Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Van Til v. Clark Feud

Before I continue examining Van Til and Schaeffer I feel I just have to comment for a moment about Van Til and Clark. Or more specifically what Van Til and Clark has morphed into today.

You will have a hard time finding more acrimonious debate than anytime you run across a debate about Van Til versus Gordon Clark. Followers of Clark will angrily denounce Van Til, trace evils back to him, and say that his methodology puts all knowledge in danger. Van Tillians are usually calm until provoked, but they constantly use ‘Clarkian’ as a slur and relating anyone or anything to John Robbins is a code word for dismissing all that is said without further thought. Why these groups seem to be unable to restrain themselves has befuddled me until recently.

Green Baggins recently hosted an attempt to reconcile the two views. This is something that is done often. People claim that Clark and Van Til simply talked past each other. I am convinced that these two great intellectuals clearly understood one another and profoundly disagreed. Reconciliation is impossible. (Andrew Sandlin has a nice essay about this) But it is the comments that particularly show the root of this anger filled debate. Note in that discussion by post 29 people are told to give up talking to the lone supporter of Clark on the discussion. Of course the lone Clark supporter, a man named Sean Gerety, gets three strikes against him for being abusive. Why the dismissive tone? Why the anger?

In my opinion the reason is twofold. I believe the first and primary reason such anger exists is because of the historical record or the distortion of the historical record. Note several times the debate boils down to what actually happened with the Van Tillians arguing Van Til was not the main antagonist and Clarkians becoming irate at the idea Van Til is to be cleared (see especially comments 94, 126, and 128). I have no doubt in the authenticity of the account given in this post by Rev. Johnson about Clark saying Van Til treated him with respect. Clark apparently preferred to place the black hat on Ned Stonehouse. Meuther has a new biography of Van Til that places the blame on John Murray. However, it needs to be noted that whether or not Van Til is the impetus or not is not the point. Van Til participated. The OPC Presbytery of Philadelphia’s own minutes show that Van Til was indeed one of the signers of the Complaint against Clark’s ordination in 1944. Murray and Stonehouse signed it as well. Van Til then participated in the debate (again according the minutes) at the Presbytery Meeting giving at least one lengthy speech against Clark. Again Stonehouse and Murray participated. In fact, the entire Westminster Faculty participated. The minutes recorded in the Presbyterian Guardian actually directly state Van Til declared "that it was no mere matter of a difference in terminology". Van Til clearly voted against Clark. Does it really matter who led the charge? Van Til was clearly against Clark and worked against him in the church courts. This is a historical fact that simply needs to be admitted. Van Til worked to keep Clark out of the OPC as in fact did the entire Westminster Seminary Faculty. This is a sore spot for followers of Clark and the attempted removal of blame for this from Van Til aggravates the situation.

The second reason is the constant refusal to interact with Clark’s or his followers critique of Van Til. Consider for a moment the high importance placed on logic in the Clark-System, and then imagine participating in a debate where logical attacks are not answered, brushed off (comment #27), or answered with personal attacks (#143). This happens more often than one might think. That being said, the militant attitude of Sean in this case brought on militant attitudes in others. John Robbins often has the same problem. His highly vitriolic rhetoric tends to bring out a defense reaction rather than a reaction of open mindedness. It is hard to blame people for walking away from a discussion where they are constantly abused. However, it should be noted that the tone or the rhetoric does not affect the argument itself. The idea that Meuther is wrong or biased in his biography is one that needs to be answered. The point that Van Til supported Norman Shepherd needs to be answered. These are points that cannot go unanswered (Just for the record I am not saying that I agree with these objections just that they deserve an answer).
One might notice that I place more blame on the tone of the discussion on the followers of Van Til, than I do the followers of Clark. That would be correct. The Van Til Party is the Majority Party and thus bears a great deal of responsibility. That being said there is one thing that the followers of Clark need to do to aid in the discussion. They should stop claiming the Federal Vision is a product of Van Til’s teaching and epistemology. This does nothing but provoke a gutteral response from the followers of Van Til. I understand the need of Clark’s followers to test the ‘root by the fruit’ so to speak, and it is true that not one known Federal Vision man is a follower of Clark. But that proves nothing. That is not even out of the realm of statistics yet. Robbins and Gerety have yet to show that Van Til’s thinking are the root cause. Could it be that Banshen’s interpretation of Van Til is more the problem that Van Til. This would provide the stronger connection with Theonomy, which appears to be more than a passing influence on the FV. Could it be that there is something deeper at work that would make people want to adhere to Van Til and then Theonomy and the FV? Could it be that the idea of Doctrinal Development is the axiom at the root rather than Van Til? If one wanted to really study the idea of what promotes the FV, then do so, but it is a needless provocation during a discussion about Van Til and Clark.

