Friday, July 26, 2013

Gordon Clark on the Problem of Partial Knowledge

As a preface to this post, I've decided to take a break from blogging. I'm not sure for how long. I'd like to try to integrate some of the thoughts from my posts into a one-stop read for a coherent Christian apologetic, so I'll still be working on that if nothing else. But to be honest, every so often I just run out of things to write about that I find particularly interesting on which I feel I can make some sort of relevant comment. It takes some time for the motivation and creative juices to start flowing again.

Enough about that. Building on The Gordon Clark Project and a post I wrote a while ago (link), I believe the following illustrates how one can present the argument that an omniscient person is a precondition for knowledge by means of Clark's writings. There is a broader context in which I could have placed these quotes - namely, Clark's thoughts on necessary conditions in general - but I didn't want to over-complicate this clear line of thought:


A system of philosophy purports to answer certain questions. To understand the answers, it is essential to know the questions. When the questions are clearly put, there is less likelihood that the answers will seem irrelevant to important issues. (A Christian View of Men and Things, 2005, pgs. 19-20)

A proposition can be judged ridiculous only if it contradicts some exceptionally well-established truth. If nothing has as yet been established, Descartes’ demon cannot be known to be ridiculous. (Christian Philosophy, 2004, pg. 32)

The more the various subjects are studied, the more their interrelationships will be seen. Indeed, the breadth of philosophic discipline as opposed to the narrow specialty of a single science depends on these manifold and intricate connections. (A Christian View of Men and Things, 2005, pg. 109)

This is a constant trouble with philosophic subjects. One hardly begins a topic before one discovers that another matter calls for prior attention. We are always being pushed back or forward, until it seems impossible to solve any one problem without solving all. Omniscience is the prerequisite, and omniscience is hard to come by. (Gordon Clark, Modern Philosophy, 2008, pg. 28)

What follows if it is true that psychological analysis presupposes a “complete knowledge of the psychological possibilities of life”? It would follow, would it not, that historical analysis also presupposes a complete knowledge of historical possibilities. In short, it would be impossible to know anything without knowing everything.

Such a Platonic or Hegelian requirement of omniscience is a serious philosophical problem. It is not to be dismissed thoughtlessly. The meticulous scholar, J. H. Hexter, in his Reappraisals of History, castigates historical relativism as a fad and insists on the “rudimentary distinction” between knowing something and knowing everything. But he omits all philosophic justification for this distinction.

Undoubtedly this distinction must be maintained, if a human being is able to know anything at all. Make omniscience the prerequisite of partial knowledge, and partial knowledge vanishes. But Bultmann, like Hexter, offers no help: less help, in fact, for Bultmann lets the requirements of omniscience stand. (Gordon Clark, Historiography: Secular and Religious, 1971, pg. 334).

Now, where the Ideas are important, everything is related to everything else. To use a crude example, the explanation of a desk lamp would require explanations of desks and lamps. The desks would then lead us into carpentry, labor troubles, kinds of wood, forestry, and governmental conservation. An explanation of lamps would include the laws of electricity, and so on forever. In fact, before one could understand a desk lamp, one would have to understand the universe.

This stress on the interrelations of everything with everything can be developed in two directions. One may argue: Since we know this one thing, we can deduce everything else; or one may argue: Since we do not know everything else, neither do we know this. The first direction has appealed to Hegel, to Bonaventure, Augustine, and Plato. (Ancient Philosophy, 1997, pg. 145)


But though there may be Ideas of some sort, when Plato leaves mathematics for politics the plausibility of reminiscence vanishes. The slave boy was easily able to remember the square on the diagonal, but neither the Athenians nor the Syracusans could remember justice, not even with the lengthy stimulus of the Republic.

Justice, of course, is a matter of ethics and politics; and more will be said about ethics later. But the definition of man as a two-legged animal without feathers is another case where reminiscence did not work too well. The difficulty is that, after one grants the existence of suprasensible Ideas, sensation stimulates different notions in different people. Whether the subject is justice or piety or the planetary spheres, Plato had to reply on procedures of ethics and science that cannot be completed.

The failure of Platonism to descend from Heaven to Earth, or, if you wish, to ascend from Earth to heaven, leaves the theory ineffective. Man before birth may have been omniscient, but here below the Platonic cave in which man is a prisoner actually has no opening. Platonism therefore cannot be accepted as the solution to our problem. (Clark and His Critics, 2009, pg. 30)


That relations are internal, and especially that the truth is the whole, are themes hard to deny. Yet their implications are devastating. So long as you or I do not know the relationships which constitute the meaning of cat or self, we do not know the object in question. If we say that we know some of the relationships – e.g., a cat is not-a-dog and admit that we do not know other relationships – e.g., a cat is not-an-(animal we have never heard of before) – it follows that we cannot know how this unknown relationship may alter our view of the relationship we now say we know. The alteration could be considerable. Therefore we cannot know even one relationship without knowing all. Obviously we do not know all. Therefore we know nothing.

This criticism is exceedingly disconcerting to an Hegelian, for its principle applies not merely to cats, dogs, and selves, but to the Absolute itself. The truth is the whole and the whole is the Absolute. But obviously we do not know the whole; we do not know the Absolute. In fact, not knowing the Absolute, we cannot know even that there is an Absolute. But how can Absolute Idealism be based on absolute ignorance? And ours is absolute ignorance, for we cannot know one thing without knowing all. (Christian Philosophy, 2004, pg. 153)

A further insuperable hurdle for rationalistic logic is a proposition’s meaning. The meaning of a sentence depends on its context. Logicians recognize this fact, but they identify the context as the totality of knowledge. Hence, as is all too evident with Plato and Hegel, one must be omniscient to grasp the meaning of even a single sentence. This obviously rules out all human knowledge. (Thales to Dewey, 2000, pg. 398)

William James

Reenactment of a thought is possible, nonetheless, because it can be separate from this immediacy without alteration. Not only so, it can be separated from other thoughts without alteration. Thus history becomes possible.

This self-identity of the act of thought has been denied by two extreme views. The first view is that of idealism, the theory of internal relations, the notion that everything is what it is because of its context. This makes history impossible. To know any one thing it would be necessary to know its context; i.e. to know the whole universe. Knowledge would thus be restricted to the explicit consciousness of the omniscient Absolutes; and Collingwood, though he may be Beckett, does not claim to be the Absolute.

