Thin Skinned

Vantilians are great at dishing it out, but collapse like the rusted floorboards on a ‘66 Peugeot as soon as you exert even the slightest pressure. Recent case in point is Lane Keister who showed me the hole in the floor for criticizing Vantilian historian John Muether. Lane wrote:

. . . this last comment is over the top. John Muether is an extremely well-respected historian. He is a librarian and professor of church history at RTS Orlando. He knew Van Til personally, and knows many people who knew Van Til as well. The only reason people are attacking you is that you are attacking them, making this whole issue a central issue of the Gospel. You are banned from this blog temporarily, and maybe permanently. I don’t mind debate one bit, and you have contributed much good iron-sharpening debate. But unless you can control your temper and your words to be polite, I can’t have you on this blog. It grieves me no end to have to do this. But people who would otherwise comment are not interested in commenting because you are so harsh.

What were my comments that were “over the top,” ill tempered, impolite, and just a downright nasty abusive ad hominem attack against OPC historian and librarian Muether and deserving of Lane stuffing my head through the floorboards? I wrote:

Meuther is an untrustworthy historian and I’ve already been over some of the revisionism now being advanced by Vantillians to somehow remove Van Til’s name from the heart of the controversy. The myth of Van Til continues.

How mean! How nasty! I guess in the minds of Vantilians saying that a Vantilian historian is an untrustworthy and biased source when writing on the Clark/Van Til controversy rises to the level of abusive ad hominem and is “over the top.” Why, I’m so “harsh” that other timid souls who “would otherwise comment” cower in the corner fearing for their lives.

Harsh or not, could it be that instead of advancing actual arguments defending their treasured myths the preferred method of debate of thin skinned Vantilians like Keister is to simply silence their opposition? Meuther is an untrustworthy and biased historian when commenting on the Clark controversy, and, with the help of a piece written by John Robbins, I documented that fact on Lane’s blog and will do so again here.

In response to an earlier exchange with Lane on Muether, I cited a John Robbins’ essay, Can the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Be Saved? As demonstrated in that piece, Muether draws his information concerning the Clark affair from secondary sources, makes unsupported assertions and his work in regards to Van Til is at best lazy. Some might call it shoddy. Muether’s untrustworthiness is also demonstrated in referring to the Clark Controversy as Van Til’s “shining moment.” At least other Vantilians have been willing to view this battle as a low point, not so for Muether who seems intent on continuing the Van Til myth.

But, since Lane evidently did not consider any of these points relevant and clearly did not read the above article that I linked to on his blog in answer to something he even wrote, here are a few relevant portions of that article, although the entire article is strongly recommended since Robbins demolishes any pretense that Muether is writing history :


The Controversy Continues

The current OPC Historian is John Muether of Reformed Theological Seminary, whose essay “Van Til the Controversialist” opens the October 2004 issue of New Horizons. In the course of his three-page essay on Van Til, Muether criticizes Gordon Clark repeatedly. On September 23, 2004, I wrote to Mr. Muether about his statements:

In the latest issue of New Horizons, you make several statements about Gordon Clark that I would like more information about. First, you make a passing reference to “false principles, whether the rationalism of Gordon Clark or the irrationalism of Karl Barth.” What false principles, which you call rationalism, did Clark hold? Please provide quotations.

Second, you say that “Clark was a pawn in the agenda of a faction of the church that was discontent with its Reformed identity. Ultimately what was at stake was the question of whether the church’s ecclesiology would be evangelical or Reformed.”

I presume that as the OPC Historian, you have some documentary evidence that supports these statements. I would like to see those documents. Who were the members of this “faction”? How did they use Clark as a “pawn”? What was their “agenda”? How was their “discontent” with the “Reformed identity” of the OPC expressed? How did Clark become a “pawn,” if, as is the case, the whole controversy began when the theological views of Clark were attacked by the Westminster faculty, which initiated the whole affair? Do you mean to suggest by your remarks that this whole controversy was at bottom not theological or doctrinal, but ecclesiastical? If so, why do you think that?

Third, you write, “But when the church rejected the agenda of broader evangelicalism, Clark and his supporters left the church.” Again, what was this “agenda”? I would like to see some documentary evidence for it. Do you mean to suggest, as your words imply, that Clark was not Reformed, but “broadly evangelical”? What is the evidence for this? How did the church “reject” this “agenda of broader evangelicalism”? Was there a vote at GA?

