September 15, 2013

Cornelius Van Til vs. Gordon H. Clark: A Personal View. Part 1/3

By In History, Philosophy

[Update: This is now a three part series instead of a two.  Part two is here. Part three is here.]

If any Reformed Christian, Presbyterian or Baptist, has at all studied the various apologetic methods, he will have heard of Cornelius Van Til.  If any has taken more than a few moments to learn about Van Til’s Presuppositionalist method of apologetics, he will have come across the name Gordon H. Clark.  And if Clark’s name has come up, the student will, more often than not, realize that they were both considered to have been proponents of the Presuppositionalist approach to Christian, yet each with a very important distinction.  A distinction, in fact, that had led to a very important debate in the Reformed Presbyterian circles during the 1940’s.  The last thing that the student of the apologetic methodology of Presuppositionalism will realize is that Van Til is vastly more popular.  It would seem then, that the debate had been “won” by Cornelius Van Til.

But it is this final statement that I wish to question.  Of course, everything here depends on our definition of win and lose.  For instance, when we say “win” do we refer to the fact that Van Til’s philosophy, rather than Clark’s became the de facto position of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?  Yes, even Clark, as a result of this debate, found it best to leave that denomination (it is important to note that he was not forced to leave).  Truly Van Til’s position is the one adopted by the majority of Presuppositionalists today.  But perhaps by “win” we mean that the Van Tillian position, aside from being more readily adopted, was actually the correct view.  That is, who was right?  It is my assertion that Clark was right even though I accept that Van Til successfully won the audience.  Part of the reason for this is that Westminster Theological Seminary, the most Orthodox and prominent of Reformed educational institutions is prominently made up, for better or for worse, of those who take Van Til’s position.  Therefore any student who looks for an authoritative opinion on the matter will rarely receive the answer that Clark was right.  I am frankly not interested in “calling out” those who take Van Til’s position.  I have no problem with a Van Tillian.  I just disagree.  I am simply asserting my own view on the matter.  A similar example is if one tells me he believes in Historic Premillennial eschatology.  As an advocate of Amillennialism, I disagree, but I still consider us united under Christ.

I was a Van Tillian before I became a Clarkian.  This makes sense, Van Tillians are more prominent than Clarkians.  I was looking for a Calvinistic apologetic.  Actually I was looking for any apologetic.  Greg Bahnsen destroyed atheist Gordon Stein in 1985.  Stein simply could not make sense of his knowledge.  He had no justification to even communicate, because he could not justify his use of the laws of logic.  Why?  Because he believed that everything must be proven by the senses before they can be believed.  But the problem for Stein was twofold: one, the laws of logic cannot be tested by the senses and two, his very assumption that all things must be sensed is assumed without the senses.  In other words, Stein could not make sense of his own worldview.  It was, literally, insane.

It was this debate that almost single-handedly brought me into the Calvinistic presuppositionalist fold.  If that didn’t do it, it was listening to Greg Bahnsen lectures on YouTube.  Then I read the works of Greg Bahnsen.  And then the works of his teacher Cornelius Van Til.  Among their many efforts to defend the faith, they also took the time to rebut other so-called Presuppositionalists that had differences with Van Til including Edward J. Carnell, Francis Schaeffer, and Gordon H. Clark.  And thus, in one month of intense studying, I was a happy Van Tillian, cheerfully rejecting those who held an “incomplete Presuppositionalism,” to use the phrase of Greg Bahnsen.  Yes, Clark was very wrong according to my understanding at this time in my life.

Switching topics completely, it was at this time in my life that I was becoming more enamored with the Ron Paul movement.  Among the things that I enjoy is looking at the personal history of individuals and their movements.  What are their roots?  In the 1970’s, when Paul was a Congressman, he had two assistants: John W. Robbins and Gary North (I discuss some more interesting history here).  Many in the libertarian movement, at least the intellectual movement, know about Gary North.  An economist, lecturer, and brains behind the Ron Paul Curriculum, North is a Christian theonomist.  He is also an enthusiastic Van Tillian.  In fact, it was Van Til’s philosophy which led North to write an entire economic commentary on the whole Bible!  John Robbins, I later found out, had his own Christian foundation (The Trinity Foundation) in which one of his main goals was to republish the works of Gordon Clark.  Since North was a theonomist, and I a libertarian, I was most interested to read the political philosophy of John Robbins.  It was immediately clear that, more than any other author, Robbins quoted his own hero: Gordon Clark.  I was impressed by what Robbins had to say about Clark and I soon picked up Clark’s works and began my journey away from Van Til and towards the worldview of Gordon Clark.

Now, it must be attributed to the sovereignty of God that it was the Ron Paul movement that became a means by which I read Gordon Clark.  Philosophically, I was happy right where I was with Bahnsen and Van Til.  It is astounding that a political movement could somehow lead me to a place where I am comparing and contrasting two of the most important Presuppositionalist thinkers in American history.  The path away from Van Til and towards Clark has been very fruitful for my own thinking.  As we discuss, in part two, why I became a Clarkian and the similarities and differences between the two, I would ask the reader to keep in mind that both Clark and Van Til are Orthodox Christians, Calvinists, and adherents to the Westminster Confession of Faith.  That is to say, while I have rejected the Van Tillian system in areas where Clark and Van Til oppose each other, overall, there are more similarities than differences.  This is especially clear in reading Greg Bahnsen, who was perhaps more articulate and precise than his mentor.  I initially read Clark with the mindset that he was sort of less than orthodox or less of a Calvinist.  This is bitterly false and it is the danger of misunderstanding a historical Christian debate.  There are indeed differences which should cause division.  But it is my contention that the Clarkian/Van Tillian debate is not one of them.

So, what is Presuppositionalist philosophy, what are the differences between Van Til and Clark, and why did I reject the former in favor of the latter?  What was the essence of the so-called “Clark-Van Til Controversy?” Why did Clark leave the OPC and why did Van Til “win” the audience?  Is one of these systems more “orthodox” than the other and what are the implications for Christian theology as a whole?  It is these questions that I aim to uncover in part two.  Stay tuned.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • RA Jameson

    Good luck with this fearless editor. By way of disclosure, I am Van Tillian. But, I have also never been able to understand what on earth these 2 giants were actually fighting about. But the name-calling that comes from both of these camps is really unbecoming, which has caused me to just walk away from the whole thing. I know that Van Til really admired Clark’s philosophical acumen.

    For the record, Van Til is probably considered a little easier to read, which may contribute to his being more popular than Clark.

    Finally, I try and I try and I try, but I just can’t get my hands around what Clark was trying to say/prove with his Incarnation discussion. I refuse to label him a heretic, like many Van Tillians do, but his Christ as 2 persons stuff is hard to swallow.

    I eagerly await part 2.

    • cjayengel

      Yeah you are confused regarding his view of the incarnation. It is not true that he believes Christ is 2 persons.

      • cjayengel

        That is, 2 persons in the same sense as Chalcedon referred it.

  • RA Jameson

    By the way, are you concerned that Clark may not have believed chapter 8 of the WCF?

    I guess this is where the confusion sets in for me on why anybody would classify themselves as ‘Clarkian’. What did he bring to the table that Van Til didn’t? Are his troubling statements regarding the Incarnation serious enough to put Van Til ahead of him in ‘net contribution’?

    I just don’t know what being Clarkian means, especially when it is set up against being Van Tillian. Thus I await part 2.

    • cjayengel

      First, question: not at all. He upheld the entire confession (better than Van Til did)

      Await part 2.

  • Jacob

    What books would you recommend one read to better familiarize oneself with the Clarkian view of apologetics?