Dr. R. Scott Clark is a professor of theological and church history at Westminster Seminary California and is viewed by many as the standard bearer of Reformed confessionalism. Besides being a recognized opponent of the Federal Vision and New Perspectives theology, Clark is also a devoted follower of the late Cornelius Van Til, and, not surprisingly, is an unapologetic defender of logical paradox in Scripture. Along these lines Clark repeatedly challenged me to read his contribution to the festschrift for Robert Strimple, The Pattern of Sound Doctrine where he defends the so-called “well meant” or “free offer” of the Gospel. Clark complained on his website; “do the opponents of the Free Offer ever read anything but their own in-house stuff?”1 Well, I certainly do, but I was hard pressed to believe Clark could bring anything new to the table not already covered by men like John Murray or Cornelius Van Til, not to mention John Frame, David Bahnsen, David Byron, James Anderson, along with a whole host of other lesser defenders of biblical paradox.
So I purchased the Strimple festschrift. Surprisingly in his piece, “Janus, The Well Meant Offer of the Gospel, and Westminster Theology,” Clark does not even try to distance himself from the title “Janus” given to defenders of the “well meant offer” by the late Herman Hoeksema. According to Hoeksema:
Janus was a Roman idol, distinguished by the remarkable feature of having two faces and looking in two opposite directions. And in this respect there is a marked similarity between old Janus and the first point [of the “Three Points of Common Grace” adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924]. The latter is also two-faced and casts wistful looks in opposite directions. And the same may be asserted of the attempts at explanation of the first point that are offered by the leaders of the Christian Reformed Churches. Only, while the two faces of old heathen Janus bore a perfect resemblance to each other, the Janus of 1924 has the distinction of showing two totally different faces. One of his faces reminds you of Augustine, Calvin, Gomarus; but the other shows the unmistakable features of Pelagius, Arminius, Episcopius. And your troubles begin when you would inquire of this two-faced oracle, what may be the exact meaning of the first point. For, then this modern Janus begins to revolve, alternately showing you one face and the other, till you hardly know whether you are dealing with Calvin or Arminius. 2
For Hoeksema those who defend of the “well meant offer” are two-faced in that they seek to maintain conflicting aspects of two contradictory and mutually exclusive systems of salvation. While at times “well meant offer” defenders appear to be Calvinistic in their belief in God’s sovereign election and particular atonement, they also maintain a belief in the universal desire of God for the salvation of those God predestined to perdition; the reprobate. It is this combination of particularism and pluralism, or simply Calvinism and Arminianism, that make up the two faces of Janus.
Oddly, in addition to not distancing himself from Hoeksema’s charge, Clark does not even define what is meant by the well meant offer, sometimes called the “free offer,” until his concluding paragraphs and along the way seems to confuse it with the general call of the Gospel. I don’t know if this was intentional, but reading the piece some might conclude that opponents of the well meant offer are also opposed to the free and promiscuous preaching of the Gospel offer and this is simply false.
Therefore, to ensure that there can be no confusion, and in the words of John Murray, the well-meant offer is the belief that God “expresses an ardent desire for the fulfillment of certain things [i.e., the salvation of the reprobate] which he has not decreed in his inscrutable counsel to come to pass.”3 Or, more simply, the well-meant offer has to do with God’s imagined favorable disposition toward the reprobate, since both sides agree that God sincerely desires the salvation of all the elect and accomplishes this very thing throughout history and through the “foolishness of the Gospel.” As Paul said in Romans, “the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Consequently, both sides of the well-meant offer divide (with the exception of those rightly called “hyper-Calvinists,” most notably “hardshell” or Primitive Baptists) believe that the Gospel should be preached universally to all men without distinction and that all who come under its preaching have a responsibility and a duty to repent and believe.
Well, to my surprise Clark does bring something new to the table and rests his belief in the contradictory truths of the well meant offer, along with his belief in a whole host of other logical paradoxes that he says are laced throughout Scripture, on what he claims is the traditional Reformed understanding of the archetype/ectype distinction dating back to Calvin and Luther. Clark writes:
…the reason the well-meant offer has not been more persuasive is that its critics have not understood or sympathized with the fundamental assumption on which the doctrine…was premised: the distinction between theology as God knows it (theologia archetypa) and theology as it is revealed to and done by us (theologia ectypa).4
Clark’s main argument is that since theology as God knows it (theologia archetypa) differs from theology as we know and do it (theologia ectypa) we should expect to find any number of impenetrable paradoxes in Scripture and in our subsequent theology.
What should be noted is that Clark firmly rests his understanding of the archetype/ectype distinction primarily in the area epistemology (the study of knowledge) as opposed to being or ontology (the study of being) . This is important, because the distinction Clark draws, and the one he claims is central to the traditional Reformed understanding, is not merely a difference in the mode or process (or, simply, the “how” of God’s knowing), but rather it is rooted in the propositions known; the objects of knowledge themselves. Clark makes the error common to virtually all Van Tilians in that he conflates epistemology with ontology and ends up confusing the two. This makes sense since Van Til also extends his understanding of the Creator/creature distinction well beyond the limits of ontology and into the realm of epistemology.
Commenting on the well known illustration Van Til used for his students in order to picture his understanding of the Creator/creature distinction where he would draw a large circle above a smaller one connected by two vertical lines, Dr. E. Calvin Beisner observers:
What are we supposed to think the two circles represent? Knowledge content (that is, truths known), or knowledge mode (that is, the processes by which truths are known)? If the latter, then an overlap of the circles would indeed seem to imply a denial of the Creator/creature distinction. But if the former, it would not, at least not in the judgment of Reformed theologians who don’t subscribe to Van Til’s idiosyncratic development of that distinction.
It is clear why overlap or intersection would deny the archetypal/ectypal (and hence the Creator/creature) distinction if what the circles represent is ontology, but it is not clear that it would do so if what the circles represent is epistemology, for then it must be asked whether, in epistemology, they represent truths known or the process (mode, manner, way) by which truths are known. If the latter, then the overlap would indeed jeopardize the Creator/creature distinction, since only God knows all things by knowing Himself, and hence the assertion that the creature knows things by the same mode God does would imply that the creature is God. But if the former — if the circles represent truths known (the content, not the mode, of knowledge) — then the overlap would not jeopardize the distinction, and indeed the lack of overlap would imply precisely the skepticism [Gordon] Clark said Van Til’s language implied, and that indeed some of Van Til’s language at least colorably could be understood to imply (e.g., Van Til’s denial that God’s knowledge and man’s “coincide at any single point”).5
Besides claiming that critics of the well-meant offer “have not understood or sympathized” with the archetype/ectype distinction, it is important to recognize that Clark is not simply referring to the fact that God’s knowledge is intuitive, immediate and exhaustive whereas ours is derivative, successive and limited. Nor is he simply enforcing the idea that God is omniscient and His knowledge is therefore immutable and comprehensive in every detail and implication, whereas ours is only partial and subject to error and revision. Rather, for Clark the archetype/ectype distinction provides a complete break between the content of God’s knowledge and knowledge possible to man. Clark argues: (more…)