October 16, 2013

More Clark & Van TIl!

By In C.Jay Engel

Thanks to RA Jameson for the additional thoughts on the Clark-Van Til controversy.  In reading his post, I realized that I did not refer to a specific request that he had made initially.  He wanted to know what, exactly, constituted the label of “Clarkian.”  His comment on his calling himself a Calvinist even though he does not agree with everything that Calvin wrote is in a similar vein.  Frankly, both Calvin and Clark were paedobaptists and I am a credobaptist so I too am not a “purist” (and who is?).

But to answer Jameson’s question, to be a “Clarkian” is to hold a certain understanding of the theory of knowledge.  That is what distinguishes him from others, including and especially Van Til.  So as per Jameson’s usage of the term “Van Tillian” to separate himself from the so-called evidentialists, it is perhaps more accurate to use the term “presuppositionalist.”  But if he wants to narrow that down further, I suppose that is where the Van Tillian-Clark distinction comes in.  When he notes that he is a Van Tillian rather than an evidentialist, this implies that, in the area of apologetics, which I have shown to be a subcategory of epistemology, he would use the system of Van Til.  But I think that Jameson is being more specific than he wants to be.  After all, he is not referring to the evidentialist as a “Geislerist” or a “Sproulian.”

When we use the term “Calvinist” today, people more often assume that we are using it as a soteriological reference rather than an endorsement of everything Calvin ever wrote.  It is true that “Calvinist” can be used generally or specifically, but context is everything.  Clarkian then, is pitted against Van Tillian as it has never been used in another sense.

We all use terms in different ways.  Where there is confusion, let us clarify.  Definitions are more important than the word itself.

Now, whether or not the debate is “much ado about nothing,” I have reached the conclusion that the more I study, the more important it becomes.  While it is seemingly about one minute detail of philosophy, if everything else rests on this detail, then it suddenly is not so minute.  The issue is whether anything can be known at all.  Clark pointed out that salvation was a branch of epistemology because we are saved by believing the correct propositions (among them: “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” -John 20:31).  Thus, salvation itself depends on whether we can know anything at all.

Jameson also refers to “The cat is black” example that was used in my opinion piece.  This example was first used by Clark to show that human knowledge is the same knowledge possessed by God.  The proposition itself does not mean different things to both God and man.  But Van Til thought that they did mean different things.  Jameson writes:

But does that mean that I know exactly how black the cat is, to the same degree that God does? I don’t think so. God, and God alone knows the exact shade of black, a shade that God created, and one that He may or may not have sovereignly revealed to his creation. In that sense, ‘black’ becomes analogous. I would like to think that the mind of God is infinitely nuanced, and thus all that I know, He sovereignly revealed to me, but the quality of that knowledge will never be on par with His knowledge.

So now we have entered the part of the debate where “qualitative” should be made distinct from “quantitative.”  This was actually part of the controversy as well.  When we start referencing black with its exact shade, we are speaking about quantitative knowledge, that is, knowledge in relation to everything else in the world.  This quantitative knowledge, both Van Til and Clark would agree, is different between God and man.  Man is finite.  God is omniscient.  But where they disagree is whether or not the proposition itself has the same meaning to both Creator and created.  When the Bible says: “In the beginning, God created the light,” do these words, these syllables, mean exactly the same thing in their quality for both God and man?  If not, how could we possibly agree with Jesus when he stated: “You shall know the truth”?  What he should have said was you shall know something similar to the truth or an analogy of the truth.  And if Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6), and we must have the mind of Christ to be saved (1 Cor 2:16), how could we possibly be saved at all?  For we never know the truth –only its analogy.  At least according to Van Til.  Fortunately, Clark (and, as Clark often cited, Hodge and Machen) have showed that the propositions which we know are the same propositions that God knows.  God revealed them to us.  Clark’s phrase for this was “propositional revelation.”

So what does it mean to “be a Clarkian?”  It means to hold Clark’s theory of knowledge rather than Van Til’s.  Thus, regarding Jameson’s concern about the Incarnation and Clark, he should be happy to know one can be a Clarkian and disagree with Clark here.

