Monday, April 24, 2017

Interview with Douglas Douma: Author of the Recent Biography of Gordon H. Clark

Douglas Douma is among those unique Christian scholars who is able to bring a broad and varied range of intellectual perspective to his analysis and writing. He has an engineering degree from the University of Michigan, an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University, and an Mdiv from Sangre de Cristo Seminary. That he claims to have learned far more from books than in school is certainly a testament to his curiosity and passion for learning. I mentioned that his writing in the book was well done and I enjoyed reading it. There is also a lot of interesting information on his blogsite and I commend it to you.

In the previous post, I reviewed his recent biography of Gordon H. Clark titled The Presbyterian Philosopher. Mr. Douma was kind enough to take time to answer questions about Dr. Clark and his book. I am pleased to share that interaction with you. I pray it will be of interest to those who want to learn more about Dr. Clark.

1)     Could you briefly share a little bit about your background and how you first encountered Dr. Clark or his work?

I grew up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Though having read Christian theology books since I was 14, I had very little knowledge of philosophy. I took just two philosophy courses in college (at the University of Michigan). One on Logic and one on Knowledge. This was years before I came across Clark's writings.

While considering seminary, particularly the Lutheran one – Concordia Seminary in St. Louis – I began to ask deeper questions of the faith. Not finding much in the realm of intellectual Lutheran books I broadened my search. I read a lot of Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Hugh Ross, Francis Scheaffer, and a number of others. Yet I was not very satisfied with them. Most of what I found in “Reformed Epistemology” was merely a defense of Theism. This was of little interest to me while I was considering a life in the Christian pastorate.

The time of my intellectual “awakening” was in 2007 and the cliché “it started with Ayn Rand” largely applied to me. I read about ten of Ayn Rand's books while also getting into Libertarianism and especially the Austrian School of Economics. I read everything I could find of Ron Paul, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard, among others.

Though largely agreeing with the Austrians on Economics, I was dissatisfied with Rand's more general philosophy and still saw Christianity (in the limited form I knew it) to be a better solution.

I came across and then read a book called “Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System” by John Robbins. This basically completed my falling away from interest in Rand. At the end of Robbins book also I saw what I thought was an overly praiseworthy note about someone named “Gordon H. Clark,” a Calvinist. Calvinism was still a scary word for me.

Sometime later, searching for “Christian intellectuals” and “Christian Philosophy”, I came across Gordon Clark's “An Introduction to Christian Philosophy.” Having seen his name in the Robbins book I thought I'd give him a chance. And still to this day “An Introduction to Christian Philosophy” is the single most influential thing in my mind outside of Scripture.

Over time, for 4 years I read nearly all of Gordon Clark' 40+ books during my evenings, during my lunch breaks, and wherever I could sneak in the time.

2)     Why did you think it was important for there to be a biography of Dr. Clark and what motivated you to be to be the one to do it?

After reading many of Clark's books I realize that he spent 90% of the time critiquing opposing views, and then only 10% of the time formulating his own theories. My first idea was to write a book summarizing these “10%” bits from all of his books. This way, I figured, one could read just one book instead of all 40. I quickly realized, however, that much of Clark's theology intertwined with the historical circumstances of his life and work in the church. To give proper context to the theology I realized a biography was necessary. At first I could find very little biographical information but as the project continued the information came in a steady stream until just the right about necessary for the biography was found. It would be difficult I believe to write a biography on a person less prominent than Dr. Clark unless the person saved many of their own papers.

So, I attended a Reformed seminary based on Clark's influence on my thought. And I chose Sangre de Cristo Seminary as Gordon Clark's papers were housed there. The decision to write the biography coincided with my decision to attend seminary. And, frankly, I probably worked on the biography as much as I worked on my seminary studies.

3)     What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research about Dr. Clark?

I was most surprised to find Dr. Clark's unpublished Systematic Theology. Actually, Andrew Zeller, President of Sangre de Cristo Seminary found the manuscript while searching for papers for the biography.

Of Dr. Clark, himself it might be considered surprising to learn that he did not drive an automobile until sometime in his 40s.

4)     What would you say is the most misunderstood aspect of Clark’s work?

There are a number of controversial points regarding Clark's theology. (Such as the incomprehensibility of God, the Free Offer of the Gospel, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, the primacy of the intellect, the nature of the incarnation, his views on emotion, and his view of faith as assent to understood propositions).

