September 24, 2018

Clark vs. Van Til on why General Revelation is Not Helpful

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

In my post recent post on Clark and Van Til, I noted that Clark and Van Til have entirely different reasons for rejecting general revelation (GR) / natural theology as being an adequate source of knowledge.

Van Til, I noted, rejects GR because of the Fallen nature of man, the theological fact that man rejects God due to sinful corruption; that is, the noetic effects of sin.

Clark, on the other hand would say that even if “men were angels,” even if man was not fallen, even still General Revelation should not be accepted for epistemological reasons— empirical observation cannot result in propositional truth, the senses (non-proposition) cannot produce propositions. Only propositions beget propositions. And only propositions can be truth.

This point is important because I think it is representative of the core differences between Van Til and Clark beyond surface distinctions. When the Classicalists criticize presuppositionalists for rejecting General Revelation, they are expressing disagreement with the Van Tillian idea that man’s sin is the problem here. They claim that this undermines reason as a tool accessible to all men.

The Clarkian therefore is neither Classicalist nor Van Tillian. On the surface, he agrees with the Van Tillian that general revelation ought to be rejected as a source of knowledge– but his reason for doing so is categorically and epistemologically different. He is, like the Classicalist, critical of the Van Tillian’s reason for being against GR– the noetic effects of sin, according to Clark, don’t undermine the logical structure of man’s mind as God created him. In this way, the Clarkian is like the Classicalist in his embrace of reason as a tool accessible to all men (though, as I’ll get to in the future, reason means something different– more restricted to formal logic— to the Clarkian).

I whipped up a very simplistic table to capture all the above.

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
  • David Bishop

    Clark never argued that propositions cannot be derived from nature. Obviously, propositions can be derived from anything. What he argued was that propositional truths (or just simply truth) cannot be derived from the empirical study of nature.

    This aside, you are skipping over the biggest difference between Van Til and Clark though. Van Til’s neo-orthodox understanding of the incomprehensibility of God not only led him to argue that man’s knowledge of God could never be comprehensive (something Clark agreed with), but also that man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge never at any point intersect. This is the point which led to the Clark-Van Til controversy. According to Van Til’s view of the incomprehensibility of God, what man thinks of as a rose can never be what God thinks of as a rose. This led him to conclude that man’s knowledge of God is analogical, resulting in the argument that all Scripture is contradictory and must therefore, be accepted on the basis of “mystery”. Clarkians argue that while the contents of God’s knowledge are greater than the contents of man’s knowledge; nevertheless, the contents of man’s knowledge do intersect with some of the contents of God’s knowledge. In other words, what man thinks of as a rose is what God thinks of as a rose.

    • C.Jay Engel

      Hi David. I do think that he argued propositions could not be derived from “nature.” If derive means to obtain something from something else, and if Clark taught that the mind does not obtain propositions from nature (because the mind imposes its structure onto nature, rather than nature imposing itself, via the senses, onto the mind) then Clark would indeed say that propositions cannot be derived from nature. Nature, the “external world,” does not produce propositions. They are physical objects.

      In any case, yes, I skipped over the biggest difference. Which means I anticipate focusing directly onto such an important subject in a future article. This post was to get something things off my mind:)

  • Thanks for starting this work. It needs to be done. A couple comments on this particular point:

    1) It seems “natural revelation” is a better term for what you are referring to than “general revelation” since Clark did not reject general revelation. He affirmed an innate, apriori, propositional revelation made to all men (general).

    2) For Van Til, the issue was not simply the noetic effect of sin. In the other post you said “Van Til believed that it was because the unbeliever wasn’t in covenant with God and that he was a fallen and corrupted sinner, that general revelation was flawed.” That’s not quite what I have gathered from Van Til. Rather, he believed God has only ever revealed himself to man “covenantally.” What is “covenant revelation”? It is a necessary combination of natural and special revelation. Based on a really confused reading of WCF 7.1 (which is simply about the Covenant of Works and the reward of eternal life), he argues that man cannot ever know God apart from special revelation. Natural revelation is always insufficient, even before the fall, because it was never intended to be understood on its own. It always required special revelation in order to be properly understood. So Adam could never have understood who God is through natural revelation alone. Adam required the special revelation that God made in the garden in order to understand who God is and what He requires of man. So that’s why Oliphint stresses “Covenantal Apologetics.” Natural revelation today is insufficient. It has to be combined with special revelation to be effective.