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.
“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.