At the same time, a second view, the view that all acts of thought are atomically distinct from one another, is as erroneous as idealism. This view does of course permit the detachment of a thought from its context, for really there is no context; there is only juxtaposition with external relations. A science is merely a collection of things known and a mind a collection of acts of knowing. (Historiography: Secular and Religious, 1971, pgs. 225-226)

William James, in his A Pluralistic Universe stressed the disconnectedness of things. Wholes are to be explained by parts and not parts by wholes, he said; one group of events, though interrelated among themselves, may be unrelated to another group; there is no dominating unity – however much may be reported as present at any effective center of consciousness, something else is self-governed, absent, and unreduced to unity. In one place James denied the need of answering a question that many others have thought as important as it is difficult: “Not why evil should exist at all, but how we can lessen the actual amount of it, is the sole question we need there to consider.” Of course, if a question is literally meaningless (such as, why is music oblong?) it is really not a question at all and does not need to be answered. But if a question is not senseless, by what right can a philosophy rule it out of court? Even if it were quite trivial, it should find its place and its answer in some minor subdivision of the truth. Then, too, one might ask how James discovered that some groups of events are unrelated to other groups? Or, more exactly, since he allowed “external” relations and denied only “internal” relations, one might ask how James could discover that something is absent from and unreduced to unity by every effective center of consciousness? In other words, did James have a valid argument for the conclusion that there is no Omniscient Mind whose thought is systematic truth? He may then be caught on the horns of the dilemma he tried to escape. Irrational chaos and Hegelian monism were equally repellent to him. He wanted to find a middle ground. But perhaps there is no escape from irrational chaos except, not exactly Hegelian monism, but a logical completeness of some sort. It would be surprising, would it not, if social stability could be based on incoherence, or even large-scale disconnectedness?

At any rate, the suspicion that the introductory questions are all related and that an answer to any one of them affects the answer to every other would accord with the theistic belief in divine omniscience. The discouragement, the reflection, the suspicion of the previous pages do not prove or demonstrate the existence of an omniscient God; but if there is such a God, we may infer that all problems and all solutions fit one another like pieces of a marvelous mosaic. The macrocosmic world with its microcosmic but thoughtful inhabitant will not be a fortuitous aggregation of unrelated elements. Instead of a series of disconnected propositions, truth will be a rational system, a logically-ordered series, somewhat like geometry with its theorems and axioms, its implications and presuppositions. Each part will derive its significance from the whole. Christianity therefore has, or, one may even say, Christianity is a comprehensive view of all things: It takes the world, both material and spiritual, to be an ordered system. Consequently, if Christianity is to be defended against the objections of other philosophies, the only adequate method will be comprehensive. While it is of great importance to defend particular points of special interest, these specific defenses will be insufficient. In addition to these details, there is also needed a picture of the whole into which they fit. This comprehensive apologia is seen all the more clearly to be necessary as the contrasting theories are more carefully considered. The naturalistic philosophy that engulfs the modern mind is not a repudiation of one or two items of the Christian faith leaving the remainder untouched; it is not a philosophy that is satisfied to deny miracles while approving or at least not disapproving of Christian moral standards; on the contrary, both Christianity and naturalism demand all or nothing: Compromise is impossible. At least this will be true if the answer of any one question is integral with the answers of every other. Each system proposes to interpret all the fact; each system subscribes to the principle that this is one world. A universe, even James’ pluralistic universe, cannot exist half-theistic and half-atheistic. Politics, science, and epistemology must all be one or the other.

The hypothesis of divine omniscience, the emphasis on the systematic unity of all truths, and the supposition that a particular truth derives its meaning or significance from the system as a whole does not imply that a man must know everything in order to know anything. It might at first seem to; and Plato, who faced the same difficulty, tried to provide for two kinds of knowing so that in one sense a man might know everything and in another sense not know and learn a particular truth. At the moment, let an illustration suffice. To appreciate an intricate and beautiful mosaic, we must see it as a whole; and the parts are properly explained only in terms of the whole; but it does not follow that a perception of the pieces and some fragmentary information is impossible without full appreciation. Or to pass from illustration to reality: A child in first grade learns that two plus two is four. This arithmetical proposition is true, and the greatest mathematician cannot disprove it. But the mathematician sees this truth in relation to a science of numbers he understands how this sum contributes to phases of mathematics that the child does not dream of and may never learn; he recognizes that the significance of the proposition depends on its place in the system. But the child in school knows that two and two are four, and this that that child knows is true. Omniscience, even higher mathematics, is not a prerequisite for first grade. (A Christian View of Men and Things, 2005, pgs. 22-24)

The atheist who asserts that there is no God, asserts by the same words that he holds the whole universe in his mind; he asserts that no fact, past, present, future, near, or far, escapes his attention, that no power, however great, can baffle or deceive him. In rejecting God, he claims omniscience and omnipotence. In other words an atheist is one who claims that he himself is God; and the pantheist must be said to join him in the same claim. (A Christian Philosophy of Education, 1988, pg. 38)

Is any proposition true in isolation? Would an atom by itself be the same regardless of how the rest of the world might change? There are plausible examples that it would not. Here is a rock that weighs six pounds. But if an astronaut carries it into space it weighs approximately zero. When he drops it on the Moon, it weighs one pound. The truth of these propositions depends of the relation of the rock to the other parts of the universe. No one is true in isolation. Obesity is cured by a trip to the Moon.

Another example is a piece of canvas painted half red and half green – or any other two colors. Through these two halves of the canvas paint a stroke of gray, a mixture of black and white; but it will not be gray on the canvas. The single stoke of paint will be one color on the top half and a different color on the bottom half. Since everything seen has a background, its color is a function of its background. It is false to say it remains what it is no matter how the rest of the universe changes.

One further example. If there were no sense of sight, there would be no sense of hearing. If there were nothing hard, there would be nothing soft. If there were no animals, there could be no plants. The reason is that each of these terms expresses a distinction from its opposites. Sight is a form of non-hearing. Were they the same, we might have the term sensation, but we would not have two terms of different meaning. The terms “plant” and “animal” would not apply to different objects, if there were no different objects. There might be “living beings,” but no plants and animals. Similarly, there would be no living beings, if there were no non-living beings. This should be sufficient to dispose of logical atomism. (Modern Philosophy, 2008, pg. 175)

Augustine and Clark

Plato and Hegel constructed theories of knowledge which, if pressed to their logical extreme, imply that man must be either omniscient or completely ignorant. If every item of knowledge is so intimately connected with every other that its true nature cannot be seen except in its relation to all, then either we know all or we know nothing. Plato and Hegel both had a hard time escaping this dilemma.

