truth that God knows, if man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge do not coincide in at least one detail, then man knows nothing at all. God knows all truth, and if man’s mind cannot grasp one truth, then man’s mind grasps no truth. Far from being a test of orthodoxy, this test imposed by The Complaint is nothing else than skepticism and irrationalism.” – The Answer, 21.

Clark himself, in an unpublished paper comes to the same conclusion. He writes,

“The Complaint, on the other hand, makes the truth God has qualitatively different from the ‘truth’ man has. There is not a single point in common. Whatever meaning God has, man cannot have. And since the Bible teaches that God has all truth, it must follow on the theory of the Complaint that man has no truth. The theory of the Complaint is therefore skepticism.” – Gordon H. Clark, “Studies in the Doctrine of the Complaint” in The Presbyterian Philosopher, Douglas J. Douma, Wipf&Stock, 2017. p. 260.

Of interest, and probably of surprise to those who have studied the Clark – Van Til controversy, some of those who wrote The Complaint later themselves came to admit its skeptical character. That is, the conceded that the language was “misleading” and “created the impression” of skepticism. They wrote:

“The second statement [in the original complaint] is also misleading, particularly because of the words, ‘single point.’ The whole clause, taken by itself, is liable to create the impression that our knowledge does not come into contact with the objects of the divine knowledge at any point. This would, of course, be incorrect and would also be skeptical in character.” Fifteenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, meeting minutes (Wildwood, NJ: 13 May 1948), Appendix 21. In The Presbyterian Philosopher, p. 158.

Years after the controversy, Ronald Nash—a voice from outside of the OPC—wrote in agreement that Van Til’s position results in skepticism. Nash said,

“It is well-known that Van Til for years held that a qualitative difference exists between the knowledge God has and that possessed by humans. God’s knowledge and our knowledge do no coincide at a single point. But this implies, of course, that no proposition can mean the same thing to God and to humans. For twenty years or so, as a friendly critic of Van Til’s views, I have maintained that Van Til’s position entails scepticism.” – Ronald Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, P&R, 1982, p. 99-100.


“In conclusion, one can ask how Van Til knows that no proposition can mean the same thing to God and to a human, that our knowledge and God’s knowledge do not coincide at any point. This very knowledge claim says something about what lies beyond the Boundary.” Ronald Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, P&R, 1982, p. 101.

It is clear to me, then, that Van Til’s position in The Complaint did result in skepticism. But, as I noted in The Presbyterian Philosopher (see: p. 161-162), Van Til changed his position (or at least clarified it) near the end of the controversy. To avoid skepticism he began arguing that man’s knowledge is derivative of God’s knowledge; not entirely without coincidence as The Complaint had said. Clarkians (and others, like Nash) have generally critiqued Van Til for his earlier position.

But did Van Til entirely give up his earlier position? It seems not. He continued to argue for an undefined difference in “content” between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge (Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 171-2) and speak of “a two-layer theory of knowledge” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 35). In doing so he continued to make an unbridgeable gap between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge (based on his Creator-creature distinction) and so resulted in skepticism.

Note: It is important to note that what Van Til and his followers speak of as “THE Creator-creature distinction” is not equivalent to what other theologians speaks of using the same term. All Christian theologians hold that God and man are distinct in being. Van Til’s novelty is to extend the Creator-creature distinction from being to knowledge itself (not solely the mode of knowledge, but knowledge itself).

And, if I’m wrong on this, let someone explain why was The Complaint written? Other than the obviously political nature of it, why would Van Til (and others) have filed a complaint against Clark’s epistemology if they merely held that man’s knowledge is derivative of God’s knowledge? I’m convinced that Clark would have had no issue with that wording.

B. Barth’s “wholly other” and skepticism.

In Karl Barth’s Theological Method, Gordon Clark argues that Barth’s doctrine of God as “Wholly Other” results in skepticism. Clark relays that Barth believes, “God cannot be compared to anyone or anything. He is only like himself.” To this Clark contended that, in addition to Barth’s position being unbiblical, “if God is Totally Other then He is totally unknowable.”

