Review: A Christian View of Men and Things

A Christian View of Men and Things is the title given by Butler University philosopher, Gordon H. Clark, to his latest work in the field of philosophical apologetics. Originally the contents, somewhat condensed, were the substance of the Payton Lectures delivered by the author at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The work purports to be, “A treatise showing that social stability demands a Christian Society” (Jacket). Pointing out the prodigious task facing one who would try to give a systematic presentation of a Christian Philosophy, our author is inclined to settle for more modest achievements three to be exact—which serve to set forth the three-fold purpose of the book. These are: 1. To arrange the available elements and implications of Theism so as to give some prospect of what a theistic world view would be. 2. To draw a picture from the mass of naturalistic literature that will clarify Theism by contrast. 3. To phrase the whole in the elementary form of an introduction to philosophy. In the process of achieving these goals, Dr. Clark leads his readers all the way from the simplest philosophical problem of our ‘bread and butter existence to the sweet subtleties of epistemological self-consciousness by giving consideration to the realms of history, politics, ethics. science, religion and epistemology.

There follows a confession of confidence in two basic principles: 1. The unity of truth; 2. The law of noncontradiction. On this foundation Dr. Clark seeks to evaluate the naturalistic conclusions in the fields already indicated and in a very brief way to set forth the superiority of the theistic view. The ground of this superiority is a greater degree of inner consistency. But in the last analysis it may be that two or more systems of thought possess about the same amount of consistency, in which case one must make a choice based on the degree of satisfaction that is derived from the particular system’s answers to the basic problems of life. This, in brief, is Dr. Clark’s conception of a comprehensive apologia for the Christian World and Life View.



We may begin our evaluation of this work by giving some brief consideration to what Dr. Clark calls “the unity of truth.” All questions are related and “the answer to any one of them affects the answer to every other” (p. 23). “Instead of a series of disconnected propositions, truth will be a rational system, a logically ordered series, somewhat like Geometry with its theorems and axioms, its implications and presuppositions. And each part will derive its significance from the whole” (p. 24, 25). This interrelatedness does not move the existence of God, but if there is such a God we may infer that all problems and all solutions fit one another like pieces of a marvelous mosaic” (p. 24).

Now it is quite true that the Calvinist certainly believes in the unity of truth, but so did Hegel. And while Dr. Clark doesn’t want “Hegelian monism” one cannot be quite certain what he does want. The reason for this, we believe, is that the author fails to distinguish sharply between the unity of truth as understood by the Christian in contrast to the non-Christian. He seems to assume that the concept of the unity of truth is something that the believer and at least some unbelievers have in common. It is not simply unity that is needed for a stable society, but unity in the Christian sense, unity which is the product of God’s creative wisdom and power, unity which is a created reflection of his unity. It is true to a certain extent that our author seems to want to show the Christian view of this unity as we find it in the universe. And the superiority of the Christian view is to be determined by an application of the law of non-contradiction. Truth, for Dr. Clark, seems to be an infinite series of propositions which the human mind assimilates proposition by proposition in a never-ending process. In regard to each proposition there is a basic minimal content which can be known by any rational mind and which is not substantially altered by interpretation in the li!!ht of other propositions. Thus in a footnote on page 26 he quotes with apparent approval from Descartes, Discourse de la Methode: “As the truth on any particular point is one, whoever finds it knows all that there is to he known.” But to this reviewer, at least, the point which needs to be made abundantly plain in our clay is that every proposition lies embedded in a theological matrix; or perhaps we may say that at the core of every proposition there is a theological centrum which is nothing less than a necessary constitutive element of that proposition without which it ceases to be a proposition in the strict sense of the word. Such a theological centrum is, of course, recognizable only by the regenerate mind. And the “unity of truth” which may be achieved by the accumulation of propositions lacking this theological centrum is as ephemeral and substanceless as the “propositions” out of which it has been built. Hence, unity of truth in the Christian sense can never be achieved by constructing it from propositions which the believer and unbeliever are alleged to have in common.

Our disagreement with Dr. Clark becomes most profound, however, in his use of the law of non-contradiction, as though that law may also be used with equal propriety by believer and unbeliever as a criterion of truth. Our author describes the use of this law in these terms: “A thesis has been proposed for examination, for example, that the interior angles of a triangle are greater than 180 degrees. From this assumption a series of deductions is made until finally it is demonstrated that this thesis implies that right angle is equal to an obtuse angle. This conclusion is absurd or self-contradictory; the logic by which it was deduced from the thesis is valid; therefore the thesis is false…The method of procedure stresses coherence or self-consistency and the implications of each position must be traced out to the end. A reductio ad absurdum would be the test” (p. 31).

Can anything be more obvious than the fact that something cannot be both infinite and finite at the same time? Yet what has been the confession of the Church derived from the Word of God? Has it not been that in the person of the Christ the finite and the infinite have been indissoluble united? So that here at the very heart of Christian Theism we find an “absurdity” which should serve to rule out its credibility.

We may see how this works out in history. Dr. Clark evidences himself to be very well read in the modern contributors to the philosophy of history; and does a splendid job of presenting their conclusions and showing their inadequacies. Having completed this phase of the work, Dr. Clark goes on to set forth some of the basic principles of a Christian philosophy of history. These basic principles are three in number: 1. God controls history. 2. God will bring history to its end and culmination. 3. God himself acts in history (cf. p. 89). No Reformed Christian will find any ground to argue with these principles; rather he rejoices in their cogent enunciation. He will be somewhat amazed, however, to discover that a fourth principle of history has been omitted—a principle which must be stated in conjunction with the first three…one that is so obvious that we hardly dare mention it…God has committed the responsibility for history into the hands of men.

