Clark begins his work by noting the comment of one historian of philosophy to the effect that every an is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. He suggests that the Christian equivalent of such a statement is that every man is born either an Augustinian or a Thomist. A contemporary philosopher might phrase the dichotomy in terms of being either a rationalist or an empiricist.
That every man is born with either the one or the other disposition, for Clark, highlights the importance of the study of epistemology for the student of the Bible. Everybody makes knowledge claims, and it is oftentimes on the basis of epistemological reliance either upon man’s reason or his senses that he considers his knowledge-claims reliable. Clark wastes no time in grounding truth and knowledge in the Being of God Himself. Truth is grounded, Clark notes, in all three Persons of the Trinity: Father(1 Jhn. 1:15) Son(Jhn. 1:14) and Holy Spirit(Jhn. 15:26), to mention only a few of many such passages.
Clark makes an interesting statement concerning the antecedence of the truth of God to any of His other attributes; namely, His love. He argues that the truth of God is antecedent to the love of God. His target seems to be those who might try to excuse certain sinful patterns of behavior on the ground that we ought to tolerate such behavior in light of the fact that God is love. What does Clark mean by this?
He is indeed[love]; but that is just the point: If God were not antecedently truth, no one could credit the other statement. Truth is logically prior to love. Thus many people who think that such a recondite subject as epistemology…has little to do with the Gospel are warned to beware of a blind spot and are exhorted to reaffirm the basic importance of truth(Clark, 1986)
Clark is closely associating epistemology with ontology here. Epistemology has to do with knowledge, and truth has to do with metaphysics. He first states that God is ontologically “truth” and that this truth is ontologically antecedent to love. But is this necessarily the case? Why cannot the attributes of God’s “truth” and “love” be equally primordial? Clark’s point, if I am reading him correctly, seems to be that the epistemologist must first have an objective, ontological standard of truth before he or she can predicate the quality of “love” of God. Unless we have a ground for ontological “truth” upon which to base our knowledge claims, we cannot say that it is “true” that God is love. Predication of any attributes of God other than truth require truth as an antecedent ground, because whenever we attribute a quality to someone or something we presuppose that it is “true” that they indeed have such an attribute.
Gordon Clark goes on to refute the epistemological position of empiricism, starting with John Locke; one of the most historically important exponents of the doctrine. He notes that Locke believes that humans think through “Ideas” and that these ideas come from sensation (or “experience”) and reflection. Locke’s exposition of empiricism is historically an attack on the theory of innate ideas propounded by the rationalists. Instead, Locke believed that the mind is a blank slate which receives sense impressions which it then stores in the mind in the form of Ideas, enabling the mind to later reflect upon these Ideas. Clark’s straightforward criticism of Locke is that Locke is begging the question. Locke does not actually put forth a case for the notion that all of our Ideas come from sensation or experience; he just seems to assume it and to hope that the reader will agree with him.
The next great empiricist with whom Gordon Clark deals is Aquinas. Clark notes that Aquinas gets his empiricism from his Aristotelianism, and that like Locke, he begs the question in assuming the reliability of the senses. He likewise criticizes Aquinas for failing to define potentiality and actuality in the latter’s use of the cosmological argument for the existence of God, noting that rather than providing any sort of definition, Aquinas merely provides examples.
Next, Gordon Clark takes Aquinas to task for the latter’s theory of analogy. Interestingly enough, despite Aquinas’ ardent Aristotelianism, he departs quite radically from Aristotle in his theory of analogy, since Aristotle affirmed univocity in predication:
The adjective medical applies to a book, an instrument, a person and a school. They are all medical but in different ways. Nonetheless there is a univocal element because these different ways all relate to the one science of me dicine. Hence an argument in which the term “science of medicine” is used can be valid because the term can have precisely the same meaning in the conclusion that it has in the premises. Naturally if a term in the conclusion has a meaning different from what it has in a premise, the syllogism is a fallacy. Or, in other words, the conclusion of a valid syllogism can have no term that is not found in the premises with the same univocal meaning(Clark, 1986)
Aquinas’ theory of analogy has some perplexing implications for his doctrine of God. For example, Clark notes that Aquinas denies that God exists in the same way that man exists. While God’s existence is identical with His essence, this is not the case with a human. “But if this be so, the conclusion contains an element, an essential element, that is not found in the premises. Therefore Thomas’ argument is a fallacy”(Clark, 1986).
