Gordon Clark and Knowledge:  On Justification


The Problem

Gordon Clark wrote:

Accordingly the knowledge possible for human beings consists of the axioms of and the deductions from Scripture. We can indeed entertain opinions about Columbus, and by accident or good luck they may be true; but we could not know it. Our dear pagan Plato, at the end of his Meno (98b) declared, “That there is a difference between right opinion and knowledge (ōrtheme) is not at all a conjecture with me, but something I would particularly assert that I knew[1]

Almost all philosophers with whom we are familiar define knowledge distinctly from true belief (or true opinion).  In a short article called Is Knowledge Merely True Opinion?, Luke Miner attempted some humor and gave examples as to why this is the case.  In this article, Luke did not address the question of whether or not Gordon Clark defined knowledge distinct from true belief because he considered it to be patently obvious that Clark did use the terms distinctly.  However, now[2] we think it is important to provide a reasonably complete proof that Gordon Clark did, indeed, consistently use the term “knowledge” distinctly from true belief (or true opinion)[3].


Before getting into the exposition, a few clarifying comments ought to be made.  First, however unsatisfactory it may seem, this article will use the term “justification” to denote the difference between knowledge and true belief.  We are not attached to this word but, for this article, Justification refers to the infallibility of the knowledge-acquiring process.[4]  A belief is justified if it was obtained by a process that is guaranteed to produce true beliefs.  It is not to be concluded that Gordon Clark himself used the term “justification” to denote this distinction.  Dr. Clark’s terminology will be stated clearly enough below.

Therefore, and secondly, this article is not about “certainty” or “access” (in the technical sense).[5]  Thirdly, note that we do not equate “justification” with justifiability or the knower’s ability to logically demonstrate the truth of the knowledge he possesses.  One may know something without being able to prove it.  Fourthly, this article will not argue that Clark insisted that knowledge must be defined as true justified belief.  Anybody familiar with Clark’s philosophy of language knows that Clark takes words to be arbitrary signs for propositional meaning.  Therefore, one may even use the term “snark” to mean justified true belief if he prefers.

Knowledge as Merely True Belief?

Lastly, many have quoted Gordon Clark out of context to show that Gordon Clark held no distinction between true belief and knowledge.  We hope that such prooftexters do not use the Scriptures the same way.  They usually quote two passages in their favor.

This chapter has tried to show by an application of the law of contradiction – a law that is not merely formal but is itself an integral part of the system of truth – that truth exists and that knowledge is possible. Knowledge means the possession of truth. It is not necessary to work out a philosophical system and to demonstrate truths before having them. On the contrary, even in geometry, one usually has come into the possession of a truth before one attempts to demonstrate it; in fact, this will be seen always to be true if we do not restrict our vision to a narrow field. Demonstration and the arrangement of truths into a logical system is undeniably a desideratum; it is precisely the progress in such systematization that distinguishes the philosophical student from the intellectually dull; but philosophers are not the only people who can know the truth. Disjointed truths possessed are still truths possessed and are therefore knowledge. The man who has the truth that God exists, though his reasons for so believing are philosophically scandalous, is better off – he knows more truth – than the man who with the most erudite of arguments attempts to justify the false statement that God does not exist. And since the philosopher himself, in possession of many truths, never escapes all disorder, since his systematization is never complete, there is only a difference of degree between him and the common herd. If it be said that the latter have only faith and not “knowledge,” because their beliefs are not thoroughly integrated, the reply is that all knowledge is faith. Those opponents of theism who contrast knowledge and faith to the disparagement of the latter, and who like Carlson and Clifford deny Christians the right to believe, underestimate the limitations of their own integration. The important contrast is not between faith and knowledge, but between truth and error.[6]

In this passage, Gordon Clark argues that one need not be able to demonstrate the truth of a proposition in order to know it.

Presumably knowledge, if it be defined at all, means the possession of truth by a mind. The problems that an analysis of knowledge entails are enormous[7].

The flaw in the quotation of these passages is clear:  these passages are not about the distinction or non-distinction of knowledge and true belief.  In order to answer this question, and to avoid the charge of prooftexting, one ought to build his case off the plethora of passages in Clark which directly concern this question.  If Clark had not specifically addressed this issue, it might be permissible to take these passages to suggest that Gordon Clark used no distinction between knowledge and true belief.  But, he did.

