This is the original letter written to Journey magazine, to which Dr. Bahnsen replied. It is followed by a response to Dr. Bahnsen's reply (PA078), written by Mr. Flood in a personal letter to Dr. Bahnsen. Mr. Flood has requested that Covenant Media Foundation make these letters available for our readers, and we are happy to do so.
June 2, 1988
Rev. Richard Knodel Editor,
Journey 1021 Federal Street Lynchburg, Virginia 24504
Dear Rev. Knodel,
Dr. John Robbins needs no help from me in defending himself against Dr. Greg Bahnsen (Journey, Jan.-Feb. 1988). But Dr. Bahnsen has unintentionally made him a prophet with honor by criticizing the publication in Journey of his rebuttal to Mr. Doug Jones' review of Dr. Robbins' Van Til booklet.
Van Til himself never insisted that his distinctive views be made a test of orthodoxy, but some of his followers seem intent on doing just that. There are others, however, who do not think that in order to honor Van Til they have to dishonor Gordon Clark, or agree with every point Van Til ever made against Clark, or deny "Clarkians" a Reformed audience. It is these others, including you, who are the real target of Dr. Bahnsen's own brand of "party spirit."
I hope that neither Mr. Jones nor Dr. Robbins mind my mentioning that for about a year I have been in lengthy correspondence with each of them about the merits of Van Til's and Clark's apologetical methods and related issues. They can attest to the fact that I am neither a "Van Tilian" nor a "Clarkian." (They are also free to attest that I am a very confused man, if they wish.) Dr. Bahnsen has also heard from me in person and by letter how much I appreciate what he has done to clarify Van Til's teaching. I mention this to let you know that the following criticism comes from one who promotes the writings of all five men, from Clark's Wheaton Lectures and Van Til's syllabi to the tracts Mr. Jones writes for Dr. Bahnsen's church.
Dr. Bahnsen's letter relies heavily on the weight of his well-deserved reputation for scholarship and penetrating analysis, rather than on the exercise of those talents in this instance. It is certainly not the surrebuttal Mr. Jones declined to give. The substantive issues between them -- including Van Til's remark about God being "one person" as well as three persons, a confused formulation of perhaps Christianity's most distinctive doctrine -are instead beclouded by Dr. Bahnsen's insinuations and indignant exclamations. To the particulars, then.
Dr. Robbins "being an avowed disciple of Gordon H. Clark," writes Dr. Bahnsen, "represents a viewpoint" inimitable to Journey's purpose of encouraging "consistent, Confessional Presbyterianism." If that is so, then why is it that no single book has done more to promote that end than has Clark's What Do Presbyterians Believe? , a popularly written, unquestionably orthodox commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)? And why would Dr. Robbin's Trinity Foundation require its board members to sign an affirmation of both the inerrancy of Scripture and the WCF as the best summary of Scriptural doctrine? The reader not familiar with either Clark or Dr. Robbins may gather from Dr. Bahnsen's remark the impression that they are heresiarchs conspiring to destroy Presbyterianism in America.
"Many good things could be said about Dr. Clark," Dr. Bahnsen admits, "but his philosophical work was not always a strength." Now if philosophy was not Clark's strong suit, then one must con elude that he wasted his life, for he was a philosopher by training and vocation. As if to prove his point, Dr. Bahnsen notes that "Clark insisted that we cannot know anything on the basis of sensation and that our knowledge is restricted to the content of the Bible. Philosophically, this is outrageous." What is outrageous is for Dr. Bahnsen, the philosopher, to give credence to commonplace reaction to an uncommonly held position when what is required is an argument.
He again exploits the relative ignorance of his readers and insults the memory of Clark as a philosopher by trotting out the tired reply that "Clark could not even 'know' what the Bible taught since he relied upon sensation -- reading, hearing -- to learn it." Dr. Bahnsen apparently would like his readers to believe that no one had ever brought this apparent difficulty to Clark's attention (Professor Ronald Nash did so in the very volume Dr. Bahnsen cited) or that Clark was dumbfounded upon hearing it (see the same volume in the section devoted to replies to critics, as well as Clark's Language and Philosophy and Clark Speaks from the Grave, a posthumously published reply to critics).
Dr. Robbins knows that I am dissatisfied with Clark's merely destructive analysis of empiricism and that I believe Scripture warrants the view that God created human sense organs to mediate or conduct His revelation, both general and special, to the human mind. Dr. Robbins is quick to remind me that I have not yet worked out the details of this position, but at least he has given my ongoing inquiry a fair hearing. Clark's simple challenge was: if you claim the senses play a "role" in human knowledge, you must specify that role in detail, not in some vaguely suggestive way that is little more than special pleading. Dr. Bahnsen, for instance, puts "reading" and "hearing" in apposition with "sensation." Would he care to defend this description? At the risk of causing Dr. Robbins to double over either in pain or laughter, I offer to risk being philosophically skewered by Dr. Bahnsen by playing Clark's advocate on this question. Would you be willing to open the pages of Journey to such a "debate" if Dr. Bahnsen were willing to participate?
Dr. Bahnsen obliquely refers to the attempt, led by Van Til and his associates at Westminster Seminary, to defrock Dr. Clark forty years ago: "In defense of the above view Clark was ushered into conflict with" the WCF. Having read everything I could get my hands on pertaining to this O.P.C. controversy, I am inclined to agree, certainly not with the attempt to invalidate Clark's ordination, but with many of the arguments raised against his view of the incomprehensibility of God. While Clark's argument against Van Til's apparent defense of equivocal expression, as it appears in his "The Bible as Truth," has not to my knowledge received a reply, I do not think that a single criticism warrants ignoring, as he and Robbins have done, the wealth of material to be found in Chapter XIII of Van Til's Introduction to Systematic Theology ("The Incomprehensibility of God") In short, I do not think the issue was ever fully joined by both men in their lifetimes. Those who come after them cannot resolve the issue if prominent Reformed theologians wield their prestige to discourage them from studying and critically discussing all the pertinent texts or ridicule the conclusions of arguments without providing the premises. To wit:
(1) Dr. Bahnsen claims that Clark contradicted WCF 1:1 when he "suggested that everything we read on the inked lines of the Bible was already in our knowledge internally," whereas what "men know innately by general revelation is 'not sufficient'" according to the WCF "because it does not include all the message of Scripture." This is a contradiction only if all innate revelation is general revelation. Clark argued against this assumption, but Dr. Bahnsen does not report that relevant fact.
(2) Dr. Bahnsen then charges that Clark was in open conflict with WCF 18:1 because he "reaffirmed" that "his restriction of knowledge to the content of the Bible entailed that nobody" in eluding Clark, "could 'know' that he was saved" because nobody today can find his or her name mentioned in the Bible. I cannot account for why Clark did not avail himself of the very verse Dr. Bahnsen adduced, namely 1 John 5:13 (John 20:31 will do as well), in order to identify the universal "you" of the verse with the particular reader of the words: "these are written that you" who are reading what is here written "may believe" -- even if you do not have a name. But this lapse on Clark's part does not justify insinuating that he did not maintain that the believer has the assurance of salvation. The problem was that of self-identification, not a Confessional doctrine which Clark fervently believed and taught. (Cf. the above-cited commentary on the WCF.)
(3) "Who can forget his exegetically atrocious rendition of John 1:1 ('In the beginning was Logic.')?," Dr. Bahnsen sneers. No one can call it exegetically atrocious after reading Clark's ninety-page monograph, The Johannine Logos, which develops the brief argument found in the Wheaton Lectures passage Dr. Bahnsen cites. Surely Dr. Bahnsen is aware of the monograph, even if many of readers are not -- a fact on which he appears once again to be counting.
These three snippets of argument segue into Dr. Bahnsen's declaration that "Clark's position -- through the mouthpiece of Mr. Robbins (Matt. 10:24) does not call for attention in a magazine like Journey." You have in effect been put on notice, Rev. Knodel, that some of the most exciting issues in Reformed philosophy "does not call for attention" in your magazine. I am anxious to learn of your response to such an obvious, if indirect, exertion of pressure to deny Clark's place in the revival of Reformed theology and philosophy which we are all enjoying.
As for Dr. Robbins' "style," I leave that for him to respond to. I, too, have been accused by Dr. Robbins of being "neo-orthodox" for reasons I cannot fathom and he will not reveal. Yet let us recall that our Lord called his opponents, who sat in Moses' seat, a brood of vipers, whited sepulchers filled with dead men's bones. Surely that was not "corrupt speech." Surely He ought not to have "bridled His tongue." Dr. Bahnsen is using the issue of "style" as a smokescreen for avoiding Dr. Robbins' specific charges against Mr. Jones' review. By dismissing the rebuttal as only perpetuating "the weak reasoning and misrepresentations of Van Til against which the reviewer had justly protested," Dr. Bahnsen has implicitly suggested that sheer assertion may substitute for a reasoned rebuttal if you can successfully shift attention to your opponent's "reputation for . . . cutting talk." (Dr. Bahnsen seems to be not one whit above the behavior he deplores, as when he parenthetically cites Matt. 10:24, thereby insinuating that Dr. Robbins' master is someone other than Christ. This is not "cutting" talk?)