So in conclusion, the venom in this debate will not be turned down until it is acknowledged that Van Til and all of Westminster viewed Clark outside the bounds of orthodoxy for the OPC. And it will not be turned down until Clark’s critique is taken seriously and the differences admitted to be real and substantial. Then hopefully both sides will be able to keep the discussion on a fruitful plain.

And for full disclosure’s sake, I consider myself a Presuppositionalists much closer to Van Til than to Clark.


Sean Gerety said...

Pretty fair assessment and I certainly take some blame for keep pushing the buttons when I should hold off. But, let's face it, I was standing in front of a loaded gun with a hair trigger. It's pretty ridiculous that I get the left foot of fellowship for saying Muether is an "unreliable" historian *when addressing the Clark controversy -- especially when Muther's errors in this regard have been well documented elsewhere (I provided a link on Keister's blog). Of course it's OK for Vantilians like GLW Johnson to attack and smear Dr. Robbins and proclaim publicly he wouldn't give this Christian brother the "time of day." FWIW Wilson and the other FV men routinely are treated better. Oh, I forgot, Van Til was saving the Reformed faith hence his attack on Clark. Nothing has changed.

One of the other problems not mentioned is that Van Til' is pretty much a Reformed "saint" (and in the Romanish sense) and his views are accepted and embraced in most P&R circles virtually without question (that is certainly the case in the OPC with the PCA following closely behind). So, when someone like me comes along attacking the very core of the man's philosophy people often have a visceral reaction as if I were attacking the doctrine of predestination in the work of John Calvin. While I understand the reaction, I also agree that I'm at fault for some misunderstandings in that I don't always take time to explain myself, but sometimes that is also due to time constraints. OTOH, sometimes it's also the case that I can't win for losing and no matter what I do or how careful I am I still have people turning red in the face and showing me the door. It's dangerous to disagree with an infallible saint.

Sean Gerety said...

On other small thought. You wrote:

They should stop claiming the Federal Vision is a product of Van Til’s teaching and epistemology. This does nothing but provoke a gutteral response from the followers of Van Til.

I suppose I would stop making this claim if it wasn't the underlying cause FV. That's because the continued spread of the FV is very much indebted to VT's paradoxical doctrine of Scripture and analogical doctrine of truth. Not only does it open the door to virtually any and all contradictory formulations, provided one has some passing and tenuous exegetical support, but it inhibits critics from drawing hard and fast lines simply because, and biblically speaking, there are no hard and fast lines.

If one believes that all Scripture is apparently contradictory and these inherent "paradoxes" extend to even the doctrine of justification (as Frame maintains), then on what basis can one object to a formulation of justification that is equally paradoxical? There are reasons why the Shepherd debate raged for SEVEN years at WTS before Shepherd was let go and then was even free to leave the OPC in good standing. The FV didn't just spring up in a vacuum.

I don't know if you have access to Reymond's ST, but you might want to check out his discussion of biblical paradox and the implicit dangers this view entails. I think his discussion sums up the connection very nicely if indirectly.

Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts here. First of all, why does Van Til get the entire brunt of blame, while Murray and Stonehouse get off relatively unscathed? I am quite willing to grant not only that Van Til thought of Clark as outside the bounds, but also that I think Van Til was wrong on this point. I don't think Clark was outside the bounds of orthodoxy. I think the point controverted is an in-house debate. But again, why does Van Til get attacked, and not Murray and Stonehouse? Secondly, I don't brush off people's arguments. The fact of the matter is that I simply cannot even read all the comments anymore. We are looking at about a hundred comments per day. Who could keep up with that without being obsessed with it? I admit that I do have a hard time with John Robbins, since he seems to want to vilify the entire faculty that has ever taught at WTS. It is somewhat difficult to take such a man seriously.

adam said...