History is first of all the temporal manifestation of God’s eternal counsel, it is true; but history is also the record of man’s activity. The discrete events which form the chain of history are events for which men are held responsible and for which they will be held accountable when history’s denouement shall be revealed. Unless Dr. Clark is willing to exchange the Reformed doctrine of divine sovereignty for Islamic fatalism, then certainly he must admit this fourth principle. And if he does admit it, then he must also see it as a direct “contradiction” to the principle that God controls history. Why is man responsible for that which God controls?

It is readily seen that this argumentation brings history and ethics into very close con junction. And in the field of ethics we see again a manifestation of what to our finite minds must ever appear to be a fundamental contradiction between God’s revealed will which is the standard of ethical activity, and God’s decreed will which controls the history of men and nations. When ethics answers the question, what ought man to do, it implies that man is responsible for doing it. But if God has immutably determined whatsoever comes to pass, even man’s sin, then”how can man be held responsible? The problem simply stated, is that in particular instances God forbids what he has decreed. Hence, a Christian philosophy of history and a Christian ethic seemingly become impossible because at the very foundation the law of noncontradiction declares them incredible.

Since politics is but the national bridge that joins together ethics and history, the argumentation applied to ethics and history must apply also to politics. The author’s chapter on politics is none the less one of the most interesting and one which the Reformed Christian will greatly enjoy reading. But again the apparent antithesis between God’s commands and God’s counsel, particularly as observed in government, is nowhere resolved.

In the chapter relating to science, Dr. Clark is concerned to demonstrate that science cannot speak with either relevancy or authority in matters of ethics, history or even philosophy. This he accomplishes by showing that the tools of science, “facts,” are not facts at all and that the method of science, verification, is a logical fallacy that is able to establish nothing at all. Every scientific fact is reducible to one of Eddington’s “pointer readings.” And since every “pointer reading” is subject to some error, so is every fact. Hence, all scientific laws must also be subject to error and are, in fact, not discovered but chosen out of an infinite number of possibilities. Dr. Clark wants it understood that he is not attacking science and in no way denies its usefulness that is, if atom bombs and bacteriological warfare are useful. All he seeks to do is point out that whatever else science may be, it certainly is not truth and cannot discover truth.

Undoubtedly some scientists will classify this kind of reasoning as puerile sophistry, but the reviewer predicts they will be hard put to answer convincingly. But then, too, the Christian is constrained to question where this all leads to. Where, in such a conception, can we fit a Christian philosophy of science? One even wonders if such skepticism does not become an all-pervasive sort of thing in which knowledge of the physical world becomes impossible. History itself becomes questionable, not only as to its significance but even as to its very actuality. Knowledge of the physical world is mediated by sense perception and every sense perception is a measurement, a measurement subject to error; hence, certainty with respect to physical reality is impossible, and man can know no truth with respect to the physical world.

Likewise, any and all so-called propositions of knowledge derived from such sense data must also be fraught with error, so that “skepticism” must result in an alarmingly wide area of human knowledge. So true is this that one can scarcely understand Clark’s statement, “Ethics and history do not depend on science but science depends on them” (p. 228). Ethics and history have a physical orientation that is inescapable. Natural science is only a way of correlating the data presented by the physical world to the mind of man. Ethics and history are confronted by these same data, containing the same elements of error and inaccuracy and to say that one may legislate for the other either way so as to circumvent the skepticism alleged above is hardly justifiable. Again, it would seem that Dr. Clark is the victim of the application of the law of non-contradiction.

Reformed epistemology has not been particularly concerned with this form of skepticism, for it has contended that all man’s knowledge is revealed by God. It has also contended that only an infinite mind may have perfect comprehension or even one proposition of truth, if, indeed, truth can be said to be propositional to an infinite mind. Hence, there is not perfect comprehension of any proposition by the mind of man. But man ought to be satisfied that God does have such comprehensive knowledge and that he is willing to reveal as much of it to finite minds as he deems necessary. Likewise, with man’s knowledge of the physical world. It may not be so exact that it may be called absolutely true. It undoubtedly is not. But the knowledge God has granted us is still true as far as it goes, and it evidently goes as far as God deems necessary to reveal what he desires to be revealed.

This same Reformed epistemology does not allow for the indiscriminate use of the law of non-contradiction that seems to be advocated by Dr. Clark. It holds that two propositions of general revelation may appear to involve an irresolvable contradiction. For example, in modern physics there is equally sound evidence to show that light is at once a wave phenomenon and a particle phenomenon. That apparent anomaly has to the reviewer’s best knowledge…he confesses that he has not kept abreast of developments in physical science in the last few years the way he should have…not been adequately resolved. No more have God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility—two apparently contradictory propositions of special revelation ever been adequately resolved.

To hold, that in the last analysis, the mind of man in its indiscriminate use of the law of non-contradiction can determine ultimate truth is to hold a position that from the Christian point of view is hardly defensible. This is not to say that the regenerate mind may not use this law once it has been established in a theistically oriented logic. Indeed, he must do so. But he may never wield it as the absolutized weapon that it seems to be in the hands of Dr. Clark. We may also express a certain chagrin in not finding any reference to the Common Grace question as such. Certainly in a book that is to serve as an introduction to Christian philosophy one might reasonably expect some statement on this problem, particularly as it pertains to modern developments both here and abroad III the field of Christian Philosophy.

But in contrast to all we have had to say by way of criticism me are constrained to confess that the book was none the less enjoyed and found to be intensely stimulating. Dr. Clark writes most lucidly and interestingly even on the most abstruse subjects. He says many things with which we are in hearty agreement, but it seems that certain of his presuppositions forbid his reaching the conclusion that social stability demands a Christian society, a conclusion with which we are in perfect harmony. The book unquestionably deserves wide reading, though the Reformed reader will be sensitive to the fact that this is not Reformed philosophy at its best.