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The Philosophy Of Gordon Clark

If we may utilize the contemporary method of classifying epistemological positions as varieties of either foundationalism, coherentism, or contextualism, we might find it best to regard Van Tillian presuppositionalism as, formally, an instance of contextualist epistemology.

  • Joseph P. Braswell,
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If we may utilize the contemporary method of classifying epistemological positions as varieties of either foundationalism, coherentism, or contextualism, we might find it best to regard Van Tillian presuppositionalism as, formally, an instance of contextualist epistemology.1 Over against our Van Tillian contextualism and its assertion that the Triune God forms the ultimate and absolute context of knowing stand various attempts at employing a form of foundationalism for the task of epistemic warrant in Christian apologetics. There are of course the rational-evidentialists who simply attempt to use the foundationalism of the Enlightenment empiricism in the vein of Thomas Reid’s Common-Sense realism, and this is still the most common approach in popular apologetics. There is, however, also the foundationalism of Gordon H. Clark’s presuppositionalism, which is essentially Cartesian. It is this latter that here concerns us.

If we may compare Van Til with Kant on the one point that both ask how knowledge is possible, we may compare Clark with Descartes in that both begin by asking instead whether knowledge is possible. That is, Van Til and Kant accept as a given that knowledge is actual; they do not entertain any doubts about the actuality of successful knowing, but, accepting this as a fact, seek to lay bare the transcendental conditions which explain how it is that this knowing occurs—i.e., what must be presupposed to account for this phenomenon. Descartes and Clark, on the other hand, begin by questioning whether there is actual knowledge, and they bracket out all claims to knowledge of anything until it is first demonstrated that knowledge as such is even possible.

In a manner very similar to Descartes’ use of the method of hyperbolic doubt, Clark begins with a methodical skepticism that, setting the epistemic standard as that absolute certainty lying beyond any and every possible (including even the most remotely possible) doubt, critiques the inadequacy of epistemic claims based upon empiricism. No certain knowledge—no sure foundation—is obtainable on the basis of empiricism. Clark, however, is a dogmatist, not a Cartesian rationalist, so he, in seeming voluntarism, merely chooses what appears to be an altogether arbitrary pou sto that is not (as the Cartesian Cogito) proposed as an indubitable, self-evident truth of reason (a clear and distinct idea based on the consistency of reason). Nevertheless, he accepts the Geometric model posited by Descartes (a hallmark of Cartesianism that was employed most consistently by the Cartesian Spinoza) and makes his starting point an axiom.

Of course, we must be fair to Clark and note his justification for what seems to be an arbitrary and autonomous choice, an act of pure volition of a first principle that formally is on par with anyone else’s choice of any other starting point. What Clark has done is not done in a vacuum, and we cannot look at it in abstraction as though (despite appearances) it were sheer dogmatism. Clark’s axiom is the axiom of revelation; it is a revealed truth, not a truth man has autonomously discovered or simply posited of himself in a Sartrean manner. God has disclosed this truth to Clark; the Spirit of God bears witness to it in Clark’s consciousness, attesting to its truth convincingly with a full persuasion that issues in subjective certainty. Nevertheless, Clark knows that not all men have faith. This proposed axiom is not a universally self-evident truth, one that all men—believers and unbelievers alike—can see and judge to be a necessary truth by some alleged common principle of reason (logic). It cannot be justified in such a way; it can only be judged by its successful results in saving us from skepticism.2

For Clark, logic is the common ground-principle between believers and unbelievers (based on the argument in book gamma of Aristotle’s Metaphysics), but logic needs true premises—premises that are logically primitive, basic beliefs. We must have a source of such incontrovertibly certain truths—foundational truths—if we are to deduce anything by means of logic, since conclusions are only as good as the premises from which they derive. Clark also believes (following Augustine) that the assertion of skepticism is self-refuting and that skepticism is the reductio ad absurdum of any epistemological theory (i.e., any theory that leads to skepticism can be eliminated from further consideration). He thus seeks to eliminate all competition to his axiom by reducing all other epistemological contenders to skepticism. After the field is cleared of rationalism and empiricism, if he can show that the axiom he has proposed succeeds in making some knowledge possible (a set of propositions, however limited in number), he believes he has justified his starting point. The only test of his system of propositions is the logical test of the internal consistency of the system qua a coherent, noncontradictory system.

