Herman Melville and Gordon Clark


This two men are not often paired together in discussions.  My reason for putting here is that I have been teaching books by both of them in recent days at Veritas Academy.   One can find similarities between the two men.  Both were authors of numerous books.  Both were deep thinkers, immersed in philosophy and possessing wide eclectic learning.  Both suffered a certain degree of rejection in their lives.  Melville’s career tanked after writing Moby Dick.  Clark was only slightly known in either philosophical or Christian circles and is less known today.  But generally, these two men are not paired in discussions.

Herman Melville was a successful writer of adventurous books about sailing, being on Pacific islands, and undergoing adventure at sea.  The he wrote a really big book on a sea adventure, and then he revised that really big book, and then he published that really big book.  Titled Moby Dick, the Whale, this lengthy, ranging, rolling novel sent Melville’s literary career down the same path as the Pequod, the ship in the story.  Melville took a government job to pay the bills since writing was no longer an option for him.  It was in the early decades of the 20th Century that Melville resurfaced from his watery literary grave.  The discovery of his powerful novella Billy Budd led to an appreciation and astonishment about his whaling epic.

Gordon Clark was a philosophy teacher and a Calvinist when Calvinism wasn’t cool.  Neither was a philosophical and theological approach to Christianity.  Clark thought it was critically important that not just preachers, but folks in the pews should be reading, studying, and thinking about theology.  After theological liberals had cut away almost all doctrinal convictions, neo-orthodox theologians so changed the content and approach to theology as to render it inscrutable, mystical, and plastic.  Like Athena’s birth out of Zeus’ skull, Clark was birthed right out of the head of Logic.  Not emotion, not heart-felt leading, not experience, not tradition, but logical, rational thought was needed to affirm the truths of Christianity.  Clark was, however, no Rationalist.  He was a Supernaturalist.  God had to do the work in the heart before the rational faculties could stand on the foundation.  Clark was unwavering in his Calvinistic soteriology.  But once saved, the believer was obligated to think logically, which to Clark meant think Biblically.  For a few years, Clark taught at Wheaton College.  At that point in time, his Calvinistic somberness set him at odds with the Fundamentalist spirit of the college at that time.  But before he left, he knocked some sense into a student or two, including a young guy named Carl F. H. Henry.

My connection is the teaching of two books.  They are described below:

In Defense of Theology

This book is not designed for today’s high school students, so I used it for my high school students.  It is a challenge, a climb, a reach.  Often Clark is battling the theological monsters of the earlier parts of the 20th century.  But one doesn’t read Clark to find out how to answer the latest complaint an unbeliever has against Christianity.  You read Clark to know what you should believe and how to think through it.  Clark was convinced that the normal man in the pews and the somewhat Charismatic touchy-feely Christian needed to clamp down and study some basic theological doctrines.  His main contention is that God has spoken and we should know what He has said.

Clark was a presuppositionalist in apologetic approach. Like his earthly sparing partner and heavenly buddy Cornelius Van Til, he believed that all people begin with basic, assumed presuppositions that are non-demonstrable, but accepted by faith.  From the most basic axiom, or presupposition, Clark believed that the Christian faith could be aptly defended.  One can look elsewhere for the differences between Clarkian and Van Tillian and other apologists for Christianity.  I was once interested in this intramural sport, but no longer am.  I think John Frame’s book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God aptly brings the varying schools of thought together.

It is good for students to know that God raised up Gordon Clark in a time of Christian intellectual drought.  Clark excelled at philosophy, breathed logic, loved theology, expounded on historiography, and promoted Christian education.  He lacked stylist gifts or popularizing techniques.  He was a thinker, and for students just getting their hands on serious theology, he is quite a good teacher.  Clark’s books are published by The Trinity Foundation.


Melville said that to produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.  Moby Dick is, as everyone knows, about a great white whale.  But there is more: There is the overwhelming obsession of Captain Ahab to find and kill Moby Dick.  There is the sad fated crew of the Pequod, a whole host of odd, interesting, quirky individuals.  Then there is the lone survivor, at least one of the greatest narrators of all time, the exiled teacher from the classroom who addresses the whole world of readers from his grand classroom.

“Why is the book so long?”  “Why are there so many pages and chapters detailing and examing every aspect of the whale and whaling?”  Just go back to the title–Moby Dick, the Whale.  This is not about catching a catfish, netting a dolphin, or capturing any old whale (and there is a really old whale who is killed and captured in an earlier chapter).  Critics wonder what Moby Dick stands for.  Melville included a beautifully lyrical and poetic, historical, literary, theological, and philosophical chapter called “The Whiteness of the Whale.”

Some have thought that Moby Dick represents God.  A symbolizing image does not have to perfectly resemble whatever it symbolizes.  The novel does deal with transcendence, man’s place in the universe, community, obsession, love, vengeance, adventure, and death.  But those topics would have only allowed it to be a somewhat great novel.  Moby Dick is frightening, repulsive (whale butchery ain’t pretty), alienating, and dark.  Camus and Hemingway look like comic writers compared to Melville.  The book tosses about philosophers’ names and thoughts with the ease of a sail flapping in the wind.  Any Platonist, and that probably included Ishmael at the beginning, is in for a series of paradigm shifts and challenges.

Conventional thinking is challenged.  Melville struggled against the Presbyterianism of his youth, but he never overcame it.  From his fellow theology-grappler and close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville realized the absolute necessity of real fiction reflecting that most Calvinistic and dark of theological truths–Original Sin.  But one of the most powerful, puzzling, and humbling aspects of the novel is Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg, a heavily tattooed prince from a cannabilistic tribe.  It is Queequeg who mentors Ishmael in what fellowship, love, and true friendship are all about.  Even as he sees oddities in Queequeg’s view of the world, Ishmael recognizes that he is being taught by him. Ishmael reflects on it all and says, “Heaven have mercy on us all–Presbyterians and Pagans alike–for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about in the head, and sadly need mending.”

Although Melville did not have Mark Twain’s gift for hilliarity, Melville was incredibly funny.  It was somewhere around the third reading before I started catching the dry, often erudite, serious, but uproariously funny humor of Melville, via Ishmael.

The feature or factor that so elevates this novel, and causes it to grow with the re-readings, is its treatment of KNOWLEDGE.  This novel is about knowing.  It is about life-knowledge, understanding, wisdom, seeing, perceiving, finding your place in the universe but discovering the universe in the process.  John Calvin begins The Institutes of the Christian Religion with the words “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”  Melville’s quest for knowledge is of a similar pattern.

Melville, a sailor by background, saw the great white whale as a worthy representation of what is beyond human comprehension, but what invites human comprehension.  Man thought that by killing, capturing, and dismantling the whale, he could know the whale.  But man could not grasp anything so huge, terrifying, allusive, and inscrutible.  That why Melville is so often encyclopedic (the opening section of the novel), eclectic, and poetic in trying to, not understand, but describe the whale.

Melville’s prose waves and rolls like the ocean.  It is poetry, stream-of-consciousness, philosophy, journalism, and existential experience all woven together.  It is infuriating because Melville knows so much, but humbling because he is, like Socrates, simply seeking to overcome his own lack of understanding.

Two great thinkers:  Profound, questioning and questing, learned and obscure–Gordon H. Clark and Herman Melville.  What a delightful voyage this is across the oceans of thought in search of the Great White Whale.

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