Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Philosophy of Gordon Clark - Response from a Pragmatist

A few months ago, I posted an essay to my blog which I had submitted as a research paper in my Theories of Knowledge class. My professor, a Ph.D from UMich who throughout the semester had proudly stated he was an atheist, a pragmatist, and empiricistic, was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic upon reading my rough draft. Bottom line: after reading it, he suggested I write on a different topic or accept a C-. I chose the former (see excerpts here, here, and here), and did well in the class.

However, he did take the time to reply to the rough draft on Gordon Clark's philosophy... kind of. In addition to a few general comments in an email, he wrote some questions and comments in the margins of my rough draft - 17 in total. I thought about re-writing the original submission with answers and rebuttals to his comments, but decided against it for reasons which may become apparent after I post them. The sentence in the essay to which he responded is italicized, the professor's comment is in block quotes, and my response is in normal text.

1. Clark successfully developed a philosophical system commonly referred to as Scripturalism, the central tenet of which may be said to be that the Protestant canon comprises the sole, extant source of knowledge available to man.


Of all knowledge?? Seems implausible.

It will become clear that this comment was made before the professor read the rest of the paper. See point 9.


2. The demonstration of a proposition, such as any theorem in geometry, is completed only when it is referred to the axioms. If the axioms in turn required demonstration, the demonstration of the proposition with which we began would remain incomplete.


This is foundationalism. See general comment in e-mail.

In the email to which he refers, my professor was apparently under the assumption the class accepted everything he taught as fact and that I therefore must simply have forgotten his lecture points. In this case, he is referring to class time in which he spent discussing foundationalism as a remnant of the 17th century rationalists in contrast to the coherentism of Quine and other pragmatists. Actually, I forwarded a nuanced view of foundationalism throughout the essay (see also here).


3. Clark, rather than appealing to an indubitably self-evident postulate as do some rationalists, held that one could judge them by gauging the consistency amongst the propositions pertaining to the respectively educed systems.


This is vague, but if I understand it, (maybe I don’t), it says that one can choose a unique principle based on thh consistency of “theorems” derive in systems based on the principle. This is false—disprovable by attention to logical systems. Maybe he means something else.

I really don’t have any idea what he is talking about here. My point was twofold: 1) a philosophical system contains a first principle and theorems which are deduced from that first principle; 2) a way in which one can gauge the justifiability of a first principle is by studying whether or not its respectively derived theorems contradict each other. If so, then by a reduction ad absurdum, the first principle is falsified; it leads to a self-defeating system. If not, then a criterion of a justifiable first principle is satisfied.


4. …if one system can provide plausible solutions to many problems while another leaves too many questions unanswered, if one system tends less to skepticism and gives more meaning to life, if one worldview is consistent while others are self-contradictory, who can deny us, since we must choose, the right to choose the more promising first principle?


This seems to refer to “completeness”—which would be a third, independent principle, separate from foundationalism and coherentism.

This is true. A philosophical system must deal with epistemological issues.


5. …there is a theory that the ultimate test of truth is coherence, and on this theory it would be impossible to have two self-consistent, mutually contradictory philosophies… One might hold that all other theories of truth lead to skepticism.


Note that this claim is directly denied by Russell in our reading by him on truth.

My professor missed the point of Clark’s argument, which was that if Russell’s hypothesis were true, skepticism would be the result. Since skepticism is false, there cannot be two such systems.


6. Appearances to the contrary would simply evidence insufficient acquaintance with the relevant intricacies of the systems in question.


Claims like this are not falsifiable.

Of course they are. The professor could disprove Clark’s aforementioned theory upon which this conclusion is based by doing what Russell did not do: show two “self-consistent, mutually contradictory philosophies.”


7. …common belief provides a point of contact whereby two worldviews may apagogically interact but belies the fact that whichever first principle yields contradictories or insufficient epistemic explanatory power is a worldview which must be unsound.


Is this yet a FOURTH criterion?

No. Insufficient explanatory power is simply another way of stating that epistemology requires answers to certain questions which, if left unaddressed, results in skepticism. See point 4.


8. Clark may be most well-known for his criticisms of the epistemological proposals of secular philosophers. Because it seems he considered the majority of religious philosophy to implicitly rely on similar constructions and because it follows that if one’s epistemology is disproved then his [religious] beliefs are correlatively disproved – at least in that they cannot be justified – Clark’s epistemological assessments can be broadly categorized as applying to one of the following: irrationalism, empiricism, rationalism, and dogmatism (i.e. Scripturalism).


This point is unclear to me.

Clark believed irrationalism, empiricism, and rationalism represent the most popular alternatives to his own philosophy, so he examined these philosophies. He also believed that most religious persons hold to [a variation of] one of these alternatives.