Knowledge as Justified True Belief

There are many passages in Gordon Clark’s works where he specifically and clearly addresses the issue of knowledge versus true belief.  These leave absolutely no doubt as to Gordon Clark’s position.

If a system has no starting point, it cannot start, nicht? But a starting point cannot have been deduced or based on something prior to the start, for nothing is prior to the stat n’est-ce pas? Every system, therefore, every attempted system, must have an original, undeduced axiom. Our dear friend Aristotle noted this, for he argued that if all propositions had to be deduced, they would regress to infinity, with the result that nothing could be deduced.

Since even Communism cannot prevent one from choosing whatever principle seems best to him, the Christian will choose the God of truth, or, if one prefer, the truth of God. He then proceeds by deduction, that is, by the law of contradiction, for the law of contradiction is embedded in the first word of Genesis. Bereshith, in the beginning, does not mean half-way through. That is to say, Scripture throughout assumes the law of contradiction, viz., a truth cannot be false. Since deduction is necessary inference, no further deduction – let alone induction – can disprove what has already been proved. Accordingly the knowledge possible for human beings consists of the axioms of and the deductions from Scripture. We can indeed entertain opinions about Columbus, and by accident or good luck they may be true; but we could not know it. Our dear pagan Plato, at the end of his Meno (98b) declared, “That there is a difference between right opinion and knowledge (ōrtheme) is not at all a conjecture with me, but something I would particularly assert that I knew.[8]

This passage makes the point clear that Gordon Clark believed that one may possess right opinions (true beliefs) that do not count as knowledge.  He also quotes Plato in his favor.  Below is another passage which directly addresses the difference between the possession of true beliefs and knowledge.  It also sheds light on what the distinction (i.e. the justification) consists of.

There is a story that at the birth of Louis XIV, Marie de Medici gave birth to twins. Father Joseph wrote a note to Richelieu, who imposed perpetual silence on the midwife. But a Spanish plotter picked up the discarded note and kidnapped the second twin. After training the younger twin, and after Richelieu’s death, the Spaniard managed to catch Louis XIV alone, put him in the Iron Mask, and the twin reappeared as Louis XIV.

Granted, it is unlikely that anyone should go to such extremes to substitute another woman for the wife of an unimportant theologian or philosopher. But how do you know? So long as substitution is possible, certainty is impossible. Nor is substitution the only danger. For those whose philosophic preparation rises above the level of Alexander Dumas, there are always the prior difficulties of solipsism, subjective idealism, and, let us remember, Descartes’ malignant demon, who, so potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive us. Modern philosophers prefer to ignore rather than to confront him.

With this result the previous question returns. What account shall be given of everyday “knowledge” that common sense thinks it silly to doubt? Don’t I know when I am hungry? Can’t I use road maps to drive to Boston or Los Angeles? Indeed, how can I know what the Bible says without reading its pages with my own eyes? It was one secular philosopher criticizing another who said that knowledge is a fact and that any theory that did not account for it should be abandoned. But all such criticisms miss the point. The status of common opinion is not fixed until a theory has been accepted. One may admit that a number of propositions commonly believed are true; but no one can deny that many such are false. The problem is to elaborate a method by which the two classes can be distinguished. Plato, too, granted a place to opinion as distinct from knowledge; he even admitted that in some circumstances opinion was as useful as knowledge with a capital K. But to dispose of the whole matter by an appeal to road maps that we can see with our own eyes is to ignore everything said above about Aristotle.

For one last time, therefore, we must summarize and emphasize the whole argument. Consider the philosophy of science outlined in the preceding lecture. There it was claimed and argued that experimental science produced no knowledge whatever of the processes of nature. The laboratory can devise no method for determining whether the Earth moves still while the Sun stands still or whether the Sun moves while the Earth stands still. Nor can the greatest amount of experimentation explain why two smooth pieces of marble adhere so stubbornly to each other. Neither can physics observe anything moving in a straight line. It is incorrect, therefore, to complain that the axiom of revelation deprives us of knowledge otherwise obtainable. There is no knowledge otherwise obtainable.[9]

Here, we see a distinction between knowledge and true opinion, but we also see what Gordon Clark takes that distinction to be.  A true belief rises to the status of only if it is acquired by a “method” (in Clark’s words above) that will never yield error.

You or I might be induced to accept the Bible by the testimony of the Church; but a Moslem would not. You or I might consider the matter heavenly, but the humanists would call it pie in the sky. The literary style of some parts of the Bible is majestic, but Paul’s epistles are not models of style. The consent or logical consistency of the whole is important; for if the Bible contradicted itself, we would know that some of it would be false. Personal testimony as to the saving efficacy of the doctrine impresses some people; but others point out that queer people believe queer things and find great satisfaction in their oddities.

How then may we know that the Bible is true? The Confession answers, “Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority [of the Scripture] is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit.”

Faith is a gift or work of God. It is God who causes us to believe: “Blessed is the man whom thou choosest and causest to approach unto thee” (Psa. 65:4).

Logically the infallibility of the Bible is not a theorem to be deduced from some prior axiom. The infallibility of the Bible is the axiom from which several doctrines are themselves deduced as theorems. Every religion and every philosophy must be based on some first principle. And since a first principle is first, it cannot be “proved” or “demonstrated” on the basis of anything prior. As the catechism question, quoted above, says, “The Word of God is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify Him.”[10]

For Gordon Clark, knowledge of the axioms of revelation are justified.  We believe them based on a “method” that is guaranteed to exclude error.  He says above:  “it is God who causes us to believe.”  This justification makes our belief in the axioms of revelation more than just belief but knowledge.

Nothing in Paul suggests that the word of “cooperative investigation” (1:20) is more certain or reliable than the wisdom of God. Is it not strange that for any evangelical, for whom sola Scriptura is the formal principle of theology, should try to base the truth of Scripture on the conclusions of Dr. Albright and Miss Kenyon? For Paul revelation is self-authenticating. Athens, Oxford, and American universities have nothing in common with Jerusalem.[11]

Here, we see that Clark thought that the Scriptures needed to be authenticated in order to be “certain or reliable.”  They require the “self-authentication” clearly defined in the quote above from What do Presbyterians Believe?

In particular, the critics argue fallaciously when they say, if man is competent to discover one truth, he is competent to discover all truth and needs no revelation.

The second half of the disjunction was: “or else the evidence is dependent on the proposed authority itself, and the revelation fails, in consequence, to win its credentials as a reasonable source of trustworthy propositions.”

This disjunct faces two replies. First, it assumes that a first principle cannot be self-authenticating. Yet every first principle must be. The first principle of Logical Positivism is that a sentence has no meaning unless it can be verified (in principle at least) by sensory experience. Yet no sensory experience can ever verify this principle. Anyone who wishes to adopt it must regard it as self-authenticating. So it is with all first principles. Ferré may not be a Logical Positivist, but he is an Empiricist of some sort. If the Dogmatist or Rationalist questions Empiricism, Ferré can defend himself only by saying that experience proves that experience alone is reasonable.[12]

Again, we see that authentication is a necessary component of knowledge making knowledge not merely true belief.

One or two other points that Reymond makes are also worthy of mention. I have mentioned that, taking the Scriptural truths as axioms, all knowledge is deducible from them. In opposition to this, Reymond and others object that this limits too much the extent of human knowledge. Reymond argues that if knowledge is limited to Scriptural implications, we know nothing at all. “I suggest that this would lead to skepticism, if not total ignorance”. This is remarkable: If we know the Bible, we know nothing! At the bottom of the page Reymond repeats, “So where am I left? It would appear with no certain knowledge of anything!” It would seem to me, contrariwise, that if a theologian can deduce six hundred pages of theology from Scripture, he knows quite a lot.

Of course, he does not know everything. On the view here defended knowledge is indeed limited. But what epistemology can guarantee omniscience to man? If Reymond will retract this inference to complete ignorance, I am willing to acknowledge that some truths he very much wants to know are not obtainable on my theory.

On the previous page Reymond had suggested that the Westminster Confession does not restrict knowledge to what can be deduced from Scripture. What those divines as individuals believed, I cannot say. There was one seventeenth-century writer, whom unfortunately I am unable to name, who held it possible to be infallible on one point and mistaken on others. His example was the “infallible” knowledge of a ship-captain regarding the approach to a harbor. This hardly seems correct. But whatever the Westminster divines themselves thought, and whether some of them allowed for more extensive knowledge, Calvin limits knowledge to Scriptural truth. In the Festschrift, The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, one quotation from Calvin is given, and in another of my volumes a second is given. The one in the Festschrift is, “I call that knowledge, not what is innate in man, nor what is by diligence acquired, but that which is delivered to us by the Law and the Prophets.”

Cannot Calvin support his view by the statement of Paul in Colossians 2:3: “In whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hid”? If so, then no one will find knowledge elsewhere. Note also that the French Confession of 1559 says, “The Word contained in these [canonical] books…is the rule of all truth” (la règle de toute vérité).[13]

If all knowledge can only be acquired by Scriptural propositions, then it follows that non-Scriptural propositions, true or not, cannot be defined as knowledge. And notice his use of Calvin. Knowledge is limited to Scriptural truth, not truth more generally.

Finally, here is Clark limiting the scope of knowledge to the what can be gleaned from the Bible and its deductions.

One of the frequent criticisms against Clark, even by those who accept inerrancy, is that he restricts the scope of knowledge by limiting it to what “is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (Westminster Confession, I.vi). Did Daane fail to notice this rather prominent thesis? At any rate, when a man begins to read the Bible, he finds that it contains many propositions – propositions about the stars, about Abraham, the Levitical law, the conquest of Canaan. He cannot go far, however, without learning something about God and man. He learns that God is a rational spirit, a God of truth, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He learns that man – in contrast with the animals – is a rational creature, that man sinned, and that God has provided a method of atonement.[14]


In our experience, Dr. Clark is right that Clark’s narrow view of knowledge is widely criticized.  It is not just the best Clarkians who recognize Clark’s high standard for knowledge.  It is one of the most common criticisms on the lips of non-Clarkians; especially those who are unfamiliar with Clark and with philosophy in general.


Those who are familiar with the history of philosophy realize the magnitude of the problem of obtaining true beliefs through an infallible method.  We think that philosophers tend to believe that such a high standard for knowledge makes knowledge impossible.  Many people do not realize that Gordon Clark has, by the grace of God, exposited the biblical theory of knowledge so that Christians may meet the problems of epistemology with revealed truth from the Holy Spirit; a privilege that all should rejoice in.  The conclusion of this article is that Gordon Clark maintained a significant distinction between knowledge and true belief.  This distinction consists in a belief’s justification; that the belief was acquired by an infallible method.




[1] Gordon H. Clark. Lord God of Truth, 1994, pg. 40

[2] After Cjay Engel and Luke Miner were kicked out of a group and labeled un-Clarkian by Ricky Roldan and Jason Petersen, they (we) decided we ought to write an article explaining the obvious for those not familiar with the epistemology of Gordon Clark.  Moreover, it seems that a seminary professor, Dr. Kenneth Talbot, has also advocated this errant view of Clark’s writings.

[3] Even for those who have come a long way in understanding the works of Gordon Clark, it can be difficult to come up with quotes to support one’s understanding.  The information contained was gathered by CJay Engel and Luke Miner with much help from Ryan Hedrich, Doug Douma, Sean Gerety, and Tim Shaughnessy.  Much thanks to each of them for their commitment to the clear exposition of the views of Gordon Clark.

[4] Therefore, Gettier counterexamples do not apply here.  Gettier problems only apply to justification that is not guaranteed to exclude error.

[5] Certainty or access usually refers to a mental state where a person can know that they know something or, instead, can be fully convinced in their mind that they know something.  Gordon Clark chides those who confuse epistemology with certainty on a number of occasions because certainty is totally irrelevant to the question of whether or not one knows something.

[6] Gordon H. Clark (2014-06-05T04:00:00+00:00). A Christian View of Men and Things (Kindle Locations 4751-4752). The Trinity Foundation. Kindle Edition.

[7] 1975, In Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Merrill C. Tenney, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. http://thegordonhclarkfoundation.com/know-knowledge-by-gordon-h-clark/

[8] Gordon H. Clark. Lord God of Truth, 1994, pg. 40

[9] Gordon H. Clark.  Clark and His Critics, 2009, pgs. 75-76

[10] Gordon H. Clark. What Do Presbyterians Believe?, 1985, pg. 18

[11] Gordon H. Clark. First Corinthians, 1991, pg. 58

[12] Gordon H. Clark.  Christian Philosophy, 2004, pgs. 46-47

[13] Language and Theology, Kindle location 2914

[14] God’s Hammer Kindle Location 3259


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