Gordon Clark: Presbyterian Philosopher

I first became aware of Gordon Clark somewhere around 1975-76.  He was approaching his last decade, but was still actively writing, while I was just newly introduced to the vast realm of Reformed theology and thought.  There were, for many of us newly minted Calvinists of that time, two primary pillars that were both the attraction and battering rams in Reformed life.

One was soteriology, and remember that we like big words like that.  Soteriology is the doctrine of salvation, and for Calvinists, this began with grasping the Five Points of Calvinism.  The quick track to the 5 Points was found found in a book consisting mostly of Bible texts, titled The Five Points of Calvinism:  Defined, Documented, and Defended by David Steele and Curtis C. Thomas.  But that short book was originally an appendix to Steele and Thomas’ key work titled Romans:  An Interpretive Outline.  Both books were published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.

Image result for steele and thomas five points            Related image

The man who wrote the introduction for the Romans book and who urged Charles Craig of Presbyterian and Reformed to publish it was Gordon Clark.

At that same point in time, Presbyterian and Reformed mailed out a newsletter every month.  At the bottom of the newsletter was a list of books that were on sale, often for a dollar. One of the book I got was Karl Barth’s Theological Method by Gordon Clark–a hardback edition for a buck! I also got Clark’s book Biblical Predestination.  

Image result for gordon clark karl barth's theological methodImage result for gordon clark predestination

The book on Barth was out of my league, but I was reading everything I could find on predestination.

Over the years, I continued to buy books by Gordon Clark here and there.  I never sytematically or rigously read his books, but through the years I read one here and there.  Favorites included Historiography: Secular and Religious (reviewed here), The Christian Philosophy of Education, A Christian View of Men and Things, and his commentary on 1 Corinthians.

Also, I have read and re-read and have had a love/hate relationship with Clark’s book Logic.  Here is what I wrote about it back in 2006:

Right now, we are studying Gordon Clark’s book Logic in both classes. For Logic class, the book is an introduction, albeit a “push you off into the deep end of the pool” approach…. Clark was a brilliant man, a key Christian philospher, and according to many student testimonies, a great teacher. He was not necessarily a great writer or communicator of logic skills. His book rambles; he makes statements without support; he raises questions he does not answer; he slips wit in where more details are needed; and he strays off here and there. The book gives me the sense of sitting in the presence of a brilliant man whose years of study, reading, and writing are being displayed for all to delight in. I love the book, and I rejoice that I do not have to use it as my primary logic text. It is a great supplement, a useful introduction, a helpful refresher.

Image result for gordon clark logic

And then there was that weird, jam-packed used book store in Hot Springs, back around the year 2004.  You could not move around in the store and there were stacks and boxes of books everywhere.  But this was a nightmare place, not a delightful hunting ground.  Most–as in 90%–of the books were trade paperback romances and other forms of pulp fiction.  But I am a hunter.  Somewhere in a stack of books almost too high to reach was a book that caught my eye:  The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark: A Restschrift, edited by Ronald Nash.  It was a hardback book and was priced for $5.00.  (I later–to my regret–missed a chance to buy an autographed copy of the same work.)

Image result for nash the philosophy of gordon h. clark

My copy is hardback with a dust jacket. The book has been reprinted as Gordon Clark and His Critics.

The big awakening came somewhere around 2005 or 2006.  A friend, Jeff Bruce, sent me a link to an article titled “The Closing of the Calvinistic Mind” by James Jordan.  The article completely blew me away.  But it wasn’t because it told me something new, but rather it reminded me of something from my past, as well as that of Jordan and many others.  It was like discovering some vital links in your family tree.  Yes, here were the Calvinist writers who had impacted and dominated my early years.

Jordan’s article was soon followed by a similar type article by P. Andrew Sandlin, titled “The De-Intellectualization of Reformed Theology.” (Why is this not available on the internet somewhere?)  My own contribution to the topic shows up here in a blog post titled “Reformed Thinkers.”  Then I had the opportunity to give some talks in both Virginia at the Christian Worldview Student Conference and in Alaska at a Reformation conference.  My Virginia lectures were called “Calvinistic Worldview Thinkers in the Wilderness Years” and my Alaska talks were called “Spheres of Reformation.”

