Response to Gary Crampton

The December 2009 issue of The Trinity Review featured a review of my book. The review, which is highly critical, was written by Gary Crampton. I’ve posted a response on my website. It’s lengthy and forthright; but given the serious deficiencies of the review, it had to be.

I have copied below the section on Gordon Clark’s treatments of the Trinity and the Incarnation, because it may be of wider interest.


Why I Am Not a Clarkian

Since Dr. Crampton cites Gordon Clark’s formulations of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation as counterexamples to the claims in my book, I should give some explanation as to why I find them unsatisfactory. I chose not to interact with Clark’s formulations in my book because, in my judgment, they are not among the most sophisticated or influential in the field. His view of the Trinity is essentially a form of social trinitarianism, a model I discuss and reject as unsatisfactory in chapter 2 of the book (see pp. 36-47). I’ve explained elsewhere the specific shortcomings of Clark’s treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity.[1]

As for the paradox of the Incarnation, Clark’s solution is to reject the positive statements of the Definition of Chalcedon as vacuous and to offer his own definition of ‘person’ as “a composite [or complex] of propositions”.[2] On this view, Jesus Christ turns out to be two persons: “a divine person and a human person”.[3] This proposal is designed to alleviate the logical difficulty of attributing both omniscience and partial ignorance to Christ. I concur with Clark that it wouldn’t be fair to charge him with the heresy of Nestorianism, since Nestorius clearly didn’t employ anything like Clark’s definition of ‘person’. (Who does?) However, the problem with Clark’s formulation isn’t that it is heretical. The problem is that it’s downright incoherent.

After offering his novel definition of ‘person’ Clark explains: “As a man thinketh in his (figurative) heart, so is he. A man is what he thinks.” Leaving no doubt as to what he means, he later adds: “a person is the propositions he thinks.”[4] But this is obviously incoherent, since it presupposes a distinction between the thinker (“he”) and his thoughts (“the propositions”). It’s no more coherent than the claim that a person is the clothes he wears! In fact, Clark’s definition is circular, because the definiendum (“a person”) is referred to in the definiens (“the propositions he [i.e., the person] thinks”).

In any case, how can a composite of propositions think in the first place? Aren’t propositions objects of thought rather than subjects of thought, as Clark himself recognized?[5] Even more problematically, how can a composite of propositions suffer or be crucified or thirst?[6] The difficulties don’t end there: Clark’s apparent identification of propositions with human thoughts is undermined by the observation that two people can think one and the same proposition. Clark must either distinguish propositions and thoughts, or else conclude that persons share proper parts. Furthermore, Clark’s attempt to distinguish persons on the basis of first-person indexical propositions suffers from explanatory circularity.[7] (What does the ‘I’ in the proposition “I was incarnated” refer to if not a person whose existence is logically prior to that proposition?)

So much for the philosophical problems of Clark’s analysis of the doctrine of the Incarnation. How does it fare theologically? Does it do justice to the biblical teaching about Christ? Clark recommends that we think of Christ in terms of “two persons” rather than the “two natures” of the Chalcedon formula. What then accounts for the unity between the two? Chalcedon’s answer is straightforward: it’s the unity of personhood. What is Clark’s alternative? As far as I can tell, he offers none.[8]

But this inevitably invites a host of awkward questions. Who exactly is the “one mediator” of 1 Timothy 2:5? Who or what is the referent of the name “Jesus Christ” in the New Testament? Did Clark think that “Jesus Christ” referred collectively to two ‘persons’: God the Son and Jesus of Nazareth? Why then do the biblical writers use the pronoun ‘he’ rather than ‘they’? The answer should be obvious: the biblical writers weren’t working with anything like Clark’s quirky notion of personhood. Rather, they were working with the everyday notion of personhood reflected in personal pronouns: an individual with the capacity for thoughts, intentions, and actions.

There are further criticisms that could be raised against Clark’s position, but these should suffice to show why I and others find his formulations of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation inadequate on both theological and philosophical grounds. Indeed, Clark’s failure to offer formulations that are both non-paradoxical and faithful to the biblical data serves as further confirmation of my thesis.


[1] See here: http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2005/08/van-tils-serious-trinitarian-theology.html

[2] Gordon H. Clark, The Incarnation (The Trinity Foundation, 1988). For Clark’s criticisms of Chalcedon, see pp. 14-15, 75. For his definition of ‘person’, see pp. 54, 64.

[3] Ibid., p. 78. This statement of Clark’s view comes from the book’s editor, John Robbins.

