Gordon Haddon Clark was one of the most influential, though unheard of, Christian philosophers of the twentieth century. A Calvinistic Presbyterian, he was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and taught philosophy there, and later at Wheaton College and Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Within evangelical circles he is probably best known for the controversies he was involved in. The “Clark-Van Til” controversy involved opposition to Clark’s ordination by fellow Presbyterian philosopher Cornelius Van Til, over what many would consider a minute theological disagreement. Clark’s ordination in the Philadelphia presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was eventually thwarted by the Van Til faction; and Clark moved to Indiana where he had a distinguished career as a philosophy professor at a largely secular university. In his later years, Clark moved to Colorado and taught at Sangre de Christo Seminary until his death in 1985. Clark is the subject of Doug Douma’s biography, “The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark.”
Douma’s book is both highly readable and well researched with copious footnotes and annotations. Having written with the blessing of Clark’s family the work is also described as an “authorized biography” which no doubt gave the author access to more information of both a personal and professional nature.
The book gives a good overview of Clark’s life in the church and the academy, but also delves into his family life. While the primary topic involves the various denominational controversies Clark was involved in, we also learn something about the personalities of not only Clark, but his wife and children as well. A highly educated and devout family, Clark’s wife and two daughters were involved in both church life and Christian ministry as well.
One of the stronger points of the book is Douma’s explanation of some of the more tedious nuances of the theological minutiae that Clark fought for. The average lay person would look at Clark and Van Til as two men who agreed on almost everything. Yet what divided them was mammoth in their own eyes. To both Clark and the Van Til faction, the debate centered on the nature of God and was thus of great importance. But Clark’s controversies were not always theological in nature.
Clark at times disagreed with his denomination over whether or not they should work with other Christian denominations, or even whether or not they should merge with other Presbyterian denominations. Over the course of his life he was a member of several different Presbyterian denominations and was thus active and opinionated in denominational matters. While this aspect of his character is interesting to consider, some of his scruples will be lost on those who are not interested in Presbyterian denominationalism. Nevertheless, Douma excels at providing relevant information without becoming verbose or mundane.
Ultimately, Clark is known not as a preacher, professor, denominational or educational leader per se; but rather as a Christian, who happened to be philosopher and spent his life defending theologically Reformed Christianity in a secular world. While Clark might have preferred training Christians to defend the faith by serving as an apologetics professor at a seminary; he instead taught philosophy at Butler, a secular university with a religious background. In God’s providence, Clark’s contribution to Christianity involved the critique of non-Christian philosophies which he was able to combat with his sharp mind and philosophical training. With that said, most of his writings are of an unmistakably Christian nature. In his later years, he devoted much of his time to writing commentaries on the New Testament that were non-technical and accessible to the average believer.
Clark’s life is an interesting one to consider. As stated above, he is unknown in many Christian circles, yet much could be learned from a discovery of his life and writings. The late John Robbins, founder of the Trinity Foundation, did much to see Clark’s works published in the 1980s and 1990s. With the advent of the internet, Christians now have access to books and articles that were heretofore unattainable. Clark’s life is worthy of study and Douma has done the church a great service in producing this biography. While the reader may find themselves disagreeing with Clark’s positions on various issues, they are largely left to decide for themselves as Douma, in most cases, sticks to the facts rather than meandering into personal opinions. There is no doubt that the author admires Clark greatly, yet he still manages to produce a biography that cannot be accused of being a mere “puff piece.” I recommend the reading of this book for those who wish to understand the life and thought of an influential Christian philosopher, churchman, and family man. Well-written, well researched, and interesting; Douma achieves his goal of introducing those unaware of Clark to his life; and giving those familiar with Clark more information on who he was and what made him tick.