Book Reviews

Book Review – The Presbyterian Philosopher

Dr. Gordon H. Clark was the most consistently orthodox Christian thinker of the 20th century. God used him as a great defender of the faith against practically all of the false philosophies both ancient and modern. Thirty-four years ago, he left behind an armory filled with intellectual ammunition for the people of God. Since Dr. Clark’s homegoing over three decades ago, author Douglas Douma has at last provided the Christian world with the definitive biography of Dr. Gordon Clark, entitled The Presbyterian Philosopher.

In 1902, Gordon Haddon Clark was born into a family that adhered to old school Presbyterian beliefs and he lived through most of that tumultuous century. Both his father and paternal grandfather were Presbyterian ministers. The former emigrated from Scotland to the United States in 1854. Although his background was in the Free Church of Scotland, he became a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbytery in Pennsylvania.

Gordon was brought up amid strictly subscribing Presbyterianism (meaning that every presbyter had to not only agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith, but also had to sign it as the confession of his own faith). Since Gordon was an eager student from his early years, he literally spent years in his father’s library learning both church history and the great theological issues and debates of the church. Gordon also mastered several modern languages, as well as ancient Greek and Hebrew.

Gordon Clark began teaching philosophy as a 22-year-old graduate student at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. During this twelve-year teaching ministry, Clark became an ardent and active supporter of J. Gresham Machen. The modernist/fundamentalist battle was raging in the Northern Presbyterian Church. It was in this denomination that Clark had been reared and occasionally preached in his father’s pulpit. Though Gordon was ordained as a ruling elder when he was only about 30 years old, he was not a novice. Rather, he was a very serious-minded man.

The first General Assembly of what became the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) took place in June of 1936. It was Gordon Clark who nominated Dr. Machen for moderator of the new denomination. Clark made a brilliant speech in support of his candidate and Machen was elected. Gresham Machen often looked back on that speech for encouragement during days of difficulty.

Growing weary of the very humanistic environment at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Clark began teaching philosophy at Wheaton College in 1936. He had an excellent relationship with its president, Dr. J. Oliver Buswell. Dr. Buswell was a Calvinist and a minister in the Bible Presbyterian Church. Dr. Clark’s seven years at Wheaton were very productive for the cause of Christ. Not only his philosophy classes, but also his Reformed Bible studies and times of informal fellowship in his home influenced many young men upon graduation from Wheaton to attend seminary at Dr. Machen’s Westminster Seminary.

Dr. Clark’s success as a godly, consistent Calvinist did not receive universal applause at the college, however. A Bible professor named Dr. Henry Clarence Thiessen deeply resented Dr. Clark’s Reformed influence and popularity with the students. Therefore, for several years, Thiessen petitioned those in authority at Wheaton to remove Dr. Clark. Not until Dr. Buswell left Wheaton to become a professor at Faith Seminary did Thiessen succeed. A new president sympathized with Dr. Thiessen and together they managed to oust Dr. Clark. The student body and many of the alumni were incensed by Dr. Thiessen’s conspiracy.

During the previous school year, Dr. Clark had been led of the Lord to seek ordination for the pastoral ministry in the OPC, and on August 9, 1944, he was duly ordained by the Presbytery of Philadelphia. He also began a new professorship at Butler University of Indianapolis, during the 1944-1945 school year. Because of Dr. Clark’s reputation and experience, he was made head of the department of philosophy, having some experienced, assistant professors under his authority. During his 28-year tenure as department head, he wrote most of his larger works on philosophy and theology. During eight of those years, he also pastored First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis.

While Dr. Clark was teaching at Butler University, a committee of theologians in the OPC tried to negate his ministerial ordination, but they failed. Dr. Clark showed the inconsistencies of their arguments used against him. For example, the committee adamantly declared that “God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge do not coincide at any point.” A little farther along in their argument they reversed their position stating, “The same truth may and does occur in man’s mind and in God’s.” That committee was reiterating what Dr. Herman Bavinck had published in the 19th century in his Doctrine of God. He wrote, “Adequate knowledge of God does not exist”(21). “God is known better when not known” (22). “Indeed, so highly is He exalted above all creatures that the name ‘nothing’ may be justly ascribed to Him” (23). “There is no name that adequately expresses His Being” (24).

But God in His Word is not so limited and hampered as mere theologians are. In Exodus 3:14, “He said to Moses, ‘I AM THAT I AM’; and He said, “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” Again in Jeremiah 23:6, God said, “This is his name whereby He shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.”

Dr. Clark emphasizes the knowability of God. He quotes the Scriptures that his opponents used against him and sets them properly in their context. For example, they used I Corinthians 2:11, “Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.” Dr. Clark countered with verse 12, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.”

Clark’s writings on the inerrancy of Scripture and its usual, literal interpretation are very orthodox and strengthening for the body of Christ. His insights into the illogical nature of much that passed for Reformed theology in his day also applies to the present day. The subtle attacks made on God’s Holy Word by professed Reformed theologians are forced logically to face the light by Dr. Clark.

Surely the mind of a genuine Christian that is stayed upon Jehovah and His Word can enjoy peace and consistency of reason (Isaiah 26:3). But those who are consumed with the empty opinions of mere men will dwell in confusion.

The biography closes with Dr. Clark’s words: “If all possibilities of God’s knowledge and man’s coinciding at any point be denied; if no sentence in the Bible can possibly have the same meaning for man that it has for God; the logical result is a skepticism that makes revelation impossible and Christianity a vain dream. But if man can know some things that God knows; if man can grasp some of God’s meaning; if God’s knowledge and man’s have some points in common; then true religion will be no delusion, but a glorious reality.” Thank God for the clarity of the Word of God and for Dr. Clark’s defense of it for the church today!

The Presbyterian Philosopher by Douglas Douma is available on eBay, amazon, ABE, CBD and Reformation Heritage websites for around $30.00.

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By Myron Mooney

Rev. Myron Mooney is minister of Trinity FPC, Trinity AL.