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Clark’s Reply

In J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. on 24/07/2011 at 18:35

Continuing our series on the 1947-1948 exchange between J. Oliver Buswell and Gordon H. Clark, the following is Clark’s initial reply to Buswell’s review of Clark’s book, A CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION. And as with the series of exchanges between Buswell and Van Til, this series too provides a lesson in the exercise of Christian polemics.

Dr. Clark Comments


DR. BUSWELL, whose zeal for the cause of Christ I admire and whose friendship I value, has generously offered me the opportunity to comment on his review[1] of my book, A Christian Philosophy of Education. The points raised in the review are so numerous that it would require more than a volume to deal with them all. I must therefore refrain from analyzing Dr. Buswell’s various arguments against my position, and direct attention to one point, a very important point, where Dr. Buswell has misapprehended my meaning.

On page four Dr. Buswell says, “He denies that we have any common ground, in facts and rationality, with unbelievers.” This does not happen to be the case.

It may be that some contemporary Calvinists, in their efforts to state the Biblical position and to defend it against humanism, have denied “any common ground, in facts and rationality, with unbelievers.” To me, however, this denial seems unscriptural and therefore untrue. All men are made in the image of God, even though the image is marred by sin; and all men are inhabitants of one and the same universe. These are two “grounds” in common.

The quotation from A Christian Philosophy of Education, p. 164, which Dr. Buswell uses in this connection, does not deny such common ground. If it is read in its context, one will see that it says “There is no such thing as a common ground between Christianity and a non-Christian system. From a world naturalistically conceived, one cannot argue to the God of Christianity.”

In this philosophical discussion it has seemed important to me to distinguish between a system of thought and an actual person. Since everyone is fallible, since some people hold more erroneous views than others, it is clear that a given Christian does not have all the truth or all the system. Some of the system he must believe in order personally to be a Christian; some of the system he may not know at all; and some parts of the system he may consciously reject. For example, Calvinists and Arminians accuse each other of rejecting parts of Biblical teaching. Therefore what is true of an inconsistent person is not necessarily true of a consistent system. And I have maintained that there is a common ground among persons, but not among systems.

Dr. Buswell is not the only person who has failed to see this distinction. Probably the fault lies in my manner of expression. Doubtless the immediate interest in Christian schools led to a too concise and therefore obscure formulation of more basic and more general philosophic principles. But that the distinction is important may be shown by noting, in one or two cases, the effect of this misapprehension on other parts of Dr. Buswell’s review.

On page five Dr. Buswell quotes the argument that the resurrection viewed as an isolated historical event does not prove that Christ died for our sin. This should be obvious, for other people have been raised from the dead, and yet they had not died for our sin. Clearly therefore a resurrection does not prove an atonement. Then says Dr. Buswell,

“But I insist that the phrase, ‘viewed purely as an isolated historical event’ is an unreasonable qualification, contrary to all the presuppositions in traditional presentation of Christian evidences. Dr. Clark does not believe that any historical event is ‘isolated’ and neither do the atheistic naturalists.”

Dr. Buswell is entirely correct when he says that I do not believe that historical events are isolated. I believe that the meaning of the proposition “Christ rose from the dead” depends on its inclusion in God’s system of truth. The meaning of “Christ died for sin” similarly depends on the same system. And in that system the two propositions are related to each other.

But I am not so sure that all the atheistic naturalists deny the existence of isolated events. At least some opponents of Christianity argue that if we examine the facts, the facts of physics or the facts of history, without prejudice or presupposition, the facts themselves will disprove Christianity. It is these people whom I am parodying on page thirty-five. My aim is to show that there must always be presuppositions, and when the naturalist appeals to facts he is deceiving himself if he thinks his interpretation is without presuppositions. Even if he as a person fails to recognize them, the system he advocates is based on them.

Similarly the Christian does not really appeal to bare facts. He offers an interpretation of facts which presupposes God.