Now Moses said, “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29). The Bible, therefore, both here and everywhere, assumes that we can know some truths without knowing all truths. Accordingly it is incumbent upon us to develop an epistemology in which the relationships are not such as to limit us to the disjunction of total ignorance or omniscience.

This epistemology may follow Augustine’s view that Christ is the light of every man: that is, mankind possesses as an a priori endowment at least the rudiments of knowledge, so that whenever anyone knows anything he is in contact with God. Or, the epistemology required may be more skeptical as to geometry and science and simply insist that God, being omnipotent, can be a verbal revelation make his truths understandable to me. (Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, 1991, pgs. 245-246)

Absolutism, and theism, too, hold that everything must be related to everything else in some way; there are no two things utterly independent, though in spite of Lotze, they may nonetheless be distinct. (Modern Philosophy, 2008, pg. 288)

One of the main points that the present volume wants to emphasize is the necessary logical connection of every proposition in an intellectual system with every other. (Historiography: Secular and Religious, 1971, pg. 179)

…this entire volume has been insisting that everything is connected with everything else. (Historiography: Secular and Religious, 1971, pg. 183)

A knowledge of geometry, a knowledge of anything, does indeed presuppose the possibility of detaching the given proposition from the several contexts in which it has appeared historically. Collingwood’s argument against idealism is irrefutable. If one must know everything in order to know anything, one can know nothing. (Historiography: Secular and Religious, 1971, pg. 227)

Plato in his theory of reminiscence may have used a myth to describe the disembodied soul of man contemplating the Ideas directly. This might be taken to mean that each soul is omniscient. In the Christian system this is not needed. Perhaps I have said that truth is the whole; at least I have insisted that all truth form a consistent system and have their meaning as parts of that system. But this does not entail human omniscience. At first it might seem to, for the New Testament makes our contact with the Realities more intimate than Plato does. In Acts 17:28 we read, “In him we live, and move, and have our being.” This could be made to sound like pantheism, and indeed the apostle connects his own statement with a similar sentiment in a pantheistic poet. When I have dared to connect some of my views with excerpts from pagan philosophers, I have at times been subjected to severe censure from certain quarters. But the New Testament is clear: We live and move and have our being in God’s mind. The Old Testament also in Psalm 36:9 says, “In thy light shall we see light.” Therefore I reject Nash’s conclusion, buttressed by a quotation from Etienne Gilson, that “The problem cannot be avoided simply by saying that man is in contact with divine Ideas in the mind of man.” These words really misstate the situation, for our existence in the mind of God puts us in contact with Ideas in the mind of God, and not simply “in the mind of man.”

The scripture presents the relationship between the mind of God and the mind of man as a much more intimate relationship than is commonly believed. In 1 Corinthians 2:16 the apostle says, ‘we have the mind of Christ’ (Noun Christou echomen). On this verse Meyer comments, ‘Since Christ is in them…their nous, too, can be no mental faculty different in kind from the nous Christou, but must, on the contrary, be as ideally one with it, as it is true that Christ himself lives in them.’ See also Philippians 2:5, ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.’ Of course these verse do not equate the person of Christ with our person, either pantheistically or existentially. Their meaning is that our mind and Christ’s mind overlap or have a common area or coincidence in certain propositions. Thus objections taken from the Parmenides are inapplicable to the New Testament.

Note that Christ’s mind and our mind only overlap: they are not coextensive. Plato may require omniscience, but Christianity uses revelation; and man knows only so much as God has revealed to him. In my publications I have never claimed more than a partial knowledge for man. (Christian Philosophy, 2004, pgs. 144-145)

It cannot be charged with skepticism. If it is objected that it requires an impossibility, viz. that a man be omniscient, the reply is that its Hegelian form may involve such an impossibility; but this impossibility does not occur in the Christian system where an omniscient God makes a definite revelation to man. Hence, it is not necessary for a man to know everything before he knows anything. The subjective knowledge of any man depends not on his own complex of thoughts but on God’s system and on the fact of revelation. And contrary to what seems to be Dr. Buswell’s opinion, this is not at all inconsistent with God’s sovereign grace. (The Bible Today 42.6, March 1948, cf. pgs. 173-177.)

Models of Epistemic Justification: Coherentism (God) and Foundationalism (Man)

Now since it is the conclusion of a demonstration that we are trying to prove, and since it is proved by giving the premises, it follows that the premises of demonstrated knowledge are better known than the conclusion. If we did not know the premises, obviously we could not know the conclusion. The conclusion cannot be more certain than the premises on which it is based. The premises are the cause of the conclusion, and therefore they must be prior to it. And also, in demonstration, although not in every formally valid syllogism, the premises must be true. For demonstration is knowledge, and there can be no known of the non-existent. The premises, therefore, must be statements of what exists or what is so, i.e., they must be true.

Of course, there may be a chain of syllogisms in a demonstration, as there is in geometry. But the chain must have a starting point, and such a starting point must be, not only prior, causal, and true, but in particular primary and indemonstrable. It must be an immediate, basic truth. Nothing can be more certain than these basic truths, for if the least doubt attached to them, doubt would likewise attach to all the conclusions; and this would mean that science would be tottery. But the conviction of pure science must be unshakable.

In the nineteenth century it was commonly believed that science was as unshakable as Aristotle could have wished; but the prevailing mood of the twentieth century is that science is tentative, and that laws stand in need of constant revision. Therefore, the current objection to Aristotle is that the science which he describes is non-existent. The formal validity of syllogisms may possibly be foolproof, but their applications to concrete material, and more especially the premises on which they are based, are not completely beyond all doubt. To Aristotle this would mean that there is no scientific knowledge, as he defined knowledge. There was a similar difference of opinion in his day. Some said there is no knowledge; others said all truths are demonstrable. But Aristotle agreed with neither the one nor the other.

