Posts Tagged ‘Gordon Clark’

Some Reformed apologists who describe themselves as followers of Gordon Clark, suggest a new formula for knowledge (I’m thinking of Jason Peterson, a self-identifying “Clarkian”). The traditional formula for knowledge is the following:

Knowledge = Justified, true, belief.

I’ve seen Peterson suggest (in numerous places although I can’t recall any specifics), that this formula ought to be re-worked so that, instead, we have:

Knowledge = true, belief.

In this post, I’m not concerned with Jason Peterson specifically, nor am I concerned with getting into what counts as true expressions of “Clarkian” philosophy. Instead, I’d like to look at the above formula, as posed, and note that if we accept it, we’ll be obligating ourselves to a weird anti-realist metaphysic that almost no Christian – certainly not Reformed orthodox – ought to hold.

We’ll take the following belief as a test case:

“There is a book on my coffee table.”

Many who claim to be Clarkians do not want to grant that the above sort of belief also counts as knowledge. Since if it is known, it is known empirically, and since most Clarkians believe knowledge cannot be obtained empirically, the belief must not be knowledge.

Nevertheless, the belief is either true or false. When asked, the Clarkian might respond that we don’t have enough data to determine the truth value of the belief. Namely: we wont be able to figure out if the belief is true or false unless God directly tells us. Lacking this authoritative data, we simply can’t determine the truth value.

Even granting that, however, it seems the belief still has a truth value. It is either true or it is false. Let’s explore what might happen in either case:

If the Clarkian suggests the belief is true, then, given the formula “Knowledge = true belief”, he’ll have to say I know there is a book on my table. But he doesn’t want to say that. It would undermine the strong position he’s taken against empirical methods of acquiring knowledge.

If the Clarkian suggests the belief is false, then he’s saying there actually is *no* book on my coffee table. This is to make a very large metaphysical claim. It’s to say that the world is very different than how it appears to us.

He might try to avoid this dilemma.

He might want to keep the idea that the world is, for the most part, how it seems to be. But, he’ll add, we simply can’t know that it is one way or the other. In this case, he might suggest there is a book on my coffee table, I just can’t know if it is there or not. But that, unfortunately, is a violation of the proposed knowledge formula: “Knowledge = true belief”. If the formula holds, then if it’s true there is a book on the coffee table, and I believe it’s there, then I know it’s there. All that’s required for a belief, proposition, etc., to count as “knowledge” is that it simply be true. Consequently, all cases of accidentally true beliefs (eg: I believe there are two million craters on the moon, and surprise, surprise, scientists discover there actually are two million…), would have to automatically count as knowledge.

Another way the Clarkian might try to rescue a sane metaphysical view is by claiming that while I might know there is a book on the table, I don’t know that I know it until God reveals the true nature of reality to us.

While we Van Tillians have made it very clear people have the psychological ability to know a proposition without knowing they know it (Dr. Bahnsen’s thesis on self-deceit), what’s being suggested by our hypothetical Clarkian isn’t a mere psychological feat. What’s being suggested is that a person can know a proposition and not know the same proposition at the same time and in the same way; and, that doesn’t seem to work.

Best, by far, in my opinion, that if the Clarkian is going to insist on being a Clarkian, he not accept the simplified “Knowledge = true, belief” formula unless he’s also willing to defend radical metaphysical views.



Understanding Dr. Van Til’s doctrine of analogy is vital to mastering his apologetic method.  Consider Dr. Oliphint:

Van Til’s notion of “analogy” or “analogical,” as it applies to knowledge and to predication, is central to his theology and apologetic.  Though the term itself is confusing in that it carries with it a host of assumptions in Thomism, it should not be confused or in any way identified with Thomas’s understanding of analogy.  Though for Thomas there was an analogy of being, for Van Til, the notion of analogy was meant to communicate the ontolological and epistemological difference between God and man.  This difference has been expressed historically in terms of an archetypal / ectypal relationship.1

This distinction is especially difficult for critics of Van Til to grasp, most notably, atheists and disciples of Gordon Clark.2 

But before offering an illustration that I’ve found helpful in explaining it, it must be noted that, like so much of Van Til’s jargon, the word “analogy” or its equivalent “analogous”, have proven less-than-helpful, as even Dr. Olphint (in the citation above) admits.  But also consider Dr. Bahnsen:

From a pedagogical perspective, I would not have preferred to use this kind of summary tag-word for what Van Til was trying to teach.  Although it is certainly possible to understand what he meant by the expression, this way of speaking probably occasioned more avoidable misunderstanding and misrepresentation from a small circle of critics than anything else he wrote.  The historical context was a controversy over the incomprehensibility of God that took place in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church during the 1940’s, with Gordon H. Clark and Van Til being the primary spokesmen for the two antagonistic parties.  Personalities and politics added fuel to the antagonism, which only tended to muddy the theological debate that was already muddled by unclear polemics on both sides.  ~ “Van Til’s Apologetic” pg. 225, footnote 147.

So, yes – the jargon is confusing, but no, that shouldn’t stop an intellectually honest researcher from parsing out what Van Til meant.

What did he mean?

Well, consider another citation from Dr. Bahnsen.  He notes that Van Til uses the phrase “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” to mean the same thing as “thinking analogically”.  As an example:

The two relevant expressions here were used interchangeably by Van Til.  For instance: “We must think His thoughts after Him.  We must think analogically, rather than univocally.” (Common Grace,28). ~ Van Til’s Apologetic, pg. 225, footnote 146.

So if we understand what “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” means, then we will also (according to Dr. Bahnsen), understand what is meant by “reasoning analogously.”  And while I’ve offered posts which I hope are helpful in understanding “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”, in this post I’d like to offer an illustration to help my readers visualize it.3


Imagine there’s a 2 hour long movie but you only catch 10 minutes of it.  Being the nerd that you are, you go home trying to piece together what the entire movie might be like.  In the end, there are some blanks in your idea of what the movie is like, and a lot of intelligent speculation.

You hem and haw so much about it, a friend (who has seen the entire thing) decides to set your mind at ease by giving you a summary.  Now, at last, most of your questions are answered even though you only know a summary of the movie, not the actual thing.

Our situation with God is similar.  To know God is to know an infinite set of true propositions and, as finite creatures, we’ll never know all of Him.  Thus, we’re left having to speculate about a mere summary of who He is.  True, this summary has been given to us by God Himself and is designed to inform us about the important doctrines, but we’re always going to run into fuzzy areas in our theology that simply can’t be rationalized.  Our systematic theology will always encounter paradox because we’re finite creatures trying to systematize the revelation of an infinite God.

This leads to the next illustration:

Consider a master artist who paints a picture of a beautiful mountain.  He gives the picture to a man who has been in a jail cell all his life with no windows or magazines or any knowledge of the outside world.  The only information he has about the mountain is from what the artist has provided him (we’re assuming here the artist is highly skilled and completely honest).

It would be wrong of us to say this unfortunate prisoner has no knowledge of the mountain, but at the same time, we cannot say his knowledge of the painting is “numerically identical” to the painter’s knowledge of the actual mountain.  He, at best, only knows a representation of the actual mountain.  Van Til would say, he knows the mountain “analogously”.

I hope these two illustrations (the movie and the mountain) help my readers better understand Van Til’s doctrine of analogy, even if the illustrations don’t succeed in being fully explanatory.

1. This citation is from the fourth edition of “Defense of the Faith”, edited by K. Scott Oliphint, pg 62, footnote 25. Additionally, Oliphint mentions Willem J. van Asselt’s article “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought,” from Westminster Theological Journal 64, no.2. Asselt’s essay is helpful in tracing the pedigree of this important distinction in Reformed theology and shows that Van Til was not being creative or novel in his theology. I’m working on obtaining a copy to read, cite, and summarize for my readers. Look forward to that in future posts.

2. While plenty of examples are available in the critical literature, a humorous anecdotal account should suffice: In a Facebook group dedicated to bridging the ideological gap between followers of Clark and Van Til, I noted, somewhat jokingly, that if the two men went out to lunch, Clark would have to go through an exhaustive exegetical study of all Scriptural passages relevant to mathematics and finances before being able to pay, leaving the check to Van Til. In response, one of the Clarkians suggested Clark would have to pay because Van Til would only ever know an “analogy” of the check; never the real thing. While the exchange was friendly, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Van Til’s doctrine of analogy that is seemingly ubiquitous among Clarkians.

3. See my article: “Conceptual Scheme or Worldview”, which touches on what it means for us to conceptualize what God has already conceptualized. Also, see my article “Oh Facts ye Silly Brutes” which also clarifies the relationship between our thinking and God’s.

There’s a problem rife among presuppositional apologists.  Much of our most frequently used jargon is ambiguous and ill-defined.  In this post, I’d like to specifically focus on the word “worldview”, contrast it with the phrase “conceptual scheme”, and highlight why the distinction is important for presuppositionalists to keep in mind.

To begin, consider philosopher Andrew Cortens’ statement about conceptual schemes:

…if we plan to make use of such ill-defined technical terms as ‘conceptual scheme’, ‘ontological framework’, and the like, we had better be prepared to give a clear account of such notions.  Many relativists run into serious trouble on this score; rarely do they provide a satisfactory explanation of just what sort of thing a conceptual scheme is.  I have argued elsewhere that even if the notion of a conceptual scheme is taken for granted, the view that existence is always relative to a conceptual scheme has the absurd consequence that we can never explicitly state the content of a sentence that has existential implications.  Whether or not my argument was successful, many will agree that there are legitimate worries about the intelligibility of relativism about truth or existence. ~ From William Alston’s “Realism & Antirealism” pg. 46.

Cortens is a good Christian philosopher (though not a presuppositionalist) and is concerned with countering epistemological relativists who claim the world can be legitimately conceptualized differently for different people.

We’ve all heard it suggested that “what’s true for you may not be true for me”, right?  This sort of absurd rhetoric is supported by assertions of the possibility of a plurality of equally-valid conceptual schemes (here – we mean a class of concepts through which the actual world is conceived.  In Van Tillian jargon: a conceptual scheme is the lens through which you view the world.)

As presuppositionalists, we might agree with the conceptual-scheme pluralists who suggest the world can be “conceptualized” in different ways by many different people.  We know this because we spend the majority of our time as apologists dealing with false conceptual schemes.  Further, the Bible gives us hints about the psychological situation of unbelievers; their rebellion against God gives them emotional reasons to form incorrect beliefs about the relationship between different facts of their experience, which leads to the creation of an entire scheme of incorrect beliefs.

A brief illustration will help here.  Again, I’ll cite portions of Dr. Cortens’ article:

At noon, an ice cube measuring 2cm x 2cm x 2cm is placed on a table.  Slowly it melts, so that after an hour has passed, all that remains on the table is a small puddle of water.  One person – call him ‘A’ – describes the situation in the following words:  “At noon a single thing measuring 2 cm x 2cm x 2cm was placed on the table, namely, an ice cube.  Shortly afterward it began to shrink and eventually, sometime between noon and 1pm, it ceased to exist altogether.  Just as the ice cube began getting smaller, a new thing came into existence: a puddle of water.  Although it began as a very tiny puddle of water, its volume is now roughly equal to that of the ice cube at its largest.”  Another person, B, provides a strikingly different account of the facts.  “The one and only 2cm x 2cm x 2cm object that was placed on the table at noon still exists”, says B.  “It has merely ceased to be an ice cube.  Now it is merely a puddle of water.”  Doubtless we can think up still other descriptions of the situation that might be offered.  One can imagine, for example, someone insisting that two cubical objects of the same size were placed on the table at noon, one of them an ice cube that went out of existence shortly thereafter, the other a quantity of water that went right on existing but in a different state.  But I trust I have said enough to give you a feel for the various “versions” of the facts that might be offered in this situation. ~ pg. 43

However – as presuppositionalists, we most decidedly do *not* agree that all these conceptualizations of the world are equally correct.  In keeping with the ice cube illustration, we would say that only one conceptualization of the facts in that scenario is correct.  We believe there is only one correct way to conceptualize the world.

Most preusppositionalists, at this point would reply that it’s only the Christian *worldview* that rightly describes the world.  But this would be a little hasty.  Instead, I’d like to argue that we should say, rather, that it’s the Christian conceptual scheme that rightly construes the objects of our experience.

I got this idea from Dr. Bahnsen’s protege’, Michael Butler.

In lecture 23 of his introduction to presuppositional apologetics, Butler attempts to respond to one of the most biting criticisms of transcendental arguments.  In short:  the argument says that the transcendental argument can only ever provide us with conceptual necessity, never ontological necessity.  In other words – the non-Christian might grant that he has to think like a Christian (use the Christian conceptual scheme) for human experience to make sense, but that doesn’t prove Christianity is actually true.

In response, Butler suggests that this criticism misconstrues the Presuppositionalist.  We are not arguing for the necessity of mere conceptual scheme, rather, we are arguing for the necessity of a “worldview”.  Butler uses “worldview” here, to mean how the world *actually* is.  From Butler:

Before we abandon hope, there may be a way out of this problem.  The source of the present difficulty seems to be the way in which the TAG has been set up.  Given the context of this discussion, the tendency is to conflate the notion of the Christian worldview with the notion of a conceptual scheme.  This is where I think the problem really lies.  It’s viewing the Christian worldview as, really, a conceptual scheme.

Now, what is a conceptual scheme?  It’s some conception of our experience that comes in a systematic way.  So we think of the “Copernicum” conceptual scheme.  This is where we view the planets as objects we’re traveling with around the sun.  You can conceptualize it that way.  On the old theory, you conceptualize the relation of the Earth, planets, and sun, as very different.  The sun was going around the Earth. So we look today and see the same information our ancestors did, but we conceive of it differently.

All that to say is … this objection, I believe, conflates a worldview with a conceptual scheme.  But a conceptual scheme and a worldview are quite different.  We can conceptualize the world differently without necessarily changing the essential elements of our worldview.  Our worldviews commit us ontologically to things, where as conceptualization doesn’t necessarily commit us to foundational ontological commitments. ~ starting at 19:40 into lecture 23.

I think it’s fair to expound on Butler’s view here by remembering a hard-learned truth of Van Tillian thought.  In our infamous disagreements with the disciples of Gordon Clark, Van Tillians make it clear that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge is of a different type.  What we, as creatures, know, we know derivatively.  The objects of God’s knowledge, however, are made what they are by virtue of His knowing them.  In many cases, God’s knowledge of an object is creative (ie: when God thinks of a material object, and if He so wills, the object will become a material reality).1

Keeping this in mind, and in light of Butler’s discussion above, I suggest we think of a “worldview” as God’s conceptual scheme.  It is how God conceptualizes (and thus, creates) everything that has been created.

To determine which human conceptual scheme is correct then, requires us to figure out which conceptual scheme conceptualizes the world in the same way God conceptualizes the world.  We must figure out which conceptual scheme correctly construes the Christian worldview.  In Van Tillian jargon, we must:  “think God’s thoughts after Him.”

In sticking with the ice cube illustration:  we must determine if God thinks of the ice cube as an object that transforms into a new object (a puddle), or if He thinks of it as a class of water molecules that change form over time, etc. etc.

Figuring this out will provide us with the necessary “norm” by which we can measure the correctness of any given conceptual scheme.

1. Van Til’s writings hint at this. Consider the following: “God must be taken as the prerequisite of the possibility and actuality of relationship between man’s various concepts and propositions of knowledge. Man’s system of knowledge must therefore be an analogical replica of the system of knowledge which belongs to God.” ~ Defense of the Faith, pg. 138.

Also, see pg. 228 of Dr. Bahnsen’s “Van Til’s Apologetic” for commentary on the difference between human acts of knowing and God’s act of knowing.

Also, see John Frame: “To say God is incomprehensible is to say that our knowledge is never equivalent to God’s own knowledge, that we never know Him precisely as He Knows Himself” (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 21).