Clark Quick Quote

“Conservative theologians too will be interested in that body of opinions which no one except the most outrageously idealistic philosophers can doubt.  Ordinarily these theologians do not favor the completely negative results of the present analysis of Aristotle, Plato, and others.  They will be inclined to be somewhat dogmatic with respect to daily experience. As one of them said, You cannot obey the seventh commandment if you don’t know who your wife is.

Strictly speaking, this is not true.  However extreme the suggestion may be, one could of course remain celibate.

But the remark was intended to imply that a man could with certainty know who his wife is.  The example may seem silly, but if taken seriously, it is clear that the epistemological question is in order: How do you know?

There is a story that at the birth of Louis XIV, Marie de Medici gave birth to twins.  Father Joseph wrote a note to Richelieu, who imposed perpetual silence on the midwife.  But a Spanish plotter picked up the discarded note and kidnapped the second twin.  After training the younger twin, and after Richelieu’s death, the Spaniard managed to catch Louis XIV alone, put him in the Iron Mask, and the twin reappeared as Louis XIV.

Granted, it is unlikely that anyone should go to such extremes to substitute another woman for the wife of an unimportant theologian or philosopher. But how do you know?  So long as substitution is possible, certainty is impossible.  Nor is substitution the only danger.  For those whose philosophic preparation rises above the level of Alexander Dumas, there are always the prior difficulties of solipsism, subjective idealism, and, let us remember, Descartes’ malignant demon, who so potent and deceitful has employed all his artifice to deceive us.  Modern philosophers prefer to ignore rather than to confront him.

With this result the pervious question returns. What account shall be given of everyday “knowledge” that commons sense thinks is silly to doubt?  Don’t I know when I am hungry?  Can’t I use road maps to drive to Boston to Los Angeles?  Indeed, how can I know what the Bible says without reading its pages with my own eyes? It was one secular philosopher criticizing another, who said that knowledge is a fact and that any theory that did not account for it should be abandoned.  But all such criticisms miss the point.  The status of common opinion is not fixed until a theory has been accepted. One may admit that a number of propositions commonly believed are true; but no one can deny that many such are false.  The problem is to elaborate a method by which the two classes can be distinguished.  Plato too granted a place to opinion as distinct from knowledge; he even admitted that in some circumstances opinion was as useful as knowledge with a capital K.  But to dispose of the whole matter by an appeal to road maps that we can see with our own eyes is to ignore everything said above about Aristotle.”  An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, 89,90.

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27 Comments on “Clark Quick Quote”

  1. Most people I’ve talked to about this cannot grasp this technical distinction. When I say we cannot know this or that (e.g. that I am sitting at a computer right now), they take me to mean I am sitting in epistemological darkness with no idea what’s going on.

  2. Hugh Says:

    Fresh water, this! Amen, Sean.

    (Final sentence wants a wee bit o’ help, tho’, laddie!)

    Did GHC write about nationalism, the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Dec. of Ind., etc?

  3. Hugh Says:

    thumbs up, Patrick.

  4. Hugh Says:

    I’ll grant that *I* am certainly in the dark, with no idea what’s going on.
    Am I married?
    Am I celibate?
    Am I hungry?
    Am I Louis XIV?

  5. Hugh,
    I opine so.
    I suspect not.
    I admit utter ignorance.
    I doubt it.

  6. LJ Says:

    During my 20+ year learning curve, begun in my late 30’s, reading and attempting to understand Clark and the history of philosophy that underlies his arguments, I’ve found myself going back time and again to one of his best little books to help deal with the above problem: “Lord God of Truth.”

    In Lord God of Truth, he examines problems with the philosophy of Empiricism: sensation, causality, imagination, and induction. In it he demonstrates, at least to my satisfaction, that Empiricism is a bust; it fails to solve epistemological problems.

    Admittedly I love this stuff even though I remain an amateur after all these years. But Clark taught me to love it. He taught me that studying philosophy and engaging in philosophical discussions is an act of worship of the Logos, Christ Jesus, who is the fullness of wisdom and truth.

    Obviously most everyone here is a Clarkian so I’m likely preaching to the choir, but God bless the memory of GHC.


  7. LJ Says:

    Hugh: Did GHC write about nationalism, the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Dec. of Ind., etc?

    I think his chapter on “Politics,” along with every other chapter in “A Christian View of Men and Things” is a jewel of political discourse.


  8. Hugh Says:

    Thnx, LJ. Will peruse!

  9. LJ Says:

    Some here may enjoy this critical analysis of Clark:

    One of the author’s purposes is to address GHC’s negative views regarding induction:

    “Whether in A Christian View of Men &Things(‘52), Three Types of Religious Philosophy (‘77), or in his more recent Language & Theology (‘80), Gordon Clark delivers, in a highly readable style, a relentless opposition to empiricism. But unlike any other presuppositionalist (at least that I’m aware of) Clark’s opposition to empiricism is based on what Clark regards as the logical impossibility of inductively acquired knowledge.”

    BTW, he does not agree with Clark and thinks Clark’s views lead to skepticism, if I’m reading it correctly.


  10. Sean Gerety Says:

    Thanks Hugh. Fixed.

  11. Sean Gerety Says:

    @LJ. I only wish you were preaching to the choir. Per the above quote I can’t tell you how many so-called “Scripturalists,” even ones who claim to embrace Clark’s biblical epistemology, stumble at this point. As George Macleod said recently on the “Clark” FB page:

    “… I do know that there are a few people out there who do equate truth and knowledge, and who will say that any proposition not derived from scripture is not merely unknowable but actually false (even to the extent of declaring that two contradictories are both false). This has created a great many problems for the communication of Clark’s ideas, and wasted a lot of critical effort. A few years ago (around 15) there was a set of lengthy documents going around that purported to be a critique of scripturalism, but it turned out that what was being criticised was this view (which for convenience got called ‘alethic scripturalism’ to distinguish it from Clark’s actual view. It took a lot of effort to persuade the critics that this was the view of neither Clark nor Robbins.”

  12. LJ Says:

    @ Sean: I’m not sure I understand what he, Macleod, is saying.

    Is it the oft-repeated equivocation of terms? The failure to clearly define a term and then hold to the definition throughout the argument? If so, then he’s committing the falacy of equivocation in the terms, TRUTH and KNOWLEDGE, if I’m understanding your point about the man’s FB page.

    The essay link I posted above is a case study in misunderstanding Clark and, then, setting up your misunderstanding (a straw man) as Clark’s view and, then, proceeding to knock it down.

    It happens all the time. I spend more time attempting to get a critic of Clark to SLOW DOWN and actually read and understand him BEFORE he starts to attempt to criticize. In almost every instance of an argument I’ve had with a reasonably informed critic, the critic has NOT READ CLARK or read him too quickly with shallow understanding.

    Worse, most just repeat the Van Tilian criticism’s without ever having actually read Clark. Within Reformed circles this is usually the case – at least in my experience.


  13. Hugh Says:

    Clark’s opposition to empiricism is based on what Clark regards as the logical impossibility of inductively acquired knowledge.


    Thank you, Gordon Haddon Clark, 1902-1985.

  14. LJ Says:

    @ Hugh: and the guy, Hoover, makes some blatantly uninformed statements like “Inductive arguments … are necessarily bad arguments (true according to Clark) – in fact, worthless (not true according to Clark).

    Clark repeatedly (and Robbins too if I recall) stated that induction and science, while incapable of producing knowledge – cognition in its original Latin meaning – was USEFUL. Clark did not disparage the utility or USEFULNESS of science and induction, just the idolizing of it as capable of revealing truth or being cognitive (with knowledge). The key here is a clear definition of KNOWLEDGE without equivocation.


  15. Sean Gerety Says:

    LJ, I wasn’t referring to the Hoover piece, however I would recommend people carefully listen to the debate Clark had with him some years ago. Aside from Clark cleaning Hoover’s clock, the question and answer period was particularly good as the objection was raised that in order to fulfill God’s creation mandate Adam would need to know what soil is. Clark’s answer is enlightening. Also his exchange with Dr. Krabbendam was particularly good and pointed.

  16. LJ Says:

    Sean, now I understand your quote.

    Isn’t the Clark – Hoover debate available at Trinity? I listened to it once before and am now stimulated to listen again! Sometimes the audio quality on the recordings is not too good. Is the Q & A section understandable?

  17. Sean Gerety Says:

    It’s on the TF site. The Q&A sounds better than the audio of the debate.

  18. Hugh Says:

    The key here is a clear definition of KNOWLEDGE without equivocation.

    Amen, LJ. Thanks for clarifitation.

  19. Hugh Says:

    Duh, clarification…

  20. LJ Says:

    Sean: I just downloaded it on my desktop and was able to “fast forward” (sheesh, there’s phrase that probably dates me!) to the Q & A. Fantastic! Now, since I’m a slow study I’ll have to listen to it over again, but the question about DIRT and TREES and how we could fulfill the creation mandate without “knowing” what they are, and Clark’s answers, are worth the price of the ticket.