Those who denied the existence of scientific knowledge argued that demonstration is the only method by which something can be known. But demonstrations depend on premises. And if the premises are to be known, they too must be demonstrated. This leads on back in an infinite regress, with the result that the demonstration is never finished, or more accurately, never begins. Accordingly, there is no scientific knowledge. The other group also held that demonstration is the only method by which anything can be known; yet they held that everything can be demonstrated because proof goes around in a circle: Every premise is a conclusion, and there is a finite series in which the end and the beginning are identical. Aristotle replies that a proposition cannot be both prior and posterior as this view requires. Since the exact number of terms is irrelevant, they may be reduced to three and the absurdity becomes apparent. Circular demonstrations would be equivalent to saying that A is B; Why? – because B is C; Why? – because C is A; Why? – because A is B. With circular and infinite demonstration both ruled out, it follows that not everything can be demonstrated and that there must be first, indemonstrable truths.

A philosopher of a different school, Hegel for instance, would no doubt admit that the three-term circle is an absurdity; but he might argue that the exact number of terms is no so irrelevant as Aristotle thought. A bad circle is a little circle; but if a circle can be drawn so as to include everything, it is a beautiful circle. In a rational universe everything is implicated in everything else; and precisely for this reason a three-term circle is absurd: It fails to show the other relationships of A, B, and C. Hegel might even attribute some very small and very bad circles to Aristotle himself: He might ask, Is Aristotle’s reply anything more than a two-term circle, in which demonstration is possible because there are primary truths, and there are primary truths because there must be demonstration?

At any rate, against the two views, Aristotle asserts that not all knowledge is demonstrative. There must be primary basic truths because the regress in demonstration must end in these basic truths, and these are indemonstrable. Therefore, besides the scientific knowledge, which is demonstration, there is its originative source which enables us to recognize the basic indemonstrable propositions. (Thales to Dewey, 2000, pgs. 101-102)

The substantive point needing discussion is whether the law of contradiction is the one and only test of truth.

Ideally or for God this seems to be the case. Since there is nothing independent of God, he does not conform truth to an alleged reality beyond truth and beyond him. Since there is no possibility of “vertical” (to use Carnell’s terminology) coherence, the “horizontal” test, or, better the horizontal characteristic of logical consistency seems the only possible one.

Weaver correctly notes that I do not claim for human beings the ability to apply this test universally. In this sense it is a “negative” or, better, an incomplete test. For this reason it must be supplemented some way or other. (Clark and His Critics, 2009, pg. 287)

Undoubtedly I hold that truth is a consistent system of propositions. Most people would be willing to admit that two truths cannot be contradictories; and I would like to add that the complex of all truths cannot be a mere aggregate of unrelated assertions. Since God is rational, I do not see how any item of his knowledge can be unrelated to the rest. Weaver makes no comment on this fundamental characteristic of divine truth.

Rather, he questions whether this characteristic is of practical value, and whether it must be supplemented in some way. It is most strange that Weaver here says, “I must agree with Carnell,” as if he had convicted me of disagreeing with Carnell by providing no supplementation whatever. Now, I may disagree with the last named gentleman on many points, but since it is abundantly clear that I “supplement” consistency by an appeal to the Scripture for the determination of particular truths, it is most strange that Weaver ignores my supplementation. (Clark and His Critics, 2009, pg. 290)

One who believes in the unity of truth may still believe that the false system entails contradictions; but to prove this is the work of omniscience. (Historiography: Secular and Religious, 1971, pg. 370)

Implications: Self-Authenticity

How then could God show to a man that it was God speaking? Suppose God should say, “I will make of you a great nation...and I will bless them that bless you and curse him that curses you.” Would God call the devil and ask Abraham to believe the devil’s corroborative statements? Is the devil’s word good evidence of God’s veracity? It would not seem so. Nor is the solution to be found in God’s appealing to another man in order to convince the doubter. Aside from the fact that this other man is no more of an authority than the devil, the main question reappears unanswered in this case also. What reasons can this man have to conclude that God is making a revelation to him? It is inherent in the very nature of the case that the best witness to God’s existence and revelation is God himself. There can be no higher source of truth. God may, to be sure, furnish “evidence” to man. He may send an earthquake, a fire, or still small voice; he may work spectacular miracles, or, as in the cases of Isaiah and Peter, he may produce inwardly an awful consciousness of sin, so that the recipient of the revelation is compelled to cry out, “Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips.” But whether it be an external spectacle or an inward “horror or great darkness,” all of this is God’s witnessing to himself. (A Christian View of Men and Things, 2005, pgs. 182-183)

But if there is a revelation, there can be no criterion for it. God cannot swear by a greater; therefore he has sworn by himself. One cannot ask one’s own experience to judge God and determine whether God tells the truth or not. Consider Abraham. How could Abraham be sure that God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac? Maybe this suggestion was of the devil; maybe it was a queer auto-suggestion. There is no higher answer to this question than God himself. The final criterion is merely God’s statement. It cannot be tested by any superior truth. (Today’s Evangelism: Counterfeit or Genuine?, 1990, pg. 113)

Since it is easier to distinguish the difference between Christianity and Playboy’s obscenities than it is to distinguish Riemannian from Euclidean geometry, wisdom counsels us to rephrase the objection, to state what Dr. Montgomery intended to state, and then to answer what he meant but did not say. What he obviously meant was that a priori principles, since they are not based on evidence, are arbitrary; and if arbitrary, the a priori of Playboy is just as legitimate as the fundamental principles of Christianity. Now, there is a certain sense in which this is true enough. If neither set of principles can be based on evidence, and if both sets are regarded by their advocates as the starting point for all demonstration and argument, then obviously no one can support either set on anything more fundamental. This is simply to say that every system of thought must start somewhere.

Where then does Dr. Montgomery start? So far as I can understand him, he professes to base the truth of the Bible on archaeological and historical evidence. This evidence in turn is based on sensation or perception. Or, more philosophically, one may classify Dr. Montgomery as an Empiricist. As such he must hold that sensory experience is more reliable that a divinely-given revelation. He must hold that sensation is self-authenticating, and that the Bible cannot be self-authenticating. (Christian Philosophy, 2004, pg. 96)

The second half of the disjunction was: “or else the evidence is dependent on the proposed authority itself, and the revelation fails, in consequence, to win its credentials as a reasonable source of trustworthy propositions.”