Not too long ago, when Dr. Bahnsen had a harder time than he does now in presenting his theonomic interpretation of Scripture to the Church, an eminent Old Testament scholar apparently thought that one blast from his nostrils would put an end to a "new-old error." But just for safety's sake, the gentleman insisted that the editors of a Reformed journal not allow Dr. Bahnsen to reply to him in its pages. No doubt for some time thereafter, those who thought theonomy was "outrageous" need have only alluded to the more established scholar's "refutation" as a pretext for evading Dr. Bahnsen's carefully constructed case. It is sad to see Dr. Bahnsen now playing the role of the "heavy" by proscribing the work of bona fide Reformed thinkers on the basis of little more than his ipse dixit. I hope that the "larger Calvinistic community" which Journey endeavors to serve will stand firm against all such attempts at intimidation.
June 22, 1988
Dear Rev. Bahnsen,
The arrival yesterday of your June 11th reply was a pleasant surprise, as I had expected to hear from you only in the pages of Journey. This letter seemed to me to be far more irenic in tone, and therefore more conducive to mutual understanding, than was the one which elicited my protest. Your gracious effort to correct me personally, given your heavy schedule of writing, teaching, and other pastoral duties, was of great benefit to me and served to reinforce my high regard for your work in the Lord.
You say you intended by your letter to Journey's editor only to discourage the publication in that magazine of those who express themselves in the "nasty, shallow, and factious" manner which you say characterizes John Robbins' writings. From this I inferred that you wrote from an un-Christian motive, an attempt to intimidate, and then tried to made my conclusion public. Even if I cannot agree with you about Clark, or even about Dr. Robbins' manner of rebuke, your letter was not sufficient evidence on which to form such a grave judgment. I also rushed to declare, rather than suggest as a possibility, that you felt Van Til's distinctive views should be made a test of orthodoxy. You suppose that Clark and Robbins may not have understood the WCF "at some points" (your emphasis), and this clarifies somewhat your earlier, less differentiated statement that Clark's distinctive views "contradict" the Confession. Whether they have misunderstood or misinterpreted the WCF "at some points" -- or that the WCF is imperfect "at some points" -- is, I maintain, something many Reformed people would like to see discussed. But even if I am wrong about this, it remains that I perceived the overall effect of your published letter as harmful and imputed a questionable motivation to you. This was as "evil suspicion" (1 Tim. 6:5) which should have no place in my life (Titus 3:2). I apologize and ask your forgiveness.
My dictionary defines an insinuation as "a sly hint or suggestion, esp. against someone." Your use of Matt. 10:24 clearly was not a cutting "insinuation." Your letter does, however, have several statements that create an unfavorable impression about Clark, an impression that may last among those who may not be familiar with Clark, or with your careful analysis of his writings, but who are familiar with your accomplishments as a theologian and who may therefore adopt your judgements as their own. Of course, you could not provide a scholarly criticism of Clark in a letter. But as someone who, like yourself, has benefited from Clark's writings, I could not stand idly by when I thought they were being "indexed," however informally, by influential Reformed teachers. I am more persuaded now that this was no part of your intention.
The reader of your remarks may never benefit from your analysis, I feared, but only hear the summation of it in your devastating rhetorical questions (e.g., "Who can forget . . . ?") which are then buttressed by your prestige. What I meant by "giving credence to a commonplace reaction" to Clark's philosophy was not that your criticism is "commonplace," but your undefended assertions legitimize less thoughtful opinions. This is also what I meant by my needlessly harsh reference to your "exploiting" the ignorance of your readers. As for the alleged "indignant exclamations," I concede that only one exclamation mark appears in the entire letter, but still maintain that its spirit seems more like indignation than benign encouragement. But I agree that one should generally avoid descriptions which "tend to provoke antagonistic dialogue" and am glad that mine did not discourage you from replying to me.
Thanks for exposing the erroneous universalistic implication of my "solution" to Clark's problem of assurance. The eternally reprobate will never find themselves in 1 John 5:13. I maintain, however, that a refutation of one epistemology (by showing that it entails a Biblically-denied proposition) cannot Justify another epistemology in which sensation supposedly "plays a role." Clark requested that his critics specify that role, and I have continued to request it, in vain, of those who smirk at Clark's destructive analysis of sensation. With all due respect, Rev. Bahnsen, I must include you among their number until you satisfy that request or show why it is misguided (you did neither in your cassette lecture on Clark and Van Til).