[4] Ibid., p. 55.

[5] Ibid., p. 37.

[6] Ibid., pp. 67, 69, 73.

[7] Ibid., pp. 54-55.

[8] At least, he offers none in The Incarnation, which of all his works is where we would expect to find it. The book was written shortly before its author’s death in 1985.

6 Responses to Response to Gary Crampton

  1. paullmanata

    Excellent response, James. I would like to see how Crampton responds, though I wonder if he’ll even read it given that it appears he gave your book only a cursory read, at best.

    I would add that not only does your response show Crampton’s (attempted) “review/refutation” to be completely inept (I wonder if he was forced into writing it by the TF staff who needed to get something off in response to your book), it also undermines the Clarkians who lauded his review. That they raised their voices and pumped their fists to Crampton’s review, even though none of them had bothered read your book, all comes off, unfortunately, rather embarrassing for them now. They ignored Proverbs 18:17 to their peril.

    I would suggest that your readers read your entire response. Even if they are not up-to-speed on your book, your response will serve the purpose of illustrating how to point out the weak spots and deficiencies in another’s argument, which has general apologetic value in itself.

  2. edwardtbabinski

    1) Theological paradoxes are “only apparent.”

    2) Biblical contradictions and difficulties are also “only apparent.”

    Yet you have no proof of either proposition.

    What if the “presuppositional defense” of the Bible, and of Christian dogmas and doctrines, is also only an “apparent defense?”

    • Mr. Babinski,

      Does your comment show any evidence that you have read my book or are even remotely familiar with its arguments? No.

      Is your comment relevant to the exchange between Dr. Crampton and me? No.

      Does your comment contain anything more than bald assertion and vacuous insinuation? No.

      Is your comment the least bit insightful or productive? No.

      I’ve had the opportunity to observe your contributions to Internet discussions over the last 10 years or so. I’m familiar with your modus operandi. Don’t take this personally, but I must be direct: I’d rather you didn’t waste my time and yours with comments like this one.

  3. James, thanks for this cogent and informative response to Crampton’s review. You have demonstrated that Clarkians don’t have the intellectual high ground they claim.

  4. cranmer1959

    Hi, James… I must confess that I have not read the book Crampton critiques. I developed an interest in Clark because I read Carl F. H. Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority and his view of propositional truth as a defense of inerrancy. However, I must say that I am disappointed with Clark after reading The Trinity and The Incarnation. I found both books to be meandering messes of mixed up logic, despite Clark’s disavowal of such criticisms.

    Clark seems to be guilty of Nestorianism in my view. Simply redefining the heresy of Nestorianism or denying that it existed in the first place (because Nestorius didn’t “define” person in way that Clark finds satisfactory) does not justify taking a position that is overtly a two person view. (See pages 75-77 in The Incarnation).

    Essentially, all Clark ends up doing is saying that he disagrees with Chalcedon after continuing his own apophatic negation of practically everything in the Athanasian Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed which states positively that Jesus Christ is one Person who is both fully and truly God and fully and truly man. Moreover, Clark’s view begs the question. According to Clark, no one in Christianity understood the incarnation up until Clark reformulates the definitions of “person” and “nature” to fit his own philosophical presuppositions, which one must note are attached more to extrabiblical reason than to revelation in Holy Scripture itself.

    Clark’s books are generally too short to deal seriously with any of the implications raised by Clark’s own re-interpretation of classical orthodox theology. And why should Clark’s views not be used by oppoonents of Christianity as ammunition against orthodox Christianity? Has Clark actually done Evangelical Christianity a service or has he done more damage?

    The fact that Clark’s view negates chapter 8 of the Westminster Confession and other statements in the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity, and the English Formularies (i.e. the 39 Articles of Religion, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) and the writings of the vast majority of the magisterial Protestant Reformers is indication enough that Clark’s view can indeed be classified as “heretical”.

    Moreover, Clark does not follow his own warnings to students that these are difficult issues and that the noetic effects of sin affect even our ability to reason. It is best to stay with the principle of sola Scriptura and not exalt either reason or tradition above Scripture. Clark seems to have committed the error of elevating reason above Scripture and the creeds. The principle of sola Scriptura does not and never has thrown out secondary authority in the local church and in the creeds. It does, however, test the church and the creed by Scripture. Overturning the creeds that the magisterial Reformers approved in their confessions of faith would take much more than the meager and meandering critique Clark has offered in his book, The Incarnation.

    Sincerely yours in Christ,

    Charlie

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