The Clark-Van Til Controversy as Politics – The Failure to Unify
Benjamin Wong on the Yahoo Scripturalist list asked if I would post his observations concerning the immediate fallout of the Clark/Van Til controversy that he culled from The Presbyterian Guardian. Despite failing in their attempt to defrock Clark, and despite being disciplined by the Philadelphia Presbytery, Van Til and his associates at Westminster Seminary persisted in their attack against Clark’s supporters until they drove them all out of the OPC including Clark himself (John Robbins recalled that Clark regretted not staying in the OPC to continue the fight). Wong’s observations, drawn from a smattering of old reports from the Guardian’s archives are relevant today as the war waged by Van Til and his followers against Gordon Clark is very much alive and well: especially by those associated with Westminster Seminary (both East and West). While I think there can be little doubt that the controversy in the 1940’s centered around Westminster’s independence as a para-church organization which Clark and his associates threatened (documented in John Robbins’ booklet, Can the OPC be Saved?), the underlying irrational philosophy of Van Til continues to pollute the minds of countless young seminary students and church men to the detriment of glory of Christ and His Church. Wong has also provided an index of Clark related material from the Presbyterian Guardian that can be found in the combox of the Valuable Archive post below.
By Benjamin Wong
1. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) has made the entire collection of The Presbyterian Guardian available at its website:
I like to thank the OPC for making them available.
2. By my count, there are at least 45 editorials, articles, communications, news items, letters to editors, etc. in The Presbyterian Guardian that are relevant to the Clark-Van Til Controversy.
They are a fascinating read.
One thing (among many others) that struck me is that after the Van Til faction has taken effective control over the OPC, they did not attempt to unify the denomination.
Rather, the Van Tillians did not stop until they drove their opponents out of the OPC.
3. Although I am a Canadian, I watch my share of American TV.
In a typical American national political convention (Republican or Democrat), after all the campaigning is over there will be a winning candidate.
Typically, in his acceptance speech to the convention, the winning candidate will reach out to the losers to unify the convention.
Losing does not mean the losers have to give up their positions.
But as members of a political party, they are expected to endorse the party platform.
At a minimum, the losers are expected not to work against the party platform.
But this symbolic gesture of reaching out to the losers to unify the convention is very important – it helps to heal the animosities that have developed between the candidates during the
4. But it was not so with the Van Tillians.
The Van Tillians were very good in the tactics of church politics:
(a) They took control of the Editorial of The Presbyterian Guardian (i.e. control the propaganda).
(b) They defeated the attempt to place Westminster Theological Seminary under OPC oversight.
(c) They progressively took over key positions at Presbyteries and the General Assembly of the OPC.
(d) Graduates of Westminster Theological Seminary began to fill the pulpits of the OPC and gained influence at the grassroots level.
But after they took effective control over the OPC, the Van Tillians did not stop.
They continue their church politics until they drove their opponents out of the OPC.
There was to be no “unifying the convention”.
5. [The Answer] was signed by 5 persons: Alan Tichenor, Robert Strong, Floyd E. Hamilton, Edwin H. Rian, and Gordon H. Clark.
It is instructive to learn from The Presbyterian Guardian what happened to each of them.
6. Alan Tichenor left the OPC in 1948.
(a) ‘Orthodox Presbyterian Church News: Tichenor to Be Ordained’ (unsigned). Volume 15, No.18 (October 10, 1946): 281.
The major part of the session of Presbytery was consumed by the examination for ordination of Licentiate C. Alan Tichenor of Philadelphia, who received, at this meeting, a call to the pastorate of the Knox Church of the same city. Mr. Tichenor distinguished himself by the modesty and lack of bravado in his bearing. As he was one of five who presented to Presbytery a proposed Answer to the complaint against the Presbytery in connection with the licensure and ordination of Dr. G. H. Clark, he was questioned at somewhat greater length than usual. There appeared to be general satisfaction throughout the Presbytery as to his position on all points except those connected with the doctrines of the incomprehensibility of God and the noetic effects of sin. Difficulties in connection with these points were not resolved to the satisfaction of all, but, in view of certain considerations concerning Mr. Tichenor which appeared in the course of discussion, the Presbytery finally determined by majority vote to proceed with the ordination.
(b) ‘Testimony Being Circulated’ (unsigned). Volume 17, No.1
(January 10, 1948): 14.
This Sectarianism is evidenced in several ways.
First, with respect to the ordination of men to the ministry, tests beyond those required by our constitution have been invoked. There was a long and persistent effort in the Presbytery of Philadelphia and in the General Assembly to prevent and then to bring into question the ordination of Dr. Gordon H. Clark. And during this past year there was a similar determined opposition to the ordination of Mr. C. Alan Tichenor, in spite of the fact that the previous General Assembly had upheld the Presbytery of Philadelphia in approving the theological examination of Dr. Clark who had expressed essentially the same views.
(c) ‘Tichenor to Arabia’ (unsigned). Volume 21, No.4 (April 15,
THE Rev. C. Alan Tichenor, Ph.D., has resigned his pastorate in order to accept the position of pastor of the Protestant Fellowship of Saudi Arabia among the American employees of the Arabian-American Oil Company. Mr. Tichenor is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he also served as an assistant in Old Testament. He was pastor of Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia during 1946-48. Since then he has been pastor of the United Presbyterian Church of Aledo, Illinois.