9. The skeptics call propositions false, doubtful, probable, and plausible. Their basic principle, however, does not in consistency permit them to use any of these terms. A false proposition is one opposite to the truth… A doubtful proposition is one that might possibly be true; a probable or plausible proposition resembles or approximates the truth. But it is impossible to apply these terms without knowing the truth by which they are determined.



I don’t get this argument. Worse, it just seems arbitrary to argue that any philosophy that does not produce certainty is anti-philosophy. This is an example of winning an argument by tendentious definition.

Is my professor certain that this is an example of winning an argument by tendentious definition? No. Is my professor certain it is arbitrary to claim that those who are “epistemologically set against the idea knowledge can be certain… are… anti-philosophy”? No. Does my professor show any indication that he is making Clark’s point for him? No.

Clark is trying to show why knowledge connotes certainty, contrary to pragmatists such as my professor. Recall that in the first point, my professor stated Scripturalism “seems implausible” Note here that he says Clark’s argument “seems arbitrary.” The reason why pragmatists have to weakly qualify their insinuations is because if they were to actually argue that 1) Scripturalism is implausible or 2) it is arbitrary to claim truth and knowledge connote certainty would 3) be to concede Clark’s argument. That they can’t argue for either of these contentions, then, makes it all the more ironic that my professor would say Clark’s arguments are arbitrary.


10. Depending on the qualifications made by a given empiricist, these frictions could be multiplied, and even if several are resolved by admitting empiricism is not compatible with them (e.g. induction; ethics), close examination of the majority portend the truth of Clark’s illation.


You would do better to concentrate on a few arguments and evaluate one or two of them rather than listing many arguments without comment.

Although I did, in fact, provide three bullet points in which I did just that, this suggestion is fair enough. However, see comment 16.


11. By observing what Clark considered to be the principal faults common to each of these philosophers, it may then be possible to conclude on what basis Clark rejected rationalism in toto.


Are there no epistemological problems with “revelation” as a method? If not, I guess I can believe anything as long as I dreamed it.

Even if we overlook the fact this doesn’t address Clark’s assessment of rationalism, this comment is still curious. Earlier, my professor incredulously wondered at the number of requirements Clark believed must be met in order for belief in a given philosophy to be considered justified. Now he completely ignores them by randomly likening Clark’s philosophy to dreaming.

Furthermore, if one cannot be certain as to what is true, then why would my professor have a problem with believing something on the basis of a dream? Is there a better method? Does he know this with certainty?


12. Hegel held that the definition of a concept entails knowledge of its relationship to all other concepts. For instance, the meaning of “cat” includes the idea that it is “not-a-dog,” “not-a-tree,” etc. Clark noted the fatal flaw of this philosophy: “…we cannot know one relationship without knowing all. Obviously we do not know all. Therefore we know nothing.” Hegelianism, therefore, cannot be accepted.


But why not accept that we have only partial knowledge and embrace fallibilism?

We can accept the fact we have partial knowledge, so long as this knowledge comes from one who is omniscient. Fallibilism, on the other hand, is self-defeating, as I noted in my revised essay:

//Fallibilism, the belief that certainty is impossible, ought to be rejected, for the claim is itself either certain or uncertain: if the former, fallibilism is self-contradictory, and if the latter, it can be ignored as an arbitrary approximation of an ironically non-existent standard (certainty). One can be certain what he believes is true, although one’s means of confirmation of such will depend upon whether or not a given proposition believed is a first principle or something which supposedly hinges on a first principle.//


13. Plato, on the other hand, is perhaps most famous for his theory of Ideas, something Clark thought must, in some form or another, be affirmed in order to avoid nominalism. According to this theory, the possibility of classifications or genera stem from the fact there is an archetypal world of Ideas after which the world in which we live is.


Note that this is the position held by Agassi, discussed at length in The Met Club, and for two class periods. Its as if you haven’t taken the course...

Actually, we did not discuss this in class. Classification in the context of Plato has to do with whether or not the concept of classification is objective. Classification in the context of Agassi (what we discussed in class) has to do with the legitimacy of a teleological scientific method.


14. Legitimate knowledge presupposes an eternally omniscient being, and any epistemic axiom must account for that or be subject to this.


What justifies this claim? It seems completely arbitrary to me.

Apparently, my professor skipped the prior sentences in the paragraph which were meant to support this as a conclusion:

//…to assert one knows a proposition is true without knowing whether or not another proposition is true begs the question. What if the truth of the former hinges on the truth or falsity of the latter? For man to justifiably know even one proposition, then, one must either know all propositions or rely on one who does – one whose knowledge must be eternal, comprehensive, and intuitive.//


15. The propositions contained in the Bible collectively form the content of what one is able to, at present, tenably know. Distinguishable from this is the means of knowledge, the historical process by which one gains access to Scriptural propositions.


