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Archive for January, 2012

Section Summary: Truth, contrary to what contemporary philosophers and theologians tell us, is a unified system. Although the unity of truth does not prove the existence of an omniscient God, it does accord well with Christian belief in such a being. Christianity is the system of truth in the mind of this omniscient God, and there is no room in this system for “truth” derived from any other source. Naturalism and Christianity do not mix. Divine omniscience and the systematic unity of truth do not imply that one must know everything in order to know anything. Partial knowledge is still knowledge.

In the previous section of this chapter titled The Questions of Philosophy, Gordon Clark raised a number of basic philosophical questions: What is the best kind of government? What is the purpose of life? Is there any distinction between right and wrong? As discouraging as it can seem to pose such questions – Clark points to the myriad sources of deception and distortion that make it appear hopeless to ever get a satisfactory answer to any of them – there is a benefit in asking them. Clark notes,

“Discouraged though one may be by this time and paralyzed at the immensity of the task, yet even the asking of these questions results in a gain. Throughout the pages ahead this point will be illustrated constantly so as to develop a detailed understanding of the matter; but the reflective reader must already see what had previously escaped his attention, that these questions are all interrelated. An answer to any one of them affects the answer to every other. And this is an extremely important conclusion.” (CVMT, 22)

For those new to Clark, note well what he says here: Truth is systematic. The questions of philosophy are not intellectual islands wholly unrelated to each other, but rather are linked together with the answer to one bearing on all others. For example, the political question “What type of government is best?” cannot be separated from the epistemological question “How do you know what type of government is best?” But while Clark is absolutely correct in what he says here, nevertheless many philosophers deny his point. One such thinker was William James, who, as Clark notes, stressed the disconnectedness of things. But if James is right, what hope do we have for regaining any stability in our civilization? The answer, it seems to me, is none. Or as Clark points out in rather understated fashion,

“It would be surprising, would it not, if social stability could be based on incoherence, or even large-scale disconnectedness?” (CVMT, 23)

One could make a good argument that the increasing instability of our civilization is due to the fact that the prevailing modern worldview sides with James rather than Clark. This disconnectedness shows up throughout our society. For example, I have long been of the opinion that the contemporary philosophical denial of systematic truth explains much of the decline in Western art over the past century. Modern architecture is unsightly, modern painting unattractive, modern music unlistenable.

In the case of music, I can draw on my own personal experience to provide a case in point. Back in the day when I was a music student, I used to play in the conservatory’s brass choir. One evening when I was approaching the rehearsal hall, I heard the cacophonous sound of a group of musicians warming up. If you have ever been to an orchestra concert, you know the sound. Before the concert starts, the musicians all show up on stage, each one playing by himself with the sound being something like a great roar. As I stepped into the rehearsal hall, I looked up and, much to my surprise, saw the conductor on the podium waiving a baton before an assembled group of musicians. The cacophonous roar that I heard, that was the sound of a piece of music. “Good grief,” I thought to myself, “if I can’t tell the difference between random noise and an actual composition, the art of music is in serious trouble indeed.”

In contrast to dissonant modern philosophical systems that offer us no hope – in art, politics or religion – Clark proposes a system of philosophy based on the idea that an omniscient God has furnished us with systematic truth. Clark writes,

“The discouragement, the reflection, the suspicion of the previous pages do not prove or demonstrate the existence of an omniscient 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…

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. Each part will derive its significance from the whole. Christianity therefore has, or, one may even say, Christianity is a comprehensive view of all things: It takes the world, both material and spiritual, to be an ordered system.” (CVMT, 23)

Good Presbyterian that I am, I’m not accustomed to outbursts of enthusiasm. But for all that, it’s hard to read Clark’s comments and not shout “Amen!” at the top of my voice. Seriously. What a blessed relief from the depressing nonsense you usually hear from philosophers. It’s like hearing a Bach sonata suddenly break forth from the midst of some awful 12- tone cacophony or a cool, watery oasis in a scorching, pitiless desert.