Clark writes,

“Although it is such an elementary point, it seems often to be forgotten that object x can be both like and not like object y. It sounds self-contradictory, like saying that a plane figure is both square and not square; and perhaps the form of the words obscures the difference. But just as a cat is like and not like a dog, so God is like and not like a man.” (p. 169)

C. The “Creator-creature distinction” compared to Barth’s “wholly other.”

Karl Barth explains his doctrine of God—the “wholly other”— as “an infinite qualitative different between God and man.” As such, man is “incapable of knowing Him.” This makes for an unbridgeable gap between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge and so results in skepticism. Van Til’s Creator-creature distinction—when made to argue against any coincidence in man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge— also makes for an unbridgeable gap between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge and so ends in skepticism. So, like in part 4 of this series, we must conclude “different doctrines, same result.”

It is interesting to note that as Barth came to reject his doctrine of God as the “Wholly Other” (or “Totally Other”) in his later writings and yet continued to let it influence him, (Karl Barth’s Theological Method, p. 169) so Van Til repudiated his position in The Complaint but yet continued to let it influence his writings.

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

Notes on John Frame’s “Theology of My Life.”

In his autobiography Theology of My Life (Cascade Books, 2017), Dr. John Frame notes that he published his recollections because, as he says, “I think they can be of use to some readers.” In this blog post I’ll note some of the things in the book which are of use, or interest, to myself.

1. Notes on Clifford Smith

In The Presbyterian Philosopher I noted a number of pastors (virtually all supporters of Gordon Clark) who left the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the wake of the Clark – Van Til controversy. One of these was Clifford Smith. John Frame notes a meeting he had with Smith:

I got a call from Clifford Smith, assistant pastor of Mt. Lebanon U.P., to meet him in his office. This was a fascinating visit. I knew that both Smith and his senior pastor, Cary Weisiger, were Westminster graduates. Both had opposed the merger of the United Presbyterian Church with the liberal Presbyterian Church, USA. Their preaching, indeed, was powerfully Reformed, and it was one of the factors that impelled me toward Westminster. But Smith did not recommend his alma mater. – p. 64

And Frame footnotes:

Smith expressed respect for Westminster’s theological and academic position, but he noted that the seminary was all too quick to enter into controversy, a comment I followed up in my “Machen’s Warrior Children” Smith had spent some years in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (against which Chikes and Fullerton had warned me) following graduation and had supported Gordon H. Clark in the 1940s controversy between Clark and Van Til. Supporting Clark, who was perceived to be the loser in that controversy, Smith left the OPC and eventually found himself at Mt. Lebanon U.P.

Whether Westminster Theology Seminary, the OPC, and confessionalists in general are too quick to enter into controversy, I think depends on what side of a controversy one is on! Since I think Van Til’s position (in The Complaint) in the Clark – Van Til Controversy was beyond the confession, and that The Complaint was rife with errors, I think they should have spent more time thinking through their position before issuing the complaint. But, in the later Shepherd controversy —since I think a number of his positions to be non-confessional — I think the denomination and seminary should have acted faster!

2. Notes on Frame’s relationship with Van Til

Since Frame was a student of Van Til and often considered one of his best interpreters, one might have assumed that they saw eye-to-eye; having solid communication between the two. But Frame notes at least twice the difficulties he had in communication with Van Til.

Van Til and I did not always communicate well. The philosophical language I learned at Princeton was that of Anglo-American language analysis, which was not easily translatable into Van Til’s language derived from philosophical idealism

Often comments I made in class, intended as analytical questions, came across to Van Til as criticisms of his position. So he was always somewhat reluctant to accept me as an ally.

Later however, when Frame came back to teach, Van Til accepted him. Frame writes,

Although I did not begin as a member of the apologetics department, Van Til greeted me warmly. If he was suspicious of me because of past disagreements, he didn’t express those suspicions when I returned to WTS.

3. “The Dissertation That Never Was.”