And this too is one reason why I reject the traditional theistic proofs. Those proofs were supposed to start from “neutral” facts and arrive, by logical demonstration, at the existence, not merely of some God, but the triune God. To my way of thinking, this simply cannot be done. Arguments based on neutral facts can never conclude with a Creator. And if one does not begin with neutral or isolated facts, he must begin either with facts atheistically interpreted or with facts theistically interpreted. The former facts would disprove God; and the latter facts, far from demonstrating God’s existence, presuppose it.

Of course the heavens declare the glory of God. They declare God’s glory to man who is already created in God’s image. Such verses in the Bible do not show that the cosmological argument is valid. They mean rather that man who is born with a knowledge of God may recognize God in God’s works. A being not made in God’s image, a being with no innate sense of Deity, could never recognize the marks of Deity in the heavens. Thus the heavens, and history too, give evidence for God and for Christianity, but they do not give (geometrical) demonstration.

Similarly, unless man was made in God’s image, unless the law of God was written on man’s heart, man could perceive no difference between right and wrong. Because God’s law is written on the hearts of the heathen (and this is a common ground), they are without excuse. This law is something deeper and more fundamental than any conclusion asserted to be the result of experience. It is innate—an original gift of God in creation. Thus it will be seen that Dr. Buswell on page 10 of his review has misapprehended my argument on page 107. On that page I was chiefly concerned to contrast a grade school text-book which explains the Psalms as the experience and reflection of nomadic shepherds, with the Bible which explains them as an authoritative revelation. David did not just reflect on the stars and his sheep. God spoke! Further, without a revelation from God, no one could know what God requires. Hence I connected (not obedience, but) the knowledge of God’s requirements with revelation.. I did not connect this knowledge only with the Scriptures, for although all Scripture is revelation, not all revelation is Scripture. For this reason I did not do what Dr. Buswell says I did, viz: “Dr. Clark teaches (p. 107) that the idea of obedience to God without special reference to the Scripture is contrary to Christian doctrine. Paul, however, teaches in the second chapter of Romans that there may be a time of true obedience to the Lord prior to a competent understanding of the rightful place of God’s revealed Word.” A rereading of page 107 will now show that I did not connect the knowledge of God’s requirements with the Scriptures only; and much less did I connect it with the irrelevant notion of “a competent understanding of the rightful place of God’s revealed Word.”

For these and similar reasons it seems important to me to make the distinction between a person and a system. What is true of the one need not be true of the other. At any rate I believe that there is a common ground in innate knowledge between the believer and the unbeliever, but that there is no common ground between the system of theism and the system of atheism. And, finally, I wish publicly to express my appreciation of Dr. Buswell’s kindness in asking me to reply to his review.

Gordon H. Clark


[1The Bible Today, October 1947, pp 3ff.

Articles in the Buswell-Clark Series :
1. “A Christian Philosophy of History: A Book Review,” by J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., The Bible Today 41.1 (October 1947): 3-15.
2. “Dr. Clark Comments,” by Gordon H. Clark, The Bible Today 41.3 (December 1947): 67-70.
3.  ”Dr. Clark’s Comments—Editorial Note,” by J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., The Bible Today 41.3 (December 1947): 70-74.
4. “Does the Bible Sanction Apologetic?,” by Vernon Grounds, The Bible Today 41.3 (December 1947): 84-89.
4. “Concerning System and Demonstration,” by Gordon H. Clark, The Bible Today 41.4 (January 1948): 109-114.
5.  ”Editorial Comment,” by J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., The Bible Today 41.4 (January 1948): 114-118.
6. “System and Induction,” by Gordon H. Clark, The Bible Today 41.6 (March 1948): 173-177.

On a related note, see also these articles by the Rev. David S. Clark, father of Gordon H. Clark :
1. The Philosophical Basis of Christianity, by Rev. David S. Clark, The Presbyterian 94.50 (11 December 1924): 6-7.
2. Modernism and the Higher Criticism, by Rev. David S. Clark, D.D., The Presbyterian 95.1 (1 January 1925): 8-9.

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