Who is Gordon H. Clark?
Gordon Clark (August 31, 1902-April 9, 1985) was a philosopher and theologian who resided in the United States. Clark was a devout Presbyterian. He was brought up in the ways of the Presbyterian theology by his father, David S. Clark, who was also a Presbyterian minister.1 He was born in Philadelphia, PA, but he departed to Glory while living in Colorado.
Gordon Clark met his future wife, Ruth Schmidt, who was baptized as a baby by Clark's father, at the University of Pennsylvania They were married in 1929, but Ruth passed away from Leukemia in 1977. They had two daughters, Lois Antoinette and Nancy Elizabeth (whose names have both changed). Clark was a chess player, and he was apparently quite good at it. In 1966, he was the champion of the King's Men Chess Club in Indianapolis, IN.2
Gordon Clark was a devout Presbyterian and steadfastly believed what is expressed in the articles of the Westminster Confession of Faith. He so steadfastly believed in the Westminster Confession of Faith that he made those articles the definition for Christianity in his writings.3
He graduated with a bachelor's degree in French in 1924, and he graduated with a doctorate in philosophy in 1929. He went on to study at Sorbonne in Paris, France. He quickly gained respect from the academic community and he published articles in academic journals.
He taught philosophy at University of Pennsylvania, Reformed Episcopal Seminary, Wheaton College, Butler University, Covenant College, and Sangre de Cristo Seminary. He was the chair of philosophy at Butler University for 28 years. He wrote over 40 books in his lifetime.
Gordon Clark's Role in Church History
Gordon Clark's role in the Presbyterian Church has consisted of battling against other philosophies that were invading the church, and thus, his life in the church has been one of controversy. Much of this controversy is detailed on the Trinity Foundation's website.
Gordon Clark was raised in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) by his father, David S. Clark, who was a Presbyterian minister. Clark became a ruling elder in that church denomination. When he was 27, he defended church doctrine against the modernists and helped organize the Presbyterian Church of America (He left PCUSA). The Presbyterian Church of America would later become the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The activities involved in starting this church would cost Clark his position as Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.
Gordon Clark taught at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL from 1936 to 1943. Clark was a Calvinist, and that brought him into conflict with some of the arminian faculty at Wheaton College, and he was forced to resign in 1943.
In 1944, Gordon Clark was ordained as a teaching elder by the Presbytery of Philadelphia. A group of people, who were mostly faculty from Westminster Theological Seminary, opposed his ordination. Ultimately, their efforts to remove Clark as a teaching elder were unsuccessful. A professor at Westminster Theological Seminary named Cornelius Van Til lead this group of people, and thus, this controversy became known in the Presbyterian Church as the Clark-Van Til controversy.
After the conclusion of this controversy, the same group of people started a conflict with one of Gordon Clark's defenders, and this resulted in Clark reluctantly leaving the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with a group of people who supported him and the man who was currently being targeted.
Gordon Clark joined a small, conservative denomination called the United Presbyterian Church. When that denomination merged with a larger denomination, Clark left the United Presbyterian Church and joined the Reformed Presbyterian Church. That denomination merged with the Evangelical Synod to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RCPES). This denomination eventually decided to merge with the Presbyterian Church of America, but Clark refused to join the new denomination because he disagreed with their doctrine. For a short time, he identified with the Covenant Presbytery up until he departed to Glory.
Gordon Clark held to some ideas that many found to be unusual. He rejected the idea that sensory data could lead to knowledge, and he thought that rationalism would result in the conclusion that nothing could be known at all.
Gordon Clark believed that in order to avoid the conclusion that nothing could be known at all, a person had to start with the Bible, or more specifically, "The Bible is the Word of God" as the starting point in their philosophical system. This was viewed as unusual by many, and resulted in a lot of criticism from his contemporaries. He believed that every system of philosophy could be tested for logical consistency using logic, or more specifically, the law of contradiction. He also believed that philosophies should be evaluated on the basis of how well they answer philosophical questions. Even though Clark's positions may seem unusual, he was a very able defender of the positions that he held.
Why You Should Study Gordon Clark's Writings
A theologian named Carl Henry, who was a student of Gordon Clark, and who was the first editor for Christianity Today has said Clark is "one of the profoundest evangelical Protestant philosophers of our time"4. Ronald Nash, a philosophy professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS has said Clark is "one of the greatest Christian thinkers of our century."5
When it comes to people's praise of Gordon Clark, there is an embarrassment of riches. Gordon Clark has had a profound impact on me as a philosopher. I do have disagreements with Gordon Clark, but that does not stop me from appreciating his work. Unfortunately, both the Christian and Messianic communities are largely unaware of Clark's works, and I believe that if we took some of the things that Clark said into account, we would all be better able to defend our faith against objections.
If you wish to learn more about Gordon Clark, there are some free resources that I recommend. First, I recommend the Trinity Foundation's website. The Trinity Foundation was started by a man named John W. Robbins who was mentored by Clark and helped edit his works. Second, I recommend the Gordon Clark Foundation. This foundation has articles, both published and unpublished, that were written by Gordon Clark. The foundation was started by Kenneth Talbot, who is a former student of Clark's. He is also the president of Whitefield Theological Seminary.
There are some disagreements among Clark's modern supporters about some of his beliefs. My recommendation is to take anyone's interpretation of Clark with a grain of salt. As far as I am concerned, only Clark can definitively speak for himself.
1. Robbins, J. W. (n.d.). An Introduction to Gordon H. Clark. Retrieved March 13, 2019, from http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=192
2. Gordon Clark. (2018, October 12). Retrieved March 13, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Clark
3. Clark, G. H. (2004). Christian Philosophy(Vol. 4). Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation.
4. Olson, R. E. (2005). A-Z of Evangelical Theology. Albans Place: The SCM Press.
5. Kettler, S. C. (1993). Biblical Counsel: Resources for Renewal. Newark, DE: Letterman Associates.
Prior to reading this article, did you know who Gordon Clark was?
© 2019 Jason L Petersen