Clark and Van Til...Basic Differences?

Discussion in 'Apologetical Methods' started by Cotton Mather, Dec 7, 2008.

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  1. Cotton Mather

    Cotton Mather Puritan Board Freshman

    I'm pretty familiar with the thinking of Van Til, having studied his writings for some time now. I'm not as familiar with Gordon Clark, but know that he was a major philosophical/apologetic force within the 20th century along with Van Til. I have three basic questions. First, what are some of the major differences between Van Til and Clark? I know Clark flat out rejected all forms of empiricism, rationalism, and evidentialism, bordering on a sort of philosophical skepticism which he termed "dogmatism." I also know that he is considered a pre-suppositionalist. Nevertheless, I'm not really familiar with how Clark's apologetical methods differ from Van Til's.

    Second, I've heard about the famous Clark/Van Til controversy which essentially drove Clark out of the OPC if I'm correct (correct me if I'm wrong.) Could someone please explain to me the basic thrust of the the controversy and what it was all about?

    Third, are there any "Clarkians" on the PB who would mind explaining and defending Clark's apologetic method over Van Til's? Van Til seems to have gained much more of a following within the Reformed community than Clark, but I think there are Clarkians out there like Rob Reymond.

    These questions are basic and arise out of my lack of study on some of these issues. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!
  2. cih1355

    cih1355 Puritan Board Junior

    This will answer your second question.

    John Frame in his book, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, says that Van Til and Gordon Clark had disagreements with each other concerning the concept of God's incomprehensibility. Frame says on pages 21 and 22 of the above book, "Neither man was at his best in this discussion; each seriously misunderstood each other, as we will see. Both, however had valid concerns. Van Til wished to preserve the Creator-creature distinction in the realm of knowledge, and Clark wished to prevent any skeptical deductions from the doctrine of incomprehensibility, to insist that we really do know God on the basis of revelation. Van Til, therefore, insisted that even when God and man were thinking of the same thing (a particular rose, for example), their thoughts about it were never identical- God's were the thoughts of the Creator, man's of the creature. Such language made Clark fear skepticism. It seemed to him that if there was some discrepancy between man's "This is a rose" and God's (concerning the same rose), then the human assertion must somehow fall short of the truth, since the very nature of truth is identical with God's mind. Thus if there is a necessary discrepancy between God's mind and man's at every point, it would seem that man could know nothing truly; skepticism would result. Thus the discussion of incomprehensibility- essentially a doctrine about the relation of man's thoughts to God's being- turned in this debate more narrowly into a discussion of the relation between man's thoughts and God's thoughts. To say that God is incomprehensible came to mean that there is some discontinuity (much deeper in Van Til's view than in Clark's) between our thoughts of God (and hence creation) and God's own thoughts of himself (and of creation)."

    Van Til believed that our knowledge is qualitatively different from God.
    Clark believed that our knowledge is quantitatively different from God.

    Frame goes on to point out that there are some continuities and discontinuities between God's thoughts and ours.

    There is a footnote on the bottom of page 23 of that book that says that Clark failed to distinguish adequately between incomprehensibility and inapprehensibility or he had an inadequate concept of incomprehensibility. Van Til assumed that Clark was willing to make that distinction. He thought that Clark had said that God is incomprehensible, but not inapprehensible apart from revelation. Hence, Van Til thought that Clark believed that God is knowable apart from revelation. This was an example of how Van Til misunderstood Clark.
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2008
  3. Christusregnat

    Christusregnat Puritan Board Professor


    I am a semi-clarkian for a few reasons:

    1. van Til isn't as funny, or as easy to read :lol:

    2. Clark was better at interacting with the text of Scripture as well as making intelligible assertions (see #1 for more on ease of reading)

    3. van Til's incomprehensibility leads to things such as Norm Shepherds equivocation, and the FV equivocation (van Til defended Shepherd on the floor of the Philly presbytery during his never-concluded (begun?) trial).

    To me, Clark's points about what we can and cannot know are derived from sound exegesis. van Til's reasons about what we can and cannon know are in some kind of Jedi Knight Yoda language that you're supposed to nod and so "whooooaaaa dude! that was cool!"

    Clark would generally demonstrate that non-christian world views cannot account for anything: epistemology, botany, ethics, etc. In other words, all areas of knowledge are impossible without the image of God in man. Clark would argue that the image of God is basically rational, with a volitional capacity subject to the reason. He was a strong dichotomist and a traducianist, if I'm not mistaken.

    If you ever read any of his books, I would recommend:

    Any of his commentaries, A Christian View of Man, and Historiography Secular and Religious.

    His writings are dated by the philosophers that he challenged, but his ideas are timeless. His writing style is engaging, and full of dry whit (my favorite kind). As I mentioned, his assertions are much more tightly derived from Scripture, as witness his numerous biblical commentaries. I am unaware of the exegetical works of van Til if there are any.


  4. InevitablyReformed

    InevitablyReformed Puritan Board Freshman

    This contributes nothing to this very interesting conversation (my apologies), but I have a quip about Clark.

    I was listening to a Frame lecture on Christian philosophy (Itunes) and he was telling an anecdote about Clark. Apparently, someone asked him if any man "did" perfect logic. Well, without batting an eye (Frame's words), Clark said "Aristotle did." I still really don't know what to make of that. Maybe Adam might be able to help me out on that one.

    On another note, I'm looking forward to reading this thread as it grows.
  5. kalawine

    kalawine Puritan Board Junior

    Don't forget Religion, Reason and Revelation. :cool:
  6. Cotton Mather

    Cotton Mather Puritan Board Freshman

    So what are the specific differences between Clark and Van-Til in their apologetic method?
  7. Craig

    Craig Puritan Board Senior

    This is a great thread...I'd love to see what others have to say concerning differences. From my ignorant position, I've noticed there are strong partisans to both men...and I don't understand the reasons behind this. I've read Van Til, Bahnsen, Rushdoony, and more recently Scott Oliphint...I've only seen reference to Clark in Oliphint and a couple of books by Ron Nash. Oliphint pointed out that Clark rejected the orthodox notion of Christ's hypostasis, preferring a union of two persons in Christ instead of one Person with two natures.
  8. Whitefield

    Whitefield Puritan Board Junior

    Could you give me where Oliphint makes this assertion, so I can check his references in Clark. I am still reading through Clark, but I have not run across Clark denying Christ's hypostasis.

  9. Craig

    Craig Puritan Board Senior

    I'll try to find it tonight when I get home. I seem to remember it was a footnote in Oliphint's Reasons For Faith.

    Also, I'm not sure if Clark rejected the notion of hypostasis, rather, he may have simply redefined it to be a union of persons...of course, that's assuming Oliphint is correct about Clark.
  10. Jimmy the Greek

    Jimmy the Greek Puritan Board Senior

    Kudos to the responses/summaries from Curt Hayashida and Adam Brink. I'm not well versed in the Clark/Van-Til issue and this has been very helpful.

    I particularly appreciate the Frame quote, "Neither man was at his best in this discussion; each seriously misunderstood the other, as we will see. Both, however had valid concerns."
  11. Whitefield

    Whitefield Puritan Board Junior

    I think in The Incarnation Clark spends some time discussing the definitions of persons, etc. I'll have to go back and reread that. I think in his discussion he knows he is opening himself to a charge of heterodoxy, hence he labors to explain himself. I'm not sure he succeeds in insulating himself from that charge, and that might be what Oliphint is addressing. Again, so much in the Van Til / Clark debate is based on lack of definition of terms. Both camps seemed to draw the sword quickly and not spend time studying what each other is trying saying.
  12. R. Scott Clark

    R. Scott Clark Puritan Board Senior

  13. Craig

    Craig Puritan Board Senior

    Yes, this is where the charge come from...his book The Incarnation. In fact, Matthew McMahon briefly discusses clark in an article found here.

  14. Christusregnat

    Christusregnat Puritan Board Professor

    Try also Clark's work on the Trinity; he probably deals with the issue there, if anywhere, I would imagine; I read it years ago, but don't recall.


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