Frame speaks of the dissertation he wasn’t able to finish. The topic —propositional revelation— is of great interest to me. Frame notes,

My mind increasingly turned to the concept of ‘propositional revelation.’ Both Gordon Clark and his student Carl Henry had regarded that as a matter of some importance in the theological dialogue about Scripture. And as I read modern theologians like Barth, Brunner, and Tillich, it seemed to me that many of their innovations in the doctrine of Scripture were developed as alternatives to, or arguments against, propositional revelation.

Frame also notes, “So I thought I would, in my dissertation, examine all the arguments used by liberal theologians to oppose propositional revelation, and refute them.” I think this would be of considerable value.

4. The Dooyeweerdians

The philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd swept through Reformed churches in the 1960s and 1970s. In The Presbyterian Philosopher I note the pushback Johannes Vos and Gordon Clark made against Dooyeweerdianism at Geneva College in 1974. In Theology of My Life, Frame gives his recollections of the movement.

When I returned to WTS in 1968, someone told me that there was a “cult” of Dooyeweerdians on campus. Herman Dooyeweerd was a Dutch Calvinist philosopher, a very substantial thinker.
 In years past, Cornelius Van Til had been closely associated with Dooyeweerd’s school of thought, but after Dooyeweerd’s visit to the US in the late 1950s, Van Til had become critical of him. Robert Knudsen, however, though disagreeing with Dooyeweerd’s doctrine of Scripture, was a staunch supporter of Dooyeweerdian philosophy.

About this time, followers of Dooyeweerd founded the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada, and their very young faculty scoured North America, seeking to radicalize young Reformed people to embrace their cause. In the Reformed movement (especially in Dutch denominations, but also in the OPC), many churches and organizations (especially Christian schools) came under this influence, and as I saw it they were not open to calm discussion. I was not willing to accept passively the assimilation of the Reformed movement to a group of young militants. Eventually I became myself a somewhat militant opponent of Dooyeweerdianism.

The Dooyeweerdian group in Toronto, the Institute for Christian Studies, still exists, but one rarely hears of them today. I’d be interested in reading a history of this movement.

5. Comments on The Shepherd Controversy

I’ve dreamed from time to time of writing a history of Westminster Theological Seminary. I believe it needs to be done, but that I’m probably not the right one to do it. Any history of WTS would need to explain well the Shepherd Controversy. Dr. Frames recollections will be of value to whoever writes the history some day. One particular section I found of great interest. Frame writes,


So far, then, I supported Shepherd’s position. But Norman did not stop there. He also drew an inference: since works are a necessary element of saving faith, and since saving faith is necessary to justification, works are therefore necessary to justification. Now this seemed to me to be a straightforward logical argument: A is necessary to B, B is necessary to C, therefore A is necessary to C. So I could, and still can, defend Norman’s inference.

But others could not. They did not like the term necessary. In that term they heard the idea of “cause,” perhaps, so that if works are “necessary to” justification, then works are “the cause of” justification, even the merit by which we deserve justification. But in fact the term “necessary” does not have that meaning. To say that A is the necessary condition of C is not to say that A is the efficient cause of C, certainly not that A is the merit by which we earn C. This fact seemed simple enough to me. At a later meeting, I tried to explain it to my colleagues, however, and it had no impact at all on the discussion. I was young and did not want to try to dominate the debate. So that was the end of that.

Shephered’s inference, of course, is valid. The logic is correct. The problem is the horrendous premise – “works are a necessary element of saving faith.”

Frame continues,

If I had been Norman, I would have simply apologized for using the term “necessity,” with which many people wrongly or rightly took offense. But as the discussion progressed, it became evident why Norman couldn’t take that course. He had an agenda. He believed that many evangelicals, and those who opposed him in the Reformed community, held views of “cheap grace” or “easy believism,” the view that one can have genuinely saving faith, but without practical holiness. The word necessity, in Norman’s mind, guarded against that degradation of Reformed theology, and no other word really could. Indeed, Norman thought, if one opposed the use of necessity, he could have no motive other than to maintain easy believism.

Maybe Shepherd had ran into “easy-believism” but I know of no Reformed pastors (then or now) who advocate it. 

Frame agrees,

Although self-righteousness and easy believism are twin errors that show up too often in Christian circles, I don’t think either characterizes American evangelicalism generally, and I don’t believe that either characterizes any segment of Reformed Christianity that I know.