Since you are the official Historian of the OPC, I hope I can anticipate a prompt, thorough, and accurate response to my requests for more information and documents supporting these statements, which are not supported in your essay.

Mr. Muether’s response was disappointing. He did not provide any documents or quotations supporting his statements about Dr. Clark, but referred me to three other writers:

Dear Mr. Robbins,

1. Cornelius Van Til’s claims about the rationalism of Gordon Clark can be found in his Introduction to Systematic Theology (1949), especially pages 16-17, 33, 37-38.

2. The broader ecclesiastical issues that accompanied the Clark debates in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are well documented by Michael Hakkenberg (“The Battle over the Ordination of Gordon H. Clark,” Pressing Toward the Mark, 329-50; see especially the “Program for Action” found in footnote 64 on pp. 349-50) and by Charles Dennison, History for a Pilgrim People, 131-35 (see esp. footnote 51 on p. 134).

Let us examine Mr. Muether’s response and the sources he cites.

One of the characteristics of a competent historian is his practice of citing primary sources for his statements. If he makes an assertion about a person’s views, for example, he quotes the words of that person. He does not merely quote or cite someone else, especially an opponent or critic of that person. In his first paragraph, Muether does not cite any words of Dr. Clark or any primary source; he cites only Van Til, perhaps Dr. Clark’s most confused and determined opponent. This is not characteristic of a competent historian.

On pages 16-18 of Van Til’s An Introduction to Systematic Theology, which Muether cites as supporting his accusation of “rationalism” against Dr. Clark, Van Til accuses Dr. Clark of both rationalism and irrationalism: He claims that Dr. Clark’s view “assumes an irrationalist philosophy of fact” and that “Irrationalism is involved in rationalism and rationalism is involved in irrationalism” (18). Since Van Til in the context defines neither of these terms, they function merely as pious swear words. They are used only for their prejudicial, pejorative, and rhetorical effect; they have no scholarly, probative, or cognitive value whatsoever. The words Van Til actually quotes from Dr. Clark — such as this sentence from Dr. Clark’s 1946 book, A Christian Philosophy of Education, “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” — not only do not substantiate an accusation of either rationalism or irrationalism, they actually demonstrate Dr. Clark’s presuppositionalism, which Van Til attacks. Van Til writes: “Now it is true that no Reformed person should begin with facts and later discover God, but it is equally true that no Reformed person should begin with God and later discover the facts” (17-18).6 Van Til asserts that “every fact proves the existence of God” (17). After this sweeping assertion, Van Til fails to provide the proof.

Although Muether does not mention it, Van Til concludes this brief discussion of Dr. Clark’s views by asserting his own view that there is no point of identity of content between God’s mind and man’s mind: “At no point does such a system [that, is, “Reformed confessions of faith”] pretend to state, point for point, the identical content of the original system of the mind of God…. To claim for the Christian system identity with the divine system at any point is to break the relationship of dependence of human knowledge on the divine will” (18-19). This second sentence is, of course, merely asserted; as with so much in Van Til’s books, there is no Scriptural or other argument offered to support the assertion.

But what is more important to notice is Van Til’s distinction between “the Christian system” and “the divine system.” In Van Til’s thought, there are two systems of theology, the “Christian system” and the “divine system.” The “Christian system” is not the “divine system,” and the “divine system” is not the “Christian system.” Not only are the two systems different, they are completely different: There is no “identity of content” between them. Included in the “Christian system” are all Reformed confessions. According to Van Til, no Reformed confession does, or even can, claim to state the content of God’s theological system “at any point.” “At no point,” Van Til writes, is there identical content in the Reformed confessions (the “Christian system”) and the mind of God (the “divine system”). This utter agnosticism, this attack on Scripture and propositional revelation, this repudiation of all Reformed creeds and confessions per se, is compelling the OPC to commit theological suicide.

The next citation from Van Til that Muether provides, page 33, is a discussion of the primacy of the intellect. It contains no quotations from Dr. Clark, and no accusation of “rationalism.”

