Isolationist Clarkians:  An Oxymoron?

Some people think of Gordon Clark’s theology as divisive and isolationist in nature.  This article gives reasons to doubt this.  However, I think that any theological system that is at variance with the cultural norms will naturally produce a divisive spirit in some people.  This is because people who think differently than their friends and family will naturally feel a greater need to be justified in their thinking.  Many times they will do so by developing a superiority complex where they want to believe that the reason they think differently is because they are smarter and better-informed than the rest.  This produces divisions and isolationism (and usually is accompanied by delusions).

 

There are 2 main reasons, as I see it, for taking the view that Clarkian theology is divisive.  Reason 1 is that many Clarkians are divisive. Reason 2 is The Clark-Van Til Controversy in the OPC which, according to some, was a result of Clark’s divisive theology.  The first reason can be better explained by the superiority phenomenon discussed above so it doesn’t support the idea that Clarkian theology is divisive at all.  Clarkian theology cuts against the grain of the cultural ideas of today both in the church and out, so I think many Clarkians feel the need to call people stupid, call people heretics, and engage in all manner of divisive activities in order to preserve the idea that they are smarter, better informed, and more spirit-filled than other people.  This is, in my opinion, a better explanation for the fact that many Clarkians are divisive, so Reason 1 doesn’t turn out to be a good reason to think that Clark’s ideas are divisive.  One can’t judge an idea by the people who claim to hold it.  So much for Reason 1.

 

Reason 2.  Doug Douma recently published a fascinating biography of Gordon H. Clark, in which he dispels the myth that it was Clark’s theology which divided the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).  The remainder of this article comments on Douma’s findings, which suggest that it was actually the attitudes of Cornelius Van Til and some of the faculty at Westminster Seminary that divided the OPC.  Of course, Douma is not neutral.  He sides with Clark.  But he accurately reports key facts which, I think, force the conclusions that Douma draws.

 

Douma’s book explained that, before the Clark-Van Til Controversy erupted, Clark had led a movement to make the OPC more amiable to fundamentalists who were growing increasingly dissatisfied with their denomination.

And in an article titled “An Appeal to Fundamentalists,” he [Clark] encouraged like-minded Christians to come out of their faltering denominations and join the OPC.  He was clear, however, to invite unity with fundamentalists only on the basis of following the doctrines of the original Reformers, namely the whole Reformed faith, not simply the basic tenets of fundamentalism which Clark likened to a house with a foundation but no roof.  Clark’s vision was that the OPC would lead the fundamentalists under the banner of the teachings of the Westminster Confession of Faith in their entirety.(Kindle location 2624 of 8489)

According to Douma, the WTS faculty wrote against this idea because of a motive to shape the OPC toward other theological positions not expressed in the WCF.  These positions were worked out in various other places and specifically in the Dutch Reformed tradition and in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).  In fact, some of Van Til’s letters to CRC members express this motive explicitly “…I still feel that I ought to spread the beliefs of the Christian Reformed Church [the CRC] outside of that Church[1]” and “I still feel conscience bound at present to continue to teach what the Christian Reformed Church teaches, where I am[2].”  This is a sampling of the data that suggests that Van Til and some of the WTS faculty saw themselves as evangelists of the views of the CRC.  Better context to these quotes is provided in Douma’s book.  One of the reasons that Douma suggests for the WTS opposition to Clark’s efforts was that if Clark were to succeed by enlarging the OPC with people who subscribed to the WCF, and not to CRC theology, the WTS faculty would become an increasing minority and their influence might be snuffed out altogether.

 

In an effort to remove stumbling blocks to joining the OPC, Clark proposed that the OPC recommend abstinence to alcohol.  It wasn’t that Clark thought drinking alcohol was un-Christian.  Clark saw that many weaker brothers and sisters in crumbling fundamentalist churches did not feel that they could trust the OPC because of their loose policy on alcohol, and because of some of the past scandals of drunken behavior at Westminster Seminary.  Clark sought to remove this hindrance by petitioning the OPC to adopt a stricter policy on alcohol use.  Naturally, the highly influential WTS faculty opposed this motion and produced much material which served to rouse the members OPC against Clark’s motion.

 

The unofficial starting point of the Clark-Van Til Controversy was when Cornelius Van Til and others from the WTS faculty sent The Complaint to the Philadelphia Presbytery.  The goal of this Complaint was to persuade the Presbytery to remove Clark’s ordination.  In The Compliant, their non-Presbyterian theological positions were clearly stated, so the Philadelphia Presbytery naturally shot them down by explaining that Clark’s position was the position of the WCF and that the theology of the Complaint was non-confessional.  The Philadelphia Presbytery actually referred to some of the doctrine of the Complaint as strange and dismissed the idea that such strange doctrines be considered a test of orthodoxy.  The Presbytery wrote:

Having contrasted the basic contention of the Complaint regarding the knowledge of God and his incomprehensibility with the position taken by Dr. Clark on these points, and having shown that both Scripture and the Confession of Faith support Dr. Clark’s position rather than that of the Complaint, it is necessary to proceed to an analysis of the Complaint itself.

 

After being so embarrassed, Van Til and the others took their complaint before the entire OPC by presenting it at the General Assembly and there were shot down as well.  The thing to see here is that the OPC judged the orthodoxy of their ministers by adherence to the WCF, so they could not oust their ministers based on the additional theology propounded by the WTS faculty.  One might have guessed that this would have ended the whole thing, but, it did not stop there.  After failing to convince the OPC to condemn Clark, they turned to his supporters with varying levels of success.  The Clark biography reports that they opposed the ordination of Clark’s supporters, they sabotaged the OPC’s effort to start a reformed graduate school, and they successfully disallowed Dr. Floyd Hamilton to return to his teaching position in Korea after World War 2.

 

What strikes me in learning these things is that the Clark-Van Til Controversy was not primarily about Clark’s theology at all.  Neither was it about the theology of the Dutch Reformed Church or of the CRC.  After all, could these two theologies not have coexisted in the same church, in the same seminary, and on the same mission field?  I am not saying that Clark’s theology was not front-and-center to the discussion.  It obviously was.  What I have learned through Douma’s book and through my own research into the issue is that this controversy was driven by the desire of the Van Til faction to change the OPC.

 

I think most who have read The Complaint and The Answer would agree with Herman Hoeksema who said that the Clark – Van Til Controversy should have taken place in seminary philosophy departments where all could benefit from the products of this controversy by reading the academic papers and books on the subject.  Nobody needed to lose their ordination over these issues.  The OPC did not need the change that Van Til hoped for.  Do not misunderstand me, I am not demeaning the importance of these issues.  I think that the theology of The Complaint is mistaken in matters which touch almost all aspects of the Christian life and the complaintants needed to be corrected.  But why did Van Til and those with him have such an intense desire to divide over these issues?  Since all subscribed to the WCF, why could they not deal with their differences by writing books, papers, and having personal conversations?  I haven’t yet finished Douma’s book, so maybe I’ll find out soon.  But the sad reality of what happened is that, because of the stubborn obstinacy of Van Til group, many of the best and most influential members of the OPC finally gave up and dispersed into other denominations; some returning to the PCUSA and others going elsewhere so that the OPC finally became dominated by the theology of The Complaint.  By some, this is seen as a success-story.  But how could it be?

 

Today, many Clarkians are in a similar place to that of the Van Tillians at the beginning.   We exist in small numbers in our churches and denominations; thinking, as Van Til did, that part of our mission is to influence our fellow Christians.  We believe that Gordon Clark’s insights invaluably contribute to biblical theology and the Christian worldview in general.  Van Til doubtless thought the same of CRC theology.  It is easy to sit back and criticize the misconduct of the Van Til group; desiring to oust those who don’t hold to their particular brand of Calvinism, but do we do any better?  Today, Clarkians don’t have the power to oust anybody from anything larger than a facebook group, but we commit smaller similar offenses when we demean people and call them heretics for their un-Clarkian views.  Clark saw the potential for great unity in the church over the doctrines of the WCF, and he expressed no divisive motives.  Since Clark wanted to share the OPC with fundamentalists, Van Tillians, and anyone else who would accept the WCF, and since this was part of what led to the Clark-Van Til controversy, I suggest that this is a strong reason to think that Clark’s theology is not divisive.  Perhaps the term “isolationist Clarkians” is simply an oxymoron.

 

 

[1] CVT to H. J. Kuiper, 23 June 1943, WTS Archives

[2] CVT to Rev. John De Haan, Jr., 8 July 1943, WTS Archive

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  • Samuil Kovalchuk

    Thanks for the article Luke.

    I might be deluded, but I am convinced that I am smarter and better informed than the people I happen to interact with. I’d like some advice on how to prevent division and isolation from being produced in my life.

    • Good question Sam. I don’t know the answer to it, but here are some suggestions:

      You might try and learn a little more about your own weaknesses. I find that the more one reads a variety of Christian philosophers, the more one realizes how intellectually inferior he is, and the more he sees the need for humility. Sitting at the feet of the philosophical giants puts me in my place because I realize that I’ll never be as smart or well-informed as them.

      You might also try praying for God to show you your weaknesses and to show you how you can learn from people who don’t study as much as you. The fact is that all people, whether they are well-informed or not, have lived and learned from a life that you’ve never experienced. If you only learn from the well-informed, you’ll be a lopsided individual.

      Let me know your thoughts.

    • Benjamin Wong

      Dear Samuil:

      I have a similar problem.

      In my youth, I recited Proverbs 18:12 many times a day to remind myself of the importance of humility before God.

      (Proverbs 18:12 CSB): “Before his downfall a person’s heart is proud, but humility comes before honor.”

      I do it less nowadays, but Proverbs 18:12 is a Bible verse always close to my mind.

      Sincerely,

      Benjamin Wong