But defends Shepherd as being misrepresented,

The problem as I see it is that we tend too often to misrepresent one another. We need to work much harder to understand one another’s words in the best sense, rather than the worst sense. And we should not in any case formulate our doctrines with the intention of saying the opposite of whatever we think American evangelicals say. Shorn of such agendas, we can work together to analyze problematic terms like necessity, and agree on a vocabulary that doesn’t mislead or irritate.

I think Shepherds view, though maybe misrepresented by a few people, was largely understood. And it was understood to be false; a false Gospel.

Therefore, when Frame says,

One of my major regrets about the controversy was that Shepherd was prevented from making further contributions to Reformed theology in areas other than justification.

I’m glad that Shepherd wasn’t able to make any more contributions, because his views are not Reformed.

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Some things that didn’t make the cut for “The Presbyterian Philosopher”

I began discussing some things on the Gordon H. Clark Discussions Forum that did not make the cut for The Presbyterian Philosopher, the biography of Dr. Clark that I had published earlier this year.

So I thought I’d note some of these things, and maybe explain why they didn’t make the cut.

1. First, maybe this is a good time to list the articles of Dr. Clark that I’m still looking for. I found hundreds of published and unpublished papers during research into the biography and posted just about all of them on the Gordon H. Clark Foundation website. But I still haven’t found the following. If you have access to these, please let me know!

Articles in The United Presbyterian, 20 March 1950, p. 10; September 1950, p. 4-6; 10 October 1953, p. 20; 30 December 1956, p. 9.
1948. In American People’s Encyclopedia. Chicago: The Spencer Press., Democritus, Emanation.
1949. In Collier’s Encyclopedia, New York: P.F. Collier and Son. Zeno.
1967. Are We Straight on Sunday? Reformed Presbyterian Reporter, Dec.
???? Faith and Presumption in Prayer, Jan. 16, RPCES 2

2. I really wanted to look into an episode at Westminster Theological Seminary where five members of the board of trustees resigned in 1946 (effective 1947). These five were Edwin Rian, A. K. Davidson, Lawrence Gilmore, Matthew McCroddan, and J. Enoch Faw. But why did they all resign? I think this could be related to the Clark – Van Til controversy then ongoing in the OPC. I could not find any information about the reasons for the trustees’ resignations. Some comments about them were noted in the papers of Ned Stonehouse, I recall.

3. I noted the “proto-presuppositionalists” James Orr and Abraham Kuyper as precursors to the work of Clark, Van Til, and others. I had considered mentioning Valentine Hepp, Kuyper’s successor at the Free University of Amsterdam. I avoided mentioning him, however, because of lack of source material. I suspect that he largely followed Kuyper. I’m not aware of any of his own contributions to apologetics. I’d be glad to learn more.

4. I debated long and hard whether to present a major challenge to Clark’s philosophy, and a possible solution to it. This challenge is related to the doctrine of “divine simplicity.” Simply put, how is it that Dr. Clark held to divine simplicity while also arguing for the univocity of man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge? That is, if God’s attributes are really one, such that any individual attribute necessarily entails all the others, how can man know anything (and presumably share that attribute as “a knower of x” with God) but not have all of God’s attributes? I had considered making a grand contention that the Clark – Van Til controversy really was about Divine Simplicity. Van Til’s “Creator-creature” distinction is certainly related closely to Divine Simplicity. But the controversy never actually mentions Divine Simplicity, and no one seems to have asked Clark about this later. I spent months thinking about this topic, and am not satisfied with my understanding of it, nor of any “solution” in Clark or elsewhere. I’ve collected series of quotes from Clark related to the topic. Maybe at some point I’ll try to work this out further and present it.

5. One letter I never got permission to quote in the biography, and which I will leave anonymous mentioned:

“[One minister] was talking to me about Van Til’s apologetics. he said he believes he understands it thoroughly, but he does not believe that Westminster is carrying on the Old Princeton tradition—especially in this particular subject. He believes the questions of Dr Clark’s ordination (to be brought up at the Assembly) is one between those who hold to Old Princeton’s position and that of the Dutch or Van Til’s.” (An OPC member, May 16, 1944)

This is an interesting letter, but it is my contention that neither Dr. Van Til nor Dr. Clark followed Old Princeton’s position on apologetics and epistemology.

