Cornelius Van Til vs. Gordon H. Clark: A Personal View. Part 2/3

[Please find and read part one here. Also, this was originally supposed to be a two part series.  It is now a three part series.  Hopefully, I will not go beyond that.  But this philosophical discussion is truly the foundation of everything I believe, from politics to economics and from theology to ethics.  Future conversations depend on this present discussion, so I better do it right the first time around. Update: Part three is here.]

What is Presuppositionalism?

Presuppositionalism is said to be an apologetic method, that is, a specific school of thought which addresses the question: “How is Christianity to be defended?”  This is true, but there is more to it than that.  Presuppositionalism as an apologetic method relies on presuppositionalism as a philosophy.  If one were to use the method of presuppositionalism to defend the truth of Christianity, he is stating something about the way that he thinks.  To be a presuppositionalist is to admit that one must first presuppose something before he can begin to make sense of reality.  The Christian presuppositionalist therefore adheres to a theory of knowledge and a theory of reality which presupposes, or stands on, the existence of the Christian God.  Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s most important student, stated it like this:

“Resting upon the authority of the living God rather than that of independent human reasoning, the apologist must presuppose the truth of Scripture…. This must be his method because the Word of God in the Bible has a unique epistemological status for the Christian. […] As God makes a total demand upon the lives of his covenant people they recognize that the words of Scripture are logically primitive, the most ultimate authority.”

Thus, the Scripture is the most basic assumption for the Christian theory of knowledge.  This makes sense.  It would seem quite odd, wouldn’t it?, to say that there is another standard of truth which affirms the accuracy and goodness of the Bible– the Word of God.  And also to quote John Robbins, Clark’s most important proponent:

“Revelation is the starting point of Christianity, its axiom. The axiom, the first principle, of Christianity is this: ‘The Bible alone is the Word of God.'”

If we said, “reason and evidence prove the Bible,” we are saying that there is an axiom or first principle by which we can know that the Bible is true.  If we said, “the Bible provides us with the foundation necessary to understand reality,” we are saying that it is by the Bible that we can know whether other things are true –or false.  Thus, to be a presuppositionalist is to rest on the Scripture as the foundation for one’s worldview.  Therefore, presuppositionalism, while it can (and should) be used as a methodology of apologetics (which we will discuss below), is more broadly a general philosophy which addresses subjects like metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  Because Clark and Van Til both accepted the Bible as the axiom of the Christian worldview, and also considered it the necessary foundation for all knowledge, they are both presuppositionalists.  Indeed, they represent the two schools of thought within the camp of presuppositionalism.  They both, therefore, believed that the failure of all other worldviews besides Christianity stemmed from the fact that each worldview starts with an axiom other than the Bible, which is why worldviews other than Christianity are meaningless and self-contradictory.

Background to the Controversy

So then, if both Van Til and Clark were presuppositionalists that assumed the Truth of the Scriptures as their starting point, why the controversy?  What was its substance?  Perhaps the best summary is a small booklet by Herman Hoeksema called “The Clark- Van Til Controversy” which can be ordered here.  Firstly, it is my contention that the formal controversy was, as most are, political.  That is, while the differences in the two schools of thought are of prime importance for philosophy and even theology, the fact that a large schism occurred which resulted in Clark leaving the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was unnecessary if the whole of the debate was only philosophical in nature.  That there are now two camps and each practically despise each other, is a result of a small power struggle, not a mere philosophical debate.  While I have come to consider Van Til as wrong in his theory of truth and logic and Clark as right, I cannot imagine considering my fellow presuppositionalists (all of whom are Van Tillians) as heretics or non-Christians.