The third and final citation Muether provides from Van Til is pages 37 and 38. They also contain no mention of Dr. Clark. Page 39 mentions Dr. Clark in passing, who, Van Til says, “appeal[s] constantly to the abstract principle of contradiction for the defense of the Christian position.” That, apparently, is wrong. Pointing out that non-Christian views contradict themselves is somehow illegitimate in apologetics. But Van Til makes no accusation of rationalism on this page either.

To recapitulate, the OPC Historian, John Muether, failed to substantiate his assertion that Dr. Clark taught something called the “false principles” of “rationalism” that were opposed to Christianity. Specifically, Muether failed to answer my simple request: “What false principles, which you call rationalism, did Clark hold? Please provide quotations.” Muether provided no quotations. His citations of Van Til were equally empty. In fact, there are no such quotations to be found in Dr. Clark’s books, and the accusation of holding the “false principles” of “rationalism” is a slander against Dr. Clark that Van Tilians have been repeating for decades in both their official and private communications. Nearly twenty years after his death, both the official Historian and the official magazine of the OPC find it necessary to continue their smear campaign against Gordon Clark.

. . . In his New Horizons essay, OPC Historian Muether said that the WTS faction was defending “Reformed ecclesiology.” Hardly. The WTS faction opposed Reformed ecclesiology and defended the independent, parachurch status of Westminster Seminary, which was its power base in controlling the OPC.

Hakkenberg wrote: “A Reformed theology, although important to this group [the “Clark group”] was not crucial in the battle against modernism” (337). Hakkenberg cited no source for this statement, no quotation, not even a sentence, from any member of this “group,” let alone from the whole group. Hakkenberg repeatedly referred to “Clark’s willingness to cooperate with fundamentalists in the battle against modernism,” falsely implying that Dr. Clark was willing to water down Reformed theology in order to achieve such cooperation. Hakkenberg suggested that this willingness to cooperate with Fundamentalists in the battle against Modernism (which was a policy that Machen had in fact pursued), led Van Til and his supporters to “suspect” that Dr. Clark’s theology was “not Reformed enough and perhaps Arminian” (337). That suspicion was, of course, complete speculation, without any basis in fact, and neither the WTS faction nor Hakkenberg, nor any official OPC Historian, writing 40 or more years later, supplied any evidence for it. But there was and is plenty of evidence against it.

. . . But the problem goes deeper than misrepresentation of one essay by Dr. Clark. The official OPC spin on the Clark-Van Til controversy is that the WTS faculty, whose views were made the standard of orthodoxy, were defending the church against the “broad evangelicalism” of Gordon Clark. They cite no evidence to support such an interpretation, and I cite evidence to contradict it. So why do they say it? There is a reason, not a good one, but a reason nonetheless: The official Historians of the OPC do not write history, but propaganda designed to cover up the reprehensible behavior of Van Til and the entire WTS faction in attacking a man of sterling academic, theological, and ecclesiastical credentials. Rather than admitting that Dr. Clark was not broadly evangelical and did not seek any compromise with Arminians, rather than reporting that Dr. Clark was in fact a strict adherent to the Westminster Confession of Faith, an enthusiastic supporter of J. Gresham Machen, and a founding Elder of the OPC, the OPC Historians have concocted a version of the controversy that bears little resemblance to the truth. Hart and Muether conclude, “In sum, Dr. Clark failed to express unequivocally a God-centered understanding of the Christian religion.” They cite no evidence to support this falsehood.

. . . In the course of his remarks, Dennison commented on the difference between Dr. Clark’s view of revelation and Van Til’s. He noted that “Truly, the ‘incomprehensibility debate’ is one of the great theological encounters in the twentieth century…” (133). This is a notably different assessment from Hakkenberg’s description of the issues as “non-fundamental.” Dennison accurately described Van Til’s view as “Man’s knowledge is like (analogous to) God’s knowledge but it is not the same.” This agnostic notion undermines all of Christianity, beginning with the doctrines of Scripture and propositional revelation. If the human words of Scripture are not also God’s own divine words, then the Bible is a merely human book. If the truths revealed in Scripture are not what God really thinks, then we have no knowledge of God whatsoever, which is, of course, exactly what Herman Bavinck teaches in his systematic theology. If man does not and cannot know what God knows, if there is and can be no identity of content between God’s knowledge and man’s, then man can know nothing, and we are all lost. On Van Til’s view, Christianity must be a cruel hoax, for it claims to be a revelation of divine truth in human words.

