Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review: The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark by Doug Douma

Douglas Douma has recently published a biography of the Presbyterian philosopher Gordon Haddon Clark (1902-1985), entitled The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark. I have just finished reading it, and here is my review of the book. An excerpt:

Gordon Haddon Clark (1902-1985) was a prominent American Presbyterian philosopher and churchman in the 20th century, yet one would not know it by living in many contemporary 21st century American Presbyterian and Reformed circles. In this biography of this neglected American thinker, Douglas Douma does us all a great service by opening a window into the life of this man, helping us to understand his situation in life, and especially into the major controversy that has played a big influence in the formative years of one Presbyterian denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) — the “Clark-Van Til Controversy.”



Benjamin Wong said...

Dear Daniel:

A very good review. : - )

1. Unlike you, I read Cornelius Van Til before I read Gordon Clark.

At one time in the early 1980s, I fancied myself to be a Van Tilian.

In was a painful intellectual experience to accept that Clark was right and Van Til was wrong in the Clark-Van Til Controversy.

2. Regarding the "Clark's boys", although you qualified with "some" in "Chapter 11 covers the sad legacy of some of Clark’s students in their misguided Neo-Evangelical experiment", you might have mentioned that Clark and Carl F.H. Henry were on good terms to their last days.

I have the impression that Clark's influenced on the larger evangelical world in the 1960s and 1970s was due in large measure to Henry inviting Clark to contribute to [Christianity Today] while Henry was the Editor.

Carl Henry also made a very handsome acknowledge to Clark in Henry's magnum opus [God, Revelation, and Authority (6 vols)].

3. My impression is that you have over estimated the importance of "occasionalism" to Clark's philosophy; but that is a topic for another time.

4. Gordon Clark’s definition of a person using propositions is one of his unique and major contribution to theology.

In my opinion, Clark’s approach can be viewed as a technique that opens a new line of inquiry into the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Since, according to Clark, a person may be individuated by the propositions he thinks, using propositions and some of the indexical properties of propositions a person think may be used as a tool to probe the inner structure of the Trinity and the God-man Jesus Christ.

For those computer savvy, model the Trinity in analogy to a tri-core computer chip where the content of the various registers are propositions.

The nature of the Incarnation may be model in analogy with various hardware and software virtualizations.

Maybe the human nature of Jesus Christ is something hardware virtualizes on top of his Divine nature.

Maybe the human consciousness of Jesus Christ is something software virtualizes on top of his Divine consciousness, in analogy to running VMware virtualizing Linux on top of Windows or Windows on top of Linux.

Access to a common resource in the God-man Jesus Christ may be model by control mechanisms such as a semaphore.

In all cases, the ability to think propositions in the appropriate ways will function as a control of the modelling.

I have attempted some simple modelling using Clark’s approach in a discussion in another list some years ago.

One tentative result is that Clark need not be interpreted as a Nestorian; another is that Nestorius also need not be interpreted as a Nestorian.

5. You showed insights when you wrote: " As someone who has read both [Gordon] Clark and Van Til, and am sympathetic to elements of Reformed Scholasticism, it would be helpful to frame the differences as showing how Van Til proceeds from ontology, prioritizing God as the principium essendi, while Gordon Clark proceeds from epistemology, focusing on the very modern question of the justification of knowledge, and thus from God and His Word as the principium cognoscendi."


Benjamin Wong

Daniel C said...

Hi Ben,

thanks for your thoughts and feedback.

2) Yes, you are right, which is why I used the word "some." Regardless, the focus of Douma's chapter was on the compromising Neo-Evangelicals, so Henry was mentioned less.

3) I don't think I stated that Clark's occasionalism plays a great part in Clark's philosophy. I do think however that it is in tension with his view concerning God and sin.

4) I have no problems with new lines of inquiry. At the same time, one should understand what classical language concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation teaches, and not contradict them. The problem therefore remains that the definition of "person" is very important for understanding classical theism, and redefining it confuses everyone at best.

5) Thanks.