Secondly, while some (definitely not all) leading Van Tillians and many more casual readers have come to consider Clark a heretic, this is a gross over-exaggeration.  His entire philosophy was built on the Westminster Confession (therefore he is a consistent Calvinist), he adheres consistently and boldly to the five solas of the Reformation, and so on.  To consider him a heretic is a result of hurt feelings not [Biblical] logic.  His attempt to solve the so-called problem of evil was profound, his defense of the faith against the modern idol of science was brilliant, and his ruthless battle against all forms of secular humanism is much needed for our dying culture.  Clark, whether one agrees with him on the nature of knowledge, should be seen in a better light.  And I hope that the past battles of the Church will not cause a great thinker to be ignored.  Carl F.H. Henry, himself a leading Calvinist theologian who has the respect of many has said of Clark that he is “one of the profoundest evangelical Protestant philosophers of our time.”  I agree.  And the Van Tillian who disagrees with Clark would do well to at least admit something similar.  Must we agree in everything to admit that a man is brilliant?  The reader might be surprised to learn that Dr. Clark was key in helping J. Gresham Machen exit the PCUSA after that denomination was taken over by the liberals (which Machen discussed in his famous book Christianity and Liberalism).  Further, Clark nominated Machen to be the moderator of the newly formed Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which, as many know, depended chiefly on the efforts of Machen who founded it.

When in 1943 Clark sought ordination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the denomination that he helped start, he was opposed by a group of individuals, most of whom were faculty members of the Westminster Theological Seminary, the institution which also started due to the efforts of Machen.  In 1944, Clark was ordained despite the protests.  For roughly four years, the debate took place and, led by Cornelius Van Til, the Westminster Seminary faculty issued a Text of a Complaint which was comprised of at least four primary concerns [the following is taken from the forward to Hoeksema’s summary of the controversy]:

“(1) the meaning of the ‘incomprehensibility’ of God; (2) the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility; (3) the doctrine of reprobation versus the “sincere offer” of salvation to the reprobate; and (4) the relationship of the intellect to the will and emotions.”

To further the above quote: “…it was finally settled in 1948.  Dr. Clark was not disposed from the ministry and both the Complainants and the Presbytery of Philadelphia were scolded for their behavior.”  After the result of the debate was officially declared, the arguments did not disappear and soon one of Clark’s defenders found he could no longer minister in the OPC due to the heavy distraction of the anti-Clark faction.  After many other Clark supporters saw this as a turning point and left, Clark too felt obliged to go with his followers and leave the schism behind.  Robbins, in the forward to Hoeksema’s account, writes [with my commentary in brackets –CJE]:

The OPC has never recovered from that loss [the loss of Clark], and indeed, Christianity in America suffered a serious blow [because the theological and philosophical contributions Clark, after this, was largely ignored].  The two institutions that J. Gresham Machen had founded or helped to found –the independent Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church –were at war with each other.  One-third of the church walked out the door, including one of its largest congregations.

But God has his own purposes for causing such controversies.  The Clark-Van Til controversy provoked one of the most brilliant Christian minds of the twentieth century to focus on some fundamental issues of Christian Theology.  Over the years that followed, and in a series of irrefragable books, Dr. Clark worked out the Scriptural doctrines of the incomprehensibility of God, the relationship of intellect to will, the relationship of truth to action, the logical dependence of human responsibility on divine sovereignty, the Biblical mode of evangelism, and mane more related issues.

The reader might here complain: that seems awfully in favor of, or biased toward, the Clarkian viewpoint.  Indeed it is, and should be, as this series is titled “A Personal View.”  In the next post, I aim to summarize both positions in the controversy and explain why I take the Clarkian position over the Van Tillian position.  I also hope to address the Van Tillian concerns about Clark.  I pray that Clark would be vindicated in this process, or at least considered to be a brilliant –and Orthodox– thinker, and, above all, that God would be glorified.  Lastly, I would like the reader to understand that I am a huge fan of Greg Bahnsen (and Van Til) and his apologetic method.  This should at least infer that I do not consider the Van Tillians as bad Christians or stupid and also that the two camps are far closer than many would like to think.  Bahnsen himself was the most brilliant debater of the twentieth century even though I hold to Clark’s theory of knowledge.  Stay tuned for part three.


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