Perhaps the biggest error is to call him “a rationalist.” I find this term to be utterly lazy and contrary to fact. Though Clark put a high value on logic, it was the Scripture which was his ultimate authority.

As far as misunderstanding, I've read very few who understand Clark's views on the incomprehensibility of God. One frequent error to say Clark believe man's knowledge to be “identical” to God's knowledge. On the contrary, Clark repeatedly denied this accusation. Instead he held that though any proposition known by man was the same proposition known by God, the knowledge is not identical in all aspects because God knows a greater quantity of knowledge than man, and (most importantly) God knows in a different way (or mode) than does man. (God's mode being intuitive and man's mode being discursive.) Along with this misunderstanding is the near universal mistake of those who have written on the Clark – Van Til Controversy to not realize that the very center of the conversation and possibly solution revolved around the definition of “content.”

5)     As you know, there is some debate about the extent to which Clark’s views changed over time. Did your research indicate whether there were any significant modifications to his thought?

I'm familiar with Ryan Hedrich's arguments to the effect that Clark's view on Divine Simplicity changed over time. That is, Ryan believes Clark was opposed to it early on and in favor of it later on. To the extent I've studied the topic, I believe Ryan has made some interesting points, but it is not necessary to conclude that Clark ever opposed Divine Simplicity.

Clark did change his view on the Incarnation. Just a few years before his death he was saying things very much in line with the Chalcedonian Creed's view of the incarnation. However, in Clark's book “The Incarnation” written in the last months of his life, he attempted to improve Chalcedon's formulations. I have high regard for Clark's work, but if there is one thing I'm unsure of the truth of in his writings it is his work in this last book.

An interesting article few know of is Mary Crumpacker's “Clark's Axiom, Something New” where she indicated that Clark's “Wheaton Lectures” (1966) are merely an extension and clarification of his earlier work, and not a radically new proposal.

For the most part, however, I see a strong continuity of thought throughout Clark's life. Most of his major ideas can be seen in his letters and writings in the 1930s and 1940s. 

6)     I mentioned in my review that I would have liked you to have further explored the potential influence of Van Til’s work on Clarks own apologetic. Can you share any further insight into this?

As to your wish that I had explored the relationship of Clark’s thought to that of Van Til’s thought more, I must point out that the record is quite scant. John Frame has said that he heard years ago that Clark and Van Til would take walks together discussing philosophy back in the 1930s in Philadelphia. But other than what I’ve written, and this comment from Frame, there isn’t any extant information about their relationship at the time. One might surmise some things from their theological writings, but the connections are difficult to determine.

One thing of interest you might want to look into is the letters between Van Til and J. Oliver Buswell. Buswell makes something of a 3rd leg of the tripod in the Clark – Van Til discussions. There are more letters between Buswell and Van Til than between Clark and Van Til. There is also a dialogue between them in “The Bible Today” in the late 1940s. I'm not sure this will be of much benefit though as Clark and Van Til are much closer to each other in thought than either is to Buswell.

7)     You had an excellent observation in the book that since Clark primarily worked at secular institutions rather than at a seminary the trajectory of his work proceeded with a higher degree of independence than that of many other Christian scholars.  In what ways do you think that was a benefit and in what ways do you think it was a hindrance?

Clark's relatively isolated studies really helped to avoid “group think.” He wasn't part of the “Westminster faculty” or in on the Bible Presbyterian bandwagon.

The hindrance for Clark was largely with his job prospects, book sales, and connections in the Christian world. Had he been at a Christian Seminary he would have been much more well known.

8)     How would you assess Dr. Clark’s legacy?

I tried to some in the last chapter of the biography. Even doing that I had some difficulty saying much. It is important to realize that much of Dr. Clark's work and tenor was not the same as the aggressiveness you see in the internet debates today. Part of the purpose of the biography is to show who Clark was. In fact, of 915 extant letters only in 4 or 5 of them does Clark write with an aggressive or mean tone.

9)     Which of Dr. Clark’s books would you recommend as a starting point to someone looking to start reading him?

This question comes up from time to time on our Gordon H. Clark Discussions forum on Facebook. I think the most frequent answer — and one with which I agree — is Clark's "Religion, Reason, and Revelation." One of the great things about this book is that from the very start you can see Clark's emphasis on the importance of definitions. His discussion on "What is Religion" was eye-opening to me. 

