The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark – A Review

clarkDoug 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.

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13 Comments on “The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark – A Review”

  1. Denson Dube Says:

    I only became aware of Gordon Clark’s writings through John Robbins, after Clark’s passing on. I really would like to get hold of this biography. I owe Gordon Clark a huge debt for my intellectual development and growth in understanding the word of God. I am truly thankful to God who in his providence brought me into contact with John Robbins and Gordon Clark.

  2. dewisant1 Says:

    I am 90 pages in and feeling very grateful for the efforts of Mr. Douma. I have always enjoyed (and sometimes struggled) with Clark’s writings and it is nice to have this biography to reveal more of the man behind the incredible writings and of course, the “Controversy”.
    Highly recommended.

  3. douglasdouma Says:

    Thanks for the review Sean. Denson, if you’d like an author signed (and discounted) copy see details on my post here:

  4. Sean Gerety Says:

    Yeah, about that. Mine wasn’t signed 😦

  5. douglasdouma Says:

    Yeah, sorry. I signed copies only when I knew there was an explicit request. I’m thinking now I should just sign them all by default. That seems to be the expected custom when buying from the author. My first book!

  6. Sean Gerety Says:

    No problem … although I did explicitly ask. I was hoping it would be worth something when you’re famous 🙂

  7. Sean, thanks again for informing us of this book!

    Denson, it has been awhile since I have read one of your posts. You are “spot on” about John Robbins — I recall the many great interactions we had back in the day when he was still alive and when the Clark email discussion groups were still alive! I still remember how much I laughed when I heard of his essay, “Will The Real Greg Bahnsen Please Stand Up?” and how I enjoyed reading it because that was exactly how I felt about Bahnsen — I was really mad at him for writing that book and I never read anything more by him. John Robbins was also helpful in pointing me to various essays he and others had written in re Clark, Van Til, etc., many of which were found on his own Trinity Foundation site.



  8. […] to write a review. For reviews of the entire book, please see here for David Engelsma’s, here for Sean Gerety’s, and here for Tom […]

  9. Stephen Welch Says:

    Sean, in your review of Doug’s book on Gordon Clark, you quote someone who had a “small bone” to pick. Who made the quote, John Muether?

  10. Sean Gerety Says:

    That’s me. I’m the one with the small bone to pick. I don’t agree with Doug on one small point.

  11. Stephen Welch Says:

    Sorry, Sean. I misread your statement. I thought it was a quote from someone, and did not realize it was you 😉 I found Doug’s point on this surprising, but will look at his book on this. I have not finished reading it, but it is a great book. I have not seen many critical reviews of his book, which I find interesting.

  12. Sean Gerety Says:

    That’s OK, I probably wasn’t very clear.

  13. Stephen Welch Says:

    No, you were clear; my eyes are getting older 🙂

    I appreciate Doug’s work and discovered things that I did not know. I wonder if the control of Westminster Seminary and the division within the OPC played a factor in the Clark controversy. There were many issues going on, but to me it seems that there was a control within the OPC, especially by Murray and those men who wrote the complaint. These are the same ones who wanted control of Westminster Seminary. I find it funny that men like John Muether, still deny that it was a trial, and no charges were filed against Clark. Him and others completely ignore the role that Clark played with Machen in the very early years of the OPC’s formation. While they did attack his positions it seems to me like they were jealous of Clark. These are just some thoughts as I am reading the book.

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