While Bahnsen is better than Van Til, his use of the phrase “logic reflects the thinking of God” means something different for Bahnsen and Clark. Clark might have clarified Bahnsen’s statement by claiming: “logic is the thinking of God.”  By saying this, Clark has distanced himself completely from Van Til’s belief that logic was created by God.  Rather, Clark is adamant that logic is part of God’s nature, and not created anymore than God’s holiness was created.

As I should discuss in a following post, Van Til’s philosophy led many away from salvation by faith (belief).  He even went so far as to adamantly defend Norman Shepherd,who was removed from Westminster for his teaching that justification comes, in part, by works.  This is serious stuff.   But the reason Shepherd was comfortable in his unorthodox doctrine was, in part, due to his agreement with Van Til that belief in contradiction is Biblically acceptable and that God cannot be known precisely.  In fact, as Dr. O Palmer Robertson discussed in his The Current Justification Controversy it was Van Til’s influence over the Westminster faculty at the time that caused so many of them, including John Murray and John Frame, to back Shepherd.  Something many of them now regret.  If only they had listened to Clark’s warnings years before and also during the Shepherd controversy.

That is enough for now.  Jameson has more to say I’m sure, and perhaps I have not been as clear as I could have been.  But at least we can agree on this for now: we are “Presuppositionalists” rather than evidentialists.”



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

    I believe have put my finger on the issue I see between Clark and Van Til and why I struggle with why these giants were at each other. In ‘the cat is black’ illustration, C.Jay clarified that the shades of black actually fall under what he (and others) labeled ‘quantitative’ knowledge and that the truth of the cat being black is ‘qualitative’ knowledge.

    In C.Jay’s original post he stated, “The knowledge of God was and is in the form of propositions and therefore, when we hold to the same propositions as God does, we know the same truth as he does.” It is that last sentence that is so curious to me. The knowledge of God is infinite in BOTH quality and quantity simultaneously and in that sense I am not sure that I am comfortable ever stating that I know the same truth “as he does”. To say the cat is black is both a qualitative and quantitative proposition. To say that I know it “as he does” assumes that we can divorce qualitative FROM quantitative, not only in us, but in God as well. Otherwise how can we say that we know it “AS he does”? As soon as I qualify the statement as my knowledge being the same as God’s knowledge qualitatively, without regard to God’s quantitative knowledge, then my knowledge of the cat’s blackness is so vastly inferior to God’s knowledge that I am not comfortable saying that I know anything “as he does”.

    This may be a departure from the proper debate between Clark and Van Til, but I hope this explains why I believe they were really in the philosophical weeds here. They both established their epistemology in the sovereignty of God. After that, to be fair, aren’t we at His mercy as to what He reveals to us?

  • RA Jameson

    Another point to clear up. C.Jay states, “The issue is whether anything can be known at all. ” Of course things are known. And they are known because God sovereignly reveals them to us. Why did Clark and Van Til feel compelled to measure the degree of their knowledge against God’s knowledge? Why is my understanding of the truth, as reveal by God, any less valid because it may or may not qualitatively and/or quantitatively match that of God’s understanding? I know what God wants me to know as He has revealed that to me. Who really cares if that knowledge is equal to the way that God knows it? It is the knowledge that God wanted me to have. Truth is known because God reveals truth. Are we to understand that once truth is known, Clark and Van Til decided to measure the quality of their knowledge up against God’s knowledge? What a pitiable exercise. I am happy that God was gracious enough to reveal to me the cat’s color. Is the quality of that revelation equal to the quality of God’s revelation to himself (if that is even possible)? Or is it analogous to the quality of God’s knowledge? Oh my. Much ado about nothing.

    The more I think about it, the more I dislike both of them. What a nice world these guys lived in that they could fight, not on things revealed in Scripture, but on things that can never really be qualified or quantified this side of glory. I retract my statement that I am ‘Van Tilian’. I will just leave it at being presuppositional.