7. Robert Strong, along with his congregation, left the OPC in 1949.
‘Orthodox Presbyterian Church News: The Church in 1949’ (unsigned). Volume 19, No.1 (January, 1950): 16.
Two ministers and the congregations of which they were pastors withdrew from the denomination. They were Dr. Robert Strong and Calvary Church of Willow Grove, and the Rev. Franklin Dyrness and Faith Church of Quarryville. Dr. Strong subsequently accepted a call to the Southern Presbyterian Church, and the Rev. Richard Gray went from Bridgeton to Willow Grove, but retained his membership in the denomination. Several ministers accepted calls outside the denomination during the year.
8. Floyd E. Hamilton left for Korea in 1949 under the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
(a) ‘Testimony Being Circulated’ (unsigned). Volume 17, No.1 (January 10, 1948): 14.
Second, with respect to foreign missionary appointees the same extra-constitutional tests have been raised. This was seen in 1944 in the unsuccessful opposition in the Committee on Foreign Missions to the sending out of Rev. Francis E. Mahaffy.
The increase of this Sectarianism has now in 1947 become extremely manifest in the case of Rev. Floyd E. Hamilton. Although he had served with distinction for twenty years as a teacher and missionary in Korea, he was prevented by committee and assembly actions from returning there to teach in a seminary that had urgently requested his services.
(b) ‘Hamilton to Korea Under Independent Board’ (unsigned). Volume
18, No.2 (February, 1949): 30.
THE Rev. Floyd E. Hamilton and Mrs. Hamilton have been appointed to foreign mission service in Korea by the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. The appointment is of a general character, with the understanding that the Korean station will determine the actual field of Mr. Hamilton’s work. Mr. Hamilton has tentative reservations on the President Buchanan sailing March 10th, but these arrangements may be cancelled, as this ship does not go beyond Japan, and transportation for the remainder of the trip may be difficult to secure. Mr. Hamilton resigned his position with the New England Christian School Association as of February 1.
The Reverend and Mrs. Hamilton served under the Independent Board in Korea for several years prior to the World War II. The threat of war forced their return to this country in 1941, and shortly thereafter their service with the Board was terminated.
In 1946 they were placed under appointment for service in Korea, by the Foreign Missions Committee of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Shortly before the 1947 Assembly the Committee, having received a request from the Korea Theological Seminary for Mr. Hamilton to be sent there to teach, considered the question and decided that at that time they would not send Mr. Hamilton out for that purpose. The decision occasioned extended discussion at the 1947 Assembly, but members of the Committee were re-elected by the Assembly. When this decision, apparently interpreted by many as approval of the Committee’s action, was announced, Mr. Hamilton indicated that he was withdrawing from his appointment by the Committee. Although the Committee endeavoured to resume talks with Mr. Hamilton on the matter of his going to Korea for general missionary service, and although the 1948 Assembly urged Mr. Hamilton to reapply to the Committee for this purpose, Mr. Hamilton refused to renew his application to the Committee.
During his stay in this country Mr. Hamilton served in a home missionary project in California, then for a time as general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the denomination. More recently he has been field secretary of the New England Christian School Association. In doctrinal discussions in The Orthodox Presbyterian Church recently, Mr. Hamilton took an active part in advocating the general positions represented by the views of Dr. Gordon H. Clark, and as a member of the Assembly’s Committee on Doctrines, submitted a minority report to the 1948 Assembly.
9. Edwin H. Rian left the OPC in 1947 and re-entered the Presbyterian
Church of the U.S.A.
The Presbyterian Guardian has little on this event.
10. Clark left the OPC in 1948.
‘Orthodox Presbyterian Church News: Dr. Clark Dismissed to U.P. Church’ (unsigned). Volume 17, No.15 (November, 1948): 260.
WORD has been received, without further details, that at a meeting of the Presbytery of Ohio of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, held October 14th in Indianapolis, the Rev. Dr. Gordon H. Clark, a minister of the church and professor of Philosophy at Butler University was dismissed to the Presbytery of Indiana of the United Presbyterian Church.
Dr. Clark’s theological views have been a subject of controversy in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church since his ordination to the ministry in that denomination in 1944. A minority of the Presbytery of Philadelphia opposed his licensure and ordination, holding that his views were not in accord with the faith of the church at significant points. A complaint against the action of the Presbytery in licensing and ordaining him was carried to the church’s General Assembly which, however, failed to sustain the complaint. A committee appointed by the General Assembly has made a study of the doctrines involved, and its reports are now before the presbyteries for consideration.
11. In all things, one must have a sense of proportion.
However one view the doctrine of the Incomprehensibility of God, it is not an essential doctrine of the Christian faith.
One should not broke fellowship with other Christians over this doctrine.
This adage is a good one: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
12. The OPC was a small denomination.
It can ill afford a split.
If I remember correctly, Dr. Robbins estimated that close to a third of the denomination walk out the door as a result of the Clark-Van Til Conflicts.
Is it good church politics that after one has seized effective control, instead of unifying the denomination, one continue to drive one’s opponents out of the denomination over non-essentials?
Van Til had second thoughts.
In his last interview with Christianity Today, Van Til remarked that his distinctive doctrines should not be used as a test of orthodoxy.
If only Van Til had the moral courage to apologize to Clark when they were still living, then that would help heal the acrimony that have existed between the Van Tillians and the Clarkians for the last 60 years.