This is simply an argument from authority. Cf. Peirce and his refutation of these arguments.

Well, It is an appeal to an authority, but it’s an appeal with reasons for believing that what the alleged authority says is true. Again, note the contrast in tone in my professor’s comments towards the end of the paper with his comments in the beginning. Here the professor dismisses my arguments without further ado even while I am explaining how exactly these contentions made by Clark satisfy the epistemological criteria for a justified philosophy.


16. Clark submitted that anthropological considerations and linguistics explain the reason man is able to understand God’s thought.


I’m not sure what anthropology Clark read, but these claims are directly contradictory to the actual findings of anthropologists who have found no universal/a priori truths believed by all cultures.

Note that my professor doesn’t explain the epistemological means by which these anthropologists arrived at said findings. I’m going to guess it was by the very empirical means I critiqued earlier in my paper which was essentially ignored (see point 10).


17. Clark’s theodicy is actually an assertion of what must be the case as much as it is a defense of what is the case.


He makes this claim despite the apparent fact that sinning was necessary for God’s plan to work? Come on. Don’t be so gullible.

What does my professor mean by "despite"? He correctly paraphrases my point but seems to think it contradicts the idea Clark's theodicy is as much an assertion of what must be the case – i.e. that people sin, since it is necessary for God’s plan to work – as it is a defense of what is the case. I can’t help laughing a little at his attempt to shame me out of Christianity, though.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Common Grace Revisited

I've written before that I disagree with common grace (link). The more I think about it, the more I believe on which side of the fence one sits is tied to the way in which one views God's eternal decree.

As a supralapsarian, for example, I believe God's eternal decree is teleologically arranged. When we ask "why did God ordain such and such," there might be a proximate reason. But if we keep asking the same question regarding these proximate reasons, we will ultimately discover God ordains all things so that His glory will be maximally manifested. That is God's ultimate purpose in all things, and that is why it is the chronological end of all things. The supralapsarian thereby connects the eternal decree of God with the historic execution of the decree by an inverse correlation: the foremost purpose of God is what will be [continuously] manifested last in time; that which occurs first in time (creation), however, is that which is last in the teleological arrangement of God's decrees. In other words: why did God create? Ultimately, so that He could manifest His glory. On the other hand, there is nothing God does in time to which, upon asking why God has done such, it may be answered "so that He could create."

So how does this relate to the issue of common grace? Because what occurs in time has to be viewed in correlation with God's eternal decree. When it is asked if reprobates can receive grace, the answer has to be no. Why? Because we must remember that what occurs earlier in our lives has to be measured against the fact that the purpose of such was so that what occurs later in our lives will come about according to God's eternal, teleological decree. In the case of the reprobate, what occurs early in his life occurs for a reason, and that reason is, ultimately, that he will continuously reject God unto damnation. When viewed in this light, it is evident that what occurs relatively early in the life of the reprobate cannot be a result of divine grace. Any and all occurrences in the life of the reprobate are ultimately to the ends of condemnation and damnation. In what way, then, can any occurrence be said to be an evidence of divine favor? Only when one arbitrarily abstracts an occurrence its ultimate, divinely decreed end can it be so considered.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Vos on the Development of the Noachian Epoch

A few posts ago, I noted a few different organizing principles one might use when studying Scripture. Because I have been reading Vos' Biblical Theology, that approach has recently been at the forefront of my mind. Vos makes some insightful points on the big picture of Genesis 4:1-6:7 which prompted me to think about and make connections in redemptive history in a way that I would probably not have thought to do had I, like I am often inclined to do, broken down the passage analytically. Here is what Vos has to say:

Two features characterize the revelation of [the development of the Noachian] period. In the first place, its significance lies not in the sphere of redemption, but in the sphere of the natural development of the race, although it has ultimately an important bearing on the subsequent progress of redemption. Secondly, revelation here bears on the whole a negative rather than positive character. It contents itself with bestowing a minimum of grace. A minimum could not be avoided either in the sphere of nature or of redemption, because in the former sphere, without at least some degree of divine interposition, collapse of the world-fabric would have resulted, and in the latter the continuity of fulfilment of the promise [cf. Genesis 3:15] would have been broken off, had special grace been entirely withdrawn. These two features find their explanation in the purpose of the period in general. It was intended to bring out the consequences of sin when left so far as possible to itself. Had God permitted grace freely to flow out into the world and to gather great strength within a short period, then the true nature and consequences of sin would have been very imperfectly disclosed. Man would have ascribed to his own relative goodness what was in reality a product of the grace of God. Hence, before the work of redemption is further carried out, the downward tendency of sin is clearly illustrated, in order that subsequently in the light of this downgrade movement the true divine cause of the upward course of redemption might be appreciated. This constitutes the indirect bearing of the period under review on redemption.
...We have here a story of rapid degeneration, so guided by God as to bring out the inherent tendency of sin to lead to ruin, and its power to corrupt and debase whatever of good might still develop. So far as this circle of humanity is concerned, the facts bear out the interpretation above put upon the period. (pgs. 45-46)

