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.

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