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Clark Gets the Last Word

In Apologetics, J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. on 29/07/2011 at 08:00

This is the third and last of Dr. Clark’s replies to Buswell’s review and critique of Clark’s work, A CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION. Buswell had begun with a review of that work, to which Clark replied, Buswell commented, and so on. As with the Buswell-Van Til exchange, in this exchange Buswell gives his opponent the last word (though in Van Til’s case, Buswell peppered CVT’s final reply with editorial comments. Clark at least faired better, in that regard.

System and Induction


This is the third in a series of short articles by Dr. Clark. The others, accompanied by argumentative editorial comments of my own, are found in the December 1947 and January 1948, issues of The Bible Today. The series was started off by my review of his recent book, A Christian Philosophy of Education, in The Bible Today for October, 1947.

I must confess that, as I see it, Dr. Clark fails in the present article to meet the issues. Rather than repeating, I suggest that the reader who wishes answers to what Dr. Clark says and to the questions he asks here, will find the answers in my editorials in the December and January issues. My arguments have not been answered.

(While searching, the reader might look for the alleged place where I have “admitted that the cosmological argument is a formal logical fallacy.” I haven’t found that place!) For the present then, I shall let Dr. Clark have the last word. I think you are making a great mistake, good brother. Ed.

A sound rule of Biblical exegesis is that the meaning of a crucial word should be determined by the context, the author’s usage, and his intent. For example, the meaning of the words faith, flesh, redeem, sin, life, death, are neither necessarily nor usually just the same in the New Testament as they are in pagan writers. To assume that the meanings are the same would reduce parts of the New Testament to absurdity. Similarly it is a sound rule for criticizing contemporary books to determine the meaning of the author. If one of his words interpreted in one way makes nonsense of some of his paragraphs, it would be wiser to seek another meaning than to jump to the conclusion that the author makes no sense. Furthermore, an author may use the same word in several senses. A critic cannot legitimately require a writer to confine himself to just one strict meaning.

It seems to me that Dr. Buswell in his book review of A Christian Philosophy of Education and in his two Editorial Comments violates this principle of interpretation. He seems to insist, even in his January Editorial Comment, that system can mean only “a more or less consistent or inconsistent complex of thoughts.”

I defended the legitimacy of my usage of the word system by two citations. The first was from Brand Blanshard: The Nature of Thought. Dr. Buswell, it seems to me, confuses the isuue by first objecting to elements of Professor Blanshard’s philosophy. I too am in fundamental disagreement with that philosophy; but the point at issue was not certain phases of rationalistic idealism, but whether the word system can be used in the sense of a perfectly consistent series of propositions. Having thus confused the issue, Dr. Buswell continues by arguing that Professor Blanshard did not so use the word system. His reason is that Professor Blanshard uses the word system in the other sense also. If by “fragmentary systems, whose parts are connected by the most diverse relations” Professor Blanshard indeed means “more or less inconsistent complex of thoughts,” still it does not follow that he has not also used the word in the sense of a perfectly consistent series of truths. An author cannot legitimately be required to use a word in only one sense.

Webster’s Dictionary also, to which Dr. Buswell appeals, allows of several meanings. There is nothing in Webster that requires Dr. Buswell’s preferred meaning. In fact neither Webster nor Funk and Wagnalls even mention Dr. Buswell’s inconsistent complex.

The second citation I made to defend my usage of the word system came from the Presbyterian ordination vows. One of these vows contains the phrase“the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” It seems obvious to me that this does not mean ‘the more or less inconsistent complex of thoughts taught in the Holy Scriptures.’ But Dr. Buswell in his January Editorial Comment says I am in error: “Dr. Clark’s error in citing Presbyterian usage is in his failing to mention that before the statement accepting the Westminster standards ‘as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures’ every Presbyterian minister was required to declare that he believed the Scriptures to be the Word of God’.” I fail to see the error. I think rather I have justified my usage against Dr. Buswell’s criticism.

