The general Christian public…will be warned not to strain out a Plato and swallow an Aristotle – Gordon H. Clark
I recently had the opportunity to discuss just a few of the distinctives of the greatest Christian philosopher and theologian of the last century, Gordon Clark. What struck me again is how alien Clark’s Augustinianism is to most Christians, even those calling themselves Calvinists. While most think of Augustine in terms of his defense of the doctrines of grace and God’s sovereignty in salvation against the brute works-righteousness of Pelagius, not to mention his profound influence on the Reformation, particularly through men such as Luther and Calvin, many are either ignorant or simply have chosen not to follow Augustine’s lead when it comes to the central problem of philosophy — the problem of epistemology. Augustine aside, epistemology, which is the study of the nature of knowledge and its justification, or simply the question of how we can know anything at all, doesn’t seem very practical. And, if anything, Christians today want to be practical. But, as my Intro to Philosophy prof would say, epistemology is basic simply because if you can’t say how you know, how can you say you know anything at all?
One would think as Christians we should have an answer to this most basic question, shouldn’t we? Doesn’t Peter commands us to be ready “to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence . . . .” However, in order to give a practical response, not to mention being faithful to the above Biblical imperative, requires we at least have some theory. Sadly, when it comes to epistemology the only thing most Christians can defend with “gentleness and reverences” is their ignorance. Clark sought to correct this problem even if only a handful of Christians have yet to notice.
Which brings me to what may be the biggest hurdle most people have in coming to grips with Clark’s biblical epistemology and that is his complete rejection of the belief that sensation plays a role in knowledge. Needless to say, the rejection of sensation in the acquisition of knowledge seems counter-intuitive and not at all in accord with so-called “common-sense.” Didn’t God give us sensations and sense organs so that we might come to know Him? Well, not necessarily. After all, and as Clark would say, God gave us stomachs too, but that doesn’t mean that stomachs have an epistemic function…although he was quick to add that it’s hard to study if you don’t eat. But don’t we have to read the Bible with the eyes in our heads? Clark’s critics routinely argue that even if we accept Clark’s position that knowledge is limited to those things set down in Scripture and their necessary inferences, don’t we first have to read the Bible with our eyes? Or, to put it another way, isn’t knowledge necessarily mediated through the senses? Again, not so fast. Clark would reply, and in good lawyerly fashion, by answering this question with the question: How do you know you even have a Bible in your hands? This was often enough to end the debate.
In his refutation of George Mavrodes, Clark replied to a similar objection. Mavrodes put his objection to Clark’s theory this way:
Whatever general difficulties or weaknesses infect beliefs derived from sense experience must also equally infect beliefs derived from the Bible. For sense experience is required for the derivation of such beliefs. Therefore, if Clark is correct, in thinking that he cannot get any knowledge from sense perception, then he cannot get any knowledge from the Bible either.
To which Clark replied: (more…)