Aquinas anticipates and attempts to avoid this implication by describing three different kinds of relationships between two terms:
When Aquinas compares attributes of God and man, he argues that attributes which man (supposedly) shares with God are qualitatively different and merely analogical. Thus, when we say that man is wise(to use Clark’s example) this is something radically different than to say that God is wise. It is not simply a difference in quantity, but a difference in quality. “Wise” means something totally different in both cases. No Christian would say that man is comparably wise to God in terms of degree, but Clark would insist that there must be a univocal element which the two have in common. God is extraordinarily more wise than any man, but man and God both participate qualitatively in the same kind of wisdom. As seen before, Aquinas believes that this is the case even in terms of pure being. Thus, Clark notes that the word “is” in the clause “God is” means something fundamentally different than the word “is” in the clause “man is.” What Aquinas is doing is committing the fallacy of equivocation. Yet he insists upon using the term “analogical” for his understanding of the relationship between two terms. But what is this supposed to mean? Clark notes that it is simply incomprehensible. One cannot make heads or tails of what this is supposed to mean or how it is supposed to work.
Next, Clark moves from the empiricism of Locke, Aquinas and Aristotle to the anti-empiricism of Plato. As implied in the beginning of our text, Plato was to Augustine what Aristotle was to Aquinas(at least in the realm of epistemology). Clark finds in Augustine a kind of proto-anti-empiricism by which Augustine anticipated and refuted the epistemological position of the logical positivists with whom Clark sometimes had to deal. He also applauds Malebranche, who developed Augustine’s anti-empiricism and applied his insights against the Jesuit empiricists of his day. Malebranche, rather than being a ‘pure’ rationalist who argued that we ought to depend upon man’s autonomous reason as a source of truth, credited the ability of the human mind to discern and contemplate truth to the Logos, who enlightens all of humanity to truth. The paragraph Clark quotes seems to have John 1:9 in mind, in which Christ is spoken of as the true light which enlightens everyone.
Malebranche distinguishes sensation and knowledge by pointing out that God “knows” pain because He cognitively registers the alteration in the human soul which constitutes pain, but he argues that God does not “sense” pain. To know pain is not necessarily to sense it. Knowledge is antecedent to the senses.
Clark concludes with a summary of Malebranche’s epistemology:
1) Truth concerns Ideas
2) Ideas are in God
3) It is only in God that the mind can perceive these Ideas.
4) These Ideas alone are the objects of thought
The senses, Clark concludes(summarizing Malebranche), do not produce truth. It is only God’s immediate revelation to our minds through Ideas that we come to know truth. Clark therefore does not seem to attack empiricism merely on the ground that the empiricist is inconsistent because he has no transcendent standard according to which he is able to tell whether or not his sense-perceptions are reliable. Nor is Clark merely refuting logical positivism on the ground that the thesis that all knowledge is derived from sense-perception is itself a non-empirical statement. Rather, Clark outright rejects the reliability of sense-perception because he does not believe that we obtain knowledge through them. Instead, he sympathizes with Malebranche’s epistemology (derived from an occasionalist metaphysics of causation?) according to which it is not at all the function of the senses to register knowledge. Rather, we get all our knowledge immediately and rationally through Ideas which are found in the mind of God.
Edwards, Clark notes, though not a rationalist, takes a comparable illuminationist epistemology. Edwards sees knowledge of God as imparted immediately and directly to the human mind solely according to God’s arbitrary will and decree. Indeed, such an illuminationism is arguably found everywhere historic Calvinist position, even where it was not the aim of Calvinist divines and theologians to set out to develop a systematic epistemology. The reason such a straightforwardly illuminationist epistemology is so prominent among historic Calvinists is because of how straightforwardly biblical it is, though I myself would not agree with Clark’s distinctly rationalist articulation of illuminationism. It is likewise not clear whether or not or to what extent historic Calvinists would have sympathized with what appears to be the distinctly rationalist elements of Clark’s illuminationism. The illuminationism of Edwards, far from being rationalistic, was a form of empirical idealism comparable to that of Berkeley’s.
However, Clark notes the great emphasis Edwards puts on the immediacy by which God imparts knowledge to man. Edwards even explicitly disavows the notion that any sort of secondary causes are involved in the impartation of this knowledge; a qualification which presumably precludes appeal to sense-perception.
From what I see here, I believe Clark focuses too much on distinctly epistemological arguments to the exclusion of questions of ontology, rather than arguments which, as in the case of Van Til, focuses on the mutual relation, dependence and embeddedness of ontology and epistemology. Then again, if Clark believes that he is deriving his epistemology straight from the Bible, perhaps this criticism of Clark is not legitimate. But more on this later.
Concerning Clark’s rejection of the reliability of sense-perception and his denial that the Bible affirms such a thing as sense-perception:
Clark, Gordon. “Lord God of Truth.” The Trinity Foundation, 1986. Hobbes, New Mexico.