Vos proceeds to specify the points in the narrative which support his thesis that, aside from the parenthetical 4:25-5:32 - which is important insofar as it shows the promise of Genesis 3:15 has not been forgotten - the period immediately following the exile from Eden is designed to show the full effects of sin. In short, generations became increasingly utterly depraved from Cain to Lamech and from Lamech to mankind in general:

In the strongest terms the extreme wickedness reached at the end of the [Noachian] period is described. The points brought out are firstly: the intensity and extent of evil ('great in the earth'); secondly: its inwardness ('every imagination of the thoughts of his heart'); thirdly: the absoluteness of the sway of evil excluding everything good ('only evil'); fourthly: the habitual, continuous working of evil ('all the day'). The same judgment or irremediable wickedness is even more emphatically affirmed in the words: 'It repented Jehovah that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart.' In anthropomorphic fashion this expresses the idea that the development of mankind frustrated the end for which God had placed man on the earth. (pgs. 50-51)

This reminded me that the pre-Noahic moral declension in which there existed a vastly outnumbered elect remnant typifies the eschatological tribulation period just prior to Christ's second coming (cf. Matthew 24:21-22, 37-44; Luke 17:26-37; 2 Peter 3:5-7, 10-13). It's one thing to look at those New Testament passages and see that fact stated, but to actually think about it in terms similar to how Vos put it provides the perspective I suspect Jesus and Peter meant for their audiences. In other words, it's one thing to read Scripture, it's another to study it. And given the various methods by which Scripture can be studied, I'm realizing how much more I have to learn.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Justification and Union with Christ

This article, particularly section III-C, is one of the more enlightening articles I've read in recent memory on the subject of justification (written by a non-Calvinist, no less!). From what I've read, the relevance of a believer's union with Christ to justification is relatively under-emphasized. Understanding union to be the means by which Christ is able to act on our behalf as penal substitute and righteous representative - and hence, that union with Christ is a precondition for justification - is, I think, a powerful rebuttal to a vogue argument in Roman Catholic circles; viz. the Protestant view of justification implies nominalism. From the article:

The meaning of [justification] is clearly forensic. But the deeper question remains: is that forensic verdict an accurate and true assessment of the believer when united to Christ, or is it a nominal and putative designation of a recategorization within God’s mind alone? We are joined to Christ to the extent that we gain His identity in the eyes of justice. In that sense, the infused identity does make us subjectively righteous (when the subject is the whole man, consisting of both the man and Christ in union), but only insofar as we are joined to Christ and it is His righteousness–already accomplished in His human life–that is the only righteousness in view. However, when we are joined to Christ, we are not joined to the extent that either is lost in the other. The union is sufficient to make us one with Christ in the eyes of justice, but the righteousness that is now ours remains the righteousness that He lived and not any righteousness that we live out or accomplish–in that sense it is still an alien righteousness. This infused identity is the substance and reality which our prior justification had in view.

We can say we have been crucified with Christ, buried with Christ, and raised with Christ (Romans 6:1-11) when in us is the Spirit of Christ who unites us to Him (Romans 8:9-11). This is indeed an "infused identity" - we are, inherently and intrinsically, new creatures in Christ.

Obviously, this is not to suggest the ground of our justification is merited by anything we have accomplished, nor is it correct to speak of the basis of justification as infused righteousness. These are antithetical to the gospel. Rather, our union with Christ or infused identity is what makes justification compatible with realism, as the imputation (legal charge) of the righteousness merited by Christ to our account and the non-imputation of our sin due the penalty Christ paid for us is made possible by the fact we are in Christ and He in us. This union is real, not merely forensic. The Father therefore justifies believers who are ungodly in themselves yet - due to their union with Christ - righteous in Christ. Such justification is not a "legal fiction."

A few citations of Turretin as Reformed precedent for this view will be a fitting close:

...by our legal and mystical union, [Christ] becomes one with us, and we one with him. Hence he may justly take upon him our sin and sorrows, and impart to us his righteousness and blessings. So there is no abrogation of the law, no derogation from its claims; as what we owed is transferred to the account of Christ, to be paid by him.

...when the sin of another is said to be imputed to any one, it is not to be understood that the sin is, purely and in every sense, foreign to him but that, by some means, it pertains to him to whom it is said to be imputed; if not strictly his own, individually and personally, then (communiter) conjointly, on account of community between him and its proper author. For there can be no imputation of the sin of another, unless it is based upon some special union of the one with the other.