Primary Sources for the Presbyterian Masses

Clark Elaborates His Approach

In Apologetics, J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. on 26/07/2011 at 10:34

Clark now replies with some elaboration of his apologetic approach.

Concerning System and Demonstration


Dr. Clark very kindly gives us here a clarification of his use of the word “system”, and further comment on so called “isolated facts”, “neutral facts”, and geometrical “demonstration.” Editorial comment follows his article; see page 114 and following.Ed.

Since the philosophic problems of evidence are of such great importance for the effective presentation of the gospel, I greatly appreciate the generous invitation of Dr. Buswell’s Editorial Note (December 1947) to discuss briefly the notions of “system” and “demonstration.” As an introduction to this matter, I should like first to repeat something from my Comments and place it beside a part of Dr. Buswell’s Editorial Note.

In the Comments I pointed out that the book, A Christian Philosophy of Education, denied a common ground between Christian and non-Christian systems, but it did not deny a common ground between regenerate and unregenerate individuals. Dr. Buswell, quoting the paragraph in his Editorial Note, prefaces the quotation with the statement, “he has made important concessions to the point of my argument.” And he also speaks of “The distinction which Dr. Clark’s reply now makes between a non-Christian system and non-Christian people . . .”  This distinction, Dr. Buswell continues, “seems to me to involve and lead up to a complete surrender of his position.”

To this I wish to repeat that the distinction was not made just “now” in the Comments. It is not at all a “concession” to Dr. Buswell’s review, but on the contrary it is found explicitly in the book itself. Nor is the idea of a system confined to the one paragraph Dr. Buswell quotes. The first chapter of the book virtually defines educational endeavor as the striving toward a system; the argument of the second chapter, involving the criticism of the traditional proofs of God’s existence, depends on the notion of system (cf. pp. 48, 49 and passim); the several chapters against neutrality have the same basis; and in short the notion of system rather permeates the book. I am therefore forced to conclude that Dr. Buswell has viewed as a “concession” what in reality is his own better understanding of what I explicitly said.

In order further to elucidate, I must ask agreement to the proposition that all men are more or less inconsistent. The fact that you and I are born again Christians does not mean that everything we think is Christian truth. This should be obvious because we sometimes contradict each other. If you are right, I am wrong; and in this case what I believe is not a part of the Christian system. Hence clarity requires a sharp distinction between what a given person thinks and what the system really is.[*] If there were no such distinction, the beliefs of anyone who called himself a Christian could be taken for Christianity. Indeed, this is the point of view that Modernism with its anti-intellectualism actually adopts. To define Christianity the modernist does not determine the exact meaning of what the Bible says; he simply notes what ideas happen to be popular in his ecclesiastical fraternity. Accordingly the point must be emphasized that a Christian, even a true Christian, and Christianity are two different things. The Christian is inconsistent. Christianity is the whole consistent truth. Similarly an atheist and atheism are two different things. Atheism, a system, is as consistent as any false system can be. But an individual atheist not only may, but does believe propositions inconsistent with his professed atheism.

[*] Dr. Buswell doubts that the word is ever so used; but cf. Brand Blanshard, The Nature of Thought, Vol. I, p. 78. 

The atheistic system, and the professed atheist too, conceives the world as a non-created, self-existent entity. “A world naturalistically conceived” is precisely the system of atheism. A world naturalistically conceived is a world whose trees and whose stars have not been created by God. And I maintain that from such a world it is impossible to prove the existence of God or to derive any part of Christianity. If anyone doubts the truth of my position on this matter, he many convince himself by attempting to produce an argument that begins with a world naturalistically conceived and concludes with the existence of the triune God. The attempt would result in some such argument as this: animals and men, plants and planets are the evolutionary results of a purely natural process; nothing has been created and supernatural intervention is inconceivable; therefore, God exists. The argument is obviously absurd. From such an atheistic or naturalistic world, no Christian truth can be deduced. There is no proposition common to the two systems. There is no logical passage from one to the other. And until someone improves on this absurd argument, I shall have to maintain my original opinions.

Dr. Buswell apparently thinks that the word system cannot be properly used in the above sense; he even asserts that I have not so used it; and he seems to say that the word system must mean “a more or less consistent or inconsistent complex of thought.” If this were so, modernists in Presbyterian pulpits could more easily salve their consciences. At their ordination they were asked: “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?” And the modernists could answer, “Yes, I receive the Confession as the more or less inconsistent complex of thoughts taught in the Bible.” I do not believe that the ordination vow was originally so intended.

One purpose in emphasizing system is to exclude the notion of neutral facts. In one or two passages I used the expression “isolated facts.” This seems to have conveyed the idea that there are people who believe that no fact has any relation whatsoever to any other fact. Such an idea is so extreme that it is not wonder Dr. Buswell objected to it, even though the context and the argument had nothing to do with such a view. However, William James and Bertrand Russell seem to assert that some groups of events, interrelated among themselves, are totally unrelated to other groups of events. Russell was cited on p. 37 of A Christian Philosophy of Education. Similarly A Pluralistic Universe (pp. 321-322) by James excludes system and with system excludes Christianity in the words: “nothing . . . dominates over everything . . . However much may be collected, however much may report itself as present at any effective center of consciousness or action something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity.”