Clark was back on the radar, but I realize now that I did not then nor have given him the wide berth he deserves as a pioneering Calvinist philosopher, worldview thinker, theologian, and model of scholarship.  Douglas Douma’s newly published biography–Gordon Clark:  The Presbyterian Philosopher–will be step one in remedying a widespect neglect of Gordon Clark’s life, thought, and books.

A few brief points on this book:

  1.  Notice the second part of the title:  The Presbyterian Philosopher.  The good news is that Christians–Reformed, Catholic, and otherwise–have carved out a wide swath in the field of philosophy in our day.  As is always the case with academic fields, philosophers–even those sharing Reformed credentials–fall into different schools of thought.  Many are Dooyeweerdians, meaning that they subscribe to or borrow from or build upon the work of Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd.  Many ascribe the expansion of Christian philosophical thought to Arthur Holmes who built the philosophy program at Wheaton College.  The contributions of Charles Taylor, Catholic philosopher and author of The Secular Age,  cannot be ignored.  Time does not permit us to give the praises due to Nicholas Wolterstorf and Alvin Plantiga.                But Gordon Clark is often ignored, overlooked, or dismissed (and disliked?).  Long before Holmes developed the philosophy department at Wheaton, Clark was there influencing young scholars who made their own contributions in the field of Christian thinking.  While Dooyeweerd’s work was still untranslated, Clark was writing on philosophy.  While even card-carrying Calvinists sometimes flinch from the difficult doctrines of Scripture, Clark was using the Bible as a hammer–along with a strong does of Aristotelian logic–to pound philosophies secular and religious that he thought fell short of Biblical truths.

Image result for christian philosophers

  1. Worldview thinking has become popular in Christian circles.  There are many books on developing a Christian worldview, and I have and love quite a few of them.  But Gordon Clark did not write about “developing a Christian worldview.”  He demonstrated one.  Consider the fact that he wrote about philosophy, theology, politics, education, pyschology, science, historiography, and other subjects.
  2. Clark is often remembered today for the many theological controversies he was embroiled in.  Beginning with the defining battles in the day with J. Gresham Machen and the liberals of the Presbyterian Church in the north, the twentieth century was the era of “Machen’s Warrior Children,” to use John Frame’s phrase.  A great battle within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was the debate over “The Incomprehensibility of God.”  It pitted two giants against each other–Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til.  Douma’s biography aptly covers this conflict, which is often referred to as the “Clark-Van Til Controversy,” but could be called “The Incomprehensibility of Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til” controversy.   We can take sides, eschew both sides, wring our hands, vilify either combatant–or more properly, those who continued the combat, or just shrug our shoulders over the whole mess.  But it happened and it impacted–and likely reduced–the influence of Calvinistic thought and Presbyterian church life in America.  The failure of Presbyterians to build more inroads and expansion within Fundamentalist churches have left us with small, very orthodox Reformed congregations.  Leave it to a Calvinist like John Piper to market the message to a wide audience.
Image result for clark and van til

The two primary combatants–Gordon Clark (left) and Cornelius Van Til (right).

3.  Gordon Clark’s name and fame may not be in big lights right now.  And I suspect that Gordon Clark: The Presbyterian Philosopher will not be a “New York Times Best Seller.”  But this is an excellent book and will be a catalyst for many to read Clark again (like me) and others to discover him (as Douma himself did while reading John Robbins’ book on Ayn Rand).  When asked which theologian from our times will be read in 500 years, R. C. Sproul answered, “Gordon Clark.”  Well, I reckon that Dr. Clark, Dr. Sproul, Douglas Douma, and I can judge that comment more accurately in that other realm and not having that long to wait, read Clark now.

But begin with this biography.

Image result for clark and van til

Although they sparred over theological and philosophical points, both Clark and Van Til respected and esteemed one another. As Van Til often affirmed to friends, “Soon we shall sit at Jesus’ feet.” Before that day arrived, they were reconciled.

By the way, I must admit to not liking the author Douglas Douma.  I am not well acquainted with him, but I have this against him:  1.  He is too young to have written such an outstanding book.  2.  He is too smart, since he has degrees in mechanical engineering, business, and theology. 3. And he is athletic and outdoorish.  All three traits have me miffed.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling

Should a serious author really be standing at Horn Peak (13,450 feet) like this?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s