This disjunct faces two replies. First, it assumes that a first principle cannot be self-authenticating. Yet every first principle must be. The first principle of Logical Positivism is that a sentence has no meaning unless it can be verified (in principle at least) by sensory experience. Yet no sensory experience can ever verify this principle. Anyone who wishes to adopt it must regard it as self-authenticating. So it is with all first principles.  (Christian Philosophy, 2004, pgs. 46-47)

Implications: First Principles

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, at least until the axioms could be demonstrated. But if the axioms rest on prior principles, and if these too must be demonstrated - on the assumption that every proposition requires demonstration - the proof of our original theorem would never be finished. This means that it would be impossible to demonstrate anything, for all demonstration depends on indemonstrable first principles. Every type of philosophy must make some original assumptions. And if the law of contradiction is not satisfactory, at least these Heracliteans fails to state what principle they regard as more so. Nonetheless, though the law of contradiction is immediately evident and is not subject to demonstration, there is a negative or elenctic argument that will reduce the opponent to silence. (Thales to Dewey, 2000, pg. 88)

Logically the infallibility of the Bible is not a theorem to be deduced from some prior axiom. The infallibility of the Bible is the axiom from which several doctrines are themselves deduced as theorems. Every religion and every philosophy must be based on some first principle. And since a first principle is first, it cannot be “proved” or “demonstrated” on the basis of anything prior. As the catechism question, quoted above, says, “The Word of God is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify Him.” (What Do Presbyterians Believe?, 1985, pg. 18)

But what about these assumptions or axioms? Can they be proved? It would seem that they cannot, for they are the starting points of an argument, and if the argument starts with them, there is no preceding argumentation. Accordingly, after the humanist or theist has worked out a consistent system by arranging all his propositions as theorems in a series of valid demonstrations, how is either of them to persuade the other to accept his unproved axioms? And the question is all the more perplexing when it is suspected that the axioms were chosen for the express purpose of deducing precisely these conclusions. (A Christian View of Men and Things, 2005, pg. 26).

Basic worldviews are never demonstrated; they are chosen. William James and Bertrand Russell may believe in a pluralistic universe, but they can offer no demonstration of this, the most fundamental of their intellectual beliefs. The mechanist believes that all natural phenomena can be reduced to mathematical, quantitative equations, but he never gives a mathematical demonstration of his belief. So it is with every world-view; the first principle cannot be proved – precisely because it is first. It is the first principle that provides the basis for demonstrating subordinate propositions. Now if such be the case, the thoughtful person is forced to make a voluntary choice. As a matter of fact, the thoughtless person as well is forced to choose, though the necessity to make a choice and the particular choice made may not be so obvious. It is obvious, however, that a thoughtful person, one who wishes to understand, one who wants to think and live consistently, must choose one or another first principle.

Still it remains true that no demonstration of God is possible; our belief is a voluntary choice; but if one must choose without a strict proof, none the less it is possible to have sane reasons of some sort to justify the choice. Certainly there are sane reasons for rejecting some choices. One most important fact is the principle of consistency. In the case of skepticism inconsistency lies immediately on the surface. Explicit atheism requires only a little analysis before self-contradiction is discovered. Some statements of naturalism more successfully disguise their flaws. But all these choices are alike in that it is not sane, it is not logical, to choose an illogical principle.

Consistency extends further than a first principle narrowly considered, so that it can be shown to be self-contradictory in itself; it extends into the system deduced from the first principle or principles. The basic axiom or axioms must make possible a harmony or system in all our thoughts, words, and actions. Should someone say (misquoting by the omission of an adjective) that consistency is the mark of small minds, that he does not like systems, that he will act on one principle at one time and another at another, that he does not choose to be consistent, there would be no use arguing with him, for he repudiates the rules, the necessary rules of argumentation. Such a person cannot argue against theism, for he cannot argue at all. (A Christian Philosophy of Education, 1988, pgs. 41-42)

No philosopher is perfect and no system can give man omniscience. But 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 whole others are self-contradictory, who can deny us, since we must choose, the right to choose the more promising first principle? (A Christian View of Men and Things, 2005, pg. 29)

The difference between naturalism and theism-between the latest scientific opinions on evolution and creation; between the Freudian animal and the image of God; between belief in God and atheism-is based on their two different epistemologies. Naturalism professes to learn by observation and analysis of experience; the theistic view depends on Biblical revelation. No amount of observation and analysis can prove the theistic position. Of course, no amount of observation and analysis can prove evolution or any other theory. The secular philosophies all result in total skepticism. In contrast, theism bases its knowledge on divinely revealed propositions. They may not give us all truth; they may even give us very little truth; but there is no truth at all otherwise. So much for the secular alternative. (A Christian Philosophy of Education, 1988, pgs. 138-139)

Implications: Causes of Axiomatic Disagreement

You or I might be induced to accept the Bible by the testimony of the Church; but a Moslem would not. You or I might consider the matter heavenly, but the humanists would call it pie in the sky. The literary style of some parts of the Bible is majestic, but Paul’s epistles are not models of style. The consent or logical consistency of the whole is important; for if the Bible contradicted itself, we would know that some of it would be false. Personal testimony as to the saving efficacy of the doctrine impresses some people; but others point out that queer people believe queer things and find great satisfaction in their oddities.

How then may we know that the Bible is true? The Confession answers, “Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority [of the Scripture] is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit.”

Faith is a gift or work of God. It is God who causes us to believe: “Blessed is the man whom thou choosest and causest to approach unto thee” (Psa. 65:4).

Empiricism has been demolished. Unless, therefore, one chooses a Dogmatic first principle, one must choose skepticism and irrationality. Neither of these has anything to oppose to Dogmatism. Sanity therefore must be dogmatic. So much then for the status of the argument.

What now is the question to be answered? It is not, Shall we choose? Or, is it permissible to choose? We must choose; since we are alive we have chosen – either a dogmatic principle or empirical insanity. The question therefore, urged by atheist, evangelical Christian, and evangelistic Moslem, is, Why does anyone choose the Bible rather than the Koran? The answer to this question will also explain how a Christian can present the Gospel to a non-Christian without depending on any logically common proposition in their two systems.