Clark continues,

“Consequently, if Christianity is to be defended against the objections of other philosophies, the only adequate method will be comprehensive…This comprehensive apologia is seen all the more clearly to be necessary as the contrasting theories are more carefully considered. The naturalistic philosophy that engulfs the modern mind is not a repudiation of one or two items of the Christian faith leaving the remainder untouched; it is not a philosophy that is satisfied to deny miracles while approving or at least not disapproving of Christian moral standards; on the contrary, both Christianity and naturalism demand all or nothing: Compromise is impossible…Politics, science, and epistemology must all be one or the other.” (CVMT, 23)

In my pre-Clarkian days I suffered from the false idea that while the Bible was authoritative in matters of salvation and morals, truth in politics, economics and science was found by reading real experts like Plato, Locke and Darwin. Nope, says Clark. There can be no compromise between the system of truth found in the Bible and the philosophical systems of the world. The Bible is authoritative in all areas of philosophical inquiry.

Finally, Clark ends this section by making an important point about the possibility of partial knowledge. Clark writes,

“The hypothesis of divine omniscience, the emphasis on the systematic unity of all truths, and the supposition that a particular truth derives its meaning or significance from the system as a whole does not imply that a man must know everything in order to know anything.” (CVMT, 23)

Suffice it for now to say that this statement has some bearing on the Clark-Van Til controversy that has plagued American Presbyterianism for nearly seventy years. Clark claimed that if a man and God held at least one idea in common, it could be said that their knowledge coincides. This is important for the reason that if God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge can be said to coincide at even one point, this makes it is possible for man to possess truth about God. God and man both know two plus two equals four.

Van Til, on the other hand, argued that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge do not coincide at a single point, because God’s knowledge of a truth is infinite – he knows any given truth, two plus two equals four for example, in relation to all other truths – while man can never have this exhaustive knowledge of even one truth. This means that man can never know a truth as God knows it. But if God knows all truth, and man does not know any truth as God knows it, this implies that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge do not coincide at a single point. And if God is omniscient, if he possesses all knowledge, this leaves man to wallow in complete ignorance. A depressing state of affairs, that. But then, I’m a Clarkian and not a follower of Van Til, so this is not an issue for me. To paraphrase Machen: I’m so thankful for God’s systematic, knowable truth. No hope without it.

 


 

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What Would Jesus Boo?

Last week Americans were treated to an extraordinary spectacle: the Golden Rule was booed and an adulterer was cheered by a crowd likely composed of a majority of professed Evangelicals. I’m speaking here about the two Republican presidential debates in South Carolina.

When Ron Paul introduced the idea that America’s foreign policy should be based on the Golden Rule, he was nearly drowned out by boos from the crowd. They did not want to hear that the US should make it a policy to treat other nations the way we would like other nations to treat us. Yes, a Bible belt crowd actually booed the doctrine of Christ.

Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, elicited wild cheers from the crowd the next night when a reporter from CNN opened the debate by quizzing Gingrich about comments put forth by his ex-wife that he wanted an open marriage. Gingrich, who seems to have perfected the art of playing the professional indignant, deflected the question by turning the issue of his marital fidelity into a referendum on the liberal media. The crowd ate it up.

As an Evangelical I have to ask, What’s up with that? What god do these people worship? Is it the Lord Jesus Christ or Mars the Roman god of war? Is it the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, or Priapus the Greek fertility god?

For more on the SC crowds booing of the doctrine of Christ, please see this article by a professed believer.

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Those coming to philosophy for the first time often find it at once interesting and frustrating. Clark likens philosophy to a puzzle that can, on the one hand, delight and amuse, and, on the other, frustrate and bewilder. Some people find it boring, thinking it has no practical value. Others find philosophy intimidating and try to ignore the subject altogether. But love it or hate it, one thing’s for certain: you cannot avoid it. The reason for this is simple, philosophy is the most basic of intellectual disciplines. It’s province is the world of men and things.

Clark provides an interesting quote from Blaise Pascal, a famous 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, in which Pascal states,

Man is but a reed, the weakest thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. It is not necessary that the entire universe arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But though the universe should kill him, man would still be nobler than what kills him, because he knows that he dies; and the advantage that the universe has over him, the universe knows nothing of. Thus all our dignity consists in thought.

Pascal, as does Clark, distinguishes between men and things and holds than man is superior the inanimate universe. Anyone who has studied contemporary philosophy probably finds their view rather striking, inasmuch as a great deal of contemporary thought would subordinate man to nature. Several years ago there was a popular bumper sticker – popular at least in some circles – that read, “The earth does not belong to man, Man belongs to the earth.” For some people, this blatant paganism represented the very height of spirituality. Others, who were raised with some knowledge of Christianity and the Bible, perhaps found this statement absurd. But whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the notion put forth on the bumper sticker, that person must answer this question: How do you know?
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Millard Fillmore II

If you’re like me, you probably haven’t spent much time thinking about Millard Fillmore, the 13th president of the United States. If for some reason Fillmore’s name does come up, a lot of us would probably react something like “That guy? What a nerd. Seriously, with a name like that, you must be joking.”

That’s what one write for Foreign Policy would have your believe as well. In his snarky hit piece on Ron Paul, Uri Friedman tries to tar Paul with the Fillmore brush. To Friedman’s credit, he does provide a rather extensive quote from Fillmore’s first state of the union address, which gives the reader ample opportunity to decide for himself just how foolish Fillmore – and by extension – Paul are. Here’s the Fillmore quote,

Among the acknowledged rights of nations is that which each possesses of establishing that form of government which it may deem most conducive to the happiness and prosperity of its own citizens, of changing that form as circumstances may require, and of managing its internal affairs according to its own will. The people of the United States claim this right for themselves, and they readily concede it to others. Hence it becomes an imperative duty not to interfere in the government or internal policy of other nations; and although we may sympathize with the unfortunate or the oppressed everywhere in their struggles for freedom, our principles forbid us from taking any part in such foreign contests. We make no wars to promote or to prevent successions to thrones, to maintain any theory of a balance of power, or to suppress the actual government which any country chooses to establish for itself. We instigate no revolutions, nor suffer any hostile military expeditions to be fitted out in the United States to invade the territory or provinces of a friendly nation. The great law of morality ought to have a national as well as a personal and individual application. We should act toward other nations as we wish them to act toward us, and justice and conscience should form the rule of conduct between governments, instead of mere power, self interest, or the desire of aggrandizement. To maintain a strict neutrality in foreign wars, to cultivate friendly relations, to reciprocate every noble and generous act, and to perform punctually and scrupulously every treaty obligation — these are the duties which we owe to other states, and by the performance of which we best entitle ourselves to like treatment from them; or, if that, in any case, be refused, we can enforce our own rights with justice and a clear conscience. (Emphasis in the original)

Yep, that Millard Fillmore. What a dunce. He just didn’t realize the great benefits that can accrue to a nation for killing lots of people in foreign entanglements. He was so stupid he actually believed Christ’s golden rule has “a national as well as a personal and individual application.” Outrageous! Unthinkable! Clearly the man had no business in the White House, just and Ron Paul clearly has no business in the White House. As Friedman sees it, the problem with these gentlemen is that they just don’t want to kill enough people. But thankfully, Friedman is on the case to make sure we stay on the warmongering straight and narrow.

Please click here to read Friedman’s piece in full.


 

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Baucham for Paul

While Texas conservatives were at war over the weekend trying to decide which Roman Catholic Republican they could back against Mitt Romney, along comes Voddie Baucham to give Ron Paul a ringing endorsement. It’s truly refreshing to read the comments of a man who is able to look past all the hype and see that Dr. Paul is far and away the best friend Evangelicals have among current presidential candidates.

Baucham writes,


Dr. Paul does not beat his Christian faith like a drum in his public/political life. Unfortunately, that is off-putting for the “Christian Right”. However, in a world full of ‘posturing’ in an effort to win over evangelicals, I find Paul’s public demeanor refreshing. And it is not as though he is a ‘closet Christian,’ either. “I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, and I endeavor every day to follow Him in all I do and in every position I advocate,” wrote Paul on his Web site.[5] I have also had the privilege of talking with both him, and one of his five children about his faith and how it influences his policy positions.

Nevertheless, the more important aspect is the fact that this Southern Baptist (raised Lutheran) is a regular church attender. What would motivate a man to attend church, but not beat a drum about it in an effort to win over evangelicals in an age when political figures play at Christianity (while living totally contradictory lives, and holding heterodox beliefs) in order to assuage the fears of the Christian Right? Having met and talked to Dr. Paul, I would say it is authenticity, and humility more than anything else. He wants “to avoid any appearance of exploiting [his faith] for political gain.”

Imagine that, a man in public life who doesn’t try to exploit his Christian faith for personal gain. How bizarre. How odd. How…dare I say, Christ like. It’s way past time Evangelicals put down their Left Behind colored glasses and got behind the one man in the race who takes his faith and the Constitution seriously.

Please click here to read the rest of Baucham’s article.

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A few brief thoughts about the Republican debate tonight:

  • Bain Capital is boring. It’s the sort of “controversy” that makes me want to tune out the first time I hear it.
  • The discussion about Social Security is a good example of what’s wrong with the political debate in this country. The candidates spent a lot of time going back and forth about what type of government plan is best. In other words, they were all about rearranging the deck chairs why the Titanic sinks. How about this guys: get the government out of the retirement business altogether.
  • Mitt Romney showed his jackboot tendencies by supporting the National Defense Authorization Act. It is frightening to think that we now have a law that gives the federal government the power to arrest and hold indefinitely an individual on suspicion that he is a terrorist. Romney promises that he will use the law with restraint. This is unconvincing. No president, no government should have such power, and it is an outrage that a presidential candidate can advocate the use – albeit responsible use – of unconstitutional police state powers and still receive broad based public support.
  • I’m not interested in Mitt Romney’s tax returns.
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Clark begins the introduction to A Christian View of Men and Things (CVMT) by stating,

“A stable civilization, so it is plausibly argued, always rests on a substantial unanimity of thought. But when ordinary differences of opinion multiply, widen and deepen, when educational systems have contradictory aims, when class consciousness divides the people, and when nations support irreconcilable ideals, the results are war, revolution, brutality, and chaos.” (CVMT, 15)

Hmm. Does any of this sound familiar? If you live in the United States – for that matter if you live anywhere in the western world today – you can see the very situation Clark described playing itself out in the daily headlines. In the US there are many signs of increasing political and class tension, the Occupy Wall Street movement being the most visible manifestation of this.

In the opening section of the introduction to CVMT titled “The Purpose and Limits of This Book,” Clark nicely diagnoses the reason for the mess in which we find ourselves and offers the antidote needed to correct the downward spiral. Here, Clark makes three major points,

  1. During the nineteenth century in the US and Great Britain, a broadly Christian philosophy or world view was taught in the schools and universities and served as a unifying principle for society. The result was peace and prosperity in those nations.
  2. This unifying Christian world view no longer holds sway in the educational institutions of those nations. Humanism, has taken its place and the resulted in societal breakdown.
  3. In order to defeat the humanists and reconstruct society along Christian principles, Christians thinkers must develop a systematic Christian philosophy. The purpose of this book to lay the groundwork for such a system.

My late twentieth century school experience certainly could not be described as Christian in any way, and at times I have secretly found myself wishing I could have lived in an earlier era when the broadly Christian philosophy that Clark mentions held sway in the university. Of course there were problems with this broad system, and it was in part due to these problems that the system eventually collapsed. Chief among those problems was that the philosophy taught was not thoroughly reformed.
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