As a description of human efforts to grasp the system of truth, James’ statement is undoubtedly accurate. Our greatest success leaves us with many gaps, spots, and jumps, or, as Dr. Buswell might say, with a more or less inconsistent complex of thoughts. But William James meant more than this. If the words are read again and carefully, it will be seen that James intended to rule out the notion of an almighty and omniscient God. Conversely, the Christian doctrine of omniscience requires the notion of system and prevents us from viewing the world as composed of isolated groups of facts.

Nor can Christianity allow the existence of neutral facts, i.e. facts whose meanings can be determined without theological presuppositions. Dr. Buswell in his Editorial Note says that he thinks nobody believes in neutral facts. I think that many people do; was this not the usual “scientific” attitude, at least until quite recently? Sir Isaac Newton’s famous claim that he did not invent hypotheses was characteristic of nineteenth century physics. It was argued that the facts themselves, apart from the scientists’ wishes, choices, or manipulations, irresistibly forced certain conclusions. The facts themselves were there with all their meaning, and should be accepted in their own right without presuppositions, bias, or prejudice. This is a refrain that is very familiar to me. And while Dr. Buswell was writing his Editorial Note, I was reading a current book review to the effect that a certain history of the faith is “unembellished with miracles and, generally, free from dogmatic predilections.” It seems to me worth while to point out that such claims are false. A predilection against miracles is as dogmatic as a predilection in favor of miracles. When unbelievers object to Christianity on the basis that it views the world on the basis of undemonstrated hypotheses, the reply should plainly be made that everyone more or less consciously bases his conclusions on undemonstrated assumptions. There are no facts, no meaningful facts, apart from presuppositions. And hence I stated that unless we begin by assuming the Triune God, we shall never get to God at all.

Perhaps Dr. Buswell’s illustrations of red lights and green glasses can serve a purpose, though usually illustrations do not illustrate. But let us say that the Christian looks out of his eyes through theistic glasses; that is, the Christian thinks of the world by means of theistic presuppositions. Therefore he thinks that the plants and planets have been created. The atheist uses naturalistic glasses or presuppositions and thinks the world uncreated. Both Christian and atheist use and must use glasses. And regeneration is the only way by which the atheist can get a new pair.

Consequently, the Christian viewpoint is the result neither of isolated nor of neutral facts. It is not the result of induction at all. The knowledge of God must precede a Christian view of the world. If we know God to begin with, we can see that the world is created. But if we have something other than God as our presupposition, we see other things. And if we have no presuppositions, we simply do not see. Dr. Buswell wrote, “we take the facts not as neutral, but as they are seen; we then show that the facts truly lead toward the Christian position.” It seems nearer the truth to say: we take the facts as they are seen—through theistic presuppositions—and then we show that the facts follow from (rather than lead toward) the Christian position.

In addition to the theories of James and Russell and in addition to the so-called scientific attitude, there is opposition to the Christian system from another angle. This has to do with demonstration.

In his Editorial Note Dr. Buswell said, “Dr. Clark persists in challenging the traditional evidences for the Christian view of God on the ground that they do not give geometrical demonstration.” This sentence is inaccurate. Nowhere in A Christian Philosophy of Education did I disparage Christian evidences. Chapter two attempted to forewarn some over enthusiastic Christians against pressing evidences too far and falling into a trap. If anything, my view shows how evidences are possible. They are not possible when viewed as furnishing strict demonstration. Dr. Buswell continues, “But he does not answer the fact that geometry never can demonstrate the existence of anything.” Of course geometry cannot demonstrate the existence of anything physical. It does demonstrate in its construction theorems the existence of certain figures. And these, I should hold, are just as “real” as any physical object. But all this is beside the point. My purpose in referring to geometry was not to discuss the reality of ideal figures, but to indicate examples of rigorous logical proof. The theorems of geometry are demonstrated. There is no fallacy in the argument. Given the premises there is not any theoretical possibility that the conclusion might not follow. Dr. Buswell also writes, “I deny that the traditional proofs for the existence of God ‘were supposed to start from neutral facts . . .’ . . . No competent theologian claims that any inductive argument, or any argument for any existing thing affords a ‘demonstration’ in this impossible sense.” But I believe that Dr. Buswell is mistaken on this point. I apprehend that this is exactly the Thomist or Roman Catholic position. The Roman Catholic theologians claim that it is possible to begin with the fact of motion and, without any theological assumptions, prove by strict logic that God exists. Their whole system proceeds on the assumption that all knowledge is based on sensation, that the mind has no form of its own, and is actually nothing before it thinks. Then by a process of abstraction from sensory material, theological conclusions can be obtained with syllogistic certainty. But the closer I examine the Thomistic arguments for the existence of God, the more I am convinced that the syllogisms are invalid. The more too I am convinced that the sensory epistemology underlying them is false. And the more I prefer to stress presupposition and innate knowledge rather than induction and “unprejudiced,” neutral experience.

These are some of the considerations that have led me to reject the theistic proofs and accept the words of Calvin: “We lay it down as a position not to be controverted, that the human mind, even by natural instinct, possesses some sense of a Deity” (I iii 1). “All have by nature an innate persuasion of the Divine existence. . . . This is a doctrine, not first to be learned in the schools, but which every man from his birth is self-taught” (I iii 3). “An idea of God is naturally engraved on the hearts of men” (I iv 4).

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.

%d bloggers like this: