An Idiot’s Guide to Learning about the Clark-Van Til Controversy

In the Christian world, it seems that the reading of Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til has all but perished.  In the philosophical world, there has been a resurgence of Christian philosophers building on the work of Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, and others, yet you can barely find mention of Clark and Van Til in their writings.  However, in some pockets of Reformed churches, the Clark-Van Til controversy is still seen as the most important controversy in modern times.  Since Clark and Van Til provide Reformed believers a well-traveled bridge between philosophy and theology or theology and apologetics, many people urge that this controversy be studied.

 

The first thing that must be said in an idiot’s guide to learning about this subject is that most of what you hear about the controversy is idiocy (okay, its “ill-informed,” maybe not idiotic, but you wouldn’t believe some of the bogus nonsense[1] out there).  Whether you hear it in a conversation on Facebook or from your pastor, statistics show that its probably wrong.

 

The second thing that must be said is that it is actually really easy to figure this controversy out.  Way easier than you probably think.  To have an easy subject is a rare privilege in the study of theology. All it takes is one dedicated evening to get the straight scoop.  I’m going to teach you a trick that will rock your little Clark-VT world.

 

Here’s the secret:  Read the original controversy documents.

 

Brilliant, I know.  But is it really that easy?  Sometimes, reading original source material can be a bear, but, in this case, it’s so easy you’ll wish you’d thought of it before.  These documents are free online and nobody should be allowed to talk about the controversy until they’ve read them.  Don’t go away yet.  First let me briefly explain what these documents are.

 

Cornelius Van Til and some other men from Westminster Seminary wrote a letter to the Presbytery that ordained Gordon Clark.  This letter is called The Complaint and its purpose was (1) to prove that portions of Clark’s theology were unorthodox and (2) to call upon the Presbytery to remove Clark’s ordination.  This is the first of the original controversy documents.  Next, the Presbytery wrote a letter back to Van Til and the other authors called The Answer.  In The Answer, the Presbytery essentially said that (1) Clark’s views were actually orthodox, that (2) the views set forth in The Complaint were actually unorthodox, and that (3) the Presbytery would not remove Clark’s ordination.  As a result, many feelings were hurt and a sea of perspectives and arguments followed and today we have a lot of garbage, yet it still remains easy to sidestep the nonsense and get informed.

 

In concluding this idiot’s guide, I will provide the links to the two small documents that tell you everything you need to know about the controversy to be well-informed about the issues.  These are the original documents.  These ARE the Clark-Van Til controversy, and if you have been commenting on the Clark-Van Til Controversy without having read these, you are the very idiot[2] that this guide has been written for.  See below:

The Complaint

The Answer

 

I’ll close with a benediction:  May God help us to stop reiterating bogus nonsense and to educate ourselves before we try to educate others, so that together we may grow in the wisdom and knowledge of God and of the Clark-Van Til Controversy.  Amen and amen.

 

 

[1] There are commentaries on the controversy that do not constitute bogus nonsense.  However, reading these is not a requirement to become informed on the basics of the controversy.  No account is unbiased, but one good guide from a source who is neither a Clarkian nor a Van Tillian is The Clark-Van Til Controversy by Herman Hoeksema.

[2] Brother or sister, I don’t mean to be harmfully abrasive and if you’ve been trying to learn about the controversy by discussing it with your friends, and have been unaware of these documents, I really have nothing against you.

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  • Renat Ilyasov

    Herman Hoeksema (rightfully) agrees with Clark on his opposition to the irrational notion of the Well Meant Offer. Hence, he may be termed “Clarkian” in a technical sense as relates to the issue. He is certainly not a neutral arbiter to the debate.

    • Thanks for the comment Renat. As I said in the footnote on Hoeksema, any account of anything will not be unbiased or objective. However, the fact that he agrees with Clark on one or more points of the debate does not make it fitting to call him a Clarkian. It just so happens that some of Clark’s views accorded with the orthodox presbyterianism that Hoeksema already held. To me, it seems counter-intuitive to refer to anyone as a Clarkian who does not hold to the main points of his philosophic system.

  • Benjamin Wong

    Dear Luke:

    1. Good advice. : – )

    It is always a good idea to be acquainted with the primary documents.

    But [The Complaint] and [The Answer] were not generally available until Sean Gerety made them so in his blog [God’s Hammer] a few years ago.

    I wonder what differences it would have made to the course of apologetics in conservative presbyterian circles if the two documents were available to the public decades earlier?

    2. Did the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church ever adopted [The Answer]?

    3. Edward J. Carnell (1919-1967) was a student of both Gordon H. Clark (at Wheaton College) and Cornelius Van Til (at Westminster Theological Seminary), although Carnell fell out with both later on.

    Here is what Rudolph Nelson, a biographer of Carnell, has to say about Carnell on the Clark-Van Til Controversy:

    (Nelson 1987, 45): “Clark and Van Til became antagonists of a sort in 1944. Clark, having been let go by Wheaton, was interested in a Westminster teaching position and applied for ordination in the new Orthodox Presbyterian Church. At a series of hearings, which a number of Westminster students regularly attended, the discussion of certain rather abstruse theological issues had the effect of pitting Clark’s ideas against those of Van Til. By this time, Carnell had already graduated and gone on to Boston, but he was kept informed by fellow Clark sympathizers still enrolled at Westminster. Their perceptions were that, whatever the official outcome, Clark argued his case far more skillfully than those arrayed against him.”

    Reference:

    Nelson, Rudolph. 1987. The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind: The Case of Edward Carnell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Sincerely,

    Benjamin Wong

    • Thanks Ben. That’s good information. You said that The Complaint and The Answer were not generally available until a few years ago. I don’t think thats right. I leave room to be wrong here, but I think that opc.org made them available long before this. I’d think that’s where Sean got the docs in the first place. I also think that these documents were probably not that hard to find before the internet, but I’m not sure. I wasn’t there 🙂

      Also, FWIW, when Hoeksema published The Clark – Van Til Controversy in 1945, he included much of the text of both documents.