Gregory E. Reynolds
The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark, by Douglas J. Douma. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016, xxv + 292 pages, $37.00, paper.
“Now then,” said Dr. Clark as he sat behind a small utilitarian oak table in a second-floor class room in Carter Hall at Covenant College in the fall of 1974. He then placed his pocket watch on the corner of the table as he looked out the window to gather his thoughts. He proceeded to launch us into the complex world of contemporary philosophy. These were deep waters, but the clarity of Clark’s thought enabled us to navigate.
Gordon Haddon Clark was a major influence on my life. To a novice like me in the world of Christian scholarship, Clark was a breath of fresh air with his old-school pedagogy and theology, during my final year at Covenant College from 1974 to 1975. Since most students were intimidated by his demeanor, which reminded some of Alfred Hitchcock, a few of us had him to ourselves. It only took an ounce of humility and a hunger to learn to get his attention. Underneath the stern exterior was a warmhearted man. He excelled in his knowledge of much of the history of philosophy. To this day I regularly consult his one-volume history of philosophy, Thales to Dewey. He taught me the discipline of thoroughly understanding a thinker’s philosophy by analyzing and articulating it in detail before engaging in critical assessment. My first assignment was Augustine’s de Magistro. Then I did my senior thesis on Jonathan Edwards’s The Freedom of the Will.
Coming out of the 1960s counterculture, I found Clark’s logical rigor to be of enormous help—although it could also be frustrating: I won only one game of chess while playing him by mail for a decade up until his death. Beyond the disciplines he taught me, his love for Scripture and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms had a lasting effect on me. I shall never forget his paternal kindness and instruction.
While Douma’s biography is clearly written by an admirer, he does a fine job in tracing the personal biography, intellectual development, and philosophy of Clark. He also doesn’t hesitate to paint an accurate picture of Clark. For anyone who has any connection with Clark’s thought or life this is a fascinating and very informative read. Some of the philosophical and theological discussions will prove difficult for those without training in these disciplines. Also, the details of some of the history, especially in the Clark-Van Til controversy, will be more interesting to those who are at least aware of some of the issues.
If that controversy is all one knows about Clark, this book will demonstrate the great value of Clark’s expansive contribution to the church, whatever one may think of his apologetics. I am convinced of Van Til’s version of presuppositionalism, but I have still learned much from Clark’s approach. I have learned to value what they both held in common as well as to identify their differences. Douma is very good at explaining both.
Gordon Haddon Clark was born on August 31, 1902, to Presbyterian parents. His father, David, was a minister who attended Princeton Theological Seminary and the Free Church College (4). At Princeton David Clark studied under A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, so young Gordon had an early and extensive exposure to the Reformed Faith. Gordon attended the University of Pennsylvania with a mature faith, having made a profession at a Billy Sunday campaign in 1915 (8). Clark thrived in a rigorous academic environment, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and completed his doctorate in 1929 with a dissertation entitled Empedocles and Anaxagoras in Aristotle’s De Anima. He began teaching undergraduate philosophy in 1924 (10–11) at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1936 he founded a chapter of the League of Evangelical Students there (13).
Chapter 2 on intellectual influences shows how he came to his version of presuppositionalism, seeking to uncover logical inconsistencies in unbelieving philosophies and worldviews, while defending the logical consistency of the Christian faith. Plotinus, Augustine, Calvin, and the Westminster Confession all had a powerful influence on his thinking. Of course, he rejected Plotinus’s doctrine of God, some of the remnants of empiricism in Augustine, and maintained that Calvin was the best interpreter of Paul. The Old School theology of Charles Hodge, the Westminster Confession, and the teaching of J. Gresham Machen were all central in the formation of Clark’s thinking (17–22).
During the era of the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), Clark strongly opposed the Auburn Affirmation’s denial of the central tenets of orthodox Christianity. As an elder and a churchman he fought against this heresy in the courts of the church alongside men like H. McAllister Griffiths and Murray Forst Thompson (27). Clark especially admired Machen’s 1923 tour de force, Christianity and Liberalism, in which Machen clearly distinguished between true Christianity and the Liberalism that artfully hid its heresies under Christian language (28). Clark was deeply involved in the founding and early history of the OPC at the behest of Machen (30). Also, Clark’s father, David, was on the board of Westminster Theological Seminary, which Machen had founded in 1929. Douma concludes, “Machen, for his part, saw Clark as an ally” (31).
At the first OPC General Assembly both Clark and Van Til were elected to serve on the Committee on Christian Education. In his first year teaching apologetics at Wheaton, Clark even used Van Til’s syllabi notes. As Clark began to understand Van Til he came to disagree fundamentally with his transcendental approach. This would lead to a major controversy in the 1940s (35).
The Wheaton years (1936–43) were difficult for Clark because he “expounded theological views that irritated the college’s inter-denominational establishment, but despite conflicts with the administration and board of trustees, his years at Wheaton were some of his most productive” (38). He now had an opportunity to influence Christian students, some of whom would become notable church leaders such as Edward Carnell, Edmund Clowney, Carl Henry, Paul Jewett, and Harold Lindsell. Even Billy Graham took Medieval philosophy from Clark (43). Clark sent many students off to Westminster Theological Seminary.
