Reformation Month: Day 28

31 Days, 31 Books

The Battle of the Minds

Calvinist philosophers, thinkers, and opponents: Gordon H. Clark and Cornelius Van Til

I first heard of Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til through sale sheets from Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, now simply called P & R Publishing.   It was around 1975 and I was a young kid in college and both of them were old men in their 70s.   From the sales sheets, I picked up a few volumes by each, but struggled through the reading.  Being new to Calvinism, Calvinists, and Reformed theology, I would have assumed they were best buddies.  I wasn’t exactly sure of what they were talking about in their books, but I was increasingly awestruck by the intellectual vigor of the Calvinist wing of Christianity.

Clark and Van Til represent several vital traditions in Calvinism and the Reformation.  First, both had extremely high regard for the Scriptures. In Defense of the Faith, perhaps his best book, Van Til states, “The Bible is authoritative on everything of which it speaks.  Moreover, it speaks of everything.”  In his essay, God and Logic, Clark said, “First of all,Scripture, the written words of the Bible, is the mind of God. What is said in Scripture is God’s thought.”  Second, both men affirmed the saving work of Christ on the Cross, the resurrection, and the great truths of the Christian faith.  Third, both men loved learning and were accomplished scholars and life-long students.  Clark grew up in a Calvinistic Presbyterian home, received his degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, and taught at a number of colleges, including Wheaton College, Butler University, and Covenant College.  Van Til was born in the Netherlands to a family that immigrated to the United States, carrying their rich Dutch Calvinism with them.  He attended Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary, and Princeton Theological Seminary.  After a short teaching stint at Princeton Seminary, he joined with J. Gresham Machen and others in forming Westminster Theological Seminary, where he taught for years.

Both men wrote lots of books.  Van Til currently has some 33 books on Goodreads.    (Some of these are actually books about Van Til’s thought.)  Most of what Van Til had published as books grew out of class syllabi which he used at Westminster.  He only rarely seemed to write a book that was purely a writing project.  Also, there is lots of overlap in the writings of Van Til.  The fundamentals of his thought can be found in just a few of his volumes, such as Defense of the Faith and Christian Apologetics.  (His books are still published mainly by P&R Publishing.) His recurring emphasis was on Christian apologetics, the defense of the faith.  The only other topic was yet an application of his apologetic and that was a couple of books he did on Christian education, which he viewed as an absolute necessity.  (See Essays on Christian Education.)

Clark was more diverse in his writings; however, most of his books deal with aspects of philosophy.  He wrote a comprehensive Christian approach and study of philosophy (see below) and many other studies on aspects of philosophy and the teachings of various philosophers, such as Dewey and William James.  He also wrote a book on Christian education and did quite a few Bible commentaries.  He wrote forty or more books.  His works have been faithfully kept in print by the Trinity Foundation.

With so much in common in terms of beliefs and intellectual issues, it is hard to realize that these men had a major falling out over some theological and philosophical issues back in the 1930s.  The books and blogs on the Clark-Van Til debate and controversy are easily accessible and will not detain us here.  I confess to not having the philosophical bent of mind, nor the time, to invest myself in the controversy.  Besides, I am like a child in a custody battle.  I love both Clark and Van Til.  I don’t discount that there were serious issues at stake, but I am usually at the mercy of whichever partisan I am reading.

Here is my interest for the present:  Intramural, in-house, brother-to-brother controversy has been a part of the Reformed tradition.  Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli had a major falling out.  There has never been a time where the key theologians, pastors, professors, and thinkers have been in lock-step.  As someone once said, “If everyone thinks alike, no one is thinking.”  The creation of the Internet and the popularity of blogs has exponentially increased the modes of attack, critique, analysis, appreciate but disagree with, and totally slander fellow Reformed folk.  It used to be that if Van Til and Clark were up in the ring duking it out, the rest of us were just in the stands cheering our champion on.  Now, we all get boxing gloves and a place in a ring.  In fact, if I were a well known blogger, there would be at least 50 comments on this blog ripping into me and at least 3 other bloggers quoting from this to demonstrate what a theological creep I am–in their opinion.

Fighting amongst ourselves is part of the price of having the Word of God in our hands.  I would take the Van Til-Clark controversy any day over any Pope or council of Cardinals decreeing what we believe.  There are lots of dangers and distractions that come out of controversy.  Again, the history of this can go as far back as Paul and Barnabus’s near fist-fight over whether or not to allow young, fickle John Mark to be the youth pastor. (And both were right.)  It is as recent as the content of the Strange Fire Conference hosted by Pastor John MacArthur and the sideshow by the wily Mark Driscoll.

The controversies can be indicative of wrongful attitudes toward brothers and the neglect of essential Christian ministries.  That need not be the case.  Both Clark and Van Til devoted the bulk of their time and labors to teaching their students, writing their books, and ministering in their churches.  I have no doubt that they have been arm in arm since 1987 when Van Til transferred his church membership to the same church as Clark–in Heaven. (They may even be having good natured banter with a common theological foe Karl Barth, who keeps joyfully saying, “All right, so I vas wrong on zum tings.  You two vern’t perfect either. Praise Gott fur grace.”)

Barth gets a stamp. When will the U. S Postal Service issue the Clark-Van Til collection?

The best approach for those who love the Reformed Faith here and now is to dig in the books of both Clark and Van Til.  Building on the Reformed heritage, both have left us even more treasures.

Key Books by Van Til:

Read these 3 Van Til volumes and you have the essence of his thought.

Key Books by Gordon Clark:

THALES TO DEWEY is Clark’s outstanding historical survey of philosophy. The current edition is a fine hardbound volume published by the Trinity Foundation.


A CHRISTIAN VIEW OF MEN AND THINGS is a prequel to the study of philosophy. I wish I had the copy pictured above.


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