Thank you Lee. I've always been puzzled by the extreme heat that apolgetics discussions generate among Reformed Chrisitians and your post is helpful in explaining things.

What do you think of the thesis that the Van Til verses Clark controversy at the core was Reformed Confessionalism set against Evangelicalism? I greatly appreciate the work of Dr. Hart and Mr. Muether, but it seems like to them everything gets filtered through that grid. Could it be the case similar to Twain's saying that "to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail"?

Lee said...

I think you are right about the status of Van Til as a saint. However, I think it is related to the place of Westminster Seminary. You and I may disagree here, but I think it has to be admitted that Westminster did a lot of good for many years. At a time when the Presbyterian church was going liberal Westminster (and then the foundation of the OPC) was a cool drink of water, and their work should be extoled as very important. Thus on account of that Van Til receives valuted status. I think it is comparable to the status of Machen, who is elevated because he started both the OPC and Westminster.

As for your other point about Van Til, I think I would like to explore this issue further. I hope you will comment. Give me a few days and I will get up a post about it.

Lee said...

Let me first say I was not trying single you out for not answering people. I was going to provide some quotes from Frame's book, but I got to lazy to locate it in my library. I meant some other people on your blog, and even in a wider context than your blog. Wilson comes to mind as someone who has never answered Robbins's book. I hope you know I was not trying to attack you.

As for why Van Til gets the brunt, I think it is because no one goes around calling themselves 'Stonehousians'. Does anyone even remember anything written by Stonehouse? Altough to be fair, as you yourself pointed out, Robbins does blame all of the Westminster faculty.

Lee said...

I have not yet read Muether, so it is hard to say for sure. However I think Twain's point is a truism. Everyone has a bias and we see it everywhere. I can see Philip Schaff under any rock. Obviously one of the complaints about Clark's followers is that they can see Van Til behind every stone. Muether and Hart may indeed see Broad Evangelicism vs. Reformed faith behind every stone. It would help explain Hart's whitewash of Nevin in that biography.

Sean Gerety said...

To Lane, Van Til gets the brunt of the blame, and not the entire blame, because the controversy was, and still is, a battle between two mutually exclusive and conflicting epistemologies -- Clark’s and Van Til’s. Not Murray’s or Stonehouse's or anyone else for that matter.

Sean Gerety said...

I think it is related to the place of Westminster Seminary. You and I may disagree here, but I think it has to be admitted that Westminster did a lot of good for many years.

This goes to Lane’s point too. And, I don't think anyone is saying that WTS wasn't, at least at one time, first rate. However, as Dr. Robbins points out in his criticism of Meuther, that the ecclesiological issue in the Clark case "was whether the parachurch institution, Westminster Seminary, would be subject to Church oversight.” I think this is an important point and is a something that Robertson revisits in his history of WTS’s shameful (mis)handling of Shepherd (see The Current Justification Controversy).

The point for me is a more far reaching and philosophic one. Since the time of the Clark/Van Til controversy, Van Til’s distinctive, if not destructive, epistemological views has been allowed to progress with little or no real opposition in P&R circles, certainly no real opposition from within the seminary itself. I’m sure some think that’s a good thing.

The only substantive opposition has come from Dr. Clark while he was alive and from Dr. Robbins who, alone, is responsible for keeping virtually all of Dr. Clark’s books in print and his ideas readily accessible for any Christian willing to learn. I very much doubt that you will find any of Clark’s books in used today at WTS (at least uncritically), including his Thales to Dewey.

In hindsight, perhaps Clark should have stayed to fight the same battle all over again when they went after Floyd Hamilton and whoever might have been targeted after him. I suppose if that happened though, Trinity Foundation wouldn’t have so many great books to sell today. ;)

Let’s face it, fighting charges like those leveled against Dr. Clark take up a considerable amount of time that could probably be better spent thinking about the Trinity.

Sean Gerety said...

I know this is an dead thread, but I couldn't find an email address and thought you might be interested in reading VT's complaint against Clark and Clark's answer.

I've posted links on my blog here: