Gordon H. Clark on History

For some time, my brother has been writing a biography of the Presbyterian theologian Gordon H. Clark. I have been reading and editing the manuscript. Although Clark was a prolific writer and a formidable thinker, he is known almost exclusively to small but dedicated band of followers attracted to his unique version of Christian presuppositionalism. Clark argues that the only way to make sense of the world is to presuppose the existence of God. We can neither reason our way to Him, nor can we prove or disprove His existence through empirical observation.

Clark’s view of the nature of history is essentially unknown among professional historians, but it is interesting insofar as it presents an unrecognized challenge to the historical method. Clark is an arch anti-empiricist. As I understand him, Clark believes historical knowledge is impossible since empirical observation cannot lead to any certain understanding of the world. If we read Clark as denying the truth value of all empirical observation, as I do read him, then Clark appears hypocritical in making historical claims, as I will explain. And, if we cannot trust any empirical observation, it is unclear how we can or should navigate the physical world. It may be possible, however, to interpret Clark’s views of history another way. If, Clark thinks empirical observation is indeed capable of providing knowledge, but that this kind of knowledge is limited and can only follow when one pre-supposes the existence of God, it is not clear how Clark’s historical method would be any different from a variety of other anti-historicists or anti-relativists. And if he arrives at the same result as others, his presupposition of God is not necessary to hold such a view of history.

I attempt here to explain Clark’s views on history and to offer some criticisms. In my view, there are substantial inconsistencies in Clark’s presentation of his views of historical knowledge, and in his philosophy itself. I wish to give Clark a charitable reading, however, and hope that others will correct me where I am wrong. In either interpretation of Clark (as denying all empirical knowledge, or accepting it in limited form only after presupposing the existence of God), there are several unanswered philosophical problems.

Clark began considering problems of the nature of history as early as the 1940s (see his articles: ‘The Christian and History” The Witness (Feb., 1949), 14-15 and (Apr. 1949), 5-6). There, he wrote that “Christianity views past history as a source of instruction for present generations.” The history in the Bible teaches lessons, and we can learn from them. History is instructive in its function. But “history is significant because in history God acts.” In 1966, Clark wrote a praising review of Jack W. Meiland’s Scepticism and Historical Knowledge (1965), in which Clark agrees with Meiland that historical understanding is mere construction, not rooted in any truths about the past, which cannot be known. But only with his book Historiography: Secular and Religious (1971), does Clark present a substantial view on the topic. The difficulty to discern Clark’s intentions arises partly because his own views on history can only found in widely dispersed, disconnected fragments within his text. Most of the book, in fact, consists of summaries of other authors’ views on history. Clark is familiar with many of the main texts on the philosophy of history available at mid-century, but he is not acquainted with the finer points of these debates as they were expressed in professional journals. Clark’s object in the book was to demonstrate the logical inconsistencies of all other philosophies of history, leaving his own Christian view of history as the sole survivor of his logical test. Of course, in showing the logical errors in a dozen or two dozen other philosophies of history, Clark has not demonstrated that all potential non-Christian philosophies of history are incorrect. Clark would be best to scrap hundreds of pages of criticism and more clearly build his own positive theory.

Setting Clark’s summaries of others aside, we can try to assemble his own views. Clark’s starting point is the claim that no empirical historical inquiry can be made without presupposed knowledge of other kinds. He writes, “No history can be written, no documents evaluated, no project ever begun, without presuppositions never found in the empirical evidence.” (135). On this point, Clark shares much with rationalists like R.G. Collingwood and Ludwig von Mises, who argue that theory must necessarily precede evidence in the interpretation of empirical data. A rationalist would say that in the empirical data we can only see cause and effect relationships that we first know in theory. For example, we know a priori (without observation) that a person cannot be in two places at the same time. We recognize, without the need for empirical observation, the illogic of such statements as “the increase in the money supply caused prices to fall.” If prices fell after an increase in the money supply, we would have to look elsewhere for an explanation for the price rise. Rationalists then, argue that it is impossible to “let the facts speak for themselves” or to interpret evidence without theoretical knowledge of cause and effect. Ultimate relationships between events cannot be discovered only by compiling data, but must be interpreted by first understanding the logical mechanisms of cause and effect.

A rationalist, then, might say that we can observe empirical data but not interpret it without theory. The rationalist recognizes that it is of course possible that one’s theory is incorrect, and that one can therefore incorrectly interpret the empirical evidence.

Clark would likely sympathize with the rationalist historians (he praises Collingwood, for example) but he directs most of his argument against pure empiricists and historicists. Like Mises, Clark attacks the view of social scientists who believe that empirical observation can provide us with laws of behavior. If we can assemble enough facts, they say, we can find a line of best fit, establishing a cause and effect relationship. But like Mises, Clark recognizes that empirical observation cannot demonstrate non-empirical truth. Neither can extensive historical research prove or disprove theory, nor can it prove or disprove divine providence. Clark writes that “Empirical methods should not be taken for granted as sufficient to justify an absolute claim to truth.” (157), that “The methods of historians cannot, scientifically or objectively, prove that any past event occurred.” (177) and again that “Fixed, absolute, objective, unalterable truth is not attainable by historical research.” (177]

Again, a rationalist like Mises would not argue that we cannot make empirical observations. Mises only argues that empirical observation cannot provide us with the knowledge of laws of cause and effect. Clark, however, mistrusts all empirical knowledge. And this is where Clark’s views on the nature of history become unclear. Whether, in Clark’s view, historians can arrive at any kind of truth or knowledge [if not ultimate truth] through observation, is not clear. He appears inconsistent on this point, when he claims that history has shaped his views. How is it possible to learn political lessons from history, as Clark claims he has (on page 339), if he is a hard skeptic concerning the ability to ascertain any knowledge from empirical methods?

Clark seems consistent when arguing that “No event is subject to absolute verification.”, but he follows this by saying that “Different amounts of evidence can be produced for different events. But there is no compelling logical reason to believe any particular piece of evidence. This is true of the Gospels, as the contemporary theologians persistently proclaim; but it is equally true of Thucydides. “ [368]

If, however, the empirical method is incapable of producing knowledge at all, as Clark seems to claim, how can Clark even speak of “evidence.”? What is historical evidence if not knowledge of some attribute of the past? If we recognize something as evidence, or even admit the existence of evidence, do we not also confirm the existence of some form of empirical knowledge?

Clark seems to say that one can indeed learn from observation, but the act of accepting the truth of testimony (or any historical source) is a matter of faith. [231] He explains that for secular and religious history, interpretations and frameworks are indispensable. [346] By this, he means that we cannot admit, organize, or explain empirical knowledge without pre-suppositions about this knowledge.

Yet, if empirical observations are incapable of providing knowledge, how can Clark make any claims about particular historical events, or takes sides in a historiographical debate as he does on pages 73-74? Is it only a matter of faith that he sides against the historical views of Charles Beard? In arguing that the historical research of Charles Beard has been thoroughly demolished, Clark appears to identify himself as an historian who has weighed evidence and found fault in Beard. Clark doesn’t seem to only find logical fault in Beard’s views, but he also takes a shot at Beard’s interpretation of the evidence. If there is no such thing as empirical knowledge or causality, as Clark seems to claim, how can he judge whether Beard’s position is better or worse than any other? How can Clark claim to understand any historical event or process if he denies the existence of the very knowledge that would inform us about the existence of an event?

Hypocritically, it appears, Clark accepts empirical knowledge when it fits his preference. He writes, “If now, anyone is so stubborn as to believe that Matthew and Luke, both of whom are admittedly writers of the first century, fabricated myths and made little of no effort to report actual events and speeches, it would be difficult to think of any argument that could convince him of the contrary.” [358] Here Clark seems to think that historical evidence plays a role in convincing us of the existence of Matthew and Luke, and that their actions were of a certain kind. When he writes “admittedly”, however, Clark is using a passive verb. Admitted by whom, we must ask. And, does the fact that some or all people admitted something to be true have any bearing on its truth?

If, however, I am mistaken in my reading of Clark, and Clark does admit the possibility of empirical knowledge, albeit interpreted through other presupposed forms of knowledge, then he still has a problem explaining the purpose of history. Empirical knowledge, in his view, cannot be said to have any explanatory power. He denies the existence of causality, when he writes “What people call causality is…only their own subjective expectation…Causality…is an unmanageable, useless, and inexplicable concept.” [150]. Later, he reiterates this point, when he writes that “No single event can be identified as the cause of any given effect. Experience and observation are equally powerless to discover universal causation, for the obvious reason that experience is never universal.” [189]

Clark’s first principle is the presupposition of God’s existence. He must then also posit that God wrote or inspired the Bible. Granting this, he accepts all Biblical history as true, but denies all non-Biblical history. All historical writing depends of presuppositions: we either presuppose the validity of observation, the existence of rational categories, or choose a starting point with the divine. Having found error in empiricism and rationalism, Clark argues that History, without revelation, is meaningless. Clark writes that “Augustine’s acceptance of divine revelation….gives a more consistent view than any other and can be rejected only on the presupposition that revelation is impossible.” [371] But is this statement correct? Could not Augustine be rejected for others reasons, such as that his particular revelation is wrong, misinterpreted, invented? Whether this is the case, whether history would be meaningless without God, is of course no argument for the existence of God or God’s involvement in history. That history would be relativistic without objective truth outside of history, is also not a strong logical argument for the existence of objective truth outside of history.

It seems that Clark is tilting at windmills. His straw man is the historian who believes in the possibility of deriving objective truth though empirical observation, who believes historical investigation can provide us with knowledge about the laws of human behavior or the direction of history, who believes that empirical data can tell us something about the validity of logic or the existence of the divine. But most historians do not believe that historical investigation is capable of providing these things. All historians are empiricists in so far as they recognize that our senses are capable of providing us with limited information about the world. But the results of historical investigation never rise to the level of absolutes, and, of course, empirical observation is imperfect, so it is always possible that we are mistaken in our perception and reading of the evidence. In the end, it seems that despite all his huffing and puffing, Clark has not established a radically different conception of history. He merely denies its existence and replaces it with an arbitrary appeal to the divine.

But a bigger problem in Clark’s philosophy is this: let’s say I pre-suppose the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, and the veracity of Westminister Confession, as does Clark. Then what? How does the presupposition of the divine have any impact on my ability to interpret empirical evidence? Beyond broad statements like “God is behind history”, “God acts in History” or “the story of Christ’s death and resurrection in the Bible is true”, how does the presupposition of revelatory knowledge enable me to know anything more than only the truth of that very statement? How can we logically deduce the existence of any other historical facts from this knowledge? If history provides us with no ultimate facts, then so be it, but if observation does not provide us with reasonable guidance on how to act in the most simple circumstances such as in learning to catch a ball, or discovering that a table is in front of me, how can we act at all? And is not rational action a demonstration that we accept empiricism? Clark’s text inspires a lot of questions, perhaps because his position seems so untenable. In short, it is not clear whether Clark rejects all historical knowledge, only historical knowledge that goes against his presuppositions.

One comment

  1. lydiai · · Reply

    Can it be considered somewhat ironic that someone would write a history book about him, then? 🙂

    Like

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