Dennison was candid about the reason Floyd Hamilton was not approved for a position at a Presbyterian seminary in Korea: “Floyd Hamilton was an able man but a defender of Clark and a determined evidentialist” (134). It was the WTS faction that opposed Hamilton, an “able man,” and they opposed him because he defended Dr. Clark. Obviously the WTS faction was not going to seek the peace of the Church, but was spoiling for another fight. At that point, Dr. Clark’s defenders left the denomination in disgust.

Dennison, in those portions of his book in which he speaks accurately, does not support Muether’s allegations . . . .

. . . After 60 years, its denominational magazine still genuflects before Van Til, and its official Historian still attacks Gordon Clark. As we have shown, that attack is false, scurrilous, and sinful. None of the statements demeaning Dr. Clark made by the official Historian of the OPC, John Muether, in the October 2004 issue of New Horizons is supported by the evidence.

  • Dr. Clark was not a rationalist, and neither OPC Historian Muether nor his source Van Til quoted any of Dr. Clark’s words demonstrating that he was. The allegation is simply slander, repeated many times by disciples of Van Til, and now by the official Historian of the OPC. Further, to lump Gordon Clark and the Neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth together in the same sentence, as Muether does when he accuses Clark of holding the “false principles” of “rationalism,” appears to be malicious.
  • Nor was Dr. Clark a “pawn,” as Muether stated, and none of the sources he cited support this slander.
  • Muether alleged that there was a faction in the OPC in the 1940s, a faction to which Dr. Clark belonged, that was “discontent with its Reformed identity.” Neither he nor any of the sources he cited demonstrate this alleged discontent. Dr. Clark’s 1943 essay, “An Appeal to Fundamentalists,” demonstrates the falsity of Muether’s allegation as it applies to Dr. Clark, who is Muether’s target.
  • Muether’s allegation that what was at stake in the controversy was whether the OPC’s ecclesiology would be Evangelical or Reformed is also unsupported by any documentary evidence Muether cited. The ecclesiological issue in the controversy was whether the parachurch institution, Westminster Seminary, would be subject to Church oversight. It was the WTS faction that opposed such ecclesiastical oversight, making them, not Dr. Clark, the advocates of an un-Reformed ecclesiology.


The official OPC Historian is not reporting history, but writing propaganda. Until the leaders of the OPC are willing to come to grips with history and acknowledge their errors of both teaching and practice, the denomination will continue its descent into apostasy . . . .

Copyright (C) 1998-2008 The Trinity Foundation


As anyone can see, Lane needs to grow some skin. I wasn’t attacking the man just his credibility as a competent historian in regard to a narrow debate that happened more than 60 years ago. He used secondary sources and the previously refuted opinions of others to make his case. He even quotes Van Til as his source for continuing the tired Vantilian slander of Clark that he was a “rationalist.” If that’s the work of a first rate historian and scholar I guess Lane and I have different opinions of what constitutes good history and scholarship. Frankly, I don’t think that’s good work for a librarian. However, I’m willing to believe that Muether, like Lane and GLW Johnson (whose rusty floorboards I will be commenting on in my next blog), are just so enamored with the legend that is Van Til that they are unwilling and unable to look past the hype. It certainly explains why Pastor Johnson said on Lane’s blog that he wouldn’t give Robbins the “time of day” concerning his dispute with Muether. As far as I’m concerned, this stuff is pretty much par for the course when dealing with Vantilians. So is a boot in the rear.

Explore posts in the same categories: Van Til

3 Comments on “Thin Skinned”

  1. rgmann Says:

    Sean, I’m confused. I welcomed you back to Green Baggins (since you had posted there today), and then asked Lane: “Why do you continue to allow Rey to promote blatant heresy on your blog?” His response was: “I didn’t technically allow Sean back, actually. I won’t delete the comment, though.” How did that relate to my question about Rey? Am I missing something here?

  2. magma2 Says:

    I don’t know that they were related. I guess you should ask Lane. I can only guess that Rey is OK to post because he has not been critical of Van Til? Some sins are worse than others. 😉

  3. rgmann Says:

    Well, I guess we all must have our priorities. Right? I just thought it was a little strange to respond to my question about Rey with comments about you! I don’t think you’ll be on his Christmas list this year! 🙂

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