Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Invisible Giant: Gordon H. Clark

In the last post I shared a list of books that Dr. R.C. Sproul considered the most influential on his thinking. It was an interesting list in many ways but one thing that stood out for me was that two of the books on the list were written by Dr. Gordon H. Clark.

Gordon H. Clark was one of the most interesting Christian thinkers of the past century. He has such a unique and penetrating way of looking at things that once you finish reading or listening to him you often have to go back and check to see if he really said what you thought you heard or read(and in most cases he did). It is almost impossible to think about things the same way after experiencing him. On virtually every subject of which I have read his work he has pushed me to think more clearly and to become more precise in my own view, regardless of if I agree or disagree with him. Many of the people he influenced became leading bible scholars, theologians, and apologists in their own right and conservative Christian teaching over the past 60 plus years would have been something different had it not been for Dr. Clark. It is for that reason that I find it strange that even many theologically educated Christians have never heard of him.

Dr. Clark was born in the summer 1902 and died in the spring of 1985. He taught at a number of seminaries and colleges during his 60 year teaching career and authored over 40 books on a diverse range of topics. He was a professional philosopher who specialized in critiquing secular philosophy from a Christian perspective. He was a founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society and was an actively engaged academic. Just a brief glance at the names of some of those who have been influenced by him demonstrates the wide influence that he has. They include John Gerstner, C.F. Henry, R.C. Sproul, Ron Nash, and Robert Reymond, just to name a few. Given this range it is remarkable that his work is not better known among Christian teachers.

Dr. Clark had an impact in a number of areas in Christian ministry and thought. He is the primary developer of the rational school of presuppositional apologetics. Although the term presuppositionalism is most often associated with Van Til’s system a strong argument could be made that it is Clark’s version that has had the biggest practical influence on modern evangelical apologetics.

His rigorous Calvinism was an important influence on a number of people who went on to become scholars and teachers within the broader conservative evangelical movement within a number of denominations. That his work contributed to the current resurgence of Calvinism in American evangelicalism is certain. He represents a bridge between the stalwarts of Old Princeton (Machen, Warfield) and some of the modern leaders of Reformed theology in America (like Dr. Sproul).

His most important contribution, however, was his philosophical work. He was known as a tireless and ardent defender of rational epistemology against all forms of empiricism. His philosophy is built upon the view that all human knowledge is dependent upon God’s revelation. With rigorous logic he argued that the Scripture should be taken as the starting point for every kind of knowledge and that all things should be deduced from the propositions contained in the bible. He applied a logical process to the bible similar to what is used in mathematical fields such as geometry where biblical propositions are accepted (axioms) and then all other truths are logically deduced from them. He was unwavering in his application of these methods and had the courage to follow the logic to its ends even if led to rather unpopular positions and he did not shy away from defending his views against those who disagreed with him. He was a devastatingly effective debater who would start with the assumptions of his opponent and then argue logically from them to absurd conclusions that they could not accept. Once he exposed contradictions within their system he would argue for the acceptance of his dogmatic Christian view.

As I have already mentioned, Clark argues in such a way that even when you do not agree with him you are forced to think much more carefully about your own position. No Christian student interested in philosophy or apologetics should consider themselves sufficiently well read until they have spent some time thinking about the arguments in Clark’s works:”Thales to Dewey, A Christian View of Men and Things, and Religion, Reason, and Revelation).

Given the importance of some of his ideas and the influence that he has had on many influential teachers we have to wonder why Clark is seemingly absent from the libraries of so many Christian teachers. I do not know the answer and we can only speculate. It is true that a great many people differ from Dr. Clark on many of his ideas and even many of those who agree with him on fundamentals would hesitate to go as far as he did in articulating certain things.

Regardless of the reason for the neglect, Dr. Clark is a teacher that should not be ignored, especially by Christians with an interest in philosophy or apologetics. Any concerns about his views pale in comparison to those of some other popular teachers such as Finney, Barth, and Schleiermacher who are widely read and discussed despite their blatant unorthodoxy. You may not agree with all of his conclusions but Dr. Clark will challenge you to think more critically about Christianity and how it applies to your worldview. If you don't believe me, ask R.C. Sproul!


  1. Thank you for this tribute.

    When I was attending a church in Allen Park, MI, after the sermon I asked the preacher if he had herd or read anything by Dr. Clark, he said no so I directed him to the Trinity Foundation. The following week he said he went to the web site and warned me of "that kind of polemical teaching". I never thought of Clark that way. He's precise in his arguments and a classy guy when it comes to disagreeing with opponents.

    Besides of a couple Bible teachers I know personally, Clark is tops. I find myself agreeing with him more and more, especially his arguments against Empiricism. Thanks again for this and other articles on Mathaytes.

  2. NFI, you touched on an important point. One of the reasons that Clark may not be as widely read is that the rights to his work are controlled by John Robbins and the Trinity Foundation. It is important for people to make the distinction between Clark's works and those of Robbins and others. The Trinity Foundation does tend to be polemical whereas Dr. Clark was engaged in the acedemic discourse of his time rather than just sniping at it. He was tough but classy.

    My suggestion is to read Clark in his own words rather than associating his ideas and approach with those of the Trinity Foundation or any other people who claim to follow him.

  3. Had a long post but due to an error it was lost.

    Robbins was a brilliant thinker, not quite as brilliant as Clarke, but still brilliant. His thoughts on political philosophy/history were great. Too bad he never chose to write a book on that. . . (I think thats called Rothbards Law). Bottom line, in my view , Robbins is worth reading. Some of his works helped shape my political/economic philosophy into what it is today. So I don't think you can dismiss Robbins just because he had a knack for being extremely polemical.

    That being said, I disagree with a lot of what Robbins had to say and like Clark I don't think he took his philosophy as far as it should have been taken. I believe an apt analogy would be that they saw the top of the mountain but couldn't see what was on the other side.

    The tl;dr version.

    Robbins was brilliant you shouldn't dismiss his work.