But perhaps Dr. Buswell has granted me reluctant permission to use the word system as I have done. His next criticism is that by such a usage “Dr. Clark has removed the ‘system’ of unbelief so far into the abstract that it cannot interfere with evangelism.” Would it were so easy to remove interferences with evangelism! But instead of being removed into some far off sphere of abstract irrelevance, it seems to me that this notion of system lays the basis for evangelism and that, other things being equal, a Christian who is conscious of system will be a more effective evangelist than one who is not. To justify the relevance of system to evangelistic effort, it is necessary to speak first of the system of truth and second of the system of unbelief.

The basis of the notion of system and its importance for the Gospel is seen most directly in the doctrine of God’s omniscience. When a certain fundamentalist minister writes that there are some things God does not know, he is not preaching the Gospel. But when the Bible ascribes wisdom to God.

when John identifies Christ as the Logos, when it is revealed that God sees the end from the beginning and works all things after the counsel of his will, more is meant than that God knows a collection of items. It seems to me that the implication is that God’s mind is a system. Dr. Buswell says “The truth is a perfectly consistent system in the sense that it contains no logical contradictories, not in the sense that every element is implied by the system” (January, Editorial Note). Now, it seems to me that Dr. Buswell’s remark is decidedly inadequate. For example, a series of statements such as, two and two are four, Columbus discovered America, David was King of Israel, the Hudson River is in New York, is perfectly consistent in the sense that the series contains no logical contradictories; but such a haphazard collection I should not care to call a system. God’s mind is not a haphazard collection. While Dr. Buswell objects to the idea that every truth in God’s mind implies or is implied by every other truth, yet this surely is nearer the truth than Dr. Buswell’s (possibly haphazard) collection of non-contradictory items. Everything in the Bible seems to me to imply that God’s mind is an orderly, completely integrated system. The integration may depend on teleological relationships rather than on formal deduction, and in this sense the word implies may convey a wrong meaning; but in popular terms every item of God’s knowledge must surely fit in with every other item.

This also seems to me to solve the philosophic problem of truth. The three chief contenders in this field are the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, and the pragmatic theory. For reasons too numerous to include here, I believe pragmatism leads to complete skepticism. The correspondence theory would require us to compare an idea we have in consciousness with some utterly unknown object. This is impossible. The coherence theory remains.

It cannot be charged with skepticism. If it is objected that it requires an impossibility,
viz. that a man be omniscient, the reply is that its Hegelian form may involve such an impossibility; but this impossibility does not occur in the Christian system where an omniscient God makes a definite revelation to man. Hence, it is not necessary for a man to know everything before he knows anything. The subjective knowledge of any man depends not on his own complex of thoughts but on God’s system and on the fact of revelation. And contrary to what seems to be Dr. Buswell’s opinion, this is not at all inconsistent with God’s sovereign grace.

With many things omitted, it is now necessary to rush on to discuss the system of unbelief and determine whether or not it has been removed into some far off sphere of irrelevance.

The book from which this discussion took its departure had to do with the establishment of Christian schools. It was not a general introduction to philosophy. I did not think it necessary or expedient to treat of other problems in any extended way. Therefore I did not discuss the notion of system. It has now been seen that Professor Blanshard uses the word in two senses; I used it in a sense different from Dr. Buswell’s; and the dictionaries list six or eight meanings. I have also argued above that it is legitimate for an author to use a word in more than one sense. The Old Testament uses the word flesh in at least four different meanings.

Now, in A Christian Philosophy of Education one sentence to which Dr. Buswell objected was, “there is no common ground between Christianity and a non-Christian system.” Christianity, I have tried to say, is not only a but the perfectly consistent, integrated system of truth. A non-Christian “system” is something a little different, for fortunately for me, if not for my readers, English is somewhat elastic. By a non-Christian system, however, I do not mean the actual, subjective, more or less inconsistent complex of thoughts of any one man. In an evangelistic apologetic effort one may show an unbeliever that his naturalistic opinions contradict some other opinion he also holds — an opinion consistent with or favorable toward Christianity. And it is true that the Holy Ghost may use this revelation of his inconsistency in, regenerating him and convicting him of sin. But on the other hand the unbeliever may reply; “I see that I unfortunately have not yet sloughed off all my childish supernaturalistic superstitions; thank you for showing me this; I now reject this Christian opinion and will henceforth conform more closely to my naturalistic system.” It is his system, not because he has it all consciously, but because he is progressing toward it. Similarly in Christian circles we may say that Calvin’s system was not the man Calvin’s more or less inconsistent complex of thoughts, but God’s perfect system to which he so closely approximated. The difference between the two systems lies in this — at least it seems so to me: the Christian system is truth and the only basis of truth; the non-Christian
system when exhaustively analyzed reduces to skepticism. Hence, the evangelistic-apologetic approach (with people whose, minds think along these lines) should be to show that naturalism consistently worked out leads to skepticism and makes life meaningless. Accordingly this notion of system and the denial of common ground between systems is not irrelevant to evangelism but a very important consideration. But though more important than Dr. Buswell was willing to admit, I have no notion that argument, discussion, or even preaching the Gospel will regenerate an unbeliever. A change of heart,
a change of mind (repentance), is the work of the Holy Ghost.

Perhaps now it begins to become clear that induction, to which Dr. Buswell attaches so much importance, seems of much less importance to me. He says and I agree with him that “I do not believe any one ever approaches any facts in complete neutrality.” How then can he say only a few lines below in the January Editorial Note, “I, for one, testify that I sometimes see facts which could in no reasonable way be ascribed to my presuppositions.” Our presuppositions are like the red cellophane or colored glasses to which Dr. Buswell previously referred: we see everything through them. The difficulty with the illustration is that while we may remove our glasses and still see, we cannot remove our minds and still think. It is an erroneous opinion that scientists simply observe facts and discover a law by induction. On the contrary, no laws of physics are discovered: they are chosen. Scientific data never force the choice of one law. With the most delicate measurements possible, there is still a wide range, an infinitely wide range of choice. And the scientist’s choice depends on his presuppositions. With exactly the same observed data, either of two mutually contradictory laws may legitimately be chosen: or, better, with nothing but observed data, there is no ground for any choice. Laws are not obtained by induction-witbout-presuppositions. It is for this reason that a pre- Newtonian theory of refraction, repudiated through the nineteenth century, has again been accepted.

Hence, so far as I understand them, I accept Dr. Buswell’s words, “He seems to say in effect that there are no facts which speak except in and through presuppositions. These presuppositions seem to be innate ideas.” Just what this has to do with Leibnizian monads and other parts of Leibniz’ system, I don’t know. Neither do I know how Dr. Buswell proposes to use Romans 1:20 against me. Since Dr. Buswell himself has admitted that the cosmological argument is a formal logical fallacy[1] he can no more than I interpret this verse to mean that the cosmological argument is valid. The Roman Catholics so interpret it because they adopt Aristotle’s or Thomas’ proof of the existence of God. But with my view of system, demonstration, presupposition, and induction, I am free to interpret Romans 1:20 as referring to evidence and not to the cosmological argument taken as formally valid. The views I have defended seem to me to furnish a sound basis for a refutation of the Roman Catholic Philosophy and, although Dr. Buswell implies that I have misread Calvin, these views also follow in the general Augustinian and Calvinistic tradition.

If Dr. Buswell continues to object, may I ask one question in three ways? Does Dr. Buswell reject Thomistic epistemology, and if so, on what basis? Does Dr. Buswell hold that all knowledge is based on sensation, and if not, what is his epistemology? Does Dr. Buswell believe that man is made in God’s image, and that, as Calvin says, “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 … An idea of God is naturally engraved on the hearts of men” (I.iii.3; iv.4).


[1] See editorial note above.

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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