6. Finally, some things about the relationship between Dr. Clark, Dr. Robbins, and Dr. Zeller.

I spent three years studying at Sangre de Cristo Seminary under their emeritus president (and son-in-law of Dr. Clark) Dr. Dwight Zeller and his son (Dr. Clark’s grandson) the president of the seminary Dr. Andrew Zeller. I highly respect each of these men and think higher of the Zeller family than about any other I know. The lives of Dr. Clark and the elder Zeller coincided such that they knew each other for over 30 years; from the time Dr. Zeller married Dr. Clark’s daughter in 1955 until Dr. Clark’s death in 1985. Neither the elder nor the younger Dr. Zeller are strict “Clarkians” but have certainly been influenced by their “Dad” Clark. They are both retired military chaplains and Reformed ministers with their credentials in the PCA.

That being said, I trust the accuracy and fairness of the things they told me.

Likewise, for the record, though I never met Dr. Robbins, who died in 2008, I do respect his work. And so, when noting differences between Dr. Zeller and Dr. Robbins, I want to believe that they each had some valid points, but largely “saw past each other.”

So, first, what did Dr. Clark think of Dr. Robbins? Extant letters, now published in Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark evidence a good relationship between Dr. Clark and Dr. Robbins. Dr. Clark twice writes letters of recommendation for Dr. Robbins and was grateful for his work with the Trinity Foundation to publish Dr. Clark’s books. Dr. Clark had had plenty of frustrations with other publishers through the years and so was very glad for Robbins’ zeal in publishing his works.

But it is this same zeal for Dr. Clark’s thoughts (which as his biographer I surely understand and share!) that made Dr. Robbins a bit of a nuisance at times for Dr. Clark. In once instance, as Dr. Clark was in the hospital in his final days he received a call from Dr. Robbins. This is not surprising considering how Dr. Robbins’ cared for him. But, from Dr. Clark’s perspective, Dr. Robbins’ had apparently called many times through the years (they knew each other for about 12 years) and so Dr. Clark voiced his annoyance with Dr. Robbins’ calling him at that time. This I was told by the elder Dr. Zeller.

A more aggressive tone, perhaps, was mentioned by Dr. Zeller in recalling that one time (unknown year) Dr. Clark said to him, “I don’t trust that man” referring to Dr. Robbins. Now, the context for this is not clear, and its meaning shouldn’t be extended too far.

Finally, an episode I had in the biography but removed when I thought it too tangential to the topic at hand, occurred between Dr. Robbins and the elder Dr. Zeller in about 1999. This is where we specifically need to be gracious to both sides in a disagreement. The scene is that Dr. Robbins had been teaching a course on apologetics every 3 years at Sangre de Cristo since about 1990.

According to Dr. Zeller in an interview I conducted with him in 2015:

John [Robbins] had an article in his review [The Trinity Review] saying “there are no seminaries that teach solid Reformed theology” and he mentioned names. Well, a lot of these people were my friends, good Christian men. I told John, “You’re being inconsistent,” and he said [in a loud voice and pointing], “Tell me where I’m being inconsistent.” For him, being called inconsistent was equivalent to being called a sinner.

Finally, concerned about Robbins’s apologetical positions, Dr. Zeller asked him to write a paper on the place of charity in apologetics. Robbins refused, effectively ending his visiting professorship. It is possible that Zeller’s request for charity was interpreted by Robbins as a request for compromise in his system of apologetics. It seems to me, from my research, that the seminary didn’t handle the situation properly. That is, Dr. Robbins wasn’t notified of the decision and so didn’t know that he wasn’t coming back to teach. He was surprised to learn of the situation some time later. This was a very unfortunate affair.

So, let us not idolize any man, be he Clark, Robbins, Zeller or any one else. No two theologians will agree in all instances. Read, for example, the differences in political views in the series of letters between Dr. Clark and Dr. Robbins in Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark.

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