This "3R's" book is a nice place to start because it is interesting without being too challenging philosophically. Following that I'd recommend "A Christian View of Men and Things," "Three Types of Religious Philosophy," "An Introduction to Christian Philosophy," "Thales to Dewey," and "God's Hammer." These are some of the books of Clark's which address broader topics. Following the reading of these, one can then pick up various books Clark wrote on more specific topics, whether they be on secular philosophers ("Dewey," "William James"), religious thinkers ("Karl Barth's Theological Method"), or Clark's own Christian constructions such as "Historiography," "Language and Theology," "The Trinity," "The Incarnation," and various other topics. This plan would have one read from the more general to the more specific, and generally increasing in rigor. 

10) Many of us have the Trinity Foundation to thank for keeping Dr. Clark’s works published but we now have an entire generation of Christian scholars and pastors that maintain a substantial portion of their libraries electronically. If Dr. Clark is to remain accessible, it seems that it would be advantageous to have his collected works published on Logos. Are you aware of any possibility of that happening? (If not, perhaps a worthwhile suggestion to The Trinity Foundation)

I don't have any information on this question. I'd be glad for Clark's works to be made more accessible electronically. I know from a pastor-friend of mine who is a missionary in remote Cambodia that digital libraries are the only way to go in places where you can't carry dozens of boxes in.

11) Is there anything else you would like to share either about Dr. Clark or the process of writing the book?

I like to emphasize the availability of Clark's lesser known and unpublished writings which I've posted to the Gordon H. Clark Foundation website.

I'd be glad to see scholars engage with these papers more.

12) Any other books planned at this time?

A contract has been signed for “Selected Letters of Gordon Haddon Clark” which I've compiled and which will be edited by The Trinity Foundation.

I have an interest in writing a few more books in my life, but am struggling to find anything worth dedicating multiple years of effort towards. I'm glad for suggestions.

13) Before we leave off, I would like to give you the opportunity to share a little about Sola Appalachian Christian Retreat (

We're working on starting a hiker hostel and Christian retreat center on the Appalachian Trail. I see a great need for evangelism there and an opportunity in which I believe we can with the Lord's provision be effective. We plan to offer accommodation and meals to long-distance hikers attempting thru-hikes of the trail. Through evening hymn-sings, morning bible studies, making available small Gideon's New Testaments, being there to answer questions regarding the faith, and living in a way honorable to God, we hope to influence those who visit us to come to know the Gospel.

In the non-hiking season, I hope we'll be able to conduct a 2 or 3 month “term” in a style similar to L'Abri Christian Fellowship and invite hikers back whom we have positively affected during the past year so that they can learn more of the faith.

My wife and I are actively speaking at churches and continuing to raise funds as missionaries. We'd be glad for readers of this interview to consider supporting our mission.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book Review: The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark by Douglas Douma

Gordon H. Clark was one of the most important and influential Evangelical thinkers of the 20th century. His influence was particularly strong in the areas of Christian philosophy and apologetics but his contributions, even in those fields, are frequently neglected. I wrote about this nearly 7 years ago in a post titled “The Invisible Giant”. At that time, I remarked to a friend that someone ought to write a biography of Clark since he was not only an influential Christian scholar but was also directly involved in several critical developments in the history of 20th century Evangelicalism. Finally, someone has done just that. Douglas J. Douma’s book The Presbyterian Philosopher fills a significant gap in scholarship related to 20th century Christian history and will hopefully call additional attention to Clark’s work.

 The book is well researched and well written. As is often the case with authorized biographies, it is written with a somewhat sympathetic tone, however, it is not uncritically venerative. Douma does not hesitate to point out areas where even many of Clark’s admirers are hesitant to follow him. Douma writes with skillful clarity, walking the reader through both the convoluted intrigues of Presbyterian politics as well as the complexities of various theological controversies in which Clark was engaged.

Clark became an important influence for me when I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan trying to develop an intellectually coherent understanding of Christianity in light of the critical and postmodern arguments I was encountering. I have read many of Clark’s books and have listened to hours of his recorded lectures and never got the impression of him as the emotionless, humorless, rationalist that his critics often claimed he was. In this book, Douma has brought to life the Gordon H. Clark that seemed most familiar to me; a brilliant, if sometimes difficult, champion for the truth of the Bible as he understood it. I appreciated learning more about the circumstances that made him who he was. The additional background particularly helped me to better understand the polemical elements in Clark’s work.

 The book is broken down into the following 13 chapters and 3 appendices.

1. The Presbyterian Heritage of Gordon Clark
2. Gordon Clark’s Intellectual Influences
3. Gordon Clark and the Formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church
4. Gordon Clark at Wheaton College
5. The Origins of Presuppositionalism
6. Origins of the Ordination Controversy
7. The Arguments of the Ordination Controversy
8. The Continued Controversy and Its Results
9. The Butler University Years
10. Four Theological Contributions of Gordon H. Clark
11. “Clark’s Boys”
12. Persons, the Trinity, and the Incarnation
13. Gordon Clark’s Later Years

Appendix A Life Timeline of Gordon H. Clark
Appendix B Notes (mostly chronological information)
Appendix C Studies of the Doctrine of the Complaint

As unique as he was, Clark did not appear out of a vacuum and Douma begins by describing the background to Clark’s intellectual development. This is helpful in understanding the trajectory of some of the later controversies. For example, the conservative “Old Princeton” Presbyterianism in which Clark was immersed not only contributed to his alignment with Machen in the formation of the OPC but Douma convincingly argues it was also a factor in the later controversy with Van Til that has perhaps been underappreciated.

Frequently, discussions on presuppositionalism tend to focus on Clark, Van Til, or subsequent thinkers. I was encouraged to see Douma’s chapter on the development of presuppositionalism acknowledged the basic concepts did not originate with either of them. He points out that James Orr and Abraham Kuyper had already laid much of the foundation of a presuppositional and worldview approach a generation earlier. Douma acknowledges the influence of these earlier thinkers on Clark but suggests that Clark essentially developed his apologetic method independent of that of Cornelius Van Til.

I wish Douma had developed this relationship a bit more. Although he cites elements of Clark’s unique method as being discernable by the early 1930’s, he confirms that Clark was using some of Van Til’s works for a course he was teaching while at Wheaton in 1937. I am unsure why Douma did not explore this as a potential indication that Van Til’s work may have been further along and taken into consideration by Clark as he refined his own.

Throughout the book, Douma carefully explains the events or issues that help the reader to better understand Clark’s writing and/or positions at particular points of his life. He does an excellent job of helping the reader to see Gordon Clark the man in addition to Clark the combatant. The reader can begin to understand that in addition to his attempts at modeling a comprehensive Christian worldview in his scholarship, he also had a vision of a broader cooperation among conservative Christians. Through each controversy, Douma helps us to understand Clark’s motivations as well as the personal challenges each presented.

I was frequently saddened by the many political and ecclesiastical intrigues that Clark was caught up with. To be sure, he did not always respond in a way that helped the situation but on many occasions the treatment of him was shameful. One is left to wonder what was lost to the Evangelical movement as a result of Clark being run out of Wheaton, or to what degree the witness of conservative Presbyterianism was weakened by the fall-out between the Clark and Van Til camps. I was, however, encouraged to learn that apparently, Clark and Van Til seemed to have no personal animosity toward one another later in life. Perhaps that might be an encouragement to those who to this day are still passionately fighting this battle that serious and important theological disagreements among Christians need not degenerate into personal attacks.

Regardless of their personal feelings toward each other, the controversy between the Clark and Van Til camps related to Clark’s ordination is the most well-known controversy in Clark’s career. Douma does a good job of unpacking the various motivations that led to the complaint and the subsequent controversy. Douma clarifies a number of common misunderstandings related to the process itself as well as providing clarification of the positions of Clark and the complainants. Douma is clearly sympathetic to Clark and some will no doubt not appreciate what they will see as Douma’s bias. Nearly 75 years later, this remains a contentious issue in some circles. While clearly in agreement with Clark, I think Douma’s treatment is fair. Several years ago, I read through all the relevant documentation I could get and came to essentially the same conclusion as he did. Perhaps this section of the book could have been improved had Douma more fully developed the concerns of the Van Til contingent but even so, it is an excellent overview of the controversy and the issues involved. 

Overall, The Presbyterian Philosopher is a thoroughly researched and well written survey of the life of one of the most important Christian thinkers of the 20th century. Clark was there from the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920’s through the battle of the Bible and the fracturing of Neo-Evangelicalism in the 1970’s. I recommend this book to anyone interested either in Gordon Clark in particular or Evangelical history in general.