You have now said not only that Clark's The Johannine Logos is "exegetically atrocious," but also that it is "incredibly unpersuasive, both philologically and theologically." Since I am no Greek scholar, I must ask if you are, as was Clark (who did more than collate texts for his perennially useful Selections From Hellenistic Philosophy); and if you are not, I must ask you to adduce a Greek authority who has exposed Clark's alleged exegetical atrocity. Until then, I can only note that Bahnsen, Van Til's defender, doesn't like the Greek exegesis of Clark, Van Til's critic.
As someone who has studied philosophy, including at the graduate level, for half of his thirty-four years, I felt I knew what I was doing when I challenged you to a "debate" (really, just an exchange of correspondence in Journey) on this question. If you consequently think of me as a "wiseguy," I am duly mortified. I have been drawn both to Clark and to you precisely because you both, as professional philosophers, understand what constitutes a sound argument for a proposition and know when an argument has withstood scrutiny or been defeated. My attempt at humor in stating the challenge stemmed, as I indicated, from the fact that I am engaged in trying to persuade Dr. Robbins that our created sense organs in some way reflect the Creator and are part of His ordained method of how our minds receive His revelation, both general and special (including the special-redemptive revelation of the Bible). Until I can mount a detailed defense of this proposition, I cannot claim to have refuted Clark's anti-empiricism or to have shown that my alternative to it is Biblical. Since you will never have the chance in this age to debate Clark on the subject, and since you do not seem inclined to debate Dr. Robbins, I was, and am, willing to play the "devil's advocate" with you and thereby risk public refutation at your hands if that is what it would take to test Clark's arguments.
You seem to have read at least part of my letter a little too hastily. You wrote: "I am sorry that you hastily assumed that I am unfamiliar with the exchange between Clark and Nash (and others) on this point. If you consult the footnotes to my letter, you will see otherwise." If you once again discount my unfortunate imputation of ill motivation, you will find that I assumed no such thing. I wrote: "Dr. Bahnsen apparently would like his readers to believe that no one had ever brought this apparent difficulty" -- how one can understand the reading of the Bible, Clark's sole source of knowledge, without reference to sensation -- "to Clark's attention (Professor Ronald Nash did so in the very volume Dr. Bahnsen cited) . . . " I referred to the Festschrift in order to bring not only Nash's criticism, but also Clark's reply, to my prospective reader's attention, not to suggest that these items needed to be brought to yours. Two other works were cited, again for the reader's benefit, in which Clark diminishes the force of what I call the "tired" objection, "How do you read your Bible?" From the grave Clark continues to hurl back at his anti-anti-empiricist critics the same question: "How indeed do we read our Bibles?"
You are right when you remind me that "Life is short; time is precious. Thus we must all prioritize and choose our battles selectively." But then you opine that "dealing any further with Clark's distinctive views is a poor use of time," which is little better than being "distracted by divisive and rancorous diatribes with John Robbins." But if Van Til, whose theory of apologetics is instrumental to the resurgence of Reformed Christianity in America, is important, then so is any intelligent critique of him, such as Clark's. But some Van Tilians insist that no criticism of Van Til, even when it is directed against his unfortunate statement that God is one Person and God is three Persons, is admissible. They do not refute their critic: they just rule him out of court without a hearing. All I hear is, "Clark-Van Til? That's ancient history! Go read Klooster's dissertation (if you can find it); that'll settle it for you." (It didn't.) "Clark? Oh, a fine Christian gentleman, but he was wrong where he differed with Van Til. Anyway, that debate was over before I was born. Why waste your time with that now?" If this is not "intimidation," it is certainly a form of pressure which is not motivated by an unalloyed love of truth.
I, too, do not want what may be just a difference of opinion to become, as you expressed it, "a personal point of hostility between us as fellow believers." I very much want to be on good personal terms with someone who has opened many passages of Scripture to me. But until I have had a chance to examine your arguments, I cannot tell if our differences are a function of my intellectual inability to grasp a difficult point or to some nonrational factor. If Clark's orthodoxy is as questionable as you claim, I desperately want to see that for myself, but thus far I cannot. If, however, Clark occasionally had the better of the argument against Van Til, I would like to be able to share that information with others without being viewed as a despiser of a good and faithful servant of the Lord. While Dr. Robbins, for his part, has been willing to dialogue with me about my criticisms of Clark, my experience with Van Tilians has generally been different: criticism of Van Til invites either a blank stare or a pseudo-pious rebuff. I saw my protest letter to Journey as a possible avenue to a more promising exchange. Your letter to me keeps that hope alive.
I thank you once again for your generous and considerate reply, insofar as my letter perhaps deserved something quite different. Any response to the above will be most gratefully received.