Since all possible knowledge must be contained within the system and deduced from its principles, the dogmatic answer must be found in the Bible itself. The answer is that faith is the gift of God. As Psalm 65:4 says, God chooses a man and causes him to accept Christian Dogmatism. Conversely, the Apostle John informs us that the Pharisees could not believe because God had blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts.

The initiation of spiritual life, called regeneration, is the immediate work of the Holy Spirit. It is not produced by Abrahamic blood, nor by natural desire, nor by any act of human will. In particular, it is not produced by arguments based on secular and empirical presuppositions. Even if there were a common truth in secularism and Christianity, arguments based on it would not produce faith. What empirical evangelicals think is most necessary, is most useless.

Even the preaching of the Gospel does not produce faith. However, the preaching of the Gospel does one thing that a fallacious argument from a non-existent common ground cannot do: it provides the propositions that must be believed. But the belief comes from God: God causes a man to believe; faith is a divine gift. In evangelistic work there can be no appeal to secular, non-Christian material. There is an appeal – it is the appeal of prayer to the Holy Spirit to cause the sinner to accept the truths of the Gospel. Any other appeal is useless.

If now a person wants the basic answer to the question, Why does one man have faith and another not, or, Why does one man accept the Koran and another the Bible, this is it. God causes the one to believe. But if a person asks some other question or raises an objection, he will have to read the argument over again. (Christian Philosophy, 2004, pgs. 100-101)


A sound epistemology cannot demand omniscience or complete freedom from error: Its aim is not to show that all men or any man knows everything, but that some men can know something. (A Christian View of Men and Things, 2005, pg. 210)

In view of this pragmatic dealing with history, its positivistic denial of universal law, of metaphysics, of supernatural interpretation, it may be permitted by way of anticipation to suggest the conclusion that, instead of beginning with facts and later discovering God, unless a thinker begins with God, he can never end with God, or get the facts either. (A Christian Philosophy of Education, 1988, pg. 31)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Gordon Clark Project

I have alluded in other posts to a project I have been working on for some time now: the compilation of what I consider to be a near comprehensive transcription of Gordon Clark’s positive epistemological views, covering all of his books and, to my knowledge, most of his shorter articles. I’m not sure that something like this will ever be “complete” - you’ll have to read Clark for yourself to decide that. But I’m as satisfied with it as I expect I ever will be, so, with the gratefully accepted permission of Tom Juodaitis at The Trinity Foundation, I am happy to share this resource:

The works are arranged according to the order in which they were originally published. I expect that there are some grammatical errors here and there, and anyone who is willing to point them out so I can update this will have my thanks.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

K. Scott Oliphint on Clark and Van Til

There’s been a podcast floating around for some time now about the “Clark and Van Til Controversy” involving K. Scott Oliphint, a fairly popular Van Tilian (link). I’m a little tired of writing posts on Van Til, but I’m also a little tired of seeing Van Tilians link to this audio. So, on that cynical note, here are a few observations:

Clark and Rationalism

A recurring criticism of Clark throughout the conversation is that he is too rationalistic. His view of logic and philosophy is too high. Unfortunately, “philosophy” is never defined, so there isn’t much I can say about that, but regarding rationalism and Clark’s view of logic, I found it ironic that the only actual citation of Clark – which was explicitly acknowledged as having been derived from a second-hand source (a book by Greg Bahnsen) – was the following:
The more consistent unbelief is, the less can agreement be obtained. So long as the unbeliever is inconsistent, we can force him to make a choice. If he inconsistently admires Jesus Christ or values the Bible, while at the same time he denies plenary and verbal inspiration, we can by logic insist that he accept both – or neither. But we cannot by logic prevent him from choosing neither and denying a common premise. It follows that in logical theory there is no proposition on which a consistent believer and a consistent unbeliever can agree. Therefore the doctrine of inspiration, like every other Christian doctrine, cannot be demonstrated to the satisfaction of a clear-thinking unbeliever. 
If, nonetheless, it can be shown that the Bible – in spite of having been written by more than thirty-five authors over a period of fifteen hundred years – is logically consistent, then the unbeliever would have to regard it as a most remarkable accident. It seems more likely that a single superintending mind could produce this result than that it just happened accidentally. Logical consistency, therefore, is evidence of inspiration; but it is not demonstration. Strange accidents do indeed occur, and no proof is forthcoming that the Bible is not such an accident. Unlikely perhaps, but still possible. 
How then may an unbeliever be brought to admit the inspiration of the Scripture? Or, for it is the same question, how did “I” come to accept inspiration? (God’s Hammer, 1995, pgs. 15-16)
Clark then talks about the role of the Spirit in conversion. Of course, only the second of these paragraphs was quoted so as to give listeners the impression Clark himself believed the consistency of Scripture could have been an accident. But even if such were the case, and it’s not, is it not interesting that Clark believed logic was insufficient to establish the truth of God[’s revelation]? Compare this apologetic to that of contemporary Van Tilians (link) and ask yourself who is closer to rationalism.

To be fair, Oliphint himself cannot be included in this group of Van Tilians. He says (45th minute) that Muslims, atheists, et. al. can use the transcendental methodology or apologetic structure that Van Til does – i.e. an argument of the impossibility to the contrary – but the but claims that the content of any such non-Christian argument will always be false. Why? Not because we need to know all false positions in order to know the truth; Oliphint explicitly mentions that this is not necessary. Rather, we know the transcendental argument for Christianity is true “by virtue of God’s grace and what He has revealed” (47th minute). This is excellent, but it’s easy to miss that he really is essentially affirming divine revelation as his epistemic axiom. This just is Scripturalism – give or take its authoritative sanctioning of alternative means of knowledge – and it is at odds with contemporary Van Tilian apologists who seek to prove God by logic apart from Scripture. In my experience, the number of those who interpret Van Til as teaching the latter outnumber those who would side with Oliphint’s interpretation.

But getting back to the idea that Clark was too rationalistic, if they had simply noted a few instances in which Clark’s exposure to secular philosophy could have provided an explanation for why he believed several dubious doctrines – like his acceptance of Leibniz’s theory of personhood – I don’t think I would have had much of a problem with it. I think it’s fair to say that it would be difficult for anyone who has read and taught as much and as long as Clark has to have maintained complete doctrinal purity throughout. I think the same goes for Van Til (link). This isn’t to excuse either man, it’s just common sense.

