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.

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