Students often accused Clark of being “cold,” and he was stoic, as Douma admits, but he used this sternness to instill logical thinking and scholarly discipline in his students. If he at times emphasized the rational over against emotion, it was due partly to his stoicism but more to his proper aversion to the anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalism of his day. Once, when reading a passage from Jock Purves’s Fair Sunshine about a Scottish Covenanter martyr, I saw a tear roll down his cheek.
Chapter 5 explore the origins of Clark’s presuppositionalism, which Douma sums as the “synthesis of two factors: (1) the rejection of empiricism and (2) the acceptance of worldview thinking” (58). Clark insisted that absolute truth cannot be obtained through experience. He also believed that the senses are untrustworthy, thus disagreeing with the Scottish Common Sense Realism of his father and old Princeton (63). The idea of the logical coherence of Christianity was not new to Clark. James Orr and Abraham Kuyper held a similar view (64–7). “Clark came to believe that all knowledge possible to man is limited to the propositions of the Bible and that which can be logically deduced from the Bible” (68). This does not seem to allow for various kinds of knowledge, especially in the area of common grace and general revelation. I know that when it comes to science, however, Clark was an operationalist, a position consistent with the tentative nature of the scientific method, which is empirical. Clark’s rigorous defense of the infallibility of the Bible should not be forgotten by those of us who are not on board with his apologetics.
By emphasizing the importance of a Christian worldview, Clark made a significant contribution to students seeking to navigate a liberal education. On the importance of developing a Christian worldview, Clark and Van Til were agreed. Where Clark came to disagree with Van Til is in the area of epistemology. Clark rejected both empiricism and the traditional proofs for the existence of God, whereas Van Til still held to aspects of empiricism, and believed that the traditional proofs must be formulated in terms of a Christian epistemology (74).
In Chapters 6–8 Douma does a masterful job presenting the great conflict in Clark’s career and the history of the OPC. He has researched the episode with great care and presents the results in a fair and balanced way. For the most part he leaves the reader to decide. I was happy for an opportunity to revisit an old and very complex issue that I had not thought much about for decades. I learned a lot of new things about that controversy, even though I had investigated it very closely in seminary. I believe that, whatever the reader’s assessment of the issues involved, he will learn from the history, because Douma is a serious historian. I do not intend to go into much detail on the three chapters covering the controversy, or I will greatly exceed the editor’s word limit.
Clark applied for ordination in the OPC through the Presbytery of Philadelphia in March of 1943 (77). The 1944 General Assembly voted to waive the requirements of a seminary education and Hebrew. A protest was submitted arguing that the waiver was premature given the absence of “discussion of the evidence concerning Clark’s theological examination” (78). At the same time a document titled “A Program for Action” was circulated by Clark supporters which, among other things, encouraged affiliation with the non-Reformed American Council of Christian Churches, favored a recommendation against the consumption of alcoholic beverages, and pressed for the church to supervise Westminster Theological Seminary and The Presbyterian Guardian. So there were more than theological differences at play behind the scenes. “The ministers leading the Program for Action saw Clark’s ordination as an opportunity to change the direction of the denomination” (81). It is no wonder that commissioners were alarmed.
On July 7, 1944, the Presbytery of Philadelphia met to consider Clark’s ordination. He was licensed to preach, and the GA waiver of seminary education was affirmed on a 34 to 10 vote. Clark read Genesis 1 in Hebrew to prove his knowledge of the language. On August 9, 1944, Clark was ordained as a minister, becoming part of Calvary OPC in Willow Grove. Douma doesn’t make clear what the call associated with the ordination was (82). Three months later, twelve church officers, among whom were R. B. Kuiper, Leroy Oliver, N. B. Stonehouse, Paul Woolley, Cornelius Van Til, Edward J. Young, and Arthur W. Kuschke Jr., lodged a complaint against the ordination (83). Clark was surprised, since he had been the commencement speaker at WTS in 1941 and sent many students there (84). Given the objectives of the Plan of Action, the complaint is very understandable. What is sad is that the ordination was linked to these other very distinct issues (85). Douma helpfully explains the four issues causing the complaint (87–101). Douma makes the point that requirement to subscribe to a particular view of apologetics goes beyond the confessional requirements for ordination. As one who favors Van Til’s approach in rejecting the neutral bar of reason as the common ground between believer and unbeliever, I nevertheless think Douma is correct. As Clark concluded, Hodge and Machen would not have passed this ordination test (102).
A special committee of the presbytery, consisting of Clark supporters, responded to The Complaint with The Answer at the presbytery’s March 1945 meeting defending “the decision to ordain Clark and supported his theological positions” (108). Beginning in 1945 Clark accepted a position as assistant professor of philosophy at Butler University, so he sought to transfer his credentials to the Presbytery of Ohio. He was received after examination in October 1945. Earlier that year he wrote an article in The Presbyterian Guardian criticizing the OPC for assuming “the position of an isolationist porcupine” (109). From pages 110 to 127 Douma gives a helpful summary of the theological issues: the incomprehensibility of God; the relationship of the faculties of the soul; divine sovereignty and human responsibility; and the free offer of the gospel. He sums up by discussing the “overriding issue: charges of rationalism.” As Douma points out, technically, this label describes those who base their knowledge on human reason alone (127). Although there is a rationalistic aspect to Clark’s apologetic as there was in old Princeton’s, it should have remained an academic debate and not an issue for ordination.