But they don’t leave their criticism of Clark at that. What they really mean by a tendency towards rationalism becomes apparent later in the video, when Oliphint says it would be better to side with Bavinck and say that “all theology, all dogmatics is ultimately a mystery” than it would be to say that the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility has been solved; in fact, Oliphint shockingly says that the latter indicates a “secular” or “pagan understanding of what logic is meant to do” (40th minute). This is what Van Tilians usually mean when they say Clark is too rationalistic: he tried too hard to solve so-called theological conundrums.

But then what is the role of logic according to Van Tilians? For on the one hand, we hear that “we must use logic” (41st minute). This is repeated several times, and yet on the other hand, “…the church is going to have to set out paradoxes, two teachings, side by side, that we don’t have laws of thinking that allow us to bring together those things neatly” (43rd minute). The church has to set out paradoxes? As in must or necessarily set[s] out paradoxes? From what “law of thinking” is this conclusion derived? Where has God revealed this? On the contrary, the New Testament celebrates the dissipation of mysteries and the unveiling of the whole counsel of God. Granted, there are things which have not been revealed as well as difficult sayings, but in light of the doctrine of perspicuity, this should provide no basis on which to defend the idea that paradox is a theological necessity. What we have here, then, is a clear real-life example of David Hoover’s argument that the analogical knowledge licenses paradox and inhibits a defense of the faith (link).

They also speculate that divine simplicity and the meaning of “logic” might complicate our ideas of what it means for God to think. Oliphint says that while humans need logic, “if logic is the science of necessary inference, God doesn’t have any because He doesn’t infer anything.” This seems a bit hasty to me. Of course, God does not derive His knowledge from anyone or anything else. But does that mean He has no grounds for His knowledge? I think not (link). It is at least debatable, depending on what Oliphint means by inference. And as to the question of whether a God without parts is eternally able to make “real distinctions,” the answer should be obvious:
To avoid and to confute Clark’s position, some of Van Til’s disciples contend that God does not think in propositions, and hence dependence on “mere human logic” is an untrustworthy crutch. To this Clark has made two replies. First, he remarked that his opponents cited no Biblical passage in which this is stated, nor did they deduce it by any “good and necessary consequence” from a group of such premises. Indeed, since the Bible is ninety percent propositional – commands and ascriptions of praise being the exceptions – it would be rather peculiar if the Bible would deny its own truths. Then, second, if God does not think in propositions how could he have given us all the information now contained in the sixty-six books? If he does not think that “David was the Kind of Israel,” how could he have framed that proposition for our instruction? Or, worse, if we say that God cannot think in propositions, we deny his omnipotence. And if we think in propositions and God does not, then Van Til’s statement will be true, that God’s knowledge and ours do not coincide at any single point. Since we “know” that “David was the King of Israel,” God cannot know it, and therefore it is false. So are all the Gospels, and Christianity is a delusion. (Clark and His Critics, 2009, pg. 414)
Analogical Knowledge

Speaking of analogical knowledge, it was disappointing to find that there was virtually no discussion of Clark’s concerns found, for example, in The Answer (link) in reference to The Text of a Complaint (link) which had been signed by Van Til.

Instead, they discuss in general terms what they believed Van Til’s concerns were which led him to positing analogical knowledge and emphasized that he was following the tradition of the Reformed Scholastics, concluding that if Clark had been aware of this, he would have been less likely to dispute it. But this is a strange assumption given that in the rest of the video, they mention several instances in which Clark departed from the mainstream Reformed tradition. What matters is whether an idea is sound, not whether it was taught by a group of people in the 16th century and onward.

Oliphint does obliquely recognize that Clark wanted to ensure an “identity of content” between the mind of God and mind of man (10th minute), but he does not explain why Clark could have thought this so important. Rather, he immediately goes on to say that following The Answer, which apparently was orthodox, Clark developed his views to the extreme. Far from this being the case, however, Clark’s reasons for his denial of analogical knowledge had been plainly spelled out in his reply to Van Til and company in the original answer:
On the complainants’ theory the proposition “the truth man has is analogical” is itself only an analogy. It is not the truth that God has. Nor could man know that it was God who was revealing such a proposition, for again the proposition “God is revealing that truth is analogical” is only an analogy of the truth. One can only be sure that such a proposition is not God’s truth. On the complainants’ theory there is no way of ever crossing over from an analogy of truth to the truth itself. All our thinking is shut up in analogies and resemblances and cannot coincide with God’s truth at even a single point. This position really cuts all connection between God’s knowledge and man's knowledge and plunges us into unmitigated skepticism. 
If the complainants cannot know what God means, how can they know God does not mean this or that? They affirm that there is a resemblance or analogy between the truth God knows and the qualitative different truth man knows. But by what right do they assert a resemblance when they cannot describe the qualitative difference? Or, how can they assert that two things resemble each other when they have never known and can never know one of them? One can say that two men resemble each other if one has seen both men. But one cannot legitimately affirm a resemblance between a man one has seen and a man one has not seen. Similarly, if a man knew God’s meaning, he could compare it with his own and remark the similarity or difference. If I know your opinion, I can say it is similar to or dissimilar from mine. But if I do not know your opinion, I have no way of knowing whether your opinion is the same or contradictory of mine. Similarly if man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge do not “coincide at any single point,” then for all we know, perhaps Christ did not die for our sins. (The Answer, pgs. 22-23)
And to all this can be added many more questions: is divine revelation, as God’s alleged “interpretation” of His archetypal thought (per Oliphint), itself thought by God? What does it mean to say ectypal knowledge is an interpretation of archetypal? If an interpretation gives a new meaning to that which is being interpreted, does that not imply God’s so-called “ectypal knowledge” (theology; divine revelation) is acquired? What does it mean and what sort of metaphysic is implied by the statement that “identity” is found in the “thing” rather than the “mind” (15th minute)? Etc.

