Reflections on Biblical and
Christian Philosophy

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Response to Ronald Nash and Arthur Holmes on Gordon Clark

 

On this site, I will try to explain how others misunderstand Gordon Clark.  I say “explain,” rather than defend because he defends himself better than anyone else.  However, as one of his strong supporters, I admit that he is hard to read and understand.  This difficulty may be due to his style which often begins and continues with the false arguments and propositions of others.  From there, he weaves his criticisms and his own thinking into the text.  Many have commented that they do not always know when Clark is speaking for himself and when he is just presenting the other person’s point of view.  I happen to agree with that difficulty.  Another problem may be that great minds leap from thought to thought, rather than sentences that are fully explanatory and closely connected in that train of thought.  Finally, the problem may be what Clark said of the Apostle Paul.  His style is “crabby.”   

 

I start with Nash probably because he has only two disagreements (actually only one).  Most others have numerous disagreements.  For some of these and Clark’s own rebuttal, the reader should obtain The Philosophy of Gordon Clark, edited by Nash (if he can find a copy, as it is long out of print).  This book first presents Clark’s views, contributors’ agreements and disagreements, and finally Clark’s rebuttal.

 

After high praise for Gordon Clark here and throughout his book, Ronald Nash disagrees with Clark on two issues:

 

As I see it, Clark went too far on two key issues.  First, he erred by viewing the Christian world-view as a deductive or axiomatic system.  Second, he believed that human knowledge is limited to the Scripture.  According to Clark’s deductive presuppositionalism, if some presupposition is not actually revealed in Scripture or deducible from other propositions so revealed, it is unknowable by human beings.  One major difficulty with Clark’s theory is its obvious incompatibility with all kinds of human knowledge not attainable in the way he describes.  I know, for example, that my wife exists; but I see no way of deducing the true proposition that reports her existence from anything in the Bible.  I also know that in 1948, Lou Boudreau led his American League team in batting with an average of .355.  Surely anyone who could deny that humans can know such propositions is using the word knowledge in a very idiosyncratic way.

 

Nash then quotes Arthur Holmes with his comments that are a “proper response to Clark’s extreme position.”

 

Philosophy as a part of life and an expression of faith is no purely logical science, abstracted from life, that proceeds unimpassionately.  Philosophy done from any perspective is more like adducing meanings than deducing conclusions, more like expanding a world-hypothesis than working out a theorem, more like elaboration of a vision or the etching in a coherent picture than the operation of a computer.  Other variables are at work than a specified set of propositions, variables with axiomitization cannot fully overcome but which are ingredient to the philosopher’s historic-cultural situation, his individual existence, even to his particular heritage of faith and thought within the spectrum of Biblical Christianity.

 

Nash has two disagreements to start with, but his quote of Holmes considerably expands his own differences into other areas.  I will begin with Nash’s particular comments and then move to Holmes.

 

Actually, it seems that Nash has only one disagreement.  “A Christian world-view as a deductive or axiomatic system” and “human knowledge … limited to the propositions contained in the Bible” seems to be one and the same to me.  “System” and “human knowledge … limited to … propositions” are different ways of expressing one approach.  Nash actually confirms this because both his illustrations involve empirical evidence (something abhorrent to Clark, indeed!). 

 

Nash is right that Clark posits a system.  Does Nash?  Does Holmes?  Does anyone else?  Clark’s system posits as its “axiom,” the Bible is inerrant and sufficient in the traditional and evangelical understanding of those two characteristics.  (Here, I would differ with Clark in terminology, as I prefer first principle, rather than axioms because of its connotation with geometry.  “Axiom” seems to make Christ and Christianity somewhat sterile and could be offensive to many on that basis alone, as it seems to be in the quote from Holmes.) 

 

The Bible has to be a first principle because it is the only means whereby any knowledge is possible.   To get to Nash’s wife or to a batting average, it is necessary to first know whether any knowledge is possible.  Only through God’s Word can we know that knowledge is possible.  Standard proposals in philosophy are these.  How can I know that I am not dreaming or that all experience is not an illusion?  How do I know for certain about anything in the past, five centuries ago or five seconds ago?  How is language and communication possible between two or more people?  These questions are unanswerable apart from some way to know that they have answers.  Certainly, neither philosophy nor the world’s religions provide any certain foundation for such knowledge, for which one has the true interpretation of man and his universe? 

 

The Bible gives us this certainty, as a derivative proposition or theorem from its first principle.  God is the Creator and Absolute who gives order and meaning to the universe.  Since He is able to communicate truth by His Words, we can be confident that we can communicate with Him and with each other.  Cornelius van Til and Greg Bahnsen discussed this apologetic more than Clark.  That is, one cannot begin a conversation or begin to think without assuming the Biblical, theistic worldview.  This presupposition is not often fully appreciated.  Language is very highly structured.  We use it so easily, but every now and then we discover that a failure to be precise can result in hurt feelings (as all husbands and wives know) and even death (missing a Stop sign).  Without someone or something giving order to the universe, language and reasoning would not be possible.  Thus, a first principle has to posit how this highly structured order came to be, before any other discussion can take place.

 

Another example of a failure to appreciate this fundamental philosophical (and religious) principle can be found in Creation Science.  This science proves nothing.  It is as tenuous as evolutionary science.  Sure, it makes Christians feel good that there is a science that is consistent with the Bible.  But its knowledge is merely historical application of inductive reasoning.  As Clark pointed out so clearly and so often (as have many other philosophers), induction never arrives at truth because it can never survey every applicable parameter in the universe.  It must draw its inferences from very limited pieces of empirical evidence.  Gravity was once thought to be a constant, but is now known to be absent in certain systems in the universe.  Science is always changing.  Truth can never change, by definition.  If there is no unchanging truth, then there is no knowledge.

 

This confusion about the truth of science and the structure of language are similar because both function so well.  As I stated above, language works really, really well—most of the time!  Science works really, really well—most of the time.  For their truth, however, both are dependent upon parameters outside of themselves.  Language is dependent upon the rules of definition, syntax, grammar, and punctuation.  Science is dependent upon the criteria upon which it was formulated.  For example, the formula for the speed of a falling object, S=1/2gt2 is limited to an object falling in a vacuum at sea level.  Duh!  Where do those conditions exist in the universe? Nowhere!  But that formula is extremely helpful, with modifications in application, to all sorts of interplanetary and inter-atmospheric calculations.

 

We have now arrived at a place where we can examine Nash’s two examples of knowledge that cannot be derived from Scripture.  First, knowledge is only possible because God structured language and man’s mind so that communication is possible.  Nash could neither know his wife nor Boudreau’s batting average, if God had not given that structure to language, allowing communication.  So, in the sense that God makes all communication possible, Nash’s examples are deducible from Scripture.  A construction would go something like this. 

 

Communication is possible because God designed language to function in that way. 

My wife because has characteristics that I can identify that are unique to herself. 

I can know my wife by these characteristics because God designed language and created people.

 

Similarly,

 

Communication is possible because God designed language function in that way.

Someone has calculated Boudreau’s batting average in 1948.

That number can be known by me because God has structured language and thinking.

 

This formulation should not be seen as a formal syllogism, but is close enough for one to understand how Nash could misinterpret Clark by not placing his statements within his system. 

 

Nash also says that Clark’s method is “incompatible with all kinds of human knowledge,” and that Clark used knowledge in a very idiosyncratic way.”  Now, Nash has gotten a little carried away with “all kinds of human knowledge.”  Just how many “kinds” are there?  Well, there are basically only four: innate, learned (experiential, empirical), revealed (supernatural, mystical), and reasoned (rational, logically derived).[1]  There are certainly many theories of knowledge, probably as many as there are philosophers!  But Nash’s own two examples are based upon empirical (inductive) knowledge.  So, Nash has overreached, and likely gone beyond what he meant to say, with “all kinds of knowledge.”

 

On a colloquial level, Nash is right that Clark uses knowledge in an idiosyncratic way—the idiosyncratic way of a philosopher who is not going to use knowledge in a colloquial way.  It is strange that the philosopher Nash would criticize the philosopher Clark in this way.  Should not philosophers first judge each other, as philosophers first, and perhaps only?

 

The only way to grant Nash’s criticism of Clark is either to posit a theory of knowledge based upon empiricism or to acknowledge that that are “brute” facts.  I doubt that Nash would be willing to accept either of these positions.  From my reading of him, these positions are incompatible with virtually everything else that Nash says. 

 

Then, it is strange that Nash says what he does about Clark.  I choose to believe that Nash just did not fully think through these matters consistently.  Or, he may not have understood Clark, which I said at the beginning is possible by Clark’s own style.  At any rate, unless one’s philosophy is created to be a system, it is only a bunch of isolated and disjointed facts.  Clark has created that system, and he demanded that all Christians develop a system, albeit sometimes he was apparently disjointed in his presentations. 

 

Nash’s most serious mistake, however, was using Arthur Holmes’ quote to substantiate Nash’s own position.  What Holmes’s says is far, far worse that what Nash said.

 

Arthur Holmes on Gordon Clark

 

In his statements, Holmes virtually disqualifies himself as a philosopher with anything helpful to say.  His statements are those warmly stated fuzzies that feel good to the listener, but are incredibly porous to rational thought and dangerous to the integrity of the Christian faith.

 

Augustine said, “I believe (have faith) in order to understand.”  Holmes said, “Faith (belief) is no purely logical science.”  Augustine proceeded to understand quite well based upon the best reasoning that he could use, that is, logic.[2]  Yes, knowledge begins with faith.  Augustine’s axiom of faith was that of Scripture.  Clark’s axiom of faith (all axioms are statements of faith) was that of Scripture.  What is Holmes’ axiom (first principle) of faith?  Would he say that Scripture is his axiom?  From the reading of two of his books, it seems that he gives a certain authority to Scripture, but not as the source of knowledge that governs all other knowledge or that the Scripture is our only source of absolute truth.  That is, Scripture is not his first principle.

 

Instead, Holmes grounds truth in the character of God.[3]  At first glance, what evangelical Christian would deny that grounding?  But the only absolute truth about God is found in the Bible.  In the sense of knowing truth about God that is propositional, coherent, and correspondent, the Bible is one’s only source.  Grounding truth in God virtually equates  knowledge (theology) of God with Biblical knowledge.  Elsewhere, Holmes is consistent with my analysis by his approach to ethics.

 

A pattern of moral reasoning now emerges, suggested by the Christian doctrines of creation and general revelation but developed via an account of universal and essential features of human existence.[4]

 

Again, this sentence sounds pietistically profound at its first reading!  And it sounds quite evangelical.  But it is first a sloppy statement, and second, it places the Bible within an eclectic approach that includes “general revelation.” But who or what defines and limits this source?  All human knowledge apart from Scripture comes from general revelation, including all religions.  And what is “universal and essential features of human existence?”  Again, who defines and limits those features?

 

In his quote about Clark, he would “adduce (add to) meanings” from—those “universal and essential features of human experience?”  He would “expand a world-hypothesis” that is not worked out with “theorems” (logical positions derived from Scripture)?  He would “elaborate a vision” from these “features” rather than being “coherent?”  He prefers “variables” rather than “specified propositions” which places truth on a changing basis and is not truth at all?  If “axiomitizations cannot fully overcome,” that is, logical reasoning based upon Scripture, can “historical-cultural” situation?”  And, if the philosopher cannot largely “overcome” his existential situation, then does he really have anything to say that is worthwhile?

 

I grant that my analysis here has been brief. But, if Holmes’ thought is anything, it is consistent.  This consistency precludes a more thorough and detailed analysis.  And his thinking is quite common to modern Christians.   They prefer what I term, the “warm fuzzies,” to rational and logical thinking.  These warm fuzzies are crippling for a life that is honoring to God and a message that proclaims the necessary truths of His Word that will impact a world in great need of Biblical truth.

 

While it may not be interesting to the reader, I made notes on my first reading of one of Holmes’ books in 1984 (printed in the dot matrix of that time).  One reason that I cite these notes is not to be totally negative.

 

I like this book!  It has many thoughts to recommend it.  For example, his false vs. secular distinction, his concept of truth that is both subjective and objective, his discussion of the strengths and weakness of inductive and deductive reasoning (helpful to me who is [was] a novice to the concept and usage of these terms), his emphasis that evangelism and missions are not the only roles for Christians (names the Creation Mandate), and many other discussions of general principles of philosophy.

 

But there are disagreements.  He does not develop the science-truth issue.  The Scriptures are mentioned, but are not central to the concept of truth.  A methodology is not discussed whereby the Scripture is to govern truth.  He seems to limit the application of Scripture by its “silence” …. He is wrong about the unwillingness of the unbeliever who is in rebellion against God.  He speaks of “natural” causes of error and of “natural” phenomena.  One must ponder his statement, “Truth is not found exclusively in Scripture.” 

 

So, even then, early in my philosophical and ethical pilgrimage, Holmes’ lack of commitment to Scripture was apparent.

 

One of my first uploads to this website was “How to Discern the Errors of Christians Who Are Philosophers.”  The second item on that list was one who uses “All Truth Is God’s Truth.”  As you will see by the footnote herein, that is the title of one of Holmes’ books. 

 

I would never want to deny the personal and heart-enriching dimension of Christianity.  But the primary principle is that sound philosophy is dependent upon sound theology.  Some of the Apostle Paul’s most ejaculatory praises followed his writing of sound doctrine (Romans 8:31-39, Romans 11:33-36; Ephesians 3:14-21).  That is the proper, Biblical order.  It is inescapable that emotions follow thoughts.   Now, once the emotions are present, they may induce other thoughts and actions.  But emotions, in themselves, have no thought content. 

 

You can do this simple experiment.  Try willing yourself within moments to move from happy to sad, then to angry, then to worry, then back to happy.  Can you do it?  Actually, I can, and you can—by moving to thoughts that bring those emotions.  But you cannot achieve those emotional states by focusing on them alone.

 

Modern Christians are not only impotent against a declining culture, they are contributing to it because of their emotional and superficial thinking. Neil Postman, no particular friend to Christianity, has described a “typographic” America from the time of the American Revolution to the Civil War.[5]

 

The Americans among whom (Benjamin) Franklin lived were as committed to the printed word as any group of people who have ever lived.  Whatever else may be said of those immigrants who came to settle in New England, it is a paramount fact that they and their heirs sere dedicated and skillful readers whose religious sensibilities, political ideas and social life were embedded in the medium of typography (the printed word).[6]

 

Postman’s words are prophetic.  I wonder how many Christians spend more time studying Scripture and its theology than they do watching television.

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

The works of Ronald Nash have little error, although they could be better.  The works of Arthur Holmes have some value, but only for those who are not misled by his “warm fuzzies.”  But then, if they are able to see through these generalities, they likely do not need his books in the first place.  Holmes is a typical, modern evangelical scholar.  He has some knowledge of the place of Scripture, but his approach does not give Scripture either its fullness of application nor its governing authority. 

 

Gordon Clark knows how to use the tools of philosophy to advance theology.  Philosophy is the handmaiden of theology, but if that theology is errant, even heretical, she will only serve to advance falsehood.  Ronald Nash valued Gordon Clark and learned from him.  Arthur Holmes cared little for what Gordon Clark had said which is reflected in his failure to understand a truly Biblical approach to philosophy or ethics.


Endnotes


[1] Many other synonyms could be added here.  I am coming to find that philosophy and theology could be greatly simplified with a dictionary of synonyms or near synonyms.  Without realizing how similar terms are, the vocabulary of these areas seems far more complex than it really is.

[2] Sometimes, Augustine, Clark, and others are criticized for using “Aristotle’s” logic.  Well, logic rightly understood is “God’s” logic who preceded and created Aristotle.  There is no other “logic.”  There is no “merely human” logic.  There is only God’s logic.  Man in his fallen state may misuse logic, but logic is the only method by which truth may be inferred from other truth.

[3] All Truth Is God’s Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977),  pages 37-38.

[4] Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, page 65.

[5] Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1985), pages 30-63.

[6] Ibid., page 31.


 

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