The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark – A Review
Doug Douma has done a masterful job. This book is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in discovering one of the greatest minds Christianity has ever produced. That’s not hyperbole. According to John Robbins; “R. C. Sproul was once asked what 20th-century theologians people would be reading in 500 years, and he answered, ‘Gordon Clark.’ I have it on tape.” Perhaps the section that will interest most readers is the one dealing with the controversy that arose between Clark and Cornelius Van Til and assorted faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary who, unsuccessfully, attempted to block Clark’s ordination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Douma carefully and extensively documents the entire sordid affair from start to finish and corrects the record regarding some of the fairy tales that have come out of the Van Til camp over the years (I have to think he’s going to take some heat over this).
As an extra bonus, pay close attention to the article Douma includes by Clark in the appendix; “Studies of the Doctrine of The Complaint.” Clark does a great job showing that even the Van Til faction’s lukewarm attempt at a concession after their complaint was denied and Clark exposed the group as un-Reformed epistemological skeptics, was no concession at all. Even in their backpedaling, Clark destroys his opponents a second time so thoroughly that only the frank and open admission that Clark was right and the Van Til faction was completely wrong would have sufficed. It should not be surprising that when it comes to Van Til and his many followers through the years that what they often give with the one hand they take away just as quickly with the other. That’s because when someone believes as Van Til did that (all) Scripture is paradoxical and contradictory propositions can, in fact, both be true, it’s easy to justify speaking out of both sides of one’s mouth.
The one possible and admittedly very small bone I would pick with the author is that I don’t see the passage cited from Van Til’s; An Introduction to Systematic Theology (161) as providing any genuine agreement between Van Til and Clark. Instead of Van Til “almost coming around to Clark’s position,” what I see it as a subtly worded evasion of the force of Clark’s devastating critique of The Complaint. As far as I can tell Van Til provides nothing more than a restatement of Acts 17:28 while conceding absolutely nothing. Consider these passages from An Introduction to Systematic Theology in light of the question of the incomprehensibility of God and whether or not there is any point of contact or coincidence between the truths known by God (all truth) and the knowledge possible to man (some truth):
“For man any new revelational proposition will enrich in meaning any previous given revelational proposition. But even this enrichment does not imply that there is any coincidence, that is, identity of content between what God has in his mind and what man has in his mind . . . There could and would be an identity of content only if the mind of man were identical with the mind of God. It is only on the assumption that the human mind is not the mind of a creature but is itself the mind of the Creator that one can talk consistently of identity of content between the mind of man and the mind of God (270,271).”
“[Man] never has and never can expect to have in his mind exactly the same thought content that God has in his mind (295).”
“. . . the Christian position with respect to man’s not knowing at any point just what God knows is based upon the presupposition of the self-contained God of Scripture. And this presupposition is the death of both rationalism and irrationalism. It is the death of both because it alone maintains the full dependence of the mind of man upon the mind of God . . . To say therefore that the human mind can know even one proposition in its minimal significance with the same depth of meaning with which God knows that proposition is an attack on the Creator-creature relationship and therewith an attack on the heart of Christianity. And unless we maintain the incomprehensibility of God as involved in and correlative to the idea of the all-controlling power and knowledge of God, we shall fall into the Romanist and Arminian heresy of making the mind of man at some points as ultimate as is the mind of God (297, 298).”
This minor caveat aside, this really is an outstanding biography of really a wonderful elder brother in Christ and one of the greatest minds of any generation. The book nicely captures a sense of the man and not just the controversies that often defined his life. Clark’s dedication to painting later in life, albeit ever so badly, really speaks to Clark as what was once called a true “Renaissance” man. The sadness expressed at the loss of his wife Ruth was particularly touching. It was also interesting and sad that his only seeming respite from controversy was during his long tenure as the head the philosophy department at a Butler University, a secular university. I suppose the blessing is that leaving the ugliness of ecclesiastical politics aside Clark was able to focus on writing and leaving his ever-expanding number of eager students with plenty to read and digest.