Saturday, June 11, 2011

Gordon Clark's Scripturalsim: A Few Considerations

In a previous post on Dr. Clark I mentioned that his work always forces me to think more carefully about my own positions regardless of if I agree or disagree with his position. A brother in Christ who appreciates Dr. Clark but who is still growing in his understanding of philosophy asked me what positions of Clark I disagree with. He pointed out that there are not many readily accessible resources for reading Clark critically from a sympathetic perspective. Most of the information available is either strongly for or strongly against his system. Like Dr. Clark I would be classified philosophically as a rational presuppositionalist and would fall into the “Clarkian” camp on many issues, however, great men are men nonetheless and Dr. Clark’s system, like the work of all teachers, must not be accepted uncritically.

Before I give any critique of Clark’s Scripturalism let me say again what a blessing his work has been to me and that I think it deserves far more consideration than it is usually given. I should also point out that each of the weaknesses that I mention below are worthy of a great deal more examination and explanation than I give. My intention is simply to provide some thought starters for those who are interested in Dr. Clark’s philosophical position that he called Scripturalism (perhaps I will address his theology at some other time).

1)      Clark’s scripturalsim is founded upon the premise that all knowledge is restricted to the propositions in scripture or valid deductions from the propositions in scripture. Unfortunately, this proposition itself does not meet the necessary criteria to be knowledge in his system. There is no verse in scripture that claims that all knowledge is exclusively found in scripture and I have found no biblical teaching which necessarily entail this. Dr. Clark pointed to biblical verses such as Colossians 2:3 which states that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ but the fact that all wisdom and knowledge are to be found in God (either Father or Son) is not surprising and it does not follow therefore that God chooses to impart knowledge solely through His Word. Clark pointed out many scriptural statements that extol the supremacy of the wisdom and knowledge found in the Word but the bible is not a philosophy textbook and any good exegete will recognize that these statements are not to be understood as technical epistemological pronouncements. They are better understood as arguing for supremacy as opposed to exclusivity. A case can be made that salvific knowledge comes exclusively through the Word (imparted directly or indirectly) but that does not exclude the possibility that knowledge of some things might be acquired through other means. Clark’s Scripturalism therefore does not clear the bar on its own first principal.

2)      If we can show that there is any certain, undeniable, knowledge that is not deduced from the axioms of scripture then Clark’s position would be defeated. Admittedly, he defines knowledge in such a way that would make this task extremely difficult. Nevertheless, I think that every person who is engaged in philosophical or theological thought necessarily, and undeniably, possess at least one type of knowledge of this sort, namely our knowledge of self. Augustine and later Descartes both arguing against skepticism famously demonstrated that one thing that can be proven without any doubt is ones own existence because it is impossible to question your own existence if you do not exist. Skepticism about ones own existence is self-defeating therefore, though we might each doubt if anyone else exists, we know that our own mind must necessarily and undeniably exist. I believe this is an issue for Clark’s Scripturalism because my existence (or yours) is neither a proposition of scripture nor can it be deduced from any proposition of scripture. Therefore, if I know I exist I must know it from some source outside of the bible. Dr. Clark addressed the question of self-knowledge by demonstrating (quite capably) that nobody really knows themselves. He points out that the collection of propositions that are attached to particular identities are not fully known even by those that they describe. This is all quite true, but also quite beside the point. Clark is correct that we do not possess perfect knowledge of self but whatever else we may not know about ourselves we can certainly know that our minds exist. If we know this, and it isn’t in the bible then Dr. Clark is wrong.

3)      Scripture itself appears to assume that certain types of knowledge are possible through observation (I am not arguing here for empiricism… the relationship of such observation and the rational processes are not detailed in the bible and warrant much more detailed discussion). The bible repeatedly talks about what we see and hear as the basis for knowing certain things. Obviously the text isn’t using the word “know” in a technical philosophical sense but the fact remains that certain conclusions are said to be drawn from certain observations. Dr. Clark often responded to this criticism by demonstrating that quite often the words “see” and “hear” in the bible do not refer to sensation. He is quite right about this and just like in modern English these terms usually mean to understand rather than having a reference to sensation (do you see what I am saying?). This being the case, however, it is not sufficient for him to demonstrate that in 20 or 30 examples this is the case and then claim that this must be sufficient for us to except that the hundreds of other instances follow the same pattern. If even a single example can be given that these words do in fact refer to sensory observation then Dr. Clark would have a problem. I submit that there are many such instances but I will give two. First is  2 Samuel 20:10, “But Amasa did not observe the sword that was in Joab's hand. So Joab struck him with it in the stomach and spilled his entrails to the ground without striking a second blow, and he died.” In this verse it was Amasa’s failure to know that Joab was armed due to a lack of observation that allowed Joab to get close enough to him to kill him with one blow. The second example is Matthew 24:32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near.” Jesus often appeals to things that the people who heard him already knew in order to then point them to another truth. Those to whom these words were first spoken would not have been able to deduce the lesson of the fig tree from any previous scripture. They would have known what Jesus was saying because they had observed through nature what He was describing.

I believe that there are other issues that might be pointed out but I think that these three are issues that anyone who is considering Clark’s position must carefully think through. If the good doctor were still with us he would no doubt have a clever and formidable response to these criticisms. As it stands, however, I do not recall in any of his books or classes that he fully and satisfactorily answers these questions (If I have missed it or forgotten it please let me know).

We can affirm that the Lord is the source of all knowledge and that His revelation of Himself in the Scriptures is epistemologically supreme without being so narrow as to exclude the possibility of knowing in any other way. The propositions of scripture are canonical in the purest sense. They alone serve as the standard for all potential knowledge. Any reasoning that contradicts them is unsound. I believe that Dr. Clark demonstrated the unreliability of many other forms of supposed knowledge showing that only scripture can offer certainty regarding what can be considered justified true belief. His arguments should be carefully considered but his solution to the problem of knowledge is not without its own difficulties.


  1. In one of Clark's lectures he mentions that likes olives. For a guy who argues against sense perception it seems a little out of place. He's got know when he makes a statement like that he is referring to a sensation which communicates the flavor of the olive. Which leads me to believe that his system as whole is one of distinguishing knowledge of certitude that can only be found in Scripture, and empirical data that is always contingent. All crows are black could be false because we can not know all crows past, present, and future etc.

  2. Your'e right but there are still a couple things to consider. First, obviously Clark can define his terms the way he likes but most philosophers do not require certainty as a necessary condition of knowledge. So, as usual the way terms are defined is crucial. Secondly, even if you do Clark has a problem because I have 100% certainty that my mind exists and yet such knowledge is not able to be deduced from scripture.

  3. also... I think Clark would not agree that his statement about olives means that there is a sensation that communicates the flavor of anything. He would probably say that those sensations are merely a stimulus to intellection and that either it is impossible for someone to know the flavor of an olive or that God occassions such knowledge at the time of the stimulus. He admitted that there were a great many things that are often opined but cannot be known.

  4. For all (that is,man) have sinned. Can I not deduced from Scripture that outside my own conscience other men exist? There are many universals that attribute certain attributes to man that empirically could not be known or proved. I agree that Clark has a problem when the Scripture speaks of using the senses to affirm or deny something. "And the word of the Lord came to me saying, "What do you see, Jeremiah?" And I said, "I see a rod of an Almond tree." Then the Lord said to me, "You have seen well." If Clark were alive today I would have loved ask him about this verse.

  5. I am not talking about "other men" I am talking about self existence. I have heard people try and deduce this from scripture but not convincingly. As far as Jeremiah. Clark would perhaps say that this refers to a vision and not a sensory perception.