Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Analytic and synthetic thought, Deductivism and the philosophy of Gordon Clark

Two methods can be applied in both the discovery and the presentation of knowledge: either one proceeds from the causes to the effects, or else one begins with the end and from there traces back to the causes. The first option, from cause to effect, Zabrella [an Aristotelian] called the way of composition or synthesis. The second option, from the end back to its causes or the means to that end, he called the way of resolution or analysis... The analytical method proceeds inductively. It does not begin with what comes first, but with the effect or outcome.

The contemplative sciences, such as philosophy, are rather concerned with knowledge itself. Here one reasons from cause to effect, and the synthetic or composite method that follows a deductive process is used. The movement is from universal (universalia) to particulars (particularia).

These two methods can be illustrated by comparing them with the building of a house. With an analytical method, one first considers the building itself in general; the point of departure is the whole. From there each element is considered, brick by brick, in order finally to arrive at the foundation. The synthetic method, on the other hand, implies that one first consider the foundation. Then all the other parts follow until one has an impression of the entire building.

— Willem J. Van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 95-6

There is a small but growing interest in Reformed Scholasticism among the Reformed circles. This is of course a good thing since it is at that time that the fruits of Reformed theology were thriving.

It can be seen from Van Asselt's excellent book that Reformed Scholasticism borrowed greatly in form and method from Aristotelianism, yet without deriving its content from Aristotle. All of this is understandable. However, does the familiarity with Aristotelian categories blind those who are familiar with Reformed Scholasticism to ideas that do not depend on those categories?

Let us consider the philosophy of Gordon Clark. Vantillians have [falsely] accused Clark of many theological crimes — from being a [Cartesian] Rationalist, to denying the Creature/ Creator distinction, to believe that Man can become like God in knowledge etc. Of course, such attacks are totally baseless and only show the ignorance of Vantillians who read almost everything including the Reformers according to Vantillian lenses. In many cases, their idolatrous and un-Christian behavior deserve sharp rebuke as they persistently slander Clark and some Clarkians. (I am not denying however that some Clarkians turn into the caricatures their opponents paint of them.)

Nevertheless, it may be the case that some people unwittingly read Clark through the lens of Aristotle, and because of that they are confused over Clark's philosophy. It is with this in mind that I would like to address some of the basic Aristotelian categories that are used in Reformed Scholasticism.

According to Van Asselt's discussion of Reformed Scholasticism above, what is considered "analytic" is done inductively, reasoning from effect to cause. What is considered "synthetic" on the other hand is done deductively, reasoning from cause to effect. "Analytic" has to do with particulars, while "synthetic" has to do with universals, since after all reasoning from the foundation onwards should imply one universal foundation for everything (with the exception of postmodern thought) and then different structures (particulars) are build upon the same foundation.

Clarkian philosophy however ruins the entire Aristotelian landscape. According to Clark, the first axiom or presupposition of all thinking is revelation [Gordon H. Clark, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy. In The Works of Gordon Haddon Clark, Vol. 4 (Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2004), 298]. In fact, as Clark said, "the notion that God can be known only through revelation seems to be essential to the very concept of God" (Clark, 299). With this one thought, Clark claims for revelation in Scripture to be both the foundation AND the house, and that house is most certainly particular. According to Aristotle, any focus on the foundation must be synthetic and universal, and focus on the house must be analytic and particular. Clark's philosophy dashes Aristotelian categories by making the particular the universal standard of judgment. All other systems, which in Aristotle's category would be deemed as other houses build upon the same type of foundation, are in Clark's system houses build in mid-air without true foundations.

According to Clark's philosophy, we can say that Christianity is discovered analytically in terms of human experience, but it is synthetic in terms of epistemic discourse. It is a particular philosophy which claims universality by denying all other philosophies and religions epistemic reality. Along this same line, we can say that Christianity is experienced inductively while rationally discussed deductively. This should be helpful in for us in seeing and appreciating the differences between the Heidelberg Catechism (inductive-analytic) and the Westminster Standards (deductive-synthetic).

Many have alleged that Clark held that reason in Man is untouched by sin, or that it could still sufficiently reach God in and of itself. As we have said, these accusers either have not read Gordon Clark, or have read his books with Vantillian lenses. Here is what Clark says about reason:

... The important question is not whether or not the Bible is true, but whether or not all knowledge is deducible by reason, i.e. by logic alone.

Now, the history of philosophy ... have convincingly answer in the negative.


.. reason without faith not only provides no religion, it supports no knowledge of any kind. ...

(Clark, Religion, Reason and Revelation. In Clark, Works, 143)

Any discussion of man's mind and powers, to be at all Biblical, must take into account the effects of sin. Calvin, Hodge, and Machen were keenly aware of this. ...

[Quoting Machen with approval] ... So our reason is certainly insufficient to tell us about God, unless he reveals himself; but it is capable (or he would be capable if it were not clouded by sin) of receiving revelation when once it is given.

(Clark, Religion. In Works 179)

As we can see, Clark does teach that the mind is very much affected by sin. What Clark teaches on reason is that in the event that our minds are able to reason properly (due to regeneration etc), it is perfectly capable of receiving the revelation of God. Just because Clark teaches that we share the principle of reason with unbelievers in common does not imply at all that unbelievers' minds are capable of utilizing the principles of rational thinking when it comes to addressing the things of God.

In conclusion, while certainly we must keep in mind the use of Aristotelian categories in Reformed scholastic thought, which is not all bad either, we should not try to pigeon-hole other philosophies and theologies into these same Aristotelian categories. Attempting to do so with Clark's philosophy is probably the error that lead to the slanderous accusations against Clark by the Vantillians. Clark's philosophy while dated is still pertinent today, and it is my opinion that a combination of Reformed Scholasticism and Clarkian thought could very well solve most of the problems we face in philosophical thought.


Brandon said...

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the "Christ the Center" podcast about Clark, if you ever have time to write a post about it:


PuritanReformed said...


I do not want to comment too much on it. Let's just say that it has both good points and bad points. It is a more charitable analysis of Clark's thought (than Van Til's) but ends up still deficient.

Brandon said...

Ok, thanks Daniel.