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Gordon Clark on Truth and the Eternal Mind

In a world where “science” (rarely defined) reigns supreme and where “scientific studies” determine whether or not something is to believed, the idea of God smacks of anti-reasonable (in the purist meaning of the term) and almost barbaric, unenlightened. This can be blamed partially on the rise of the dominance of mechanism, but also partially on certain and influential theories of “religious” teachings; even, sadly, amongst self-described Christians themselves.

The attempt to dismiss logic and reason from religion and instead emphasize something that is allegedly completely distinct from reason, namely faith, has given ammunition to critics of Christianity to blame it for being unreasonable and backward in its thinking. Why, without reason, Christianity is no different from the pagan and polytheistic religions of Old. Mostly, this is true. There is no point in embracing “religion” without reason and in pursuing “faith” without “logic.” If it’s all some undefinable “leap of faith” (Kierkegaard) that is more similar to emotion, the critics have it right.

Unfortunately those who might be agnostic or atheistic are quite on the money when they dismiss Christianity as being against reason, if by Christianity they mean what is popularly presented as a Christian understanding faith and reason. And I don’t just mean in the world Joel Osteen. I mean in conservative, evangelical, oftentimes Reformed circles as well.

This is one reason why delving into the Christian thought of Gordon Clark has refreshed me over the years and why I so often return to his clear headed account of Christianity, reason, and religion. For Clark, religion means philosophical system, if it is definable at all. In that sense, everyone has a philosophical system. Once we explain this, the atheist might take us more seriously; for who can blame us for having a system except the anti-intellectual? We are comparing conglomerations of epistemology, metaphysics, linguistics, ethics, and so on. What is faith? For Clark, it is not some undefinable emotional “longing” or “hope” or anything non-intellectual. Faith is synonymous with belief, which means to mentally assent (mentally assent is technically a redundancy, but it clarifies) or agree with a proposition. It is, in Clark’s framework, given a purely intellectual (mental) definition. So then, every proposition that is agreed to, is an example of faith (belief, assent). This is a radically unique definition of faith in relation to both pop-Christianity and modern atheistic understanding of the Christian system. In one fell swoop, those Christians who hold to the intellectualist framework of Christianity completely rock the presumptions, perpetrated by many Christians themselves, of non-Christian atheists.

Next, “reason” itself in the Clarkian framework, is stripped of its empirical contents in favor of a purely aprioristic understanding of epistemology. In this sense, we can agree by technicality with the accusation that “Christians don’t use reason like scientists do.” Very true. Instead, we use reason like the apriorists and rationalists do. Or as Clark once wrote after dismantling empiricism, “a satisfactory theory of epistemology must be some sort of apriorism….” Suddenly, we must be classified more similarly to apriorists like Ludwig von Mises because, when framed like this, Mises himself doesn’t “use reason like the scientists do.” The reason why this is a powerful clarification to use in talking with atheists (especially those who know Mises of course) is because they mean to accuse us of being anti-reasonable altogether. But we need to help them see that reason itself has differing meanings based on differing schools of thought and classifying them all as “scientific” is historically wrongheaded. What about the non-empirical rationalists and those, like Descartes, Mises, and Hoppe, who consider truth to be a product of logic/deduction rather than empirical “testing?” There’s the “reason” of Thomas Aquinas, and there’s the reason of the later rationalists. To refuse these distinctions is to equivocate.

Now then, consider the extended quote by Gordon Clark. Here, we see that he frames the Christian view of God –theism– as something entirely unsuspected by the atheist who is loaded with misconceptions about the Christian system. For Clark, quite radically, all propositions that are true, and none that are false, make up the mind of God. What is God? God is the conglomeration of true propositions.

Obviously, if skepticism is to be repudiated and if knowledge is a reality, truth must exist. In ancient Greece Parmenides was the first to state it, and Plato repeated it: If a man knows, he must know something: To know nothing is not to know. Knowledge therefore requires an existing object, and that object is truth – truth that always has and always will exist.

Contrary to ancient and medieval philosophy, the pragmatists and instrumentalists of contemporary times have tried to defend a “truth” that may be true today but was false yesterday and will be false tomorrow. They would quite agree that science is tentative; a scientific law is “true” so long as it works; but progress ensures its replacement by another “truth.” Very able, and, I would say, completely destructive criticisms of instrumentalism have been made, and their common theme seems to be that instrumentalism is self-contradictory. If truth changes, then the popular instrumentalism that is accepted as true today will be false tomorrow. As Thomism was true in the thirteenth century, so instrumentalism is true in the twentieth century, and within fifty years instrumentalism, in virtue of its own epistemology, will be false. But it is to be doubted whether John Dewey would appreciate the imminent passing of his experimentalism.

As was said before, these relativistic theories tacitly assume their own absolutism. This or that hypothesis may be tentatively accepted for a limited purpose; but if all statements without exception are tentative, significant speech has become impossible. It follows, then, that truth must be unchangeable. What is true today always has been and always will be true. Any apparent exception, such as, It is raining today, is an elementary matter of ambiguity. Two and two are four; every event has a cause; and even, Columbus discovered America, are eternal and immutable truths. To speak of truth as changing is a misuse of language and a violation of logic.

The idealistic philosophers have argued plausibly that truth is also mental or spiritual. Without a mind truth could not exist. The object of knowledge is a proposition, a meaning, a significance; it is a thought. […]

With considerations such as these Augustine was able to explain the learning and the teaching process. The teacher in the classroom does not give his students ideas. The ideas or truths are discovered by the student in his own mind; and as he contemplates the truth within, he judges whether the teacher has taught the truth. But though the truth is discovered within the mind, it is not a product of the student. Truth is not individual, but universal; truth did not begin when we were born, it has always existed.

Is all this any more than the assertion that there is an eternal, immutable Mind, a Supreme Reason, a personal, living God? The truths or propositions that may be known are the thoughts of God, the eternal thought of God. And insofar as man knows anything he is in contact with God’s mind. Since, further, God’s mind is God, we may legitimately borrow the figurative language,… and say, we have a vision of God.

Gordon H. Clark A Christian View of Men and Things (Kindle Locations 4666-4728). The Trinity Foundation. Kindle Edition.

To think a true proposition is to contact the mind of God, who is every true proposition. Or, as Paul writes, “we have the mind of Christ.” Thus, in this framework, to say that the Christian –who believes that there is a God– is unreasonable, a denier of logic and pure rationality, is a complete and total nonstarter; simply by definition.

Published in C.Jay Engel