The Cartesian Predicament
If we are to draw comparisons between Clark and Descartes, asserting that Clark is in some ways a Cartesian, it will prove helpful as a preliminary to sketch Descartes’ philosophy. In a nutshell, Descartes, with his foundation in the Cogito, comes face to face with the so-called Cartesian Circle of the "Third Meditation." The problem for Descartes is how to move from coherence to correspondence, to make the clear and distinct ideas refer beyond the mere contents of his consciousness (the egocentric predicament). These ideas carry their own subjective certainty; Descartes finds that, according to the consistency of reason, they are indubitable, and he is constrained to assent to their truth by his very nature. Nevertheless, beyond this first-order level of psychological necessity, there lies the second-order problem of the omnipotent demon ("First Meditation") who may be malevolently deceiving Descartes by means of logic, compelling him to believe a lie on the basis of logical necessity and its inherent cogency. Logic compels Descartes’ belief, but reason may not answer to the way things are in the extra-mental world of res extensa that must, if knowledge is to be justified, agree with the clear and distinct ideas Descartes has formed of it in the "wax experiment" of the "Second Meditation." Until the possibility is eliminated beyond all doubt that he has been so constituted as to be incapable of believing truth, he cannot get beyond his own consciousness to speak of an external world; he must know with certainty that logic fits reality, that the consistency of reason lays hold of truth in the sense of correspondence so that our clear and distinct ideas refer. Descartes gets to the world beyond by means of the veracitas Dei. God is not a deceiver, so his creation by God as a rational being warrants his confidence that reason is a sure guide to truth. The "Third Meditation" offers an argument for the existence of God that allegedly bridges the gap from the realm of Descartes’ clear and distinct ideas to reality beyond. Descartes, realizing his own finitude and imperfection (his epistemological predicament of ignorance), can only know imperfection relative to a criteriological idea of perfection that he somehow possesses. He thus has an idea of God as the infinitely perfect being. This idea is either self-generated or its source is external. Descartes eliminates the possibility of self-generation because this would make the source inadequate to the content. The only adequate explanation of this idea is that God has implanted it in him, has caused him to have it. Thus, the idea has reference; he cannot not believe in God. That is, whenever he thinks about God (forms this clear and distinct idea of the perfect being), he is compelled to believe that God exists. He thus has arrived at an ontological proposition, an indubitably certain belief about a real state of affairs beyond his own consciousness wherein the consistency of reason asserts what must exist in re. Accordingly, so long as he keeps this belief before him, he cannot doubt what else reason informs him of concerning the external world. The second-order level of doubt is eliminated.

Descartes’ problem is that most philosophers do not believe that his argument for God’s existence is valid. Obviously, if belief in God is not justified, we cannot get the facts; we cannot bridge the gap to make a connection with an external (extramental) reality. Rationalism requires a valid proof of God to make contact between reason and facts, lest it remain but an abstract thought-experiment, an exercise of the speculative imagination that posits relations without relata—empty concepts.

Clark’s Dogmatism
Clark recognizes this problem and invites us to abandon rationalism for dogmatism. Let us abandon the idea of valid theistic proofs and simply presuppose God, for without God we cannot get the facts. Rather than a conclusion of a prior argument, belief in God must be taken as a premise for all subsequent arguments; "God exists" must be logically primitive—a basic belief. Thus, while Descartes could not validly get inside the circle of knowing, Clark’s solution seems to be the proposal that we will simply begin there, accepting that belief in God solves the problem of reference.

In a sense this proposal is acceptable to a Van Tillian. It is acceptable because man is the image of God and has a sensus deitatis and because man is everywhere surrounded by God’s revelation (general revelation). That is, the Van Tillian acknowledges that we can and should begin with belief in God, inside a theistic circle of knowing. Clark, however, does not work from the assumption that men in fact, to some extent, know the world truly (apprehend moments of truth) because all men know God. Instead, he asks us to begin in a vacuum with the Bible as the Word of God. Men know God only from the Bible, and thus they do not know the world unless they believe that the Bible is God’s Word and know what it says. Whereas Van Til justifies human knowing on the basis of a metaphysical presupposition (that man and the world are what the Bible says they are) and thus accounts for the unbeliever’s true beliefs, Clark effectively limits the apprehension of truth exclusively to believers. Again, Clark does not seek to account transcendentally for the fact of knowledge (its actuality); he asks whether knowledge is possible and asserts that it is possible only for those who believe the Bible, limiting all knowledge to what can be logically derived from its propositions. In Clark’s view, most of what we experience, what we are aware of, is not known; most of the beliefs we form cannot be epistemically asserted—and warranted—as true.

The criticism of Clark’s position is really much the same as the criticism of Descartes’ position. Even as Descartes cannot proceed in his reconstruction of human knowledge without a valid argument for the existence of God that begins within his egocentric world (a world limited to the contents of his individual consciousness), so Clark can proceed only if he can know what the Bible says. He cannot simply start with a small and closed circle—a tautology. Neither can he begin with a purely formal and abstract concept of Scripture, affirming simply that the Bible is the Word of God in implicit faith, without any understanding of the what of Scripture. He must be sure that he is not using empty (undefined, meaningless) words. He must be sufficiently informed from the material content of Scripture—the what of the Bible—as to what propositions are being affirmed as divine revelation and especially what is meant by "God"—what sort of God we are referring to as the author of the Bible (obviously one whose authorship of this book entails its absolute veracity). Yet to do all that he must be able to identify (locate, point to) the Bible, distinguishing it from other objects, and he must be able to read the Bible or hear its message proclaimed. Knowledge of the Bible depends to some extent upon reliable sense-experience. However, Clark, adopting the stance of the Pyhrronean skeptics, has cast all sense-experience into question. According to Clark, we know nothing on the basis of perception, for what we think we see and hear is subject to Cartesian doubt (falling short of absolute and unassailable certainty). Yet, whereas Descartes believed that belief in God warranted belief in the empirical ("Sixth Meditation"), Clark —apparently throwing out the empirical baby with the empiricist bathwater—refuses to go this route and so seems to have no justifiable way of coming into epistemic contact with, being informed by, what the Bible teaches.

This refusal is, of course, simply a consistent application of his foundationalism. He cannot admit dependence upon sensory information to know the Bible without making knowledge via the senses a matter of basic belief alongside the Bible. It would do him no good, based upon the linear-inference method of procedure of foundationalist epistemology, to justify the general reliability of first-order empirical propositions—that I seem to see X, given certain conditions (good lighting, good eyesight, sobriety, lucidity, etc.), warrants my believing that I truly see X, that X is actually there to be seen—from what the Bible teaches; he would have to posit a belief in this reliability alongside his belief that the Bible is the word of God as a coordinate basic belief. If the axiom of revelation is the only basic belief postulated, anything else must be an inference from it, and our beliefs about what the Bible says cannot be dependent upon believing anything else.

However, let us assume that Clark can, after all, come to know the set of Biblical propositions, that these truths have somehow become present to his mind in a manner of intellectual illumination that altogether bypasses the use of the senses. Clark, ever the consistent foundationalist, maintains that humanly knowable truth is limited to these explicit statements and to what follows as good and necessary consequences of them (what we can validly deduce from them as premises of a syllogism). Whatever we can know in any field—history, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, biology, etc.—is narrowly restricted to these basic beliefs and the valid inferences drawn from them. Here lies a crucial difference between Clark’s and Van Til’s respective epistemologies, for, to a Van Tillian, Clark’s position seems narrow and impoverished—a very meager knowledge.

The Superiority of Van Til’s View
The most tragic aspect of Clark’s a priori approach, however, is that, in a Procrustean manner, it attempts to force the facts to fit a preconceived theory. The theory is imposed legislatively upon the facts of Scripture, ignoring and suppressing what does not conform to the dictates of the theory. Ultimately Clark disbelieves his own axiom, for Scripture itself teaches us that God is made known in his works. Clark cannot do justice to natural (or general) revelation—the revelational witness-character of every fact of creation. One has to know these facts in order to understand what they covenantally reveal about God and his purposes, but Clark denies that we do in fact know such things. For him statements about the world based upon our empirical experience cannot be true. His epistemology cannot account for any knowledge that is not strictly deduced from Biblical statements, but this ironically involves a tacit rejection of many Biblical statements. The fact is, we must bring a good deal of background information with us to the interpretation of Scripture; we cannot understand Scripture without knowing a lot of other things.

This is why we cannot accept Clark’s methodology. We cannot be foundationalists; we must be contextualists. God wants us as his images to know the world he has given to us as our sphere of dominion. Only Van Til’s philosophy of revelation provides us with the riches of this divine gift, that we might fully appreciate it and better know God by knowing his creation, knowing God through his general revelation given in creation in concert with Scripture as our "glasses" (the correlativity of Nature and Scripture). Clark disparages this grant and disbelieves what his own axiom authoritatively asserts to be our epistemic situation.


1. Obviously, we do not simply wish to categorize it as such without qualification. We must ever keep the essential antithesis between Christian-Theism and antitheism—between theonomy and every thought not captive to the obedience of Christ. We know that the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this age stand diametrically over against each other as mutually exclusive: light and darkness, righteousness and wickedness, Christ and Belial have nothing in common. Accordingly, the substantive difference between Van Til’s epistemology, on the one hand, and all forms of contextualism belies appearance of similarity, and unbelieving contextualim actually has more in common with coherentism and foundatinalism than with Christian-Theistic epistemology. Nevertheless, as Van Til himself used Idealism’s terminology and categories as a means of accommodated communication, the contextualist model is a useful means for effectively presenting the Christian theory of knowledge.

2. This is why Clark is really a foundationalist. He has a set of basic beliefs and thus no infinite regress. He believes that the Bible is objectively self-attesting, having an in se absolute authority that carries its own self-evident warrant for belief (the problem for those who do not see this is subjective). Nevertheless, his dogmatism will appear to outsiders (those without the gift of faith) as more akin to coherentism. One’s faith in the Bible is justified in the circular manner of coherentism (as opposed to foundationalism’s linear inferences). The warrant offered to the unbeliever is the whole system and its self-consistency, not the manifestly basic character of Biblical propositions. In apologetics one does not really offer the "axiom of revelation" as a self-warranting basic belief, but as an integral part of a whole system, and the Bible is thus justified because the system—a closed system—must be accepted or rejected as a whole (all or nothing), with the only alternative to accepting it being skepticism.

  • Joseph P. Braswell

The late Joseph P. Braswell did undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy at the University of South Florida, but his real interest was in theology and Biblical studies. He published several articles in various journals, including the Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and the Chalcedon Report.

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