Now, I think the aforementioned link on Hoover’s critique of analogical knowledge covers the philosophical aspect. But as I got the impression that Oliphint was shying away from the stronger statements of Van Til, I think a few of these quotes from The Text of a Complaint will give the reader an indication of just what historical statements a proponent of Van Til must address in order to defend analogical knowledge (or whatever they now want to call it):
While we appreciate the effort to arrive at certainty with reference to man’s knowledge of God, in our judgment this is done at too great a cost. It is done at the sacrifice of the transcendence of God’s knowledge. His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are past finding out. The secret things belong unto the Lord our God. If we are not to bring the divine knowledge of his thoughts and ways down to human knowledge, or our human knowledge up to his divine knowledge, we dare not maintain that his knowledge and our knowledge coincide at any single point. Our knowledge of any proposition must always remain the knowledge of the creature. As true knowledge, that knowledge must be analogical to the knowledge which God possesses, but it can never be identified with the knowledge which the infinite and absolute Creator possesses of the same proposition. (The Text of a Complaint, pg. 5) 
It is clear again that the approach of Dr. Clark is quantitative through and through. It is the number of the propositions, rather than their content as such, not to speak of the inscrutable mystery of the mind of God which is viewed as excluding an exhaustive revelation of the divine mind. (The Text of a Complaint, pg. 6) 
It may be objected to the exposition of Dr. Clark’s views presented above that it leaves out of account the important consideration that Dr. Clark allows that beyond the knowledge of a proposition there is the knowledge of the implications of a proposition, and that the knowledge which man may enjoy of a proposition does not necessarily carry with it a knowledge of its implications. This qualification, however, does not affect Dr. Clark’s basic position in any substantial way. The implications of propositions are after all, on his view, also propositions. Consequently, the inclusion of such propositions among the number of propositions that are thought of as constituting the divine knowledge does not require any modification of the judgment that the distinction between the divine knowledge and the knowledge possible to man is merely quantitative. 
Another possible objection to the foregoing might take the form that he does not draw a qualitative distinction between the knowledge of God and the knowledge possible for men since he freely recognizes a fundamental difference between the mode of God’s knowledge and that of man’s knowledge. God’s knowledge is intuitive while man’s is discursive (Cf. 18:5f., 18ff.). Man is dependent upon God for his knowledge. We gladly concede this point, and have reckoned with it in what has been said above. However, this admission does not affect the whole point at issue here since the doctrine of the mode of the divine knowledge is not a part of the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of his knowledge. The latter is concerned only with the contents of the divine knowledge. Dr. Clark distinguishes between the knowledge of God and of man so far as mode of knowledge is concerned, but it is a tragic fact that his dialectic has led him to obliterate the qualitative distinction between the contents of the divine mind and the knowledge which is possible to the creature, and thus to impinge in a most serious fashion upon the transcendence of the divine knowledge which is expressed by the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. (The Text of a Complaint, pg. 6)
This is Van Til’s position put “in context.” References to archetypal vs. ectypal knowledge, original vs. iconic or image knowledge, intuitive vs. discursive knowledge, eternal vs. learned knowledge, self-contained vs. derivative knowledge, and so forth are fine. But if you want to defend Van Til against Clark, you have to deal with what Clark thought were the problem statements in Van Til’s literature, and the problem statements in Van Til’s literature have to do with the qualitative identity of content (or lack thereof) between the mind of God and mind of man. One can’t gloss over or re-frame, as the Oliphint tried to do in minutes 13-18, what Van Til says in particular and expect myself or others who disagree with analogical knowledge to be satisfied.

Theology Proper

While their conclusions regarding the falsity of Clark’s Christological views – or, more precisely, the definition of personhood which determined Clark’s Christological views (incidentally, Oliphint’s statement at the 14th minute that God’s archetypal knowledge is His being sounds remarkably like Clark) – are correct, here too they don’t show any indication of having read Clark on the subject. The idea that Clark was so “philosophical” that he failed to even interact with historically accepted creedal statements of Christianity is not true. Actually, most of his book The Incarnation is historical. 

Some of their statements about what problems they have with Clark’s definition of person aren’t on point, however. At the 36 minute mark, the host argues that taking Clark’s definition of person in conjunction with the need for real distinctions among the members of the Trinity leads to the following conclusion: “there ends up being some impersonal essence of which the persons don’t exhaust or overlap. So you don’t end up with a full, divine exhaustion. You don’t end up with a perichoresis…” If we qualify Clark’s theory of personhood as referring to thoughts – not just a set of propositions – then there isn’t necessarily a problem at this point, though there would be at others, for the persons of the Trinity could know each other exhaustively without thinking the same thoughts (link).

But the idea that the divine essence is personal brings up the issue of Van Til’s one-person, three-person “paradox.” Unfortunately, Oliphint never follows through on the host’s request for him to explain Van Til’s definition of a person as well as Clark’s, for Oliphint goes on to rely on Lane Tipton’s solution to Van Til’s Trinitarian paradox (35th minute). I say it is unfortunate because Lane Tipton, who wrote a dissertation on Van Til’s Triunism, mentions in a different podcast by the same host (link) that he sees no problem with the essence being regarded as a person, so long as the meaning of “person” is different than it is when predicated of the Father, Son, and Spirit. But how can an essence be “personal” without being a person? Is “human” or “angel” personal? This seems awfully ad hoc, and at any rate, it still must deal with other Trinitarian issues like generic vs. numeric unity (link), the relationships among the persons (link), etc.


It could just be that I’m in an irritable mood today, but the tone of the podcast bothered me. To me, it felt as if a professor were condescending to lecture on some event in which his tradition played a polemic part and came out clearly victorious. Familiar elements include:

1. a historical exposition primarily consisting of what doctrinal details his fountainhead and subsequent tradition thought important without much corresponding discussion of the opposition;
2. distancing from some of the terminology in his tradition without actually conceding any conceptual ground (“analogical knowledge,” “presuppositionalism,” “transcendental”);
3. a few, well-placed, charitable comments towards the chief opponent designed to appear fair;
4. implicit suggestion throughout the discussion that everyone should already know who was correct, rendering detailed evaluation superfluous.

These appear to me to be intelligent men. Honestly, though, I doubt that any of them have read more than half a dozen books by Clark, if that many. Oliphint mentioned Clark in his Reasons for Faith just once. The other two seemed to know Clark only in virtue of what Van Tilians like Greg Bahnsen have said about him. I can only assume their intended audience are those who are already members of their choir. If so, I guess that’s fine. But then like I said, it’s a bit irritating if you’re on the outside looking in. Of course, there’s only so much that can be said in one video. Still, I was hoping for more.