    Was he unflappable or what!!!

    Apparently he was beloved by his students. But I doubt he was by anyone he publicly debated, LOL! I’d hate to be the poor, wretched soul that stepped onto a stage to take him on.


  21. Pht Says:


    To crack open a somewhat big can of worms…

    Does anyone here know if clark/robbins ever said/wrote out their reason for thinking that science is useful?

    Or did they not assert this idea as a truth but rather as an opinion?

    What would be the biblical basis for saying that what we call the scientific process useful? It seems to me that most of the times it’s said, essentially, that this happened after that, so it must have been because of that (we did the scientific process, this happened after it)… which is obviously fallacious.

    It would seem to be a good and necessary conclusion that God gave man some way of exercising stewardship/domion over the earth – but this obviously doesn’t mean that what we call “sceince” is the tool God created for said purpose.


    I have to say, I had a hard time wrapping my head around this concept. I think I have a little bit of a handle on it now that I (think I have) noodled out the anser to the whole question of “but don’t you need to read your bible with your eyes.”:

  22. Sean Gerety Says:

    but this obviously doesn’t mean that what we call “sceince” is the tool God created for said purpose.

    It’s not obvious to me. Seems to me that the tools of science are pretty effective at replenishing and subduing the earth. Of course, science is a pretty useful tool in destroying the earth too not to mention subduing people.

  23. Pht Says:

    It’s not obvious to me. Seems to me that the tools of science are pretty effective at replenishing and subduing the earth.

    Hmm. let’s see If I can clarify this a bit …

    God gave man stewardship of the earth

    man exercises stewardship

    Therefore, science is the means God gave man to carry out this stewardship

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t these basically the premises and form of argument used to assert that science is the means God appointed for stewardship?

    If it is, it’s obviously at least informally invalid.

    That’s why I was asking if there was some biblical argument/premises that addressed the means God gave.

    THAT God gave us means, and that we use those means, I don’t contest in the slightest.

    Just curious about what True knowledge we have on the topic (besides opinions)… blame the clark/hoover debate! I would have never thought of this if I hadn’t have listened to it.

    … imagine the advances in know-how and doing if we actually found a more full biblical base for it…

    Just my random suspicion, but I suspect …was it popper?… the statement that scientists should skip the theory and just “get in there and make your mistakes as quickly as possible” might contain a few seeds of truth.

    Clark pointed out quite well the difference between true (biblical) knowledge and human opinion – it would seem to be squarely on our shoulders to do more than just deduce a basis for mathematics out of the bible.

    On the main topic: I seem to find myself these days asking someone what they mean when they use the words “I know” and “that’s true” or the like … it seems to help a lot (as long as they’re decent enough to answer!)

  24. LJ Says:

    PHT: Therefore, science is the means God gave man to carry out this stewardship

    I think Sean said “a” and not “the” tool. He also, if I’m not mistaken, only asserted the effectiveness of science for dominion with a strong qualification that science may also enable great evil.

    There are many means as you so stated. Science is but one; but a very powerful one I’m sure you agree.

    I doubt there’s any disagreement here, but maybe I’m wrong.


  25. Sean Gerety Says:

    No disagreement. I wasn’t trying to make a formal argument for science any more than I would try to make one for hammers.

  26. Pht Says:

    I was just more curious than anything else to see if anyone has brought out from the biblical texts a good exigesis of what means God appointed for the stewardship.

    I also hadn’t assumed that Sean had made a formal argument – I was proceeding cautiously because I hadn’t seen anyone actually make it as a formal argument, but it seems to have been the implied line of reasoning behind why the people in my life belive science is responsible for the things that happen after we do it.

    Good point about “a” tool vs “the” tool. I totally missed that!

    It just seems odd to me that, knowing that the revelation from God is the only truth man actually has access to… and so many in this particular branch of the at-large christian community are so interested in the educational problems … that we wouldn’t be hard at it, seeing what can be deduced from the bible that would relate to the hard sciences (practical or philosophical) and the other realms, like language, literature etc.

    We’ve moved the ball a few yards as far as concerns the philosophy of history and politics it seems, and obviously quite far on theology.

  27. Jon Says:

    It seems to me the only truth we do have is scriptural truth. All else is provisional knowledge or what we might term opinion, except for what is most obvious and therefore never contested.

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