The complaint that had been defeated at the Presbytery of Philadelphia was appealed to the Twelfth General Assembly in May of 1945. A special committee to deal with the complaint was erected, consisting of Richard Gray, Edmund Clowney, Lawrence Gilmore, Burton Goddard, and John Murray (136). The majority report favored Clark, and the GA agreed by a vote of nearly two to one. The report concluded: “Our committee is of the opinion that [The Complaint] requires the Presbytery of Philadelphia to exact a more specialized theory of knowledge than our standards demand” (137).
Although the case was over, the controversy continued, leading to Clark’s departure from the OPC in October 1948 to join the United Presbyterian Church of North America (153). Under the heading of “Changes in the Position of the Complainants” (157) Douma argues that Murray, Stonehouse, and Kuschke clarified The Complaint in the area of epistemology in order to avoid the charge of skepticism (158). I found this helpful and wish this clarification had been made at the outset.
Just when the reader may need a break from controversy, Douma digs into Clark’s long tenure at Butler University from 1945 to 1973. He produced an impressive number of books during that time (167). He became deeply involved in his new denomination, but as his daughter Betsy testified, “My dad never complained about the OP church” (172). He strongly opposed the proposed merger of the UPCNA with the PCUSA. When this occurred in 1958, he helped to lead his congregation out into the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod (RPCGS, 173). After the death of the pastor, Clark preached regularly for over eight years (175). He was truly a churchman. In 1965 he assisted in arranging a merger between his denomination (RPCGS) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES). The EPC brought Francis Schaeffer and Covenant College and Seminary (176).
During this time Clark and Van Til both opposed Barthianism with trenchant critiques from different epistemological perspectives in their respective books in 1963: The Theological Method of Karl Barth and Christianity and Barthianism. They, also, both ardently defended biblical inerrancy (180–81, cf. 209), something Van Til would warmly recall about Clark in their later years and renewed friendship.
Douma reports on Clark’s life outside of work (176–80). On the human side Clark was a legendary chess player. A friend of mine and I once played him together. He took us both on at once and beat us handily in a matter of minutes. I recall watching him feed the wild dogs on the Covenant College quad. He kept a supply of biscuits in his suitcoat pocket. Clark also had a dry sense of humor. In a class at Covenant College he referred to distressed blue jeans as “synthetic poverty.”
In chapter 10 Douma enumerates four theological contributions of Clark. 1. An axiomatized epistemological system, built like Euclidean geometry with Scripture as the basic postulate and doctrines as derived theorems (184–88); 2. Theological supralapsarianism in which the logical order of the decrees is the reverse of the temporal execution (188–92); 3. The solution to the problem of evil (192–94); 4. Arguments for a return to traditional logic (194–98). These comprise an accurate description of Clark’s views on these major topics.
Chapter 11 on “Clark’s Boys” distinguishes between prominent leaders who strayed from the doctrine of inerrancy and those who didn’t. Clark would have been disappointed that, as a minor “Clark boy,” I became a Van Tilian in apologetics. But I heartily affirm the best of his convictions: the inerrancy of God’s Word and the summary of its teaching in the Westminster standards. Whatever our disagreements with Clark may be, we must appreciate his deep commitment to Christian scholarship and the Christian faith which he clung to, to his dying day. He defended Machen, inerrancy, and the Westminster standards. In the end Clark is on the side of the angels.
After a chapter on Clark’s theology of the Trinity and the incarnation, Douma covers Clark’s years teaching at Covenant College (1974–84). This chapter includes an interesting history of Clark’s opposition to the RPCES joining with the newly formed Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) (235–39). Ironically, one of his reasons for opposing the union was that it would be “an unmerited insult to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church,” due to the fact earlier the RPCES had voted against merging with the OPC, despite the OPC’s favorable vote (236).
My favorite part in this final chapter is “ ‘My good friend’—personal reconciliation with Cornelius Van Til” (240–42). I witnessed the first of four friendly meetings between the two aged apologists. It was significant that two of the original complainants, Leroy Oliver and Paul Woolley, went to lunch with Van Til and Clark after Clark spoke in chapel at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1977. Thereafter Van Til and Clark referred to each other as good friends. “Later that year, in an interview for Christianity Today, Van Til made reference to ‘my good friend Gordon Clark [who] believes in the inerrancy of the Bible’ ” (240). Remarkably, in 1983 Van Til asked Clark to speak at a dinner in Van Til’s honor. Without diminishing their theological differences, reading this was a little taste of heaven. I highly recommend this book.
When I arrive in heaven I plan on having lunch with professors Clark and Van Til.
 Gordon H. Clark, Thales to Dewey: A History of Philosophy (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1957).
 Gordon H. Clark, The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (Nutley, NJ: Craig, 1964).
Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2017.