Gordon Clark – Answering Greg Bahnsen’s Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended

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This is a response to the section of Greg Bahnsen’s Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended where Bahnsen critiques Gordon Clark. Gray Crampton has already written an excellent article here, which will be quoted from extensively. The purpose of this post is to:

  1. Add a table of contents and headings to help organize the answers to Bahnsen’s criticism against Clark
  2. Add some additional thoughts

Table of Contents

Did Clark Believe Christianity Is Only a Possibility?

Bahnsen’s Criticism

Instead of laying down a stringent demand that the truth of God’s revealed Word be accepted as the precondition for all intellectual endeavor and the indispensable stipulation for even the activity of academic evaluation, Clark treats Christianity as a possibility.

Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended, 142.

Summary Response – Epistemology vs Ad Hominem

Bahnsen misinterprets Clark’s position. When Clark deals with the subject of epistemology, he is clear that the Bible is “the precondition for all intellectual endeavor.” Clark demonstrates that other worldviews cannot explain where knowledge comes from.

The examples that Bahnsen provides to demonstrate this point are most likely instances where Clark is not dealing with epistemology, but rather using ad hominem attacks to internally critique other worldviews, which is something that Bahnsen himself does. Essentially, Clark is saying, “For the sake of argument, let’s assume the foundational principles of this worldview (which are epistemologically unjustified). Even if we assume them, we can show that Christianity is the superior worldview.”

Crampton’s Response

Clark Is Clearly Certain that the Bible is the Word of God

The interesting thing here is that Dr. Bahnsen approvingly quotes Clark in statements wherein he tells us how he uses the word “possibility.” According to Dr. Clark, all “norms of possibility must be accepted from naturalistic scientism, existential hunch, or the Biblical revelation with its miraculous supernaturalism” (138). Then too, the author approvingly quotes Dr. Clark’s denial that there is any certainty possible apart from divine revelation: “Only by accepting rationally comprehensible…information on God’s authority [the Bible] can we hope to have a sound philosophy and a true religion…. A rational life is impossible without being based upon a divine revelation [the Bible].” “The Bible [is] the very Word of God” (140). Further, Dr. Bahnsen states that Dr. Clark denied that there is any such thing as neutrality when it comes to worldviews: “Methodology is never neutral” (139). Certainly, then, whatever else Dr. Clark may be saying when he speaks of “possibility,” it could not mean that he is denying or questioning that the Bible is “certainly” the very Word of God.

The fact is that Dr. Clark did not consider the Bible only as “possibly” the Word of God; he was certain that it is God’s inspired, infallible, inerrant Word to man. As best as the present writer is able to discern, the passages cited by Bahnsen are those being used by Dr. Clark, either in the sense that he is saying nothing more than what has already been quoted, i.e., that “all norms of possibility” come from axioms that are “necessary” for any worldview, Christian or non-Christian; or (as Clark was fond of doing in the philosophical milieu in which he worked*) using such language in the form of ad hominem arguments. It is beyond question, even as Dr. Bahnsen has (at least implicitly) pointed out, that Gordon Clark’s apologetic methodology presupposes the primacy of Scripture as providing the basis for all proof. According to Clark, the Bible has a systematic monopoly on truth. It is self-attesting and self-authenticating. It stands in judgment over all books and ideas, and it is to be judged by no person or thing.

* Kenneth Talbot has pointed out that our understanding of the way Gordon Clark approached matters in his writings had to do with the sitz im leben in which he found himself. Dr. Clark lived and taught in an academic setting practically all of his adult life. This being said, his writings often reflected the dynamic of philosophical sophistry. Therefore, it would be a mistake to view his sophistry as “weakness” concerning his theological commitment to the inspired, inerrant, infallible, and authoritative Word of God.

Clark’s Ad Hominem and Reductio Ad Absurdum

Dr. Clark also believed that we must follow the apologetic principle taught in Proverbs 26:4-5: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, that he not be wise in his own eyes.” The Christian apologete is not to answer an unbeliever based on his starting point, because then he would be just like the unbeliever. Rather, he is required to stand on the truth of Biblical revelation, and argue from Scripture as his axiomatic starting point. At the same time, the Christian apologete may use arguments, such as the theological “evidences,” to refute the gainsayer. Here the apologete argues in an ad hominem fashion to reveal the foolishness of non-Christian systems. Standing on God’s infallible revelation, the Christian apologete can and should use the evidences apagogically, “to answer the fool as his folly deserves.” The design of this type of argumentation is to criticize internally the unbeliever’s worldview, revealing its inconsistencies.

According to Dr. Clark, this apagogic methodology, consisting in a series of reductiones ad absurdum, is the principal method available to a Biblical apologist. The reason is that even though there is metaphysical common ground between believers and unbelievers, in that both are created in the image of God, there is no common epistemological ground. That is, there are no common theoretical propositions, no common “notions,” between Christianity and non-Christian philosophies. The ad hominem apagogic arguments are to be used against the unbeliever, who is a covenant-breaker and already in possession of the innate idea of the God against whom he is rebelling. The arguments are to be used in a fashion that will attempt to make him epistemologically self-conscious (and thus God conscious) of his covenant breaking rebellion.

Clark Is Using the Same Method as Bahnsen

It is worthy of note that in Appendix 1 of this book (269-278), the author himself argues for “the necessity of revelational epistemology” without beginning with Scripture. Now if he is using this tactic in an ad hominem fashion, then it is both permissible and proper within a presuppositional approach to apologetics. But if he is arguing “for” the truth of “the necessity of revelational epistemology,” then he has violated his own presuppositional approach, the very thing for which he has accused Dr. Clark. Dr. Bahnsen also adhered to the apagogic method endorsed by Clark. He wrote: “the Christian apologist should seek to lay bare the character of those presuppositions on which the non-Christian operates when arguing against the [Christian] faith, demonstrating their self-vitiating quality, and then show the suppressed [revelational] beliefs that make the unbeliever’s formal reasoning and knowledge possible,” i.e., the system of truth taught in the Bible (289-290). Dr. Bahnsen’s apologetic here does not differ substantially with that of Gordon Clark, and neither believes that the Bible is only “possibly” the Word of God.

Did Clark Put Logic Before God?

Bahnsen’s Criticism

It is evident that what Clark takes as the criterion of bona fide revelation is meeting the ultimate demands of logic.

Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended, 151.

Summary Response

Clark’s View of the Relationship Between God and Logic

Bahnsen is mistaken about Clark’s view of logic. Clark explicitly deals with this criticism by saying that logic does not precede God, but is rather identified with God. In other words, logic is God’s mind, or the way God thinks. This is exactly how Bahnsen describes logic.

Bahnsen is not the first to have criticized Clark on this point, and below is Clark’s summary of his answer:

The law of contradiction is not to be taken as an axiom prior to or independent of God. The law is God thinking.

For this reason also, the law of contradiction is not subsequent to God. If one should say that logic is dependent on God’s thinking, it is dependent only in the sense that it is the characteristic of God’s thinking. It is not subsequent temporally, for God is eternal and there was never a time when God existed without thinking logically. One must not suppose that God’s will existed as an inert substance before he willed to think.

As there is no temporal priority, so also there is no logical or analytical priority. Not only was Logic the beginning, but Logic was God. If this unusual translation of John’s Prologue still disturbs someone, he might yet allow that God is his thinking. God is not a passive or potential substratum; he is actuality or activity. This is the philosophical terminology to express the Biblical idea that God is a living God. Hence logic is to be considered as the activity of God’s willing.

Gordon H. Clark. “Clark and His Critics.” Apple Books. 137-138.

Clark’s Use of Logic in Apologetics

Regarding what Bahnsen says about Clark testing the Bible using logic, here are two thoughts:

  1. Clark is not claiming to prove Scripture using logic, but is rather merely demonstrating that Scripture is self-consistent and non-contradictory.
  2. Clark uses logic and the reductio ad absurdum apologetic method to demonstrate that all non-biblical worldviews are self-contradictory and therefore false. Bahnsen essentially does this same thing.
  3. Clark is not saying that internal consistency demonstrates the truth of a worldview, since Clark is clear that axioms of worldviews cannot ultimately be proved, or else they would not be axioms. Rather, Clark is simply saying that 1) if a worldview is not internally consistent, then it cannot be true, and 2) the biblical worldview is internally consistent.

Crampton’s Response

Clark’s View of the Relationship Between God and Logic

Due to the oft-encountered attack mounted against Dr. Clark on his view of logic, we will briefly overview his teaching on the subject. According to Gordon Clark the Biblical view of logic is as follows.

The Bible teaches that God is a God of knowledge (1 Samuel 2:3; Romans 16:27). Being eternally omniscient (Psalm 139:1-6), God is not only the source of His own knowledge, He is also the source and determiner of all truth. That which is true is true because God thinks it so. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (1:4) teaches, God “is truth itself.” And since that which is not rational cannot be true (1 Timothy 6:20), it follows that God must be rational. The laws of logic are the way He thinks.

This is what the Bible teaches. God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). He is a rational being, the “LORD God of truth” (Psalm 31:5). So much does the Bible speak of God as the God of logic, that in John 1:1 Jesus Christ is called the “Logic” of God:  “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God” (the English word “logic” is derived from the Greek word Logos used in this verse). John 1:1 empha-sizes the rationality of God the Son. Logic is as eternal as God himself because “the Logos is God.” Christ, then, we are told in the Bible, is the logic (Logos) of God (John 1:1); He is Reason, Wisdom, and Truth incarnate (1 Corinthians 1:24, 30; Colossians 2:3; John 14:6). The laws of logic are not created by God or man; they are the way God thinks. And since the Scriptures are a part of the mind of God (1 Corinthians 2:16), they are God’s logical thoughts. The Bible expresses the mind of God in a logically coherent fashion to mankind. Hence, God and logic cannot be separated, because logic is the characteristic of God’s thinking. Gordon Clark taught that God and logic are one and the same first principle in this sense, for John wrote that Logic was God.

This will give us a greater understanding of the relationship of logic and Scripture. Since logic is a characteristic of God, and since Scripture is a part of “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), it follows that Scripture must be logical. What is said in Scripture is God’s infallible and inerrant thought. It expresses the mind of God, because God and His Word are one. Hence, as the Westminster Confession of Faith (1:5) teaches, the Bible is a logically consistent book: there is “consent of all the parts.” This is why Paul could “reason” with persons “from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2). Since Christian theism maintains that God is truth itself (Psalm 31:5; John 14:6; 1 John 5:6), then truth is logical. In this sense, logic may be seen as a negative test for truth; that is, if something is contradictory, it cannot be true (1 Timothy 6:20).

Further, logic is embedded in Scripture. The very first verse of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” necessitates the validity of the most fundamental law of logic: the law of contradiction (A is not non-A). Genesis 1:1 teaches that God is the Creator of all things. It also declares that He created “in the beginning.” It does not teach, therefore, that God is not the Creator of all things, nor does it maintain that God created all things 100 or 1000 years after the beginning. This verse assumes that the words “God,” “created,” “beginning,” and so forth, all have definite meanings. It also assumes that they do not mean certain things. For speech to be intelligible, words must have univocal meanings. What makes the words meaning-ful, and revelation and communication possible is that each word conforms to the law of contradiction.

This most fundamental of the laws of logic cannot be proved. For any attempt to prove the law of contradiction would presuppose the truth of the law and therefore beg the question. Simply put, it is not possible to reason without using the law of contradiction.  In this sense, the laws of logic are axiomatic. But they are only axiomatic because they are fixed or embedded in the Word of God.

Also fixed in Scripture are the two other principle laws of logic: the law of identity (A is A) and the law of the excluded middle (A is either B or non-B). The former is taught in Exodus 3:14, in the name of God itself: “I AM WHO I AM.” And the latter is found, for example, in the words of Christ: “He who is not with Me is against Me” (Luke 11:23).

Since logic is embedded in Scripture, Scripture, rather than logic as an abstract principle, is selected as the axiomatic starting point of Christian epistemology.  Similarly, we do not make God the axiom, because all of our knowledge of God comes from Scripture. “God” as an axiom, without Scripture, is merely a name. Scripture, as the axiom, defines God. This is why the Westminster Confession of Faith begins with the doctrine of Scripture in Chapter 1. Chapters 2-5, on the doctrine of God, follow. Clark would agree, then, with Bahnsen, that “Christ [is] the only foundation for reasoning” (18), and he would do so because the Bible tells us that He is the Logos, Logic incarnate, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).

Clark’s Use of Logic in Apologetics

When it comes to the “difficulties with reliance on logical coherence” (162-174), Dr. Bahnsen argues that just because a system is logically coherent does not make it true. Here he is precisely correct. Clark (who taught the subject of logic for decades at the college level) would fully agree. The stress of Dr. Clark’s position regarding the logical coherence of the teachings of Scripture, as we have seen, is very much in line with the Reformed theology taught by the Westminster Confession of Faith (1:5), which correctly states that there is a “consent of all the parts” of Scripture. This is Clark’s point. If a system contradicts itself it cannot be true (1 Timothy 6:20); but just because there is no contradiction does not assure us that it is true.

Logic in the Clarkian view functions as a negative test for truth. It is an apologetic tool to show how a contradiction in any system (which all non-believing systems contain) disproves it as a valid system. Logical coherence is a very valid way to proof-text a system for its validity or non-validity. The fact that the Bible is logically consistent does not prove it to be true, but it certainly shows the non-believer that the Christian worldview is based on a system of truth that is logically coherent. Gordon Clark’s statement that “the coherence theory [of truth] (11) cannot be applied with final satisfaction unless one is omniscient” (173) also bothered Dr. Bahnsen. But Dr. Clark is not asserting that since human beings are not omniscient they cannot ever be able to use the coherence test on a worldview system. What he is maintaining is that coherence can be verified even by fallen men, even though they do err. But the ultimate coherency test must be left in the hands of the omniscient God of Holy Scripture. That is why we must always depend on the Word of the all-knowing God who assures us that His Word is perfectly coherent and is that standard of truth by which all things must be judged.

Does Clark’s Deductive System Lead to Skepticism?

Finally we must mention the fact that Clark’s apologetic, because of its contrived method of having Christianity escape criticism, itself reduces to skepticism.

Gordon H. Clark. “Clark and His Critics.” Apple Books. 192.

Summary Response

Clark’s View of the Relationship Between Senses and Knowledge

  • Even though senses do not directory provide us with knowledge, they can still be means that God uses to give us knowledge.
  • Humans are born with a priori information. The senses stimulate the mind to intellectual intuition, or recollection. Knowledge is given by God immediately, by revelation, and propositionally.

Is Ethics Impossible?

  • Clark maintains an important distinction between knowledge (capital K, infallibly revealed Scripture) and opinion (lowercase k, fallible propositions that are still useful for practical, daily living).
  • The knowledge (lowercase k) that we use for ethics is not infallible, but we can still use our best judgment regarding this kind of knowledge for ethics.

Calvin Beisner says this, which is a helpful elaboration upon Crampton’s answer below.

“Opinion” is the crucial word. Like Plato and Augustine, Clark reserved “knowledge” for axioms (among which Clark included all the propositions Scripture affirms, since they are the Word of God) and those propositions logically entailed by them. Others of our beliefs are “opinions,” of whose truth we may be more or less persuaded, and on which we can act with more or less confidence, but which don’t meet the criterion of knowledge (axiom or its implication). All of us live constantly acting on the assumption that some propositions are true though we can’t demonstrate them QED from axioms. We shouldn’t have discomfort from realizing that this marks a sensible distinction between knowledge and opinion.

Calvin Beisner

Crampton’s Response

Clark’s View of the Relationship Between Senses and Knowledge

But he goes on to state that because Clark must use exegetical tools such as books, archeology, cultural studies, etc. (all of which in some way involve empirical methodology), to gain knowledge from the Word of God, he therefore refutes his own conclusions. The result is skepticism.

Here again the author has missed the point of Dr. Clark’s claim. Clark did not deny that God may use the senses as a “means” for persons to gain knowledge from the Word of God. What he denied is that the senses themselves are able to provide us with knowledge. Dr. Clark taught, and correctly so, that all knowledge must come through propositions (which are either true of false), and since the senses in interacting with creation yield no propositions, knowledge cannot be conveyed by sensation. That is, the senses are functional for man in his physical use, but offer no epistemological avenue for the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge must always be propositional. When man interacts with God’s creation, which demonstrates His glory, power, and wisdom, man, as God’s image-bearer, is forced, in some sense, to “think God.” The visible creation itself does not mediate “knowledge” to man, for the visible universe sets forth no propositions. Rather, it stimulates the mind of man to intellectual intuition (or recollection), who as a rational being is already in possession of apriori, propositional information about God and His creation. This apriori information is immediately impressed upon man’s consciousness. The knowledge, then, that man has of God and His creation is derived neither by empirical nor rationalistic means. Neither is it in any sense mediated knowledge. Rather, according to Dr. Clark, all knowledge is immediate, revelational, and propositional. It is the “inward teacher,” Jesus Christ, the divine Logos, not the senses in one’s interaction with creation, who teaches man.

This is true even with regard to the printed pages of the Bible. All speech or communication is a matter of words, and words (even those found in Holy Scripture) are signs, in that they signify something. When signs are used, the recipient, in order to understand, must already innately know that which is signified. Apart from this innate knowledge, taught Dr. Clark, signs would be meaningless. Clark asserted that God’s Word is not black ink on white paper. God’s Word is eternal; the printed pages of the Bible are not. The letters or words on the printed pages are signs or symbols which signify the eternal truth which is in the mind of God, and which is communicated by God directly and immediately to the minds of men in propositional form.

Is Ethics Impossible?

In this section Dr. Bahnsen also comments that since in the Clarkian view no knowledge is available outside of Scripture, then we are not able to draw ethical considerations, such as “You shall not steal.” The reason being, allegedly, is that the Bible does not specifically tell Dr. Clark that he owns a specific piece of property which may be stolen (196). The author’s criticism of Dr. Clark here is easily resolved, however, by recognizing that Clark believed in the view espoused by the Westminster Confession of Faith (1:6), that it is not only the explicit propositional statements of the Bible which are true, but whatever may be implicitly deduced from those explicit statements is also true: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” Therefore, although the Bible does not tell us explicitly that Gordon Clark owns a certain piece of property, it does explicitly tell us about property ownership. Therefore, we may deduce from this explicit statement that Dr. Clark also is able to own property. The problem is solved in this deduction and is one more demonstration of the importance of the use of logic in the Christian worldview.

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